In 1979, I was lucky enough to be chosen as part of a small group of US Navy photographers that visit Antarctica every winter to document science projects and help keep track of USARP activities there. I had no idea what I was getting into, but being from the frozen northlands myself as a kid, I thought it would be a breeze. It was…only they were 50 mph 100 below zero breezes!
I spent a few weeks in Christchurch, New Zealand getting my gear and going through complete physicals and dental exams, the thought behind that being they don’t want sick or impending sick people going down there when it’s darned tough to evacuate them out. And I agree, I can’t think of a place more remote or impossible to get urgent care than where I was headed. In fact, I appreciated them giving me tons of shots, taking lots of X-rays and fixing all my cavities before we left! We got a chance to enjoy some great meals and night life in NZ before we left, and then…we were off!
We all boarded a cargo plane and strapped ourselves into “sling seats” that were not designed to be comfortable, and I can attest to the fact that they were not. However, we were all ramped up with anticipation to be going to the “ice” as it’s known, and the long flight, shortened by a long nap, was over before we knew it. We circled the landing strip down there and then…we were deplaning and standing on ice that was 100’s of feet thick! We jumped in a big Bombardier buggy and rode back to McMurdo Station on plowed roads and entered what looked like a shanty town…and it was sprawling and not fancy, but it was well laid out.
Steel quonset huts were set up here and there, with hand painted signs that separated the different purposes they were for. Off to the side was a double level housing unit that looked like, and was, compartmented cubicle housing, that was easy to erect and was put up by the USARP crew. Everyone we did see outside was naturally bundled up but it wasn’t completely miserable cold, just average long johns weather and a big parka with a hood.
I met the crew that I would be working with for the next 6 months and had a good time talking to them, turned out that one of them was a photographer I had worked with up in Maine on other projects and who was a great guy. We both had a laugh about running into each other at the literal “end of the earth.” It really can be a small world sometimes!
I hadn’t been in Antarctica more than 60 minutes and the word came in that there had been a terrible crash…a NZ Airliner had crashed into the side of the dormant volcano, Mt Erebus. No one had time to let the enormity of the situation set in, and preparations were made to send out a rescue team which would include photographers to document the situation for the FAA team that would be flying in soon. I had documented one plane crash in my life and was somewhat relieved not to be chosen as part of the crew that would be brought to the crash site. With absolute respect to those that were lost in the crash, it’s a tragic and emotionally consuming job to document a crash and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to do it again.
I worked on small photographic projects for a few weeks, and then got word that there would be room for me out at Siple Station and I could catch a flight going out on a C130 supply plane. I gathered the necessary gear I would need for being out at the most remote science camp on planet Earth, and set off for the adventure of a lifetime. We flew across massive sheets of ice, glaciers that stretched for miles, huge mountain chains and eventually arrived at Siple after hours of flight.
Scientists were stationed at Siple to study “electromagnetic precipitation” which was, simply put, the study of how lightning striking a spot in British Columbia, would then arc all the way around the planet and strike at the exact same spot where Siple Station was located. It was a mind boggling concept then, and it is now. They were working on evaluating it for many different reasons, one of which was the possible use of transferring electrical power across the planet by use of the same principle. Fascinating concepts, and I was lucky enough to be having breakfast, lunch and supper with incredibly brilliant scientists that were out there to complete their studies.
I completed the documentation and photographs in about two weeks and was lucky enough to get back to McMurdo for New Years Eve, 1980. I had made friends with the NZ dogsled runners and they asked me if I wanted to go for a long ride out to a scenic spot? I was happy to get the chance to go and we rode for hours, the dogs happy to get a chance to run and run hard. It wasn’t the first time I had been on a dogsled but it was great fun to be out there, snow pelting us, on New Years eve. We finally got to our destination, and it was as great of a surprise as I could have asked for!
In front of us was a small building, and what looked like a rope, running up the side of the perfectly slanted mountainside…perfect for skiing! What I was looking at was a generator shack for a tow rope that was set up to pull us up the side of the short mountainside and we could ski down! Keep in mind that I was there during 24 hour daylight, and early evening on New Years eve it was still light at 8 pm. I was amazed at their ingenuity and deeply grateful that they would be willing to share such a coveted and well kept secret, with me!!
We spent hours skiing down the side of that beautiful setting, wrapping up a great evening with a cooked meal in the generator shack, a big hot mug of cocoa and a warm fire. I couldn’t believe that I was skiing in Antarctica on New Years Eve, 1980…it boggled my mind. I can honestly say that no New Years since has matched it nor even come close for being as fun OR memorable! We camped in the generator shack that night and had a quick breakfast the next morning before we headed back to McMurdo. What a wonderful way to spend New Years day, big hot mug of coffee in my stomach and snow stinging my face as we made the 5+ hour ride back to camp. What an amazing experience and I would give anything to be able to do it all again.
The rest of my time in Antarctica was spent working on documenting science projects of various types, including the study of how the cod down there can tolerate the frigid waters, the study of Emperor penguins nesting habits, and one where I really found out what its like to be in Antarctica, a study that NIU scientists were doing that tested how the bottoms of the bays around Butter Point resonated sound waves. We camped out on the ice for 3 days and we slept in tents, sleeping in three down sleeping bags, tucked inside each other. I will honestly admit that I enjoyed the adventure, as we rode in the huge Bombardier tracked vehicles that look like a big bus on tracks, across miles and miles of Antarctic wilderness.
The pleasures of those science trips were the meals. It’s well documented that the cold saps the body of nutrients and clearly, energy as it fights to stay warm in 50, 75, 90 below winds. The highlight of any day out on a science project was the evening meal, which always consisted of incredibly well prepared suppers over small gas stoves. Lobster, steak, double-decker burgers, with sides of pasta and veggies, we all ate like kings. These meals weren’t a frivolous gift, in fact, they were dietary rewards for working in the vile and nasty environments during the day. Psychologically and nutritionally, these meals were a great way to wrap up a long cold day, and we all looked forward to them, knowing that our bodies needed the calories and nutrients, but boy, they sure tasted good!
I will highlight the rest of the trip to Antarctica in my next chapter, where we rode back to New Zealand on a science ship and what a powerful adventure that was.