Travelling to the South Pole with USAP - Part 1

Disclaimer. These are my impressions of going to the ice, and the ways I have developed to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for me. What I have learned over the years is that my experience is not everyone else's. Also that what I get from the experience, and how I want to deal with it, is shaped by my past experiences and my character, which is laid bare by Antarctica. Since everyones experience is very different, the influence on their future actions will be different. Don't expect everything to be exactly as I say. Finally, there will be people who directly identify with individual USAP participants I don't mention by name. If you feel you have been unfairly portrayed, I am very sorry. But in my defense I'm just telling it how I see it.

I have just revised this page to include changes that are needed after my deployment in 2006/2007. The most notable change involves hand carry on the flights from CHC and NPX (South Pole). I've added some photos, and addressed some questions people asked me. In general the experience didn't change a lot.

I get asked what new people should know about going to the ice for the first time a lot each year. I may as well write it down. The hardest part about going South first time is getting there. This is when lots of things are happening around you which are very familiar and simple to the people who have done it before, but hard just because they are unknown the first time. The "like being in the military" analogy is very appropriate. But it is hard to tell when people are telling you to hurry up to wait, or when they really want you to hurry up. There are times you should take your time, and times when you should move. Rule of thumb number one is to be every where you are told at least 10 minutes before the time you are told, even if you are sure you are going to end up standing around for awhile. The one time you are late you are sure to have inconvenienced many people.

As soon as you know you are going to Antarctica with USAP, as soon as you get your "kit", start the PQ (Physical Qualification) process. It is becoming a real pain in the neck when people aren't PQ'ed in adequate time before they are scheduled to travel. This really can take more time than you expect. Start it right away. Schedule appointments so blood work and dental is done months in advance. The only thing to remember it has to be within 6 months of deploying. But few people will bother that issue. PQ'ing is part of your job and you should take it seriously. DO IT! Do I sound like I mean it?

Okay, so you arrive at CHC. By now you will have met up with one or two other people also going to the ice. They will have the same bright baggage tags, or ones from previous years (different colour - they're letting you know you're a fyngie and they're an OAE). I don't use this tag on my carry on. These other people are often very loud, trying to let everyone know what heroes they are. They can be hard to shake if you let on you are with USAP.

Cathedral on the square of down town Christchurch

You get through customs and will be met by someone obviously from USAP just outside the exit. They usually wear a light weight red jacket, like a red parka with a USAP patch on it. They will have a clip board, and look more organised than a limo driver. You will be asked to go over to a counter to hand in your ticket and get your hotel and other information. They will tell you what time to be at the CDC, usually the next day, to get you ECW.

At this point on, when someone says to be somewhere at a certain time, be there at least 10 minutes before hand. Have I already mentioned this?

They will have ordered a shuttle bus. After getting your information package, get some cash (ATM at the airport) and take yourself and your luggage to the bus and tell the driver where you are staying. The driver expects to get paid, so make sure you have some Kiwi cash:) But now you can relax for a bit. The drivers used to be very chatty. As CHC has become more tourist oriented the shuttle drivers have become less down to earth. They don't expect a tip.

You have 2 options at this point, go direct to your hotel, or go to the CDC and leave some gear there, and then to your hotel. I go to my hotel. If you have a large box of work gear you might want to drop it at the CDC. If you choose the CDC options let the driver know. It's just a couple of blocks from the airport - easy walk if you want.

While at the CDC you might like to catch up on your email. There is a computer room available to USAP participants. To get to the computer room you need to go into the travel section, which is the door down the road from the CDC, about 20 yards. In the travel center there is a counter, and if the computer room to the right is not immediately obvious, ask one of the travel people (who are very nice people and have been very helpful to me in the past). Also while at the CDC you may be told you need to have your laptop screened for use on the USAP network. Who knows what the procedure will be this year. Just do it, and don't think about how unwise it is to hand over your computer to a stranger from an even stranger organization. It's for security, that's all you need to know (think out of work Y2K flunkies). You have a backup right? There are also many cheap internet cafes around Christchurch where you can do your email. Some hotels also have networking at an expensive price. Remember you are in New Zealand. Electrons travel slower there. Don't expect the network speed you are used to (Want to start a telco. Both NZ and Oz telcos could do with some competition). Phone cards can also be bought in most internet cafes. There is a range of cards and the advantage of buying at one of these cafes is that they will recommend the most appropriate for you.

The CDC is a bit left of center in the photo. Next along is the travel section, and then the APO.

You usually arrive mid morning. The hotels have always been good to me about early check in. But I always use the same hotel, and they know me well. They know what you are doing and this business is important to them. Treat them well and they treat you well. Luckily it's dinner time for you, so go shower and go find some lunch. I recommend Dux Delux sitting outside. You may have just come from a northern hemisphere winter, and now it's summer. Enjoy it. If you want to avoid ice people don't go to the Dux or Bailies. There are plenty of good places to eat.

Quick word about Bailies. This is an Irish themed pub right off the square in down town Christchurch. It is a traditional hang out for ice people. Though it has a good local clientele also. They have in recent years renovated. The Antarctic memorabilia now looks more like the stuff on the walls of an Applebies. Though it is genuine, and Ed's photos are stunning. The owner and staff have been extremely generous to me and my friends over the years, though the owner can be a hard man and we have "crossed swords" occasionally (though I doubt he knows who I am). The bottom line is that if you want people around you having the same experience and want to talk about it a lot you may want to hang out there. It has become a genuine Antarctic tradition (it's even in a song), and some days it may as well be an ice bar. But I should have known my days there were numbered when my picture appeared on the wall (group photo, so don't bother looking, you won't find it). I no longer go there even though the food is now quite good.

I normally do some quick shopping for things I've forgotten, and remembered on the plane, or some new thermals, gloves, hat, cigars, presents for people at Pole (maybe special magazines), or something. NZ has some great outdoor gear manufacturers. You should be aware that cigarettes are heavily taxed in New Zealand. If you smoke, or want to take some fresh smokes to the people on the ice, buy them duty free at the airport. An exception is cigars. There is a store that sell Cubans in Oxford Mall, which you will not get in duty free.

What hotel to stay in? Some people like the convenience of staying near the airport, which is also close to the CDC. These people are very boring! I prefer to stay right on the square in down town Christchurch. I stay in "Camelot on the Square". It's a compromise on price, location, and luxury. I put the Copthorne Central down as my second choice, as it is close to a pub called the "Vic and Whale". Other popular, and cheaper B&B places include The Devon, or The Windsor. Both fine places to stay. An interesting place is Charlie B's Backpackers. This is a sort of half way house for Polies recovering from a winter. They try and hide them out the back so as to not scare customers.

Entrance to the CDC.

You need to know what to expect at the CDC the next day. You will have 3 red bags full of ECW. One will have a tag marked carry on, and the other 2 as checked luggage. You HAVE to use the red carry on bag, and this is all you can carry on to the plane, and it shouldn't be stuffed full. Your computer must fit inside the red carry on bag! This is new, and there are no exceptions! You can use your own bags or theirs for checked bags. For yours, you need to make new tags. There is table with everything you need to do this near the entrance of the changing room, but it doesn't hurt to carry a big Sharpie with you at all times while on the ice.

I'll emphasis the change in carry on policy. You can no longer carry your computer on in it's own bag. Another change this coming year will be that the number of required items you have to have on the flight will be reduced. So your option is to put your computer in your carry on red bag, and reduce the other things you would put in there, or you put your computer in your checked bags. What are the pros and cons? If you check your computer it should be in a really solid case to protect it. I highly recommend the laptop cases made by Pelican Cases. The down side is that you will be without your laptop for awhile. This is fine unless your flight is canceled after checked in, or it boomerangs. You do not get your checked bags back, and thus you remain without your laptop. If you HAVE to do some work this could be a problem. The other option is to carry your laptop and reduce the other things in your carry on. But these are things you might want, like a change of clothes, or toiletries. If you do this you should get a soft slightly padded case for you computer to give it some minimal protection. I check my computer and considered it a blessing to have a break from it!

Laptop cases by Pelican

I then go back to my hotel and repack completely. I normally travel with 1 large roller bag which I'm going to store at the CDC, 1 large very heavy duty duffel bag which I'm going to take to Pole, and a medium sized light weight back pack which I used as carry on for the commercial flights to CHC. The duffel is usually inside the roller. I now make 3 piles, what I want at Pole but don't need for the next few days, everything I need to live for up to a week, and stuff I want to leave in NZ till I get back (maybe a tent or sleeping bag for a trip after coming off ice). Throw all the stuff staying in NZ into the roller. Carefully pack all your Pole stuff into the duffel, using clothing to pad anything slightly breakable or squashable (toiletries). Lay out the clothes you will wear under your ECW on the flight to MCM.

Left over should be something like some basic toiletries, spare pair of socks, underwear, PJs, button up long sleeve shirt, camera, street shoes(!!), and travel papers. I will organise this in 3 light draw string bags. The clothes I wear under my ECW are street wear clothes (typical winter day in Wisconsin) - thermal long johns, Carhart jeans, T shirt, light fleece jacket. This should be all you need for the next few days. Once your checked bags are checked you may not see them again till Pole (this varies, but you can't count on it).

Big tip!!! I keep spare street clothes in my roller bag I'm leaving in CHC including a jacket which I will wear to the CDC in the morning. You can access this any time the CDC is open. If you get stuck in CHC for 10 days you have spare clothes. I even keep a pair of street shoes in there, as I check my runners, and put my hikers in my carry on (don't want to wear Pole boots around MCM). On my way off the ice I pack back into my roller, and mail through the APO anything I don't want, including the duffel. If I'm back packing after I get off I will use my back pack instead of the roller.

Try and stay up till 9pm or you will wake up at 2am. Book a shuttle to get you to the CDC 30 minutes before your reporting time for your ECW issue. The shuttle company will suggest a time as they will be picking up others going to the CDC. Use the company the CDC recommends. Get receipts, which have their phone number on it.

At the CDC there will be no one waiting for you:) It is fairly obvious where the CDC is. The shuttle driver will drop you at the door and people will usually be milling about. There is a entrance area and 2 changing rooms. The mens is straight ahead, the womens off to the right. You may as well lump your gear through to the changing room. It's a big open space and will have a row of red bags in the center and a bench seat around the outside. Lump your stuff to some clear space around the side.

Mens change room at the Clothing Distribution Center

The lady in charge is Marlene. At the reporting time she will usually tell the old hands to start sorting their stuff and make some general announcements, and then get Fyngies to go out into the entrance area for a briefing about ECW (there is a video and a wall showing all the options, which she will go through). There are a few things you HAVE to take and sometimes wear. She will point these out.

The wall of Extreme Cold Weather Gear - ECW

Okay now you have 3 bags of gear to sort through. This is one time you can take your time. People like me will be going a mile a minute to get this over and done with. Ignore us. Set aside the stuff you have to have. Decide what you are going to wear on the plane to MCM and Pole. For me it's fairly much the same thing. The biggest option in my opinion is what you put on your head and hands.

This is what I do. I try on the red parka (XL) and look for defects. I lay it out to pile other stuff on. I return my black wind pants and get Carhart insulated bibs instead. I make sure these fit (32x38 - maybe 32x40 this year). I put all the tube socks, the brushed leather gloves, snow goggles, bear mitts, warzoo hat, spare boot liners on my red parka. I put my boots on and get them set up the way I like them (this is a story in itself). I return everything else. I have my own gloves (light and heavy), head gear (head sox, wind proof hat, neck gaiter), thermals (3 pair long johns, 1 each long and short sleeve top), fleece (vest, light and mid weight top, and pants). I don't take much issue stuff. I've even returned at least 1 red bags. I don't take much else beyond this anyway.

Passenger Terminal at the CDC

I put the red parka, Carhart bibs, boots, bear mitts, and 1 pair of socks into the red carry on bag and close it. I put the remaining into my checked bag and make a tag for it. I make a tag for my roller bag (which I left at the hotel). I put my carry on and my checked bags back in the middle of the room. Now go to the Dux for lunch and spend the arvo sight seeing and or shopping.

You will get a fax at the hotel that night confirming your reporting time - maybe 6am. Book a shuttle. Lay out the clothes you will wear. Pack every things else except what you need immediately. Book a wake up call in addition to your alarm (you do have a watch with a loud alarm, or a travel clock?).

In the morning I catch the shuttle and get to the CDC. Be waiting for your shuttle 10 minutes before the time you arranged! Don't forget you have to check out and this takes a bit of time. Really this is the most irritating thing in the world, to be waiting for someone in the morning. If you make me wait I will recommend to the driver we leave as you obviously don't want to go to the ice anyway. I immediately get ready - as everyone should unless on arrival you are told otherwise (weather bad or something). Might not hurt to quickly ask around if anyone has an update on weather and the flight. I unpack my red carry on bag (which I had left at the CDC) and my small back pack (which I had at the hotel). I put my small back pack in the bottom of the carry on and repack it with everything I'm not going to wear. I'm already wearing the clothes I wear under my ECW - the advantage of it being street gear. I put anything I'm not taking with to Pole into my roller and tag this and put it in the area for this stuff. I double check my passport is in my front pocket and departure card (was sitting on top of you bag when you arrived).

Once you have your bags packed go out to the front of the CDC where there will be a supply of baggage carts from the airport. Grab one and take it back into the change room and load it up with all you stuff (except the roller bag, which you put in the side room for leaving at the CDC). Now you can go outside and around to the side of the CDC to the departure terminal where you can wait in line to check in. Before someone came up with the simple idea of using the baggage carts this was a big pain in the neck, moving all your stuff around. It is much easier now. But you still have a lot of stuff to be moving around which should be a reminder to travel light.

Eventually you will reach the front of the line where you and your gear will be weighted. You hand over your departure card and show them your passport and they hand you a boarding pass on a lanyard. Hang it round you neck so you don't loose it. I immediately go dump my carry on and throw off my parka and Carharts in the departures waiting area. Time for breakfast. See, no point putting you heavy boots on - but they want to see you have them. Also my parka pockets are stuffed with my gloves and head gear. I'm instantly back into street gear. Everyone else (well most) are wandering around in long johns, socks, or other camping type gear.

People relaxing outside the CDC after a flight boomerangs. The Antarctic visitors center is in the background.

Go have a small breakfast making sure you are back well before reporting time. Use the bathroom. After a tedious and useless video about how over controlled everyone is in Antarctica you put all your gear on (I have 2 plastic bags to put my hiking boots in so they don't make my carry on stuff dirty), go through a security clearance (almost the same as commercial - so make sure your pocket knife is checked), and onto a crowded bus. I have my camera around my neck and my music source in my front pocket. Get ready to be hot and crowded for awhile.

Waiting in the passenger terminal at the CDC

You're almost there!

Part 2 - Christchurch to South Pole

What is all this NPX, CDC, MCM stuff? Check out acronyms and jargon regularly used in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP).

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