October 27, 2011 Thursday
It was official, we were scheduled to go out on the C-17. The C-17 means comfort, speed, and me being one step closure to the ice! Things went very smoothly Thursday morning, we didn’t have to wait long before getting on the bus and being taken to the runway with the massive C-17 sitting there waiting for us to board. The plane was very impressive and walking up to a plane like that from the ground and up the steps to see the inside of what is essentially a gutted out plane is pretty impressive. The plane has virtually no insulation from the machinery and you are required to wear ear plugs throughout the entire duration of the flight. Roger and I planned our position in line perfectly so that we would be the first to get off the bus and get the “palatalized seating”. The palatalized seats are literally a pallet of commercial airplane seats that has been brought on board and placed down in the center of the plane. We had front row seats to the action and several feet of leg room in front of us. I was so excited getting on the plane and throughout the flight that most of the military guys were chuckling at me as I squealed and jumped up and down in my seat.
Inside the C-17
Up near the front of the plane, there were a couple little circular windows that we could utilize to get a peak outside of the C-17. The windows were just big enough that you could poke your head into the indentation, look out the window and down to the ocean down below. A couple hours into the flight I was able to see “little” bits of ice formations in the ocean, nothing too significant, but still the excitement was beginning to build inside of me. It wasn’t until about hour three that I was finally able to look down upon an entire ice sheet relieved by giant piercing blue cracks in the sea ice. By hour four, I could see elevation in the snow. It’s hard to have perspective when you’re in a plane and everything you’re looking down upon is the same blinding color of white. But, from what I could tell, it looked like there were giant mountain ranges or buttes of snow and ice. I had never seen an entire expanse of snow or ice before. I was in complete awe from the first moment I saw those giant blue cracks in the ice. As excited as I have been off and on again over the last six months, since first finding out I was coming to the Antarctic, I had never been as excited as I was at that moment. It was one of the most beautiful awe inspiring things I had ever seen, and I couldn’t wait until we finally landed on the ice.
Towards the end of the flight, the crew was nice enough to allow passengers up in the cockpit, one at a time, to see the pilots and look out the giant windows. When I finally got up there, the haze in the sky was too heavy to really see anything, but one of the pilots did take the time to talk to me for a bit. Here is what I found out…There are four pilots, two actively flying the plane, and two support pilots. The four pilots take turns flying over the duration of about a month. The two pilots that aren’t flying at the moment help support those that are currently flying by looking up the weather and conditions at McMurdo, amongst other things. The pilot that was nice enough to speak with me for a while showed me the conditions on the ice and explained that everything looked perfect down at McMurdo. Considering that I had heard that from the pilots themselves that McMurdo looked good and that we had less than an hour left before reaching McMurdo, I assumed it was a fairly good guess that we were gonna land and not boomerang. YES!
The crew begin to lower the temperature in the cabin, I would assume to acclimate us to the temperature outside. Everyone put on the rest of their ECW gear – hats, sunglasses, and Big Red. Even from my seat I could see Mt. Erebus out the window as we turned and came down to land. The C-17 landed on an ice runway a short distance away from McMurdo station. The door opened and the stairs lowered down and touched ice… Walking down the steps, taking my first steps on the ice, and looking around at the unbelievably exquisite scenery was beyond anything I could ever explain with words. The majestic beauty of the mountains and the overwhelming expanse of sea ice that never seems to cease leaves you emotionally overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “this is really cold”. My fingers were exposed to the chilling air and within seconds they felt as cold as if I had kept my hands dunked in ice water for several minutes. After a few minutes of soaking up the moment, we got on “Ivan” the terra bus who drove us home to McMurdo station. We followed the main drag back into town which is a flagged route on the ice. We saw Weddell seals hauled out on the ice right on the edge of the station and looked up onto Ross Island and McMurdo Station.
Rachel, Mee-ya, Markus, and Roger in front of Ivan
We went to a briefing first thing and received basic information about the USAP and what to expect and know about life at McMurdo. I received my dorm keys and the times and dates of my first scheduled classes. Before you can leave the station you have to go through several different training sessions to make sure you can survive a night on the ice, to travel safely over cracks, and safely drive vehicles and skidoos (snowmobiles).
Rachel (our veterinarian) and I are roommates and share a small 3 person bedroom in dorm 203c, which is the grantee dorm. The grantee dorm is filled with only grantees which are scientists. John and Roger live a couple doors down from us and Jo and Allyson live on the floor above us. Markus is the only one who is in a separate dorm and he lives in the P.I. dorms. After dropping our bags off at the dorm we went straight to dinner in the galley. I have to be honest…. At this point I was pretty emotionally fried. The best way to explain my mental state was that I was in sensory overload. I found it hard to keep from bursting into tears at the dinner table. I think there was just so much happening and changing all at once, in combination with being tired and worn from all the travel, and it was just too much for me to take at the moment. I was so happy to be here and I wasn’t necessarily scared, I was just on sensory overload.
We landed around 3 pm and by 6 we were eating dinner and discussing the schedule for the next several days. I had “Happy Camper” the next day, which is a two day survival camp on the ice. You are taught basic survival skills and then left on the ice overnight with your other happy campers until the instructors return for you in the morning. I don’t have a whole lot of camping experience and I had NO winter camping experience before coming to Antarctica. The fact that I had just landed on the ice and already had to plan out what I needed for Happy Camper in only a few hours was completely overwhelming. I had no time to adjust or get to know McMurdo before having to leave for 2 days on the ice. Jo and Allyson (two legs of what has become known as the ‘tripod’, which is made up of the three P.I.s Jo, Markus, and Allyson) were very sweet and Jo offered to let me borrow her phone card to call home. I thought I was being smart and waiting to buy my phone card until I got here, but at this point I’m pretty sure I only made it more difficult. The only thing I really hadn’t planned on was bursting out into tears the second I got to Jo and Allyson’s room. They were both so supportive and great about the whole thing, Jo explained that communication was key and that she wants me to be able to tell her anything. There is no judgement. “You are my family while we are down here”.
b470 is my family right now, they’re all I’ve got and we will depend on each other in the field to keep each other safe and out of harms way. Somehow along the way during our travels I had mentioned to the team that I sort of think of Jo as something of a “science mommy”.
The first time I met Jo I was inspired, she’s young, beautiful, stylish, and all the while an amazingly intelligent and accomplished scientist and person. Like all moms, you take her very seriously and you know she’s the boss, but at the same time she’s the one you go to when you need a hug and someone to support you. I honestly feel like I could turn to any of the P.I.s for help, and it’s great to know that you have people like Jo, Allyson, and Markus on your side when you’re stuck down on a continent where you don’t know the first thing surviving in it (socially or physically).
After I spoke to my parents and Peter (my boyfriend) for a few minutes, took a shower, and unpacked my bags, I was feeling a little better. By the morning, I had slept a full night and drank lots of water, and ate a huge breakfast all in preparation for Happy Camper, and was feeling much much better… Now I just had to make it through “Happy Camper”, which again felt a lot more like survival camp. And at this point I was not picturing the kind of camp that teaches you how to survive, but rather the kind of “camp” where you either survived the night or died trying. I had images of my team finding me frozen into an icicle, ashamed and incompetent to survive on the ice.