Rocky Mountain National Park, South Pole Team Training

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!

Bangkok and San Francisco

When I finally ended up jumping onto a plane at the Christchurch International Airport, I was relieved and depressed about getting away from Antarctica. I made it my home for a year of my life and met many friends that’ll likely be in my life for a very long time. I try not to dwell on the past, though. Plus, I was on my way to a very beautiful city that I had high expectations of.

My plans for Bangkok were extensive for the 9 days I originally had planned for it. I not only was expecting to have my 25th birthday there, I had reserved a seat at Gaggan. One of the top 10 restaurants in the world (ranked by the ubiquitous Restaurant Magazine that sets a high standard for the culinary world) was going to be my birthday dinner. To get a seat at one of these restaurants back in the states would cost you upwards of 300-400 dollars by the end of the night. Since the US dollar is so strong against the Thai Baht, it would cost me an incredible amount less to eat at a world-class restaurant. I had also reserved a seat at the 22nd best ranked restaurant in the world a few nights after along with very ambitious plans on hitting every single temple around the city center and the Grand Palace.

Before I left McMurdo, I took a chance at scheduling all of my flights and hotels with very little lee-way for consideration of weather. Since I only had about 2 weeks to get back home and get ready for training in Colorado for my eventual return to the Icy South, gambling on weather at McMurdo was an acceptable risk I was willing to take. If it paid off, I would be eating at a top restaurant in the world by my birthday and have 4 extra days in Bangkok. If it didn’t pay off, I would miss my reservation at Gaggan but I had a back-up reservation at another top restaurant in the Bangkok area, Nahm. I would also have to pay an extra 150 bucks to get my flight changed. In the end I was really only putting my money at risk. Unfortunately, my gamble didn’t pay off. My plane off the continent was delayed but I was lucky enough for it to only be pushed back by a day. I didn’t make it to Gaggan.

I did, however, get to spend my birthday with some Ice friends on their way down to Antarctica for the following summer season and my close friend that I was going to Bangkok with, Panda. I wasn’t too heart broken, as I only lost 3 days in Bangkok. I landed in Thailand at 1 AM and my friend had the foresight to book transportation to our hotel. It’s a good thing he did since the hotel was at the heart of the city on the river-front of the Phraya River, almost an hour away. The hotel was beautiful and the boats on the river were absolutely spectacular at night. As we entered  the hotel, I was met with the best hospitality I’ve ever seen in the world so far.

For the next 4 days, my friend and I wandered the streets of Bangkok bargaining with street vendors for trinkets for our families, meandering through halls of great palaces and old temples with stunning depictions of all different sizes and shapes of Buddha, and eating the incredible Thai food that’s so famous around the world. Hopping on and off the river taxis that costed 15 cents a ride, I saw a majority of the things that were on my list. Not only that but we got to eat at Nahm, another top-ranked restaurant in the world that I mentioned earlier. That included 16 courses and a complimentary course because the restaurant heard that it was my birthday dinner, costing us 80 USD each. It would’ve been quadruple that cost if we ate at a top restaurant anywhere else in the world. When we got back to the hotel, we ordered an authentic hour-long Thai Massage that costed us less than 16 USD, which was very expensive in Thailand. It truly was a fantastic whirlwind. I was sad to leave with such a short time to experience the Southeast-Asian culture.

After all of that, I found myself in another airport on another plane. They flew me through Taipei, Taiwan and as soon as I landed, my next plane got canceled. They reluctantly put me on another plane with a better seat, as I wasn’t about to miss my time in San Francisco. I flew through Los Angeles with no trouble and ended up in a shuttle service driving through the San Francisco Bay area to my hotel at nearly 2 AM. I had a very extensive itinerary in the 36 hours I was scheduled in my hotel room so I was wide awake 7 AM. I took the trolley across town to one of the best bakeries in town, walked up and down the streets and parks while I ate my pastries, and wandered in and out of the various markets to buy some lunch to eat on the pier later on. I traversed much of the subway to find myself on the cluster of piers around the fisherman’s wharf. The Wharf Aquarium was amazing, along with the many restaurants and markets that snaked their way out onto the docks. A small detour off of the wharf landed me in the middle of the infamous China Town. Wandering through spice shops and novelty T-Shirt stores reminded me of Bangkok too much so I retraced my steps back to the pier I left.

After I ended up back on the wharf, I found, with much difficulty, a ferry ticket across the Bay to Sausalito, a small hill town with steep roads and a very touristic biking venture. They let you rent a bike across the Bay, take a ferry to Sausalito, and have a nice bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to the base of the tourist center on the other side. Since I had no phone yet and a very sketchy past with bikes in general, I opted to walk this entire route. Not really knowing where I was going when I landed in Sausalito, I wandered the steep hills trying to find any signs or markers that pointed me towards the Bridge. Many locals gave me awkward sideways glances as they walked by me, as I wasn’t even near the road that took me to the bridge. In fact, I ended up in a wilderness conservation area at the bottom of the town that was nowhere near where I needed to be. The only consoling factor in my obvious lack of direction was that it was a very beautiful walk that had way more wildlife wandering around than I would’ve expected. The good news was I could see the bridge again. Traversing random hills and what seemed like a yacht club, I finally made it to the route that brought me towards the bridge. My excursion across those hills gave me a beautiful picture of the Golden Gate Bridge straight through the arches all the way to the other side with cars bustling across it. Walking the length of the Golden Gate Bridge was a serene moment for me after such a long winter in Antarctica and weaving under the bridge, listening to the hundreds of cars driving over me was an intense experience. The bus that took me back to my hotel gave me a great snapshot of the night life in San Francisco since the bridge was on the other side of town. Little did I know, some friends from back home were bar-hopping around my hotel but I didn’t get back to my hotel until 1 AM, too close to last call for me to track them down.

An early morning wake up call had me on another shuttle back to the airport at 6 AM the next day. The next time I’m in San Francisco, I’ll likely end up staying much, much longer. It quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world just from the small glimpse of the city I got. You would think that if it was my favorite city in the world, I would move there but it’s unfortunately also the most expensive city in America to live in. I’m comfortable with excursions through their streets and waters for now. Once I landed back home in Salt Lake City, I had a very quick turn-around to a team training that started in Denver and eventually ended with an fantastic week-long team building exercise on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park, along with 3 long days of doctors appointments and mental evaluations from psychiatrists to get fully Physically Qualified for where I am now, the South Pole. Next week’s post will likely be about our elaborate sunset dinner that the kitchen crew put on for the community, marking the time where we will no longer see the sun for the next 6 months. I’ll also talk about my time in Estes Park, Colorado and the ordeal of trying to Physically Qualify for the US Antarctic Program. Enjoy the pictures!

Homeward Bound From McMurdo

So now that I’m finally in a good spot where I can take a step back from my countless travels over the last 5 months, I can piece together my journal corresponding to where I was in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep any record after I left McMurdo all the way to when I ended up in Machu Picchu. I know, it’s a shame. Especially for someone that tries to consistently document my thoughts along the way during my adventures.

Besides my obvious neglect of keeping accurate records of the beautiful, serene places I traveled in the span of a month and a half, I have kept stunning photographic evidence. I’m hoping to be able to post a few of those pictures related to each post but it might take a while. Especially since my internet capabilities are severely limited at the Geographic South Pole of our planet, as you can imagine. I’m also hoping to start a very rudimentary photography website/blog that’ll have short posts of each country I’ve been to with a ton of my pictures on it.

Anyway, my trip back home from McMurdo was a muddled whirlwind consisting of flight delays, last-minute changes, many hours of airport sleeping (otherwise known as airport bumming), and a wide array of different types of transportation that included several different types of planes, a train, small river boats, many shuttle services, city buses, and a very sketchy cab ride. I went from a massive C-17 Globemaster military plane that transported me back to Christchurch, New Zealand and ended up crossing 5 different countries, 4 different continents, and 2 states. My way home went as follows:

-2 days of delays at McMurdo Station

-5 hour flight back to New Zealand from Antarctica

-3 days in Christchurch, New Zealand

-15 hour flight from New Zealand to Bangkok, Thailand with a 2 hour delay in Australia

-5 days in Bangkok, Thailand in a hotel right on the riverside

-7 hour flight to Taipei, Taiwan with a 6 hour layover and a last-minute plane change that almost made me miss every other flight on my way home.

-11 hour flight to San Francisco with a 4 hour delay in Los Angeles

-2 days smack in the center of San Francisco

-3 hour flight back home to Salt Lake City, Utah

Incase you weren’t counting, that was 41 hours of flight time back home, 14 hours of delays, and 2 weeks (if you include the delays in McMurdo and all the flight time) hopping all over the globe to get back home to get to Denver, Colorado for a team training in Estes Park. My impending new job as production cook at the South Pole had me staying right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park for a week and a half for a wilderness survival training, team building, and a wilderness medical first responder course. I fell in love with the Rocky Mountains even more after that week and a half but more on that later.

When I landed back in New Zealand, I caught up with some much needed sunshine along with everything outside I used to take advantage of. Not having any contact with trees, dirt, or all things nature related for more than a year makes you really appreciate something that I never really enjoyed until about 4 or 5 years ago. With the majority of my family being quite docile and not what anyone would consider “Outdoorsman”, I’ve learned that my life can’t be lived inside. The beautiful places on our earth draw me to them like a magnet draws a piece of metal across a table from underneath, dragging it from one end to the other without being able to see why.

My next post will be of my enlightened tramping through Bangkok and of the far-too-short time I ended up having in San Francisco before my eventually landing in Denver for work; though as you’ll read soon, it didn’t really feel like work to me over those two weeks in Colorado. The sun is slowly setting here at the South Pole. For what’s considered the longest sunset on earth, my face/camera have been permanently glued to the windows around the station and strapped into much of my cold weather gear so I don’t miss the beautiful sight. I’ll try and post pictures of the final sightings of the sun on the horizon next week. It’ll be another 6 months before we get to see it again so everybody around the station is thrilled for the coming week, especially since one of the three biggest meals that the galley puts on for the community is this Saturday.


South Pole Adventure

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted. A lot has happened since I last posted so many months ago. I’ve missed writing, as it clears my mind. The last time I wrote much was when I was in the depths of a 24 hour bus ride in Peru strapped into my seat as the vehicle careened around sharp, steep corners of the Andes Mountains. Trying to sleep unsuccessfully gave me the time to wrap my head around my last few months in McMurdo. I think it was good to have some distance from Antarctica before I wrote my final thoughts of my season.

Anyway! I’m back in Antarctica. I made it to the continent. I made it to the South Pole. I’m wintering at debatably the harshest environment on earth. So there’s that. There’s so much I’d like to write about from the 4 months I was away from the Icy South. I wish I had kept better documentation of my thoughts during that period, though I did keep a journal. I’ll draw upon that over the next few weeks to compile my thoughts about the thousands of miles I traveled all over South America and the states. In the mean time, the South Pole is a beautifully haunting place.Absolutely no other living thing besides the 48 other human beings can survive here and without our technological developments, we’d all die within days. There’s not much scenery, as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is centralized on a massive plateau atop the largest shifting glacier in the world. At nearly 15,000 feet deep, it’s the only place on earth that scientists are able to accurately study  Neutrinos; a particle so small that it passes through atoms and cells without touching anything. This particle is also linked to the start of the universe. Coupled with the South Pole Telescope that searches for cosmic microwaves in space that’s said to be residual background effects from the Big Bang; i.e the start of our universe, we can search for the beginning of all of us. They’re able to literally look back in time near when this massive influx of energy poured into nothingness and formed our galaxies, formed our stars, and formed just about everything else in existence.

I’ve been thoroughly listening to any bit of knowledge I can pick up from the scientists and I’ve also been attending a weekly Astronomy class that seems to be equivalent to any college course. I’ve also been here over a month and a half and I’m already starting training on my next marathon in mid-June. On top of the June marathon, I’ve signed up for a marathon in Queenstown, New Zealand in mid-November after I get off the Ice. I’m working an early morning shift that gives me plenty of time to cook some fantastic food on top of all this, which to me is a great bonus. The sun sets only one time a year here, which is going to happen within the next few weeks for a solid 6 months of winter. I’m extremely exciting for the beautiful colored skies of the sunset and the glimmering stars of the Antarctic twilight. Until then, I’ll write on my trip through Denver for training and South America.            IMG_0993.jpg

The End of My Year On Ice

So much has happened since my year in Antarctica has ended. I’ve traveled an exorbitant amount of miles through this world once the C-17 Globemaster plane whisked me back to society. For now, I’ll stick with my time leading up to all of the winter-over’s departures and my travels back to the states. 

During the eventual end of the winter, many winter-overs were solemn in sharing the station with more than twice the current population. Many hid away as the first flights of Win-Fly, the shoulder season in between winter and summer at McMurdo, eventually trickled in. Station population went from 150 to 350 within a couple weeks. Needless to say, the kitchen was incredibly busy. 

We gained 4 cooks, a chef, and our Food Service Supervisor. It quickly became apparent of a shift in mentality. Most of the winter-overs were in the depths of T3 Syndrome and slowly using up our reserves of energy to get through the year. Action stations, 24 hour Pizza, 24 hour cookies, an entire new shift running into the middle of the night, and, as usual, full meal services were implemented to give more flexibility to the workers preparing the station for an incredibly busy summer season. 

Along with all the extra work, the weather turned into a nightmare for the NSF’s plane schedule. We had one plane delayed for nearly a week. The station eventually found a small window of opportunity to make an attempt at bringing our precious supplies and fellow coworkers in. Most of the time, coworkers around the station would host friendly, non-monetary bets according to how long they expected a plane to be delayed. 

I worked extremely hard in the kitchen during win-fly. I was deemed a swing shift cook that could help in many different areas of the kitchen. I felt like every shift depended on me in many different ways. It gave me clarity that as long as I stay positive and work hard, things would usually work out. This philosophy has been my go-to, problem-solving thought process for many years. Those last 6 weeks really put that statement to the test.

As the hectic summer season was about to gear up again, it was finally my turn to migrate north for the season. When you leave Antarctica after calling it home for an entire year, it’s extremely sombering. Many friends that I made while enduring the long winter months would soon be parting ways. Some of them I’ll likely never see again and that, in itself, is heart-wrenching to me. 

When you’re leaving Antarctica, they drill into your head that you’ll likely get delayed up to a week. I was the lucky one that only got delayed 2 days, though it still put a damper on the small window of travel I had planned. Once landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, I did an obligatory trip to the grocery store to revel in all the fresh food. After that, I explored the city for a few days, met up with old friends from the previous summer in passing, and finally ended up in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Going from -40 F in the driest, windiest places on earth to 85 F with an astounding amount of humidity was a huge shock to my body. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. That being said, I loved every second I was there. I did most of the usual things people do there. Including, but not limited to, getting a thai massage, wandering around markets getting yelled at by shop owners, eating delicious local food from shady stalls and food courts, and buying unbelievably cheap products that would be absurdly overpriced back in the states. Oh yeah, and I ate at a Michelin-starred restaurant that was 10X cheaper than the states.

After a very long, drawn out flight I ended up in San Francisco for 36 hours. I think I probably walked about 35 miles within a 30 hour period. I absorbed as much of that city as humanly possibly in such a short time. I ate at Tartine Bakery, a bakery I’ve admired for years. I also walked the entire length of Sausalito, the entire eastern half of the city, and the full length of the Golden Gate Bridge. I ended my day with taking two unnerving bus rides down tiny streets, two subway rides across the city, two scenic trolley rides gliding through downtown, and one ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay.

After all of that, I ended up back home for a few days of well earned rest before I had to fly off to Denver for training. Oh, incase any of you wanted to know, I was officially offered and fully PQ’d for a winter at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. So that’s pretty cool, I guess 😉 

Also, I’m traveling right now and don’t have access to many of my pictures. You’ll all have to settle with this picture of this llama and I. More to come soon! 


The Little Things That Make Life Go Round.

Traveling so much over the past 5 years, I’ve found that small particular moments, little things that make up the day-to-day life of all the places I’ve been, are what people tend to cling onto while they’re experiencing these amazing places I’ve been to. Looking back, little details and the most modest creature comforts are what have made this winter not just bearable, it’s made it incredible.

Many people have brought little trinkets from home that make their meager living arrangements feel a little more like home. They’ve also decorated their rooms to reflect their personality. We had a “Tour of Homes” event at the start of winter to showcase all of this and I found it incredible at how little you need to be able to make your living space unique. One person brought stick-on wall tape shaped like trees so she could have a sense that she was sitting under her trees back home. Another person pieced together dozens of framed pictures and christmas lights to make her room feel like an art gallery. For me, a few pictures of my nieces and nephews along with certain items I use on a daily basis are what I’ve held onto to remind me of my home.

When winter just started, I have to admit that I felt a great anxiety about how I was going to handle the impending darkness for so many months at a time. If any of my friends know me, I’m usually an especially even-keeled guy to be around so for something to fluster me so much that it gives me any sense of anxiety is very uncomfortable to me. There’s only been one other time that I’ve felt this anxious feeling over the looming unknown future and I had to struggle to keep a calm demeanor back then. This time, it was much easier.

The constant darkness of winter can feel daunting but from the lyrics of an incredible band that you’re undoubtedly familiar with, a song that describes the bond that many of us have formed working and living on this rock, and my constant (mostly cringe-worthy) singing in the confines of the McMurdo kitchen:

“What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm gonna try with a little help from my friends”.

The Beatles knew how to get out of the darkness long before I even had any kind of inkling desire to come down to McMurdo in Antarctica. As the darkness is waining for the McMurdo society, a lot of us are coming out of a slump. The seemingly forever-vigil of the twinkling stars in the sky over the past few months are starting to be replaced with blue skies and beautiful nacreous clouds that streak the sky like a magnificent painting. As the sun has finally peaked over the hills that surround our community, I find it increasingly difficult to be stuck inside the galley cooking all day. My time in the sun will come, though.

Astronomical Twilight. All day. Every day.

There are 3 classifications for when the sun dips below the horizon. Civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight all happen within a 12 hour period of night-time. Within the first 2 months of winter, the days have turned into a descending pattern of each of these classifications in the sky; eventually resting on the last one for more than 22 hours of the day.

South Pole has May 13th-August 2nd with none of them. That’s the difference 900 miles makes here in an Antarctic winter. The night-time is incredibly hard on your mind if you don’t have distractions and goals set in place. It makes your thoughts wander endlessly, puts you on edge, and can change your attitude quickly. Coupled with T3 syndrome, there are quite a few disgruntled people bumbling about the McMurdo hallways. I learned almost 2 years ago from my time in the Arctic that winter time anywhere past the invisible line of the imaginary circles encompassing the polar regions is a great time to bunker down and work on a project that you’re fond of. For me, it’s been working on my health and focusing on technical aspects of cooking.

During the winter, I’ve spent rigorous hours running on a treadmill to get my body ready for the “Dreadmill”. McMurdo Station puts on a winter marathon event for anyone that wants to participate. I was hesitant to start my first marathon training in Antarctica during the winter but I dove right into it head first. I found a training program online to give me a heads up, inquired about any advice from friends on the best way to get my body ready for the grueling challenge I had ahead of myself, and ordered some electrolyte replacement powders to help me recover after my long runs.

The program was a total of 18 weeks with first 8 weeks being the hardest. I’ve never done anything like this before and my body had a hard adjustment to it. My knees always hurt, I’d pull my calf muscles every couple of weeks from insufficient stretching, and I couldn’t keep up with how much water I needed to consume. Not only was I on the driest continent on Earth, I was also running an average of 40 miles a week, with the longest run reaching up to 20 miles in one day. The actual marathon was even more demanding on my body, my mind, and my senses in the end. I had a huge support system through the entire process. My best friend down here even hung out with me in the gym while I ran on a treadmill for 4 1/2 hours with posters.  In total, I lost 20 pounds and I’m on the right track to being healthy, which is all that really matters. Here are some pictures a good friend of mine took while I was meandering away on the treadmill under fluorescent lights.

For some people, winter is about getting to hang out and be around people with the same ideologies as you. There’s plenty of stuff to do for social people. Bingo nights, trivia at the bar, gourmet burger bars for big events serviced by volunteered, board game nights, movie nights, video game competitions, and travelogues are many of the bustling scenes around town on any given night during the winter. I mainly worked the days everybody had off and had the early morning shift so I didn’t like to spend time outside my comfy bed past 8 PM. I didn’t mind the awkward shift, as it kept me focused on running.

A little about my travels back home. I finally figured out when my redeployment date is, which helps with my vacation plans. I’m putting together my flight plans to get back to Utah and will know more about that soon. Otherwise, I’ll be in Bangkok for my birthday if everything goes as expected so if you want to meet up for coffee in Thailand or when I get back into the Salt Lake City area, email me!

The Darkness. It’s Beautiful.

Winter is in full swing here at McMurdo. Or better yet, Winter is calm and quiet here at McMurdo. The darkness of 24 hour night-time can be unnerving to people, especially with it being early winter and the foreboding amount of time before we actually see the sun again. There are some people’s sleep patterns that are completely thrown off by the constant darkness, only lit by the twinkling stars and, depending on the time of the month, the moon. The mental conditions are the same as a regular winter anywhere else, really. It comes with seasonal depression, lack of essential vitamins and minerals from fresh vegetable and lack of sun, and the usual sluggish feeling at night-time that relates to being asleep at night. Take all of these symptoms of a regular winter, heighten them slightly to be consistent throughout the day, and add in T3 syndrome to give yourself an idea of what it can feel like here in the winter if you’re not careful.

You may be asking yourself what T3 syndrome is. Technically it’s called Polar T3 Syndrome since only people in the polar regions are susceptible to it. T3 is a hormone produced in the thyroid that helps maintain almost every aspect of your metabolism, helps control your mood patterns, and helps maintain your energy throughout the day. When you’re in a polar region (or just in a cold place that’s consistently colder than what you’re used to) your body becomes acclimated to the cold weather by using more calories and raising your internal base temperature a couple of degrees. Vitamin D helps maintain your cognitive functions in relation to your metabolism and temperature. When you don’t have a readily available source of Vitamin D in the long winter months, our thyroid hoards the T3 hormone to make up for this. At the cost of your cognitive abilities, your body functions normally. When your body develops T3 syndrome, you suddenly forget what you’re doing, where you were going, and randomly stare off into the distance. The latter having been coined the T3 stare, I’ve already caught a few of my coworkers randomly staring at walls for no apparent reason.

Along with constant darkness comes the brilliant auroras that I’ve tasked myself in searching out whenever possible. As of late January, after I got to spend time stubbornly sitting at the shorelines in search of the Minke Whale, there was only a few more things I knew I had left to do here in Antarctica. One of which was to see the Aurora Australis, otherwise known as the Southern Lights, with my own eyes. A mere 8 months before, I was standing at the head of the Brooks Range in the Arctic of Alaska whizzing down the Dalton Highway at night-time. I was with a good friend and coworker of mine, Michelle, and we were following a glowing, greenish-purple, waving streak in the sky that was the Aurora Borealis. The first one of the 2014 winter that we were able to see. I knew I was going to be in Antarctica a month later but since it’s 24 hour day light in the summer, there was no way I could see an Aurora Australis without finding a winter job here. During the entire summer here, I jumped through unimaginable hoops to put myself in the best possible position to get a winter-over contract. It worked, I got offered a job for a production cook and now here I am. In the early winter darkness that few have ever seen on this planet with streaming rivers of green, purple and red Auroras flowing over my head. #5 on my bucket list is officially checked off, along with an intimidating amount of time before I see another sun-rise.

Perpetual Sunset of an Antarctic Autumn

The sun is now in a constant state of setting over the horizon during the day, which is a total of about an hour of sunlight at this point. This means it’s always in a state of peaking just below the skyline to blanket the sky in beautiful hues of orange, pink, purple, and any other color you can imagine in the sky. At night time, however, it’s either a magnificent view of twinkling stars coupled with a brilliantly shining moon or a bleak, pitch-black storm that blankets the night in darkness. We’re gaining what seems like 15 minutes of night time a day, which I’m ecstatic about. Along with the winter night becoming prominent, this winter is setting itself up to be a great improvement experience for me already.

One of the last big things I’ve set myself to accomplish while being down here is to see an Australis Borealis, the Southern Lights.  This can only happen if the sky is completely dark with very little light pollution from the sun. With an even better view outside of McMurdo where there’s no lights, my best chance is to stay up all night and search for one on my day off. Or I could just keep waiting until the sun is completely below the horizon with virtually no residual light earlier in the afternoon and stake myself out at hut point after I get off everyday until one snakes it’s way through the sky my way. Sounds right up my alley 🙂

My projects this winter are coming along nicely. On my down time I’m still trying to get in better shape. Slowly but surely I’ll reach that goal. I’m actually training for my first marathon. Granted it’s at the start of August, which is the dead of winter, and on a treadmill inside. A human being would probably not survive a 26+ mile marathon in that extreme of weather outside that time of year. Either way, it’ll be a great step forward. I’m also trying to keep up on my Ukulele learning. I’ve played a lot less than I’d prefer so I’ll work on that. Also, something else I need to work on is learning Spanish. I found someone that does Spanish-speaking lessons but it’s well after my bed time when she can do it since I usually have to be up by 4 AM to get a head start at cooking lunch. Other than that, I’m progressing everything I’ve focused on well enough with 8 weeks into winter.

The first official winter flight of the season has come and gone, carrying with it 45 more people back to civilization. The cargo plane, however, is another story. The New Zealand LC-130 was contracted to bring in supplies, mail, and cargo for further construction projects during the next 6 weeks. That was the plan until disaster struck in the Pacific Ocean in Vanuatu in the form of a massive storm. Unfortunately, the disaster in Vanuatu’s capital and surrounding islands following the category 5 cyclone, codenamed Cyclone Pam, have kept the New Zealand Air Force busy for the last month. Scheduling flights for any of the NZ planes to get down here for resupply and cargo were immediately dropped from the priority list. Understandably, any relief effort the New Zealander’s have mounted to help Vanuatu receive vital supplies to rebuild their small nation has taken precedence. Nearly 90% of the structures in all of Vanuatu were damaged, if not destroyed and the country is in disarray. Although it would’ve been nice for moral within the community to receive packages from home and fresh vegetables, it’s good the New Zealanders keep their priorities straight.

Here’s a link to the breaking news story a month ago about the devastation in Vanuatu and links to donate however much you can:

My plans after I leave the Ice are varied. I’ve been offered employment at the South Pole for the winter next year so that changes some of my plans. They tend to change every couple of weeks anyway but as of right now, I’ll spend 5 to 7 days in Christchurch to allow for any weather delays coming out of McMurdo. After that, I’ll fly into Bangkok to be an annoying tourist for a week to see the temples and rice fields. Then I’ll fly home to Salt Lake City to set up my medical evaluations in Denver. Last, but not least, I’ll fly to Peru to see the Colca Canyon, a fissure in the Andean Mountains twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and Machu Picchu. I’ll be spending some much needed time in the Wasatch Range in Utah and through Southern Utah’s national parks.  All of which precedes my return, and probably final, season to the Great White South.

The sun is poised to set one final time in 4 days. The winter will be taxing with no sunlight but I’ll make the best of it with the great people that are wintering over with me in McMurdo. A clear night sky will eventually be my only solace extending into winter, with a great view of our Milky Way Galaxy and the stars surrounding it. Please keep me in your thoughts as you go about your days in the perpetual sunny summer in the Northern Hemisphere or the inklings of sun in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. Remember, I love mail and I’ll definitely reciprocate with a post card, letter, or package following the winter flights that are scheduled here. I hope everyone that reads this is doing well!

Reflection of the Summer 2014-2015 in Antarctica

As I sit here in the Coffee House that I’ve shared many good memories over the last summer with some of the people I’ve loved most before it closes for the winter, it’s hard not to feel sentimental. When I first stepped foot into this building 5 months ago, it was a place of solace to be able to write in my blog unperturbed by 1,000 other people in such a small community during the night time. It was also a place that all my fellow Midrats and friends could watch movies and saturday morning cartoons while we were all off. I now know that this is how most of McMurdo has become for me.

Within the last 2 weeks our population here at the base has dropped from an incredibly busy and active community of around 1,100 people to nearly 400. This sheer drop in staff has left a lot of the dorms and hallways deserted. The final count until the end of April will be close to 170 by the end of next week, the 28th of February. After that, the number will be much closer to 120 as winter finally settles in over Mac town. The sun will set on April 25th and not rise again until the 19th of August, which just so happens to coincide with the first flight of the season called Winfly. This flight will herald in the coming research summer season here at McMurdo. By this time, I’ll see some of my old friends that I met the previous year. Within that drastic drop in population over the last 2 weeks, however, I’ve seen most of my friends fly off into the beautiful, ever-changing sky of Antarctica on their way back to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Many will travel around New Zealand, through Asia, or all over Australia. In the end though, most will end up back in their lives in civilization with their families and friends. Most won’t ever see this harsh continent again or at least forgo coming back down here for a while longer. The few that end up back here next summer will inevitably search for more gainful employment through other departments, changing the entire dynamic that we’ve all made in the kitchen and community this year. I’ve worked with good groups of people throughout the time I’ve spent doing contract work. My history in this work stems all the way back to when I was a 14 year old doing contract catering work over the hot, dry summers in Northern Utah and each crew I’ve worked with since then have been distinctly different each time. I’ve learned that the only way to be able to say goodbye to all these people that you may never see again, people that you’ve grown so fond of while working with their distinct personalities, people that have become so ingrained in your mind and work that you almost have to start over every time this dynamic changes is to implement all the good things you’ve cherished about these amazing people into your daily working and living life.

For instance, what I learned from Sam, the guy I became such good friends with from Pennsylvania that put himself through “the ringer” in this industry early in his life, is to remember how young I still am. I don’t need to go to the best schools or show everybody what I’m made of right out of the gates every single moment of the day. Bracing myself for the future is almost as important as preparing myself for where I want to be in years to come. I remember being 16 and working upwards of 80-90 hours a week. Each hour I worked in these weeks when I was so young was almost a badge of honor among people I worked with. Looking back, I now know how flawed this thinking was. I lost many special moments with my family over working such exorbitant hours instead of just focusing on other people in my life.

I learned from Annie, the girl from New England that showed so much emotion and kindness towards everyone that deserved it. I grew up in a very distant family. I didn’t ever spend much time with most of my relatives around me. My cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmas and grandpas had their own lives and there were only a few relatives my mom, brothers, and I ever got to see on a fairly regular basis. This was normal to me growing up so whatever time I got to spend with other relatives, my mom made it a point to try and make sure I knew they all loved me. This amazing girl, Annie, reminded me that even though this connection I made with these people I will rarely see after the time we spent on this island together will surely never be the same after they leave doesn’t mean I need to distance myself from them while I’m here. She also helped me put into perspective how small a lot of the trivial issues that arise in such a small community really matter in the long run, especially when there will only be 120 people here at McMurdo for most of the winter.

Last, but not least, I learned from Kitty Cat, the girl from Texas that’s been another close friend of mine while working here, that I should never be ashamed of who I am or what I like in this life. I remember very vividly back in middle school when I was much shyer than I am now being looked down on by my closest friend for being who I am. Many times my best friends in middle school told me specifically to not embarrass them in front of people they thought were in the cool crowd, which made me self-conscious about a lot of other things in my life. I realize they never really were friends that had my best interests at heart, which is sad. I got over this a while back but this amazing girl from the humid plains of Texas reminded me that it doesn’t matter who’s around me. If someone doesn’t like me for no other reason than what I enjoy doing to pass my time, I don’t need them in my life. Even in such a small community as this.

I have dozens and dozens of other little things I’m going to try to remember from other people around McMurdo that I’ll hold dear to my heart. I’ve thought about making a list of things I’ll definitely need reminders of over this winter. I do pretty well with lists. Maybe a blog post I can print out and hang on my new winter housing room? We shall see. I know I haven’t posted in more than a couple weeks. After I got switched out of the runway with my future uncertain at whether I’d be staying in Antarctica, my schedule had turned erratic. It was switched 7 times from early morning to a late swing shift to cover for people leaving so it was extremely hard to etch out any time to write. It wasn’t until my suggested R&R, a week long vacation from work in McMurdo, that I was finally able to turn my thoughts into life on here.

I also never noticed how badly my body was hurting after this summer season. My body hurt in places I never knew it was hurting, along with a particular injury I got clear back in October that never had the time to fully heal. When the higher ups in my orientation told me at the start of the season that I need to watch my body closely since it’s incredibly difficult for injuries to heal down here, I didn’t believe them. After the last 5 months of the same injury plaguing the same spot on my leg, I’m definitely going to be taking care not to strain my body too bad. During the last 6 days of my R&R, I have been able to heal myself and get ready to work the long hours in the winter for the next 8 months. We’ll see really soon if it was enough.

During the last 2 years, I’ve found that my time off in these isolated places is much better spent occupying my time with projects I’ve always wanted to learn. Last winter during my time in the Arctic, I decided to start this blog, get my health in check, and work on different cooking techniques. All of these I ended up doing by the end of the summer. This winter my plan will be to learn Spanish, do at least 8 articles on this blog about different explorers that have undoubtedly influenced me, and read 10 books that I’ve always wanted to read. I feel I’ll probably want to do more than that in the 8 months that I’ll be here over the long wintery nights but we’ll start with that. I’ve found a group of people that are eager to learn Spanish along with a fluent speaker and have already started Rosetta Stone so I’ve done pretty good in preemptively preparing myself for the projects I’ve set for myself.

This summer has been fantastic. If this winter compares in any way to how much fun I had this summer, I’ll have considered my 14 months in Antarctica a resounding success. Even though 8 months isn’t that long of a time, a lot can happen between now and the time I set foot back in Christchurch but I’m going into this season with a renewed vigor that can only uplift me. I’ve always believed that a good attitude can change a situation for the better so as long as I assume the best in everything I do, I’ll have a great time. Send good vibes my way people! I’ll definitely be needing it within the next few months.