all in a day's work.
I went on my first helicopter ride on thursday.
support forces antarctica (SFA), the joint military command that assists the USAP with cargo airlift logistics, was hosting two DVs (distinguished visitors) this week -- a couple of major (two-star) generals. as part of their visit, they were scheduled to visit the kiwi base, south pole station...and the historic huts of the ross island region -- robert falcon scott's discovery hut (just down the road from mcmurdo), his cape evans terra nova hut, and ernest shackleton's nimrod hut at cape royds. cape evans and cape royds are accessible by mattrack, delta, snowmobile, or helicopter. DVs get to go by helicopter. I, as a trained hut guide, got to go along for the ride.
we met up at the helicopter pax terminal at 1215 on thursday. off-deck was scheduled for 1300. in addition to the two DV generals, there were a major and two colonels acting as their handlers -- all wearing olive-green flight suits under their windpants and parkas. (the military parkas are made by the same company that makes Big Red -- but theirs are Big Olive.) the two DVs, who asked me to call them al and fred, were shortish, older men, very uncle-like and friendly. fred in particular was a real cutie pie. they were based out of hickam AFB in honolulu, so we talked a bit about hawaii and about their recent visits to iraq. they were excited to be in antarctica and had been having a great visit so far. my fears about accompanying two stiff, stilted, stuffy, high-and-tight-sporting officers were quickly allayed.
nick, the helitech who would be flying with us, gave us a safety briefing in the terminal. we were to choose helmets from the rack containing rows and rows of them -- sized S thru XL. I suspected that I would be wearing a small, but nick said most people wear an XL -- and he was right. the S was extremely so, the XL snug but not stifling. he showed us how to fasten the chin straps and adjust the microphones. we all took turns standing on the scale in our ECW gear so nick could calculate our weights for the flight load. then nick explained crash positions, how and when to use the radios embedded in the helmets, and how to engage and disengage the four-point safety belts. we would be flying on a Bell A212, better known to those with military experience as a Huey. and it was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny, with minimal wind.
nick introduced us to scott, our pilot. the helitechs and pilots at mcmurdo work for a contractor called PHI - petroleum helicopters, inc. they are known to run an extremely tight operation, and the pilots are some of the best in the business. we need only look out our chalet window on a stormy day to witness them delicately maneuvering a monstrous machine and touching down on a pad about the size of a lunch tray to know that we're in good hands.
we squeezed in and strapped up, nick shut the doors, and scott started up the engines. scott gave us a little heads-up over the radio and we took off. after a brief hesitation, the helicopter rose a few feet off the ground, banked to the left, and shot up and out over the ice runway. mcmurdo got smaller and smaller to our right. I was seated next to one of the generals, fred, and we oohed and ahhed as mount erebus rose up with its plume of steam. we buzzed further and further north, gaining altitude. it was fantastic, a tiny dragonfly-shaped canister containing seven men and excited little me.
fred had a little stuffed Penky the Penguin doll in his backpack. he took it out during the flight and set it up on the windowsill and snapped a photo of it. this impressed me no end and I developed an even bigger platonic crush on him. here's a picture of us in the helicopter.
we landed at cape royds, our first destination, about fifteen minutes later. scott brought us down a few hundred feet from the hut and the ASPA (antarctic specially protected area) containing the adelie penguin rookery, where thousands of the little birds were lounging in the sun, trumpeting and flapping their wings, sitting on their eggs, or running about after each other. skuas circled overhead. we walked out to the volcanic rocks where I had snapped the photo of werner herzog and his cameraman last season to get a closer look at the penguins. they couldn't have cared less that we were there and went about their usual penguiny business.
we could have stood there all day, but our pilot had to fly up to the summit of mt. erebus later in the afternoon, so eventually we made our way to the nimrod hut. this was the base for ernest shackleton's team of 15 men, ten ponies and nine dogs during their run for the south pole in 1908. they only made it to the magnetic south pole. the loss of their final pony, who was pulling a sled packed with food, forced them to turn around when a mere 97 miles from the geographic south pole in order to avoid starvation on the way home. shackleton and two of his men battled dysentery and weather on the way back, but were later rescued and the nimrod sailed north, a little over a year since it had first landed at royds, with all souls safely aboard.
after the guys had their fill of snapping pictures and examining the artifacts left in the hut, we went back out to the helicopter and took off for cape evans. we landed and encountered a small team at the terra nova hut -- folks from the Antarctic Heritage Trust out of NZ, who have been engaged in a several-year project to preserve the huts in the ross island region and the artifacts in them. they were about to break for lunch, but one of the team generously offered to take us through the hut and give us a brief tour. he showed us the stables, where the team had kept the mules and ponies, with bales of chaff still stacked against the walls and horse-sized snowshoes hung from the support beams. outside, he pointed out the huge anchor, half buried, from which the ship had ripped loose with tons of food and other supplies on board, leaving the men to winter with just what they had brought ashore.
to me, the most human and heartbreaking thing about the cape evans hut is some graffito scratched on the inside wall of one of the bunkbeds. it's impossible to see without craning your neck and using a flashlight, but written there by some miserable, frozen, stinky, half-starved crew member is a list entitled Losses to Date. a number of names follow, names of unfortunate fellows who had succumbed to starvation, illness or freezing. the very last name reads 'Shack?' ernest shackleton had not returned from his attempt on the south pole, and was feared lost and therefore dead. (he wasn't.)
on the way back to mcmurdo, the pilot took us up near an icefall at the foot of erebus. the results of massive, snails'-pace scrunchings and smashings of giant slabs of ice and snow were awesome to behold. some days I feel pretty jaded, after two and a half seasons on the ice. things like sunsets, views of the mountains, the endlessly changing weather lose a little bit of their magic. I find myself going through the vicious daily cycle of eat-work-gym-eat-sleep. and then I get to do something ultra-cool like this. and it really wakes me up to the fact that I'm doing something that most people will never, ever get the opportunity to do in their entire lives. and I feel pretty humbled and lucky.