Getting to the Ice

Edward Young, Graduate Student

Edward Young, Graduate Student

You know it’s time to leave a party when people start talking about the weather. No one cares. But every time we met a fellow traveler in Christchurch, New Zealand, the question was “How’s the weather in McMurdo? Have you heard anything new? Is it still ‘condition 1?'”

The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) flies their personnel into Christchurch, New Zealand, on commercial airlines. Typically, travelers spend 24 hours in Christchurch, where they acquire their winter gear and wait for their plane to McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica. We didn’t get the typical experience.

The weather early in the season is erratic, and this year it was especially bad. Flights are supposed to fly to the ice everyday. A flight landed in McMurdo, Antarctica our first day in Christchurch, giving us hope that we’d fly the next day. We got our gear and spent a relaxed day in the Botanic Gardens, soaking in our last bit of green. We packed our bags at night, ready to fly out the next day.

Day 2 4:45 am: “Good morning. Your flight has been delayed for 24 hours.” Awesome, an extra day in Christchurch!

We went for a hike up the mountains overlooking Christchurch, surrounded by the pastoral beauty that is stereotypical of New Zealand. The hills were littered with sheep lazily gnawing on grass. That evening, we repacked our bags, excited to get to Antarctica.

Day 3 4:45 am: “Good morning. Your flight has been delayed 24 hours.” Oh well. Can’t complain about an extra day.

Exploring the city again was pleasant. We picked up a wheel of cheese for the ice. We met some awesome locals. We ran into a Federal Aviation Administration official heading down to Antarctica.

“Hey, are we flying tomorrow?”
“Doesn’t seem like it. The landing strip has been in condition 1 for days. Zero visibility. High winds.”

With false optimism, we packed our bags again.

Day 4 4:45 am: “Good morning. Your flight has been delayed 24 hours.” Ugh.

We made the best of a bad situation and got a lesson in kite boarding. The same winds that kept us from leaving dragged us across the beach. Tired, we bussed back to the hotel, ate, packed, and slept.

Days and days passed over us, and each night we went to bed with a little less optimism. Each morning we were awoken by a hotel concierge suffering from his own ennui, calling the same 50 people telling them the same message. We were waiting for our own Godot.

Day 8 5:00 am: Alarm goes off. Wait. No phone call! I throw everything into my bag and run downstairs to catch the bus to the airport. There we get a final orientation and load onto the C17. This thing is so big, it is used to transport a helicopter to Antarctica.


A jet engine and helicopter are strapped inside the C17. Photo by Zigmund Kermish.

We are strapped into our seats and the plane gently takes off. Once we’re at altitude, the seatbelt light turns off, and we can wander around. We’re allowed to enter the cockpit and talk to the crew. People lie down on the ground and sleep the entire flight. Out the window, we can see ice flows. Visibility is infinite.

Six hours later, we strap ourselves back onto the walls and begin our descent. We touch down, gather our things, and the doors open. The Antarctic sun fills the cabin and the dry, frozen air bites at our faces. We set foot on the ice. The weather is perfect.

Edit Nov 10 17:57 – I wrote that the C17 is the largest military transport plane. That is incorrect. The C5 holds that honor.

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