Next stop: a luminous South Pole

Posted Oct. 23, 2008, at 6:09 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:53 a.m.

It was late in the evening when the C-17 that carried me from New Zealand back to Antarctica landed on the sea-ice runway of McMurdo Station. The touchdown of skis on frozen, snow-covered ice was perceptible only by a light “whump” from my seat in the back of the windowless cargo hold.

My companions and I unbuckled ourselves from the webbing of our jump seats, straightened our bulky Extreme Cold Weather Gear, and proceeded to the hatch, preparing to leave the dim interior of the military plane and step out into Antarctic sunlight.

When it is my turn, I keep my eyes on my feet as I climb out of the plane — it will take me a few days to relearn how to walk easily or gracefully in my enormous, insulated FDX boots. Only after I am several paces away from the plane do I venture to look up and at my surroundings. People continue to climb out of the plane and walk past me, made anonymous by their bundles of coats and goggles, but I stand still where I am and take in the view.

I am surprised to step into a world bathed more in pink than white. Late in the day, and this early in the austral summer, the sun barely peeks above the plane behind me. Even so, I’m overwhelmed by light. The sea-ice runway stretches out, snowy and flat, just as I remembered it. The frozen sea is framed by white mountains: the Royal Society range, Mount Discovery, and the volcanic Mount Erebus, sending its familiar smoke plume into the sky. All is snow-covered and strikingly luminous in the dusky light. I pull a breath of cold, dry Antarctic air into my lungs and am pleased by how comfortable that feels to me.

That breath of air brings me back to two unforgettable moments. One was a year ago, when I stepped out of another C-17 and saw Antarctica for the first time. The second was in April, when I was the last passenger to board the 80-person final flight off the continent. On the first occasion I was overwhelmed with awe at this vista, filled with disbelief, amazement and trepidation. When I left, I felt a wistful ache, looking at the harsh beauty that had become a home.

Today I feel the bubbly contentment of familiarity combined with adventure. As I begin to move again, walking toward the transport that will carry us to the base, a grin spreads across my face. I’m here, thrown back into this unbelievable, frozen world. I concentrate on breathing the air, opening my lungs and eyes ever wider. There’s so much to see.

I will be here at McMurdo Station for almost four weeks as we wait for the South Pole to get warm enough to land planes. This is time to begin to acclimate, to train for my new job, and to get to know my team of co-workers.

The sea-ice disappears behind us as the transport takes us into the heart of the base, to the galley, where people have stayed up to greet us. My orange duffel bag of issued clothing bounces on my hip as I walk through a sea of Carhartt-clad U.S. Antarctic Program workers. Old friends greet each other enthusiastically. A few others, people on the Ice for the first time, look around wide-eyed. I smile at them, remembering how I felt last year.

After a short briefing, we are issued our room keys, pick up bed linen and settle into the station’s bunk bed-filled quarters. I’m sharing a temporary room with four other women bound for the South Pole.

We make our beds and settle in together, whispering so as not to wake the one already-sleeping occupant of the room. “You’re back!” “Where are you working?” “What job did you get this year?” Hasty introductions are made with assurances that we’ll be well-acquainted quite soon.

It’s odd returning to Antarctica for a second season. Ease and familiarity replace the total strangeness of last year’s arrival, and I find myself remembering vividly how bizarre this continent seemed to me then. It is still extraordinary, but I see things more clearly now than I did; I can distinguish landmarks and structures where previously I was overwhelmed by “cold” and “white.” This time, I know what I am looking at.

I barely make my bed on this first night back in Antarctica, simply throwing the sheet and the comforter down and curling up in my clothes — I’m that tired. I register my bunkmate climbing onto the top bunk and murmur “Goodnight” to the room.

“I’ll see you all in the morning.”

“Welcome to McMurdo Station.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to www.bangordailynews.com.

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