Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Getting Outfitted and Ready for Departure

Fifty people, dragging heavy suitcases, dufflebags and backpacks into the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC). The time for departure is nearing. It is time to receive the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing which will be our main attire down on the ice. Will it fit? Will it be warm enough? Will I be able to pick up the suitcase? Can I somehow consolidate the 30 plus pounds of ECW with my already voluminous piles of clothes, gear, electronics, and toiletries, to weigh in at under 75 pounds – the absolute weight allowance?

Marlene, a slight woman with a strong kiwi accent, briefs us on the process.
Which bags get checked. Which bags may be carry-ons. What items must go in our Boomerang bags… BOOMERANG BAGS? What’s that?

Flights from Christchurch to Antarctica often do not make it all the way to the continent on their first try. Sometimes they make it half way and need to turn back because bad weather has moved into McMurdo and they are unable to land, so they turn around. Sometimes there is aircraft trouble, so they turn around. Sometimes they get to 10 feet off the landing strip in McMurdo, and the conditions are unsuitable, so they turn back. Any of these scenarios will send the aircraft back to New Zealand. They are boomeranged.

Antarctic bound travelers, once they check their bags, are unable to get back at them until they are on the ice. So, we are now asked to pack boomerang bags – with clothing, a toothbrush, and whatever other necessities we may need for town life if our fight is boomeranged. The record number of times anyone has been boomeranged is 7! Can you imagine that?

When Marlene is done briefing us, we watch a video about the clothing distribution and flight protocols. We then go and deliver our computers to the Technology Screening Division to make sure that we are virus-free when we head to the ice. We leave it in the hands of the IT man, hoping it is there when we return.

We then proceed to a changing room, separated for women and men.
There are already 2 duffle bags packed for us, and a clothing list with our name on it is waiting for us. They are unbelievably organized! We begin the long process of trying on every item and checking zippers, Velcro, sizes, comfort… Whatever doesn’t fit is brought back to a window, sort of like the type of window at a concession stand where you order hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches when you are out at the beach for the day. But this window opens up to a vast warehouse of ECW clothing in all shapes, sizes and conditions. I want the best! I will be on the ice, in a tent, with sea water splashing on me, for 5 to 6 weeks! Now is the time to use all of that assertiveness training my mother taught me!

I try on the long underwear, the parka, the boots, the gloves, the socks, the goggles… The list goes on and on. I make a suitable pest of myself at the hotdog stand exchange window, but they are too kind to show their irritation with me. On my final item, the dear woman finally gave me 5 hats and said, in her lovely kiwi accent “look, there – just take the lot of these, and take your time with it. Find the one that suits you best, and bring me back the rest. Right? Cheers.”

Cheers. I did what I was told and, with the help of the kind ladies at the hotdog counter, I was fully equipped a mere 3 hours later. I packed everything up, separated the extra clothing and gear I would not be needing on the ice, and weighed in at a mere 69 pounds! Heck – I could go out and buy some chocolate to take with me – six pounds worth!!!

I took the shuttle back to my hotel, comparing notes with the others going through the same process. I continued to add to the list of people I was meeting who were headed down to the ice. It is absolutely amazing how many people go, and what their different functions are!

Plummers, cooks, dining room workers, engineers, architects, scientists studying the aging process of Weddell Seals, atmospheric chemists studying the ozone hole, people studying natural antifreeze in Antarctic Cod, Penguin researchers, geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, meteorologists, satellite researchers, helicopter mechanics, pilots, bar tenders, recreation coordinators, survival school teachers, mountaineer guides… An incredible array of people coming down to the ice! And everyone has stories to share with the rookies in the crowd!

It is time for my last walk in the garden, to take in the sights, smells, and sounds of spring before my trip south. It is a glorious day. Magnolias, camellias, daffodils are in full bloom. Baby ducks are swimming wildly to keep up with their elders. Birds are singing everywhere, rejoicing the spring. I take a deep breath, trying to store all of this deep inside of me to sustain me for the next two months.

Then I head off to dinner, enjoy a last kiwi meal with my full team. The manifest for tomorrow’s departure has been posted. One plane, the C-17 – a big, comfortable, fast plane – is “broken.” Two of us, Julia and I, will be flying out on a different aircraft at 9 am. This will be a Hercules – LC-130, also known as a “Herc.” A Herc is a slower plane, a turbo-prop (has propellers and jets), and has no “seats.” Rather, it has nylon webbing to sit on. Many are equipped with skis for landing on the ice shelf, and those skis do not retract – so it is a much longer flight than the other aircraft.

People groan when they hear that some of us are going on the Herc, and others get to ride in the yet-to-be-fixed C-17. As for me, I just want to get there already! And I would rather NOT be the first one out on a newly repaired plane!!

I must be ready for the shuttle at 5:25 am. The very dear hotel keeper gives me an alarm clock and explains this to me very carefully:

“I have called the shuttle for you, and it will come at 5:30, but be ready at 5:25.”

“I will be delivering a breakfast in a sack for you to eat, since the dining room will not be open yet. If you are not there when I deliver it, I will leave it in your room.”

“Here is an alarmclock and I am setting it for you for 5:00 am.”

“If there is a delay, they will call me and I will come and knock on your door. If you don’t answer, I will unlock your door and ask you to sit up and turn the light on, so I know you are awake and hearing me. And then I will give you the update, and tell you go to back to sleep.”

“When you leave, please leave your key in the door. If the plane doesn’t go, or if you are boomeranged, come on back and go back to sleep. We will not give your room to anyone else until we know that you have made it to the ice.”

“Try not to wake anyone else when you get up in the morning.”

It is AMAZING! The hotel keepers inform us of everything, they post the manifests for us and make us sign it, so that they know who to track down. They do everything with warmth and a smile and a “no worries, mate” attitude. AND… the rooms are nicely appointed and breakfasts are WONDERFUL!

With this very nice safety net around me, I went calmly to bed with my alarm clock ticking beside me.

At 5:00 am, I got up, showered, was just getting on my backpack – and the nice hotel keeper came walking up in his bathrobe saying, “Go back to bed. There is a 3 hour delay. The shuttle will be here for you at 8:30.”

He checked off my name, confirming that he had conveyed the message to me, and said,”I’ll see you at breakfast.”


Of course, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I was far too excited for sleep.

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