Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hurry up and wait

We've been stuck here in McMurdo for a few days. The typical trip to pole involves spending a night here, but if weather is bad in either location you can find yourself stranded here for days or even weeks. Right now, weather is bad in both places.

McMurdo has a large population during the summer season, housing more than a thousand people in a handful of dormatories on the side of a hill. Transients -- those bound for pole or various field camps -- are typically housed in the central building, building 155. This is also the building with the dining facilities, computer room, store, and various other services, all located along a central hallway called "Highway One". The picture above shows the front entrance to 155, and you can see some of the ubiquitous sorted waste containers out front. There are literally dozens of catagories of garbage here, since everything gets shipped back to the U.S. for recycling or disposal. Carefully sorting any trash you generate is a fixture of life here, as is obsessively washing your hands to avoid getting sick or spreading any illness in these close quarters. There are handwashing stations right inside the doors of 155, and there are signs everywhere urging good hygiene practices to keep everyone healthy.

Since we've been here, we have been on almost constant alert for flights to pole. Each day, we wake up early to meet our original departure time, but then the time slides later and later in the day as the weather continues to be prohibitive on one end or the other. Flight manifests are posted along Highway One and television screens give us regular updates on the weather and the flight schedules. A lot of our time in the last couple of days has been spent standing in the hallway watching these screens and trading rumors we've heard about the weather conditions and our odds of flying anytime soon.

On Monday, we actually made it into a plane and halfway to pole, but conditions at pole deteriorated and we had to turn back. By the time we had flown back to McMurdo, conditions here were extremely windy. Two other planes that had also "boomeranged" were forced to divert to the nearby Italian station, Terra Nova. Our pilot was determined to land us, and took us through three bumpy failed approaches before finally landing us safely. The turbulence during the failed approaches was intense enough to make quite a few people sick, and even once we were back on the ground I felt wobbly and disoriented for a while. It was shocking to see what the conditions really were on the ground -- it was so blustery that I found myself sliding across the ice if I stood still. I took a shot of the plane through the window as we rode Ivan back to the station, glad to be back on the ground for a little while.


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