Travelling to the South Pole with USAP - Part 2

Okay, you are now on a crowded bus sitting outside the CDC with all your ECW on and a large red carry on bag on your lap weighing you down. It's hot. The bus drives you around the back and across the road to the CHC runway where there is hopefully an aircraft waiting for you. If you are lucky it will be a large C-17, if not it will be a small and slow C-130. If you're really unlucky it will be a very slow LC-130, and there is another 50 PAX.

The bus will stop somewhere near the aircraft and the air crew will look some what surprised about your arrival, like they didn't know you were coming. They will look like they may be thinking about getting the aircraft ready for a flight. If you're lucky you will only sit around in the bus a short time. Someone from the flight crew may come and give a short briefing about boarding the aircraft, otherwise the driver will let you know when to get out and remind you to collect your brown bag lunch on your way.

Boarding a flight in Christchurch.

Is there an art to getting on the aircraft to get a good seat? Some people certainly feel there is and will do anything to get on last and hopefully score an end seat which is less crowded. Reality is it is a crap shoot. If it isn't a crowded flight, less than 10 people, there is heaps of room for everyone to stretch out. The majority of people fly between CHC and MCM on C-17, which are a large and comfortable aircraft with a typical commercial aircraft toilet. Other than a bit noisy you can't go wrong. People milling about trying to be last aboard are childish and irritating for everyone.

A flight with plenty of space and good seats, a C-17.

Does and don'ts of flying. Try and relax and enjoy the flight. Enjoy the amusing demonstration of putting an opaque bag over your head in case of an emergency (maybe it's for oxygen?). Watch the perplexed looking crew member try and untangle the most complex life vest ever invented. No need to worry about putting that sucker on before ditching in the Southern Ocean with no chance of rescue before succumbing to hypothermia.

A fairly crowded flight.
Getting comfortable on an extremely empty flight.

I remember the first time I traveled south I was concerned about some of the fragile things I was carrying. To try and reduce my hand carry I reluctantly padded as best I could my music CD wallet and put it into my checked luggage. I clearly remember handing that bag over and watching as it was thrown into a pallet where a 220lb air-force loady started jumping up and down on it with both feet to try and force it into a space about a third as big as my bag. He managed it with considerable effort. So most people put fragile electronics etc into their hand carry. On entering the aircraft this is often taken off you and put into a pile to have a cargo strap put over it, and ratcheted down to within an inch of it's life. Then for some reason there will be a PAX on the flight, usually a "shoe in extrovert" who has been to the ice the year before and now considers themselves an old hand, who saw a similar soul the year before make everyones checked bag a comfortable bed for the flight. They will now decide it is their turn. Don't be this person. Also I feel it is completely acceptable to try and indicate to this person that you would prefer it if they would not throw their stupid self on top of your valuable hand carry. Unfortunately this person will be too stupid to understand. But hopefully this person will be heading to Pole where you will probably get the chance to go watch them shovel lots of snow.

On some flights there will be plenty of space, lot's of bench seat, and maybe real seats. You will probably get told to make yourself comfortable. Take advantage of this. Turn your red jacket into a comfortable bed, stretch out and take it easy. I like to find somewhere with a good flow of warm air near the rear of the aircraft and make a bed on the floor.

After a couple of hours you will be approaching the edge of the sea ice, and soon after this the coast of Antarctica, and then the Trans Antarctic Mountain Range. People pay thousands of dollar to do just this on a Qantas 747. You're getting paid to do it. Take advantage of it. I never get sick of this view - it is truly amazing.

After 4 or so hours there will be a muffled announcement which you will not understand. If soon after this the aircraft is obviously turning around without any sign of descending, you were probably being told the weather has closed in and you are heading back for another night in CHC. If this doesn't happen shut down your electronics as you will soon start descending for the landing at MCM.

MCM isn't very cold at the worst of times. Also since you have landed it can't be overly windy. So what you wear getting off the plane isn't critical. Your red jacket, just about any hat, and light gloves are fine. Maybe get your camera ready because the view on arrival is great. After coming to a halt the aircraft will be shut down and you will be directed to get off. Follow the crowd. There will be a shuttle bus, maybe the Terra Bus. waiting for you. Maybe the driver will come onto the aircraft and tell you it's cold and that you have to get onto the bus immediately. This person will be self important and very bossy. You will get off the aircraft and be overwhelmed by your first sight of Mt Erebus and the Royal Society Ranges across McMurdo Sound. The moment you go to use your camera that self important shuttle driver will be in your face insisting you GET ON THE BUS NOW. Try your best to look like you are complying while continuing to take photos and attempting to enjoy this magic moment despite this person. Once they start frothing at the mouth and it looks like their head will explode it's probably time to get on the bus. They will have by this point have threatened to report you to your supervisor, have you fired, and sent off the ice. I remember watching as some kid went ballistic at BM (whose boss would be in Washington I guess) with this very threat as I took Bob's photo with Erebus in the back ground. What ever you do, do not get angry. Do not let this person spoil this magic moment.

Arriving at McMurdo Station.
Typical view of Erebus on arriving at McMurdo Station.
Getting on the Terra Bus.

Guess what, you're back on a bus, probably crowded with a heavy red carry on bag on your lap. But at least you can wipe the condensation off the window and get an amazing view of Antarctica. You may even be on the Terra Bus - which impresses people back home.

Transport to McMurdo from the runway.

Your first stop is usually the Chalet, the building which looks just like it's name, and houses the main NSF offices. You now get to sit through many tedious people telling you what you are not allowed to do and how dangerous Antarctica is. The main purpose of this exercise is to let these people tell you where they stand in the power structure at MCM. See Big Dead Place for details of the USAP power structure. You will sign your name on a couple of clip boards which I think acknowledge you listened carefully to the tedious people, and that you will hold no one responsible for anything that happens to you. I like to sign my name Donald Duck. I wish I could say this experience isn't too bad and is over before you know it. In my opinion it is the low point of the trip. For first timers there might be some useful information gained during these speeches. Or you could quickly read the hand book they give you.

The Chalet where the main NSF offices are located.

At this point grantees (you scientist) and RPSC employees are segregated. I thankfully have no idea what happens to RPSC employees at this point. All the grantees now crowd into a small room where you are handed some forms and an envelope with some information, and most importantly a key to your room. Now once again do not question why you are filling out a form with the exact same information you submitted when you sent in your original package. Do not question the fact that they should know better than you when you'll be leaving Pole, and the ice. There is a slight difference in this form. Just guess roughly what you know. The dates don't matter. The important new thing is about what you do on your return. They want to know if they should get you on the first available flight once you get back in CHC, if you want a set period of time in CHC, or if you want to do leisure travel. This last option is what you pick if you want to do anything other than head straight back home. If you pick this option it will be up to you to contact the contracted travel agent from the ice to arrange your travel back. Why don't they add this to the original form? Don't even think about asking.

Some time during this meeting the doctor might suggest to people going to Pole that they get one of the options for relieving altitude symptoms on arriving at Pole. The options have been a drug called Diomox, and some natural thing with no evidence to indicate it helps. You have the option of toughing it, as I did my first few times with no problems (there were no options then). I then had a year when I did it tough on my arrival, and have since taken 1 Diomox the night before leaving, and 1 a day for 3 days on arrival. It does have some side effects people tend to not like. You will be told about these. I have also read mountaineering studies that use much lower doses (quarter of above or less) which still show benefits without the side effects. I would recommend taking it, even if only at the low dose. If you do not get offered it, drop by the MCM hospital during visiting hours and ask for some.

Finally you are free for awhile.

If on your flight down there is only a couple of PAX, and on your way back from Pole, they can't be bothered with all this mucking about. Thank your lucky stars! You will be dropped somewhere in town, usually near building 155. Go inside 155 and find the accommodation office. If it is after hours there will be an envelope pinned to a notice board outside the office with your name on it. It will contain some basic info and your room key. If the office is open, go inside and explain you have just arrived from X, and ask for you room assignment.

Main entrance to building 155.

If you were dropped at the Chalet you will have been told when your bags will be available at building 140 (a.k.a. MCC). You will also been advised to watch the scroll and the notice board in 155 for your reporting time for Pole Bag Drag. There is a form of cable TV at MCM. Mostly AFN (Armed Forces Network) and some informational text, including flight information with reporting times. This last item is called a scroll. This is important information. There is also a notice board near the shop in 155. This may or may not be up to date.

At this point go check out your room, drop off your hand carry, and change into something more comfortable. Your room isn't important. Bunk rooms are interesting in you get to meet locals. But be aware you may be in a room with a day sleeper, especially if you are in 155. Enter your room quietly and turn on 1 (of the many) lights to see if anyone is home. If it looks like someone is sleeping try and be quiet and don't turn on too many lights. Find a free bed and make it now so you don't make a lot of noise later that night when your room mates may have already hit the sack.

View of McMurdo from Observation Hill.

Many people make a big show of disliking Mac Town. It is an interesting and fun place. How to make the most of your time in McMurdo will have to wait to a supplemental to this series. Time to have fun, but don't forget your checked bag and bag drag.

While in Mac Town you might like to check email or make a phone call. There are public use computers in building 155, and computers for grantees (you scientist) in Crary Lab. You will need your account information which is in the package you were given at the Chalet. At both Mac Town and South Pole you will need a 1800 number phone card to make calls off station. GET ONE BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE US. You can buy them in the store, but they won't last long as they have high rates, and who knows if the store will be open before you want to make a call. In MCM to get an outside line dial 791 (I think) and then you 1800 number. As a grantee (Have you got it yet? A scientist who has a grant.) you will be given access to Crary Lab. This is a modern and heavily under utilized facility. Take advantage of it, but don't crow about it to the general population who do not have this luxury. You will probably have been given a swipe card at the Chalet which will give you access.

Looking up the hill to building 140.

Some time after I've been told my bag will arrive I haul myself up the hill to the MCC (a.k.a. building 140) to check it is there - usually dumped in the middle of the floor causing maximum inconvenience. Some people will lump this bag to their room so they can lump it back up the hill for weight in. There happens to be some convenient shelves in the room where your bag is dumped, and where you queue to bag drag, and report for your flight. I put my checked bag straight onto the shelves and leave. If your bag drag is say 19:00, and I'm told my checked bag will be available at 17:00 I wouldn't even bother going up at 17:00, just go up at 18:30. If it happens you want to lump stuff around there is a shuttle service. I don't remember the number. It is posted somewhere up there.

Bag drag at building 140.

Bag Drag is the second worst thing about going to the ice. You are required to report with all your gear. They want to see your ECW, and weight you with it and your hand carry. So some time before your scheduled reporting time you drag yourself and hand carry up the hill to the most inconveniently located building in MCM (MCC/140 again). You then get your checked bag(s) and queue to get weighted. They will take your checked bags and let you drag all your other gear back to your room. If your flight is delayed or boomerangs they hopefully will not give back your checked bags so you don't have to once again bag drag. If they do return them they will act like they have done you a favor. So make sure you have some basic clothes, towel, and toiletries for MCM, or you could be getting around in Pole ECW for days. You did bring a towel right? If you have a spare shirt I guess you can use that as a towel. But you don't want to miss you last chance for a good shower. If you only remembered in CHC and stole a towel from the hotel, please return it. You will be told your reporting time for your flight, usually 7-8am.

Let me stress this again. When you bag drag they want to see all your gear, especially your ECW you will wear on the flight. If you show up without it, you will have to go get it - REALLY!!

Get up early for you flight. Have a shower, get some breakfast, go pack your bag, and clean your room. Check a scroll and look out a window before you strip your bed. Leave this to last if you only see white out the window, or the scroll talks of delays. By now you will be a compulsive scroll and notice board watcher, and will be well connected to the USAP rumor mill. Once it looks like you are going, strip your bed, putting the sheets in the pillow case and drop it outside your door. Get your ECW on and drag yourself up the hill again. Get there 10-15 minutes early. If there are a number of people on your flight it will be crowded and hot. At the reporting time someone will make an announcement and you will start moving out through the doors your checked bags went through the night before. Drop off your room key and Crary Lab pass in the box at the door. You now get to sit on a bus, hot and uncomfortable, while the "shoe in extrovert" shows up late for reporting time. You will see him rush up the hill, and he will wonder why you are unhappy to see him, and don't want to hear about what he did last night, and who he almost had a fun time with. This is one difference between NPX and MCM. At Pole they wouldn't wait for you, and the people you inconvenienced will let you know in great detail how they feel about it. In MCM they will just sit around, bottling it up inside, intensifying their hatred of Polies.

Mac Ops (the central control of MCM) will radio the driver to take you to the runway. They may radio Mac Ops and let them know of their intentions. But there will be some mysterious delay. Now finally the bus moves and you get to relax and watch the magnificent scenery again.

The skiway can look quiet impressive with 6 LC-130s lined up and maybe a C-17, maybe some Twin Otters. But something won't be quite right. The bus will stop somewhere and you will look out the window and try and work out which of the aircraft you are flying on. There may be some crew around who look surprised to see you. If you are lucky an aircraft will have just started to be fueled. I have wondered about this many many times. I guess the thing is that the ANG do 2 week rotations (pilots and some others are longer), and unless the crew is at the end of the rotation they probably are new, and are trying to work out what they are doing, and ARE surprised to see you. Maybe someone could call ahead or let them know the night before....

Transport at the McMurdo runway.

If the delay is going to be short - under 30 minutes you will be kept on the bus. If there isn't a crew yet they will let you off the bus, but not before reading you the riot act. You can go into the galley, but DON'T think about eating a cookie, let alone food. Don't wander anywhere. There is usually a fair bit of machinery moving about, but nothing a sensible person can't stay out of the way of. But remember that the staff have had to deal with many "shoe in extroverts", and you have one too. It is an opportunity to get some great photos of equipment, the Terra Bus, and finally the scenery, which is breath taking and makes up for everything else.

Finally someone will want instant action from you. A crew member may say a few words about the flight. You will be reminded to pick up a brown bag lunch, and on you go. Again, no art to getting on. If you happen to score a window, great. But do not be a pain in the neck in your efforts to secure one of the 3 tiny windows near seats. Once in flight you can get up and will have access to a number of small scratched windows. Your hand carry will again be either piled high to be strapped down, or a crew member will try and put it in under your seat into a space about one third the size of the bag. After much kicking and kneeing he will give up and your legs will dangle over it. So make sure your camera and music is out around your neck, under your jacket before getting on the aircraft. If you did not get ear plugs somewhere else (keep a couple of pairs in your red jacket pocket) get some now from a crew member. Now relax.

Once in the air get your jacket off so you don't over heat (same on your flight to MCM). Some people shove it behind the webbing of their seat if it is crowded. This may require some disassembly and reassembly. So do it when crew aren't watching. I doubt they care. Try not to wreck the oxygen system, or shove things into your neighbours back while doing this. In some spots this is not possible and you will have to make do. I prefer to sit on my jacket as it is comfortable and easy to put back on, but a bit bulky for you and neighbours. If you are on a full flight moving about can be difficult. Once your behind goes numb standing on your seat is acceptable. Moving about is fine, but again if it is crowded don't do it too much. If there is lots of space, do what you want.

Getting comfortable on a LC-130 to South Pole.
How did you get on this flight? This is as good as it gets on a LC-130.

You will notice a crew member pull down a green curtain near the front, and maybe one at the rear. The front is to pull around you for the urinal, and the rear is for anyone that has to sit down. I've never used the later (think about this, and the number of flights I've taken). The other is well used. When it comes your turn you will go up, pull the curtain around you, and be faced with a wall of pipes and wires, and a funnel that looks like the oil filler. I think I've been whizzing into the right thing all these years....

Make sure you look at the view out the window soon after take off. The views of mountains and massive glaciers are again breath taking. After a couple of hours you will be over a massive featureless plain of white snow. This will start to drag on. Welcome to your new home for awhile.

The view of the mountains on the flight to South Pole.

At about 30 minutes out there will be announcement that you are approaching Pole. They often also let you know they will be dropping the temperature so you can put on your ECW. You need to have a game plan on what you are going to wear off the aircraft. Don't watch what others are doing. Old timers know what they will be wearing and can put this stuff on in seconds, and will probably wait till the last minute to do so. I suggest you wear the balaclava, a neck gaiter, and the wazoo hat on your head. Pull the neck gaiter up over your nose and cheeks before you get off. Put your snow goggles on, but up above your eyes. If it is too bright when you get off, it is easy to pull them down. On your hands put on a pair of heavy gloves or a pair of mitts (not the huge bear mitts). These things should have been in your pockets since before you got on the bus in MCM. Once the aircraft is on deck zip up your jacket all the way. You may be asked to grab any piece of carry on and take it off. You can find yours once you get off, and are clear of the aircraft.

Once the door is open, cargo will probably have been started to be unloaded already, one of the crew will indicate to get out. Once down the stairs another crew member will be pointing to the right. They do not shut down the aircraft at Pole. It will be loud and you are walking in front of the moving props. Walk a distance in front of the aircraft and to the right towards a group of people waiting just off the edge of the taxi way. There will be someone from IceCube waiting to meet you. They will give you instructions from this point on. You may have to walk to the station. If you are cold and maybe already feeling the altitude, don't worry. Suck it up, take on the cold, it won't kill you. Get used to it. You'll be fine.

Look at the sky. Look around you. It's amazing!

A LC-130 arriving at the South Pole.
Movie of cargo being drift unloaded at South Pole.
Movie of passengers (PAX) getting out of the aircraft at South Pole.

Welcome to the South Pole.

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