One of the loadmasters stepped out of the cockpit of the LC-130 Hercules aircraft and advised the thirty or forty of us that we were beginning the descent to McMurdo Sound. We had been in the air for just over seven and a half hours and for the last half hour I had been glued to the window as I looked out over the largest frozen continent on this planet. As far as I could see there were snow covered mountains and creeping down from these mountains were huge glaciers pushing their frozen ice out into McMurdo Sound creating spectacular glacial tongues. However, what was most poignant was the fact that there was not one single sign of human habitation for as far as the eye could see. Nothing until I reached McMurdo!
The LC-130, or Sky Pig, are essentially cargo planes carrying supplies to American bases around the world, however, these ski-equipped hercs were specially modified for the Antarctic. I had been lounging on the cargo pallets trying to snooze to help pass the time during the flight but now I had to return to the webbing seats in the mid-section of the plane between the cargo and cockpit. With everyone buckled in I soon noticed the plane beginning its descent. After a few more minutes I saw the loadmasters unbuckle themselves and climb back up into the cockpit. I felt the plane level out then I realized something was up. One of the loadmasters came out of the cockpit and announced that the landing gear had failed to deploy and that they were going to have to try and manually wind the equipment down. They began pulling off some of the insulation covering the interior housing of the landing equipment and then grabbed a crank handle and attempted to crank the landing gear down. The aircraft had stopped its descent and I could feel the plane pulling back up but I also observed that they didn't appear to be having much luck with the crank. One of the loadmasters returned into the cockpit and then came out and informed us that we had to put on all of our cold weather survival clothing: Bunny boots, heavy insulated pants and jackets, balaclava and bear paw gloves. This he announced was standard procedure in these situations.
There was a buzz going around the passengers and I could sense that people were becoming nervous. In a dark moment of thought I remember thinking to myself that this was becoming exciting. What if we had to do a belly-landing! It was not like we were landing on a hard packed run-way of black-pitch or concrete but snow! So how much damage could there be and I was sure they were prepared in the event of this happening!
They then began pulling more of the insulation off the side walls and announced that they were going to turn the heat up inside the aircraft. Their plan-of-action was to take as many coverplates off the housing and then try to get the heat down to where it could thaw out the frozen gear. In the meantime I was sitting there with my fellow Michelin tire look-a-likes with all this cold weather gear on as the temperature gradually creeped up. If this didn't work what course of action would be left for them? I didn't have any feeling of dread or doom but more of a feeling about what a story I would have to tell! I felt confident that they could land this porker without endangering us. Hollywood movies always showed planes landing without too much trouble on snow!
The loadmasters continued to work frantically but with confidence to get the equipment down. After about five to ten minutes I heard a couple of hissing noises then the loadmasters announced they were successful and that the landing gear had deployed and we would be landing safely in a few minutes.
Fifteen minutes later the swine touched down on the frozen sea ice runway a couple of kilometres out from McMurdo Station. The cold temperature took my breath away when I first stepped off the plane but that was soon replaced with awe as I took in the stunning surroundings of where I was. There was not a cloud in the sky, the active volcano of nearby Mount Erebus had a plume of smoke belching from its summit and huge tracked vehicles and rescue trucks were ready to take us all into the research station on Ross Island. Riding in across the ice I was soon surprised to find out that the ice that we had landed on was between six and eight feet thick. Wouldn't it have been safer to have dispersed the landing weight out then to put all the planes weight onto three ski-equipped pontoons? Thankfully the truck I was in weighed a lot less then the plane so I felt confident that we would get to solid terra-firma in a few minutes!
Many people have the misconception that in Antarctica there is six months of daylight and six months of darkness. It just doesn't work that way, however, McMurdo Station does experience almost two months of total darkness while at the Amundsen/Scott South Pole Station, the southern most continually inhabited place on the planet, their continuous period of darkness is longer but not six months.
Winter in Antarctica is commonly measured from the middle of February to the middle of October. The last planes leave McMurdo in the middle of February and don't return until the middle of August while for the South Pole they don't return until the middle of October. For both stations the winter-over personnel are almost totally isolated during those months and the potential is there for numerous stress related illnesses so before anyone is given the okay to winter-over they are psychologically evaluated by doctors. They want to try to make sure we don't go crazy and do something stupid that could jeopardize the whole base!
During the summer the sun is in the sky continuously for only a couple of months but then as the short summer disappears the sun rises above the horizon for shorter periods each day until it no longer is seen. However, that doesn't mean it becomes totally dark straightaway but each day the length of the twilight period also becomes shorter until eventually there is no twilight but just darkness. Scientist with the aid of computers are able to predict the exact time that the sun will dip below the horizon for the last time and then predict when it will appear above the horizon for the first time. They can also predict how long it will remain in view before it dips back down again. What they can't predict (at least not very far in advance and not exactly) is the temperature on that day! However, one thing that they can be sure of is that it will be COLD!
After the long winter months of darkness I was ready to see the sun again and feel its life-force. A couple of my scientist friends had calculated the date and the time the sun would appear above the horizon for the first time and as it happened it was going to be about an hour after I had completed my shift. On the day, I finished my shift at 2 p.m. and went back to my room (hooch) and changed into several layers of warm clothes and finally pulled on my red one-piece insulated suit with a fur-lined hood. I had three layers of gloves on, insulated boots, a balaclava, hat and scarf wrapped around my head, and ski goggles on. I was dressing for the cold! It was July, the middle of winter and the outside temperature was about minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit including the wind chill factor. One could say it was quite balmy out considering what it could go down too! I decided to hike up to the top of Observation Hill to see the new sun rise.
Observation Hill, or Ob Hill, is located just a few hundred feet out of town and rises to a height of 750 feet. There is a well defined trail all the way to the top to where there is a memorial plaque to Scott and his men who perished on their return from the South Pole in March 1912. I usually hiked to the top once a week when conditions allowed as I found it a beautiful place to sit and watch the mesmerizing aurora australis (southern lights) or to just look over McMurdo. Not that I could stay up there very long before the cold managed to seep through my clothing but long enough to clear my head from being inside continuously.
I stepped out of the main building complex to a quiet, deserted street. All of a sudden I experienced this brief subconscious feeling that I was the romantic dreamer in James Thurber's short story "The secret life of Walter Mitty" stepping out into a scene from the Clint Eastward movie High Plains Drifter. I had my Colt 45's strapped to my hips and I was waiting for the bad guys to come into view at the end of the street. I was ready to gun them down! However, before they appeared around the corner I felt the sting of the cold from a gust of wind and returned to McMurdo without the Colt 45's in my hand but two ski-poles.
As I walked down the street I still was expecting someone to walk around the corner but no one did and in a few minutes I was at the bottom of the trail up Ob Hill. There was enough illumination from the street lights so I didn't need to carry a headlamp. I started up the trail and became absorbed with what I was doing placing one foot in front of the other and trying not to focus on the cold. I hadn't been looking around as I thought I would get to the top before the sun popped up, however, all of a sudden I felt the hairs on my neck rise and my back arched as I felt the life-force radiate from the sun onto my back. Even in these temperatures I could feel the subtle change. It was an incredible feeling after having not felt the sun for so long. I turned around and saw the sun just break above the horizon with the silhouette of the Trans Antarctic Mountains in the foreground creating a sense of insignificance. I watched the sun arc up a few degrees and then sink back down below the horizon again. It was all over in a few minutes but what a feeling! I could now understand how some of the ancient peoples of the world revered the sun and put it above all other gods!
I continued up to the summit where I sat for about twenty minutes. I watched the twilight give way to darkness again but my body was still tingling from the effects of those few minutes in the sun. As I walked down the hill I let my thoughts wander and wondered if I came out tomorrow would I experience that same feeling again. There really is power in the suns rays!
Saturday night the main bar in Mactown was humming: pool balls were ricocheting off the felt cushions into pockets and darts were being winged across the room at warp-speed at the distant bull's eye and the Wurlitzer was working hard to pump the music out over the sound of inebriated patrons. Drinks were cheap: 50 cents for a shot from the top shelf and the same for a can of Budweiser. One could get drunk and it wouldn't cost you a fortune and many did because tomorrow was Sunday and it was the one day off. Around 10 p.m. a couple of the scientists (glaciologists) came into the noisey bar with a cooler full of ice. We soon found out that this wasn't ordinary frozen ice used to keep specimens cool; these were core samples drilled out from one of the continents glaciers and the scientists estimated that these samples were at least, maybe more once analysed, one million years old! They hadn't brought them in because they thought we would be curious, but for our drinks! We looked at the ice in the cooler on the floor and then at the top shelf behind the bar where we saw a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and a bottle of Black Label. We knew that the bottle of Black Label was 12 years old before it was bottled, however, we also knew that Johnnie Walker had a couple more labels that sat for much longer before they were bottled. Green was bottled at about 15 years, Gold about 18 years but the premium blend was Blue bottled after 60 years. This was a situation that called for the best so we asked the barman if he happened to have a bottle of Blue Label stashed anywhere. Unfortunately he didn't and the Black Label was the best he could offer us. So, a scotch-on-the-rocks it was with a 12 year old whiskey and ice that had been frozen since the time when dinosaurs walked the earth.
One of the rare and unfortunate sights around Mactown was when one of the Squa gulls got one of their legs trapped in a tin can that hadn't had the lid removed completely. The can would be opened in the kitchen, the contents discharged and the lid just pushed back into the tin and then it was thrown into the dumpster outside. These Squa gulls knew where the kitchen got rid of their scraps and could be frequently seen fighting over food scraps around the dumpsters. Occasionally one of the Squa's got brave and would dive into the dumpster to get some of the choice pieces of morsel. Unfortunately they would go to stand on a tin can and find that the lid would give way and their leg would get trapped in the tin. There would be an awful squawk and the gull would take flight with a tin can dangling from its leg. It wasn't a very nice sight and something had to be done. It wasn't like you could hold a little tit-bit out for it and as it came to get it from you, you would grab it. I think the Squa gull was feeling a little distraught about the whole thing as well. So what could be done? We had noticed that the birds appeared to gorge themselves on the food scraps to the point where they could hardly fly. In one of the containers out in the yard was one that had a few boxes of frozen beef steaks. No one knew how long they had been there and the kitchen wasn't going to cook them so we came up with a plan. We broke open one of the boxes and began cutting the frozen steaks into mouth-size pieces. We then threw them in the direction of the canned-bird hoping that it had calmed down a bit and the sight of food might convince it that there was still room in its stomach for a few more morsels. As it happened the gull did just what we hoped it would and came to ground and began eating (or I should say swallowing the steak). It wasn't long before we had quite a number of birds fighting over the steak and we had to cut up more pieces as we couldn't always get the piece to the intended bird. It kept eating and occasionally we would walk towards it to see if it would fly until finally it was so full and weighed down by pieces of steak that it couldn't take-off. This gave us the opportunity to grab a hold of it and remove the offending tin can. Obviously the bird wasn't going anywhere for a while until it had either digested the food or thrown it up. The dumpsters eventually had lids put on them to combat this problem but in the meantime there were some very well fed birds about that tipped the scales a little on the heavy side.
Early into my winter-over period of 1986 some of the Scott Base staff were out on the snow when they came across a large snow-covered mound. Because of the strong winds which race across the snow everything is normally flat therefore this appeared rather unusual so they decided to investigate. To their surprise they found it was a cache left during the build up to Scott's attempt at the South Pole in 1911/12. This cache had been left untouched and frozen for 75 years. The contents, which weren't a lot, consisted of a few tractor parts, some tin food and some digestive biscuits. I don't recall the exact quantity but it was all brought back to Scott Base where everything was eventually thawed including the biscuits. The tractor parts and tins could be returned to New Zealand where they could be given to the Christchurch Museum which has a section dedicated to the Antarctic. However, there was only one thing that could be done with the biscuits and that was to eat them. Although they were no longer fresh they were edible albeit somewhat bland. The dozen or so of us, after licking our lips, could now claim that there weren't too many people "alive" who had eaten some of Scott's polar biscuits!
Twenty three years later (2009) I was relating this story with Adrian Raeside, a Victoria, B.C., writer/cartoonist and the grandson of Sir Charles Seymour (Silas) Wright who was with Captain Robert Falcon Scott as the expedition's official physicist and glaciologist. Silas was picked to accompany Scott on the 900-mile journey to the Pole, however, Scott asked him to turn back when he was within 283 miles of the Pole. Scott and a five man party reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to find that the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen had beaten them by days. Bitterly disappointed, Scott and his companions returned to the coast, but were caught in a fierce Antarctic blizzard that raged for days. Too weak to pull their sleds and out of food and fuel, they froze to death - only eleven miles from a cache of food and fuel.
The next spring Wright navigated for the search party that went back to look for the remains of Scott and his party, and it was the sharp-eyed Wright who spotted the mound of snow covering the tent containing Scott, Wilson and Bowers' frozen bodies. If it hadn't been for Silas's sharp eyes, the world might never have known what happened to Scott and his party.
In the Antarctic summer of 2008-2009, Raeside travelled to Antarctica to retrace his grandfather's footsteps and to gain perspective on an adventure of a century ago that challenged men's courage, strength and sanity. Raeside was obtaining background for a book he was writing, which was to include previously unpublished accounts, drawings and photographs from his grandfather, called Return to Antarctica. However, Raeside then told me his grandfather's story of also finding a half eaten digestive biscuit in the tent with the bodies. This biscuit was eventually brought back and kept as a memento. A few years ago this half eaten biscuit sold for - $6000. I couldn't believe it! The two whole biscuits that I had eaten in 1986 could have been worth $24,000. They are the most expensive biscuits I have ever eaten or am likely to in the future!