On the Ice With Education Week, Page 1

By David J. Hoff — January 06, 2001 4 min read
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Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Photo Editor Allison Shelley will be filing dispatches from Antarctica about their experiences and those of the teachers they are there to chronicle. Their initial correspondence highlights their efforts to get to the “coldest, driest, windiest place” on Earth.

Christchurch, New Zealand (Jan. 3)—Twenty-eight of us sit down in the LC- 130 military cargo plane at 8:30 a.m. We wear our extreme-cold-weather clothing, and wait for the final leg of our trip to the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest place.

Click on photo to begin essay.

We taxi out to the runway, and after a delay of a few minutes, the load masters— two of the Air National Guard crew members who operate the transportation from here to Antarctica—start climbing around atop the cargo in the rear of the plane. They shine their flashlights on the ceiling. They stop to talk with each other, occasionally shrugging over the din of the engines. Soon, we’re heading back to our starting point, and a crew of mechanics goes through the same set of inspections, conversations, and shrugs.

“We’re broke, folks,” the chief load master tells us after a while. “You’ll have to go back to the terminal while we check this out. Make sure you take all of your bags. I don’t think we’re going today.”

Within an hour, we have all dispersed back to our hotels spread throughout the town, ready for another day in Christchurch.

When the plane broke down, I had been traveling for almost 80 hours—from Washington to New Zealand. I thought I was nine hours away from reaching my destination. No such luck. Before we returned to our hotels, we’d been told that the flight might leave tomorrow.

Such delays are common in Antarctic travel. It’s usually the weather that delays the scientists and support personnel headed south. Many mornings at 4 o’clock, the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where I’m staying sneaks into the rooms of Antarctic travelers to tell them the flight has been canceled because of high winds in Antarctica. Other flights take off and get halfway there, only to turn around because treacherous weather made landing impossible. Such trips are called boomerangs.

Stories of them are part of modern Antarctic lore. A biologist on our abortive flight knows someone who “boomeranged” seven consecutive days. Another person managed to make eight trips to the ice without being turned back. I’ve heard of a Russian group of scientists who landed in Christchurch unaware they’d turned around in midflight. They started acting excited about finally arriving in Antarctica until they spotted the same hangars they’d departed from eight hours earlier.

We should consider ourselves lucky this morning. We arrive in Christchurch in time for lunch in the summer sun in Cathedral Square. We may try again tomorrow. Or we may be awakened before dawn to be told that we can sleep in because there won’t be a flight.

McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica (Jan. 4)—On our second attempt to leave Christchurch, New Zealand, we at least get off the ground.

We’ve been in the air less than a minute when my neighbor nudges me.

“The load master just told me an engine overheated,” he yells over the noise. “We’re going to have to land.”

Soon, the load master is looking out over the right wing. One propeller is still, as if it is frozen.

“You don’t see that every day,” he tells my colleague Allison Shelley, who quickly snaps the picture. “I’m getting too old for this,” says the man, who looks to be 25.

We circle back to Christchurch’s airport, where fire trucks greet us, and a firefighter climbs aboard. He comes out a few minutes later after finding no signs of fire.

Another plane is ready to go. All it takes is an hour to transfer our luggage.

As the second plane takes off, I can see the mechanics on the ladder, fiddling with the first plane’s broken engine. They need to fix it for another group of scientists and support personnel scheduled to fly out today.

Seven hours into the flight, we begin to see Antarctica.

All that I had read, heard, and imagined about this continent did not prepare me for Antarctica’s beauty.

Even from 26,000 feet, the mountains look majestic. They grow out of a mass of whiteness, capped by jagged peaks. They cover the landscape. I can’t fathom how the early explorers crossed them.

On the other side of the plane, the sea is dotted with pods of ice, white flecks in the blue water. From our altitude, the pods look frozen in place, but I’m sure they shift with the tides, gliding across the seas and contributing in some small way to the 200-million-year-old mountains in the distance.

Presently, the pods give way to a white sheet of ice that looks like a blank canvas. I can see the shadow of our plane. It looks so insignificant compared to everything around it.

Photography made possible through a generous donation of digital equipment from the Eastman Kodak Company (


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