Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Wear My Sunglasses At Night

The engine room drone of the US Air Force C17 all but seized the conversation amongst us 65 passengers on the flight from Christchurch, NZ to the McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica. We’re shared the hull of the plane with several “small” shipping containers, a forklift and a large sno-cat. The passengers are a mix of scientists (geologists, meteorologists and biologists), Air Force flight crew and a small portion of the staff that makes up the majority of Antarctica’s summer population. This staff includes shuttle drivers, cooks, radio communication specialists, janitors, US post office employees (subcontracted out to Raytheon who has the contract from the National Science Foundation to run the South Pole Station, McMurdo Station, Palmer Station and several small camps across the continent), logistics coordinators, doctors, gift shop attendants… the list goes on.
A curiosity for this continent germinated inside my bean several years ago and became an obsession only in the past couple years when it occurred to me that getting a job here isn’t impossible. “I’ll wash dishes if I have to,” is what I was telling people over a year ago, and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing for the next four months.

The C17 flight was preceded by a couple days in Christchurch where the weather was lapsing back into a cold and dreary winter… not what we were hoping for before being deprived of warmth, trees, smells that we normally take for granted, night!, for god’s sake! STARS! We flew to Christchurch from Aukland, LA, Denver… wishing I had frequent flyer miles.

We got our first glimpse of the continent (regulars just call it The Ice) four hours into the 5.5 hour flight. The first thought that crossed my mind looking out the tiny bay window of the airplane was of Superman’s little home from the first Superman. Sterile, serene, quiet, perfect. Though Antarctica is all of these things, it is also hostile and unforgiving which I’ve learned in a very short period of time.
Following two very cloudy passes over the station we were able to land on the Ice Runway which is the landing strip used from WinFly (Since airplanes are unable to land in –50f and below no planes fly in or out of McMurdo from about June-September. The first flight in is called the Winter Flight, or simply WinFly) until early December. This runway is constructed annually on the eight-foot-thick Ross Ice Shelf just off shore of McMurdo. A Swedish icebreaker comes in to clear a path through the Ross Sea whence the airfield is moved inland.

We were ushered from the plane to “Ivan” the Terra Bus entirely too quickly to take it all in and driven the mile into McMurdo for a late meal in the one and only cafeteria. After dinner I stole off for a run to Robert F. Scott’s 1904 hut from his Discovery expedition (the one that didn’t end up with his death). Where I encountered a dead seal that I later learned has been there for several years – the conditions have essentially mummified it. I continued my run out to Cape Evans and up the Ridge Trail. It was warm enough (-10f) for an easy run but cold enough that I wasn’t able to stop (not wearing enough clothes) or run fast (wind chill made it drop to –20/-25f). From the high point on the ridge I was able to look out across the Ross Ice Shelf at the mountains on the opposite side of the sea. At 10:30pm the sun was just beginning to go behind the horizon at a low, sweeping angle. At this time of year the sun never dips more than a few degrees below the horizon and even the middle of the night is bright enough that wooden blinds are used in the rooms in order to be able to sleep.

(photo - Haile Buffman)

Nearly a week has passed since my arrival. The next and final flight of my agenda for the next several months was scheduled for yesterday but the airplane that I’ll be flying in (Basler) from here to the South Pole was stuck at an American base in Punta Arenas, Chile for longer than expected, postponing the flight until Monday – two days from now. I was told to have patience waiting for this next leg of the trip – it is sometimes postponed for weeks. The flight into the Pole will be the first flight going there for the year. We’ve been instructed by the chef not to eat any of the “freshies” (fresh fruit) brought in with us on the Basler as the 50-or-so “Polies” that have wintered-over have been without fresh fruit for seven months.

My time here in McMurdo has been spent working in the laundry room where I sorted through a mound of bedding the size of a dump truck. I’ve spent the past four days working in the galley (the cafeteria) – washing dishes for the 900 people here, scrubbing pots and taking advantage of the few things that I’ll be without once I reach the Pole in a few days time – that is dirt, hills and bars. Yes, there are two bars here in McMurdo. Gallagers and The Southern. Last night a live bluegrass band (Phatass Bluegrass) played until midnight at Gallagers.
I have so much to tell about the past week, but I think that this will have to do for now.


bryanspalette said...

Sounds like an awesome adventure thus far. Have you gone to Happy Camper class yet (I think thats the nickname for survival school anyways). Good luck on your travels further south.

Dave Mackey said...

How cool is that? Rickey, I ran into someone the other day who said of you. "he will never die wondering.." Enjoy the ice.. Dave

tisanjosh said...
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Jim Philips said...

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