Flying further South

The final leg of my trip to the Pole proved elusive!

After years of planning and delays here I was at last in McMurdo, but flights south to the Pole were constantly being delayed, postponed and cancelled. 

I was in a sort of polar Groundhog Day. Every morning I’d wake up, pack my bags, go to breakfast, look at the departure monitors and see that my flight was either cancelled, postponed to later in the day or was apparently going to fly - only to be cancelled later in the day. The cancellations were mostly due to predicted bad weather at McMurdo later in the day. This would prevent the LC-130 ski-planes from returning from the Pole - they can’t stay at the Pole for any more than a short while without freezing up.

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One day we all loaded into the Delta transport and headed out into the fog, assured that we were going to fly. We waited for a while for it to clear and miraculously it did. We climbed aboard the Herc, loaded all our gear, strapped in, put in our earplugs, took off, got to see tantalizing glimpses of the McMurdo Ice sheet and the Trans-Antarctic Range as we climbed, banked, did a 180º loop, and landed again. We were back on the ground within 15 minutes of taking off. All flights cancelled again.

Adding new meaning to "cooling your heels". Waiting by the passenger transport Delta "Dawn" for fog to clear the runway at Williams Field

Adding new meaning to "cooling your heels". Waiting by the passenger transport Delta "Dawn" for fog to clear the runway at Williams Field

Ground control to Major Tom....

Ground control to Major Tom....

Eventually after 6 days of delays we were loaded back onto the LC-130, took off and headed South. The view of the mountains was spectacular through the tiny, crusty windows. I wished for panoramic views but even the glimpses were breathtaking.

After about 2 hours in the air we started to climb up one of the larger glaciers and we could see the polar plateau stretching for miles out in front of us, unbroken to the horizon. At first I thought I was looking down on a smooth layer of clouds, then I realized it was ice, seemingly smooth and featureless from this altitude stretching out to merge with the pale blue sky at the distant horizon.

As we started to lose altitude on approach to the Pole the features of the ice surface became more noticeable. It wasn’t cracked and dimpled with fissures and compression ridges like the glaciers and ice shelves we’d left behind but evenly textured from the windblown drifts of snow and ice that occasionally revealed patches of glassy ice beneath. It reminded me most of a sheet of fine watercolor paper - smooth and even overall but with a complex fractal texture. 

I have written elsewhere about the whiteness and isotropic nature of the Polar plateau as if it was a blank sheet of paper - "The Polheim: a marker of absence".

“Perhaps the foundational metaphor of horror and the sublime in literature is the dreaded ‘blank white page’ faced by all artists and writers: the page awaiting our imprint, like footsteps in the snow. Many artist have taken the steps required to mark that page, to scale the gradients of that seemingly isotropic and blank landscape and in so doing have shaped our understanding, expectations of and perception of the Antarctic.“

But I didn’t expect it to actually, physically look like a sheet of paper.

I was also reminded of the oceans of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris - an amorphous and unfixed landscape that reflects our own thoughts and desires back to us and makes them real.

I crossed the polar plateau from the Trans-Antarctic Range to land at South Pole Station in less than an hour. It was unimaginable to think of Amundesen and Scott and their men slogging their way across the icy desert in search of the Pole - unmarked, difficult to locate and fix, offering nothing but a reflection of what the men bought with them - dreams of fame, national pride, and the strange notion of “discovery”.