I finally arrived in Antarctica on 20th October 2011. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
On Tuesday evening, still in our hotel in Punta, the pilots and the Met Office forecaster estimated that we would have a 30-40% percent chance of flying South on Wednesday. Not great odds, but we tried to put our optimistic hats on!
On Wednesday morning we woke up to sleet and strong winds battering the hotel, but at the early-morning briefing were told that the Met team had predicted a possible clear weather window later that day, and we should reconvene in a couple of hours for an update.
We therefore gathered nervously at the appointed time to hear the news. Still, no one knew for sure whether the conditions were good enough for flying, but on the off-chance that things improved, we should get down to the airport and load the plane. There was therefore a sudden frantic dash to check out of the hotel and hop onto the minibus. Our driver did a splendid job of side-stepping airport security by avoiding the terminal altogether and driving us through a back gate and up to the BAS Dash-7 plane (even the old-hands said that this was a new and novel approach).
With the plane loaded, we suddenly got the go-ahead to take off – conditions had improved, and more importantly, the team at Rothera had managed to clear the runway of snow from the previous night, so at least we had somewhere to land! There was still an uncertainty though – until the plane reached its PNR (Point of No Return), about 3.5 hours into the flight, further deterioration in the conditions could still mean that we would have to turn around and head back to Punta. Of course, after the PNR we would be left with no choice!
As the only newbie on the flight, I was allowed the honour of sitting on the ‘jump seat’, the third seat in the cockpit, alongside the two pilots. We taxied onto the runway, and then we were off! It was amazing to see the pilots doing their stuff, and even more amazing to see a take-off from the pilot’s perspective.
We soon left Punta behind, followed by Tierra del Fuego, and then as the last few islands dropped astern there was nothing between us and Antarctica, except for hundreds of miles of empty ocean. After a few hours, we hit the Point of No Return, and were delighted when the guys on the ground at Rothera reported over the radio that the conditions were good enough to land. We were going to make it.
The first sign of Antarctica was a vast lone iceberg drifting in the Southern Ocean. Shortly afterwards we also spotted the first brash ice, which soon became a thick, heaving mass that covered the whole of our view of the ocean below. As we neared Adelaide Island the cloud closed in and we were flying in a near-complete whiteout.
We started the descent into Rothera, and with only a few miles to go, the cloud suddenly opened up to reveal a vast panorama of snow-covered mountains, islands and icebergs, lit up in places by patches of yellow sunlight. This was my first view of Antarctica, and will stick with me as one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.
As we closed in, first the runway appeared, then the rest of the base, and finally as we touched down we could see the winter team dancing and waving alongside the runway. Oddly, one of them was dressed as a banana – maybe the winter had taken its toll. We had finally arrived.