Saturday, January 20, 2007

Seeing the telescope for the first time

I slept through my alarm clock on the morning that we were leaving from McMurdo to Pole, waking up with only about 10 minutes before I was supposed to be getting on a shuttle to the airfield. I managed to throw on all of my gear, pack, strip my bed, and meet up with my colleagues, who had begun to worry that I might miss the flight. I had enough time to grab a tiny bit of coffee, but not enough to feel very aware of what was going on. We had a bouncy, scenic ride out to Willy field, in "Ivan the Terrabus", where we boarded a small C-130 plane bound for the South Pole Station. All of this within about half an hour of waking up.

The C-130 is a small propeller plane equipped with skis for landing on the ice runways. Passengers strap themselves into seats along the inside walls, and luggage is strapped into the middle between everyone's knees. It's noisy, like the C-17, but the windows were a little bit more prominent. Without my usual several cups of morning coffee, I was very groggy, and I curled into my down parka and slept for a good part of the trip. But when I woke up and went to look at the window, the thrill of seeing the Antarctic landscape below was a powerful jolt. We passed over vast mountain ranges, where only the tips of the mountains could be seen above the ice. The ground, where it was visible, was rough and totally untouched by plants or animals or rain for many millenia. Just rock and ice, as far as we could see. The windows of the plane were dirty, but I took a lot of pictures and stared out at the view as much as I could. How many people get to see these mountains, these tiny tips of mountains peeking out over a sea of mile-deep ice? The scales were also disorienting. Without trees or roads or other recognizable details in the landscape, how do you judge the sizes of the peaks? How can you even take in those expanses of ice and make any sense of it?

Finally we arrived at the pole. It does feel different to land in a plane on skis compared to wheels. Snow flew around the windows. I had butterflies in my stomach. Before I realized it, the door was open and we pushed out way out. I was afraid, having been warned many times about the effects of the high polar altitude, that I would immediately feel dizzy or have trouble walking or feel incredibly cold. But I held my camera up as I stepped out, and recorded the first thing that I could see as I stepped onto the ice. I barely realized it at the time, but the very first thing I saw as I left the plane was the telescope, in the distance. I looked around at the plane, and then I scanned the ice until I saw a crowd of my friends and colleagues waiting to meet us. Everyone laughed and grinned and gasped at the beautiful telescope sitting across the ice, and then we went inside to begin our work.