Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Adventure Really Begins

Our first view of sea ice
Henry taking in the landscape

Me, Henry, Jill, and Dwayne - New Arrivals

Behold! Antarctica!

Wating for our ride to the Antarctic Center
Our day started at about 6:00 when the van picked us up and took us to the Antarctic Center to pack our gear onto the plane and get ready to depart. The process for this trip was a strange mixture of military transport and airline procedures. Before we got our boarding passes, they weighed our baggage, and then they weighed us with our carry-on bags. We then sat in a departure lounge where we watched a video on health and safety while on “The Ice”. A few minutes later we took a bus ride out to our waiting C-17 aircraft. While filing onto the plane- we were given a generous sack lunch with a sandwich, chips, cookies, candy, and bottled water. It also contained what I have been told will be my last apple for a while. The seats were all on the sides of the fuselage and the center of the plane was taken up by sea containers and pallets of cargo being shipped down. We were definitely the lesser component of the cargo on this mission. There were only 26 of us. The rest was on pallets. Some of the crew gave an airline-like demonstration of the safety equipment on board while the other crew members looked on with amused grins on their faces. I think the safety demonstrator job is reserved for the low man on the totem pole.

The take-off was interesting because we were all facing inward. We kind of had to brace ourselves as we rotated and became airborne. Because of the infinite leg room, the five hour flight was quite pleasant. We were able to stretch out and drag out our computers, music players etc. We were also free to get up and walk around and look out the four (yes, four) windows on the plane. The scene out the window was mostly clouds. About 3 ½ hours into the flight we had our fist glimpse of the sea ice.
The most sea ice I had ever seen before was during a flight from Stockholm to Chicago, but that was at a distance on the horizon. This time we were flying right over it. As I was looking out the window, it also came to me that I won’t be seeing a night time for a while either. Like it was in Sweden, the Sun goes around in a big circle in the sky at McMurdo and never sets this time of year. About an hour before or schedule arrival, the clouds totally broke and we had spectacular views of the ice shelf (now solid) and huge mountains with glaciers flowing around them. When I looked out and saw that view, it was one of those rare genuine jaw-drop moments. I’ve never seen anything like it.

About five hours into the flight, the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent at McMurdo and we needed to take our seats and put up our stuff. With no windows, it was a little strange feeling the plane turning and hearing the flaps and gear come down. All this was going on with absolutely no way to know how close we were to landing. Finally the pilot told us we were on final approach. We heard the rushing sound of the gear coming down. The touch down was amazingly smooth. I expected it to be rougher than a concrete runway. This runway is out on the permanent ice shelf in the Ross Sea. Yes, we landed in a 100 ton fully loaded military transport on a runway made of ice. Once we reached the end of the runway and were taxiing, the announcement was (I’m not kidding here) “Welcome to Antarctica. Please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened until we have stopped the aircraft and turned off the engines.” I almost expected to hear some connecting gate information or something. My first glimpse out of the aircraft was through the back ramp as they were unloading the pallets of cargo. The front door finally opened and we all got up and put our parkas on. Emerging from the door on the plane was another jaw-drop experience. Two in one day is a record for me. I have only felt this way a few times in my life. There absolutely no way that any video, photo, movie, book, or written description could properly convey what it is like to be standing on this huge expanse of ice. I feel so privileged and humbled to be here. Only 90 years ago, the people who came here were the Astronauts of their day. They were the heroic explorers of the unknown. Today, scientists and engineers still come here to explore the unknown in different ways. I can’t completely describe how proud I am to be a part of this.

Beyond the raw emotional experience of setting foot on this other world, here are my first impressions. First, I can’t imagine being outside here without a really good quality pair of sunglasses. It is incredibly bright. It actually hurts to be outside without eye protection. Second, I’ve been a lot colder than this at home. Even though the temperature is in the teens, you are warm if the sun is shining on you. If you are a skier, you know exactly what I mean. We boarded “Ivan the Terrabus” for our ½ hour trip into “town”. Our driver was a chipper young gal wearing a Santa hat. As we made our way down the flag-lined ice road on this seemingly infinite expanse of frozen brightness, the song playing on the bus was Louis Armstrong’s “Summer time and the livin’ is easy . . .” Wow, I guess it is summer here.

1 comment:

Kendall said...

What? no comments on this book of a post? I hate that feeling. It's like when I make a huge facebook photo album and get only a few comments on the pictures. I laughed out loud a few times while reading this post. Allison must think I'm super strange now for jusg giggling to myself for now real reason. I know where I got my sense of humor from though. It is still going to take a while for you to convince to to want to go to Antartica, eventhough hearing "Welcome to Antartica" would be pretty great. But New Zeland, I'm there!