Wednesday, January 16, 2008

To The Pole

Getting from my hometown of Fredericton (a relative backwater in eastern Canada) to the South Pole (an extreme backwater in the middle of Antarctica) is not a simple task. I did finally make it, 10 days after leaving home.

My first stop was Chicago, where I visited my graduate advisor for dinner, then stayed the night with Steve, with whom I would be traveling the rest of the way south.

The nominal schedule for our travel was via LA to New Zealand, where we would pick up our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, and catch the military flight to Antarctica. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as scheduled. The flight to LA was delayed by an hour, then boarded, then delayed another hour. By the time we landed, our flight to Auckland had already left. We were told to see the Qantas specialist, an unfortunately dim lady who decided we should be booked through to Sydney instead. We tried to explain to her that Sydney and Auckland were quite different places, but our pleas fell on deaf ears.

We, along with a gaggle of about 20 Kiwis, followed her (outside, through the rain) to the ticketing counter where a pair of shocked agents asked what the hell we were doing there. Apparently the flight to Auckland had been holding for us for the past 2+1/2 hours. So, we rushed back through security, ran aboard the plane, and then sat, delayed, for another hour before finally taking off.

New Zealand is a bit different from the US or Canada. As the plane descends, the cabin begins to flood with humid, fragrant air, as if you were landing in a greenhouse. The baggage claims urge passengers to "uplift the correct baggage," and the beer bottles come with those little aluminum-can opening tabs to help get their caps off. So similar, but so very different.

Steve and I landed in Auckland too late to catch our flight to Christchurch, so we got seats on a flight later that day. We sat around for a while in the airport garden (well, on a bench under several trees along a path somewhere in the airport) and enjoyed the greenery while we could. By the time we got to Christchurch, we were both pretty exhausted, had a quick dinner, and went to bed.

The following day, we wandered out to the CDC - Clothing Distribution Center, not Center for Disease Control - and grabbed our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear for the year. As a winterover, I had 3 large orange bags of clothes to go through, none of which fit. We spent two hours trading in clothes for bigger, smaller, nicer, less worn, and otherwise better versions.

It's worth pointing out that we were trying on Extreme Cold Weather gear in the middle of the New Zealand summer: 30C (80F) and 98% humidity, and we were dressing ourselves (repeatedly) for -80C (-120F). It's also worth mentioning that for the flight down, you're required to wear your ECW, meaning you have to stand around for 2-3 hours in the NZ summer, bundled for the South Pole winter. (Many people strip down to undies under their ECW while waiting for the flight.)

That evening, we went downtown and wandered around the fantastic botanic gardens for a couple of hours. I felt one last hurrah of greenery was in order before my long dark winter, and took enough photos of flowers and shrubbery to last at least 10 months, probably 20.

We reported for our flight an hour early, and Steve pointed out that not once in his decade of Antarctic work had his plane left Christchurch the day it was scheduled to. Christchurch is a pretty nice place to be stranded, particularly in the swanky hotel we were staying at. Of course, as soon as a flight delay becomes a pleasant proposal, everything runs on time, like clockwork.

Our flight to Antarctica was 4 hours on a C-17, a military cargo jet. For some reason, all the standard screening procedures - no liquids or gels, no knives, baggage x-rayed, ourselves metal-detector-ed (which went off for EVERYONE because all the ECW has metal bits all over it) - occur when boarding a military flight to Antarctica. It struck me as particularly odd when, after boarding, I noticed the easily accessible axes attached to the plane walls. I guess they're only worried about people brushing their teeth in flight, not axe murderers.

McMurdo station is a US base with a summer population of about 1000 people on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, just off the coast of Antarctica. It acts as a staging ground for all polar operations - people, equipment and fuel destined for the South Pole all pass through McMurdo. The downside to this system is that people, equipment and fuel can all get stranded there if there weather turns.

Steve and I arrived in McMurdo late in the afternoon, with a flight to the Pole scheduled for the following morning. Because we were only supposed to be there for 12 hours, we were crammed into a 10'x10' room with 4 other guys, our bags were packed onto a cargo pallet and carried off to the runway, and we were only allowed to keep our carry-ons.

Remember now: we were required to wear our ECW, had stripped down to underwear under them to cope with the NZ summer, and all our bags had just been taken away.That would have been fine, but for the snowstorm which delayed our flight to Pole by 3 days. No, you don't get your baggage back when your flight is delayed in Antarctica.

To make matters worse, our flight was never actually cancelled - only delayed - so we had to be awake and prepared for departure anywhere between 6am and midnight, and watch the flight schedules constantly. When we finally did make it out, it was with only an hour notice.

McMurdo is not a resort town. It looks more like some sort of run down frontier mining-town. Everything is dirty or muddy, the ground is a mix of dark brown and black, and consists entirely of pulverized volcanic rock. You have to wear eye protection outside or sharp little grains blowing everywhere will scratch up your cornea. All the buildings are painted some shade of brown or dull cream, and frankly, the whole place is fairly run-down.

On the second day in McMurdo, Steve and I decided to wander off into the storm and hike around Ob Hill. It was a two hour trudge through driving snow, along steep hillsides, but helped alleviate the boredom. The third day, we wandered off to hike the ridge out by Discovery Hut, the 100 year old building (complete with 100 year old preseves, and dessicated seal carcass) that Scott built on his first visit to Antarctica.

The second walk was a little more interesting, by virtue of our being able to see more than 5 feet ahead of us. Some of the highlights include the biodiversity study (a 5'x10' patch of barren earth), the large catholic shrine with a Mary in it, and fact that the path led into the explosives storage area (which is, understandably, off limits). After a couple of hours trying to figure out how we were supposed to get around the off-limits bits, we consulted my incredibly low-resolution map of the station, then turned around and backtracked the whole way.

Thankfully, not long after we returned, one of the other polies (we had met most everyone scheduled to be on our flight, and formed a tightly-knit bitch-about-McMurdo clique) mentioned that the flight was back on, and leaving in an hour. We quickly grabbed our stuff, caught Ivan the Terrabus to the runway, and soon enough were on our way.

I should mention that the flight to Pole was beautiful, and surprisingly pleasant. We paralleled the Transantarctic Mountains, got some amazing views of glaciers hundreds of miles long, and landed safely a mere 2+1/2 hours after takeoff.

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