On November 23rd, we finally boarded our flight to Antarctica! In the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) we call that heading to “the ice.” Our morning began with a 5:45 am bus ride to the USAP office in Christchurch. Despite the summer-like temperatures, we were required to put on all of the extreme cold weather (ECW) wear we had been issued the day before in anticipation of the cold temperatures both on our flight, and once we finally stepped onto the ice. We checked into our flight and proceeded through security. While this operation was smaller than at a commercial airport, it was a surprisingly similar process complete with a luggage x-ray and metal detector.
Finally, at 8:30 am, we boarded a bus that took us from the USAP office across the street to the USAP airfield. Our C130 cargo plane was being loaded with large pallets filled with our luggage and other supplies. Kiwis and Americans alike piled into the plane, filling every seat available. With cramped legs, we took off on our 7 hour and 30 minute journey to the ice! As we got to our cruising altitude and the plane got colder, the flight crew turned on the heat. This, however, backfired for us passengers and the ride became unbearably hot given that we were wearing all of our ECW. But the discomfort was worth it for what came next…
With about 2 hours left in the ride, we began to see ice out the tiny port windows. Everyone on the plane was peering out and taking photos, even those who had been to Antarctica many times before. It was difficult to hear each
other, as the plane was loud and we were all wearing earplugs, but we exchanged high-fives and thumbs-up to signal our excitement for our arrival to the ice.
Around 5:00 pm, we touched down! The runway here is on the ice shelf, meaning that the pilots had to hit the breaks hard to get the plane to slow down. Definitely a different feeling than landing on asphalt! We stepped off the plane to clear weather and endless views of the mountains and valleys that skirt the Ross Ice Shelf.
The airfield is a 45-minute drive from McMurdo Station, or “town”, the US base where we are stationed until we head into the field. To get there, we loaded “Ivan the Terrabus,” which shuttled us over. McMurdo is located on Ross Island, surrounded by ice shelf on one side and annual sea ice on the other. Right now, the sea ice is in tact, and you can cross-country ski or walk on both the ice shelf and the sea ice. However, in a month or so the sea ice will break up and will no longer be viable for foot or vehicle travel. At that point, icebreaker ships will come in, clearing the way for cargo to reach McMurco by sea. The ice shelf, however, is a stable glacier, meaning that cars can drive, people can walk, and planes can land on it even in the height of the austral summer.
Since we’ve been here, we’ve been continuing our training for this field season. So far, we have taken an Antarctic Field Safety course during which we learned to set up tents, light stoves, and assess risks in the field. We have also had orientations to the base (medical information, fire safety, waste management, etc.), and watched the Outdoor Safety Lecture, which allows us to explore the trail system on Ross Island. Even the people who have been to Antarctica before have to take these training courses as a refresher, so its been helpful for me to hear their stories and advice as I prepare for my first season.
In addition to training, we have also been pulling and testing some of our gear for the field, such as our tents and stoves. Next week, we’ll begin packing everything on pallets to fly out to the remote Shackleton Camp, the jumping off point to our field sites. Today is Thanksgiving at McMurdo (even though it’s Saturday). This morning, Maggie and I ran the Turkey Trot 5K, which means we have officially participated in the Antarctic Race Series. Yes, we bought T-shirts….
In a few hours we will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, which I hear is spectacular. Happy belated Thanksgiving, USA!