Antarctica: NYC to Christchurch to “the Ice”

The following excerpt was written three weeks ago, just a week into my deployment in Antarctica. Unfortunately, I never got around to publishing it, so I began to edit it to make it apply to my experience a month into this journey, then it started to feel inauthentic so I was going to scrap the whole thing. But that seems wasteful, so here it is anyway, with the promise of more frequent updates on the horizon:

Me and Mount Erabus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, and the second largest on the continent. 

I’m writing to you today with news from the bottom of the world. Today marks one month since I departed New York City for Antarctica and I thought it was time for me to send home an update. Similar to many of the places I have visited in the past–Guyana, Alaska, Kenya–I am in a position where my internet connection is limited and my ability to use a phone regularly is also not existent.

McMurdo Station, the United States’ largest research base on this continent, is currently home to over 900 individuals, each wanting access to a limited amount of internet. And so, I have to carefully navigate the best times to use a computer, usually in the middle of the night when most folks are asleep. There are pros and cons to being (somewhat) off the grid, but being in touch by email certainly seems to be the best option at this point.

On October 27th, I flew from NYC to Dallas, and then boarded a 16 hour overnight flight to Sydney, where I arrived in the morning, bopped around for four hours, and then flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, which is the largest city on the south island of New Zealand. It is here that the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) is based. It was here where I stayed for two nights and geared up before my flight to “the ice.” Both of my nights in New Zealand were a whirlwind and at this point seem as if they never happened. That is, except for the people.

Early in the morning, I went to the front of the hotel and was loaded into the back of a shuttle along with a dozen other ASAP employees. We took about a thirty minute drive across town and soon found ourselves suiting up in our respecting dressing rooms, trying on everything from $1000 parkas and bunnie boots to work uniforms and goggles. It was probably a comical sight to be seen, but everyone was so focused on the task at hand, making sure everything fit, that no one seemed to care that we probably all looked like a circus routine as we hopped into our boots and attempted to slide out arms through the correct spaces in order to get our snow pants over our shoulders correctly.

At the end of the morning, all of my stuff fit and, although we were given a baggage allowance of 85 pounds, all of my stuff, including my issued gear, weighed in under 55 pounds. It makes me wonder what kind of stuff people could possibly be bringing down here with all of the weight I was able to avoid. When the clothing situation was over, we were all plopped down into a room and given a lecture and required to watch a video about what lay ahead of us. As you can imagine, safety is a big concern down here, so a lot of the focus of the morning was on how to remain alive while existing in the Antarctic. I, for one, appreciated being told how to stay safe. I’m not afraid to admit that.

In between gearing up and our orientation, we were all given flu shots and had our laptops screened by the IT department. You know you’re going somewhere important when an employee has to stick you with a needle while someone else makes sure your computer isn’t going to disrupt any of the government sponsored research going on down here.

Far and away, the best part of being in New Zealand was the people that I was with. Our whole morning prepping us for our “ice flight” was finished by 11am, so we had the day at our disposal while we waited for our flight in the morning. It was, at this time, where I really got to know the people I was sharing a hotel with. Unlike the other 20 non-military individuals on our flight down here, the 10 of us all work for the same small organization that is contracted through the government, operating on the ice with about 100 employees. We didn’t know it at the time, but the group of us was on one of the final “main flights” to the ice for the summer season. This basically means that all of the C-17’s (the really big planes) more or less fly supplies and people down in October and then cease to operate, allowing smaller planes to fly down from Christchurch throughout November and the remainder of the summer. Only two flights have arrived to the ice since ours.

Of the ten of us GSC employees, three were scientists that were heading to a field camp to do research for one month, two were working on engineering stuff–telephone wires, heavy equipment operating–stuff I don’t understand, one was an IT guy, and the other four of us were (and are) all stewards. This fun little fact, that we all had the same job title, gave us the chance to briefly bond on accident and, eventually, start getting to know one another. While the entire group spent a few hours together in New Zealand during our free time, it was these three, Freddie, Drew, and Dee Dee, that I really got to know.

By the time the phone rang the next morning to alert me that our flight had been delayed two hours, I already felt like I had known Freddie, Drew and Dee Dee for weeks. I’ve since continued to look back on the short amount of time that I’ve known them and still cannot believe that just a month ago I was unaware of their very existence. If you want to form a bond with a person quickly, go on an adventure with them. Land on a new continent together. Glance over at them as you glide through frigid air in the back of a military C-17 plane filled with cargo. Something about all of this bonds you with a person. It’s been a beautiful lesson in human behavior, for me at least.

We had been warned many times before our flight that there was not only a possibility of it being delayed, but we may very well be stuck in New Zealand for days, waiting to get out. The fact that we only had a two hour delay was rather remarkable, and it didn’t even have to do with weather, it was a mechanical issue with the plane. It’s difficult to describe what I was feeling as the shuttle pulled up and we all loaded up again to head to the airport. I can’t say I had been feeling much leading up to this trip at all. For months, I haven’t had any feelings overtly at the surface–this may be partially because it seemed too surreal, like it just didn’t compute. I never felt overly excited or nervous or worried or happy. I didn’t even feel numb, like I wasn’t processing where I was going or what was about to happen. I really just didn’t feel much of anything. I’ve since decided this must be because of the length of this trip. Four months is nothing. And I’m sort of…technically…still in America, I guess. I’m with Americans at an American research base. The culture shock isn’t something I had to prepare for.

When we arrived at the airport, we had another delay to sit through, so we were all held in a room together after going through the screening process to make sure we weren’t bringing any foreign pests down to Antarctica with us. I didn’t know at the time, but I should have been hoping for more time in New Zealand. When a flight is delayed, our company pays us for the time we’re stuck in the country, which means we’re being paid to vacation and hang out in your hotel room. Alas, much to my chagrin, our second delay was only for another hour or so.

We boarded the plane, strapped ourselves in, and for 6 hours, we sat along the sides of this enormous aircraft, staring at the cargo sitting in front of us, listening to the roar of the plane and wondering about what things would be like when we landed. There were two small windows on the plane, accessible only when walking to the toilet. Other than that, there was nothing to look at during the journey. I have a few photos of the lot of us all strapped in, but they aren’t anything to write home about.

To be completely honest, the last month has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride. I’ve experienced the complete spectrum of human emotions–everything from total elation to unexpected sadness. It’s been a trip.

For the most part though, most days and most hours, I’m in awe of where I am. Whenever I look at a window, I have to pinch myself. Am I really living in Antarctica? Doesn’t seem right. But…it feels SO right.

I’m living on a volcanic rock in the middle of the largest ice shelf in the world. The sun never sets. It doesn’t even think about setting. There are 900 people around me, bustling around this little base as if it were any city in the United States. There is a social scene here like no other in the world, with bulletin boards and word-of-mouth the best ways to let people know what is going on in the community. We have a library, a store, a coffeehouse, two bars, a barber shop, a firehouse, a clinic, three gyms, hiking trails, and more interesting people per square mile than anywhere I’ve ever been before. It took only the usual amount of time to slide into “normal” here socially, as people here seem to like knowing as many people as possible. After all, there are only a limited number of us for the season.

Stay tuned…

One thought on “Antarctica: NYC to Christchurch to “the Ice”

  1. From Bonaire. Sitting here in the tropics sweating while you are in the frozen south. One good thing – you don’t have mosquitoes. I wouldn’t trade them for the conditions you have to endure though. You are a brave fellow. You are getting an amazing list of experiences. I’m for too old to do more than read your stories and marvel.

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