Monday's flight down to "the ice" as everyone calls it was delayed for one of the odder reasons -- it was too warm to land in Antarctica. Let me explain, it is summer here, there are no traditional (paved, earthen, prepared surface) runways either. Mcmurdo station is on an Island (Ross Island) and it is surrounded by the Ross Sound which is frozen. The sea ice provides a runway for the early summer (Oct-Dec) and then it is deemed not safe after as the sea ice thins and weakens -- not suitable for 300,000 pound aircraft to pound into it. After December, the majority of flight ops happen from Pegasus Field. It is what's called "shelf ice" which is basically glacial ice flow from the continent into the sea (which is frozen).
So back to the story...When the temperature is around freezing, which it has been at the "high" for the day recently, a thin film of water puddles on the runway. This greatly reduces what the C-17 aircraft can haul down on each flight. So to mitigate this issue, my flight was delayed here by 12 hrs with a new planned takeoff of 11pm local which would get us here about 4:15am. So another day wandering about Christchrurch to wonder what awaits in Antarctica. We all showed up at our planned show time of 3 hrs prior, cleared customs and dressed up in our finest "extreme cold weather" gear which even in the evening's 60 degree air was "extremely hot" gear.
We received a few safety briefs and watched an arrival video which pretty much said "sit down and shut up" once aboard the cargo plane.
The flight was fairly uneventful. I grabbed a wall seat across from a pallet with a 20,000 snow cat on it.
I awoke to the "two hours out" call signifying we were continuing to the continent and to start strapping on your survival gear if you had stripped down on the plane. There are about 4-5 portals in the cargo area of the jet to look out and the seascape of white was everywhere. Broken sea ice gave way to solid sea ice, shelf ice leading to glaciers and mountain peaks coming out through the sea of white.
Once we taxied in, the unknown awaited. "Everybody up", as we waddled to the door with all of our gear. As we walked to the light of the door, the glare of the snow was already filling the cabin.
We hopped of the giant bus (which was named "Ivan the Terra-bus" by the way), and went into one of the central buildings, the "Chalet" as its known.
In a nutshell this is an extreme cold weather survival school. We are issued extreme cold weather gear and you never leave the confines of mcmurdo without your bag of gear. Anything into the field requires an additional bag issue, a survival kit. This course is to get me familiar with the gear and give the confidence to use it and give me the best chances for survival when it gets "really bad" here. Weather here right now is not too bad, temps in the hi 20's. The locals are shocked. Those that have been here many seasons say it has never been like this before. Regardless, the weather can change in an instance to 150 mph winds, zero visibility and -40 F in minutes, and is not uncommon. We spent a bit of classroom time first and headed out to the field in a track vehicle which dumped us off about 20 minutes away in an shelf ice field. We learned how to use the different tent types but spent a good portion of the afternoon creating wind walls and digging trenches, sometimes called "coffins" for survival situations.
I woke up this morning at 5:30am and threw my gear back on. We made some more water, boiled it after an hour made some coffee and proceeded to break down the camp.
Wow. What a class. What an experience to kick things off. Finally showered after a few days. Getting my thoughts together, looking over pictures and realizing what a great job this is going to be. Everyone I have met here is incredibly friendly and sharp. People have great attitudes about life, nature, science, etc. I am hoping these next few weeks of learning prove to be similarly enjoying. Hopefully I can write down stuff in shorter bursts but this was such an experience I wanted to share it all. Next up how to traverse sea ice class and Snow School /Mountaineering (part 2)! Talk to you all soon! Cheers from 80 degrees south!