I met up with a friend, who was also headed back to the ice, at LAX. It would prove fortunate, because when we landed in Christchurch, 12 hours and a few movies later, representatives from the program were waiting for her.
But not for me.
Upon seeing members of the program waiting for her, my friend informed them that “Chris is in the bathroom. He’ll be here in a sec.”
They were, apparently, uninformed of my imminent arrival. Thus began my return to Antarctica and, hopefully, to the South Pole. After a brief scramble, they found a hotel for me.
“Yeah, well, uh, you’re definitely NOT flying tomorrow.” Their scramble was surprisingly painless and efficient, but getting a previously unknown person onto a flight to Antarctica the next day was certainly pushing it.
Once at the 7th continent, I would have some ill-defined amount of time at McMurdo before pushing on to the South Pole. The three lads I was rooming with had already been stranded for a week and half at McMurdo. Weather and mechanical delays are common. It would potentially only be a few days at McMurdo before we set out, but time on the ice is a funny thing.
In this lifestyle, six weeks is a lifetime. I was off continent for only six weeks. A few weeks in New Zealand, a few weeks in the US and then back to Antarctica. But in my time away, everything had changed. It was dark when I left, it was now inescapably light. There were no unfamiliar faces on my departure, there were few familiar ones on my return. The slow, casual pace of life had been replaced by a kinetic frenzy.
The “Big Gym” housed the climbing wall and was where a group of us would congregate weekly to climb, lounge and tell tall tales and bold faced lies. It was our little getaway. Sometimes, escape to the edges of town with a small group was entirely necessary. The small-town life, the isolation, cold and dark encouraged people to seek solitude, rather than larger social interaction. My sanctuary was now inundated with unfamiliars made worse by the Halloween costumes obscuring the faces of even those I knew. So much had changed.
That Monday we were scheduled to leave for the end of the world. After taxiing out to the runway, a problem became evident. There was an oil light on, according to the airman informing us that we wouldn’t be flying, on a plane that went into service in the Korean war era. I don’t know how old that particular plane was, but it was certainly an older model. LC-130 Hercules. It was still the method of choice for hauling us to a place so forsaken that we were traveling only 3 days after the 60th anniversary of the first flight to land at the South Pole. And that original plane froze to the ground. So, we loaded back into the Antarctic sized bus and returned to McMurdo. We would try again the next day.
The next day would prove successful. For three hours, we travelled, seated facing each other in four rows, with only a few inches between one’s knees and those of one’s mirror. But, three short hours later, we landed. People hurriedly bundled up with whatever extra clothing was accessible. Multiple layers of balaclavas covered every inch of face. I sat on my sunglasses, but had a spare pair. We exited the plane into the staggering sunlight and -40F (-50F or so with winds) temps. We have arrived. I can see both the ceremonial and geographic South Pole right off the back of the station.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. 900 south.