November 16th, 2002
Editors say the best place to start is somewhere in the middle of a story. Here's the middle.
It's 1:30AM on Friday the 15th in Christchurch, New Zealand. The air is clear and tepid. For the first time in my life I can see the southern sky. There are less stars. The man in the moon is lying on his side.
My hand is bleeding where I tore my finger open trying to force closed a zipper on my orange duffle. Even though I brought less gear this year, it doesn't fit in the USAP allocated duffle bags for some reason.
I can't stop the bleeding and there's no paper towels or bandaids anywhere. I make a fist and hope I can stop it that way. Blood gets all over my white bunny boots.
The loadmaster keeps looking at his watch. We're going to be late. Lets move.
I randomly take some stuff out of one duffle and put it in the other which is destined for the rear of the aircraft where I won't be able to get it. The duffle closes.
Drug dogs sniff my gear, then me.
No, I do not have drugs on my dick. Wanna see? No? Thanks for the affection, though, puppy. He's interested in the blood on my boots. I show my hand to the New Zealand customs guy. He nods and moves on, offering no help now that he understands I'm not trying to smuggle drugs or fruit.
In a couple of minutes, we're called. I'm marching under four layers of expedition-grade clothing. Heavy white bunny-boots on my feet make me look like someone who failed the Ronald McDonald stand-in contest.
A C141 looks bigger in pictures than it does in person. It's about the size of a Boeing 767 only more squat. There' are only two windows in the body of the plane. Each is the size of a fist.
I climb in through a door meant for jumping out of. Have to duck, push my bag in ahead of me.
The loadmaster leads me down an aisle formed by two rows of seats made out of kevlar webbing. The seats face each other. He positions me so that my legs fall between the knees of the person who is sitting faceing me. Takes the seatbelt and fastens it, then snugs it down in a way that compresses my colon to the size of a surgical tube.
For the next half hour he packs in people like that so we're sitting shoulder to shoulder with our legs interdigitated.
People take up half the plane. The other half of the plane is cargo. A giant propeller for a C131 is lashed to the floor to the aft of me.
I realize I'm sitting on a crack in the webbing so that half my ass is suspended in space. The engines haven't even started and I'm in pain.
The flight crew makes a big deal of us knowing where the vomit bags are. They worry there aren't enough. They make sure each one of us knows where his personal oxygen mask is and where his barf bag is. They also provide a smoke mask. Chances are, they say, they'll have to put out a fire before we either barf or lose cabin pressure.
They demo the smoke hoods, laughing as they do. Later, one of them tells me we'd be long dead before we ever got to use them. Same with the life jackets. If we ditch in the south pacific, we're better off going in nose first. That will save us the trouble of dying from exposure 2000 miles from the nearest fishing boat.
I keep telling myself I can block out the pain in my ass and legs. Think of anything else. After another half an hour the engines start. The plane taxis, then with a rush of power that shoves all of us to the rear of the plane, we lift off.
On commercial flights you'll notice the engines slow after take off. On this flight, it seemed we took off a second time--crushed to the rear of the plane, body to body.
This is how you get to Antarctica in 4 hours instead of 8.
I try a variety of methods to brace my head for sleeping. What works best is to fold my arms over my knees and lean forward. It seems I can get to sleep for at least 30 seconds a try this way.
About an hour into the flight someone decides he wants to move his leg. This becomes something that requires planning. You can't speak to each other inside a Starlifter. The noise is deafening, and so we're all wearing earplugs. So with a combination of sign language and lip reading we all conspire to move our legs to the left, allow us to put our feet under the seats opposite us.
It works. Ten minutes later someone wants to try moving feet to the right. Ok. We do.
I have to wake up for the second move. I don't know what's worse--not being able to sleep, or having to coordinate tiny shifts in body position with 9 other people.
Eventually, I learn to live with the pain. Everyone does. We stop apologizing to each other for having our elbows in each other's laps. We try to breathe normally.
I am in front of the only window on my side of the plane, so I am informally assigned the duty of scanning for ice. As soon as we reach sunrise, I see there's no ice. Only clouds below. Cirrus.
Oh my god, we're above the really high cirrus clouds. We're probably at 45,000 feet.
The C141 "porpoises". It noses up and down in oscillations like a swing. It sways from side to side. It feels like we're on a boat in a moderately choppy sea. Now I know why they left the barf bags out. People start burping, the prelim to full-fledged puke.
If I close my eyes the swaying rocks me to sleep. Then someone wants to move their shoulders, so I have to move mine. No sleep.
Outside, I see only clouds. After four and a half hours, I still see only clouds. We should be there by now. We're all getting worried we've boomeranged.
The first hint we haven't comes when I see the flight crew beginning to suit up in their parkas. Everyone starts smiling. Then we feel the plane descend. Outside is nothing but white.
Eventually, the wheels touch down. Still can't see anything but white outside.
Everyone stands and I get the feeling back in my feet. But now the effects of my last minute duffle-bag shuffle is evident. All of my hats are in the bag in the rear of the plane. My so-called "carry on" only has my camera gear and gloves. So I pull up my parka hood hoping my ears don't freeze off while I walk to the bus.
Antarctica greets me with a breath-stealing blast of air in the face as I step onto the sea ice. It's 8 degrees F with a wind chill of -28F. Not REALLY cold.
"No stopping to take pictures," says a crew member hustling me off the plane. He points to the Nikon around my neck.
As we're in a near white-out, I want to ask him what he thinks I'd take pictures for--to show my milk-afficionado club back in Los Gatos?
I hop into "Ivan the Terrabus" with the other human cargo. This is a giant Canadian-made all-terrain vehicle used to transport people over the seaice or over the volcanic mounds around McMurdo.
The woman driving the bus isn't even wearing a hat. Her long blonde hair touches the middle of her back and she's got on her wrap-around glasses Cousin It style.
"Ivan's tempermenal today," she says. "I should make you guys say a prayer or do a sacrifice to it or something."
Now I know I'm on the ice. Fixing machines requires prayer and homage to the gods of breakage.
Rob, an accomplished cold-weather mountaineer from Denver sits next to me. We'd been hanging together in CHCH, and as I'd anticipated, he was grinning from ear to ear even though we couldn't see anything.
"We're really here," he said, like a two-year old at Disney World.
This is what Antarctica is about--adults in ecstasy over killer storms and frostbite.
As we get close to McMurdo he fires off questions and I answer: That's Hut Point. That's Vince's Cross. That's Ob Hill. We'd see Erebus to the north if the weather was better.
I realize I know what I'm seeing. I'm no stranger to this place. I know where I'm going to be dropped off and how to get to my dorm. I know the roads and trails.
It feels good to be back. Among the sea ice, the herbies, chocolate-brown volcanic rock and the bunny-booted ice people I feel like I'm home.
What kind of wacko must I be to be home in a place like this?