Sunday, October 28, 2018

I finally made it

I know it’s been a while since I last posted an update.  Why, you ask?  Well, the short answer is that I’ve been busy settling in and learning my new job as a shuttle driver.  And adjusting.  I’ll attempt to bring everyone up to speed.

I made it to McMurdo on Thursday, October 18 after having spent sixteen days in Christchurch, NZ.  As much as I loved Christchurch I was ready to head to my new home on the continent of Antarctica (the Ice).  There are still stories and pictures I want to share about my time in New Zealand but I’ll save those for later.

After putting on our Extreme Cold Weather clothing, going through customs and checking in our luggage at the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) Passenger Terminal in Christchurch, we boarded our flight to the Ice.  I flew on a chartered plane, an Airbus, that was very comfortable with lots of windows.  Once the captain turned off the seat belt sign we were able to spread out in large empty areas on the plane.  I even laid down and snoozed for a while.  

All ready for the Ice.

Normally USAP participants are transported via US Air Force C-17s but because of the weather delays chartered flights were used to supplement the C-17s.  The C-17s can handle roughly 150 passengers and cargo whereas the Airbus hold about 60 passengers.  Because of the weight limits on the Airbus, I was limited to 30 pounds and a carry-on.  The remainder of my luggage arrived two days later.

It was an amazing trip.  It took five and a half hours to travel the 2300 miles.  About two thirds of the way there we started seeing sheets of ice. Once we got closer to land we started seeing mountains and glaciers.  Everything was white or either shades of gray.

A sea of ice.
Land ho!

The runways at McMurdo are on the Ross Ice Shelf.  Landing on ice was way cool and very smooth.  The Australian flight crew knew what they were doing.  We traveled the nine miles to McMurdo on Ivan the Terra Bus.  After dinner and a welcome briefing, we got our room and roommate assignments.  

Phoenix runway near McMurdo with Royal Society mountains
in the background.  Photo by Colin Harnish.
My ride into McMurdo.

One of the other shuttle drivers asked me while we were in Christchurch if I’d be interested in rooming together.  Since we seemed compatible, I said yes.  His name is Eric and is from Colorado.  He has worked two other seasons as a shuttle driver, and after taking last year off, is returning for his third season.  It’s great having him around because of his knowledge and experience.

Our first room was in a dorm centrally located (near work and the dinning hall) which was convenient.  Our room did not have a thermostat so we were at the mercy of whatever the temperature was set for our quarter of the dorm.  At times the room was sweltering, other times freezing. The fan ran constantly and the air coming through the vent was very loud.  My sinuses were not at all happy and I developed a sinus infection.  The noise made it difficult to sleep.  In fact, I slept with my noise cancelling headphones on for the first week and a half.  

But I’m happy to report that we have since moved.  The lodging folks were very understanding (thank you!) and we’re now in a dorm room where we can control the temperature and the vent is much quieter.   Last night was the best I’ve slept since I’ve been here.  So things are looking up.

Weather wise, it’s been up and down.  Some days are sunny and calm, while others are cloudy and windy.  I’m finding that 0 degrees doesn’t seem all that cold as long as you are dressed appropriately, and there isn’t any wind.  I think it’s been as low as -8 degrees and as high as 20 degrees since I’ve been here.  The wind chill has been a low as -30 degrees. We’ve had steady winds up to 20-30 mph.  Thank goodness it’s spring!  The weather will continue to moderate over the next three months with temperatures in December and January in the 30s.

My next post will be about the work I’m doing and what life is like on the Ice.  But in closing, they say Antarctica is the driest, coldest, windiest and most isolated continent in the world.  All of that is true, but it is also very beautiful.  On a clear day the views are stunning and take my breath away.

The cross at Hut Point near McMurdo.  Photo by local resident.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ready, set...wait

Well by now I thought I'd be settling into my new home on the Ice (Antarctica).  But Mother Nature has different plans.  Today is Friday, October 12 and I've been in Christchurch, NZ for 10 days now.  And it looks like I'll be here for another 3-5 days.

Why the delay?  It's been very windy and snowing at McMurdo.  Not to go into too much detail, primarily because I don't know all that much, but the blowing of existing ice and snow plus the addition of the new finely grained snow creates drifts.  These are not your typical drifts we generally see in the US but are instead very hard and have to be mechanically removed.  When they form on the roads and runways it makes safe travel nearly impossible.  And there is the problem of visibility.  So until the wind and snow stop, or at least calm down, and the drifts are removed, we're not going anywhere.  Hopefully the weather will improve and we'll soon be able to wing our way to the Ice.

There are nearly 500 of us waiting to head to McMurdo.  But being stuck in Christchurch is not such a bad thing.  In fact, it's pretty darn nice.  But I for one am ready to head south.

On a side note, I've posted a map of Antartica to the right under "Pages".  It helped me since I usually don't turn a globe over to get that perspective.

Christchurch, NZ

Christchurch is located on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island.  It has a population of around 380,000 people.  

It's spring here in the Southern Hemisphere.  The flowers and trees are all in bloom in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. The Canterbury Museum next door is full of cultural and natural exhibits.  Just up the street is the Christchurch Art Gallery. It is a public art gallery that has its own substantial collection and hosts New Zealand and international exhibitions. There are trams (trolleys) that run in the downtown area that remind me of the cable cars in San Francisco.

Spring has sprung!

Trees beginning to leaf out in the Botanic Gardens.

The Avon River meanders through the city center with walking and cycling paths along its banks.

The Avon River in Christchurch, NZ.

In 2010 and 2011 there were a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that devastated parts of Christchurch, including the downtown core where 80 percent of the building were damaged or destroyed.  Even today there are vast open spaces where buildings once stood.  A memorial along the Avon River remembers the people who were killed or seriously injured in the February 2011 earthquake.  Other just as poignant memorials are scattered elsewhere.

One of the city's iconic structures, Christchurch Cathedral, was badly damaged in the 2011 quake.  It was so badly damaged the first thought was to demolish the old structure and build a new one.  But this met with resistance.  Just earlier this year it was decided to restore the Cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral to be restored over time.

There are lots of new buildings going up in Christchurch.  Just today a new state-of-the-art public library opened.  A new convention center is due to open in 2020.  The city is going through a renaissance and the future looks bright, from my humble perspective.

People who know me well know I love my coffee.  I believe Christchurch has as many coffee shops per capita as Portland and Seattle.  They're everywhere and they have great coffee.

A cappuccino with just a hint of chocolate on top.

I did make it outside the city.  I took a gondola ride to the top of Mount Cavendish where I had great views of Christchurch and the Southern Alps to the north and Lyttelton and Banks Peninsula to the south.

Looking over Christchurch and the Southern Alps.

Lyttelton and Banks Peninsula.

I've had a great time in Christchurch and would recommend it to anyone who is planning a trip to New Zealand.  Now it's time to head a little further south to the Land of Ice.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Getting ready to go to the Ice

Since my last post, a lot has happened. I'm still in Christchurch waiting for a flight to the Ice. Weather in McMurdo is not cooperating causing flights to be cancelled.  Hopefully the weather will improve soon.  There is a link to the McMurdo webcams and weather information to the right of these posts.

I attended orientation and training the day after I arrived in Christchurch.  The US Antarctic Program Center is located at the Christchurch airport.  It's a large complex with offices, a clothing distribution center (CDC), a post office and its own boarding area.  Right next door is the International Antarctic Centre, a museum on the history, ecology and life in Antarctica.

US Antarctic Program Center in Christchurch.

The highlight of the day for me was being given my Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing. The Program provides a big red parka, insulated coveralls and work jacket, a fleece jacket, gloves/mittens, hats/hoods, goggles, a neck gaiter/balaclava and a pair of insulated rubber boots called "bunny boots", I guess because they're white.  I tried on all the clothes and accessories to make sure they fit and were in working order.

Extreme Cold Weather clothing.

We also went over baggage weight restrictions.  From theUS to Christchurch I had a 100 pound limit but going to McMurdo it's 85 pounds.  And even though a lot of the ECW clothes I was issued I will wear on the flight to the Ice, I still had clothes I needed to pack and additional weight I needed to account for.  That made me nervous.  I went back to the Center a couple of days later with all my baggage to decide what I needed to take, what to store at the Center and what I could mail to myself on the Ice.  An hour and a half later I weighed my bags and managed to get down to the 85 pounds limit. That was a big relief.

My next post will be about my time in Christchurch.  It's a beautiful city filled with friendly people.  And I'll have some photos to share.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Two days of firsts

My first two flights, Redmond to San Francisco and San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand, went without a hitch.  My friends Dave and Kelly took me to the Redmond airport. They were extremely helpful in getting me prepared for my trip to the Ice, and will looking in on my house periodically.  Thanks guys!  My great neighbors will also be keeping an eye on my house for me.

Outside the Redmond terminal.  And no, I don't travel light.

In San Francisco, my friends John and Joan Henshaw met me at the airport and we spent 3-4 hours together celebrating upcoming birthdays, playing cards, eating and generally having a good time.  I will miss them dearly but look forward to reconnecting in Sydney, Australia in late February. That's a topic for a future post.  We said our goodbyes at security and off I went to catch my Air New Zealand flight to Auckland.

John, Joan and me at SFO.

So what about the firsts, you ask.  Well for one,  I've never been on an airplane for thirteen straight hours.  I can definitely say it will NOT make my list of favorite things.  Still, I did sleep a little and I sat next to lovely young couple from New Zealand who work in Australia.

A couple of others firsts included crossing the International Date Line and the equator.  I've also never lost a day before.  It's strange to board a plane on Sunday and when you debark, it's Tuesday.  What happened to Monday?  They say you get it back.  We'll see. Another topic for a future post.

Now for the last first.  I've always wanted to visit New Zealand and finally made it, arriving at 5:30 am in Auckland.  The Kiwis made it simple to go through immigration and customs. Everyone was friendly and helpful.  And best of all, they all spoke English, albeit with an accent.  Or maybe it's me that speaks with an accent?  Either way, I like their accent better than mine.

I was thinking to myself this international travel is a piece of cake.  Shouldn't have done that! After making my way from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, enjoying a flat white coffee, and easily getting through security, I settled in at my appointed gate waiting for my final flight to Christchurch.  Then I get the dreaded ping on my Air New Zealand app telling me my flight had been cancelled due to weather.  I figured they would just rebook me on the next flight but it wasn't that simple.

Fortunately, I met some seasoned folks with the US Antarctic Program (USAP) and they were kind enough  to take me under their wing and guide me along.  We had to collect our bags and wait in a line to get rebooked.  Turns out the earliest we could get out of Auckland was 5 pm and instead of going directly to Christchurch we had to stop in Dunedin (pronounced Du-ne-din), which is south of Christchurch, and catch another flight to our final destination.  I'm sure Auckland is a very nice city but all I saw for eight hours was the inside of their airport terminal.

I finally made it to Christchurch about 9:30 pm and got to my hotel about 10.  It was a long day, or or should I say, a long two days.  I had no trouble falling asleep.  I set two alarm clocks to make sure I was up at 5:45 am the next day so I could catch a shuttle to the USAP center at the airport for orientation, training and to get my Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing.

I'll end here.  Hopefully I didn't put to many of you asleep.  It feels good to be down under.

One last Antarctic Adventure

I promise this will the be the last post.  But I wanted to share with you one of the most powerful experiences I had while on the Ice. ...