Oh, Antarctica

There’s a lovely warm breeze rustling gently through the grass as the birds call to each other from tree to tree. Somewhere.

But not here.

I am still in Antarctica. And I will be. For some time. Because, as Boromir put it best:

Yes, despite a grim forecast and Con2* out at the airfield and road across the ice shelf to the airfield, those of us scheduled to leave on the first flight of WinFly** bag-dragged*** at 1100 hours yesterday.

[So much Ice lingo!

*Con2, or Condition Two, is the second most severe weather rating, generally requiring one or more of the following elements: wind of 48-55 knots sustained for one minute, visibility from 100 feet to a quarter-mile, and/or a wind chill of minus 75F to minus 100F.

**WinFly is short for “Winter Flights,” a week-long period at the end of August when we get our first scheduled flights since early March, bringing new personnel and new equipment (and freshies!) to prepare for the main summer season, which begins in October.

***bag drag is the joy of schlepping your checked baggage to the building where it is collected and “palletized” (yes, plopped onto wooden pallets) and then driven out to the airfield to be loaded onto the C17 when it arrives from Christchurch.]

Despite conditions continuing to degrade throughout the day, at 1530 local we dutifully assembled for transport and piled into a van that led a convoy of vehicles out to the airfield to meet the C17 that left Christchurch at noon, due into McMurdo at 1700 local.

To say it was somewhat of a harrowing trip is an understatement. In the pale gloom of end-of-winter Antarctic twilight, visibility was ridiculous. The road itself was a slick, slippery mess of drifted snow and ice, and the wind was smacking us all about. I shot this video about halfway through the 14 mile trip, which took well over an hour. You can see the route flags, marking the road, on the right side of the vehicle as we pass. Sorry it’s so shaky. I was doing my best to keep my camera steady but the van was fishtailing all over the place.

While the passenger vehicles pressed forward, the guy driving a truck full of our luggage, somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf behind us, missed a flag (easy to do in that weather) and ended up off the road somewhere, in soft snow, unable to find his way back.
He was told to sit tight.

Other vehicles broke down or simply wouldn’t start in the cold–while temperatures were in the minus 20s Fahrenheit, the wind chills were consistently in minus 60F territory.

Meanwhile, we kept hearing that the plane was still headed our way.

Hmmmmm.

You know, I’ve gone through survival training in a variety of settings: Snowcraft here in Antarctca and also during my time in the government. And one thing I took away from all that training was instructors saying again and again that real, preventable disasters very rarely happen. What we think of as “disasters” are almost always a series of bad decisions.

I couldn’t help but feel, as we slid and bumped over the road in near whiteout conditions, that I was in the middle of a series of bad decisions.

But the plane was still comin’.

By the time we got out to the airfield, it was dark. We regrouped and sat in the vehicles, listening to the radio. The plane was 100 miles out…and…and…and holding.

Caveat: I was not privy to the decision-making process on this, and I don’t pretend to know all the factors involved, but I do know the weather was awful all day, and forecast to remain awful, and that the whole point of the plane landing at night was so the pilots could maintain their night navigation certification, which requires them to land using night vision, not instruments, and it is impossible to land a plane using night vision when there is no visibility at all. I’m just saying. I’m no expert, but, well, there you have it.

Or, as one of the guys in the van with me said “this is like sitting through a divorce hearing thinking ‘well, maybe we can work things out.'”

So. We sat and waited and finally the call came. Someone, somewhere realized:

(Yes, I find this meme pretty hilarious.)

They called the boomerang (the C17 would not land and would instead return to Christchurch, meaning the hundred or so souls aboard would get to spend more than ten hours in an aircraft few would describe as “comfortable”).

Okay, well, fine. Now we can at least get back to McMurdo before the galley stops serving dinner at 1900 and…

Then the radio crackled with another call to all vehicles at the airfield. A Condition One was in effect.

Condition One is the most severe weather rating and involves one or more of the following: sustained winds greater than 55 knots, sustained wind chills of minus 100F or colder and visibility of less than 100 feet. I don’t think the wind chill ever dipped lower than minus 65F or so, but the winds were pretty nasty and visibility was, to use a technical term, ridonkulous.

The big thing about Condition One is that everyone basically goes into lockdown mode. All personnel must seek shelter if outdoors and stay put. We sat in our heated, idling vans as the cold wind found its way into the cabin. Every now and then, the guy stuck out somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf with our luggage would radio in and ask if there had been any developments, his voice sounding a little more anxious each time.

We waited. And waited.

Drivers met in the larger vehicle for a confab. Radio discussions were had. And then, well, we set out. Again, I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process, but someone decided that it was better to convoy it back to town as a group than have several dozen people stranded indefinitely out at the airfield. After all, there was not enough room in the handful of small heated shelters for everyone to spend the night (the vehicle batteries would only last so long) and there was nothing to eat but emergency frozen burritos.

As a sidenote, I would sooner wander off into the Con1 gloom on foot than eat a frozen burrito.

So we formed a big ol’ convoy and started the exciting drive back. The van I was in happened to be the lead vehicle, which would have been terrifying were we not in the hands of August, the guy who runs karaoke at the bar every month and is not easily flustered (trust me…if you heard some of the “singers” at karaoke, you’d understand).

We crawled at about 8-10mph for the first seven or so miles, listening to the radio chatter of vehicles behind us as people worked to stay together and follow the tail lights of the vehicle in front of them. We had nothing to follow but an angry white swirl. It was often impossible to see the next flag, some 50 yards ahead. Fortunately, the road is more or less straight at this point of the route, so August was able to keep us on it, but not without a great deal of concentration and a little bit of luck.

At mile marker eight or so, we saw the blinkers of the lost pickup flashing in the gloom a few hundred feet off the road. The driver had gotten completely turned around–easy to do in whiteout conditions on the featureless ice shelf–but was able to rejoin our convoy when he saw our headlights.

We bumped and slid back to town, pulling in just as dinner service was ending. I shot this video a few minutes into the Con1 drive…it looks like we’re speeding along but we were crawling. It was the wind that was zipping by us.

Lucky me, I got to wake up at 0330 this morning to go back to work (the galley is one of the few departments that requires weather-delayed personnel to get back on the job; most other folks get to put their feet up and watch the weather while they wait for the flight to be rescheduled).

Fortunately, they cancelled the flight today before it even took off. There’s another storm system moving in, much bigger and much badder. It should hit sometime this afternoon, and keep clobbering us for 48 hours or more. They’re now talking about getting the first flight out this weekend.

We’ll see. Quite frankly, I would rather they cancelled flights ahead of takeoff than put people through more boomerangs. And I have no burning need to drive back from the airfield in a Con1 again. And, while I do have to work, it’s more pay, I suppose. While it kind of stinks to be living out of my carryon bag (I’ve got one chef coat and one pair of kitchen pants, my netbook and a couple toiletries since our luggage is already packed up and ready to get on the plane), there are far worse things to endure.

And there is something wonderful, I must admit, about being in a place so remote and so harsh that nature still gets to have final say on whether you stay or go.

Because…

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