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 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.

marmarathon
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.

The South Pole Traverse

Pretty much one of the most sought-after, intense positions you can get here in Antarctica is to get the chance of going on the South Pole Traverse. It’s essentially a caravan of tractors and supplies that track across the ice, over a glacier, and across crevasses to get to the South Pole to resupply them with fuel.

DSC01656Most everything here in Antarctica is supplied by the LC-130 Hercules plane. It usually takes about 4 gallons of fuel that the plane burns per 1 gallon of fuel that’s transported by LC-130 to actually refuel the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. EXTREMELY ineffective. When the Traverse started just shy of 10 years ago in the 2005/2006 season, they found out that it’s a much more efficient way to transport large amounts of fuel, albeit a much more dangerous one for the Traverse team. It only takes 1/2 gallon of fuel to transport each gallon that makes it up to the South Pole. Taking around 140,000 gallons of fuel each year to the Pole while dropping fuel caches and supplying remote camps along the way, this saves on average 65 LC-130 flights a year. In total, they delivered more than 110 tons of cargo in that first year. This number is considerably higher this year since they only made 1 traverse to the Pole that first year and this year they made 3 traverses.  After that first year, they had a 1 year hiatus to build up the infrastructure on the trail leading to the Pole. They made great headway in 2007-2008 at nailing down the routine for the Traverse team and in the 2008-2009 season, they completed the first operational Traverse year. This accomplishment marked a great achievement for the NSF and a mind-altering way of transporting fuel across tundras. This is why a lot of people here on station hold these teams in such high regard.

Essentially rock stars in the eyes of most of my friends, these teams are completely secluded from the world while on the 28 day trip to the South Pole. Once they drop their supplies off, it’s a much shorter return trip. I takes 1 1/2 to 2 months in total after they drop their caches, visit the remote camps, and return to McMurdo Sound. It’s an incredible feat considering the history of South Pole journeys by the human race in the last 150 years. Knowing that we can consistently brave this extreme weather through scientific and mechanical innovation that came from the advancement of the human race with virtually zero casualties is unbelievable to me. I would have never believed that this was possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

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The caravan consists of big trailers used for storage and sleeping, Caterpillar and Case tractors for dragging everything over the ice, and huge, long tubular bladders filled with oil. It’s a pretty interesting sight to see. I was fortunate enough to drive by their staging area on my way to work every day. I got to see the progression of equipment getting prepped for the trip every day and I tried documenting all the different stages. The giant bladders for the fuel are exactly as it’s described, a big black long bladder that are strapped to a hitch so the tractors can drag them along the ice (Shown to the left and above). The trail leading to the South Pole is all up hill, climbing in elevation to almost 10,000 feet with the barometric pressure sometimes up to 14,000 feet. It’s approximately 995 miles (1601 km) one way, making it almost 2,000 miles round-trip.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking with several of the traverse team members from past traverses, from SpoT 1 and 2 over this season, and a member of SpoT 2 who happens to be my room mate while he’s in town here. I’ve had a good amount of time to pick a few of these unique individual’s heads about their experience along with one of the managers of the whole operation. They have all said it’s extremely important who your team members are and how their personalities mesh together as a whole. How someone will interact with others is one of the main things they look at when being considered as a potential team member, even. They prefer people that have had at least 1 year of “ice time” (being deployed in Antarctica). This is to ensure they can even handle the lifestyle that contract work entails before setting out on an extremely monotonous, sometimes grueling adventure to the South Pole. They also have to have some kind of specialized skill they could use with a background of mechanics. You don’t necessarily have to be a mechanic to operate a tractor on the traverse but it definitely helps. You could specialize in carpentry or electrical engineering and they’d still let you be an operator but you’d have to have a pretty impressive resume.

I asked my room mate what he thought the best and worst part of the trip was. He said that the best part of the trip was split between how much of an adventure the whole experience was and how excited he was to be driving back into McMurdo Station after sitting on a tractor for the last 2 months. The worst part of the trip was how little scenery there actually was on the nearly 2,000 mile trip. The most scenic views leading through the route they took into Antarctica was the first and last 100 miles in the bay near McMurdo overlooking the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The glacier they use to access the continent is definitely a lot safer than the Beardmore Glacier that Captain Scott and Shackleton used years ago travel across the continent but the scenery is less than impressive most of the way. The living spaces they have are incredibly small but as comfortable as possible when dragging small trailers filled with bunk beds, bathrooms, and kitchens. They would work about 12 hours a day and park for the night until they get some sleep and food in their stomachs. Then another morning of firing up tractors, getting their sled trailers ready, and fueling their machines. After that, right back on their way on the South Pole Highway until they get to the South Pole. They get a day off at the Pole, with the eventual return trip in sight.

The South Pole Traverse is an incredible statement of human ingenuity in the most inhospitable place on earth. It has always been on the forefront of fascination for the general public and will continue to push the limits of human capabilities as long as we insist on being a part of this environment for the further understanding of science. I firmly believe that the most extreme places and situations bring the best out of humanity with Antarctica being a shining example of that.

A Happy New Year from McMurdo Station, Antarctica

My next post was going to be about either the South Pole Traverse or the incredible Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his life. Since both the Traverse teams are out on missions right now and I’m in the process of reading Shackleton’s harrowing story of the Endurance through a few books that have been published about the tale before I move on, my New Year’s celebration will have to do. Bringing in the New year in a place like McMurdo Station is an interesting experience. They have a 9 hour musical festival called Ice Stock, plenty of friends to hang out with, and with the longer-than-usual time we’re granted for the holiday, there are plenty of hikes to keep yourself busy. Most of the town has to actually work on New Year’s, with a party late at night for those that don’t work. For those that worked through New Year’s as a Mid-rat (the shift that works through the night) it’s pretty much just another day.

I work out at the William’s Field Airway and they pretty much give me full control over the food I cook with exception to a lot of meats that they’re almost out of. I tried to make the Willy Cafe a nice place to be to bring in the New Year. I was able to scrounge together a pretty good meal for the people that have to eat my food out there and most everyone on Mid-rats is pretty pleasant company. When I got back from town that morning, I found out I had the next couple nights off for the holiday. Most of the town celebrates their New Year’s Day a few days later on the 2nd and 3rd with a big celebration and the 9 hour concert series, aptly named Ice Stock. Since I worked with most of the regular town people on the Airfield, I had the holiday off.

My first day off was spent with some of my favorite people on the ice. We went on a hike around Observation Hill, the big hill that juts out above McMurdo Station. Standing ever vigilant for thousands of years protecting McMurdo from extreme winds from the North, people over the years have carved small trails into the hill. Zigzagging switchbacks climb all the way to the top where a big Jarrah wood cross is perched in commemoration of one of my favorite explorers, Robert Falcon Scott. It was carried up Ob Hill over a 2 day period with the help from sledges more than 100 years ago to give tribute to this amazing man and his four other companions that perished on their return trip from the geographic South Pole. There’s also a trail carved into the side of the hill stretching the entire base of it, which is what we went on. The view around Observation Hill is spectacular, complete with weddel seals, penguins, and a breath-taking view of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Ice Stock is a fantastic celebration the Station puts on for everyone. They even put up a stage, small coffee shack, warming shacks, and a grill area that the cooks grilled brats for the coworkers at the concert. The bands that played the concert were just talented people from the community that put together their own band’s set lists. Shitty and Loud, 30 Minutes of Classic Rock Radio, Antarctica’s Premier Kesha Cover Band, and Van Shiefflen were some of the names of the bands that participated in Ice Stock. Obviously a lot of the bands were just hilarious cover bands to make everybody’s life a little more fun while on the ice. I appreciated any of the people involved since they had to give up whatever precious time they had off during the holiday and practiced on their down time weeks prior to Ice Stock.

I’m still amazed at the incredible amount of talent in this community. Whether it’s in science, art, music, or any other form of intelligence, it seems like we have someone in the community that is incredible at it. After Ice Stock, I ended up having a restful night with friends in our community coffee house drinking hot cocoa and watching movies all night. These have turned out to be some of my favorite times here in Antarctica. A group of good friends getting together to celebrate a holiday or any other event we can justifiably have fun at is definitely the meat of life here at the base, on par with the beauty that is Antarctica. The grandeur of Antarctica is why I came down here in the first place but the surprisingly like-minded people that have been so great throughout my experience here are why I’ll probably end up back here eventually.

The new year brings about unanswered questions over the next couple weeks. I’ve had the opportunity to apply at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for the winter as a production cook. They’re going to fly me down to the station in a couple weeks but they can’t do that until I’m completely physically qualified through the medical facility they use back in Texas. I’ve had to do a psychological evaluation and exam to see if I’m mentally capable of handling the South Pole during the winter, several medical tests throughout the last month and a half, and a dentist is being flown down to the Ice to do check-ups for all winter-overs within the next week. After all of that is submitted, the medical facility says if I’m fit to “PQ” for a winter. After all of that is done, they’ll fly me to the station for my interview. The next couple weeks will be spent in making travel plans throughout New Zealand and filling out forms for the next adventure I’d like to go on if I don’t end up wintering over in the South Pole. There’s a fair possibility of that outcome since only about 60% of people that do the psych testing pass. Either way, the next month here on the Ice will eventually decide my fait for the new year’s adventures.

My time here at McMurdo so far has been incredible. The job hasn’t been my favorite compared to some of the other ones I’ve worked since we’ve been limited with some of the food we’ve been able to cook but some of the people here will likely be apart of my life for many years to come. That, the beautiful landscape, and the wild animals around this area have made this adventure well worth it. A South Pole winter will likely end up being a very taxing endeavor but for now, I’m having a great time with amazing people.

More peeectures!

Christmas Time on the Ice

Christmas time in Antarctica is an interesting time. Random people making sweets after hours in the kitchen, everybody walking around in santa hats, and groups of christmas carolers walking around spreading christmas cheer everywhere they go; it’s an incredibly impressive sight. The community pulls together as a whole to make a bleak holiday away from their families as joyful as possible.

I grew up in a large community, with a couple thousand kids in my high school alone. Being in that large of a community was definitely nice since I met new people every day. On the flip side, the holidays in big towns can feel lonely sometimes. You don’t have random people spreading christmas cheer nearly as much compared to being in a smaller community. Most people are just going about their days to get money for their families during the holidays. It’s an interesting experience I probably wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise.

I started off the holiday with a mid-rat Christmas party, which was everything you could hope for with a christmas party in Antarctica. Especially since we started out with watching Die Hard as our Christmas movie. Since I work out on the airfield here at McMurdo, I’m one of the only cooks that actually got Christmas off. It was weird having the day off when all my friends were working so I ended up helping out Baker Chris in the kitchen, making a profiterole tree out of cream puffs and caramel. Kudos to the kitchen staff, though. They sure made this holiday special with the meal they prepared for everyone over the last few days. After helping Chris, me and another mid-rat cook stayed up all night and watched every Christmas TV special we could think of in the theater room, drank hot cocoa, took naps to recuperate from an already long season of work, and got into a better spirit of the holidays I didn’t think was possible while being so far from home.

After staying up well after when I actually go to bed for the galley family meal before the chaos ensued, a group of us ended up taking food and presents to a coworker that was sick. After sleeping, I woke up for the Cook’s Festivus Party, of the Seinfeld variety. Complete with the Airing of Grievances, Feats of Strength by the head of household RA of the building, the annual Festivus Pole, and the Festivus Meal that was made by Sam Mengel, one of our night cooks. What would the Festivus Meal have at it, you ask? It was mostly chicken quesadillas made on a small electric flat top grill Sam found in SKUA, our local second-hand-store. It was great, to say the least.

Everything I’ve done during this holiday season has been inspiring and gave me an incredible sense of community. Especially since my family took a family portrait with a caring note to me, making sure my Christmas holiday was topped off in the most special way possible. To everyone that made this holiday such a great one at the bottom of the world, I thank you.

Oh, and by the way. I met an Adelie Penguin. His name is Esteban.

More pictures!