After thirteen missions to Antarctica, Lt. Col. Samantha East’s last trip should have been routine: Constant sunlight. Bad food. Cold weather.
Just another month like every other “on the ice,” as the 109th Airlift Wing refers to Antarctica during its annual support trip.
But instead, she spent her last month flying back and forth from New Zealand, two-day supply trips that stressed the ski-equipped LC-130s and gave her no time to get used to Antarctica.
While other National Guardsmen wanted to stay on the ice, she didn’t mind the constant travel.
“Some people would rather go some place with humidity, good food and darkness,” she said, adding that after a few days of the constant sunlight at the South Pole, “darkness is novel.”
Antarctica is an achingly beautiful place, she said, but it has its down side.
“It is this amazing place,” she said. “It has a size that’s incomprehensible. It’s huge. On the other hand, it’s the deadest place you’ll find.”
No trees. No grass. No colors, other than shades of gray.
“There’s no smells because you need moisture to carry smell,” she said. “There’s no humidity. It’s the driest place in the world.”
Other than mechanical sounds, the outside world is utterly silent, too.
“There’s no sound. There’s no trees to rustle, there’s no water lapping over anything.”
But those deprivations tend to fade into the background.
“You don’t necessarily notice that while you’re there,” she said. “But when you get to New Zealand, it’s so vibrant. Ahhh, life!”
The colors, smells and sounds can be overwhelming. Usually she experiences that just once — on her way back. This time, she left Antarctica again and again.
“It is hard to settle into anything,” she said, but added that she preferred the back-and-forth flights. “Because I’ve settled into a routine on the ice so much, it gets a little monotonous.”
Other guardsmen were disappointed that they spent little time in Antarctica. The air wing is based at the Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville and supports international research work.
“Some of our younger guys, Antarctica is really new and shiny for them. I can totally understand that. You want to explore, you want to see,” she said. “But there’s a job and we’re going to go do it. Sometimes it may not be what you want, and you suck it up and do it. If you don’t have that mentality, you’re probably not here.”
In a normal month-long mission, guardsmen have about an hour each day to explore. They can walk a number of hiking trails or even go running.
But its cold. The weather is frequently well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, though this is the warm period when air support missions can run.
“It’s going to get a lot colder than that. That’s why we leave,” East said. “When the sun goes down it will be 100 below.”
So she used her free time to visit the gym, rather than taking a nice stroll in the frigid weather.
“About a week and a half before we left, it got stinking, freaking Antarctica cold,” she said. “You’d be walking to the bus [a three-minute walk] and you’d be crying because the cold is making your eyes water. The last week and a half, it was like, geez, all right, we’re leaving already.”
Before she left, she toured the South Pole station, which she had spent her career building.
When she first saw it 12 years ago, it was essentially a human-sized Habitrail, made of shipping containers.
“You would hang a gray wool blanket up and that was your wall,” she said. “Since then we carried a whole South Pole station in.”
The rooms are small, but everyone has their own.
“It looks a lot like a nice college dorm room,” she said.
Now that she’s bid goodbye to Antarctica, she’s also done with extreme weather. When she retires, she’s moving to some place with “moderate” weather.
“I can’t take the heat any more,” she said. “I’m tired of really really cold but I can’t take the heat.”