Traveling to Antarctica is no joke even for veterans like Kelly, but especially for first timers like me. This isn’t your run of the mill intercontinental flight; a lot more gear is needed plus required training. There are also a lot of long flights involved. To get to the United States Antarctic Program facilities in Christchurch, New Zealand from the U.S. East Coast, it takes about three layovers, over 30 hours of flying, and some time travel (cross the international date line: lose a day. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200).
Upon arriving in Christchurch, our first stop is the U.S. Antarctic Program, run by the National Science Foundation. After some briefings on what we will need in Antarctica, what to expect, and what not to do (no touching penguins!), it’s on to the Clothing Distribution Center. It’s probably obvious to most, but Antarctica can get really cold! The U.S. Antarctic Program wants to make sure we stay warm on the ice so they provide us with Extreme Cold Weather gear including boots, snow pants, mittens, hat, neck warmer, goggles, and of course: “big red,” an aptly named parka.
Once we have all our gear and baggage together, it’s time to fly! No 737s here. The U.S. Antarctic Program transports cargo and personnel down to the ice on various military aircraft. We transited on a New Zealand C-130. Seats face the sides of the aircraft instead of forward, and consist of canvas benches with cargo strapping for backs. You get to know your neighbors really well on these flights. Straightening your knees beyond 90 degrees involves some coordination with at least one individual sitting across from you. Weather can change at a moment’s notice down in Antarctica and sometimes that means you need to turn around and head back to Christchurch four hours into a flight. These flights are known as “boomerangs” and are not the most fun.
After a scrubbed flight, and one boomerang, we made it to Antarctica. Stepping off the airplane onto the ice runway for the first time is a breath-taking experience. The McMurdo Ice Shelf stretches toward the Ross Ice Shelf to the south, while the Mt. Discovery and the Transantarctic Mountains line the western horizon. Cold, dry air fills your nose and lungs. Your eyes blink, trying in vain to bat away the overwhelming brilliance of sunlight reflecting off the snow. Snow crunches softly under foot. The wind races by and in the distance Mt. Erebus towers, watching all beneath its feet. We’ve arrived. Terra Australis Incognita: Antarctica.