Antarctic diary: Preparing for the big chill

Herald science reporter Jamie Morton will be filing regular stories from Antarctica's Scott Base over the next week, along with a daily diary entry. Here is his first.
The beginning of Jamie Morton's adventure in Antarctica. Photo / Jamie Morton
The beginning of Jamie Morton's adventure in Antarctica. Photo / Jamie Morton

Our mid-morning flight to Antarctica was put on ice before we could reach the ice.

The huge US Air Force C-130 Hercules we were due to ride to Antarctica today remained grounded at Christchurch International Airport, with turbulent winds just below the South Island making it too dangerous to fly.

I chuckled as I considered the cause of the weather delay happened to be at this end - in New Zealand at the height of summer - rather than in one of the most naturally volatile places on the planet, where conditions reportedly weren't too bad.

But I received the news of the cancellation, delivered by a soldier as we checked our gear through the US Antarctic Program Passenger Terminal just after 8.30am, with silent relief.

I slept little last night - no doubt owing to the small mountain of gear piled next to my hotel bed that kept reminding me where I was soon to venture - so another day in Christchurch allowed the nerves to catch up.

Arriving at Antarctica New Zealand's headquarters that afternoon, I first noticed a small pack of huskies entertaining a group of kids visiting the International Antarctic Centre.

I pondered the possibility of gliding across the ice astride a sled, just like Scott or Shackleton would have a century ago.

But I was soon reminded that dogs haven't been used on the continent for two decades, banned because of their potential impacts on wildlife.

In their place are helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and tracked vehicles like snowmobiles or the much less romantic but famously sturdy Hagglund carrier.

Soon after checking in, we're directed to the store warehouse across the lawn for a gear fit-out and a brief introduction to life at Scott Base with Antarctica New Zealand staffer Woody.

From safety issues to the general layout of the base - it's spread out with different green-coloured buildings yet all connected through joining corridors, kind of like a space station - there's much to take in.

But the point that really sticks is an ever-present threat of getting zapped if you forget to discharge the static electricity you build up simply by walking around the base.

It's created by a combination of an extremely dry atmosphere and the geological make-up of the ground the base sits on - and it's apparently best addressed by regularly tapping metal poles positioned along the corridors.

With this in mind, I'm determined not to get tricked with an electrified high-five by someone.

In a fitting room waits what amounts to a couple of kilograms worth of gear to try on.

Attempting this feels like peeling an onion in reverse: you begin with thermal underwear, followed by a thermal jacket and trousers, and then a primaloft jacket and soft shell jacket.

Add to that a pair of salopette overalls, an "extreme cold weather" down jacket, balaclava, neck gaiter, head band, ski goggles and wind-proof cap.

By this point, you feel like you weigh a tonne, and you haven't even yet pulled on your leather Kinko gloves or your extreme cold weather boots - huge beasts of things that might be best described as tramping boots on steroids.

Ready for the cold. Photo / Jamie Morton
Ready for the cold. Photo / Jamie Morton

It's all critically essential when you're one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth - and a quote pinned to the wall reminds: "Learning is not comulsory. Neither is survival."

So you're expected to be clad in much of it when you step aboard the Hercules for the seven-hour flight south.

With a large suitcase and two jam-packed duffel bags loaded up, I'm preparing, again, for the adventure of a lifetime.

"You're going to have a blast guys, you're going to absolutely love it," Woody tells us as we head out the door, straining under the weight of the bags and boots we're lugging.

I have no doubt I will absolutely love it - weather permitting.

- NZ Herald

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