"You have all the fuel and food you need, so we'll see you in the morning! Good luck and stay warm!" With that, our instructors saddled their snowmobiles and zipped back to their hut, where they would spend a warm night in a cozy bed, probably with stuffed animals to cuddle with and hot chocolate at arms reach all night. And so they left us. Abandoned on an ice shelf on the coldest continent in the world, wind lashing at our faces, icicles slowly massing on our beards, temperatures down to -15 degrees F, and all wondering how best to mitigate the miserableness of the forthcoming night. This was Happy Camper school. Designed to make us...happy...campers?
It's at these times that I wonder how I end up in these situations. The opportunity to come to Antarctica was presented to me so casually that it was easy to reply in-kind, with a casual "well...yes, I do want to go to Antarctica. Thank you for offering." I had no idea what saying yes quite meant, and probably no newbie to the "ice" (as we refer to Antarctica) ever does. And suddenly, I found myself in Christchurch, New Zealand (on September 28). Aside: Oh wonderful, warm, pleasant Christchurch where the birds sing from morning till night! Our crew of five (Glenn, Jessica, Shawn, Theirry, and myself) spent the few days we had in Christchurch eating at Thai restaurants (Glenn's favorite) and enjoying the mild climate. I spent an afternoon and a morning walking about Hagley Park to find all the exotic birds I had enjoyed so much on my previous study abroad in Christchurch. The New Zealand pigeon, the New Zealand scaup, the silvereye, the grey warbler. But our main reason for being in Christchurch was to obtain our ECW gear from the CDC at the USAP ("Extreme Cold Weather gear from the Clothing Distribution Center at the United States Antarctica Program"; the USAP uses acronyms like hot cocoa powder on a cold day) and board the C17 south-bound for Antarctica (since New Zealand is in a prime location for deployment to certain areas of Antarctica).
|Early morning line-up to get through security prior to boarding the plane.|
|Boarding the C17, kindly operated by the US Air Force.|
|The Weddell seal crew (minus Theirry who took the photo). L to R- Glenn (crew leader and PhD student at Montana State), me, Jessica (returnee from last year), Shawn (also a returnee)|
|The first sign of ice at about 3.5 hours (of 5 hours) from Christchurch.|
|Pax = Passenger -- our pre-Antarctic lunch|
|In the cockpit! You can tell these guys love their job. They were terribly friendly and let us check out everything.|
|The unrelenting ice begins....|
|Inside the belly of the bird, taken from the cockpit through a bubble window-- notice no windows, which makes for an interesting landing experience. You can't see it, but all the excess space above everyone's heads is filled with excitement.|
Eventually, after about five hours, the pilot told everyone to put their seat belts on for the descent; with no windows, we could only guess how close we were to landing, but finally, the tilt of the plane and the thrust of the engines felt just right, and, sure enough, we were touching down. It may have been the smoothest landing I've ever had; especially considering that I thought we would go sliding off the continent since we were landing on ice with wheels. And then we walked out of the plane, down the steps, and took our first steps onto the ice. They had been telling us to relish that moment, those first steps, the bitter cold, the vast white, the looming mountains; but I was not prepared for just how momentous those steps felt. Crunch...squeak-crunch...crunch...the ice underfoot, extending for miles in all directions, completely flat, running for as far as the eye can see in some places and, in other places, interrupted by irruptions of white, stately mountains and volcanoes. And the sky...maybe more sky than I have ever seen...a crisp blue dome above fading and merging into the white of the ice below. The nip of the cold air was slightly shocking...I knew it would be cold but my northern-hemisphered-summarized body was not quite acquainted with this inundation of freezingness. It's a lot like getting locked in a walk-in freezer with just your t-shirt and shorts on....for two and a half months in my case.
Antarctica....I am in Antarctica...Antarctica, I say to myself over and over. In the background, the C17's rumble is constant; they will keep the engines running while those departing (or "redeploying") load up so the engines don't freeze.
|Smilin' Theirry--also his first time on the ice|
|Mt. Discovery, an inactive volcano to the SW|
|Boarding an Antarctican transportation-- Ivan the Terra Bus|
|Theirry and my dorm room--with my bed covered with all my winter gear.|
|Outside the dorm window-- there is 24 hour light during the summer, which is now (note all the snow).|
|The dorm rooms--mine is the one directly below the big white ball on the mountain in the background|
|The McMurdo station, situated on Ross Island (which you can't tell is an island right now (or maybe ever) because the ocean is frozen solid all around it.|
|Observation Hill behind the Science Center|
|Building 155, the center of McMurdo: food, store, post office, barber, craft room, Wells Fargo ATM....|
|The McMurdo coffee shop|
|A place for praise and worship|
|The Weddell seal lab|
|The buildings dead center of the photo are our huts, waiting to be filled with gear and transported to our field location.|
|The Happy Camper camp|
|Scott tent with snow wall. Kitchen setup in the background.|
|The kitchen--we boiled water continuously for all of the evening and all of the morning.|
|Wishing my beard was massive|
|Theirry's trench--notice the snow blocks for the roof being added.|
Upon successful completion and survival of Happy Camper, we returned to McMurdo to continue our week of training. The sunny day of our arrival was the last one I have seen, and even as I write this, it is Condition 2 outside:
Sea ice training has been cancelled for the second time this week, and Theirry and I are not allowed into the field without it. And so, our crew remains indoors, waiting for the weather to clear so we can finish loading up our huts. Soon, we will be in the field, finding our seals, but everything is weather dependent in Antarctica.
Don't forget to check out Weddell Seal Science (there is a new post from Mary, part of our crew coming friday, weather dependent).
And, if you are interested in McMurdo, click here. To get current conditions, click on "Information Pages" at the top of the page, then click "Weather, Channel 3". You can cycle through different pages by clicking Next or Previous.
Weather also here.
Till next time, on the ice and with the seals,