Jan. 7th (Day 50): I'm Back!
"I'm back. It's me," was usually what Dongsheng said anytime he left the tent and then returned. It developed into a fairly funny joke throughout the trip because with Bill and I still in the tent it didn't take Einstein's IQ to figure out who it was unzipping the tent door.
I say this only as an introduction to the fact that, "I'm back." Back with regular updates. Sorry for the delay in getting information out, but there have been a few factors. One, I'm really tired. Two, it's been a crazy couple of days.
We were at the pole for less than 24 hours when an ALE Bassler DC-3 landed and whisked us away. In a little over three hours we traveled over most of our route that we had been snailing our way across for almost two months. It was humbling to say the least.
Coming back to ALE's Patriot Hills camp was a great relief. There was a big feast and we gorged ourselves. Happy and replete with good food and good friends, we slept long into the next day.
Despite our relaxed demeanors, eating with knives and forks, changing our underwear, it was a little bittersweet to be finished. Our journey to the pole was so physically, mentally and emotionally intense that to be instantly removed from that situation shocks the system. I am still reeling trying to figure it out all out.
We were only in Patriot Hills camp for a two days when the Illyshun landed and in another unusually abrupt step, flew us back to Punta Arenas.
While I am looking forward to going home, it was surprisingly hard to leave. I hung back marveling at each subtle wonder as I walked by — the pattern of each snow drift, the blueness of the ice and sky, the line cut by the Patriot Hills, my friends still in camp ... I inhaled deeply and held my breathe making sure one last piece of Antarctica would remain deep inside. Remember always this smell I thought. Cold and remote. Pristine.
Arleigh Jorgenson, my old dog mushing boss used to say, "moving slow and enjoying moving slow," after returning from a long time on the trail. I have taken his remark to heart as much as possible.
Lingering after meals, enjoying using a glass, sleeping in a bed. My body needs this extra time to recover after such a long exertion.
Sleep and sitting are priorities for the next day or so. Life in Punta unfortunately doesn't seem to be on level with my snow weary body. I have been having a hard time crossing the road. Cars move faster than skiers. The number of close calls have been unnervingly numerous.
I want to take the next week to thank all the people who helped with our journey and talk more about the next steps in the Save the Poles expedition. Now more than ever, there is more work that needs to be done in protecting our climate.
Yes, I still believe that it's cool to be cold, but it's also nice to be warm once in a while too.
Jan. 1: Happy New Year
The bitter wind of yesterday evening died mysteriously sometime during the night. Still overcast however, the calm day immediately brightened our spirits (those same spirits had been drained to almost zero the day before). It was a better New Year's day than we had anticipated.
We skied sandwiched between flat, featureless snow and a low hanging cloud layer. In the distance, we aimed toward a small sliver of blue.
With no real drifts to mark our progress, we seemed to be traveling in limbo — not getting any closer or farther away from anything.
Normally, this would be frustrating, but it was actually quite serene.
"It felt like a zen garden," Bill said. "Everything was calm, relatively warm and no bright sun."
Dongsheng was occupied with more practical matters: finding energy. "I ate a double lunch," he announced and then added, "today is the first time that I feel like I can actually make it."
The new year, our proximity to the pole... It was a day for reflection as well as looking forward. Our calmness is the result of almost 50 days of very hard work.
We are farther away from you than ever before. What lies in the gap between you and us? Chairs, tables and just about every other creature comfort that's for sure. Traditionally, physical separation leads to philosophical differences. Yet, here we are an American, Chinese and Irish Canadian traveling, eating, working, living together. When we meet each other on a similar field, dissimilarities disappear. We are a team working toward a common goal.
For now, we take comfort in this one simple thought: another step away brings us closer to home.
Dec. 30: 89
If I were to pick one thing that was most worrisome to me about our journey (besides the first week) it would be the first four or five days on the plateau. My nervousness proved correct and the few days after Christmas were arduous back-breaking work. Every step was an effort.
While we were aiming for the pole, there was just too much time and distance between us and it. Therefore, we set a more attainable goal of 89=B0. Tired, sore and unacclimatized, it felt like a million miles away.
Remember those 1,584,000 steps. We have now completed 90% of them. I can't even begin to describe how good that feels.
Dongsheng says, 'I feel like we're still climbing.' As a side note, I have been telling Dongsheng that although the terrain levels out we will ski uphill all the way to the pole.
Bill says, 'it's almost as good as what I think 90=B0 (the pole) will feel like.'
Of course, our journey is not over yet. If there is one thing that Antarctica has taught us it's that things can change very quickly. The wind, snow, our own physical energy... We are celebrating this small victory quietly for now. Tomorrow, we still have to get up and ski.
There are more steps that need to be taken.
Dec. 29: Friday, is that you?
There is a quote I like (by Norman Peal I think) that goes, 'throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow.' In our effort to reach the pole, we have been throwing our hearts, guts, feet, boots, tent, stove, sleds and anything else we've been lugging for the past 43 days over the fence as well.
My apologies for no update yesterday. Time and cold have taken their toll and I was up late splicing cables for the solar panel. The upshot today... Mostly charged. I'm still working on a camera battery.
The snow has flattened out considerably and we were able to make some really good mileage. Our sunny morning turned overcast. Then, the wind picked up chasing away any illusions of a casual ski day. As Dongsheng has so eloquently phrased it in the past, it was, 'damn cold.' We skied, ate Clif bars, skied some more... The template is fairly simple.
Later in the afternoon, the sky completely cleared in just a half hour. Sunny and instantly warm, we pushed hard the last mile. The hoar frost crystals that have been slowing our progress looked like sparkling diamonds as we passed.
We have crossed the tracks of several expeditions and followed Hannah's (the other ALE/ANI guide for Messner Route) trail as well. It's surprising to see evidence of other people after so many days of complete isolation. After encountering the old tent site of the Commonwealth team, we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe seeing a foot print in the sand.
A sight which prompted us to simultaneously ask, 'Friday?'
Dec. 24: Santa is that you?
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the tent, not a creature was stirring except Dongsheng who was still awake and massaging his feet. Our oatmeal was laid in our breakfast cups with care, hoping that the cook would complete our morning fare.
How about this one... On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... 5 more minutes of sleep, 4 frozen toes, 3 Clif bars, 2 strong skis, and a freeze dried dinner in my cup!
Hey, don't laugh. It's the best we can do.
Not hot. That's how I would describe today. With the wind chill it was - 40, which makes it a bit easier for we (us?) Americans as -40 Celsius and Fahrenheit are the exact same temperature. We all added an extra layer to combat the bitter cold. I even wore my mittens for the first time of the entire trip.
Ho Ho Ho.
Despite the cold, it was another sunny day in Antarctica. We were hoping to reach our final cache today, but the long climbs proved to formidable for a big mileage day. Instead, we chose the safe option of pitching camp after our normal eight hour travel day. Yes, we could have pushed and covered the extra three miles, but at what cost?
Besides, if we are up past midnight Santa might not come. We are going on the assumption that this is his last stop — being on the exact opposite end of the planet and all.
Hoping this post finds you happy and warm surrounded by friends and family. Our best to all.
Dec. 23: Climbing to the Plateau
There are two basic times in Antarctica: tent time and everything else. Tent time means warm food, relaxation, casual conversation and sleep. The other time, you ask? Well, it's tent time now so we will kindly refrain from discussing it further.
We've been slowly ticking off those million and a half steps to the pole. I'm not sure what the exact count is, but we're almost at 80%. Do that number of anything and you will feel tired. The miles are taking their toll.
This morning we had to take a quick break while Dongsheng adjusted his boot insoles. He had forgone his nightly foot massage in lieu of extra sleep. Now, that one small thing was affecting his skiing efficiency. 'It hurt but I could still ski,' he said. 'It was a good reminder to take care of my body.'
Bill noticed the cold. It has a different personality as we near the plateau. 'It feels colder even though there is less wind,' he observed. 'It takes us longer to warm up after breaks, too.'
We are traveling through some of the most beautiful snowscapes I have ever seen. Large wind sculpted drifts are scattered haphazardly for as far as we can see. In between, smaller sastrugi look like small waves or ripples on the ocean. Others are bigger and round, like rollers. I can't stop taking pictures as each drift is a new 'most amazing.'
The uneven terrain presents other problems. Bill commented, 'skiing in sastrugi humbling.' With your sled pulling you backwards on inclines and small drifts catching ski tips, balancing and moving forward is tricky at best.
Today was sunny and clear with the excepion of a few low clouds to our east and two small whisps to the north. The color of the sky was incredible, but I hesitate to call it just blue. While we can see the line that separates sky from ice, white bleeds upward into blue. But before it reaches the peak of the vaulted ceiling above, we see a thousand different shades.
Dec. 22: Becoming Antarctica
An unusual day weather-wise. It was almost dead calm and warm (just a couple degrees below freezing) when we packed up camp and started skiing. Two hours later, the temperature dropped and wind picked up. Skiing and chilled to the bone, we tried to eke warmth wherever we could find it — pulling our anorak hoods over the left side of our goggles, wiggling fingers and toes... Thinking about Mexico.
We were all surprised at how quickly we went from situation normal to defcon three. We were instantly reminded who exactly is in charge here (and it's definitely not us). The careful moves we have been making over the past month are starting to pay large dividends. We save energy through efficiency and teamwork.
'Another day,' says Dongsheng. 'Rapid temperature changes,' added Bill. As you can see at this point in our journey, there isn't a lot that hasn't already been said.
One of our daily jobs is to cut small snow blocks and pile them in the vestibule of the tent. These will be melted and used for drinking water, rehydrating dinners and breakfasts and our lunch time soup.
With each drink, we take in a small part of this place. It is coursing through our veins and sweated out our pores. We ski and sleep on snow.
Each cool gulp of air fills alveoli with oxygen from the most remote place on earth We are not so much skiing to the South Pole as into it.
We are becoming Antarctica.
Dec. 19: Heat wave
The people who avoid (or survive for that matter) life threatening situations generally observe changes around them, then act accordingly. Those who can not or will not notice things devolving or those who refuse to change their plan are those who perish.
Most days we are traveling in a very narrow margin of warmth and safety. If we're not wearing enough layers and the wind picks up, our body core temperature lowers quickly and we can be hypothermic in a matter of minutes. Frostbitten after that. Conversely, if we are wearing too many layers, we can easily overheat and sweat. Stopping for a break in this state is equally dangerous.
One of our main safety (and survival) goals is to constantly observe the snow, temperature, wind, our bodies and equipment. When something changes we adapt. In this manner, we actually travel quite comfortably toward the pole.
Today was a carbon copy of yesterday: soft flat snow, overcast... Whiteout.
Navigating in these conditions is more of an art form than physical skill. Basically, it involves staring down at a compass and trying to ski in a straight line without looking up. Bill and Dongsheng have performed admirably to date, but the flat snow provided no reference points. Bill got off to a rough start during his shift and almost doubled back to the north.
'It's a bit of a crap shoot because you have absolutely no perspective,' Bill said. Later in his shift he managed to straighten out (literally). 'I was determined to stick with it,' he added.
Dongsheng took an avant garde approach to whiteout navigation and held the compass in one hand while skiing. Luckily, the weather cleared and he returned to two pole locomotion.
With the sun and blue sky, we found ourselves skiing on a smooth white plain of snow for as far as we could see in every direction. It was also completely calm and so warm that we stripped down to our long underwear tops.
Like all other survivors, we adapted to the situation.
Dec. 18: Our thin line
On this journey, we take whatever Antarctica gives us. Most days, we try not to complain and be respectful. After all, we're not exactly sure who's in charge of the weather, so we ski along, bite our tongues and silently hope for hard snow and good visibility.
Today's whiteout, while not terrible, definitely had us pointing fingers trying to figure out who had jinxed us. More realistically, we had several days of nice conditions and it was simply, 'time'.
Still, the calm air put us in a good mood, and even though we couldn't see anything but white, we opted for the high road and then mixed in a bit of humor. 'White sand beach,' imagined Dongsheng.
Then fully grasping the arbitrary nature of polar travel, he added ironically, 'from nowhere to nowhere.'
Because of the softer snow, our sleds and skis leave a long ribbon of tracks. If nothing else, the trail allows to see how straight we are skiing.
'Surprisingly, we've seen relatively little of Antarctica,' commented Bill a few days ago. 'We rarely veer from our course.'
It is true that our small transect of this immense continent covers little physical space. Yet those thin lines mark every adventure we've had. There's the day with amazing snow crystals in the air or the day we first saw the Thiels and the day we veered around some big crevasses. Moreover, if we look at where we've been, where we are then project than line into future, we can begin to imagine the pole. Past that?
We see home, friends and loved ones and way up ahead still to distant to see clearly, we can just make out the beginnings of new tracks on some different, unexpected adventure.
Dec. 13 (Day 27): R&R
I'm not sure who was up first, but it definitely wasn't at our normal 6 am wake up call. Hallelujah!
You would think that after almost 12 hours of sleep that we wouldn't need a nap, but we did. Dong opted for an after breakfast snooze; whereas, Bill waited until the afternoon. It was so nice to not rush or freeze and not do the million other difficult things that we do on a normal travel day.
Surprisingly, we spent a large part of our day sewing. Bill fixed the tent and stove bag, Dong repaired another small hole in the tent and made a new nose beak for his goggles. I modified my extra boot liners. There were other projects too — reinforcing a broken shovel blade, a final gear sort, and Dongsheng's successful attempt at opening a polar laundry service. After the initial wash, he just rolled it in snow and hung it on his ski poles to freeze dry.
It's hard to say what was so nice about being here. Our bodies needed the rest that much is obvious. But to sit back, relax, share stories ... We looked at the Thiel mountains from the comfort of our small home and enjoyed the snow for what it is ... The biggest, most formidable and most beautiful ice sheet in the world.
Dec. 12: Cache #2
A quick update from the ice: we woke up, we ate breakfast, we skied, we went to sleep. Yet while today in Antarctica was like so many others, it was significant for another reason — we reached our second cache (resupply).
We spent the afternoon sorting, rearranging and doing a little bit of bartering. Bill got some extra chocolate, I got can of Pringles, and Dong scored a few ramen packs and some several Worthers candies. One man's trash is another man's treasure :)
To make things even better (if that is possible considering our newfound bounty), we made mental preparations for our first full rest day tomorrow. The big question: what time would we wake up? 8 or 9?
There was a rumor floating around the tent that it might be as late as 10.
Dong was excited about doing laundry. Bill wanted to relax then take some pictures of the Thiels and I will be diving into some stories by Chekov that I have been lugging around Antarctica for the past 300 miles. If I start feeling really ambitious, I may change my underwear as well.
Physically and mentally, we feel good. However after being on the move every day for almost a month, the prospect of staying put for just 24 hours is intoxicating. It is the simple pleasures that get us through all the hardships.
Of course (and to point out the obvious) the simple pleasures are all we have.
Dec. 11: Halfway
'The best day of the expedition,' was how Dongsheng described the day. Bill added, 'warm and beautiful.' With the Thiel mountains growing after every step and a deep blue sky, it was truly magnificent.
This is the Antarctica that makes us smile.
Today was special for another reason as we passed 85 =B0 S. We are now officially half way to the South Pole! We feel good about accomplishing that small goal. After all, it only took us 25 days to get here. Only.
When was the last time it took you 25 days to get anywhere, let alone?
25 days to get half way somewhere? In our increasingly faster world, it is refreshing for us to measure progress in days and weeks. So often we parse time into the smallest possible units, packing in more and more.
Here we can watch our shadows arc across the snow and even notice when the angle has changed. We ski towards distant mountains for days and watch them shrink behind us for, at times, weeks. In relation to the entire scale of our journey, it feels more like we are becoming a part of this landscape rather than simply traveling across it.
This makes us smile too.
In another few weeks or so we will know what it will feel like to be successful in reaching the pole or not. Until then, we will continue forward — enjoying small successes, bracing for hardships, and hopefully, understanding this place and it's effect on our lives.
Dec. 9: Systems
Each day for lunch we eat the following: 1 Clif Builders Bar, 1 Clif Bar, 1 package Clif shot bloks, 1 Lara Bar, 50 grams of salami, 50 grams of cheese, 1/2 liter of soup, 1 package of biscuit browns (British crackers), 4 pieces of candy, 100 grams of chocolate and 100 grams of gorp (nuts and raisons).
While each lunch is the same, each of us chooses to eat our lunch in different ways.
Bill eats his salami and cheese right after breakfast. The rest is left in a zip lock but 'pre-opened'. At each break, he pulls out the bag out of his sled and grabs something to eat. 'I eat the chocolate first,' says Bill, the consummate dessert lover.
Dong puts a bit more effort into his lunch preparations. 'Time to go to work,' he declares every night. Then, he proceeds to break up his bars, cheese, chocolate and nuts in a spare nalgene and drinks his lunch at breaks. At each break, he unscrews the bottle, tips his head back and waits to see what he'll win in the 'lottery'. Then he adds, 'I always win.'
As with most things on expeditions, I am purely function first. All my bars get ripped open and stuffed in my left pants pocket. My candy gets unwrapped and placed in a special pocket on my right sleeve. I drop my cheese in my soup to thaw it out and eat the salami immediately after downing the soup. I save my chocolate until the last break, only because after so many expeditions, it is my least favorite trail food.
What we eat never changes. As with most things on an expedition, structure defines our lives. Yet within this rigorous construct each of us is able to bend the rules to suit his needs.
Dec. 8: Thinking
Our travel schedule dictates that we take a rest day every seven days. Actually, it's only half a day, but for us, it feels like a week at Club Med: Sleeping in until almost 10, eating Cliff bars and other treats in a warm tent versus cold on our sleds... It's hard to describe how these small pleasures rejuvenate our bodies and minds.
Traveling in yet another whiteout. We put our legs and arms in auto pilot and wandered far away from this place. Dongsheng, forever solving one problem or another, restructured his company and solved other business-related issues. Bill, more pragmatic, wondered when we would be able to see the mountains to our immediate right and our upcoming resupply at Thiels.
For my part, I tried to find the elusive sepia tones in the sky (now a team joke). But mostly, just relaxed and entertained ideas, places, words and friends as they casually wandered in and out of my conciousness. At one point, I was surprised to find myself still skiing!
There are so many things about this trip that are equally grand and subtle, intense or relaxing, big and small. Each day we move further and further south. But while we continue to make our daily linear physical progress, our minds zig zag haphazardly traveling on their own expedition.
Dec. 7: Light
The wind picked up in the night and slowly peeled away yesterday's new snow. Completely gone was the smooth flowing blanket of white. Replaced now by millions of subtle shapes and forms of the Anarctica we have been skiing across for the past 21 days.
It was with some relief that we started skiing. Without the fresh snow our pace would increase, and more importantly, our effort would decrease. Still, there were a few remaining pockets of soft powder that made our sleds felt like anchors.
The mountains we spottted yesterday slowly grew into a formidable set of nunatuks. I wondered what made these peaks withstand the raw glacial force of the Antarctic ice cap. Was it simply because they were taller? They seemed more like rocks in a small stream - the ice mimicing water and simply gurgling around.
Dong supposed they looked like a dolphin following a whale. To me, the bulging peak and long snow ridge line resembled a tad pole. We asked Bill for his input, but he responded only with, 'Mountains? I can't see anything without my glasses.' Nonetheless we were all very exited - its the first terra firma we've seen in almost two weeks!
Most impressive today was simply the snow and light. White, off white, gray, blue... Because this place is so monochromatic, we have become experts in categorizing degrees of white and degrees of shadow. Then, a subtle shift of a cloud or angle of the sun and a new spectrum of white bleeds toward the horizon.
Looking back later in the afternoon, I see Bill and Dongsheng silouetted, because of the yellowing sun, in sepia.
Dec. 6: Soft Snow, Slow Go
And then we all crawled into the tent, ate dinner and went to sleep. Of course, that was at the end of the day and this is a story that begins with the alarm going off at 6 am.
We are getting more and more efficient completing the daily tasks of living in a polar environment. Bill was 'cook' this morning, which meant he was up first lighting the stove and melting snow blocks. That also meant Dongsheng and I got 15 glorious minutes of extra sleep!
Out of the tent a while later, we were surprised to see more fresh snow. Normally as we ski we can distinguish an infinite number of drifts from their neighbors. But in the overcast morning, flat light combined with the new snow camouflaged any unique characteristic. We struggled to maintain a straight course.
Finally, the clouds passed and we relaxed a bit, eventually finding a drift here or shadow there to use as a reference point. At lunch, we learned Bill was a hippie who showed up six weeks late to medical school.
Antarctica is a desert, which makes the two centimeters of fresh snow somewhat unusual. It also turned our afternoon into a tough slow slog. Surprisingly in this land where we often describe snow as 'dry,' today snow stuck to everything, even the skins on the bottom of our skis
At our most tired, with one hour left in the day, we looked up and saw the Thiel mountains — the first actual land that we have seen in a week and a half.
Dec. 5: White Out
Ouch. Day 19 hurt. From the moment we stepped out of the tent to the moment we set it up 10 hours later, we spent skiing in white out. A white out you ask? Imagine being in a room when the lights go out and waiting for your eyes to adjust except its light instead of dark and your eyes never adjust.
Try putting a blank sheet of paper a few inches in front of your face and walking down the street and you'll begin to understand a little about what we experienced today.
Of course the sun came out as soon as the tent was set up and we were treated to the beautiful snowscapes we missed.
Dec. 4: Alone
On a clear day, we estimate that we can see at least 12 miles toward the horizon. That means (doing a little 8th grade math) we have a visible snow panorama of 452.16 miles. That also means for more than that distance, we are the only living things.
Dongsheng, Bill and Eric. Remember those three small souls? That's us traveling in a place of nearly unending vastness. Most days we are humbled at the prospect. As Bill notes, 'it makes us realize we are a small piece of the whole picture.'
He continues, 'In fact, we have no real relevance here. Antarctica makes no real notice of our presence.' Perhaps this place is important just because it exists.
Yet we are here. Skiing to the South Pole. . We feel lucky to have this opportunity. The significance and our insignificance is noted every day.
It was a warm day with ideal snow. On days like this our minds wander as we ski easy, relaxed strides. At breaks, we engage in friendly banter. Yesterday, while Bill and I tried to analyze several aspects of good relationships, Dongsheng interrupted to comment, 'why do you guys have to make everything so complicated?'
We all laughed, packed away our down coats and began skiing.
Dec. 2 (Day 16): Living in cold
You know that feeling you get right after a vacation, the morning you have to go back to work? That's not too unlike how we felt getting out of the tent today. Back to our task of skiing to the pole.
We are choosing to be here, of course, but when the wind is howling, your hands are numb with cold and you are physically exhausted, it feels kind of (a wee tiny bit) like a job.
'Damn cold,' was how Dongsheng described the weather during one of our short rest breaks.
'The conditions were constantly changing,' Bill observed later. 'The wind really picked up for a while.
Despite the intense cold and windchill, we wear surprisingly little. For my part, I wear only two Terramar base layers (helix and tx2). Bill and Dong wear the geofleece. Then, it's our Sierra Designs anoraks. At breaks, we don our big SD down parkas. The trick during the day is to keep your body protected from the wind, warm but not too hot that we start sweating. Therefore, we are constantly adjusting. Taking off our big mitts, putting them back on. Unzipping our anoraks. Zipping them back up. Pulling our hoods down... You get the picture?
With diligence, we can regulate our body temperatures fairly well. However, there are still times when we are 'damn cold' and even 'damn hot' every day.
Dec. 1: Home
'Home is where you stake it!' I have a friend who gave me a card with that phrase written on it. Whenever I move, its usually of the first decorations I put out.
Here that phrase couldn't be more true. Each day we pack up our little home, ski for eight hours and then pull our home out of my sled and set it up.
'It's amazing how we can feel so comfortable and secure protected by just two layers of nylon in one of the most unforgiving places on earth,' says Bill.
Today, we spent a little more time in our home because today was our weekly half a day rest. I can't even begin to describe how nice it was to sleep in and relax after a hard week on the trail.
While I'm still nervous to talk about the snow, it continues to be flat. We expect nothing and appreciate any small gift that comes our way. We have noticed, however an increase in the amount of random sastrugi. The shapes and shadows are a welcome distraction in this solitary landscape.
Nov. 30: Resupply!
Another Antarctic morning in our unrelenting pursuit of the pole. A little warmer but windier too and we were forced to add an extra layer. We slowly clip into our Granite Gear harnesses and begin to ski. One stride, then another and another. Soon, I am lost in the task of navigating - bring my compass to level, orienting myself to 147 degrees (we are traveling relative to magnetic north), trying to pick out one unique piece of snow in billions of similar drifts and skiing toward it.
Today is bright and sunny, and even though its feels colder, the wind prevents me from overheating. My mind wanders.
On his theory of relativity Einstein said, 'I thought of that riding my bicycle.' Time and space melding into one. Would he have come to the same conclusion skiing to the pole?
After lunch, we spot a tiny black flag from a mile away. Our first resupply We are excited at the prospect of meeting our first major milestone. 'We are one-quarter the way to the pole,' Bill says. We take picture to commemorate the moment. Looking at the image later in the tent Dongsheng thinks, 'we look like astronauts on the moon.' Then reflecting on what I had written to the team during training he added, 'three small souls.'
This cache represents our tenuous connection to another time and place. It reminds me of a time capsule. Instantly, it is nearly a month ago when we packed our food. Grocery shopping, zip locks, a LOT of chocolate...
'OK,' I'm all repacked,' Dong states. I am startled out of my day dream by his voice.
'Time?' I think. 'Time to ski.'
Nov. 29: Same conditions, different day
Flat snow and easy skiing made for a relaxing morning. High clouds cast pillowy shadows across the snow. If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was on the prairie. Pastoral scenes are hardly the fodder of polar travelers, but if you were here I think you would agree.
The pleasant morning made Bill a little philosophical during one break when he asked Dong (the only married member of our team) 'What are the advantages of being married?' Then after a particularly poignant response, Bill asked a follow up. 'What are the disadvantages?'
To which Dongsheng replied, 'One dollar becomes 50 cents.' We all laughed and chalked it up to another unique pearl of Dong-ized Chinese wisdom.
After lunch the wind picked up and we started climbing — a carbon copy of yesterday. During one break Bill amazed at, 'the blowing snow and spindrift that created cool images.'
Near the end of the day we encountered more sastrugi and several big drifts. Elongated arched and pocked evenly with small divots they looked eerily cetaceous — eliminated any lingering thoughts of being on a prairie.
Nov. 28: Climbing
The small spine of mountains that has been our only reference point is now only a solitary cone behind are right shoulders. In another day or two, that small peak will disappear below the horizon. Then, all will be white and the only thing that will mark our position relative to anything is our daily GPS reading.
When it's not a whiteout, we can actually make out the topography of the snow. A far vast horizon means flat or downhill terrain. A near horizon and we will be climbing soon.
After a relatively leisurely morning we continued to ski south on flat snow although it would change during our second shift. With Bill leading, we were able to see far into the distance. Then, short of the horizon, an abrupt change. Uphill.
We witnessed other clues to our impending climb: more and larger sastrugi and increased winds. For an hour or so, it turned plain nasty (right at lunch time) and we were forced to hunker down on our sleds, backs to the wind and eat semi frozen snacks.
The positive result of today's work was that we were treated to an amazing view to the north. A panorama of unimaginable scale unfolded ski stride by stride the higher we climbed.
We are all in agreement. We've earned our dinners tonight! 14.7 nautical miles.
Nov. 26: Happy Thanksgiving and Birthday
In Antarctica, the snow is like water and the wind is like the current. Everywhere we look we see scalloped forms and flowing shapes that remind us of a river bed or sea floor. We are traveling on an ocean of snow.
Today was special for two reasons: first Dongsheng's 36th Birthday which we unceremoniously celebrated with an extra oatmeal allotment for Dong. The second reason is that today is American Thanksgiving and in honor of that holiday we thought we would make a list of the things we are thankful for. Here it goes:
Our families, friends and loved ones, the opportunity to be here, work colleagues, Pringles, The Harincars, Terramar long underwear, the entire ALE staff, flat snow, the followers of our journey, Maria Hennessey, supporters of Basic Health Int'l, light sled, freeze-dried sweet and sour chicken, our small team, Scarpa boots, anything made by Clif, a warm tent, a limited number of whiteouts and much more but we're running out of space.
Nov. 25: The cookie cutter approach
We are back into our regular routine today inching our way south. If it was a race, we would definitely be the tortoise. Not quite reptilian, we did manage a few welcome glides during our steady polar plod on snow that continues to be... (I'm afraid to say it out loud for fear of jinxing us) fairly level.
We still have over 500 nautical miles between us and the pole - although I rarely think about the end. It's just too far away and there is much that can happen between now and then. Instead, we employ a simple cookie cutter strategy. Each day we stamp out our routine: travel, rest, eat, travel, rest, eat... Set up camp, eat, sleep, eat, travel... Ad Infinitum.
We don't worry (too much) about distance. We just stamp out cookie after cookie after cookie. It actually gets fun after a while... (At least that's what we tell ourselves ;)
We were all excited about the distance we covered, 'its a lot further than I thought we had gone,' observed Bill. Meanwhile, Dongsheng spent a large part of the day reviewing his college days and regaled us with one yarn that Bill and I now affectionately call, 'a tale of two watermelons.'
Nov. 24: Vacation
The rest of the world is starting to slowly dissolve away and all that is left, for us, is snow, sky, wind and our daily routine. Day 8. It feels good to be here.
We were lucky to be able to sleep in as today was a rest day - at least half of it was. We skied for four hours in the afternoon but first, we lounged in our sleeping bags, ate part of our lunches and fixed a few pieces of gear. It felt like a big vacation - minus the beaches and bikinis.
The skiing has been fantastic! The snow is so level that I am tempted to call it flat. We have experienced little, if any, sastrugi to impede our southward progress.
To our right, a short spine of mountains poked up out of the snow and appeared through the clouds. We were able to mark our travel in relation to their relative angle of our route. Unfortunately, after four hours, we seem to have the same perspective when we started. We continue to amend our definition of space and distance.
I smiled a bit looking back at Bill and Dong. We look like some strange polar version of astronauts. Most days, we are completely insulated from the environment. But here, we are not trying to work against Antarctica, rather we are learning to understand it.
Nov. 23: One Degree Down
The clouds, calm and almost humid warmth gave way into a clear and cold morning. 20 minutes into the day, my hands felt like icy blocks. I tried the usual tricks: lowering my hands below my waist, pulling my fingers into the palm of my gloves, making a fist 50 or 60 times. Nothing worked.
There are basically three ways to get warm here: eat, move or put on more clothes.
Eventually, I would add another layer of Terramar tx2, switch gloves and pick up my pace, but for over an hour I was down right cold. I had to laugh because I knew at some point (later in the day) I would be hot, skiing with my gloves off and jacket open.
Dong and Bill continue to be excellent teammates. With the entire crew navigating now, I feel less and less like a guide and more like a team member.
While cold, conditions are perfect. We experienced some minor sastrugi at the base of a moderate climb, then mostly flat snow. The flattest I've seen in Antarctica. We are excited about making '81' as well.
Dong's optimism and positive attitude continue to make Bill and I smile. He is becoming the philosopher and poet of the trip. 'this view... Priceless,' Dong commented at one break. Then falling into simile, 'I feel like a boxer.' Noting how are our big Sierra Designs down jackets resemble a boxer's robe.
Nov. 22: Ideal conditions... kind of
There are a few rare days in a Minnesota winter, right after a fresh snow, that are my favorite. I'll get my light racing cross country skis and head to one of the groomed ski areas. With a kick and push of my poles I am gliding effortlessly, my ski tips slicing through a blanket of white.
In Antarctica, snow while present in an infinite variety of shapes, forms and densities is usually hard and unforgiving, which makes today all the more unusual.
For better or worse, I could only find the word 'creamy' to describe the morning snow. We skied along for hours across a nearly flat, flowing vastness of snow. There was us, the sky and snow and conditions so perfect that I'm having a hard time finding words to describe them.
Then, when we thought it couldn't get better, a full sundog appeared behind us. I continue to be surprised by Antarctica.
What was not unusual was the quick shift in cloud cover turning our 'cream' into 'pea soup'. I like a lot of things, but whiteouts are not on that list. For most of the afternoon, we stumbled our way south covering a record 13.1 nautical miles.
Dong says, 'we covered a tremendous distanced and I am pleased.' Bill adds, 'it really is starting to feel like an adventure.'
Nov. 21: Polar lexicon
I haven't quite conquered Antarctic mornings but I'm getting close. I managed to set my alarm but forgot to turn it on. Special polar props go to Bill for giving me an early nudge (again).
We are settling nicely into our expedition routine and just now starting to divide up the daily tasks. The wind was so up we were anxious to start skiing. With a steady pace, we slowly distanced ourselves from the hills behind and eventually climbed high enough to view a nearly limitless Antarctic horizon. I stretched my fingers forward to see if I could touch the south pole. No luck.
We thought we would give you some insight into how we communicate on a daily basis with the following list:
Polar Plod - our steady skiing pace designed to save as much energy as possible.
TIAB - This is Antarctica Baby - a phrase used to describe why or how something is occurring. Most often used in a humorous way.
GTG - good to go - affirmation of readiness. Eating, skiing, etc...
GTK - good to know. Affirmation of a random fact. For example, Eric, 'I once caught a really big catfish.' Bill, 'GTK.'
POS - Anything that doesn't work, is poorly designed or will most likely fail soon.
Sastrugi - Snowdrifts.
Spindrft - blowing and drifting snow
Ice - depending on intonation or sentence structure can mean any of the following: snow, Antarctica, glacier, ice, icicle, sastrugi, or anything cold.
Bearing - the direction we are traveling each day in relation to the magnetic north pole.
Nautical Mile - 1.14 statue miles 1.84 kilometers. 60 nautical miles equals one degree of latitude.
Cache - also referred to as a resupply. Any depot of food or supplies from ALE.
Iridium - the phone we use to call ALE base camp at Patriot Hills with our daily progress and status. Only phone that works at both poles.
Cook - the member of the team responsible for sweeping out the tent, setting up the MSR cook system, melting snow and filling up everyone's water bottles, Stanley soup thermoses and dinner water. A good cook on the trail only requires the ability to boil water.
Ruff - the fur sewed on to our Sierra Designs anorak hoods. This protects our faces from the wind.
Nose beak - then nylon and fleece protector sewn into the bottom of our goggles.
Home - our little tent
In related news, Dong is pleased with the improvements on his binding and Bill succinctly stated, 'it was a good one today!'
Nov. 20: One thing
Leaving Patriot Hills camp for the second time in less than a week, we were instantly reminded of one main reasons why we we are here: breathtaking Antarctic scenery.
It was with a bit of relief that we skied away from the outer perimeter of Patriot Hills camp. It is definitely a welcome outpost in this place where humans really don't belong, but our destiny lies away from even those modest comforts.
We skirted the edge of the same long slab of blue ice that the Illushyn landed on a week ago and then hooked south around the end of the patriot Hills (the mountains).
It was so nice to have actual scenery to look at. Climbing slightly, we were treated to magnificent views of jagged peaks and creamy blue glaciers pouring over in some places. To our west three Nunatuks (rocky peaks sticking out of the ice) aptly named the Three Sails offered the only contrast to endless white and sky. Several times I was startled at their presence.
I was also surprised by how so much of what I do on an expedition is innate I tried to count the things I do without thinking on the trail. When my nose is cold under my nose beak, I puff up my lips and blow warm air up. When I take my bigger gloves off, I shove them deep in my left pocket lodged and further secured behind my harness. My stumbling ski stride through rough sastrugi (snow drifts), bringing my compass up to level before I stop moving so I don't have to wait for the compass to settle... The list goes on and on.
How long does it take for a habit to form, I wondered today. Or kick a bad habit. Or get someone to change one thing. Just one thing.
Nov. 18: A New System
Here, there are many ways to fail. Frostbite, injury from a fall, broken gear, not making enough miles, snow blindness, altitude sickness... To succeed requires an equally long list of skills and knowledge.
From the beginning of our training, I tried to emphasize finding systems to save energy, stay warm and be safe. Eating during our breaks can be more of an adventure than skiing. Clif bars, salami, cheese, a few pieces of candy, a chocolate bar all need to be consumed while hunkered down on your sled, wind howling, frozen goggles and parka ruff getting in everything.
Normally, I advise my team to put everything in different pockets and pull them out at the appropriate times.
For Dong, this system didn't quite work. Food was frozen or hard to grab with big gloves. Enter new plan. Dong now takes his daily allowance of nuts, energy bars, Clif shot bloks, cheese and whatever else he can find and breaks it up into small pieces until it fills an entire nalgene water bottle. Now at each break, he simply opens up the bottle and 'drinks' his snacks.
While Dong is the least experienced of our small group, his ability to observe, plan, modify and execute are critical polar skills. Bill and I are now anxiously awaiting Dong's next system overhaul.
Weatherwise, today was almost the exact opposite of yesterday. Good visibility, hard snow, even some sun in the afternoon. We made a beeline for the Patriot Hills, covering 8.28 nautical miles in 5 hours.
Despite Dong's recent success in systems modification, his ability to judge our proximity to the nearby mountains needs work. "Three miles," he calculated.
For Dong, and most other polar novices, distances are difficult to judge due to the pristine quality of the air here.
Nov. 13: TIA — This is Antarctica
It's been a whirlwind of activity since yesterday morning when we got the green light to fly. Special thanks go to all the ALE staff who made the transition from land to ice so smooth.
Extra kudos go to the Russian flight crew who piloted the big Ilyushin and landed it on an undulating runway of ice. That's right... Ice!!! I have to admit I was a bit nervous when the wheels first touched down, but realistically it was all smooth sailing. Or landing as the case may be.
None of us could believe our luck at the warm (relatively) weather and blue skies. So perfect were the conditions that we were more worried about sunburn than frostbite.
Antarctica! The place where my dreams have lived for so long. From our small temporary outpost nestled close to the patriot hills themselves all I can see is ice and sky. To feel important here is to simply ignore the vastness and grandeur of this place. This is truly one of the last great frozen places left on the planet.
Being here now, I realize, I must double my efforts. This snowscape is so delicate. No longer immutable to change Antarctica, faces a dire fate unless we act now to reduce carbon emissions.
My fate is equally tied to this place for the next two months. What will I learn? How will I change? Right now there is still too much work to do before flying to our starting point at Hercules Inlet to be philosophical. TIA — this is Antarctica.
Nov. 11: Good to Go
The weather seems to be moving toward a small window which means that we most likely will have an opportunity to fly to the ice tomorrow. No matter when it comes, it always seems like there is never enough time. Something else that always needs to be done.
Today was considerably more relaxing than yesterday. With all of my gear packed there was mostly managerial tasks today. We had a meeting with ALE's Peter McDowell who gave us the low down on the many protocols involving with flying to, landing on and traveling across Antarctica.
Unlike the Arctic, the Antarctic is governed by a multinational treaty that restricts the types of things that can enter the continent, the need to have Antarctica remain as it was found (it is illegal to remove rocks, etc) and the strict guidelines that will help preserve the pristine nature of the continent into the future (hopefully).
Dong, Bill and I met a few times today to discuss our own arrival and the things we needed to do in the upcoming hours. By five o'clock, all our bags were picked up and there was nothing else to do but sit around and wait for the 'all clear' call. Of course, I'm making it sound easier than it really is and there is a substantial list of last minute tasks that I'm trying desperately to tick off.
One the few expedition traditions I have is to shave my head prior to a big trip. I think the first time I did it was in 2001 when I went up to Ellesmere Island to assist the NOMADS Online Classroom's Arctic Blast expedition. People have asked me if my head gets cold but with my Terramar balaclava and neck gaiter and then a light hat further covered by my Sierra Designs parka (with hood up), I am usually more hot than anything. Besides, it's simply nice not to have to deal with a greasy mop - you know, because of the whole two months without a shower thing.
Today's routines were somewhat different, but still operated on the same principle. Our task: pack all of our food for the next 60 days (we carry and extra week of meals with in case of emergency or bad weather). Easy right?
Well... First, you have to consider that our caloric needs increase during our trip. For starters, we will usually eat almost 5,000 calories per day. Then after seven or eight days, we will bump this up to 5,500. After six weeks we will eat around 6000 calories with the option of pushing upwards toward 6,500 calories per day.
Next, consider the personal preferences of each team member - Dong likes only creamy-based soups. I'll eat about anything but given a choice I'll take chicken noodle for 60 days straight no problem. Bill likes lemon flavored Clif Builder Bars. I'm not a big fan of lemon anything.
Finally dinners. A standard freeze-dried portion (actually it is considered two portions) is about 700 calories. Unfortunately for us, that is not nearly enough. So, we have to open up each dinner, add some extra protein (freeze-dried chicken) fat (olive oil) and carbs (mashed potato flakes) and then repackage the meals into another lighter bag. Remember we have to pull all this stuff!
It was a big relief to get all of our food organized and rationed. This task had been weighing heavily on me for the past few days as a large part of our success depends on the quality, quantity and proportions of food. Too little and we don't have enough energy to move forward. Too much and we are so weighted down that are progress is debilitatingly slow.
What routines will tomorrow bring? I'm not telling. While repetition may be king, I still like a surprise or two.
Nov. 9: Professional shoppers
One of the things, believe it or not, I look forward to once the expedition starts is catching up on my sleep. My goal for a big trip is to get at least eight hours of sleep per day. With midnight creeping only a few minutes away, I'm still ticking off tasks and sleep seems farther and farther from my grasp.
I'm number crunching now it's making my head hurt - trying to calculate the amount of food we will carry in our sleds, where to position our resupplies, the distance between food caches and the locations of crevasses. If there is a simple logarithm, to figure out all this I don't know it.
A note to all those still in school: Listen to your teachers. You WILL have to use this stuff when you get older. (Although, I still have yet to find the practical application in polar travel of calculating the area under a curve.)
Today was busy. Checking Dong and Bill's gear, finalizing the shopping list, tracking down gear and supplies and finally shopping. We are on a fairly tight time crunch so there is a subtle pressure that hangs over each of these tasks. At the supermarket, we attracted more than our share of curious onlookers pulling 180 soup packets off the shelves. Or scooping up 180 Rittersport candy bars, 36 salamis, four bottles of olive oil, 20 packages of butter... You get the picture.
I wondered if the checkout clerk might be able to file a workman's comp claim from suffering some sort of 'repetitive use' injury from scanning so many items without a break.
Upon leaving the store, Dong offered that it was easier to go grocery shopping with me than his wife. A statement which he decide to follow with a thorough description of how men and women are different when they shop. My apologies to any offended party - I'll work on the entire team's discretion in the weeks and months to come.
Special thanks go to Adventure Logistics and Expedition's staff (ALE) in taking out an extra big scissors to cut through all the red tape. The aforementioned food is safely in the Bodega 3 (storage) awaiting tomorrow's massive food pack operation.
You may not realize it but there are big changes happening to the Save the Poles web site. Tim Harincar of Webexpeditions.net is working diligently to get the site 'South Pole ready'. please note the addition of route tracking on a Google Earth map and Newsvine link on the home page. Of course, we are all holding our breathe for the completely revamped Global Warming page featuring Wolf Ridge's climate change curriculum, updates from Center for Biological Diversity, Seventh Generation info, great RSS feeds and much much more. Come on Tim, I know you can do it!
Nov. 8: The beautiful calorie
Here's a philosophical question that I was wrestling with today: to what degree of honesty I should strive toward with my web updates? For example, do you really want to know that I wear my underwear for over 30 days straight? I'm guess yes. The finer points of my morning constitution while on the ice, however, I will respectfully leave out.
In the nature of full transparency I will say that I had an incredible night sleep. Running on so little for the few weeks prior to leaving Colorado it was a welcome relief to be in an actual bed. I must have slept soundly as well because I woke up with my mouth gaping and the side of my face wet with drool. You wanted the truth, right?
I'll work on my discretion for future reporting.
Today was spent in a few staff meetings with the crew from Antartic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). I tried to multi task as best as possible preparing tomorrow's shopping list. Caloric value, packability, weight and simplicity to eat are big factors in choosing proper food items. Flavor, while important falls farther down on the list. I've learned not to judge the quality of food until I am on the trail for a few weeks. Amazing things always seem to taste better when you are really, really hungry.
Here is a quick sampling from my list: 180 chocolate bars (100 grams each), 720 pieces of hard candy, 45 Pringles canisters, 39 pounds of mixed nuts, 18.5 pounds of cheese.
Bill Hanlon, my other team member, arrived from Canada today looking fairly bright eyed. After a brief introduction to Dong (we had never met as a group before) we were off in search of dinner. Being Sunday, most restaurants were closed and I led our small group down some of the shadier backstreets of Punta searching for the only place I knew was open.
Luckily Bill, originally from Ireland, spotted an Irish Pub - a place definitely not closed on Sunday and we proceeded to do our part in preparing for our upcoming ski to the pole. Eat, eat and eat.
The explorer's favorite (and now mine) suggested ALE's Peter McDowell is a dish that consists of a slab of greasy meat (some kind of beef) topped by two fried eggs onions and a heaping mound of fries - never mind the veggies - seems like explorers (and Chileans) are not big fans of eating most plants.
If it would have been a contest, Dong would have won, finishing the meat/egg/onion/fry combo as well as chicken soup which seemed to actually contain half of a chicken. Bill did his part too and managed to be the first entry in the clean plate club.
During our meal, we talked about the upcoming journey and some of the obstacles we would face. White-outs, sastrugi, wind, extreme cold. I talked a little about the our menu and my shopping list for the next day. After a while, I felt the conversation ebb a bit and both men seemed reluctant to finish their last bites.
That meal, I realized later, was one of only a few 'real' dinners left before we get to the ice.