Postcards from the pole
Three hours into our five-hour flight between the south island of New Zealand and Antarctica, we started getting up one at a time, walking forward in the cavernous cargo hold of the Air Force jet, and peeking through the one, round window for any sign of the ice.
Faces framed in the tiny window, we first looked down on a sea of cloud.
Later we could see through the clouds a dark-blue ocean. Then the clouds disappeared and we could see icebergs but it was difficult to estimate their size from thousands of feet above. Then we saw nothing but flat ice with furrowed rims between vast plates.
Finally, someone saw the muscular, white mountains of Victoria Land, Antarctica and everyone got excited. We couldn’t talk well because of the roar of the jets but we signaled with our hands and took turns peering down through the round portal with binoculars.
For veterans this was just the start of another long season, but for us first-timers, this was it – the bottom of the Earth. We were finally nearing “The Ice.”
The plane landed on 20-foot-thick ice on the surface of McMurdo Sound. When the door opened we stared out into the glaring blue light, but were not allowed to walk out for several minutes. Now bundled in government-issue parkas with fur-lined hoods and gripping orange carry-on bags, we stood in line, eager to leave the plane and see the icy environment surrounding us.
Finally ducking through the aluminum door frame into the blue light I erupted with laughter. It was absolutely glorious. Imagine landing in the middle of a frozen San Francisco Bay, with thousand-foot mountains replacing the city. Wide grins played across our faces and white steam trailed from our mouths. The air was thin and amazingly cold – feeling sharp breathed. Orange vehicles with giant tires rolled around us, delivering fuel and hauling our bags. We were herded onto a massive red and white bus called Ivan the Terra Bus, which had tires 5-feet tall and 5-feet wide.
Not surprisingly, Antarctica is quite different from Nevada
Earlier griping about endless orientations and safety videos were replaced with bridled excitement as we sat down to a quick presentation by the McMurdo Station director Jim Scott. He explained some of the differences we would have to adapt to over the next four months.
Because all the moisture is locked in ice, Antarctica is drier than the Sahara. We would have to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
“A good rule of thumb is always drink more than you want,” Scott said.
We were sent to get our housing assignments then meet with Points of Contact from our work stations. I met Delma Irvin of the galley. He gave a quick tour of the dining facility then let me go get settled in. I was to report to work for a 6 a.m. shift the following morning.
That evening I ran into Myrna Moren, a girl who lived across the street when I was going to college in Bellingham, Wash., in 1998. We walked out to Robert Falcon Scott’s “Discovery Hut,” built in 1901-04 for his exploration of the continent. On an icy point with so much history, we talked about our own history: Afternoon barbecues of fresh seafood overlooking the San Juan Islands and shooting bottle rockets at each other’s houses.
Since that first night three weeks ago, I have worked six, 10-hour shifts a week in the dining facility. On our single day off we are almost – but not quite – too exhausted to do anything. Because I live in the same building where I work – building 155 – I am eager to get out and see the rest of the station.
One day I was asked to go “dive tending.” This is where you help scuba-diving scientists haul their tanks and put on their dry suits. In a tiny orange hut out on the sea ice, I watched two men drop into a hole in the floor and descend into a 17-foot hole bored through the ice. When bubbles rose back up, I figured they were coming back early. Instead, with a loud exhale a Weddell seal popped up in the hole, seemingly spooked by the divers. I grabbed my camera and talked to it as it caught its breath and looked at me with eyes the size of ping pong balls.
Work in the galley is fine. Ten-hour days go quickly when you are constantly running around to replace the cranberry juice or washing a barrage of plates, blue trays and coffee cups.
Other changes I have noticed include an accelerated growth of my finger and toe nails. An early roommate I had, Odell Glacier camp Supervisor Kevin Killeran, said this is because of the cold.
Other people feel pressure in their sinuses and get nose bleeds because of the cold and the dry air.
Another difference is the people. At dinner you might sit with a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist, a bulldozer driver, an Air Force jet pilot and plumber. Everybody has a story.
There is plenty to do here. There are league sports including bowling (on a warped two-lane alley built by the Navy) volleyball and dodgeball and there are yoga, gutz ‘n’ buttz and self-defense classes. Plumbing and welding classes are offered as well as science lectures at least once a week.
After three weeks I’m getting well acquainted with work and am excited about doing more extra-curricular activities like those listed above.
Because today is my day off, I went this morning to volunteer at the helicopter launch pad. There are four helicopters flying out of McMurdo – supplying remote research camps hundreds of miles away. I was put to work picking up supplies from around the station such as scuba tanks, ice axes, generators and crates of apple juice. These we sorted by their destination and whether or not they are “KF” (keep Frozen) “DNF” (Do Not Freeze) or “KC” (Keep Cool). It was nice to get out of building 155 for a while and out among the snowy peaks.
Karl Horeis is on a leave of absence from the Nevada Appeal to work at McMurdo Station, the largest research facility on the Antarctic continent. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.