When I arrived here, I didn’t want to leave. But now our stay has been extended. By a day. By another day. By two more days. On Thursday we did “bag drag,” where our bags were weighed and driven over to McMurdo for our C-17 flight scheduled to leave at 4am Friday. We decided to stay up for our 2am pickup but it was snowing, and the plane never left Christchurch. Flight cancelled. So now we’re left with the clothes we were wearing and whatever we’d packed into our carry-on bag. I had been warned. “You can check out but you might never leave,” said Matt Vance, media wrangler and our on-ice escort, at bag drag.
National Geographic described the McMurdo Sound ice runway as the world’s number one extreme airport, and given that, I’m happy that they delay our flight out until conditions are good. Since we arrived last week, the runway has been moved from the sea ice to the permanent Ross Ice Shelf, where the ice is thicker. Even so, the plane from New Zealand won’t land if visibility is limited or if visual definition is poor – with white clouds and a white runway on the endless white ice shelf it all becomes too difficult for the pilot to see what’s what.
Last night I went to hear Robert Bindschalder lecture at the Crary Lab at McMurdo Station. His lecture – Poking the Pig – was about his work on the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf. The PIG, as he calls it, is the fastest moving glacier in Antarctica, or in Bindschadler’s words, “this sucker really roars”. Bindschadler says the key to understanding the PIG ice shelf lies beneath the ice, and that’s where they’re going to look. They’re about to set up a field camp on the glacier and are going to start direct observations of what’s going on beneath the ice.
For a science girl like me, hearing a rock star scientist lecture at the Crary Lab in Antarctica – well, it doesn’t get much better than that. I travelled over with Si and Oli, but chose to walk back to Scott Base on my own, on the scoria road over the hill, past the slowly turning wind turbines on Crater Hill. I waved at the red monster trucks and NSF vans that drove the road between McMurdo and Scott Base, while the snow fell around me and Sigur Ros played in my headphones. This place makes me feel so happy and so sad all at the same time. I keep having teary moments – about everything and nothing. I’ve spent lots of time surrounded by people here, but in the moments when I’m alone in all this vastness and flatness and whiteness, emotions seem to start leaking out of me like I’m an ice cube melting on a hot table.
So now we’re waiting, and it’s nice. It feels completely appropriate to have a bit of melancholia here. I’ve done all my interviews for the stories I’m writing for the Listener and now I’m relaxing – today I did some writing and some walking – and just enjoying this place. I’m so lucky to be here.
Observation Hill is covered in a light dusting of snow. There are a few more baby seals dotted on the sea ice in front of the base. It’s been an incredible 10 days. I’ve been ice fishing for Trematomus pennelliwith Clive Evans and his team. I’ve driven a Haggland. I’ve been camping on the Ross Ice Shelf. I’ve been on a helicopter trip to the Taylor Valley and had coffee and peanut butter slice at an American field camp. I’ve talked to penguins and Weddell seals. I’ve been walking and cross-country skiing in the most incredible place on earth. I’ve made new friends with whom I’ve drunk whisky and discussed poetry, depression, careers, sailing, relationships, science and, what it always comes back to, Antarctica.
And maybe, just maybe, tomorrow I’ll make it home. To my family, my garden, a book I have to finish and to a summer where I can go outside without radioing in my intentions and putting on giant boots and layers of polypropylene, nylon and wool.