Wednesday, October 20, 2010

90° South

We spent the better part of Monday morning on the ice runway waiting for clearance to take off in the Basler DC3. Waiting for the temperature to rise just a couple degrees at the South Pole. At -54°c the plane can land. At –54.1°c it can’t… or at least it’s not suppose to. After a two-hour wait they decided to postpone the flight for 24 hours.

We returned to McMurdo where the worst part of my cold (the McMurdo Crud as it’s called here – everybody gets it at some point during the season) overtook me and I realized that it was a blessing in disguise that we never left the ground. I sat in my room all day, watched movies, read Dune and slept.

Tuesday – wake. Repeat. The temperature at the Pole read 53°c and it was a go… with the possibility of a boomerange – going partway and returning. We loaded our stuff onto the Basler and took our seats.

The flight brought us over a very similar route that Scott took to reach the South Pole over the summer of 1911/12 – across the Ross Ice Shelf, alongside the Trans-Antarctic Range, through the Beardmore Glacier (which is essentially an ice overflow of the Antarctic Plateau) and then 300miles across the Antarctic Plateau. The views from the flight were incredible – truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

The Basler DC3 is a plane that has remained largely unchanged since it’s first flight in the mid 1930’s… this includes the lack of pressurization. To cross the Trans-Antarctic Range the plane had to climb to 22,000ft which did nothing but tighten the vise on my head, bringing tears to my eyes. It was a bit of a catch 22, as closing my eyes eased the pain, but also meant missing the scenery outside. I sucked as much oxygen as I could and mostly opted for the tighter vise.

Flying over the Antarctic Plateau gave me my first glimpse of what the scenery would be like for the next few months… or rather lack-there-of. As a Colorado boy, I’m not accustomed to seeing the horizon so close to the ground. In every direction – nothing. Though I knew this would be the case, I didn’t realize what a nothing landscape really looked like until now.

We landed at about 2:30pm (it should be noted that the South Pole goes by McMurdo/New Zealand time for reasons of simplicity – they are the two biggest US bases on the continent and it’s therefore easier to keep them on the same time-zone) and hurried off the plane. We learned shortly that the temperature had dropped to -55°c (-67°f!) and the pilots had to get the plane back off the ground as quick as possible.

The “winter-overs” –the 47 people that spent the 7-month winter here alone- came out to the runway to greet us and help us with our bags. We were asked not to carry our own bags as the altitude (9,300ft is the actual altitude but barometrically speaking rises upwards of 11,000ft on any given day) can be dangerous to those coming directly from sea level.

We are the first new faces these people have seen in seven months. It’s interesting seeing them – pale-faced, awkward and well-bearded. They were happy to see us, but I think happier to see the fresh fruit we brought on the plane with us.

After a meal and a tour of the building I made myself comfortable in a temporary room (I’ll be moving to my permanent room in a week or two when they are able to thaw out the plumbing) and slept fitfully for the next ten hours.

So great to be here.

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.