Puny Humans

I am typing this from McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Can I tell you how giggly that makes me?

This is it. My seventh continent. And I’m not just here as a tourist, paying too much to be stuck on a cruise ship and then herded onto a Zodiac for ten minutes on the ice. I am living and working here.

Excuse me while I amaze myself. Sorry, but hey. I’m in Antarctica.

Our “iceflight” was delayed by a day, which we spent kicking around Christchurch. On Monday we checked out of our hotels a couple hours earlier than scheduled – they bumped up our flight to avoid another nasty patch of weather moving in. Once at the “International Antarctic Terminal,” we checked in, had our bags weighed and then had to be weighed ourselves with our bags (mortifying). We had another safety briefing and then sat around for a couple hours waiting.

Chillin’ in the departures lounge (note all the Big Reds – parkas)

There was the usual black humor, with more than one veteran telling me that if the plane went down I should hold on to something heavy so that I’d sink straight away and get it over with.

When the call came to line up, one of the New Zealand Air Force dudes manning the terminal came by with a sniffer dog, a very cute and friendly black Lab mix (is there any other kind of Lab mix?). And while the dog was doing his job making sure no one brought anything naughty to the Ice, the truth is most of us wanted to pet him. As one woman who’s been down here several times said: “this is the last dog we’ll pet for seven months.”

Loaded onto buses, we drove out to our ride: a C17 military transport plane with a crew from the US Air National Guard. I’d never been in a C17 so that alone was a thrill, but during the five-hour flight they also opened up the flight deck and let us check out the cockpit and take pictures. It was still daylight when I went up, with a lot of cloud cover, so I didn’t get to see anything too fantastic, but it was still cool.

Our Ride… a C-17

We all had to wear our Bunny Boots on and off the plane, and while some people brought comfy shoes for the flight itself, I left mine on. And I quickly learned that I had not opened one of the valves. Each boot has a valve that keeps in a layer of air to insulate your feet. On the Ice, you need it or your feet would freeze. In the pressurized cabin of a plane cruising at 35,000 feet, ah, not so much. I thought I was having the mother of all foot cramps till I realized I hadn’t opened the valve. With a single twist, it was open and ahhhhhh…. my foot was no longer on fire.

Flying the Frozen Skies: C17 flight deck

Somewhere over the Extreme South Pacific

Bunny Boots!

Can You Tell They’ve Done This Before?

When we were within an hour of landing, they started to turn down the heat to help us acclimate. A few minutes from the airstrip, we were told to put on all of our Extreme Cold Weather Gear. I copied the veterans who were leaving “Big Red” (the huge parkas they give us) off till the last minute and I’m so glad I waited. I didn’t put it on until the exit door was opened and even then I was immediately toasty warm.

View of the cabin from the flight deck

They’d warned us it was minus 58 to minus 40 degrees out there, so I was ready for brutal, godless, pummeling cold.

Moments before landing, even the flight attendants suit up

“Go Time”… moments before leaving the plane

I stepped out into the air and… meh. It was a winter night in Moscow, or a cold snap in Wisconsin. Nestled in my layers and Big Red, I was extremely comfortable and not the least bit cold.

That said, it was one of the singularly coolest experiences of my life. I remember looking out past the airstrip runway lights and humming transports to the horizon, which was shaded with just the slimmest layers of indigo, then cerulean and then just a smidge of rose light, like the last moments of twilight. Everywhere else was a clear, featureless black interrupted only by glittering stars. Even in the darkness I could feel the immensity of the place.

It didn’t just feel big. It felt untamed, and untameable. Here we were, stepping off an enormous and toasty-warm plane, where nearly all of us had been listening to our MP3 players or typing on laptops or playing handheld games, comfy as could be, all the bells and whistles of technology at our fingertips. And then, touchdown, we were suddenly in an environment where no amount of technology has so far (or, I think, and hope, ever will) make it truly habitable.

When I would go swimming in Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, I always felt the water was old, ancient, that the lake had a kind of primeval wisdom that we humans, as young whipper-snappers of the universe, could not begin to comprehend. I felt that way when I looked out into my first Antarctic sky. The landmass I could only sense around me in the darkness seemed sentient, almost like it was watching our plane offload with the same detached bemusement a person might watch ants scrambling over a fallen ice cream.

Oh, look, more of them. How cute they are in their little red parkas and bunny boots. How cute. And how small. How very, very, small and young and insignificant.

Down the stairs I went, white-knuckling the handrail lest I fall and break my neck before actually stepping onto Antarctica, and then… the soft crunch of the finest, most powdery snow I have ever encountered beneath my Bunny Boots.

And all I could think was wow, I have touched down on my seventh continent. Man, I have to pee.

(There is only one bathroom on a C17 and by the time nature was calling we were within 20 minutes of landing and they’d closed the line for it.)

We hustled to the transports not because it was cold but because the C17 kept its engines running and is only on the ice long enough to offload its passengers and cargo. Within an hour it would be airborne again and returning to the relative warmth of a southern New Zealand winter.

Touchdown Antarctica

McMurdo was nothing but a glimmer of lights at first, ten miles away on Ross Island. We were driving (and had landed) on the ice shelf, meaning yes, below us and below the ice was sea water.

The next hour or two was a blur of offloading, getting room assignments and keys, picking up our luggage and linens and wandering around looking for our rooms. I’m in a four-bed room, typical for first year people, but so far have only one roommate. We didn’t like the way the room was arranged and spent the rest of the evening getting that sorted. I went off to find the bathroom and instead wandered into the room of two people who had wintered over, staying to work the winter as well, and were departing on the next plane. They insisted I take some of their DIY decor, so now our room is adorned with rather cool moons and tin foil stars.

This morning started with breakfast at 0630 (yogurt and oatmeal… yes, there is yogurt. Whew.) followed with a briefing at 0730 and then, an hour later, a “dirt tour” in the darkness, where we walked around like sheep in our identical parkas and wind pants while another winter-over/tour guide volunteer pointed out different buildings. Then it was time to go to work, interrupted by mandatory stretching breaks. Yes, mandatory stretching breaks. Your body needs some extra lovin’ down here so, in addition to drinking ridiculous amounts of water and watching your heavy-duty moisturizer evaporate on your skin, you must stretch for 15 minutes during your work day.

Tonight, after dinner, we’re going to an outdoor safety lecture so we can get cleared to hike off base during our free time.

It’s been a crazy week or so, and yeah, my eyes feel like sandpaper and my fingertips are pruny already from the dry air, but it’s also been an amazing time. I expect to be busy with work and settling in the next few days so I’m not sure I’ll post again soon, but I will, eventually.

Right now I need to unpack my hand cream. And then I need to pee. Again. Hydration has its side effects.


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