The above is a reference to what my trusty running/climbing partner says before starting a run or a climb or other physical trial…
My alarm went off at 0345 – no phone call announcing a delay, so it was go time! I grabbed my bags and made it on the first shuttle from the hotel to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center, remember?), which is conveniently located across from the Christchurch Airport terminal and adjacent to the USAP Passenger Terminal. Upon arrival, we flooded into the room with our orange bags and immediately began stripping off our street clothes and donning thermal underwear, windproof pants and coveralls, sweaters, jackets and bunny boots.
Oh bunny boots – so called after the Snow Shoe rabbit in Alaska whose fur changes from brown to white during the winter. Bunny boots are also called Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier Boots, Type II and have an inch of wool/felt insulation sandwiched between two layers of rubber. Apparently the insulation is so extreme that they come equipped with air valves that must be opened during flight to prevent the boot from rupturing. They each weigh about half a pound but by the time you have all your gear on, it feels like ten. I swear each time I went up steps, it was a complete lower body workout.
After changing, we had to “check-in” – our passports were checked, our checked bags were x-rayed and taken to the plane, and then we had to stand on a big scale holding our carry-on. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw the scale reading. The woman weighing me laughed as she saw my face and reminded me that included the weight of all my heavy clothing AND my carryon bag. Then she handed me a yellow tag on a lanyard as my “boarding pass” and was told to grab breakfast at the International Antarctic Center coffee shop but to be back by 6:20 for the pre-flight briefing. I got a cup of coffee and a kiwifruit – because I just HAD to eat a kiwi while in New Zealand (And yes, Skippy, fruit makes an excellent breakfast, regardless of what you think.) – and wandered through some of the exhibits with Denise, with whom I’d become friendly. We both particularly liked this depiction of the differences between where we would be living and where Santa lives.
At 6:20, we were all gathered back in the departure lounge – we had been told it would be a full flight and the count was somewhere around 120 people. We were shown a quick video – I couldn’t even tell you what it was about really but I imagine something to do with protecting the environment in Antarctica. Or the importance of safe work practices while in Antarctica. Those are the only two types of videos I’ve seen so far (and I’ve sat through 5 already). Then it was handing over our boarding cards, going through a metal detector, onto the bus and out to the C-17 which is just about the most gorgeous beast of a plane I’ve ever seen. Denise and I bee-lined for the rear seat pallet and grabbed two seats together in the first row.
The plane’s interior was cavernous – I’m fairly certain my Honda CR-V could have fit three times across inside. It was set up with temporary rigged seating along both walls, facing in. In the middle, there was a forward-facing seat pallet (a pallet of regular, commercial aircraft-type seats), a row of back to back rigged seating, then another forward-facing seat pallet (where we were). Behind that, at the very rear of the plane, were two cargo pallets side by side holding all of our stuff, as well as some supplies and equipment. Obviously no overhead compartments for our carry-on, but neither do they ask you to stow them in the seat in front of you because for most of us, there was no seat in front. Just dump them in front of your seat and try to keep them out of the way. Such common sense! I wished all airlines were like this. The downside? Only one bathroom and the flushing mechanism wouldn’t start working until about an hour into the flight. I was starting to regret the coffee I’d had that morning.
Take-off was much louder than a commercial jet and the noise didn’t abate much once we had leveled off, either. Fortunately, when the staff at the airport had been handing us bagged lunches as we boarded the plane, they also handed us earplugs. You could still hear with them in, but it made the atmosphere far more pleasant. Most people went to sleep immediately, having been up since before 4am, after all, but I was far too excited so Denise and I talked a bit and tried not to look over the shoulder of the airman on my left as he played Scrabble on his Kindle. I was apparently unsuccessful at this because before long, we were playing against each other. After awhile, the flight crew opened the cockpit for tours so Denise and I went up and talked to the pilots and asked questions – hers were far more interesting and investigative, as she had just spent the summer flying little planes in Alaska. After coming back down, I napped for a bit and woke up to follow Denise back to the cockpit because we were now over ice!
My first views of the continent were stunning but the cloud cover was a little worrisome. When I returned to my seat, my Scrabble buddy – Dauphin, is what his uniform said – informed me that he had just heard there was only a 50/50 chance of landing. Denise and I looked at each other and crossed fingers that we wouldn’t boomerang. Sure enough, not long after he said that, the flight crew announced that we would be holding for a bit to see if the weather would clear enough for us to land. After an hour of circling – which provided an opportunity for some pretty fabulous photos from any of the 6 windows on the plane, the flight crew issued this statement, “Alright folks, we will now be proceeding inbound. Return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. And cross your fingers!” Denise and I cracked up at that, since that’s not really something you want to hear someone say when they’re flying a plane that you’re in, heading towards a runway that is made of ice, with poor visibility. Of course, we just figured they meant “cross your fingers we don’t have to turn around and fly for another five and a half hours”. I found out much later that, in fact, we had no choice but to eventually land: we’d passed our “bingo point” and wouldn’t have had enough fuel to make it back to Christchurch. It was either land right then or circle for another 4 hours and hope the weather cleared/didn’t get worse.
Needless to say, since I’m typing this after the fact, we landed safely and very smoothly. We had all bundled up in our gear before landing, so not only were we excited to get off the plane and see Antarctica, but we were all starting to stifle in the belly of the beast!
Walking off that plane and getting smacked in the face with the legendary Antarctic wind was breathtaking – both figuratively and literally. I couldn’t believe that one week ago, I’d been packing and shopping and going climbing with Sadie and now here I was at the bottom of the world and it was exactly as gorgeous as you’d think from pictures but even more so because it was REAL and it was right in front of me. I wanted to stop for a minute and just catch my breath but the plane’s engines were still running and we’d been instructed to proceed very quickly to the “buses” that were waiting to take us the 15 minute ride to the station. Only then could we turn around and take pictures as we pleased.
The windows were too high to see much of the journey that deposited us at Building 155 – the heart of McMurdo Station. I followed the crowd into the main entrance, to the racks and racks of coat hooks intended for our Big Reds, and then into the galley dining room for Orientation. We had arrived!