Briefings, and More Briefings

Spectrum's Glenn Zorpette reports from Antarctica

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This is part of the series:
Antarctica: Life on the Ice

Transcript: Briefings, and More Briefings

Mike McElroy: How many people have never been to the ice before? A few of yas. Okay. My name is Mike McElroy. I’m the CDC supervisor, and of course the object is to try your ECW gear on today.

Glenn Zorpette: Traveling to Antarctica as a guest of the U.S. Government is not like taking a vacation. It’s exciting, to be sure, but the preparation is more akin to joining the Army than packing for Italy. I went as a guest of the National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic program.
First, you have to get the most complete physical and dental examinations of your life.

[medical exam sounds]

Glenn Zorpette: Then you work with your doctor and dentist to fill out 50 pages of forms on your health and health history.

[muttering, papers shuffling]

Glenn Zorpette: Then, if you seem healthy enough…

[jet taking off]

Glenn Zorpette: …you fly for 18 hours to Christchurch, New Zealand, where you go through several days of briefings, some more essential than others.

Mike McElroy: It does say on the DVD you’re not permitted to take alcohol with you. That is not strictly true. You may take alcohol with you, not to consume on the flight south of course. All I suggest you do, if you do decide to take it, is you put it in your hand carry bag and you pack it very well. There’s nothing worse than spending a couple hundred dollars on a bottle of whiskey and it gets broken. If you’ve never seen me cry, you certainly will. One lady did that a while ago, and she had two bottles, so I cried a wee bit longer.

Glenn Zorpette: OK. Got that? The hooch goes in the hand carry. Don’t forget. All right, on to the next briefing. This one happened right after I landed at McMurdo, where eleven hundred people live in the summer. It’s the main U.S. base and the largest one in Antarctica. This one was about how to stay healthy at McMurdo.

Doctor: For your protection, there are several problems that are going through McMurdo. The first and most likely for you to get is the crud. The crud is not H1N1; it is just simple viral illness. Everybody who’s here much time gets at least one crud, and sometimes three or four.

Glenn Zorpette: Bottom line, drink plenty of fluids. Wash your hands a lot. And wear sunscreen. Simple. So far, so good. But, well, watch your step…

Kevin Pettway: For example, if you’re going to go to Cape Royds, your feet are going to be covered in penguin shit. That’s just what it is. It’s disgusting. Those things are going to smell terrible. And then if you’re going straight from there to the Dry Valleys, if you don’t wash your boots, you’re going to be introducing all this organic matter into the very, very sensitive dry valleys, which could affect—alter the ecosystem.

Glenn Zorpette: Broken whiskey bottles, the crud, penguin dung, what was I getting myself into? I took a few deep breaths and went on to the next briefing. This one was about how to stay alive if you get stranded outside somewhere. No pressure there, huh?

Brian Johnson: So, with your finger, I’d like you to point to the South Pole. Hold it out. I just want to see where the South Pole is.… Lee, where’s the South Pole? Okay, pretty…Josh is probably the closest there. New Zealand, over yonder.

Glenn Zorpette: That’s Brian Johnson, who teaches Survival 101, also known as happy camper school. His students are mostly scientists and workers on their first visit to Antarctica. Right now he’s trying to teach a bunch of clueless journalists how to set up a tent.

Glenn Zorpette: I asked Brian if the survival training ever came in handy.

Brian Johnson: We took a snow machine trip from McMurdo out on the sea ice up to Cape Royds where Shackleton’s hut is located. Forty-five minutes into it, the winds picked up from 0 to 20 knots. We could tell a storm was coming in. So we hightailed it to the area, set up camp, and by the time all the tents were up, we had 60-knot winds. Hard to stand up. We ended up being out there for four nights. Everything broke, we survived, got back to town.


Glenn Zorpette: That’s Antarctica for you. Life-threatening storms can blow up with little or no notice. But it’s also a place of breathtaking, rugged beauty.

Brian Johnson: I think, though, my favorite spot is the area right behind me. Mount Erebus. 12 500 foot volcano. It’s open. If you’re up on the rim looking down on it on a clear day, you can see the molten lava bubbling in there. And my first season down, that’s where I spent my birthday. So it was kind of a memorable first year and from then on it’s been quite memorable.”