Out of AGAP
January 24th, 2009
MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– The problem with going to remote places is that no one wants to come pick you up. As of the 13th, we had a plan for finishing the survey, getting all the science personnel out of AGAP and leaving Antarctica on the HERC flight that left at 7am yesterday. Reality is: not a single member of the AGAP-South staff or science team was on that flight. Since the 13th we have been waiting for a ride out of East Antarctica, a ride that each day was promised and then taken away. The carps and electricians have it the worst. Their ride was supposed to come on the 13th, while the science team has just been waiting since the 15th or 16th. The funny thing is that the weather here was supposed to turn so foul and cold that we would not be able to get picked up at this time. It’s still a balmy -25F… normal AGAP summer temperatures.
Many of the HERC cancellations have had nothing to do with weather here at AGAP. The majority of flights were canceled because of mechanical problems and a few more were kept away by the forecast, not the actual weather. Last Tuesday, the HERC circled overhead and turned back to town without stopping. We later learned it had an engine failure that would prevent it from taking off again had it landed. That solace was not provided before the phrase “If a HERC circles twice and does not land, you’ve been AGAP’d” was added to the collection of poems, cultural arguments and witty limericks on the outhouse walls.
Yesterday morning, we were canceled again despite beautiful weather on the plateau. This particular HERC could not get appropriate air pressure in the passenger cabin. Normally, airplanes are kept at a pressure altitude of no more than 8000 ft, which is comfortable for most people when they are sitting or sleeping. Weather systems are often associated with pockets of high and low pressure. As they pass over, they change the pressure altitude or the amount of oxygen available in the air. Our science party has experienced pressure altitudes of near 16,000 ft while at AGAP. When they called to cancel the HERC because they couldn’t lower the altitude inside of it by pumping the plane full of oxygen, we all objected. Everything is downhill from AGAP! We are already at the maximum altitude we’d experience during flight and 2 days before we were 2,000 ft higher! Despite our exclamations, arguing with a HERC will never make it land. But later that night, a HERC finally landed! More importantly, it stopped, added 3,000 gallons of fuel to the AGAP fuel bladder and then hauled away with 20+ passengers and tons of cargo.
Now back in McMurdo, the AGAP team will work to disassemble the science kit on the plane, pack, label and ship all our gear back to New York. Meanwhile, I am packing my personal things and coming to terms with going home — particularly since it will still be winter when I get there. A month in East Antarctica is plenty of winter for any year!
Not missing the cold of Antarctica does not save me from missing the adventure. As the reality of leaving this great continent dawned on me, I decided I had to throw myself in the deep end one more time: I took the polar plunge. Yes, I jumped into freezing cold, salty water in a cutaway in the ice shelf. It was surprising — like when we discovered one of the Recovery lakes is not a lake at all; it was cold, like the windy day on the plateau when the wind chill hit -55F and it was exhilarating — like all science fieldwork should be. What better way to end this journey of learning?