Posted on behalf of Chaz Firestone
Five hours of flight from the Christchurch airport to the ice sheet was for naught today — unfavorable conditions at McMurdo prevented us from landing there, even as the ice stretched out tantalizingly below us. Our C-17 jet circled around over the ice for about an hour in a holding pattern to see if the visibility would improve, but alas, we pulled a 180 and headed back another four hours to New Zealand (with a tailwind, thankfully).
Delays like these aren’t at all unusual for trips to Antarctica — ours was the second boomerang in the last two weeks. The weather is unpredictable, and safety is everyone’s chief concern on an expedition like ours. As we turned back, I was reminded of a quote from the legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose WWI voyage to the continent ended just a few hundred miles short when his ship, the ironically named Endurance, became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea: “What the ice gets,” Shackleton said, “the ice keeps.” Boomeranging was a wise idea.
The 10-hour circuit wasn’t too bad, though, even if it was a “flight to nowhere,” as one passenger remarked to me. As on most airlines, passengers to the Antarctic are screened for security, given an in-flight meal and instructed to turn off their cell phones; but most airlines do not give their passengers the three feet of legroom afforded to me in my military-style seat along the flank of the plane. Nor do most airlines inform their passengers that the trip on which they are going to embark will “change your life forever,” as an excited narrator on a preparatory video told us. For first-timers like me, the butterflies I carried with me multiplied at the sight of the industrial-looking C-17, with its pipes, wires and other nautical guts plainly uncovered in the cabin and an enormous orange barrel in the center of the hull containing liquid oxygen — “for breathing purposes only.”
Though our lives weren’t changed forever just yet, we did catch a glimpse of what was to come through three windows only a few inches in diameter. Luckily, I had my telephoto lens and a polarizing filter on hand to take some aerial shots of the frozen landscape below: