We awoke at 5:30 A.M. in McMurdo and headed out to check the flight schedule to see if we were still checking in for our flight at 6:30. The storm last week delayed and cancelled many flights leaving McMurdo, so we were told there was a good chance we might not fly today.
Flight schedule board in McMurdo Station.
The flight schedule had a note attached that told us our flight was going to be delayed by three hours and a new check in time was issued at 9:00. This meant that we had a few hours to check out McMurdo Station. We immediately headed to the Crary Library where we took in one of the most breathtaking views of Antarctica I had seen yet. We watched a helicopter take off from the pad and fly out over the sea ice. It was magical just watching the Weddell seals basking in the sun and seeing the Skua birds dance in the air. It's amazing to think that anything can live in such a hostile environment.
The welcome sign outside of the Crary Library.
The view from the top floor of the Crary Library over looking McMurdo and the sea ice.
We headed downstairs from the library and began to explore some of the marine science labs. Walking down the stairs, we ran into Cal Poly professor Heather Liwanag who offered to introduce us to a member of the marine science laboratory that houses the touch tank. Kristen Hosek, a Sonoma State graduate student, guided us to the marine science lab and shared some information about her research. Her team is working with rock cod, a benthic fish species that live in the cold waters of Antarctica. "Since these species have evolved in a steady environment that has been unchanging for millions of years, they may have lost the ability to respond to any variable environment," says Hosek. "We will be measuring protein turn over rates and different regulatory mechanisms to see how they will respond in the face of environmental stress." Her team is using different temperatures of water to change the environment.
The marine science laboratory at McMurdo Station.
Kristen Hosek from Sonoma State gives a tour of the marine science laboratory. (Photo credit: Liz Friedman)
Hosek also showed us touch tank that contains a few marine species that demonstrate polar gigantism. There were isopods, sea spiders, sea anemones, sea stars, and other mollusks. The water is kept at a nice -1 C for the animals and it actually hurt my hands to put them in the cold water.
A sea spider that demonstrates polar gigantism, in the touch tank at the marine science lab at McMurdo.
After our brief tour we headed back up the hill to check in for our flight. We boarded a small National Science Foundation shuttle and Shuttle Sally took us to Willy field, the runway used by planes with skis. It gave a gorgeous view of Mt. Erebus again. After waiting for the fuelies to fill us up with some fuel for the flight, we were taken out on the icy runway and MSGT Hassis greeted us with ear plugs before we boarded our second LC-130 in less than two days.
Mt. Erebus caught my eye in the bathroom window.
The LC-130 in McMurdo Station heading for the South Pole.
This was a short three hour flight with only six passengers instead of the 46 we had the day before. Although there still was not much room on this flight because of the extra cargo strapped down in the back of the plane. We again asked if we could take a trip up to the cockpit and this sight was even more breathtaking than the day before. The journey through the peaks of the Transantarctic Mountain range is one that will never be forgotten. As far as the eye can see in every direction were impressive ridges that jutted out from the blanket of white below. I felt chills as I imagined what the journey must have been like on foot for Amundsen or Scott in the early 1900s. I imagined what Byrd might have said in his plane as he flew over the Pole for the first time in 1929. And then I realized that very few people have ever crossed this range and how eerily empty those valleys felt as I looked out over the abyss.
Hanging out in the cockpit as we fly over the Transantarctic Mountains.
The Transantarctic Mountains from the LC-130.
Arriving at the South Pole was surreal. Stepping off the LC-130 was deafening since it is too cold to turn off the engines. It was just my own voice that I could hear in my head, "You made it. You finally made it to the bottom of the world." I took in a deep breath and realized I couldn't breath. Not only was the biting cold of -48.5 F (with windchill) apparent, but the atmosphere was so thin at this altitude I found myself gasping for a breath. Here we are, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of the driest, harshest place on the planet, and we are sitting at the top of the bottom of the world.
Wearing ECW gear on the LC-130 headed for the Pole.
A welcoming committee was standing next to the "Welcome to the South Pole" sign and they greeted us with open arms. They helped us carry in our baggage, and guided us to the door of the station. Thomas Meures, a member of the ARA team, turned to me and said, "Welcome to Pole". I nodded and trudged up the flight of stairs into the station, struggling to catch my breath in the harsh conditions.
Those moments stepping off of the plane and walking into the station will be memories that will remain with me forever.
Polies greet us at the South Pole sign as we exit the LC-130 and cross the harsh Antarctic enviroment to reach the station.