After a long day of flights and briefings, I’m writing tonight from Antarctica.
Today began with my 03:00 wake-up call. The night before I had carefully arranged everything so that I could get out the door with a minimum of functioning brain cells in the morning. I set two alarms (each seven minutes after the other) in addition to the wake-up call. Then, I put the alarms on the other side of the room from the bed so that I would be forced to get up and walk across the room to quiet the alarms. When I got to the front desk to check-out (03:25), the night manager commented that I was getting an early start on the day. I told her that I like to check-out early to avoid the rush. As I finished, my cab pulled up to the hotel. I threw my bags in the trunk and we were off to the CDC and the Antarctic Passenger Terminal (APT).
Once at the CDC, I had to repack my bags, since I had to work out some way to get my ECW mostly out of my hand carry (a term used to describe the not insignificantly sized orange bag we’re all issued to use as non-optional carry-on luggage) and onto my person while transferring the contents of my backpack into the hand carry, all without exceeding the strict size limits imposed by the Air Force on hand carry items. Oh, and while being repeatedly examined by New Zealand Customs’ drug sniffing dogs.
Finally I had all my ECW gear on my person (remember, it’s not really that cold in Christchurch and the twenty or so pounds of gear I’m wearing is designed for sub-zero temperatures), and I lugged myself and my checked baggage off to the APT. Once there, I was weighed with my ECW, my hand carry was weighed, and my checked baggage was weighed. Once the Air Force had all my mass measurements I was issued a boarding pass and told to report back to the APT waiting area by 05:10 for a pre-flight briefing.
At precisely 05:10 a pre-flight briefing was conducted by an Air Force load master.
After the Air Force man finished, we all got to watch a video reminding us that Antarctica is dangerous in a variety of big and interesting ways for a variety of unchangeable reasons. Having said that, most people get hurt in Antarctica by the same stupid stuff that hurts them back in the States. That is to say that most injuries are sprains, strains, broken bones, and whatnot caused by fatigue, carelessness, or both.
Once that video was done, we were treated to another briefing about how to get through security, the process for loading the plane, and the importance of using the toilet before getting on the plane. Since the plane can’t empty it’s one toilet once it gets to Antarctica, the 130 or so folks leaving the ice on that plane would face a mighty uncomfortable ride back to CHC if the toilet was full.
Then, one of the more surreal parts of the day began. We all had to put our hand carry bags through a commercial X-ray system while we were trooped through a metal detector. Unsurprisingly, nearly every single person set off the metal detector since we were all required to be wearing our ECW which is absolutely festooned with all sorts of heavy metal buckles and straps. So, we all got wanded, too. Whee.
Let me pause here to inject some editorial commentary. Why in the name of all that is green and good were we all put through such a useless security screening. Who goes through all the trouble to get accepted for travel to Antarctica just to get on an Air Force C-17 so that they can hijack the plane?!? In speaking with one of the numerous Air Force guys on the plane, we found out that a C-17 in the States can travel with a few as three crew members for routine missions. This particular plane had 14 Air Force crewmen on it. In addition, there were no less ten members of the New Zealand Army traveling to Scott Base. Those sound like pretty poor odds for any hijacker, no matter how determined.
Anyway, we were issued ear plugs as we went through security and then put on buses for a brief ride over to the plane. We got off the buses, were handed a brown paper bag that contained a lunch and then got on the plane. The plane had fifty seats (ten rows of five) that were essentially like commercial airline seats. The seats reclined, they were padded, and they faced forward. However, they had heaps of leg room. Those who didn’t get or didn’t want one of the forward facing seats were seated along webbed seats on the side of the cargo hold. I chose to sit along the side of the plane so I could have an easier time getting up to walk around.
Already on board the plane was a fire truck that was being delivered to the continent. Once we were all seated the Air Force guys, along with their New Zealand counterparts, got somewhat busy loading our checked luggage into the plane, along with a few spare rows of seats for the return flight. Once all the cargo was loaded and secured, the primary load master gave us another briefing about what to expect during the flight. Soon thereafter the plane taxied and took off into the sky. The time was just before 07:00.
Unless you’ve ever been on an Air Force cargo plane you may not understand just how loud it is inside the plane while the it is flying. The cargo hold is not insulated at all to protect the cargo (trucks, passengers, tanks, troops, etc.) from the noise of the air rushing past the fuselage or the engines running for all they’re worth. It’s like being in an incredibly, terribly, awfully loud factory that makes metal things like cymbols or jackhammers. There wasn’t a single person on the plane who didn’t use their ear plugs for the entire flight.
Five hours later, we touched down at an airstrip (made entirely of ice) in Antarctica. We all got off the plane into sunlight that would have been blinding if we hadn’t had on sunglasses. A short walk took us to the legendary Terra Bus for the long ride to McMurdo across the ice.
We finally arrived in McMurdo and were promptly led into, guess what, another briefing! That particular briefing was delivered half-heartedly and absentmindedly by the NSF Station Manager. Once he was done, we got a briefing from the housing folks. With those briefings out of the way we split up into two groups of people: Raytheon employees and NSF Grantees (which is the NSF’s fancy word for “scientists and their support staff”). Of course, that meant it was time for another briefing. This time, our return travel to the States was the subject of the briefing. Let me tell you, there was nothing I wanted to think about at the moment more than a whole bunch more air travel.
Of course, once that was done, it was time for…wait for it…another briefing! This time, folks traveling to the South Pole were the target audience. We were all harangued into considering consumption of Diamox, a medication used to avoid altitude sickness. Since the Pole’s perceived altitude is really never less than 10,000 feet, and can be more than 14,000 feet depending on atmospheric conditions, altitude sickness is a real problem there. The doctor who gave us that particular briefing mentioned that they had medivaced seven people from the Pole in the last ten days for symptoms of either High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (the lungs filling with blood and fluid) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (swelling of the brain). In addition, we learned that Norovirus is going around both Pole and McMurdo. Norovirus is the delightful virus that periodically drives a cruise ship to port with 300 people all afflicted with stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Once that briefing was done we were finally free. Most of the housing at McMurdo is dorm-style, so I’m sharing a room with two other IceCubers who will also go to the Pole tomorrow. Down the hall are two rooms filled with Kiwi Army guys who, upon arrival, promptly hung up their All Blacks banners and started the dangerous but necessary mission of reducing the apparent beer surplus here in Antarctica.
Once I had a bit of free time, I took it upon myself to find the geocache located in the hills above McMurdo. The wind was fabulously strong, but with my ECW jacket on I hardly felt the cold. What I did feel was the wind threatening to blow me down the back side of the hill and onto the ice that covers the bay. Geocache located, it was back to the dorms and dinner.
Dinner is served buffet style here in Antarctica and tonight in McMurdo we had beef stroganoff, vegetarian pakora, and baked chicken. None of it would qualify as good, but none of it was actively bad either.
Post-dinner, those of us bound for the Pole had to get dressed up in all our ECW gear, grab our hand carries, and lug ourselves and all that gear up the hill for…another briefing! After this briefing (topic: show up here tomorrow at 07:00 for transportation to your Pole flight), we were all weighed once again (why, I don’t know. How much weight could I gain or lose in six hours?) and then released to our own devices once we lugged ourselves, our ECW, and all our gear back down the hill.
That about sums my day. It’s now just about 21:15 local time and I’ve been awake for something like eighteen hours. Since we have to wake-up at 05:30 tomorrow for our flight, I’m off to bed soon. There probably won’t be many, or any, new pictures posted to the Photo Gallery until I get off the ice. Bandwidth is incredibly limited here in Antarctica and pushing a whole bunch of pictures through a small pipe shared by numerous people isn’t terribly kind to others. So, even though I’m not posting the pictures at the moment I haven’t stopped taking them.
Finally, I should mention that my GPS unit reports that I’m currently 9299 miles from our home in Madison. For those interested parties, my current coordinates according to the GPS unit: