Boondoggle to South Pole Station

Posted by on September 3, 2009

Blast from the Past

Here’s an old email I found from my second trip to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. I won a trip to the South Pole and wrote home about it here:

From: (DUKE, SARA)
Date: Wed, 22 Jan 1997 17:43 NZD
Subject: my trip to the south pole

hello all – just wanted to let you know how i am doing, my latest adventures, and such things. not that i get very many adventures. mostly it’s just day to day living. but, on saturday i was lucky enough to win a “sleigh ride” to the pole (south pole station).

50 people won the lottery to the pole trip. our flight time was 10:15 am. everyone showed up at the mcc (movement control center) at 8:00 am for our transportation to the runway. it takes about an hour to an hour and a half to get there. it was a beautiful day. while we waited for the flight we stood around outside talking and taking pictures. after waiting an hour we found out that our flight was to be delayed another hour. we had to get back on the bus and drive to willy field where the other airstrip is.

as we drove along there was a sudden stir at the front of the bus. everyone was leaping up and rushing to the right side of the bus. emperors! emperors! there were three emperor penguins hanging out on the ice shelf. they were at least 5 miles from open water. it’s pretty rare to see penguins that far away from the water. their feathers are so sleek and distinguished. and they are huge – about three feet tall. i guess there was a reason our flight was delayed.

the flight to the pole was fairly uneventful. mostly everyone stayed in their seats reading or sleeping. we landed at the pole after a three hour flight. we got off the plane to relatively warm temperatures; -19 with a -40 wind chill factor. quite warm really.

pole is flat! white as far as the eye can see. no mountains, no ocean, nothing but the dome and the out-buildings (it has been likened to north dakota – perhaps a little more progressive.)

we all rushed (or tried to rush – the altitude is about 10,000 ft and we were all panting for breath) over to the geographic south pole marker for our hero and heroine shots. then on to the ceremonial pole for more photos.

the two poles are in different places because the ice sheet on which the south pole station is built moves 20 to 30 feet a year. so, the geographic marker has to be moved each year as well. but the ceremonial marker where each nation has a flag continues to move with the south pole station.

next stop – the dome. the dome covers the work centers and the community living area. we hung out in the galley for about 15 minutes and visited with friends we hadn’t seen since the beginning of the year when the “polees” (what we call the people who work at pole) were in mcmurdo on their way to pole. all too soon the flight crew rounded us up to head back to mcmurdo.

once we were up in the air we were all invited to come up to the cockpit for good look around. the first time i went up we were flying over a huge crevasse field. the pilots brought the plane down to about 500 feet. i could see the gaping blue cracks in the ice. it was obvious that crossing the continent via land would be treacherous. deadly yet beautiful.

on my next trip to the cockpit a woman on my flight was learning how to fly the plane. no wonder i was getting motion sickness. it helped to be up front. so, while leisle was learning how to fly i was learning how to navigate. i sat up front for about 1/2 an hour while we flew over the trans-antarctic mountain range. i could see glaciers flowing around the mountains, carving them out over millions of years. the sun was glinting off distant glaciers giving a golden glow to the west.

as we flew closer to mcmurdo, mount erebus became ever larger. we circled around the volcano for a close up view then zoomed the ice edge. the annual sea ice was breaking off in huge geometric shapes and seals were resting on the icebergs. as we flew in, a report came from the pilot, “there is a pod of whales off the right side of the plane. now there are two jumping off the left side at about 10 o’clock. there’s whales all around! pretty much anywhere you look you will see whales!”

we all rushed to the windows. orcha’s and minky’s were diving all around us. the water was so clear that even when the orcha’s were under water i could see their black backs and white bellies. it was so exciting!

what a satisfying boondoggle. emporers, south pole, the trans-antarctics, glaciers, mount erebus, the ice edge and to top it all off, whales. sometimes i feel so incredibly lucky. it’s trips like this that make me realize why i come down here. it certainly isn’t for the job. working in supply is nothing to brag about. but the opportunity to see things that i would otherwise never see is something that i cannot pass up. i hope the pictures turn out.


For more information on Antarctica visit Cool Antarctica’s website, USAP (U.S. Antarctic Program), British Antarctic Survey, or just do a Google search.

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