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Notes from the Field

More on the flight to Antarctica

November 30th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Randy Skinner

Our shuttles to the airport were waiting for us at 4:30AM on Monday, 21 November, as we were scheduled to report at the Clothing Distribution Center at 5:00AM. As we arrived we were instructed to change into our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothes. So we found ourselves hanging out in Christchurch at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, dressed in clothing designed for -20 degrees. It was a bit toasty.

After a short flight briefing and safety meeting we loaded onto busses for the ride to the aircraft. Our flight was on a USAF C-17 transport. It’s a big plane. The center of the fuselage was filled with pallets of gear and supplies for the base. There were 30 seats on each side of the fuselage for passengers, and seats for 25 more in the center at the front. With the plane filled with 80 passengers, including the King of Malaysia, we taxied out and took off into cloudy skies. It was 8:15AM.

Onboard, most people slept due to the early departure time, others searched though the sack lunches we were provided with for the 5-hour flight. As there is always a possibility the plane will “boomerang” (have to return to Christchurch without landing), the lunch is big enough to serve as two meals. It was a lot of food!

As we moved further south the temperature in the plane dropped lower and lower, until people were quite happy to have all of that ECW clothing on. Just before noon, out of the small porthole style windows on the plane (there are 6 windows on the whole plane), the edge of the sea ice, and the continent of Antarctica came into view. The feeling on the plane was electric. Not many people ever have the opportunity to visit this remote land.

We landed on a runway melted into the sea ice at 12:47PM. After thousands of miles, and days of travel and preparation, we were on the frozen continent.

The Trip South

November 27th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig and Jessica Williams

Hi, this is Lora. Sorry for not blogging for the past week or so but wow, we have been busy! On 17 November, I left my home in Silver Spring, MD, and spent 32 hours in transit before arriving in Christchurch, New Zealand. I flew from Regan National Airport to Chicago, and then took a flight to Los Angeles. In L.A. I joined the entire team (Clem, Ludo, Michelle, Jessica and Randy) for the long flight to Auckland, New Zealand. In Auckland we cleared customs and hopped on another plane to Christchurch, New Zealand. All United States Antarctic Program (USAP) participants use a special bag tag for our luggage with a penguin. The bag tags are different colors depending on the year, but the penguin is always the same. If you ever see a bag with a penguin tag at an airport, it means its owner is about to start his or her trip to Antarctica.

We all arrived Christchurch in the afternoon on Nov 19th. We were tired but needed to stay up and adjust to the time frame, so we went for a walk. Christchurch suffered a large earthquake last year and much of the city is still inaccessible. For those of us that have been there before, it was very sad to see the devastation but it was also hopeful to observe new businesses sprouting up in containers around the city. Yes, I said containers: in Christchurch, they have modified shipping containers to make nice, modern looking storefronts and coffees shops.

Our time in Christchurch was short. On Sunday, 20 November, we picked up all of our cold weather gear. I will let Jessica tell you more about that.

Jessica here. As Lora was explaining, on Sunday we went to the Antarctica Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) to pick up all of our extreme cold weather gear (we call it ECW gear for short). When we arrived, the CDC people did a brief orientation for the new participants, describing the gear we would be using and how to choose the proper clothing sizes.

Afterward, we separated into the respective changing rooms (male or female), where the CDC staff had already set aside the basic ECW gear for everyone based on the height, weight, and other sizing information we gave them in applying for the program. It was pretty crazy trying on all of the clothes and making sure all of the layers fit and then changing the items that didn’t. Everybody wanted to do this properly so when we were out in the field our clothes would fit, but at the same time we were all trying to get through it quickly so we could go back in town and do other things. As it is my first time deploying to Antarctica, I was extremely grateful that the other two female members of our team (Michelle and Lora) had already been there. They knew what types of clothing were better, what layers they used and which ones they didn’t, what extra gear we should request since we are going to the deep field, and what gear we should have brought with us to supplement the CDC gear.

I got the bunny boots because they ran out of larger boot sizes in the blue FDX boots. I think everybody else got the FDX boots.

The bunny boots are extremely warm but they don’t have the best traction; however, using yaktrax, the bunny boots will work great. Additionally, we got these extra snowmits that aren’t issued for everyone but are very useful when traveling on the snowmobiles. The rest of the gear was just your typical winter clothing — lots of synthetic layers. A couple pairs of long thermals (lightweight and polar weight), some fleece layers, plenty of glove liners and gloves, hats and balaclavas, wind pants, wind jacket, and lastly, the infamous big red parka. The big reds are HUGE, they have at least 14 pockets (I am still finding new ones) and are rather bulky, but they are extremely warm (definitely a necessity in Antarctica). Overall, I think we all got the gear we wanted in the sizes we needed, so we should all be nice and toasty on our traverse across Antarctica.

This is Lora again. At 4:30 AM on Monday, 21 November, we left our hotel for our flight to Antarctica. We got to the USAP passenger terminal and had our morning briefing, where we were told that there would be some VIPs on our plane: the king of Malaysia and his entourage were traveling with us to Antarctica. It is not that uncommon to meet VIPs on ice sheets: rising sea levels already are and are becoming real problems for many nations, and many of them are considering mitigation efforts. Government officials often visit the ice sheets to see the effects of climate change first hand. Having the king on board sure made for an exciting flight, although we were requested not to take pictures when the king was around.

We all boarded a C-17 plane and took off around 8:00 am. We landed in Antarctica about 1:00 pm to a rather foggy but warm day. I will let the rest of the team tell you more about our time in McMurdo and what it feels like to be in Antarctica in our next post.