OVER THE STRAIT OF MAGELLAN — `YOU'RE going to Antarctica.'' The words sent a tingle up my spine. The prospect seemed a bit like being sent to the moon.
The excitement comes not just from the exotic destination; it's the process of getting there that's thrilling.
Monitor staff photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I were briefed in Washington, D.C., by the staff of the National Science Foundation (NSF). They told us where to pick up our government-issued gear and clothing in Chile, how to avoid frostbite, the basics of cold-weather fire-fighting, and how to keep interactions with the wildlife to a minimum.
The first 17 hours in the air - from Boston to Santiago and then to Punta Arenas, Chile - were uneventful. When we arrived in Punta Arenas, our first task was to find the NSF warehouse. It was tucked into a wharfside building in the port. There we were fitted with layers of foul-weather gear and various survival paraphernalia. Even though November is springtime in Antarctica, fierce winds can appear with little warning.
In Punta Arenas, near the tip of South America, heavy breezes are constant. Tree limbs are permanently swept seaward. Most of the weathered pastel-painted houses perched on hillsides over the ocean have sturdy wooden windbreaks behind them, to give a respite from the steady gales.
Volatile weather here, and icy conditions on King George Island (our next stop) required that the pilots be experts. Back in 1974-75, the New York Air National Guard began flying missions that involved ice landings on Greenland in the Arctic. That unit of the Guard has continued to develop its cold-weather expertise. Its mission now includes Antarctica.
The flight crew for our C-130 aircraft included three full-time crewmen and five others who fly only specific missions where their experience is needed.
Our pilots, David Koltermann and Michael Steindl, radio ahead to King George Island. The news is bad: Low clouds and poor visibility. Because the tower on King George doesn't have instrument capability, pilots have to be able to see the landing strip.
After patiently cooling our heels for half a day, we heard that visibility had returned, and despite 40-knot winds, the pilots would give it a shot.
There were no smiling flight attendants on the plane. Sharp orders were shouted from the cockpit as we hurriedly strapped ourselves onto benches in the cargo hold. All of us crammed foam plugs into our ears to dampen the roar of the propellers while the crew tied down the cargo.
A half-hour later, we were still on the runway. Finally, a blast of oily heat filled the hold, duffel bags bobbed over our heads, and crates of equipment rattled at our feet as we lumbered into the air and headed south. A few minutes later, we cleared the ice-covered ridges and canyons of the islands of Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America.
Buckled-up among the cargo crates were a few scientists, a new station doctor, a station administrator, several journalists, and a handful of VIPs.
The ride, as harrowing as it seemed, was blissful compared to the other option: Traveling by ship through the Drake Passage. Constant 25-foot swells there test the mettle of many seafarers.
Though we couldn't see it from the plane, somewhere around 60 degrees south latitude, we crossed the boundary of the Southern Ocean, called the Antarctic Convergence. Experienced sailors say that there is a noticeable dividing line where Antarctic waters meet the warmer currents of the northern oceans - sea birds change colors, and winds and water are decidedly colder.
The flight became uneventful for a while. The ceiling of the aircraft was a rat's nest of vibrating wires, hoses, and machinery - all painted battleship gray. Outside the temperature was a nippy -26 Tdegrees C.
WO-and-a-half hours later, the flight crew started shaking their heads and whispering to one another.
``Winds are still 40 knots, and now snow has drifted across the runway in some places as high as the plane,'' a crewman shouted to me through my earplug.
The pilots circled and headed back to Punta Arenas. We could not try again until a day and a half later. This time we made it. Though the runway was covered with three inches of snow and ice, we landed safely at the Chilean Presidente Frei Base.
After riding in tracked vehicles down to the ocean's edge, we saw our ship, the Polar Duke, anchored in the distance. Small rubber Zodiacs ferried our group out to the ship. After climbing aboard, we settled in for a 24-hour trip to Palmer Station.
Waters in the inland passage along the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula are relatively calm, making for a smooth trip.
Soon after departing King George Island, most of the Norwegian crew settled down in the day room to read letters, newspapers, and news from home and family. This crew spends its entire working season in Antarctic waters.
In the wee hours of the next morning, the sound of ice breaking against the ship's hull roused almost everyone and brought them out onto the deck. Partly melted icebergs made ominous sounds as a thick fog rolled in and snow started to obstruct our view.
Several hours later, the ship maneuvered around a small outcropping of rock. There, clinging like barnacles to the rocks of Anvers Island, the buildings of Palmer Station emerged into view. A week after leaving Boston, we had finally arrived at America's smallest outpost at the bottom of the world.