I celebrated my 25th birthday differently than any other year, waking up at 5am, slightly jetlagged, to catch a pre-arranged shuttle to the Christchurch Clothing Distribution Center. All of the people in my training group, plumbers, electricians, bakers, power plant operators, IT staff and manual laborers such as myself, were presented with two worn orange duffel bags filled with loaner extreme cold weather (ECW) gear, washed and folded. Our project for the day was to try on each item and make sure, for comfort and safety, that everything fit well.
(Click on images to enlarge!)
Inside the bag was a pair of off-white rubber bunny boots, awkward but very insulated Cold War Era footwear so named for their rabbit’s foot-esque appearance; a heavy red parka with a faux fur-lined hood; Carhartt overalls and work jacket; slippery windpants; multiple pairs of expedition-weight long underwear; polar fleece pants and jacket; fluffy gray tube socks; balaclava, fleece hat and neck gaiter; huge leather bearpaw mittens; work gloves, and a few other odds and ends. Once it was all tried on and any misfits exchanged for different sizes, we repacked everything, leaving it in the Center until our morning of deployment.
We flew to the continent in a commercial airliner, which afforded us an amazing view on arrival, veins of cerulean and navy blue ocean, striking through cracks in the sea-ice. The stewardesses transitioned from their skirted, nylon’d and heeled uniforms, to soft fleece pants, to black overall snowpants and chunky Sorel boots.
Sea Ice and Clouds
All of us, craning towards the windows to see the ice, the land, steaming Mount Erebus—like giddy kids on a school bus, sitting backwards in our seats, climbing over each others’ laps to see outside. We landed on the ice runway, McMurdo in the distance like a construction town during a Minnesota winter, dirt churned up in the snow.
We walked to New Zealand’s Scott Base one morning, about a mile away. As we crested the ridge dividing the stations, the wind picked up, stinging our faces in the gaps between our balaclavas and snow goggles, making me feel like a kite in my huge jacket. Walking down the hill toward the frozen shoreline, textured by pressure ridges where the ice crushes up against the earth and vaults up a bit, the wind blew snow past us, slithering like smoke on the road. An American mechanic was kind enough to give us a ride back against the headwinds, all ten or so of us piled in the bed of the pickup like red marshmallows. I took my hands out to take a photo, and by the end of that minute, my bones were aching and my hands were so stiff I nearly lost my mittens to the gust as I tried to put them back on.
We climbed steep Ob Hill, spectacularly overlooking the town and the ice runway, struggling up in our ECW gear, crab walking and sledding down on our bottoms in the parts that were too slippery to walk.
Walking back from Hotel California, home to the infamous 24 bunk male dorm room not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Man Camp,” near midnight— the sun glaring brightly, everything was silent but the wind, straight line and brutal, playing with power lines and handrails, sounding a bit like a boatyard in a storm. People struggled by with their parkas cinched up around their faces. I drank hot tea in the galley, getting ready to fly to the Pole in the morning.
This post is dedicated to the four French workers who died in a helicopter crash in Antarctica the day we arrived on the continent. My heart goes out to their families.