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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Out of Antarctica

The trip from the South Pole to New Zealand requires two flights (there is a change of plane in McMurdo) and can take anywhere from 24 hrs to two weeks, depending on flight connections and weather.  We were lucky and made it out on schedule in 2 days under ideal weather conditions.  The days preceding the departure were full of mixed emotions.  On the one hand the desire to be back in warm weather, see liquid bodies of water, smell the grass, eat lots of fruit and vegetables; on the other hand the sadness of leaving the South Pole, my ski trails, my morning runs on the skiway.  I spent the last few days savoring those experiences one last time, skiing to the farthest visibility markers or to the last wind turbine, from where no more flags, no more building, no more antennas can be seen.  I stared at the vastness of the plateau, and listened to the silence of nothingness one more time.  At times I wished the plane would be delayed, so I could spend one more day at the Pole, but then, once my room was cleaned up, the bags packed, and the good-byes said, it started to feel like the time was right to leave and make room for the new crew.  We were the largest group of winterover to leave at once: 18 of us, on November 8.  The flight to McMurdo had great significance, now that I had read the classics from Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, now that I had learnt so much more about the geography of the continent, and now that I had lived on the ice for 12 months. 
We arrived in McMurdo at 9 PM on November 8 and spent the next morning there, waiting for the flight to New Zealand.  McMurdo was wonderful.  First of all it was warm (29 F or -2 C) when we arrived.  That allowed us to  be outside without gloves, hats, and balaclava for the first time in 12 months.  Also, for the first time in 12 months we saw mountains: the beautiful glaciated slopes of the Royal Society Mountain Range, across the McMurdo sound from us.  For the first time we were able to walk in and out of a building through a regular door, as opposed to the 8-inch thick refrigerator doors at the South Pole station that serve as a constant reminder of the harsh conditions outside, and of the requirement to double check our clothing before going out, to prevent frostbite. 
After spending the night in McMurdo in a dorm room with two other traveller, in the morning, I went out for one of the most beautiful runs in my life, first on solid ground from McMurdo to Scott base, and then on the Ross Ice Shelf all the way to Willy field and the McMurdo balloon inflation facility.  A 15-mile round trip in sunny 23 F (-5 C) temperature, with spectacular views of Mt. Erebus, with its plume of smoke and majestic glaciers flowing down to meet the ice shelf in a jumble of pressure ridges, Castle rock, Observation hill, and the Royal Society Mountains across the sound.  It felt good to have good traction both on the dirt road to Scott base and on the well groomed road to Willy field on the ice shelf.  I felt light, after shedding all my layers of thermal underwears, fleeces, hats, and thick gloves that had been the companions of my runs for the past several months. 
In the afternoon we flew out of McMurdo in very clear skies, which allowed spectacular views of Victoria Land, Oates Land, and the sea ice.  It got cloudy once we reached the open water of the Southern Ocean, and by the time we got to Christchurch it was raining: the first rain we had felt in more than 12 months. 

The LC-130 that would take us to McMurdo arrived at the South Pole around 5 PM on November 8, on a terse but windy day, after a 5-hr mechanical delay.

There were eighteen of us Polies and a couple of other passengers on the aircraft, and almost no cargo, making for a very comfortable flight.  The seats are not cushy, but offer plenty of legroom for the short 3-hr flight to McMurdo.  I would trade a first class seat for one on a C-130 any time I could.

The flight path follows the route taken by Scott, Shackleton, and most modern-day adventurers walking to the South Pole from McMurdo.  The journey can be divided into three sections of approximately equal length: the plateau, the Transantarctic mountains, and the ice shelf.  Here we are at the transition from the plateau to the mountains, where the two-mile thick ice of the polar cap starts to break up into crevasses under the tremendous pressure exerted against the barrier of the mountains.

There are only a few small portholes on a C-130 from where we can enjoy the views.  Here we are flying over the Transantarctic mountains.

One of the most spectacular views is that of the Beardmore glacier, one of the largest in the world.  100 miles long and 25 miles wide, it descends 7,000 feet (2,200 meters) from the plateau down to the ice shelf.  Although it does not appear to be steep from the air, it is a hard climb for those people pulling a sled on their way up to the South Pole.  It is also heavily crevassed, as can be seen in this photo.

Amphitheaters of ice.

The ice flows around the mountains just like a river, as it descends the mountains from right to left in this photo, first breaking up into crevasse fields at the beginning of the descent, then reassembling into a smoother surface, like frosting on a cake.

After crossing the Transantarctic mountains the landscape becomes flat for the last hour of the flight as we fly over the ice shelf, until, close to McMurdo, we come into view of White Island.  This island is permanently surrounded by the ice shelf, which is hundreds of feet thick and floats on the ocean.  Soon after passing White Island we see Ross Island, a much larger island on which McMurdo is situated.

After lunch on November 9, a group of us walked to Scott Base, the New Zealand research station on Ross Island, just 2 miles across a hill from McMurdo, to visit their gift shop.  No more red parkas, balaclava, and thick gloves.  It was nice to be able to have a conversation while walking, which is very difficult at the South Pole, where we always breathe heavily through our protective layers.  Left to right: Andrew, Joselyn, Weeks, Kevin, Shannon, Kevin, and Bill.

We boarded the C-17 on the sea ice runway around 4 PM.  The sea ice is hard enough for this aircraft to land on wheels, unlike airplanes at the South Pole which must land on skis because of the softness of the surface on the polar plateau.

The C-17 is cavernous.  As big as a 747.  With only the 20 of us or so occupying it, we had plenty of room again for the 5-hr flight to Christchurch.
The flight path takes us across another piece of the continent: Victoria Land and Oates Land.  Here are the mountains of Oates Land.  They reach a maximum elevation around 11,500 ft (3,500 mt) and, as everything else in Antarctica, are heavily glaciated.

This is my last view of the Antarctic continent, at the edge of Oates Land.  The sea ice is starting to break up into wide leads.  The small platforms of ice visible at the edge of the sea ice are actually gigantic icebergs that broke off an ice shelf during the summer and started floating around the continent, until they were locked in place when the sea froze last winter.  As the sea ice melt, the icebergs will be freed, and will continue their random journey in the Southern Ocean until they in turn will melt away. 

The transition from sea ice to open water is very gradual, as the ice gets thinner, and wider and wider leads open up in the ice as we move north.  This was one of the last views, before the fog and the clouds shrouded the ocean all the way to Christchurch.