An Antarctican Arrival

"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).

It was like Christmas: collecting our ECW gear at the CDC -- each USAP participant was provided with two duffel bags filled with multiple layers of everything to keep us warm for the duration of our visit in Antarctica.  I have never before witnessed such large scale logistic efficiency and effectiveness than that performed by the USAP. 

Trying on "Big Red"-- the famous USAP parka.  I even get my own name tag to go with it!  We tried on every piece of clothing to make sure it all fit properly.  I promptly returned and exchanged multiple items, and kept doing much so that the exchanger dude made me promise not to come back again (he was joking of course).

Early morning line-up to get through security prior to boarding the plane.

Getting transported to the C17 -- everyone was pretty stoked!  (The dude in the red, blue, and white striped hat about mid-bus is Theirry or "Tearie" or maybe more like "Cheary" -- I say it wrong no matter what, but he doesn't mind -- from France, taking over the project next year for his graduate work.)

Boarding the C17, kindly operated by the US Air Force.

Is this really happening??  Heck yeah!  We were required to wear our ECW gear onto the plane so we would be totally ready when we stepped out onto the ice.  Nice white boots eh?  They call them bunny boots.  And you can actually blow them up with air for increased insulation.

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
From the ice-runway, we boarded Antarctic-proof buses and headed to McMurdo, one of the research stations operated by the United States Antarctic Program.  It's outward appearance is similar to that of some mining town, buildings of all different colors placed here and there, at odd angles to each other, power lines and pipelines running aboveground all over town.  But beneath the somewhat unappealing outward appearance is an amazing working operation of extreme efficiency.  The purpose of McMurdo is for science.  Everything about the town is designed and operated for that sole purpose.  This means that if a crew of scientists, like ourselves, comes to McMurdo, we will have warm beds, we will be fed three meals a day, and we will have access to all normal conveniences (ie high-speed internet, post office, store, coffee shop, barber shop [yes mom, I can get a hair cut here], chapel with sunday services, workout gyms, hospital, and even a second-hand store where everything is free!).  We are also provided with our own lab room and have access to all and any lab equipment we may need.  And as scientists working in the field, we are provided with all training (snow craft [ie Happy Camper], sea ice, snowmobile, light vehicle, and helicopter safety training) and all the gear we need for our field camp, including four huts (kitchen, equipment, men's bunk, and women's bunk huts), full kitchen supplies, two and a half month's worth of food, all gear necessary to live and work comfortably and WARM on the ice, snowmobiles, and wireless internet(!).  Without a doubt, McMurdo is the most organized and most efficiently operated town I have ever seen...and it's all for science.  Our huts are in the staging area right now (on the sea ice down below McMurdo) and will be moved for us to our field location, about thirteen miles away.

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.
And then, bam!  First full day in Antarctica and I'm getting hauled off to Happy Camper training.  Despite the bitter cold (as far as the cold goes down here, it wasn't that cold, so says those veterans of Happy Camper that had to withstand even colder temperatures during their training), we successfully built camp, built a wind barrier out of snow blocks, boiled water for hot cocoa and dehydrated dinners, and stayed as warm as it is possible on the ice.  We put up two Scott tents (the teepees in the photos), a bunch of mountain tents, and half the class built their own survival trenches to sleep in.  Most of us trenchers did so because we knew it would keep us warm digging until bedtime, and the trenches would also (supposedly) keep us just as warm if not warmer than the tents.  I felt like I was digging my own grave, but I made it as comfy of a grave as I could.

The Happy Camper camp
Digging trenches

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.

My trench, with sliding snow blocks for a door.  I stuffed my backpack in the remaining hole, leaving me completely protected from the world outside.  It was terribly claustrophobic and I was sure I was going to die of carbon dioxide poisoning, but I stuck it out, only having to forcefully shiver a few times throughout the night to stay warm.  The worst part: getting from your warm layers into your freezing sleeping bag in such a tiny space, and then waiting, horrified, as you feel your bladder slowly filling, knowing that you will have to repeat the whole process again!  The next worst part: feeling your bladder fill up even more rapidly after you have crawled back in the sleeping bag and forcing yourself to stay in bed until morning so you don't have to go through the whole process again.

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:

"Severe Weather Condition II
Defined by one or more of the following conditions: wind speeds of 48 to 55 knots sustained for one minute; wind chills of -75 to -100° F sustained for one minute; or visibility of less than 1/4 mile sustained for one minute.

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,


  1. Fantastic post and pictures! I really enjoyed it and look forward to future posts. I've always wondered what an a scientist's life would be like on Antarctica.

  2. There is a Wells Fargo ATM in Antarctica--fascinating!

    Also, you should have Thierry teach you French so that we can chat when we're both back in the US. :)

  3. Awesome story, awesome pictures, awesome adventure. Keep it warm!

  4. The only words that I can think of are "WOW!" and "CRAZY!" Sounds like you are on the adventure of a life time. I'm looking forward to your next post with more stories of your adventures at the bottom of the earth.

  5. wow jesse. don't open those precious eyes too wide we don't want your lazer job frozen up. great news about the haircut, though I know you won't use it. do it the last day!! I loved the penguin in the church stain glass window. More later. love, mom

  6. WOW what a great adventure!! Good for you!! I dream of going down there some day, but only for a visit... :-) The pictures are great, and I look forward to your next post! Stay warm!

  7. Jesse! I'm so glad you are doing this blog! The pictures are wonderful! I'm very excited for you! Have a great time down there!
    -Lauryn McDowell


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