The Journey to the Bottom of the World

Nov 24, 2015

By Val Monticue

Getting to the South Pole spans six days, five flights, four countries, three continents, two militaries, and a partridge in a pear tree. I went via the New Zealand Route, because I was going to the South Pole. Only people going to Palmer Station on the coast, or on one of the research vessels, take the South America route. The New Zealand route looks a lot longer in the figure below but it’s really only a little bit longer, because the map is a flattening of a sphere and distortion is always inherent in this process. In reality Palmer and McMurdo are very far apart on the continent. If you trace the routes on a globe, the path through New Zealand is the fastest and safest way to get to Pole, because you don’t have to fly across the entire continent of Antarctica, a journey fraught with unfriendly and difficult weather conditions. Flying across the Pacific makes for a much more peaceful journey and reduces the amount of trans-Antarctic flight-time.                        


For me, the journey started at San Francisco International Airport. I had a little flight from there to Los Angeles. (And by the way, if you ever do that flight, make sure your carry-on is teeny. The overhead room was miniscule and quickly filled up, so I ended up cramming two giant bags under the seat and under my feet, studiously pretending the space was clear any time a flight attendant came by). From Los Angeles there was a 14-hour flight to Sydney, Australia, that had good entertainment options, excellent hot meals for something served 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, and lots of room between me and the bulkhead to build a nest of the provided blanket and pillow, plus my own travel pillow and hoody. I slept the large majority of this flight, then woke up in time for breakfast and a cup of coffee, which neatly reset my internal clock. One thing I did not suffer on this trip was jet lag, thankfully.

I left on Nov. 7 but arrived on Nov. 9 since I crossed the International Date Line. Once in Sydney, I had a ten-hour layover. Anything greater than 8 hours grants travelers the option to go into town on an “Authority to Enter” temporary visa. This let me go wander about the city. I took the train to Hyde Park, which was gorgeous, and stopped in the Australia Museum to see what they had. It was a really excellent museum, especially the dinosaur exhibit.


After the Museum, I saw a beautiful cathedral to check out. It was St. Mary’s, and she had a glorious set of buttresses. If there’s one thing I like, it’s magnificent buttresses, especially if they’re flying. I went inside to see the stained glass, and it was breathtaking. My camera could not do it justice, so after one pathetic attempt I decided to enjoy it for what it was and count on others with better access and better cameras to document that particular art. Still, check out those buttresses.


I am fascinated by buttresses because of how they are used in cathedral architecture. It was one of the first things I ever learned about medieval engineering, and I’m still amazed at how much was able to be done before we had all our modern modeling tools and big vehicles and cranes and the like. The way Medieval Age builders solved problems and made integral and necessary building elements so beautiful is enchanting.

I also saw the Opera House and Harbor Bridge, like one does in Sydney, but it’s all about the dinosaurs and buttresses for me.

From Sydney it was a 4-hour flight to Christchurch, and we landed very close to midnight. Christchurch is in the last time zone before crossing back over the International Date Line, so at least I left and arrived on the same date (Nov. 9). One of my checked bags came, but the box of scientific equipment and telescope parts did not. Going through the lost-bags process taught me that losing a bag is a short-cut through customs. While that is a rather thin consolation for losing all my gear, nearing 1:00 am, I found it still most welcome. The hotel was a four minute drive away, which is far enough not to want to haul 40kg of luggage. I got my room and hit the hay to be up and at the Antarctic Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) by 9:00 am on Nov. 10.

I got there a bit early, but that gave me a chance to learn I had not completed the mandatory “how not to be an internet criminal” training, and that my laptop did not have any anti-virus software but did have 11 dodgy files that needed to be deleted. The very first thing at 9 am was a briefing consisting of videos with information on the details of the program and conservation efforts in Antarctica (to be detailed in another update). After that we tried on all of our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. I had to exchange about half my gear for things that fit better, which is why the initial trying-on is so important. When I saw the giant parka that literally had my name on it, I could barely contain myself.


Once all the gear and bags had been sorted, I was kidnapped by a roving horde of scientists and forced to enjoy myself in Christchurch for the afternoon. Oh, the humanity! The cast of characters included Kathy Welch, the only other woman from the US on this particular trip into McMurdo and who works at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Institute of Ohio State University, Bob Melville (who introduced himself to me at the first briefing and suggested to Kathy that I be invited along with them) who is working as a field engineer keeping the Automatic Geophysical Observatory (AGO) project in order, and his two partners in this endeavour, Andy Stillinger and Gil Jeffer. The AGO project is taking data about the magnetic field and ionosphere of our atmosphere in order to get better at predicting space weather. Knowing when a big solar storm is coming can help avoid damage to sensitive equipment.

We ate good food and had fabulous conversations about science and engineering, the nature of science, depictions of science in popular media, science education, and all those topics so very near and dear to my heart. The biggest idea I took away from the conversations was about how one important skill not taught in school is troubleshooting and debugging. All of us love building and learning and discovering things, and we all agreed that it took many hours of focused effort to correct problems, whether it was faulty wiring in a circuit, a misconception in our thinking, or an inefficiency in a process. Always looking for those problems and using them as a basis for improvement rather than evidence of a personal failure is an incredibly important mindset for doing science and engineering at every level.

It was an amazing afternoon and evening. One thing that really stuck out was a conversation during dinner with Kathy. She told me that the library on the Ohio State campus honored her as a Polar Explorer in a display but it was never her drive or ambition to become a role model for anyone. I argued that it doesn’t have to be a goal to become incredibly important and influential for it to happen. Representation matters, and she is an amazing representative of women scientists.

By her account, she simply followed her interests, choosing things she thought sounded exciting, and that philosophy led her here: her 23rd year of spending three months in the Antarctic Dry Valleys studying soil chemistry in order to understand more about the geology of the area. She also told me about a new field that combines the study of geology with microbiology, because no process on Earth happens in a sterile environment, and microorganisms can have drastic effects on the geological shaping of some areas. I love it when I find new connections between fields that always seemed completely separate to me. There is no such thing as science or engineering in a vacuum. It can all be used in every field to teach us more about the world around us.

From being complete strangers mere hours before, these folks took good care of me the entire rest of the way to McMurdo. They made sure I had everything I needed, that I got to where I was supposed to be, and that I was up to date on all the tips and tricks they used to make this whole process go more smoothly. Their experience ranged from this being their 3rd trip (Gil) to 23rd trip (Kathy). Between them all, they have the process down at this point.

Nov. 11 was my “On Ice” date, when I would fly to McMurdo, which is the main US base in Antarctica. It houses up to a thousand people in the summer. We had to report at 6:30 am for “bag drag,” which is when we and our bags are weighed and tagged and put onto pallets to be transported in the plane. After bag drag, we were released for breakfast, but had to get back for yet another briefing by 7:10, which would be more videos on how to take care of Antarctica, report any spills or safety hazards, and generally be a good citizen of the Antarctic so we can keep its precious condition as pristine as possible. Honestly, “stay warm” was not really mentioned all that much. Seems that went without saying. What WAS discussed was mostly admonitions about staying hydrated, moving slowly, and watching out for slips and falls. Cold injuries make up less than 2% of total injuries, because the ECW gear does its job pretty well. It’s the things that people don’t think about as Antarctic dangers (sunburn, snow blindness, dehydration, and sprain/strains) that are the most common.

As we were getting ready to get on the bus, the site manager came in with the box of gear that hadn’t arrived with me in Christchurch. I had to get on the bus, so I did not know whether or not it got on the plane with me. All I could do was get on the bus that would take us to the C-17 we’d be riding to McMurdo and hope. That plane is enormous. The entire middle was filled with pallets and crates. There were narrow passages on either side with seats against the wall. The only windows on the side where I sat were two 8” port-holes in the doors. Other than that, the walls were solid. It was honestly quite comfortable. Much more-so than commercial flights, if quite a bit louder. Tons of legroom, easy to get up and walk around, water on demand, easy access to hand-carry, and the seats on either side of me were empty, so I had lots of room to stretch out. The one restriction was that no one was allowed to sleep on the floor, although it was not exactly going to be a comfortable bed even if one were allowed, what with all the hardware necessary for strapping down the cargo tightly. One seat over from me was Gil, who showed me some of his slides from a presentation he gives to schools about space weather science, showing me the movement of the southern magnetic pole (it was very near the current location of McMurdo in the 1700s, but now it’s out somewhere in the Pacific Ocean), and who continued to give me useful advice for how things would work and things to pay attention to once we got to McMurdo.


Above: Next to me is Gil and hard to see on his other side is Bob of the AGO project. Kathy (Byrd Institute) and Andy (AGO) are sitting much further down and hard to see.


Above: Closer look at my seatmates. On the other side of Bob is a New Zealand woman who is being followed by National Geographic videographers who are doing a documentary on Antarctic science. There is a small, but non-zero probability I may appear in the documentary in some B-roll or a shot of one of the Kiwi scientists.


Then, after a five-hour flight, I set foot on Antarctica for the first time.


Above: Me at Pegasus, the McMurdo airfield

Almost. The airfield is out on a bed of sea ice, so I still hadn’t technically stood on land. After a few pics, we were ushered into the most amazing transport ever (called the KRESS, the only one of its kind), and it was off to the base. The 12-mile journey took over an hour.


Above: The KRESS people transporter.

From the transport we were immediately filed into, you probably guessed it, another briefing. No videos this time! Just people telling us the information we need to know, where we would be staying, and where to find the things we’d need. Up to this point, I had been watched over by my scientists (who claimed me as “our physics teacher”), but this was where they would be staying, so they had things to do and errands to run. I was handed off to a local to make sure I knew where to go and set up in a dorm room shared with two women who did seismology on the ice sheets near McMurdo. The ice sheets move about a meter a day, usually in two “stick-slip” events about a half-meter each that happen too slowly to feel. They’re trying to learn more about how the ice moves and interacts with the ground below. After making my bed I ate supper, availed myself of the Internet (during which I heard that my box of gear had made it to McMurdo and would go with me on the plane to Pole), and went to bed.

By this point it was Nov. 12, my scheduled date to go to Pole. My report time as told to me at bag drag and according to the monitors the night before was 9:15 am, but I wanted to do some laundry, so I got up early. I got a load started, then went back to my room and double-checked my time. The schedule said 7:15 am. I ran out to the monitors near the galley. Yup, 7:15. That gave me exactly 23 minutes to go from pajamas to packed and in ECW gear. I shifted the laundry over to the spin cycle and then stuffed the damp clothes into a hand-carry, ran back to the room and put the ECW gear on over my not-warm-at-all pajamas because the entire rest of my clothing was wet, shoved things in bags, and humped everything to Building 140 by 7:10.

Ten minutes later I was released, because that bag drag time was actually for a different group of people going to a different place that somehow had the same flight number as me. The one other person going to Pole and I were both told to be back at 9:15. Whew! I ate breakfast, put my clothes in the dryer, took a shower, put on as many layers as I could, used the Internet some more before having the availability reduced to almost nothing at Pole, and leisurely strolled to Building 140 for my real check-in. Smooth as silk this time. The C-130 flight left at 11:00, and three hours later, I was at Pole. For real and for good, or at least for the next five weeks.


P.S. It took another day, a few phone calls, bothering the area manager, and someone bringing it to me from the “Do Not Freeze” cargo area, but I am now in possession of all my science equipment. Excellent.


Now really ready to science it up!