Friday. October 23. 4am.
After two relaxing days in Christchurch, New Zealand enjoying the last green life I’ll see in months, I arrive at the International Antarctic Center to get suited up and strapped to a plane. The day before we had a sizing session to get suited up for all our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, and at this ungodly hour of the morning we get dressed and wait in line to get our baggage weighed. We’re allowed 150 pounds worth of junk, and I clock in just under 70 pounds. Amazingly, despite this being a military flight, the same airline restrictions apply – metal detectors, x-raying carry-on bags, etc.
We’re loaded on to a massive C-17 Air Force jet, and given the inflight safety briefing by the crew. During the speech they bring to our attention the explosive units strapped to the ceiling – used for if the aircraft is buried and we have to escape through the top. The inside of the jet is rather cool: all the parts are exposed and you can get an idea of how the whole thing functions by looking at the hydraulics and wiring. Seats in the up-right position, we’re buckled in and the C-17 takes off.
It’s a 5.5 hour flight down to McMurdo Base on Ross Island, Antarctica. There’s an “in-flight map” that consists of a laminated map with a paper airplane taped to it that the crew move every time we pass another degree of latitude. The airforce crew are cruisy enough to let us come up and bother them in the cockpit for a while. An odd glitch occurs when they fly that far south – the navigation equipment actually shows that they’re flying north.
Two small portholes on the side of the plane give us the first view of the continent. Jagged mountain ranges, breaking ice-flows, and snow. Endless, endless snow.
After 5.5 hours we land on an ice runway built on the winter sea-ice that will disappear in a month.
The moment I stepped off the plane was an absolutely otherworldly feeling. Perhaps it was the build up to the moment and the anticipation, and while I imagined and had seen pictures of what it looks like, nothing prepared me for what I saw. I walked out onto the sea ice that was perfectly flat and pristine white for miles. In the distance to the West was a jagged, cold looking mountain range. To the East was Mt. Erebus, the world most southern active volcano, smoking and steaming. It was the first time where I’ve ever felt like I was someplace not like Earth. It’s not a feeling easily forgotten.