Sunday, November 9, 2014

Getting to Antarctica!

Getting to McMurdo

I finally arrived at McMurdo station close to a month after Jamie left Massachusetts.  From leaving Boston to arriving on station was a full 12 days.   Let me tell you about the journey.

Step one on getting the Ice:  
Get to Christchurch, New Zealand.  The program covers transportation to and from Antarctica so your role in the whole thing is pretty simple. Get to the airport, don’t miss your plane and don’t do anything that would attract the attention of Airport security. (yes, those things have happened).   I managed to successfully get myself to Christchurch and thoroughly enjoyed myself along the way.  I slept about 9 hours on the flight to Sydney and then watched Game of Thrones, some David Attenborough and a movie called Frank.  The food was good, my chair mates were relatively friendly and I avoided all alcohol (copious and free) so that I wouldn’t have to climb out of my window seat to go to the bathroom. 

Step Two on getting to the Ice:
Extreme Cold Weather gear and orientation.   Upon arriving in Christchurch you are met by a charming Kiwi (AKA New Zealander) who welcomes you to NZ, gets you off to your hotel and tells you what time to be back the next day for your clothing issue.  With that, you are trundled off through the springtime air to whatever hotel has been booked for you for a night of rest and relaxation before you head back out to get your clothing and prepare for your journey to Antarctica.   
The next day, upon arrival at the Clothing Distribution Center (the CDC), you are reminded to sign the NSF code of conduct, the rules of internet use and regulation and to give proof that you have taken the online “test” about appropriate use of the network while in Antarctica.  Next you bring your computer to be scanned and checked to make sure it is up to speed and finally you head into the changing rooms to try on your new wardrobe.  Upon arrival in the dressing room you’ll find two orange bags with your name attached. Inside there is all of your Extreme Cold Weather Gear (ECW).  You MUST take the big red, the bibs, and the shoes.  People who have been to the ice for years will often switch out gear or give gear back because they have brought their own, but they caution you to bring everything if this is your first season on the ice of if you are working in a new job.  It’s hard to know what you will need and it’s better to have more and stay warm.  Aside from the Big Red, overalls and shoes you will also get: 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of lightweight long underwear-tops and bottoms, 1 pair fleece long underwear-tops and bottoms, a neck gaiter, a balaclava (a head/neck covering), a beanie, a hat with ears, goggles, and two pairs of gloves.  That’s the basics. Everyone gets that. Some people get a little more. This year I also got a Carhartt jacket and a pair of mittens.  My bags were FULL UP.   After trying everything on, exchanging sizes, looking in the mirror and wondering how you can possibly walk in the shoes you package everything back up in to the orange bags and put it in a corner in the changing room and head out to get trained up a bit more. 
Next you watch about 45 minutes of videos about Antarctica,  Safety is the main topic.  Safety on the continent, safety at altitude (e.g., at Pole) and respecting the environment.  If this is your first season, these videos are pretty awesome as you are seeing the place where you will be, hopefully, the next day.   As this was my second season, I still pretty much enjoyed it but I was a bit bored.  I can imagine as you go year after year, it can get a bit tiring to watch these videos over and over.  Regardless, after a mere 45 minutes, they are over.  
If you arrive early in the Season, AKA the first flights when station population is rapidly increasing, your company HR (PAE, ASC, GHG etc) will probably be in Christchurch to orient you.   After your videos, you’ll go and meet with them, do paperwork and have some trainings.  This is what Jamie did.  I arrived about 3 weeks later when the number of people traveling through Christchurch had diminished so we only had the video training and after picking our computers up, we were free to head back into the city to enjoy the day and await our IceFlight. 

Layton, our welcoming committee, he met after we cleared immigration. 

The clothing distribution center where we went for clothes and orientation. 

Part of our orientation. On they back wall you can also see the clothes we are about to be given. 

My two bags full of ECW gear. 

Suited up for the first time! 

Jamie, exchanging his jacket for a different size. 

Step Three on Getting to the Ice. 

Get to the ice. This is not often as easy as you would think.  The plan is for you to arrive in Christchurch, get ECW and have orientation the next day and fly to Antarctica the day after that.  So for me. I arrived on Saturday, got dressed and tressed on Sunday and was packed up and ready to go for my 5:30am hotel pick-up on Monday for my IceFlight.   That rarely happens.  I met ONE person this season that kept that schedule.   What happens more often is: you are up getting ready for your shuttle and you get a phone call at 4:38 saying that your plane has been delayed.   For both Jamie and I, we got a 24 hour delay so we were able to go back to sleep.   Sometimes it’s just a 3 hour delay or some such thing.   Regardless,  that’s typical.  You probably won’t fly on your scheduled Ice Flight.   After one 24 hour delay, Jamie flew to Antarctica.    I also got a 4:48am call telling me that I had a 24 hour delay on that Monday of my Scheduled ice flight.   I then proceeded to get that call at 4:48 (sometimes 4:35) on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of that week.    When we finally flew on Monday,  I was skeptical until we touched down at McMurdo.   However, assuming you are ready to fly, we arrive back at the CDC and suit up in our Extreme Cold Weather Gear.   We then get in line to check our baggage and weigh everything. On our way in we fill out a departure card and the NZ Military checks our forms and passports before we go to “check-in”.   Outside of our carry on and body weight we were allowed to bring 100lbs on the flight. (This can change so it was one of the first questions we asked/were told at our orientation.)  After weighing our gear we hop up on the scale with all our ECW and our 15lb carry on.  Some people weigh A LOT as they will stuff their pockets with fresh veggies or alcohol in an effort to keep their luggage limit acceptable. It can be pretty funny to watch this in the morning.    If everything is within limits, you get your boarding pass (a laminated number on a chain to wear on your neck) and you are free to wander for a bit before reporting to the passenger terminal.   The cafe across the plaza will open for breakfast so we often go there.  At the appointed time we head back to the Passenger terminal where we watch a series of videos about the how unique antarctica is-both ecologically and politically.  We are reminded to be safe and take care of ourselves and after the videos we wait to hear the weather report.  If the weather is good, we leave from there to take busses (after a security scan of course) to the planes that will take us down - both Jamie and I flew in a GlobeMaster C-17.   After our 3 minute ride to the plane, we hop off the bus, pick up a bag lunch and ear plugs and get on our sweet ride to Pegasus Airflied, McMurdo Station, Antarctica, where we finally put our feet on layers of ancient glacial ice to begin our season in the sun. 

 Waiting in line to check our luggage.  

Lisa (one of the cooks) and I, getting on the bus.

Getting our lunch before you load up! 

The view from my seat.  The stairs you see straight ahead go up into the cockpit.  Yes, we can go up there, but I asked to late in the flight so I didn't make it up.   It was a cloudy ride anyway. Not much to see. 

Toward the back of the plane.  You can see all the cargo back there. 
I made it!