It was one small step for a young journalist, one giant leap in my life experience. In my first minutes on the Antarctic continent I felt as though I had landed on the moon.
I arrived in October on a Starlifter, a huge Navy cargo plane with skis for landing gear. I tumbled out the hatch with fellow passengers after an eight-hour flight in seats made from cargo straps. (They were built, it seems, for discomfort.) I was bundled in heavy layers of polar-weight clothing.
The cold was so deep it took my breath away. The light was powerfully bright. It bounced off the white snow from all directions. Even wearing dark sunglasses, I had to squint. This place was unlike anything I'd ever known. I admit I was a little scared.
But there was no turning back. For the next five months of summer in the Southern Hemisphere (October to mid-February), I was committed to live here.
I was 2,000 miles from Australia, 650 miles from South America, and 2,800 miles from Africa on a continent bigger than the continental United States and Mexico combined. That's a lot to explore - 5.4 million square miles of desolation dotted with a few outposts.
One such outpost (population 1,200) is McMurdo Station on Ross Island. It's America's largest base on the continent. I was to be the first editor of The Antarctic Sun, a twice-monthly newspaper for the scientists, military personnel, and support staff who live there. My job was to report news from the planet's coldest, windiest, driest, most extreme environment.
In the Antarctic summer, temperatures regularly fall to 10, 20, even 30 degrees below zero F. Even with my thick polar parka, the cold seeped in. But work in McMurdo continues no matter how cold it gets.
McMurdo Station, founded in the 1950s, is part mining camp, part Navy base, part small college, part scientific facility. After five months of winter darkness (only about 120 people live there then), the station roars to life. With 24 hours of summer sunlight, work goes on in shifts, around the clock, six days a week.
Just as Noah had two of everything, McMurdo has at least two workers of every trade: electricians, cooks, hairdressers, pipefitters, computer technicians - everyone you need to run a self-sufficient community.
My days in McMurdo began at 7 a.m. (The station, incidentally, runs on New Zealand time.) Emerging from my compact, college-style dormitory, I headed for the galley. Breakfast was pancakes, eggs, muffins, and sausages - calorie-rich, high-energy foods for people who work outside in the cold. Though we often complained about the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables (some salad greens are grown under artificial light), the cooks kept us well-fed and happy.
By 8 a.m., the station was buzzing. Trash must be collected, buildings built, heating fuel delivered (everything runs on aviation fuel, for convenience). Researchers prepared for field trips, pilots prepared for supply flights to New Zealand. McMurdo often felt more like a beehive than a field station.
People worked hard, but they played hard, too. The elaborate costume parties are legendary. So are such events as "the polar plunge."
The polar plunge? I couldn't resist. I joined 30 hearty colleagues on the edge of the ice. When my turn came, I slipped a wet safety rope around my bare waist and, with a shout, plunged into the subfreezing salt water. Seconds later, I was climbing up a wooden ladder and sprinting for a warming hut.
On rare days off, I often took time to explore. After signing out at a safety station and picking up a hand-held radio, I'd follow carefully flagged trails that guided me through fields of crevasses. The flags, spaced every 20 yards or so, would also guide me home in the event of a "whiteout" storm. On longer trips from the station, we had to bring survival kits. [See story, next page.]
After a day-long hike to Castle Rock, a rocky spur that offers a superb view of the landscape, I'd return happy and exhausted. My friends and I would gather in town. And in the evening, as the sun continued to shine, we would draw the heavy canvas curtains over our dorm windows and watch movies!
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