Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Steps in Antarctica

I'm generally a pretty modest guy, but I'm going to do a bit of bragging: I am a napping machine on airplanes. It's practically my best quality! I've been on flights where I"m asleep before we leave the gate and wake up when we hit the ground. Call it a gift. But this flight was different. The military C-17 I was now sitting in was too interesting to ignore. Everywhere around me people were stuffed together, wearing bits and pieces of their ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. The plane was almost completely windowless, the only window being a small port hole near the front of the plane. The view was nothing but clouds and ocean for about the first 6 hours. The last hour is when things got interesting. It was within this last hour when the pilots would decide if we boomerang (return back to New Zealand because of poor weather in Antarctica). Everyone crossed their fingers we would touch down in the chilly continent today. It was also in this last hour when I finally saw land.

White, as far as I could see. White covering mountains and valleys. White covering the enormous flats I figured were ice covered sea. White were my knuckles as I pressed my face closer to the window. Holy crap.

We were descending. Now wearing every last bit of my cold weather gear, I was strapped in and getting more and more excited by the minute. When the door finally opened, a rush of cold poured into the plane. My jaw literally dropped as I stepped down onto the ice for the first time. All around me were white mountains. As it turned out, the plane had landed on what was called the Ice Runway, which was little more than a cleared patch of sea ice. The runway would melt away into open water within a month or two. Immediately we were off, being scurried away in large buses. We were being taken to McMurdo Station.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The next few hours were a haze of safety lectures, info sessions, and signing my name on pretty much anything that came my way. Welcome to McMurdo Station, the largest station on the Antarctic continent. McMurdo is home to roughly 1100 people during the Antarctic summer and a couple hundred crazy nutjobs during the Antarctic winter. A sign posted in the galley (where we eat meals) indicated that about 3/4ths of the population were guys, about 1/4th were girls, and remaining percentages were either asexual extra terrestrials or snowmen.

The population at McMurdo was an interesting one. It seemed to me that about half were science folks and half were maintenance personnel. Due to the limits on showers per week (once every other day), smelly seemed to always be in fashion. Facial hair appeared also to be fashionable, as man, woman, child, and snowman were decked in the burliest facial hair they could muster. This was the look down here: beardy and smelly.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The town itself was utilitarian. It wasn't beautiful, but it was surprisingly lively and ultimately practical. Some of the buildings of note were: the cardio gym, a small chapel (which also had yoga classes!), the galley / cafeteria, 2 bars, a coffee shop / wine bar / movie theater, a fire station, post office, and a whole slew of dorm buildings. The dorms are pretty standard: 1 to 2 roommates, a reasonably fast internet connection, phones, laundry, showers. The only real novelty were the curtains, which could be sealed around the windows with velcro to keep the perpetual sun out. Very quickly I realized that the goal was to try to make life at McMurdo Station as "normal" as it could possibly be.


  1. You have to wonder about those 60 that stay over in the winter. I wonder what the record is for the longest or the most winters in Antarctica.

  2. About winter-overs:
    The National Science Foundation tracks winter-over records for the U.S. Antarctic Program for those who receive the Antarctic Service Medal, reportedly the only military medal awarded to civilians. The database is not comprehensive, according to Nadene Kennedy, NSF Polar coordination specialist. The statistics don't include the military, just science and support staff. It's also unclear when the database was first started, she said.

    Of the 3,320 winter-overs who have been logged by the NSF, 988 of them have done at least two winters. As of the 2004-05 season, 26 people have wintered seven or more years. The all-time record is 15 winters by Gerald Ness, who last wintered in 2003-04 at Palmer.

    Last winter, 241 people wintered at McMurdo, 86 at Pole and just 19 at Palmer. For those receiving a medal after the long night, a "Wintered Over" clasp accompanies the award. A bronze clasp signifies one winter, gold two and silver three winters.

    Bill Spindler, the unofficial historian for the South Pole, writes on his Web site ( that 1,110 people have wintered at 90 degrees south since 1957. The record for most winters at Pole is five, and only one person, Jake Speed, has done them all consecutively. In all, only 135 people have ever repeated a winter at Pole, according to Spindler's numbers.