Posted on behalf of Chaz Firestone
The fickle Antarctic weather went against us today, and our flight to the ice was delayed until tomorrow. But a delay on the ground is much better than “boomeranging,” the upbeat name given to the dispiriting process of turning around mid-flight. When that happens, checked bags can remain on the plane for up to three days, and the only item returned to passengers is their “boomerang bag,” which we’re instructed to pack with toiletries and a change of clothes.
Packing for the ice turns out to be a rather involved process. Every piece of clothing you could need is provided at the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC), where Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear is handed out to everyone traveling to the ice. It is said that you could show up to the CDC naked and leave fully clothed — they provide you with long underwear, socks, fleece shirt and pants, snowpants, fleece vest, neck gaiter, balaclava, hat, gloves, pressurized “bunny boots” and the iconic red parka.
All of the ECW gear goes into your carry-on bag (you need to wear it on the plane), and the rest of what you brought for the ice is either checked or put in the boomerang bag. We had to try on all of our ECW gear yesterday to make sure it fit properly. The six layers you end up wearing weigh you down quite a bit and give you a waddling gait not too unlike that of the penguins we hope to see on the ice. But I still managed to do a heel click (pictured in my first post).
Even after clothing is taken care of, there is still much more preparation to do. Camera and laptop batteries are notorious for failing in the polar cold, so spares are a must, and some clever photographers tape hand-warmers to their equipment to keep it from freezing. Another concern is the 24-hour sunlight, which poses risks as varied as sunburns, eye damage and trouble sleeping, and therefore necessitates bringing sunblock, protective sunglasses and a sleeping mask. Another danger is the high altitude at the South Pole (nearly 3,000 meters or 10,000 feet), so the CDC hands out Diamox, an altitude sickness medication, to anyone who wants it. Diamox, by the way, has some bizarre side effects: In addition to making users’ hands and feet tingle and evoking an overall feeling of “vagueness,” carbonated beverages are supposed to taste a bit foul while on the drug, an effect called parageusia. It’s worth it though, a previous South Pole visitor told me, to stem migraines that “make you want to stick knitting needles through your eyes.”
If all goes as planned and we reach the ice tomorrow, you can bet I’ll pop a Diamox or two.