Scott Applebaum, January 7 — Today ended where it started, at the Commodore Hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, not on the ice as I had hoped for and expected.
After a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, several hours of preflight briefing, and five hours in the hold of a United States Air Force cargo plane, we circled just above McMurdo Station, Antarctica. A few minutes later, the captain informed us we were unable to land due to unfavorable conditions and were returning to Christchurch. A “boomerang” flight.
This is my first trip to the Antarctic, but for a number of years I have been in close contact with friends and colleagues conducting research at McMurdo. Their stories and pictures have given me a degree of familiarity with the process of deploying to the ice. Consequently, the potential for being boomeranged was something I was well aware of. Nonetheless, there is much I didn’t anticipate.
I didn’t expect so much the preflight sweating. The standard-issue cold weather clothing is exceptionally well suited to conditions I expect to experience on the ice. However, at 6:30 a.m. in the parking lot of the Antarctic visitors center in New Zealand summer, the down parka and insulated pants become a portable sauna.
I didn’t anticipate the surreal moment created in the preflight check in process. The embarking passengers, with their huge puffy down parkas, transform the line into what I can only describe as the march of the bright red sleeping bags.
I didn’t think about who, other than the course participants, might be sharing our flight to McMurdo. The flight manifest is punctuated by top names from physical, chemical and biological sciences, as well as the media. Most notable on this flight roster is Sir David Attenborough, who seems an incredibly patient fellow, graciously posing for photos even at such an early hour.
The cargo area where myself and 102 other passengers are seated has only a few windows. Three tiny ports on the doors allow a look at what lies below, which for most of the flight is empty ocean and cloud cover.
Suddenly, at around the four-hour mark, people began to line up for a peek into the tiny hole. When I finally got my turn, I understood exactly why. Below us the mountains, glaciers and broken ice of Antarctica fell away to the horizon — absolutely stunning.
In total, I spent nearly 11 hours crammed into the belly of the plane today, only to end up back where I started. Nonetheless, the view through that tiny window made it worth every minute.
Scott Applebaum is a USC postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of expedition leader Donal Manahan.