Week 1 December 3 2006 Hoping for Bad WeatherAccompanying Photos
This is my 8th trip to the South Pole, 9th to Antarctica. There are tourists that have done more trips than that. However they haven't spent about 42 months in Antarctica as I have. Each year I think about why I come back, and when I'll stop. The easy answer is that it is my job. The harder answer is because I think about when I'll stop. The first trip is by far the best. The next couple are also exciting with their many unknowns. But if you keep going back, especially to the same place, then the experience changes. I am determined to get something out of this trip, to capture some of the fun stuff from early trips. Unfortunately so far it hasn't gone to plan, and it has been difficult putting positive spin on the events so far.
The trip to Antarctica usually starts in June when you are sent a kit that includes your medical screening and travel arrangements. After you pass your medical, RPSC arranges travel to Christchurch New Zealand from your home by the most direct route. However I wanted to travel to Melbourne first with Helen and Henry who will be staying with Helen's parents while I'm away. It is rare to do this. This did turn into a complex nightmare, which worked it's way out with great difficulty.
A big advantage to this trip was that I got to relax in Melbourne for a week before deploying. The past 3 years I've arrived at South Pole exhausted - and have stayed that way. I was determined to arrive fresh. All went well until I woke on my last day in Melbourne feeling a bit unwell. By the time I got to Christchurch I was feeling very unwell. I was hoping like crazy for weather delays going south to give me time to recover.
I always stay in the same hotels down town. Down town is convenient to shops, food, and entertainment. On arrival I was told my choices were fully booked and they had put me in a place convenient to the office. I didn't understand how convenient to the office could be seen as a positive. And the reality was it was convenient to no where including the office, and was on the busiest road in the city.
On my first night, having quickly raided a chemist for one of everything, I slept poorly as the wind tried to tear some sort of antenna off the roof directly above me. But enough wind might cause a weather delay. First thing in the morning I looked out my window at the very windy day disappointed to see a commercial jet taking off with ease in the distance.
The day before your flight south you go to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center. Though the way I was feeling I wished it the other CDC) to get issued ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. To make up for the lack of unknowns traveling to the ice I have gone to the other extreme and have a well oiled routine. Maybe putting it on my web page was a mistake. It felt like everyone had read it and had made it a challenge to break my routine. Simple things like changing the clothes issued slightly, and the direction we go with our gear. Positive spin on this is I get to change my web page and people will have to re-read it. I found out the next flight south after ours was in a week. So there was no question of me missing the flight for an extra couple of days to recovery. But the weather people were still talking of bad weather coming in from the Tasman Sea.
Waking up the next morning there was light drizzle on the windows. I hoped the weather was much worse in McMurdo. The night before your flight you get sent a fax about your reporting time. I had a reporting time of 6am, thus a 5:20am shuttle. At my usual hotels if there is any further faxes the hotel will come up and slip it under my door. At this hotel they waited till I'd packed up everything and gone to reception to check out to hand me the fax saying reporting was moved to 9am. Time to read the paper and have a cupa. Maybe the weather IS bad in McMurdo.
At 9 I final arrive at the CDC and since no one says not to we all start getting kitted in ECW. After putting on clothing needed to survive at -50 you have to drag all your bags around to the departure terminal in humid +20 weather. Here New Zealand Air Force and Customs take our departure cards, check our passports, and weight us and our bags. We are given a boarding pass to hang around our necks and are free to hang out for a short while. If it was earlier it would be time for a quick breakfast.
There were 90 PAX (passengers) on the flight. This is a lot even for a C-17 once some cargo is added. It would be a very full C-141, so I was grateful for the C-17. It took quite a long time to process this many people and we filled the departure lounge. After this was done there seemed no rush to get rid of us. Finally someone announced that we were flying, there was no problems with weather or the aircraft (this left hanging the question of what there was a problem with, as there isn't much else - the crew?), but it would be another hour. An Air Force bloke came in and offered to put a DVD on the big screen used to show the safety briefing. Looked like we would get to see half of "Oceans 11".
After half of "Oceans 11" there was another announcement to say we would be departing the lounge at 12:30 for a 13:30 flight. We also got to sit through the extremely irritating USAP Antarctic Briefing Video. I don't exactly know why I hate it so much. Maybe it's the way they try and tell you how personal the experience will be for you, and how they care about you, and then try and crush you with bureaucratic and corporate nonsense (if you've ever heard of it, it's a lot like what I feel is the issue with "6 Sigma"). All the while they invoke the greats of the heroic era who would turn in their graves if they saw this stuff. Thankfully it only feels like it goes on forever. Anyway it looked like we'd see all of "Oceans 11".
Just as the big moment was starting at the end of "Oceans 11" someone came in and turned it off and said we were moving. We get our hand carry X-Rayed, and we go through a metal detector. With so many massive metal zips and buckles I think I could hide a shot gun on me. It just cracks me up that we can't take nail clippers on board this jet which is full of large object which could be used as much more effective weapons against the obvious soft target of a US Air Force crew.
From the back of the departure lounge we get a bus (many bus loads in this case) to the Christchurch airport across the road. They pull up near the front of a large C-17 jet and tell us to get out, grab a brown paper bag lunch and hop on. By chance I ended up at the back with no seat? Me and another bloke. Loadies kept coming up to us asking us to sit down, and when we explained there was no seat they said they'd find us one. I started to get the feeling United Airlines had infiltrated the Air Force and they were over booked. Maybe I could get a voucher and night in a nice hotel? No luck, 2 loadies moved their stuff up to the flight deck and gave us their seats. But I got lucky and was right at the end of a row along the side. Lots of room in front and only a person on one side. This made up for a lot of other things!
People talked about how cramped and uncomfortable the flight was, but even the worst seat on this flight was pure luxury compared to if we'd been flying a C-141. Imagine having a toilet almost identical to a commercial jet! One disadvantage of my seat problem was that I missed my favorite comic safety briefing. How to put an opaque plastic bag over your head in the case of a lack of oxygen, or how to put on the most complex life vest ever devised.
With a late arrival into McMurdo we had our arrival briefing in the galley as we ate dinner. This made one of the worst parts of a trip south just fine. I didn't hear a word and caught up on the news from the NY Times fax. We soon had room keys but had to bag drag for the Pole flight anyway. By the time we were done it was straight to bed, up for a quick breaky and up the hill to catch a flight to Pole.
Even in the morning all went like clock work. No malingerers showing up late. We arrived got on buses and went to the ice runway (we arrived on another air strip called Pegasus). The ice run way was as close to the station as I've ever seen it. So after a very short ride we arrived to find an LC-130 just finishing fueling!!! For a change the loadie did the briefing standing around outside on the ice. It was quite nice, and the loadie seemed nice. We were soon on the aircraft and in the air.
I got another rock star seat. Karma I guess. There was cloud early in the flight. But it cleared as we approach the massive Beardmore Glacier. The loadie got out a map and pointed out where we were and made sure anyone that wanted could go up to the flight deck. We were soon over the featureless plateau which means we were an hour from Pole. At about 3 and half hours it isn't a taxing flight unless it is very crowded, which we were far from.
I think landing at Pole brings out some sort of strong emotion even in the most seasoned veteran. It always has for me - not always positive. This year I was completely neutral. I've put it down to just not feeling well, and at that point I was still in denial about the big changes I was about to face. The only concern I felt at that point was worry about not wanting to infect anyone with the crud (generic name used on the ice for any illness, usually viral, with the worst being influenza) I was carrying.
The usually stalwart mates were there to meet me. My bag got thrown onto the IceCube sled and we walked to the new station - to the main entrance, the first time for me. Getting inside it started to dawn on me that I know next to nothing about this new station, and the old Dome which I knew like the back of my hand is finally gone.
This is my third day here. What have I been doing? Not much but hiding in my room. I go to meals late so as to have as little contact with people as possible. I've not so much as stuck my nose out side. Not like the Dome where I had to go outside to get from my room to the galley. I have a network connection in my room, and am well enough to do email. Since my job feels like 90% email anyway I've been fairly busy despite being a bit under the weather. I've made some excursion around the new stations and made preliminary decisions about what I hate and what I hate a bit less. But I'll leave giving a complete description of the new station until another email.
So far I haven't got worse, and haven't got better. Nothing like being sick at South Pole to make you feel useless - a mouth to feed. Hopefully I will start to feel well early this coming week and start to get into my usual routine. We expect to move into our new building at the end of the week in which case a very hectic season will have started.
To be continued....