Getting to Antarctica

Part Five: To the Pole!

Journal Entry:
En Route to South Pole
Friday Jan. 31

I am on the aircraft on my way to the Pole.

My alarm clock didn't fail me, I was up at 5:30 in an instant, quick cup of tea and dress in ECW's.

Walk up to the MCC building, a clear sunny morning, blue skies and the mountains in the distance. It looks EXACTLY like a few hours ago, when I returned from the lab after sending yesterday's material. Same sun, just in a different quadrant of the sky. Same lack of activity on base as at midnight, same complete quiet. It is eerie, as if the whole place is a stage set for an adventure movie. "Day" and "night" are defined only by the clock and human activity.

A few people are gathering inside MCC around the coffee pot. Voices are low. Husband and wife are returning to Pole to prepare for winter-over: they are permanent Icers, but keep a place in Homer, Alaska. Someone told me that the U.S. non-military personnel (i.e. station operations, logistical and science support) are 40 percent women, with strong encouragement for married couples. It certainly makes sense, and makes the town more of a community, less of a rowdy Buck Camp.

The identification with Alaska suddenly triggers in my mind something that I should have realized earlier: the conditions here and the people are exactly like those we've met in Alaska. The friendly helpfulness, the lack of pretension that come from doing a good job in an isolated community in a potentially harsh environment. These people live in rip-stop nylon. They shower rarely. There is no room for a bad attitude, no room for selfishness.

So we get on the bus, to drive out to the airstrip. A second van meets us, and the bus fills with "Coasties" (Coast Guard service) who are on a "sleigh ride" to the Pole. That means that there is room on the flight to take a dozen tourists: they get a 3 1/2 hour shake-and-bake (yup, it's hot again), then 30 to 45 minutes of sightseeing and pictures while the plane reloads, then back to McM and their ship. Other than them, the plane is almost empty - a few hardy souls, a few bags, but this is a "tanker flight" and the bulk of the load is additional fuel that will be pumped out into the Pole tanks for the winter.

On board, the same. Din, sandwiches. But this time there's a view, though the windows are rather scratched. I go up to the cockpit, fantastic view as we fly across the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, like flying over the Brooks Range during AGASPs. The aircrew are friendly and helpful. Looking out of the window, I ask the inevitable question: "Does this ever get boring?" They answer "after enough flights, yes." I suppose one could ask that of us, of our attitude towards the inevitable view of the SF Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge from anywhere at LBL. Maybe not boring, but routine.

People loll and slumber, the plane drones on. My bag lunch included a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on white bread, bologna-and-mayo on wheat, a snickers bar, some salted peanuts and a juice box. Now I know how Christopher feels every lunchtime at school.

10:25 AM They are starting to depressurize the plane to prepare us for landing. Barometric altitude at take-off was 900 feet (relative to Christchurch NZ set at zero). The pressure was a little lower at McMurdo than at ChCh. Now the plane pressure is 2500 feet and rising (i.e. pressure falling). The crew announce "Hundred miles out!". We start putting our ECW's back on - it's minus 35 degrees C at Pole.

- - - - - - -
This message comes to you from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Barometric altitude: 11,300 feet
Outside temperature: approx. -24 degrees F
Length of my shadow: 19 feet.

I made it.
I am at the South Pole.


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Prepared by Tony Hansen and Tod Flak; last updated 01 Feb 1997