Today is my last day in Antarctica, and I am not at all happy about leaving. It has been an exhilarating week of exploration and adventure, and I really don’t want it to end. Not that the stacks of paper and the scrums of insistent people awaiting my return aren’t eerily analogous to towering walls of glacial ice and prowling pods of killer whales. But I’ve fallen in love for the second time with the unforgiving majesty of a place where man hangs by his fingertips rather than rules with an iron fist.
Unlike my last trip, we don’t have to scramble to the airfield to outrun an approaching blizzard. It’s a glorious day, crystal clear and blindingly bright. So Mike and I packed in a leisurely fashion, filmed a few final interviews with scientists (which we’ll edit into a video blog post next month), and then climbed into a pickup truck to make our way back to Pegasus along the ice highway across the Ross Ice Shelf.
As we passed White Island (below), the fata morgana was particularly pronounced. Commonly seen in polar regions, the phenomenon is a mirage caused by thermal inversions that distort distant images.
Here, the fata morgana makes White Island appear as though it has been lifted up from the ice. The step that you see between the ice and the island’s slope is actually a mirage. It doesn’t exist. The same effect made the airplanes at Pegasus appear to be sitting upside-down from a distance.
And of course, Mt Erebus dominated the landscape. The photo below was taken several miles out onto the ice shelf, looking back at Ross Island. The small dark peak at the lower left is Observation Hill, with McMurdo Station and Scott Base nestled to either side.
As we approached the runway, I smiled at the smaller planes in the Air McMurdo fleet. The craft at left is one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the opportunity never arose to hitch a ride.
Our timing was perfect. The C-17 and our pickup truck arrived at Pegasus simultaneously. The pallets that you see lined up in the photo below are cargo that the C-17 will carry back to Christchurch along with approximately 80 passengers
While the ground crew prepared to unload and then load the plane, I chatted with my friend Gary, who runs the airfield. He has spent more than a decade on the Ice and is an extraordinary source of practical information and humorous anecdotes.
The incoming flight was carrying about a dozen Kiwis en route to Scott Base. You can see the orange and black Antarctica NZ parkas at the head of the line below as the C-17′s passengers deplaned.
Among the flock of Kiwis was my friend Lou Sanson, CEO of Antarctica NZ (below, at left). We wished each other a Happy New Year and chatted about our trips, recent events on the Ice, and news from Wellington and Washington.
Once all the cargo was loaded, I reluctantly said goodbye, thanked my NSF hosts, and turned to board the C-17 for the flight back to Christchurch.
Because the season is rapidly drawing to a close, outgoing flights are now carrying large numbers of departing scientists and staff as well as cargo. That’s Mike in the white baseball cap, at the lower right corner of the photo.
And that’s me in the cockpit, all kitted up in case called on to assist. I’m looking a bit intense because I’m listening to the pilot explain the gauges. We were blessed with an especially gregarious and engaging US Air Force crew, and I knew immediately that it was going to be a great flight.
After the necessary safety checks, we taxied to the runway, roared down the ice, and soared into the crystal blue sky. We banked north and headed toward Mt Erebus, which was emitting more smoke and steam than I had seen all week.
Our flight path took us directly over Erebus’ crater, low. The captain dipped the left wing so that we could see straight down into the crater. I was thrilled at the orange glow through the steam, my first live glimpse of magna inside a volcano. So thrilled in fact that I was slow with the camera. The shot of the rim below is the clearest shot that I got.
Beyond Erebus we passed over a sea of many thousands of ice blocks and bergs, often arrayed in swirling patterns or eccentric geometric shapes.
As on my prior flights, one iceberg stood out as my favorite (see below). It almost appeared to be breaking apart as I watched.
We continued to ascend to about 30,000 feet. After flying for a half hour across the Ross Sea we approached the ice sheets and glacier tongues projecting from the coast of Antarctica’s Victoria Land.
In several places there were vast expanses of gleaming flat whiteness, with fractures in the ice zigzagging to the horizon.
I was again mesmerized by the beauty of the mountains, glaciers, and bays that passed beneath us. Below are just a few of my favorite scenes, captured with my pocket camera as we flew north.
As we left Antarctica behind and soared over the Southern Ocean, I paused to count my blessings and give thanks. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Antarctica in such an immediate and intense manner.
I am also deeply grateful to the National Science Foundation for its smart, effective stewardship of American activities in Antarctica, and for the collaborative way in which it engages other nations’ programs. It is no easy task to run such extensive operations at the ends of the Earth, or to preserve a sincere focus on scientific advancement and environmental protection in the face of economic challenges and pressures.
And of course I am grateful to the US Air Force and the New York Air National Guard for the professional, efficient, and engaging support they provide to the US Antarctic Program and to Antarctica New Zealand. Current operations on the Ice simply would not be possible without the service those intrepid airmen and airwomen provide.
I’m dead tired, windburned, and sorely in need of a long hot shower. But I’m nonetheless grinning from ear to ear. It couldn’t be otherwise. I’ve again had the adventure of a lifetime. And that adventure has put the hustle and bustle of daily life back into perspective and renewed the spring in my step.
I’ll sign off with three of my favorite quotes, which nicely capture my thoughts after a week on the Ice.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
- John Muir (Scottish-American naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club, and pioneer of the American system of national parks).
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.“
- Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe of Native Americans.
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
- Native American proverb.