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Arriving in Antarctica

Saturday, 16 October 1999

    Christchurch was a lovely town and I would have liked to have done some more sightseeing there, but on Wednesday evening I got back to my room to find a message saying I would be leaving Thursday morning and was to be picked up at 04:15. I went upstairs, packed and got to bed around midnight. I really didn't sleep much from the excitement and anticipation. After arriving at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) we all put on our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear and sorted and packed our bags. We are only allowed to check 75 pounds of luggage on the aircraft and mine was a bit excessive. There are a lot of pockets in our gear so you can fill them up with many things. You are also allowed one carry–on, and they are VERY strict about the size. Somehow or another I managed. It is hard to move in all of these clothes, but also hard to imagine ever being cold which is the whole point. Still I am pretty sure that in condition 1 weather (blizzard conditions) I'll feel differently. I can not wait to see.

Irma in ECW gear

    After getting suited up and getting our luggage checked, we were allowed to go for a quick breakfast, having to report back by 06:15. At that time they briefed us on the airplane regulations and then showed us a video about safety on the ice. The big concerns are frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration, snow blindness, and sunburn. Interesting, but sobering. At 0700 we queued up to begin going through security. There were drug dogs to check us and our bags for drugs. Then all of our carry–ons, coats, etc., had to be X–rayed, and of course we had to go through the metal detectors. I set off the detector and had to start unloading all my pockets. The culprits were camera batteries in my left pocket and my wallet from my right.

    We finally headed out to board our plane which is an Air National Guard C–141 aircraft. There are NO windows. Inside there are two aisles with benches on either side running almost the length of the plane. There is red webbing to lean against and strap ourselves to. In other words, we sit sideways on the plane, and we are packed shoulder to shoulder. I believe I heard someone say that there were about 130 of us on this flight. We were given bagged lunches consisting of 2 sandwiches, potato chips, a muesli bar, a snickers bar, a banana, cookies, orange juice, and 2 bottles of water. It seems like a lot of food, but it is a long flight and it is entirely possible that we make it all the way down there and not be able to land because of poor weather conditions. In that case we would have to turn around and make the long flight back to Christchurch. This is actually quite common. One girl I met had to go through this whole ordeal for 11 days in a row, and almost every trip they made it almost all the way to the ice before turning back.

Boarding C-141 in Christchurch, New Zealand
Boarding C-141 in Christchurch, New Zealand
C-141 Interior

    We finally take off at 0800. It is pretty warm on the plane but we have to have all of our ECW gear on in case we have to make an emergency landing somewhere where there is no real shelter. We were allowed to take off our parkas, but that was all. I still had on about 4 layers. We could not really talk to one another because the airplane is incredibly loud and we were all wearing earplugs. We either read or slept or wrote or ate. It was difficult to move around as the aisles were so narrow that we sat knee to knee with the person across from us. It made it very difficult to try to get to the latrine, especially if anyone along your route was sleeping. People were climbing over one another or up on the webbing to get across.

McMurdo Hills

    After a very smooth 6 hour flight, we landed on the ice — literally. The runway is on the frozen sea. The ice there is only about 6 feet thick, but it is enough. This area is a little bay near our station and is surrounded by mountainous islands. Stepping off the plane you were immediately struck by the brightness. Of course the ice we were on was very white and the land and mountains had snow on them, but there is still a great deal of black rock showing through. The rock here is all volcanic rock, and in fact we are very near Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world. As for the weather, it was actually quite pleasant. I think they told us it was –20°F. However, there was little wind so it wasn't bad at all. And with the extremely low humidity (less than 2%) it really does not feel so cold.

Hut Point and Royal Society Mountains

    We were all shuttled into town and met in the galley for a little orientation. We were given our room keys and work assignments. I met my boss who seems to be a pretty decent fellow. He took me around and showed me all the areas we will be working in and then gave me a little tour of the town, including Hut Point. That is where Sir Robert Scott, one of the early explorers, built a hut sometime around 1904 I think. The hut still stands and looks brand new. There is a seal they had killed for food lying next to the hut. It is a little petrified, but still all in one piece. It was not open to the public, but I understand we will be able to go into it sometime later in the summer.

    Living conditions leave a lot to be desired. Unfortunately I got put into one of the few interior rooms without a window. I do not like that part and have made a room change request, but doubt I will get one. However, I have a little more space because of it so I suppose it's a decent trade off.

    The food here is actually quite good. And there is quite a lot to choose from. The only things lacking are fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and things like that. It is amazing how quickly you miss those things.

    I have been here 4 days now and the weather has been surprisingly good most of those days. Most of the people here wear blue jeans, T–shirts, regular walking shoes, and just put on hat, gloves and jacket to walk outside. I tried that the second day and was actually comfortable. Yesterday, however, the wind kicked up. Snow was blowing everywhere. And we ended up spending the major portion of the day outside. It was COLD!

    The sun has not stopped setting quite yet, although I am told it will very soon. I went out last night to watch the sunset at 11 P.M. It is so amazing to see the sky so bright at that hour. Even after sunset it never really gets dark because the sun is never far below the horizon, and it is only down for about 3 hours. During the day the sun is never overhead, but just circles around the sky at about a 30 degree angle. It is all very interesting.

    I saw a very interesting phenomenon the other day. It is called nacreous clouds. They are clouds that turn all kinds of purples, teals, greens, etc. It looks the way a little oil on water looks with all the pretty colors in it. I tried photographing it, but the colors do not show too well. Anyway, it was truly spectacular. We haven't seen too many clouds of any kind down here.

Nacreous Clouds

    As for the work, we are doing mostly maintenance at the moment — repairing receptacles, switches, etc. It is not terribly interesting, but not so bad either. It keeps us indoors a good bit except when we are out rounding up supplies.

    I went to driving school and got an Antarctic driver's license and also a license to drive on the runways. I understand there are quite a few other classes I will have to take as well. It should be interesting.

    Last night the carpenter shop had a party for everyone in town. They grilled all kinds of food and had a full bar. They really went all out and it was quite nice. The best part was that they had caught a 115 pound Antarctic Cod which they grilled. It was absolutely delicious. Recreational fishing is not allowed here, but the scientists have to catch them for research and I understand that the carpenters bartered for one of the fish. It was very nice.

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Irma Hale
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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