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Ice Flight

Despite the early hour, everyone is wide-eyed and eager to get going when we meet at 5:45 this morning. Back at the USAP base, we and don the clothing mandatory for our ice flight. It seems like a lot to wear on a plane, but this is not a regular plane and we won’t be landing in a regular environment! Who knows what the weather will be like upon our arrival?

We pack three kinds of luggage, each appropriately labeled:

  • Check-in: things we won’t need aboard the plane

  • Carry-on: things we want to access aboard the flight, such as computers, books, and snacks.

  • A “boomerang bag”—which contains things we’ll need including clothes, toiletries, and medicines in case weather in Antarctica forces our flight to turn around or “boomerang” back to Christchurch. Apparently, this is not uncommon, but we all hope it won’t happen to us!

Then, once we’ve check that our bags are not overweight, we present our passports and departure cards, check our baggage in for security screening, and receive our boarding pass to Antarctica. The departure room is abuzz with excitement—it’s really happening at last!

Our pre-flight briefing is a much like the safety instruction you get before any commercial flight, except a lot longer, more involved, and more serious. We also learn we’ll have to wear earplugs for our entire 8-hour flight to avoid hearing damage, as it’s extremely loud inside our Hercules cargo plane.

The 4-propeller plane is smaller than I imagined, and as well as wheels, it has skis that will be lowered for our landing on the ice shelf near McMurdo. Inside, the plane is very basic, and we sit on canvas seats along the walls, with our luggage and cargo in the middle. The restroom is a metal bucket with a toilet seat behind a tarpaulin. It’s so loud inside that when the loadmaster tells us we can get up and move around, no one can understand him through the tinny loudspeakers and our earplugs. It’s much less cramped than any flight I’ve ever taken, but we are glad of our parkas, as it gets very chilly at times. The flight over the Southern Ocean is smooth—we have really lucked out. We’ve been told this flight will be terrible, but actually, it’s quite fun!

Our first view of the vast Antarctic continent is difficult to describe. Words like “immense” and “grandeur” and “beautiful” are accurate but can’t possibly convey what it’s really like. Lofty jagged peaks flecked with black where rock peeks thought snow and ice, massive sweeping glaciers cut by ragged blueish crevasses, a mosaic of shattered sea ice and scattered icebergs dotting the sea—a place with zero sign of human impact—these are wonders few get to see.

Soon we are flying low over the Ross Sea pack ice, gliding to a smooth ski landing on the ice shelf. We are here!

It’s an extraordinary thing to want something for so long, to work so hard for it, and then to finally attain it. Everyone is all smiles--we did it and we're here at last!

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