January 23, 2011 The Return Home
Well, I'm back home with mixed feelings. I had an incredibly amazing experience in Antarctica and yet I am also happy to be home; it feels good to be back with my family. In the four days since I've returned, I've experienced quite a bit of culture and weather shock. It was very strange to drive myself again and to tackle the grocery store. It seems that there are people everywhere; Wyoming once seemed so quiet and often remote, but it doesn't begin to compare to the overwhelming quietness of Antarctica. The weather while I was in Antarctica was unusually nice for such an extended period of time. We rarely had any wind (only three or four days) and the temperatures were mild (high 20's Fahrenheit). I arrived in Denver to find the wind chill in the single digits and a snow storm verging on a white-out. It felt so cold, I immediately wanted to get back on the plane and return to Antarctica where it was warmer!
Our departure from McMurdo was delayed like so many of our other flights around Antarctica. We were originally scheduled to leave on the afternoon of Monday, January 17th. However, the flight was delayed until 6 a.m. on Tuesday the 18th because the ice at Pegasus Runway was too soft for the C-17s. We had to wait until that night because the sun strikes the airfield at a lower angle allowing the ice to cool and become more rigid. If the incoming C-17 were to land during the day when the runway surface was too warm, the runway would deform and require significant repairs to restore the smoothness needed for a plane to land and take-off. Because there is only one C-17 that carries passengers and cargo to and from Christchurch, those of us departing northward had to wait for the plane to arrive.
Our transport from McMurdo was scheduled for 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning (January 18th). We were carried out to Pegasus Runway on a Delta. This time, I got to sit up front instead of in the back where passengers are crowded with their backs to the windows and all their gear piled down the center. It was so exciting to sit up in the front and see where we were going. If I hadn't been in the front, I would never have seen the three Emperor penguins that have been hanging out near the warming hut on the road to the runway. I wasn't able to see the yellow on their necks, but it was obvious they were Emperors because they were so much taller than the Adelies I saw closer up.
Once out at Pegasus, we had to wait three hours for the C-17 to arrive. When it arrived, the incoming passengers off-loaded and we watched the cargo being unloaded and return cargo loaded. Finally, it was our turn to board the plane. I did so with mixed emotions. I will miss Antarctica dearly and have resolved to find a way to return sometime in the future. We had a five hour and twenty-five minute flight back to Christchurch.
Once the plane had reached cruising altitude, they allowed us to get up and move around. I wanted to be able to see as much of Antarctica as I could, so I stood by the rear window and watched the continent recede. During this time, I was able to see open water and the Drygalski ice tongue! (Ice tongues emerge when a glacier ice stream flows rapidly (relative to surrounding ice) into the sea, usually in a protected area.) The pilots invited passengers to climb up into the cockpit to take in the view; I held off until the end because there was a long line. I was the last person to go up to the cockpit, so I had quite a bit of time to visit with the pilots; they showed me their navigational charts and pointed out features along the coastline. I stayed until we ran out of land. My last views of Antarctica were very memorable.
We arrived in Christchurch to a gentle, persistent rain. Once on the ground, we were shuttled to the airport where we went through customs and then it was off to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) to return our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. From there, we took a shuttle to the Windsor Hotel where we stayed at the beginning of the expedition. Several of us went out for a farewell dinner and then a comfortable night in a soft bed and room where we could open the windows to cool off. One of the strangest things I experienced was darkness! After having 24-hour sunlight, it was very strange to see a sunset and darkness outside.
The next morning, it was off to the airport again, this time for a string of flights back home, 22 hours of flying time altogether! (With lay-overs included, my trip was over 37 hours in length!) When I arrived at the Denver airport, the weather was worse than any I'd seen in Antarctica! It was in the single digits with the wind chill and snowing! At one point, the snow was blowing so much that it was difficult to see other planes. With weather like this, flights in Antarctica would never take off. But, in Antarctica, they don't have paved, smooth, runways delineated by lights. Landings are always more dangerous with flat light where you can't see uneven features on the snow and ice. It was strange watching the de-icers spray down the plane, knowing we'd actually fly in this kind of weather!
By the time my flight reached Laramie, the skies had cleared and the roads were much more passable than they had been when my husband, Dave, drove over to pick me up. After a two hour drive home along I-80, I was finally home. It felt so good to sleep in my own comfortable bed and pet my kitties! It will take some time to readjust to the predictable routine of life at home, but the memories of Antarctica will remain for a lifetime.
The final days in Antarctica were a whirlwind of activity and I still have many things to share, so stay tuned for more journal entries. I've been very honored that so many of you have chosen to accompany me on my journey. Thank you for your support and enthusiasm.