Packing for Antarctica


A good friend of yours tells me you want to know about this so I'll tell you.

Those of us beginning our Antarctic journey at McMurdo station fly commercial airlines to Christchurch, New Zealand. From there we take either U.S. or Kiwi military aircraft to the ice itself. Those headed for West Antarctica, or the Antarctic Peninsula, begin their journey at Punta Arenas, Chile. The luggage weight allowances are the same irrespective of your route. It's 70lbs if you're going for the summer season, and 150lbs if you're going to winter over.

I cannot comment on what happens to you if you go the South American route as I have never done that. When you go via New Zealand, you are met at Christchurch airport by an individual wearing the traditional red parka of the United States Antarctic Program. This person is a local who works for USAP at the Antarctic Center, or rather, the Antarctic Centre, if you're so inclined.

The person in red has a list of all arriving USAP members. Should someone be missing who is on the list, they take care of sending out the appropriate international search parties to locate the missing ice person wannabe. I haven't heard of a case of there being someone extra, but given this program is run by the U.S. Government, I'm inclined to believe it happens.

Once roll is taken, you retrieve your luggage at the carousel and then meet the red jacketed person at the Raytheon Polar Services desk, conveniently located in the main ticketing lobby of the airport. There you surrender your plane tickets to the man at the desk, and he gives you an envelope. (they give you brand new tickets on your way back north) The envelope contains your itinerary. This will explain what hotel you will be at for the duration of your stay in New Zealand. It also tells you what day and time you are expected to show up at the USAP Clothing Distribution Center for selection and fitting of your emergency cold weather gear, or ECWs. The CDC is located at the Antarctic Centre.

Also at the Centre is a travel agency for the use of all USAP participants. A U.S. Post Office. A computer center with high-speed internet access (free to USAP participants). The offices of the Kiwi and the Italian Antarctic programs, the Antarctic Departure Terminal, and a visitor's cent(re) for tourists interested in ogling people going to Antarctica and trying on their clothes. For a fee you can try on your own set of ECWs and stand in a big freezer. This is the USAP's idea of a good time, and as it turns out, plenty of tourists think so too.

It may seem there are a lot of things at the Centre, and there are, but yet, it is a remarkably small place. It is also a very friendly place, as Kiwi's are as friendly and accommodating as manatees, right up until you play rugby with them and they pull your spine out through your nostrils. But before that, you may as well be in a hole with a whole bunch of really happy bunnies.

Now, you've checked into your hotel, and you've done some sightseeing in Christchurch and it's time to go to the CDC for your fitting and selection. So you take the red bus from the center of town and get off with all the other tourists at the visitor's center. Then you slog over to the CDC and inside you meet Ed. And Ed treats you as if he's known you since you were a zygote. Don't be fooled. This is just the warm fuzzy bunny way Kiwi's are. If Ed was American he'd be making jokes about your funny accent and the fact your country doesn't make TVs anymore.

But Ed's cruelty will shine through in a moment. He takes roll. Then he separates the FNGs from the old timers. The fingees have to watch a scary movie about how they'll freeze to death unless they pick the right clothes. Meanwhile the old timers get all the good stuff first.

Sort of.

When Ed says it's okay, you walk into the "dressing room". For men, this is a warehouse loading dock. For women, it's a nice carpeted space with stalls similar to a try-on area in a clothing store in the mall. I have looked into this place when the women were not there so I could see their preferential treatment. As this preferential treatment ends with a plane ride south, the men do not begrudge them the carpet. After all, are we not men? Are we not Antarctic explorers?

Presuming your gonads hang free from your pelvis, you'll be walking into the loading dock and coming upon a neat row of orange duffel bags. Two of these have your name on it. Now the cruelty of Ed hits home as he smugly proclaims that all you can bring to the ice must; A) fit in these two bags, and B) weigh no more than 70 pounds.

Now lets think about this. Thirty-five pounds per bag isn't too bad. Besides, you knew about this before you came, so you only brought 80 pounds of stuff, figuring they'd spot you the extra ten. Only--Evil Ed has already filled the bags.

You say, "Hey, Ed, these bags are full. How do I get my stuff in there and be under 70 pounds?"

"Hell if I know, boss," is what Ed will probably say as he walks away cackling. And now the treachery of the USAP sinks in. You open the bags. They're full of ski clothes. Snow clothes. Goggles. Gloves. All manner of things you will need to stay alive on the ice. And when you weigh this stuff you find it weighs in at about 60 lbs, which means there's only 10 pounds left for your underwear and your big heavy hardbound version of The Da Vinci Code (which you should promptly trash--I assure you, you're not missing anything).

Ok. Now you're up to where you should be to understand that packing for Antarctica is a puzzle. It's inhuman and illogical. If you've never done it before, you have absolutely done it wrong. There is no getting around this. It's part of the experience. Enjoy being new and uninformed and likely to get frostbite. You can only be a virgin once.

When I pack for Antarctica, I do several things. First, I cull out everything I know from prior years I thought I would need and that I never took out of my orange bag. Lots of stuff fits into this category. Books. Camera stuff. Computer stuff. Certain shirts. Jeans. La la dee dah. All kinds of things I thought I would need on the ice, I never used. What you can't possibly know is that when you get to the ice your mind will twist. You will go into T3 deprivation and your IQ will drop 50 points. Things that seem stupid now, are the only sensible things you will have at your disposal. Things that require intelligence to operate or comprehend, other than that which is important for your ice job, you will need to throw aside.

Clothing: what did we learn in Happy Camper school our first season? Remember Brennan telling us over and over, "Cotton kills." All t-shirts, jeans, underwear--OUT. If it's made of the fabric of life, it's out. What's in? Poly pro. Wool. That's it. This is the age of synthetics. That's all you'll wear.

I pack about 10 poly pro shirts of varying types. T-shirts. long sleeved underwear. thicker mid layers. Hooded mid-layer sweats. I pack silky poly pro under shorts. Boxers. Etc. I pack wool expedition socks. This year I'll be bringing snowboarding pants. I'll be wearing a couple layers of long underwear beneath, or even fleece pants.

I will bring my digital SLR. (You will see the pictures here.) I will bring two lenses. A wide-angle zoom for landscapes, and a medium zoom for everything else. As I am not photographing nature, I will not waste space with a telephoto. I will bring a spare battery and a charger. A couple of 1GB CF cards.

The laptop upon which I write these words will make it's third trip to the ice. I will bring a spare battery. I will bring my iPod and a pair of noise-canceling ear buds, crucial for travel in military aircraft, as well as for tent living.

I bring a toothbrush. Toothpaste. Deodorant. Soap. Shampoo. A comb. A razor (just in case I decide to shave--so far I never have).

A TOWEL. They do not provide towels in Antarctica. You must bring your own. I bring one with cats on it.

Now we are beginning to probe into the realm of things you might bring to make you more of an individual on the ice. Hats, are one such item. I bring my own hat. This year, my hat has been hand knitted by jessicapierce. I will wear that one. It is one of a kind, and in the land where everyone is wearing clothes issued by the government, uniqueness is treasured.

This year I will bring my own fleece. I will wear their big red parka, but bring my own wind jacket and not use their red one.

Hiking boots. Critical around town. You cannot wear the bunny boots they issue for casual work. A) you look like -- and are -- a total dweeb for doing so, and B) they're ultra insulated, so anytime you're not in -49 degree weather, you're feet will be cooking. I bring my own hiking boots.

A Leatherman tool. Important for doing stuff while in the field. Mine has a corkscrew. Last year I had to open a wine bottle in a tent and it saved my life.

Wrap around sunglasses. Necessary only if you choose to retain your eyesight in a land of no ozone and lots of white things. Bring two pair.

Now--you've been making a tally. I'm bringing a whole shitload of stuff, and plus, I'm actually wearing clothes most of the time and THEY have to come with me too. So, how do we get past Ed's treachery?

We give stuff back. That's how.

Let's open the two orange bags. What's inside? Well, they've packed the bags according to the job they THINK you have on the ice (they frequently make mistakes). Inside is our Red Parka. A keeper. A must. Gloves--four different pairs. You don't need all four. Give three back. Or give two back and keep a pair as a spare, in case you lose one.

Long underwear? What the hell. It's small. It's poly pro. Bring it. Socks. Six pair. Need all six? Probably not, especially if you've brought your own and you're staying in town. There's washing machines there. Bring four pair and rotate them. Wash them every fourth day. It's free and simple. Wind jacket? Nah, we're bringing our own. Issue fleece? Who wants to be seen in a goddamned issue fleece that's been worn 100 times before and bears unknown white biological stains? Turn it in. Wear your own fleece. Goggles? Probably need um. Give their ratty hats back. Wind pants? Well, give them back if you're going to wear your own snowboarding pants.

Try everything on. Make sure it fits. If it doesn't, go over to Doug at the clothing exchange window and get one that does fit.

Now--let's double check. There's a list on the wall, all the necessary gear to wear on the plane ride to the ice. Make sure you've got it all in the correct bag.

Yes, the CORRECT bag. One of those bags is your "carry on". They shove it under you in the plane. The other is your "hold bag", meaning if you were riding in a ship, it would go down in the hold. Because it's a plane, it will be palletized and lashed down with cargo straps in a way that makes it impossible for you to get to.

Once you have selected your clothing and filled your orange bags, you have to make sure the stuff that's in your hold bag is stuff you don't mind not seeing again until you reach the ice. So, you put stuff in your hand carry that you're going to need for the trip down. Your big parka. Your bunny boots. Your fleece. Everything on their list of MUST HAVE FOR TRAVEL. Also bring stuff that can break. Your camera. Your laptop. Everything else goes in the other bag. Bye bye. It's going to Antarctica.

So are you.

Now you leave your carefully packed orange bags on the floor. You go out into the lobby and look at the manifest. Your name is on it. It says which plane you're on and when you're leaving. Be at the CDC a full 90 minutes before that time. (Your hotel will make sure this happens by calling a shuttle for you for the appropriate time--they do this all summer long.)

When you arrive back at the CDC before your flight you take off your civilian clothes, put on your ECWs and begin the process of sweating because it's too goddamned hot to be wearing snow clothes.

Then you go through security--yes, even though it's a military plane they still put you through a metal detectors. Their drug dogs are quite nasty looking, and you will stop to let them sniff your crotch or you will be stopped by a kindly armed soldier.

Once frisked, you are weighed. Then you are sent to a waiting room to hang around and sweat. If there's time, and if it's an hour when it's opened, you are allowed to walk over to the visitor's center and get something to eat in their little restaurant. They will frisk you again when you come back. But at least you will have had a bagel or a muffin.

When it's 30 minutes before the flight they will load you onto a bus to take you over to the airport. The Antarctic Centre is literally across the street from Christchurch Airport. The bus ride takes 3 minutes.

There is some kind of theory about getting onto the bus I don't completely understand. Depending on how the plane has been configured for cargo and passengers, the best place to be in the queue of passengers boarding the plane could be either first, last, or EXACTLY in the middle. Or even somewhere close to the front or the back. The issue is that you will be crammed into the plane like sausage internals, and so those at the front or the back of the sausage might have a modicum of extra leg room. Sometimes the arrangement of passenger seating inside the plane is a "U" shape, in which case being at the very bottom of the "U" affords you the most legroom. Thus being in the middle of the queue of boarding passengers would make you luckiest.

As you are boarding the plane with Nobel prize winning scientists, most of whom have been to the ice before, you will see them scheming right about the time the busses arrive to pick you up.

My advice is to sit near women. I have found my trips to be tolerable if the hips that are wedged against mine are female, and the heads resting on my shoulders are those of girls. All seats on these flights are intolerable. Best to be close to people whom, upon exiting, you wouldn't mind having just slept with, because you have.

But because the loadmaster decides how the seats are going to be arranged, and the loadmaster is not around to be cajoled or interrogated before boarding, there is no way to optimize your place in the queue no matter how many honors or degrees you have. Again. Sit next to girls. They're softer and won't snore in your ear.

If you're lucky, your plane will lift off and actually go to Antarctica. If you're not, it won't lift off, or worse, it will lift off and drop you off back in Christchurch. This is called a "boomerang". Last time I went to Antarctica I boomeranged twice. It sucked because you have to repeat the entire boarding process each time you get back onto the plane, AND they won't unload your hold bag, so you only have with you the stuff in your carry on, and you may be delayed for a day or more.

Anyway, I've written enough for now.

This is 2004 journal entry number 1, in case you were wondering.