As trying as it was to get to New Zealand, getting to Scott Base proved even more challenging. I know it is obnoxious to bemoan any means of getting here when we have the immense privilege of getting here in the first place, but my knees and hydration level still haven’t recovered from one of the more unpleasant flights of my life, so that’s what’s on my mind.
After a 24-hour delay due to a broken C-17, our second attempt to get to Antarctica was full of hope and anticipation. We arrived at the USAP Antarctic terminal, checked our bags, stepped on the scales with all our gear, went through security, waited outside for the bus that was to ferry us to the plane and juuuust before boarding the bus, were told to go back to the terminal and wait. Flight canceled. Two days later another flight was scheduled and we finally made it on the plane!
Once aboard the NZ Air Force’s Boeing 757, the pilot told us over the loudspeaker that we should expect a 4-hour 50-minute flight and that 1 hour and 20 minutes before landing in Antarctica we would have to put on our ECW (extreme cold weather clothes) as we would be past “the point of no return” after which he said we’d be landing in Antarctica whether it be on the ice or in the ocean. A few hours into our flight we began to see gorgeous formations of sea ice coating the ocean – jagged pancakes and crackles of ice everywhere. Windows are a huge perk of flying on the 757. Soon we even spotted snow saturated island somewhere off the coast of Antarctica and shortly after that we got the message to gear up — cheers of elation reverberated through the cabin as we knew we’d finally be landing in Antarctica.
Sea ice and Antarctica from the plane
Within 20 minutes the elation and cheers turned to moaning and grumbling as we realized no one was turning down the cabin temperature and we were all wearing gear meant to keep us alive in -70 C weather. Beads of sweat began to well on our foreheads. I looked at Gitte, our leader, whose head was pressed against the seat in front of her, desperately trying not to lose her lunch in the suffocating heat. Another 10 minutes passed and the pilots voice rang out again “we are turning around due to fog, and should have just enough fuel to get back to Christchurch”. What?! Aren’t we 30 minutes beyond the point of no safe return!? And did he say *fog*?! Surely this plane can land in a little bit of fog?? We were stunned. The only silver lining was getting to take off the ECW. To top things off, we actually didn’t have enough fuel and had to land in Invercargill, where we had to sit on the plane in our ECW boots for an extra hour. Workers on the runway were taking photos of our plane as our boomerang 30 minutes past the point of no return was unheard of and I don’t think anyone there had ever seen a 757 land on that runway. The icing on the cake was landing in Christchurch and hearing the flight attendant say, “Welcome to Christchurch. We hope you all had a pleasant flight.”
After some madness for the logistics team sorting out hotels in a very busy town with hundreds of people slated to go to Antarctica and backed up for days, we were told we’d get on a plane in 2 day’s time. We all woke at 5 am that day to a call that it was canceled due to weather. Rescheduled for 2 days later we got the go-ahead and made it onto the bus, but just outside the plane we were told we’d have to wait 2 hours for a minor mechanical issue to be sorted out. At this point I think we had all lost faith. They shuffled us into the Air Force waiting room and at some point, I took a nap under a table. It sounded unpromising, but we did eventually board the plane and against the odds we finally make it to Antarctica – drenched in sweat and sick with heat exhaustion — but happy to step onto the ice and fill our lungs with crisp cold air. It was all entirely worth it.