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!

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.


Week 10 in the Arctic

This is my 10th week up in Prudhoe Bay just outside of Deadhorse. It’s a thrilling, yet somber time as well. As I approach my 3 month mark, I know I’ll be back home for a week at the start of May. It seems I just got here. The night was pitch black with howling winds upwards of 30 miles an hour and temperatures below -70 at times. Piles of snow inside my door from fierce gusts blasting my door all night long. Meeting new people who I was to work with, then seeing those people leave the Arctic back to their lives elsewhere after just a few short weeks of getting to know them. Seeing new, starry-eyed people come to Alaska to work with me, one by one, until our winter team was fully assembled. Making friends with these new people and being amazed at how well we worked together.

I’ve also made friends with the work crews that come up. All of them have been nice and receptive of my food, which I appreciate. I’ve connected with them all and know most by their first name. If you know me at all, you’d know how great of a feat that is. I’m always sad to see some of them leave on their 3 week rotation but their permanent replacements end up showing their faces a few days later, which is nice. I’ve also become familiar with the area, making me excited for the summer. Even though my fate is uncertain if I’m staying at this particular camp or down in Cold Foot for the summer, it’s still nice to know my surroundings and the history of the area.

A light of uncertainty comes with me going home in a few weeks, too. As I miss my family very much, especially my mom and dad, I feel my time in Alaska has been too short to just reappear back into everybody’s lives. I don’t have a girlfriend that needs me and all my closest friends that I care about have girlfriends, wives, or kids that have always kept them busy. It’s strange to me that I can just show up for just a few days with just enough time for everyone I know to say hi and be on my way again. Albeit it’s rather important I go home for this small, diluted time for physical examinations or other tests they want to run on me for Antarctica, I’d just as much rather stay here where I can focus on making myself better, even healthier for my family back home.

With that said, it’ll be good to see my parents, siblings, and friends again. It’ll be nice to see my grandpa’s grave that passed away while I was up here. To see my grandma and give her my sympathies and apologies for not being able to make it back home for the funeral. Maybe I can convince some friends to take some time out of their busy lives to venture into the mountains or walk around Salt Lake City, reveling in humanity’s grasp on civilization in the valley around my home town one last time for the next 5 months that I’ll be in Alaska. We shall see.

For the last month of winter, my focus while I’m working up here will be squarely on making exceptional food while improving my techniques through repetition, intuitiveness, and studies. I’ll also be looking to lose some weight. I’m tired of being fatigued at the end of the night when I get off work with not much more energy for anything else. I’d like to be able to do physical labor without too much strain on my body and I can’t do that when I’m overweight. My goal is to lose 25 pounds by the time I go home, which is in about 5 weeks. 4 pounds a week is a reasonable goal considering I’ve lost 7 pounds since I started taking my health seriously. I think that’ll be attainable if I stay focused and keep changing my diet for the better. Wish me luck in that aspect 🙂

I’m hoping my new coworkers down in the middle of no-where at Coldfoot are as nice as the ones I’ve met so far up here. I also hope I’ll adjust to sleeping in a giant tent with a room mate in the middle of Alaska all summer long. I’ll be the lead dinner cook, from my understanding. Whatever that means. Cooking for 150 to 200 people is a far cry from what I’ve been doing in Prudhoe Bay so that’ll be nice. If there’s one thing I’ve learned the past 4 years working up north, there’s plenty of hours and money to be made in Alaska. You just have to look hard enough. If I do end up going down the Dalton Highway a few hundred miles, I won’t have phone service but I will have limited internet. I’m glad I’d at least have some way with connecting to the outside world.

But as for now, I sit in my chair in my room writing this blog and thinking about life. I’ve always been good at imagining where I want my life to take me, though it hardly ends up where I expected it to. As I stare into the night sky every night on my way to my room, I always wish those moments never pass. Even though they do, they’re always replaced by just as beautiful and memorable memories as before. Live life how you see it around you, not how the world sees you and you’ll always find yourself in the place you were always meant to be. Even if you didn’t necessarily know where it was going to lead. 🙂