I stood looking at the things that were laid out on the bed: thermal base layer, mid layer of ski pants and warm top and 2 pairs of merino socks; a double layer beanie, down jacket, liner gloves, fleece gloves and down mitts, sunglasses, sun block and lip screen; snow boots. As I got dressed in these rather unfamiliar garments it felt a bit like a robing ceremony. There was something almost reverent about the process. These clothes were going to be like a second skin to me over the next few days.
We all gathered in the hotel foyer creating a pile of bags that were to be left in Chile. Some of us were quiet and some excited and voluble. Many photos were being taken. We awaited Richard in a state of heightened anticipation. He arrived and the news: the buses would arrive at 6am: we were off. The buzz of excitement built to a crescendo. There we were 53 runners from 21 countries ready for the challenge and an adventure.
At the airport we were fast tracked through security with a passing nod at immigration, and back onto the buses, a short drive to the runway and our first
glimpse of the legend (or flying death trap as one friend put it) that is the Ilyushin IL76 cargo jet complete with Russian crew. It was immense, a beast of a plane. Inside it was the archetype of a cargo plane, exactly what you imagine. It was a vast space with a large metal cargo box (which I subsequently learned contained one of the large 12 person trucks that are used at the camp) and other cargo stowed at the back, our bags piled between the parachute jump seats that lines the side and faced in, and then a number of airplane seats at the front. There was a mass of cables and hydraulics visible above. There was a large screen fixed at the front that would provide a camera feed showing the view from the cockpit.
I was guided to one of the parachute seats; I was going to get the true Ilyushin experience. Once we were settled and buckled in we had a rather surreal safety demo delivered by the captain, and the radio officer doubled up as steward offering sweets and ear plugs: ear plugs? Then the engines which had been idling were fired up. What a noise. I now knew why we had been offered ear plugs. There was not going to be much conversation on this flight. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and the engines throttled out even more and we began to move down the runway like some huge winged behemoth. There were 60 people all willing it to lift off the tarmac which it did
just as the runway ended. Phew. Our surreal in flight stewarding experience continued with the distribution of food and drinks. During the 4.5 hour flight we got some excellent views of the Antarctic coast and the icebergs and pack ice off the peninsular.
The flight did not seem that long and soon we were asked to sit and belt up ready for landing on the blue ice runway, which is indeed blue ice. Two people from the camp have to stand out on the runway with reflectors to give the pilot a point to align to and to guide the plane in. Landing an Ilyushin on ice is probably a more spectacular experience than the take off. I watched the plane chase its shadow over the ice and touch-down. The noise of the reverse thrust of the engines was incredible and it took the best part of 1.5 miles to stop. As we were landing we had all applied sun block, zipped up our down jackets, put on hats and gloves and put goggles and sunglasses at the ready on top of our heads.
Stepping out of the plane onto the blue ice was quite honestly breath-taking in all senses of the word. I was immediately struck by magnificence and purity of the Antarctic landscape: it was so beautiful. The breath was taken away from me quite literally too by the 30 knot wind and cold, my face began to nip almost immediately, a reminder on how important skin cover was going to be. I was close to tears and it was not the wind making my eyes water.
We were ushered into the vehicles that would drive us the 8k to the camp. Lauren from Perth in Western Australia had never seen snow before. She seemed almost overwhelmed by the experience and in awe. I cannot imagine what that experience must have been like. Recalling the moment now is creating similar emotions.
The camp sits on the Union glacier with the Ellsworth Mountains surrounding it. They are the highest mountain range in Antarctica. It was nestled in front of Mount Rossman and looked over to the Buchanan hills: quite a backdrop. As soon as we arrived at the camp we were straight into orientation. This explained the layout of the camp, the facilities and the important of keeping the environment clean, hygiene, as well as ‘do’s and don’ts’ around the camp and when going out and about and the areas that were out of bounds. For the first time there were showers in the camp. It was a clever system of shovelling snow into a box, where it was melted and heated. The hot water was then put into a bucket which was placed in the shower cubicle where you put a pipe into the bucked that fed into a pump: genius.
After orientation we were taken into one of the mess tents for the traditional arrival meal of stew and mash: yum! The mess tent was the heart of the camp and this is where we would spend a lot of time. It was warm and cosy with a kerosene stove, books, games and a constant supply of hot and cold drinks and snacks. Over lunch we checked our tent
allocations. I was sharing with Flick. We were billeted in clam tents which each had 2 beds/cots and a table, and which were quite big so you had your own space and could easily stand up. The afternoon was spent acclimatising sorting out the tents, hanging flags and generally pottering about the campsite with lots of photo taking.
After that some of us put on our running kit and went for a trial run on a section of the route taking us a mile out of camp to ‘the Christmas tree’ and back. My kit was definitely going to be fine, but the snow was deeper and softer than any of us had expected and it made the going tough, I was so glad that I had done the sand training.
Dinner was a veritable feast of roast pork, pasta, vegetables and blue cheese sauce, followed by a choice of crème caramel or a meringue layer cake. There was also wine and beer. We were allowed 2 units of alcohol a day. After dinner there was a final briefing about the marathon which would start at 10am the next day. We were reminded about the dangers of frostbite, and how to deal with wind burn and frost nip by placing skin on skin (warm on cold), and how important sun glasses or goggles were. I then sorted out my drop bags for the check points and headed to bed with a hot water bottle. I got down to my base layer and a pair of socks and clambered into my sleeping bag along with my already frozen baby wipes, camera, contact lenses, lens solution, eye drops, batteries, MP3 player and battery charger pack.
Actually getting sleep turned out to be quite a challenge between the cold and the light. Basic mistakes I had made: a single base layer was not enough, not wearing a hat and neck warmer, not using the sleeping bag hood and pulling the drawstrings, not covering my eyes. It took several nights to get right and even then I did not sleep well while in Antarctica. Indeed no sleep at all for the first 3 nights.
I finally gave up at 6am when, after a flash of inspiration, I nipped into the shower block which was heated to change into my race gear and freshen up, Note to self: put face cream and tooth paste in the sleeping bag at night too, although tooth paste ice cream was quite refreshing.