As I ran along a dirt running track at the early morning hours of another striking autumn day at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park, purple and pink shades of light shimmered across the sky. With limited visibility, I could hear boisterous elk bugling all around me as I ran through vibrantly colored trees, as it was in the height of the elk mating season. After so many months of diminishing sunlight, pitch-black darkness, and absolutely no other living organism besides other human beings for so long, I was overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds around me as I ran through so much life. In fact, I was so distracted by all of my senses that I didn’t even notice the three male elk sparring in the middle of the running path right in front of me as I came careening through the brush at a distracted pace, virtually scaring the living day-lights out of me.
Such was my experience of being in an overwhelmingly superb mountain landscape after being in isolation in Antarctica for so long. Once I got home from San Francisco and my preceding travels, I had a system-shocking turnaround back to work. 4 short days after I landed back home, I flew straight to Denver, Colorado for a team training that I assumed would be riddled with boring corporate meetings about team building and ethics for how we’re supposed to handle ourselves at the South Pole. When I reached the hotel just outside of Denver, I was instructed that a large majority of our team would be going to dinner and the following day, we would all load up into vans to drive 2 hours north into the YMCA of the Rockies, the camp right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. I was astonished at this, as this was the first time they had ever done this with their South Pole team.
When we arrived at the YMCA, we were assigned rooms; in which I was graciously given my own room to help acclimate to society again, and left to our own devices for the night. I wandered the property, finding the visitors center and buying a map of the National Park. There were elk roaming the grounds everywhere and I took many photos of these gracious creatures that I missed so much. Our food was paid for at the main cafeteria but we were granted access to use any of the 3 vans in our company if we wanted to explore Estes Park, the small town that precedes the astonishing wilderness we were staying at. 8 of us crammed into the van after we got settled and headed into town for dinner and to buy supplies at the store. The food at the brewery we ended up at wasn’t remarkable but after eating the same food for months at McMurdo, I didn’t mind. We also learned that the Stanley Hotel, the replicated hotel featured in the movie The Shining that helped epitomize Jack Nicholson as a legend, was just up the road from us.
As we all ended up back at the YMCA, about 20 of us ended up in a lounge in our building chatting about our adventure to come. There was a team building exercise planned the following morning for 8 AM so with an exceptionally ambitious goal to wake up with enough time to go for a run around the property in the early morning hours and get breakfast, I headed to bed. The run the next morning was exhilarating, as it was the first time in more than a year I had spent any time outside without 20 pounds of cold weather gear on. Our first meeting was a precursor of what was to come within the next week. We were all introduced and we met the man that led our team building exercises. I felt incredibly fortunate, as the company they hired to help us become a well-oiled machine worked with many high profile government entities and private sector companies. Our first task together involved a very lengthy plastic pipe riddled with holes, a bike pump, and a balloon taped at the far end of the pipe. Nicknamed “The Leaky Pipe”, we were instructed that as a team, we had to cover every single hole using only our bodies and breath air into the balloon using the bike pump. Needless to say, we failed miserably that first day. We tried everything each of us could think of but it was clear we weren’t working as a team in the most remote sense of the word. Everybody talked over each other and we weren’t thorough and thoughtful in our approach what-so-ever.
As the week progressed, we had many thought-provoking activities and team building exercises that strengthened our cooperation skills. My favorite of which was a geo-caching exercise that had our entire team scampering around the surrounding mountain sides looking for specific landmarks that were pinged with geological coordinates. We were split into teams and given a GPS device to point us to the landmark that corresponded with a specific clue sheet they gave us. We had 4 hours to try and track down as many of the 80 landmarks we could and have all our team make it back to the conference room we were staged in. We ended up gathering 93% of all the geocaches, above average among the groups the instructor usually does this exercise with. On that promising note, our last day with our team trainer was premised with a challenge to finish the “Leaky Pipe” exercise. At the end of the day, we all got together and systematically went through the steps we needed to do to fill all the holes and blow the balloon up. When we actually tried our first attempt, we were given clear instruction and within 3 pumps, blew the balloon up. Met with a surprising profanity by our instructor, we all cheered in our success in cooperation. It was apparently the first time a group had done it on the first try, which astonished our instructor.
There were also many occasions to decompress during our week of training. Since I hadn’t had a meal that my hands didn’t have some sort of work in cooking for quite some time, the other cook and I went out every single day to a spectacular BBQ restaurant we found. It was so good that we encouraged others in our team to come with us. At one point, one group of us went to lunch at the BBQ joint and filled the whole bar. After we were done eating, another one of our groups showed up at the perfect moment and just swapped our seats out, filling up the bar a second time. After the team building, we were given a day off to explore the park. Another group of us took a van into the park, driving the entire length and finding some extraordinary walking trails with some remarkable views of the high alpine mountains in the area. We were even able to view a family of indigenous mountain sheep along a cliff side near one of the more spectacular viewing points we found.
After our day off, our whole group split off into 2 different trainings. One was a fire fighting training back in Denver and the other training that I was a part of was a medical first responders training. 2 NOLS (an national outdoor medical training program) instructors were sent out to the YMCA where the medical team was. They taught us about anything you’d need to know to rescue an injured person in an extreme medical situation in the wild. After doing this course, we were all certified through CPR and NOLS, which is very handy when you’re traveling the world. Once that course was done, our South Pole training was officially over. We were all sent back to Denver for a final farewell dinner with the entire team. A majority of the group was headed straight to the South Pole for their own Year on Ice while I had to take a mandatory summer season off. Not only did I have to take some time off, I still had all of my physical and mental qualification testing to go through.
Since I was already in Denver near the program’s doctors, I asked to PQ fully while I was there. This meant a few more nights in a hotel and constant medical testing over 3 more days. This included a psychological evaluation that involved a lengthy written exam and an interview by a certified psychologist, a full-body exam by a physician and x-rays of my chest, a gall-bladder ultrasound to check for irregularities, bite-wing x-rays of my jaw with a full dental check-up, and a full panel blood check up. To top all of that off, when I got home I had to do a drug test and blood analysis for certain diseases at a certified clinic. Getting “fully PQ’d” to come down to Antarctica for a winter is an incredibly lengthy and mind-numbing process that can easily agitate the most experienced veteran on the Ice. Luckily, most of mine this year went off without a hitch. After each day, I had a bit of time to wander around the outskirt cities of Denver Proper. I ended up watching The Martian at a movie theater near by, the first movie at a theater for me in a considerable amount of time. I also found a camera equipment store to buy a nice lens for my upcoming trip to South America.
After my PQ process in Denver, I ended up back at another airport with another layover. The only solace in this was that I met up with some of my new-found friends I would soon be wintering at the South Pole with at Denver International Airport. They were just starting their journey to the Ice while I was on my way to some much needed vacation and family time. Next post will likely be about my journey through Peru, starting in Lima and ending in Arequipa, half way through my time spent in Peru. I know this was a lengthy post but I had so many good memories while I was at the YMCA of the Rockies. Along with the experience of team training in the Rocky Mountains, being so close to the autumn wilderness in my favorite geological landscape was exactly what I needed after so much time spent in isolation at McMurdo. I hope you enjoy the pictures!