Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Christmas on Ice, Part 2 - Arrival

Finally, we came to a stop. We could unbuckle our seat belts, pile on our ECW gear and get off the place into the wide, white world beyond.

And man oh man was it white. Although the temperatures made all our survival gear a little overkill, the sunglasses were definitly necessary. Everyone had smiles the size of saucers and cameras were clicking everywhere.

We were guided off the runway by military personel towards our next transport, Ivan, the Terra Bus.

After a half hour of driving across ice and snow, we bumped up onto solid ground and drove into McMurdo where we switched from bus to truck and drove over to Scott Base. Driving into McMurdo reminded me so much of Inuvik. Gravel roads, dusty everything, and lots of metal, square buildings. The 2km drive from McMurdo to Scott Base goes up between two extinct volcano cones to emerge on the otherside of the Hut Point Peninsula. The kiwi base, in comparison to the American one, is tiny and green (not in reference to environmental awarness, just colour) and it reminds me more of a mining camp all self contained (hallways connect each building so there's no need to leave the comfort of the indoors). We were ushered from our vehicles, into a big green, steel building and up into a warm little room where we learned the basics of staying in Antarctica and on Scott Base.

After a delicious dinner, served in the cafeteria, we all took a walk down to the sea ice. Just a few hundred meters in front of Scott Base, where sea ice is pushed up by the tides, are a collection of pressure ridges scultped by the sea and the wind. It is a beautiful, ever changing gallery of crystalline forms and scattered in amongst the colunms are the most regular visitors, the Weddell seals.

We wandered back towards base where some of the students scrambled into costumes to join in the fun of the James Bond party being held that night at the base bar.

The next morning, before packing, we went up Crater Hill, the volcano behind Scott Base. It was pretty windy and not very sunny, but the temperatures hovered around -7 degrees centigrade and everyone enjoyed the views.

These are the first 3 wind turbines in Antarctica. They were just coming online while we were there. It is expected they will reduce the amount of desiel used by both Scott Base and McMurdo by ~11%. There are some people who question their usefulness here and don't like the aesthetic impact they have, but I wonder if we are to continue being down in Antarctica for scientific purposes because of it's "early warning" capabilities with regards to climate change shouldn't we at least be trying to reduce our footprint to be here?

One of the students enjoying the small comfort a wind block wihle at the top.

McMurdo from Crater Hill.

Walking along the edge of the crater. In the background and to the left, Mount Erebus hides behind some clouds.

Heading back to base, ready to start packing for our next big adventure. Camping on the ice shelf.

While everyone packed food and tents and cooking stuff, Crystal, Steve, Sean and I met up with Alex to get our licences for driving on the ice. We were taught how to drive Hagglunds, skidoos and trucks (Landcruisers to be precise - although the only difference I noticed was that the top speed was 20km/h). That night, our personal and group bags packed, we snuggled into bed for one last night in a warm room. The next morning we would be leaving nice and early to get out to camp and set up our tents and dig some pits. It would be a busy day.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Christmas on Ice, Part 1

It's been a little while since I last wrote. And so much has happened in between now and then. Christmas, New Years, Antarctica, visiting family, how ever does one fit it all in?! Well, I've done my best and now I'm trying to catch up. I'll start at the beginning, but it might take some time. I promise you won't miss a thing.

We were kitted out with the gear over a period of days before departure. I went in early on the Thursday morning and tried on boots, snow pants, jackets and tuques. Eventually, after all the right sizes were there, I motored back to school to finish up my work. Then it was home to pack. We were allowed 70kg in total, 20kg of which was the clothing and gear we'd just been given. I really struggled to acheive this goal, but I think I flagged around 40kg or so. There are just so many pairs of socks and underwear one can bring.

Friday whizzed by with more packing and last minute preparation. Early Saturday morning Stephen shoved me out of bed at 5am, into the shower and then into the car. He had thoughtfully made up some cinnamon buns the night before, so we munched them in the car as we drove through the rain out to the Antarctic Centre where I would be processed, scanned, briefed and put on a big, big plane.

At 6:30am, I along with my 18 other students and tutors, as well as a lot of American military personel, were bustled through the check and weigh-in and were ushered back out until boarding time at 9am (I guess it takes a long time to do this). We all kind of mingled around the cafe at the Antarctic Centre next door until we were called in for our briefing movie on the flight. Squished into a large curtained room, we watched as images of snow and ice and big, big planes flew by. A calm voice reassured us that our flight would go well, but in the unlikely event of something untoward happening our crew were all well trained to take care of it. It then went on to tell us how lucky we were to be travelling to this amazing place and that we should follow the rules and all would be well. As the lights came on and the images faded we piled out of the room wearing our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear (this is mandatory - the voice told us so) and through the sensors and scanners that made sure none of us was going to blow up the plane or knife someone else. Everyone gathered outside in the grey, dreary parking lot out back and the feeling of excitement grew.

Two yellow school buses pulled up (the first time I've seen them here as schools use city buses, not yellow school buses - I guess they're reserved for the American military) and we piled on. We were driven round the buildings, across the road and into the runway right up to the biggest plane I've ever seen, a C-17 Globemaster. With a light spattering of rain falling on the pavement, we hurried into the belly of the plane.

It was like being in a warehouse. Pipes, wires, crates and very basic seats lining the walls and up front. I fell into a side seat and unburdened myself of bag and coat. The noise was amazing so I quickly put in my little orange ear plugs and watched as everyone settled into their seats. Eventually, the noise got louder and we lurched into movement, without windows this was really all there was to tell us that we were going. As such, I couldn't quite tell you when we left the ground which made the whole experience an interesting one. The idea of travelling to this distant continent that I'd only ever dreamed of going to didn't seem any closer, it didn't feel any more real since I wasn't even sure it was happening. In geography, there's a term for that feeling of 'in betweeness', of having left but not yet arrived - liminality. The whole flight was just like this. We had spent so much time building up to the departure that getting onto a windowless, warehouse-like space was kind of confusing. You expected something more spectacular, more different. After an undefined and unknowable amount of time spent writing, dozing, reading and knitting our movement changed. We dipped forward and turned. We were finally arriving.