First Contact

“It doesn’t feel real until you touch the ice.”  The saying among those privileged to have traveled here before is a practical one: much like a space launch, so much can go wrong with flight preparations to the Antarctic that there is no way to tell if you’re going to go until the moment you do. But for me, it also takes the sensory input to realize that I am actually in freaking Antarctica, right now.

We awoke in Christchurch to a much nicer weather (albeit windier), which held promise as to our chances of flying out today, on the fifth try. My excitement of the initial attempt had worn off. I was ready to spend another day in New Zealand if need be, but tried to remain focused despite the early hour and short night so as not to forget or mess up any step of Thursday’s briefing. We donned our thermal underwear and ECW clothes, checked our bags, and headed to a solid breakfast (in case we boomerang, since we only get one brown bag lunch onboard). Still no contrary order came in, and I started to realize that this time might be it. We came back to the terminal for a couple of flight safety briefings. Not much differs from a commercial flight, except if the cabin loses pressure, we don’t get the dangling masks but some sort of autonomous inflatable fish bowl with an oxygen cartridge that we have to swap out every 10 minutes. We were also explained where to use the “bathroom”. As it is more like a corner hidden by a curtain, and requires acrobatics while fighting 4 layers of leg clothing, there was a strong incentive to make the most of our short post-briefing break.

Through customs formalities, security (no sharps, but liquids of any size allowed), and onboard the bus, off we went to the tarmac and the LC-130. Space aboard is larger than I thought: there is enough legroom to extend your legs horizontally, and the fishnets, padded by the parka, are actually quite comfy. The cabin is heated by the engines, so we got to smell jet fuel for 8 hours and experience pretty strong temperature swings. Earplugs are mandatory once the propeller engines are on. But on the whole, this was almost cushier than my flight to Auckland. And as a would-be astronaut hopeful, I couldn’t help but find similarities with a space station module, with uncovered pipes and items fastened and dangling everywhere you look.

1 pm came, 4 hours into the flight, and we didn’t turn back. Soon after, we began spotting broken sea ice through the clouds, and around 2:30 pm, mountains. The continent! Everyone jumped out of their seats to peek through the tiny windows. Some vistas were spectacular: smooth crests undulating on mountainsides (a skier’s dream), pockets of cracks, vertical drop-offs into the sea, reflections of the sun making icebergs float on gold water… Eventually we flew over Mc Murdo sound and strapped for landing, which was so smooth that I didn’t immediately realize we had touched down. I felt a little bit like Neil Armstrong stepping on the ice shelf, and true to the above saying, took off my glove to feel the ice. Already, the bus driver ushers us in. We quickly snap a few photos with the plane and Mts Erebus and Terror in the backdrop (first sighted during Cook’s expedition and summited by Shackleton’s party), just to be able to say we were there in case the continent suddenly magically vanishes.

This is not your city bus: the “Ivan” shuttles passengers on the snow routes and steep slopes that link the airfield, New Zealand’s Scott base, and Mc Murdo (all a few km apart). We first stop at Scott base to let off the 8 Kiwis who were on the flight. We’ll probably see them again during one of the nights open to Mc Murdo residents. The base is on land (Ross Island), but walking distance on the sea ice is a seal colony. A couple dozen leopard seals are sunbathing lazily this afternoon. Further out are the plane we took and a couple of others, with the Transantarctic mountains on the horizon. Quickly, we lose sight of Scott base, steeply climbing a hill behind which is Mc Murdo. We’ve arrived!

One more welcome briefing, after which we receive our room keys and a number of training assignments, and we’re off to dinner. The living and dining arrangements seem great, more on that later. At 8 pm, we meet again, this time in the science lab for a 2-hour intro to the course itself (more later as well). We then pick up our checked bags and move into our rooms. Tomorrow, we’re each giving a 20-min research talk. Since there are 20 of us, that’s the whole day. So much for the annual marathon that starts at 9 am… For now, time to acclimate physically and mentally to being in this extraordinary place.

I woke up this morning and we’re still in Antarctica. It’s real!!!

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