Sunday, December 10, 2017

397 Days in Antarctica

The IceCube Lab in the Sunset

I have been thinking about this last South Pole post for a couple weeks. Part of the reason it has taken so long is that I needed to clear my head a bit. Also, as you'll see below, the last couple weeks were a bit of a challenge, and I wasn't quite ready to post on it. In all honesty, I don't really know what I want to say, so I'll start with some simple facts and go from there. If I am not mistaken, I arrived in Antarctica on October 27, 2016. I spent a few days at McMurdo before heading off and arriving at the South Pole on November 2, 2016.  I then spent the next 385 days at the South Pole, leaving on November 22, 2017. I then spent another week in McMurdo before finally arriving back in Christchurch early on November 28, 2017. I spent almost 397 full days in Antarctica.  Now to answer a couple of the more common questions I have received after returning to the real world:

1.) How was it?

Honestly, I loved my time at the South Pole.  It was one of the greatest adventures of my life, and probably one of the best years of my life. Yes, there were times when it didn't feel very adventurous, and there were challenges here and there, but overall, it was an amazing time.

2.) Would you do it again/go back?

Yes. The problem is that it may not line up very well with my future career, but if given the opportunity, I would return in a heartbeat.

That being said, by the time I left it was time to go. While I loved my year down there, the last few weeks were very difficult, and probably not for the reasons most people would suspect. As it turns out, there is one drawback to being a scientist at the South Pole: we don't leave as early as the rest of the crew. I spent a year in one of the most isolated places in the world with very few people. In fact, for 8.5 months, there were only 46 of us.  No one in or out.  No mail. No planes. Limited contact with the outside world over some pretty poor internet. We kind of became like a family.  Then, we opened the station at the end of the season, and a bunch of new people came in. This wasn't so bad at first. The bad part was when most of my South Pole family left. Over the course of a few days, 38 of the 46 winterovers left the station, leaving 8 of us to train our replacements. The first big flight out was by far my hardest day there. A large group of 32 or so people left on that first big flight and the station was filled with probably over 70 to 80 new people.  I honestly didn't think it would hit me as hard as it did, but something about all my friends leaving and all the new people taking over the station was really difficult for me to process. So, I hunted down a few of the remaining winterovers to get away from the crowd of new people taking over. We basically hid for a while trying to get away from all the new people.

After a couple of days, we were all ready to go, and then the weather hit. We ended up stuck on station way longer than anticipated. Almost all of us had our travel plans very messed up.  I was supposed to stay for a couple weeks in New Zealand and travel there, but by the time I made it back, all of my time was gone, and it was off to Australia. I was one of the lucky ones. The others lost thousands of dollars in missed travel and experience they had scheduled.  It is one thing to plan for delays, but it is hard to anticipate over 2 weeks of delays.  Day after day, we saw more of our travel plans get ruined. On top of that, we finished with our work, so we literally had nothing to do but sit around and wait and continuously check the weather. Suffice it to say, we were grumpy and depressed, and there was quite a bit of drinking, and a few really terrible movies (for example mutant/zombie sheep attacking people in New Zealand... yeah it was that bad), to kill time.   Finally, there was a small break in the weather, and we made it out of the South Pole, but then we got stuck in McMurdo. I spent my second Thanksgiving in a row on the ice.  At this point 7 of the 8 of us still on the ice hid ourselves away and ate in our room.  I love South Pole, but I really don't like McMurdo.  We didn't know anyone there. We weren't supposed to still be there.  It was time to go, but we were stuck.

Finally, we made it out on a late flight from McMurdo to arrive in Christchurch very early in the morning. We were exhausted. I spent the next day and a half getting ready for my trip to Australia. I had one full day in Christchurch before my flight, and it was mostly spent running errands. I had to buy pants, mail some packages, and I even got a haircut. I did take a few long showers, but I didn't make it to the botanical gardens. Still, it was amazing to finally make it. Then one by one, the last of us started going our separate ways. It was a bittersweet time.

Overall, as I said before, it was one of the greatest years of my life. The last 2 or 3 weeks were really rough, but in the end, I guess it was worth it as I'd still go back. When I started grad school, I stumbled my way into doing research on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory down at the South Pole. At the time I started, I had no ambitions to go to the South Pole or anywhere else in Antarctica. Then the opportunity presented itself for the first time a few years ago for a short trip. Since that time, Antarctica as become more and more a part of my life.  For me, it was one of those places that you just fall in love with. Now after this last year, I can't imagine what my life would be like had I gone a different route. I'm still trying to figure out my next few steps, but in the mean time, I have already had some amazing travel up in Australia.  Maybe now that I have finally gotten this last post up, I can start posting more of my other travels for those who are interested.

Over 400 days of beard...

I feel human again!


Unknown said...

Hey James - Kevin and George here, great post, we are proud of you for making this a reality. Safe travels and let us know if you need a hold over in SE USA, we have a place for you my man. BTW the 400 day beard rocked - should not have shaved!


Unknown said...

Thanks Kevin! It's great to hear from you guys. I hope things are going well up there!

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