How I Spent What I Thought Would Be My Last Day On Earth, and Other Stories

I’m back at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.

For a long time, due to my ridiculously severe anemia, it was a big question whether I’d get cleared to come back. But here I am, settling in after an odyssey that was both emotional and logistical.

Ready to return to cooking breakfast at McMordor. Attitude is everything.

I learned on February 7 that Medical approved me, finally, to return. After a week crammed with packing, errand-running, saying good-bye to friends and tying up assorted loose ends, on February 14 I boarded a plane. Happy Valentine’s Day to me.

My first stop was for two days of orientation in Denver, followed by flights to Los Angeles and then Auckland. Hey, how about another flight to Christchurch. Oh, okay.

We were initially scheduled to be in Christchurch for about 36 hours–just about long enough to try on our ECW (extreme cold weather gear) and, in my case, enjoy a flat white and stop by Lush for some much needed pretty, smelly things.

Packed and ready for the 0500 shuttle to the airport, I was doing some sketching when I heard the phones in hotel rooms around mine start ringing, one after another. I’m at the tail end of the alphabet, so I waited, knowing they’d work their way down the list of the dozen or so of us scheduled to fly down that morning.

Sure enough, my phone rang. Weather delay of 24 hours. Maybe. Assume there will indeed be a 24 hour delay if you don’t get another call in an hour.

Oh, okay.

The hour came and went. No calls. Eventually I walked up to McCafe, the Starbucksian offshoot of McDonald’s, for a flat white and free WiFi. I met up with a couple other guys headed to the Ice and we chatted for a couple hours until I headed back to the hotel, thinking I might rent a car and drive to Hanmer Springs for a soak in their thermal springs and whoosh down the waterslide.

As I passed reception, I asked whether there were any additional messages regarding the time we were supposed to take the shuttle to the airport–not to fly out, but to pick up our travel funds to cover expenses for the day’s delay.

The receptionist looked slightly panicked. She had been trying to reach everyone in our group for hours and I was one of three she had not been able to locate (the other two, of course, were still sipping their coffees at McCafe). There was no weather delay. We were still flying, and were expected to be ready to go, bags and all, at 1030.

Oh. Okay.

I scrambled to get my bags back in order. Fortunately the other two guys wandered back in time to get the word and be ready for the shuttle. We piled our stuff into its luggage trailer and then crowded into the van, speeding to the airport…

…Only to be told “oh, there is a 24 hour delay after all, due to high winds. Here’s some money, be ready for the 0500 shuttle tomorrow.”

Oh. Okay. Alrighty then.

Actually, while it all sounds a bit frustrating (and it was, on some levels), it was also the supremely Antarctic experience. That’s one of the things I love about this continent. Our species still has not conquered it. We puny humans are dependent on technology to survive here at all, and are still forced to bow to greater powers, such as sustained 50 knot winds.

Plus, it was a beautiful day in Christchurch, the last day for some time that I was likely to feel warm walking around in thin pants and a cotton shirt. Instead of a road trip to Hanmer Springs, I took the bus out to Sumner, one of the city’s beachside suburbs. It was just two days until the anniversary of the 2011 earthquake that devastated great swathes of Christchurch. Sumner was one of the worst-hit areas. And, while I feel for the people who lost their lives, loved ones or property in “the big shake,” as the Kiwis call it, I have to say, uhm, well… duh.

Homes turned cliffhangers at Sumner. Note debris from destroyed homes spread down the cliff face and held back by double-stacked shipping containers that line the road below.

When I headed out to Sumner in January 2011 on R&R from the Ice, I looked at all the homes perched on the edges of crumbling cliffs and thought wow, this would be a crappy place to be if an earthquake hit.

The bus route skirted the bottom of the cliffs for much of the way, the road narrowed by double-stacked shipping containers that I suppose were arranged to create a barrier protecting traffic from aftershock-triggered landslides. But I kept wondering just what would protect our bus from the top layer of shipping containers tumbling over and crushing us should the earth move.

Above, on the cliff edge, you could see exposed foundations and, in some places, half-destroyed rooms of houses torn in two by the quake.

Sumner beach rock tower, January 15, 2011

On the beach proper, a tall seastack that I’d photographed on R&R had toppled, and the small network of sea caves popular for exploring was fenced-off. Sad, but, quite frankly, inconsequential to my mission. I was there to feel the sand and surf on my toes, the brine in my hair and the sun on my face. And, also, to pet dogs.

Same rocks, post-quake

The first time I went to the Ice, one of my clearest memories of the day of our flight was of one of the local Kiwis who worked for the US Antarctic Program bringing her dog, a nervous Papillon, to the departures lounge. She brought the dog for as many of the flights as she could, and invited people to pet it, to give us one final animal interaction, before we left for Ice Planet Hoth/McMordor.

If nothing else, having the Papillon there distracted us all from bugging the New Zealand military policeman with requests to pet his drug-sniffing dog, who was working and not to be disturbed.

It sounds like a small thing, and probably even the thought of it would never occur to people who haven’t been in extreme situations–the Ice and prisons are the only two that come to mind, and more and more of the latter are getting inmates involved in dog training. But after months of snow and rock and expansive sky and ceaseless wind, after seeing the same faces (and often hearing the same stories) day in and day out, something as simple as the thought of scratching a dog behind the ears can fill one with yearning.

Surf. Sand. Sun. Dog. The ideal last day in civilization.

So I trawled the beach, ignoring a studly band of surf kayakers and a small girl who became obsessed with following in my footsteps (literally… she trailed behind me by five paces, jumping from imprint of my bare foot to the next while her bemused Dad looked on). I was on the hunt for dog. I met a few, my favorite being Sam the Golden Lab who was camera-shy but not at all hesitant about getting his broad skull massaged.

One of dozens of rather pretty jellyfish washed ashore at Sumner

After inspecting the curious iridescent blue jellyfish washed ashore and letting my feet sink to the ankle in the soft gray sand, I headed back to my hotel, ready to leave Earth and its dogs behind for Hoth.

Self-portrait, Sumner Beach, February 20, 2012

The next morning, another phone call. Our shuttle was pushed back to 0830. We arrived at the US Antarctic Program building, across the street from the Christchurch airport, expecting to be told of another 24 hour delay–friends already on the Ice had advised us via email that the winds continued unabated. But no, we were going to fly, and not in the lumbering beast that is the C17, flown by the United States Air National Guard, but rather a swanky 757 that belonged to the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Our southbound sweet ride

The Kiwi crew of the 757 were great fun, keeping us well-fed and hydrated, and the absurdity of seeing women in flightsuits pushing a beverage cart up and down the aisle made for better in-flight entertainment than the old movies they screened for us (“Jerry Maguire”… no thank you. It was an annoying movie when it came out, and that was before Tom Cruise got all weird). About three hours into the five-hour flight, as we soared over an indigo sea dotted with icebergs, the captain made an announcement.

Our flight attendant

 

Maybe it was jet lag, but I found this hilarious... a cold lunch! On a flight to Antarctica! HAHAHAHAHAHA- Okay. It was the jet lag.

He had warned us it might happen. And it did.

We had reached the PSR… the Point of Safe Return. A spot on the route where he had to make a decision either to commit fully to land at McMurdo regardless of weather conditions or to return to Christchurch. Because a plane that runs out of fuel over the great Southern Ocean is really not somewhere you want to be. Unlike C17s, 757s don’t have the fuel capacity to, say, fly to McMurdo and then circle for a while waiting for the wind to die down. And the winds since takeoff had picked up, blowing snow across the runway.

Here, at the PSR, we turned back.

This is what the Point of Safe Return looks like from the window of a 757. Not to be confused with the Point of No Return, which is probably much more exciting.

In McMurdo parlance, it’s the dreaded boomerang and yeah, it happens. Three hours later, we landed in Christchurch in early evening and were shuttled to a hotel nearer the airport, paired up to share rooms and await a shuttle at 0700 to try again.

Last chance for grass. Fellow Winter-overs Travis, Kyle and Brett enjoying our last few moments of vegetation.

And we did. This time, they weren’t messing about with a posh but limited 757. We were back on a C17, a couple dozen of us crowded into jump seats while the bulk of the plane’s cargo space was full of refrigerated containers loaded with fresh fruit and veg, and pallets of Coke and Mountain Dew to sustain us through the long, dark winter. How times have changed since the days of Scott and Amundsen.

Our cramped quarters on the C17 (we're seated in jump seats that run along the side of the hold). No beverage cart on this flight. On the plus side, there was also no Tom Cruise movie.

Usually, we check in for the flight, put on our gear and then loiter about for an hour or so until a safety briefing before finally boarding the plane. This time, however, it was go-time from the get-go. We barely drank our coffee before we were hustled aboard, the departure time pushed up in hopes of avoiding winds expected to slam into Ross Island in the afternoon.

As C17 flights to Antarctica go, it was uneventful, and significantly less entertaining than the 757 full of laughing Kiwis trying to fatten us up with orange mango juice and candy.

Windows on a C17 are few and far between. I got this view of an unusually shaped iceberg peeking through the window in the door about halfway through the flight.

Then, about four hours into the flight, I felt it. The air started to cool, subtly, like a whisper of fog sliding over a mountain pass. They start lowering the temperature in the plane in that final hour of flight, but it wasn’t just climate control. I felt we were slipping the surly bonds of Earth.

They made the announcement that we were beginning our final descent. My ears popped. My nose got cold. Then bump-bump-bump-bump, we hit the hard ice of the runway and taxied for what felt like an hour.

The door ahead opened, and the shockingly bright sunlight of an Antarctic summer day bore into the cabin like a laser.

And then I smelled it.

I have always loved the smell of skating rinks. Usually when I tell people this, I get a quizzical look, followed by the comment “Skating rinks don’t have a smell.” After living in Antarctia, I realize it’s not the smell of the skating rink, it’s the smell of ice. Okay, maybe you think ice doesn’t have a smell, either, but stand, if you can, in a C17 that has just opened up on the Ross Ice Shelf and, before you can even see out the door, tell me you don’t smell the cold, clean, pure expansiveness.

Pegasus Airfield on the Ross Ice Shelf, Mt. Erebus on the horizon

I filed down the stairs with the other passengers, making for the treaded Delta that would take us from the ice runway at Pegasus Field to McMurdo proper. To one side of me, the extinct volcano of Mt. Discovery on the Antarctic mainland. To the other side of me, the active volcano of Mt. Erebus, a steaming hulk looming above the little cove where a few hundred puny humans dwell. In between, the less dramatic, snowclad slopes of the dormant volcano Mt. Terror, without question the best name ever for a volcano that was not in a story by Tolkien.

Our C17, with Mt. Discovery in the background.

And all around, the cold clear air of Antarctica, the air that makes me feel like my lungs are suddenly twice as large, as if arriving on an alien planet with a different gravitational pull.

Within the hour, I’d be at McMurdo, getting my temporary housing assignment, hugging friends I haven’t seen since October, hauling my luggage to my room on the third floor of a dorm new to me, rushing around the station to retrieve a couple boxes I left behind and several more from a friend who stayed the summer and babysat my humidifier and plug-in kettle, two necessities here on Hoth. Over the next few days, there would be full ten-hour shifts at work, light vehicle training, paperwork, a deeply unfortunate charleyhorse that woke me in the middle of the night in enough pain to scream an expletive, which is kind of awkward because I live next door to my uber-boss…

All those things were on the near horizon, to be sure, but in that moment as I stepped off the plane and said hello to my old friends Erebus, Discovery and Terror, my beloved Terror, my only thought was: I’m home.

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6 thoughts on “How I Spent What I Thought Would Be My Last Day On Earth, and Other Stories

  1. So happy you made it safe and sound after wiggling your toes in the surf and despite the PSR experience! It’s great to have the blog up and running again. I look forward to all you’ll be writing in the next few months. Pump that iron and be safe and healthy and enjoying the experience – again!

  2. Am reading this from God’s country – Mom and Dad send their best. Does Patricia know that you secretly want to compete with her to be a professional zambone driver? Welcome home!

  3. Pingback: Packing bags to the airport: What should I leave at home

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