Letters From Antarctica

Today is "bag drag" day for the South Pole. That means I need to show up with all six of my huge bags in building number 140 here at McMurdo Base on the edge of Antarctica. My bags will be loaded onto a C-130 cargo plane, which is also our people transport to the Pole.

We are hopefully flying out early tomorrow morning, coincidentally on my 41st birthday. This will be easier than the bag drag in Christchurch, New Zealand, because after landing in McMurdo two days ago, I never retrieved my bags from building 140.

Exhausted upon my arrival, I took an unscheduled "nap" for over 16 hours in my dorm room, dressed in all my Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear except for my outer down jacket. I managed to kick off my incredibly bulky, polar "bunny" boots at some point in the middle of the night. I'm not sure exactly when, since nighttime here is as bright as day. I am a "winter over" at the South Pole, and am therefore allowed the maximum weight of baggage. (140 pounds)

Just getting to New Zealand was an adventure. I left my home base of Harrisburg, Pa., on Sunday, Oct. 17. I connected in Chicago, then stayed in Denver one night for some last-minute orientation from Antarctic Support Associates (ASA). Monday night, I flew from Denver, connected in Los Angles, then flew the longest leg, about 12 hours, to Auckland, New Zealand. I crossed the International Date Line, which meant I left the United States Tuesday evening, but arrived in New Zealand Thursday morning. Thank you, United Airlines, for the complementary upgrade. I made it through customs without a hitch (very cute, contraband-sniffing beagles) and hopped a quick domestic Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch.

Every field has its acronyms, and working under the National Science Foundation's (NSF) United States Antarctic Program (USAP) is no exception.

Being in the medical profession, CDC has always meant the Center for Disease Control to me, but after having experienced USAP's Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, New Zealand, I think my brain will now make a new first association. I was barely able to carry around my own luggage (two duffels and an overhead carry-on) even before picking up the three more huge bags of Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear issued to me at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch.

The CDC is a large warehouse full of polar clothing for the thousands of people who pass through New Zealand on their way to Antarctica. I was struck by the incredible combination of high-tech materials and polymers side by side with the more traditional insulating materials. These were the best materials from science and nature - polar fleece and goose down jackets; Thinsulate lining and felt insoles; Goretex and leather; polypropylene and rubber.

After being issued my three large bags of ECW clothing and trying everything on (the zipper on my brand new, outermost layer, warmest jacket did not work and had to be traded for a used jacket with functiona zipper) I was able to enjoy my new environment for a day. I dug out the one pair of shorts I brought from the bottom of my largest olive-drab military-styled duffel bag. The weather was great. Christchurch was beautiful, clean, lush and green. I definitely would like to spend some time touring that country on my return journey.

Flying from Christchurch to McMurdo took about six hours on a C-141 cargo jet. No windows, crammed like sardines, wearing our ECW gear and earplugs made for a disorienting ride. My heavy, goose down jacket and the wedge effect of my colleagues on both sides kept me propped in a surprisingly comfortable position, as though I were wrapped in ultra-soft packing material for fragile shipping. Even my head was supported by the bulk of cushy ECW clothing scrunched all around me, and I was able to get some sleep.

The landing was very smooth on the sea-ice runway. Stepping out of the dark interior of the plane onto the whitest, brightest, clearest vista I have ever seen was a shock to my senses. The 20 degrees below zero Centigrade weather also helped to take my breath away.

McMurdo is the largest base in Antarctica. "Mac Town," is a small town really, with a couple of thousand people in the summer, and is perched on the edge of this continent, where the permanent ice shelf meets the more transient sea ice pack. As the summer progresses, and the ice pack melts, the engineers and heavy equipment operators will have to move the air runway twice.

For most people in the United States Antarctic Program, McMurdo is their final destination. Far less, only about 10 percent, ever go on to visit the South Pole. I am surprised at the mystique the Pole still holds, even for the residents of Mac Town. At the final cut, there are the roughly 50 of us who will "winter over" at the Pole. This is the elite, or craziest bunch of people in Antarctica, depending on the spin you want to put on it.

Amazingly, I am able to plug my computer into the phone line in my dormitory-style room for Internet and personal e-mail access. I do not think this luxury will continue at the South Pole, which is still over 800 away. I am "finjee" which is the phonetic pronunciation for FNG, which stands for "f---ing new guy." Finjee's are considered ripe for having jokes played upon them, and are considered more dangerous to themselves and others because of their inexperience with the environment. My roommate, Kurt, is a heavy equipment operator and a veteran of six seasons on Antarctica. Most of the people I meet here are veterans, their status measured by the amount of "ice time" they have accrued over the years.

I have felt only a slight danger at any point in my trip so far. While walking around Mac Town, there is a fair amount of vehicular traffic, including heavy equipment. Dressed in my polar jacket and hood, I feel as though I am peering through a small, furry porthole with a very limited field of vision. My hearing is muffled, too. Wheever I am walking outside, I have already developed a habit of making clumsy pirouettes at regular intervals, to make a quick 360 degree scan of my surroundings and make sure I am not in the path of some heavy, mobile, metal object. At least it's light 24 hours a day.

Our luck may be starting out good, because Oct. 25 was chosen as the "official" opening day of the Pole summer season months ago, and everything is still on schedule. Usually, there are weather delays that can last days or even weeks. I have long held a personal philosophy to try and avoid expectations whenever possible. That way, the good things are still good, and the disappointments are minimized. The obvious features of the Pole - cold, dark, and remote - are assumed by anyone willing to come down to the bottom of the world. I don't think I can have any sort of realistic concept of what life is like at the Pole until after I arrive and live there for awhile. I am just getting started on an adventure that should last for over a year.
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