Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I spy…Antarctica!

This morning was entirely different from yesterday. In the sense that I arose at 5, it was the same. However, I didn’t sleep well last night for fear of missing my flight and for wondering if it would be canceled. I was so tired that I was much less organized than I had been yesterday, a fact which would come back to haunt me later.

I received no 6AM knock at my door, so downstairs I went to meet with all the others who would be traveling today. Our shuttle arrived, packed us in, and off we went, back to the CDC. On arrival, we quickly moved things around as necessary (from carry to check, check to carry), put on all our gear (in 70-degree heat!) and weighed ourselves and our luggage to ensure the plane wouldn’t be too heavy. During this process, I discovered that my carry bag didn’t quite fit into the little box that was the size delimiter. So I quickly tried to remove some things (In hindsight the two-days worth of packed breakfast’s from the hotel would have been a good choice). But I felt rushed, and someone with more experience than I happened to walk by and said, “Why not just take the boomerang bag?” So I stuffed a bunch of stuff in my boomerang bag without thinking too much about it. It worked well from the perspective of time and comfort—my carry was small and I was ready to go in plenty of time. We had half an hour then for breakfast or just standing around talking outside, where we would see our last patch of green growing things for quite a while.

Finally, at 8:10 we had our orientation video and boarded a bus. (The video basically described the importance of being safe, looking where you’re going, recycling carefully, and not wasting energy.) The bus was crowded, as we Americans were around 25, and we were joined by a group of 20 Kiwis. The bus drove us to the plane, which wasn’t quite ready. But without too much delay we were boarding—it was a C130 run by the South African military. It had passenger seats, as you’ll see in the photos below, and a very tiny bath”room” (actually a toilet stool surrounded by a curtain—the feet of the person sitting next to the toilet trespassed into the toilet space, so you had to trip to the toilet)! We arranged our gear, took off our parkas, and settled in for our 8 hour flight to McMurdo. The plane itself was really neat, but other than that, it wasn’t so different from any other flight—they even did the here-are-all-the-exit-doors-and-this-is-how-you-fasten-your-seat-belt thing. There were only about 4 windows for us—I was sitting just behind one which was nice. Ear plugs were also a necessity for this flight—they’re not required, but I think you’d go deaf without them since the propellers are so loud! The ear plugs made conversation nearly impossible (though some of the Kiwis had brought a mini etch-a-sketch for writing notes and playing I Spy which provided some amusement), so I got out my next book and started reading, only to fall asleep within minutes of reaching altitude.

After about 2 hours I realized that the difference between this flight and a commercial flight is that the seats are rock hard! So I stood up and walked around for a bit. I repeated this ritual every hour or so after that, which was well-rewarded: I happened to catch the sea-ice as well as the snow-covered mountains. The further we traveled the more excited I became (this was also helped by the fact that I was sleeping in my seat). Finally, we landed. We walked out of the plane with the full knowledge that at McMurdo it was around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. So we thought it wouldn’t be that cold. Big mistake! I took photos of Mt. Erebus, the plane, Ivan the Terrabus, and some other things, but within about 1 minute my hands went entirely numb and I had to put on my gloves and get on the bus. In spite of the 30 degree temperature at McMurdo, we weren’t on the base—we were in the midst of a frozen channel between the island--home to Mt. Erebus and McMurdo--and the mainland. The wind was whipping right along through that channel and literally took my breath away! I’ve never been so concerned that I had frostbite in my life...and can you imagine what people would say if I managed to get frostbite within the first minute of being on Antarctica? Ridiculous! So I took care to warm up my hands and after about an hour all the redness had finally faded and the numbness had full retreated, so I could be that they would be just fine. Whew—horror scenario avoided! This is how I learned that 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Antarctica is not quite the same as 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Madison.

Ivan the Terrabus drove us through the frozen ice field and to McMurdo. When we disembarked, those of us with the US Antarctic Program were pointed toward the Chalet (the NSF building). Here we received room assignments (some for the night, like me, and some for the next few weeks or months), we were accosted about the importance of taking Diamox (the drug for altitude sickness), we were critically questioned about our travel plans following our “redeployment” (a word which makes no sense—they use it to mean what I would call removal, or when we go back to New Zealand, but to me it sounds like we should be re-deploying to Antarctica), and they showed us another video about recycling, computer safety, workplace hazards, etc. Finally they let us go find our rooms, get our linens, and get some food (we were all starving)!

After dinner we had to do the “bag drag” which is when we go to get our checked bags and theoretically drag them down to the station. Everyone makes it sound like a horrible chore, but it’s really not that far. Plus, we didn’t actually have to drag—we just had to retag our bags and recheck them for our flight in the morning. It’s always nice to discover that things you’re dreading are not nearly as bad as expected.

After the bag drag I walked thorough the base a little bit with one of the IceCube guys who has been around a long time. We walked out to Scott’s hut and beyond, and saw some seals climbing out of the water, which is currently melting. McMurdo is not very pretty. The atmosphere is fun: I have three roommates for the night, one of whom leaves at 3AM and they all seemed quite nice in the approximately 5 minutes I spoke with them. But the station itself is dusty with volcanic grit (from Mt. Erebus), and it’s rocky—there’s snow all around, but not on the base (at least, not at this time of year). But they have almost all the amenities of home, including the ability to call home from a number that looks like it’s in Colorado (as long as you have a calling card with an 800 number).

Oh, and did you know that the entire continent of Antarctica has round-the-clock sunlight? I wasn’t sure if on the edge it would get dark for a short time, but now I know—it’s a bit strange to go to bed when the sun is at the same height it was at mid-afternoon! (At this time of year the sun floats around the zenith at about 30 degrees above the horizon.)

How cool is that? Cold enough to freeze your hand clear through in (just over) 1 minute!


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