A frozen ocean and plus-sized transportation: Antarctic diary, part II

1 January: My journey to the southern end of the world began at Manchester airport. As any scientist doing fieldwork I have a love-hate relationship with Pelicases. Waterproof, airtight, unbreakable (even by baggage handlers), they also tend to be back-breakingly heavy, not open or close without broken nails (or fingers), and a right nightmare to get through airports. On this trip, the weight of my Pelicases exceeded the regular allowance by 70kg and seemingly crashed the airline’s check-in system. The check-in took nearly an hour and instead of a leisurely ‘airport appreciation time’ I set several records in both sprint and hurdling on my way to the gate.

3 January: After three eternally long flights I’m finally in New Zealand. Only one plane ride left, and this one won’t have inflight entertainment system:

The innards of Hercules LC-130 which took us from New Zealand to Antarctica. No movies but plenty of legspace

But I haven’t left New Zealand just yet. This morning I went to the first (of many) induction sessions at U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) in Christchurch. The laptop passed the IT inspection, I passed the body temperature inspection. Neither of us had viral infections. We also got issued ECW* from the CDC** ***.

*Extreme Cold Weather clothing

**Clothing Distribution Center

***USAP loves acronyms

It was unclear whether the ‘ice flight’ would go ahead tomorrow as scheduled, but it just got confirmed so that is very good. Now we just hope we don’t get ‘boomeranged’ back, i.e. flown out half way and then turned back because the weather conditions in Antarctica have changed. It happens fairly frequently so we have to pack a ‘boomerang’ pack, which is the only piece of checked-in luggage that gets returned to you if you are turned back and have to stay in NZ for a few days.

4 January Waiting to check in for the ice flight

6 January Arrived in McMurdo yesterday evening after a 9 hour flight from Christchurch. The sun was high up even at 11pm, weather has been lovely although Erebus is still hiding in a cloud.

Arriving on the runway on the frozen ocean

p.s I celebrated the apparent lack of viral infections too soon. Looks like I’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere along the way. Arrived in Antarctica feeling like a zombie.

6 January Saw penguins!!! I got so excited I even surprised myself. I’d seen them in a zoo but it was very different to see them in their real life. Just standing there on the sea ice.

7 January McMurdo station is a funny place. During the austral summer it is a busy hub with about 1000 inhabitants and a constant in- and outflux of people coming and going from New Zealand and various Antarctic field camps. As there are practically no roads outside the immediate vicinity of the base we rely on air transport to get to the field camps. Helicopters are used to get to the nearby camps, for example those for penguin and seal research on Ross Island, and Erebus volcano is also only a short heli ride away. Other field camps and stations require another flight on a Hercules – e.g. the Amundsen station at the South Pole. It’s normal to spend at least a week in McMurdo before you get a good enough weather window to fly off base, but it’s not unheard off that people spend several months without getting to their field location.

McMurdo feels much more like a small U.S. town than Antarctica. There is plenty to keep you occupied outside of working hours, including ‘Deep Freeze’ crossfit, yoga classes, movie nights and 3 bars, each of which has a reputation and a ‘type’ clientele. You can also rent various leisure equipment including musical instruments, skis and even Fatboy bikes (guess which of these I got excited about). Perhaps I can sneak a ride in before I go up to Erebus (best Strava segment ever?!). Not that we have much free time, we are being inducted very hard, all day every day. Heath and Safety FTW!

And there is the galley where you can be fed 24/7. The food is suprisingly very nice (and not just on a cafeteria scale), although I hear that over at the Italian base you get served wine with every meal.

Over here, I’m currently learning to measure temperature in Fahrenheit, altitude in feet and wind speed in knots #minimerica

Everything here is just that bit bigger and weirder

7 January: The plan is for our group to helicopter up to Erebus tomorrow but I won’t be going with them because my cold is kind of nasty, so is not so good to go to high altitude. I will hopefully go with the next group on Monday, but it’s an annoying set back.

McMurdo station seen across a frozen bay

8 January Went down to the heli pad, head hanging low, to see the rest of my group fly off to Erebus. Except they never took off because that’s how fast the weather changes in these latitudes.

9 January My cold is much better so I got myself a Fatboy bike, went cycling on a frozen ocean, saw an icebreaker, and, at long last, the Erebus itself. Sadly the phone battery died of exposure before I was able to make any snaps of the volcano.

10 January A storm is brewing. All flights likely cancelled for the next 24 hours. Am actually looking forward to seeing what Antarctica has to offer in this department

Starting to feel a bit homesick. Am quite done with mcmurdo, but there is no telling when we get out of here because that’s how Antarctica works.

The natives of McMurdo bay: sleepy seals and kleptomaniac skuas

A sure sign that it’s late summer in Antarctica is that an icebreaker has appeared on the horizon. Very slowly but surely it’s moving towards McMurdo, breaking up the ice and making a channel of clear water for other ships to follow. The other ships will be bringing supplies and fuel to last a whole year.

The icebreaker and seals snoozing on the ice

January 11 Sh*t sh*t sh*t we are likely GO [up to Erebus] and I still need to pack. Aaaargh! Trying to gather knitting materials in panic mode — something to keep me entertained while at acclimatization camp where there’s no electricity or other modern comforts.

Need to remember to take a Diamox when the helicopter takes off [drug which helps acclimatize to altitude]. The prescription instructions were to start taking it 24 hours before the ascent. But the way Antarctica works, 24h ago we didn’t know that we’d be going up. So here’s to you, Erebus <gulp>.

Goodbye McMurdo!

Next part: settling in at Erebus field camp