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Midnight Sunglasses

November 20, 2014


The night that our C17 came over the Antarctic mountain range, this was what my cellphone saw pressed to the glass of a porthole. The jagged shadows from the mountains show how steep they are–and how low on the horizon the sun was. Yet it was bright enough for sunburn, especially given the ozone hole. This is about as dim as the sun gets in the summer. All around the clock, it feels like daytime. The dorm windows are taped over with foil.


This shows everybody in the C17 preparing to land. We’re all supposed to be wearing full EWC (Extreme Weather Clothing). The grad student with bare shoulders is on her fourth mission, monitoring ecological toxicity. She studies how things like Wade Powel’s dioxins accumulate in Antarctic food chains. Next to her are two more newbies, along with me. Farther beyond  are engineers, food service workers, pilots.

Actually, the ice flight in the hold of the C17 was better than I expected. There is plenty of leg room—much more than on any commercial flight. And there’s a real toilet. The huge pallets of freight gave us something to look at, more interesting than a flight magazine. One crate was so large it had a window and door. The straps do look precarious—we wonder if the stack of boxes would shift into us. But the national guard officer assures us the straps hold 8 times g (Earth gravity force). The air was warm, but the floor is metal—freezing. I didn’t realize, though, because the inch-thick soles of the “bunny boots” keep it out. No chance of losing toes.

The plane opens out onto ice–the vast white expanse of the Ross ice shelf. We all load onto the infamous Ivan the Terra Bus, known as the slowest bus on Earth. The interior wood panels date it to the mid 20th century. No shocks–you can tell from my video:

In the video, you hear someone saying, “Better than a Delta truck.” One of many bizarre outsized vehicles at McMurdo [I later ride back in one.] The mountains beyond include snowcaps and one with less snow, Black Island. They say that when Black Island “disappears” in weather, you have half an hour to build snow shelter.

Some of the guard officers are excited, their first time out here. The old hands are more jaded. A seismic engineer grouses that we’ll get in too late for dinner—“They’ll even turn off Frosty Boy” (the soft icecream featured in Herzog’s film).


Here we are at the Air Force security briefing–one of numerous training videos we had to watch. You can see the range of people coming out here, and how interesting the video appears to be.

Most of the videos emphasize safety. The major causes of injury appear to be:

  • Falling on ice. Three broken bones already this season. Apparently, nobody knows how to deal with ice that thaws and refreezes slick. Really? I guess my best training experience was Ohio ice storms and Gambier Middle Path.
  • Too macho to radio in for help. The gender ratio out here is obvious, and as the old-timers point out, “We don’t ask directions.”
  • Old timers tell newbies tall tales. We were strongly advised not to believe anything we hear in the dining hall.
  • The fire department. Everyone goes on about the importance of fire regulations, avoiding daisy chains, cigarettes, etc. The fire dept is a common subject of the tall tales, as there hasn’t been a fire in several years. A key job of the fire department is issuing tickets to the under sea viewing tunnel. [However, later I find out their other jobs, like rescuing people from a crevasse.]


The Ross ice shelf, and the Royal Society mountains across the bay. This was the view from our late-night walk down from McMurdo to the bar at Scott Base, the New Zealand place. You can tell Kiwis, because they all wear orange, not red. They have about a dozen green huts and the reputation for the best night life.


Late evening (still bright!) Rachael, Chris and Wei, the lab crew are heading down to Scott. We face about two weeks out in the camp with no heating nor plumbing.

Our helicopter rises from McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Facing the mountains across the Ross Sea, we turn toward the helipad, the Crary Lab (three white buildings connected by ramp), the blue dining hall with dorms, fuel storage tanks (round white things), windmills above Scott Road. Then a brief view of volcano Mount Terror, before we head out across the Ross Sea. Mount Discovery appears, then the Royal Society Range (I think). Then a long stretch of sea ice, ending with a giant flat iceberg.

Next: Nearest thing to Mars, the Dry Valleys.
Index: Antarctica


  1. November 21, 2014 10:22 am

    Joan, I feel right at home reading your posts–it’s pretty arctic in NY just now and on this morning’s walk I could have really used a red jacket and bunny boots. Great pictures you’re getting–don’t be reticent with that snap button–keep’em comin!

    • November 21, 2014 11:45 am

      Thanks–I hear the snow in NY is amazing.
      Here we’ve had mostly sun and wind. Spectacular views of the mountains.

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