Whist our time at McMurdo was helpful getting to know the medical systems that are the same as at the Pole, and our time off was well utilised exploring the geographically, historically and biologically interesting area, by the time our time departure, we had itchy feet, ready to get to the place that would be our new home for 9 ½ months. Any of the flights of the LC-130 – be them on continent or intercontinental back to Christchurch – requires the process of ‘bag drag’, where we take our 110 pounds of gear (I can cope with converting pounds to kilograms… Fahrenheit to celcius, not so much) up to the air transport operations office to be weighed and palletised for the flight the next morning. The planes have maximum allowable cargo which includes us on the scales in our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. So a flight full of 30 or so passengers means minimal cargo. However, our first run at departure was postponed 24 hours due to weather. Next up, there was too many passengers on the manifest for the available capacity , and about 1/3 were culled. Luckily, I managed to stay on, but Scott my colleague had an even more protracted time in McMurdo, especially as he had been on the continent four extra days than me.
Flight days always come with an early start, and a last chance to make the most of McMurdo’s more liberal shower quota. We were then bundled in to a Delta – a fat tired articulated truck with a passenger cabin on the back. The interior was plastered with the stickers of a range of different polar groups, expeditions, and a few more eclectic motifs. On one conspicuous corner was a THC – Taranaki Hard Core sticker. It was a fond memory of the three years I lived in New Plymouth. As they say, god created Taranaki so all the Hardcore people in the world would have somewhere to live. At least that’s what the surfer inspired populace believed!
In stark contrast of conditions to come, the peri-freezing temperature at McMurdo were easily tolerated as we waited for the Herc to spin up, and taxi over to the Fuel pits, where it would take on its supply of JP-8 needed for the return flight. We were flying on the‘City of Christchurch’, a nod to the frequency that the New York Air National Guard spends traipsing back and forth across the Southern Ocean between ‘Cheech’ and ‘MacTown’. We were then marshalled on to the plane, bundled in to our seats by the loadmaster, seated in the webbing mesh fold down seats nestled around the flight’s cargo load, and before long, we were heading due south, over the Ross Ice Shelf, towards the indomitable Transantartic Mountains that marked the edge of the Polar Plateau. With a much more full plane than my flight south from New Zealand, I did not have the same luxury of being able to observe the flight south from the flight deck. Instead, we huddled around the few portholes in the aircrafts fuselage, and peered out at the great white expanse beneath us. After an hour or so, the sight of the last rock we would see for 9 months came in to view, shrouded casts of ice, and divided by streaked glaciers where the polar ice cap forced it’s way through. It was these same glaciers we were soaring over, that Amundsen and Scott had heroically trudged up, 105 years earlier, on their much more impressive journey’s to the bottom of the earth.
We watched the last few nunataks (rocks protruding from the ice, from the inuit word nunataq) disappear from view, replaced by the seemingly endless stretch of ice cap, that would be our new endless vista for the next 9 months.
An hour and a half later, we descended in to touchdown on the Skiway, and pulled up at the apron. We were promptly herded off the plane, heading fore, away from the spinning props of the plane, whilst it unloaded its cargo and excess fuel, and took on outbound cargo, all the while, the engines spinning, so not to allow them to seize up in the cold. We were greeted by a series of masked individuals in big reds. Whilst at McMurdo, I was intrigued by the fact that all of our jackets had our names emblazoned on our chests. But when the temperatures are below -50 C, which was to be our new norm, being outside with any skin exposed was a real hazard. The loss of distinguishing features other than height and a sense of build shrouded by a lot of ECW gear meant without a name, it was a challenge to work out who was who. The temperature was the first thing to notice. At least 40 degrees colder than the edge of the continent, being well prepared when we got off the plane was a key. The dry cold air was harsh on your throat, and without goggles, the reflection off the ice was startling. Our welcoming party included Sarah, the summer doctor who I was taking over from, and Bob, the visiting dentist who had been up at the Pole for a week or so, awaiting our arrival. Their offers to carry our bags were warmly received, as the 3200 m (10500ft) physiological ascent (the physiological altitude is roughly 500m higher than the geographical altitude) was the next thing to hit you, like a punch in the solar plexus. By the time we had made it 100m inside and up a flight of stairs, we were stuffed. Craig, our winter site manager and other familiar faces were there waiting to greet us. Introduction videos and tours of the station followed, with an ample chance for us newbys to catch our much needed breath.