Monday, December 6, 2010

South Pole Vignettes

I’ve been at the South Pole for over six weeks. My eyes keep darting out the galley (cafeteria – the navy being the first to station here in 1954 earned the right to name things. The sleeping quarters are called the berthing areas. Etc.) at what I swear is a bird passing but it turns out to be the reflection of a person passing behind me.

I live in a Jamesway tent (one of 13, or so, that make up “summer camp”) – a long, sturdy tent subdivided into ten rooms with a hallway running down the center. The outside walls are insulated canvas. The inside walls are just regular old canvas. I can hear my neighbors snore and I’m sure they can hear me fart. Round the clock work means that bulldozers pass close by my head often throughout the night. Up to four times a day a “Herc” (large 4 engine Air Force plane) lands on the runway just a few hundred feet from my Jamesway. I try my best to fall asleep in between landings so that I can sleep through the roar of the motors.

For the first five weeks I was in the dishpit, washing dishes from 4am to 2pm, six days a week. My alarm was set for 3:37. 3:38, I found, got me to work the slightest bit too late. The quarter mile walk from my Jamesway (J13) to the Elevated Station where most activities, eating, work etc. take place is almost always against the wind but never too unpleasant as breakfast and coffee are always waiting for me.

It has warmed up in the past couple weeks to temperatures ranging from -35f to –25f. Never in my life would I have considered –25f to feel comfortable but it really is quite comfortable after the first few weeks with temps ranging from –67f (when I got off the plane in October) to –40f. I am told that, for a couple of weeks, the temps will rise up in to the teens… the negative teens, that is.

On a windless day, at –50f you can force a breath at the ground and watch it billow out like an inverted mushroom cloud in all directions about your feet.

With humidity of less than one percent, I was warned that my hands would crack beyond repair. They were doing so well -my hands- and then on day 26, without any warning, they cracked in four different spots. There are things here that require constant maintenance - hydration being one of those things. I skipped drinking water on a run a couple weeks back and it took me two days to get rehydrated.

Up until only ten days ago, the station had absolutely no beer… well there was New Zealand Amstel Lite (2.2%)… and there is still New Zealand Amstel Lite hardly anybody would touch it. When going to the stations store then, your options were Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey or Skyy Vodka (duty free, mind you). It was getting to the point where I thought it to be a conspiracy to turn the entire station into alcoholics.

I am beginning to notice the things that one begins to miss down here. Strange things, like the color green or going out for a run without having to spend 15minutes getting dressed before hand (to go running: polar fleece long underwear and thick tights on my legs, four layers of shirts and jackets on my torso, balaclava, hat, goggles, ski gloves, wool socks and IceSpikes in my shoes). As for running, I’ve been going up and down the 2.5mile runway that runs alongside the station. It’s a little maddening seeing as how the entire length of the runway and the flags that mark the turnaround are visible from the moment I step out there. I am required to carry a two-way radio with me incase an unscheduled flight comes in and I’m forced to clear the runway.

The station population is now at 225 – which I have seen rise from 60 when I arrived. Open mic night was on Saturday and it became immediately obvious that the concentration of musical talent here is much different than elsewhere.

Tourists started to arrive last week. Little did I know that for the low, low price of $40,000 I could have skipped the working gig and just flown down here from Chile. The most recent arrival was the team accompanying the Moon Regan – a propeller driven ski thingie that never moved under it’s own power the entire time it was here (still here, I should say – the team is off for another part of the continent before returning to pick it up).

People return to work here at the South Pole year after year. There are ten year people. A few twenty year people and even one guy that has been coming here since 1978. Initially I didn't see the appeal. I'm beging to realize, though, that the reason people return for so many years has little to do with the South Pole itself and a large part to do with the people. This truly is one of the most unique populations of people in the world.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

90° South

We spent the better part of Monday morning on the ice runway waiting for clearance to take off in the Basler DC3. Waiting for the temperature to rise just a couple degrees at the South Pole. At -54°c the plane can land. At –54.1°c it can’t… or at least it’s not suppose to. After a two-hour wait they decided to postpone the flight for 24 hours.

We returned to McMurdo where the worst part of my cold (the McMurdo Crud as it’s called here – everybody gets it at some point during the season) overtook me and I realized that it was a blessing in disguise that we never left the ground. I sat in my room all day, watched movies, read Dune and slept.

Tuesday – wake. Repeat. The temperature at the Pole read 53°c and it was a go… with the possibility of a boomerange – going partway and returning. We loaded our stuff onto the Basler and took our seats.

The flight brought us over a very similar route that Scott took to reach the South Pole over the summer of 1911/12 – across the Ross Ice Shelf, alongside the Trans-Antarctic Range, through the Beardmore Glacier (which is essentially an ice overflow of the Antarctic Plateau) and then 300miles across the Antarctic Plateau. The views from the flight were incredible – truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

The Basler DC3 is a plane that has remained largely unchanged since it’s first flight in the mid 1930’s… this includes the lack of pressurization. To cross the Trans-Antarctic Range the plane had to climb to 22,000ft which did nothing but tighten the vise on my head, bringing tears to my eyes. It was a bit of a catch 22, as closing my eyes eased the pain, but also meant missing the scenery outside. I sucked as much oxygen as I could and mostly opted for the tighter vise.

Flying over the Antarctic Plateau gave me my first glimpse of what the scenery would be like for the next few months… or rather lack-there-of. As a Colorado boy, I’m not accustomed to seeing the horizon so close to the ground. In every direction – nothing. Though I knew this would be the case, I didn’t realize what a nothing landscape really looked like until now.

We landed at about 2:30pm (it should be noted that the South Pole goes by McMurdo/New Zealand time for reasons of simplicity – they are the two biggest US bases on the continent and it’s therefore easier to keep them on the same time-zone) and hurried off the plane. We learned shortly that the temperature had dropped to -55°c (-67°f!) and the pilots had to get the plane back off the ground as quick as possible.

The “winter-overs” –the 47 people that spent the 7-month winter here alone- came out to the runway to greet us and help us with our bags. We were asked not to carry our own bags as the altitude (9,300ft is the actual altitude but barometrically speaking rises upwards of 11,000ft on any given day) can be dangerous to those coming directly from sea level.

We are the first new faces these people have seen in seven months. It’s interesting seeing them – pale-faced, awkward and well-bearded. They were happy to see us, but I think happier to see the fresh fruit we brought on the plane with us.

After a meal and a tour of the building I made myself comfortable in a temporary room (I’ll be moving to my permanent room in a week or two when they are able to thaw out the plumbing) and slept fitfully for the next ten hours.

So great to be here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Wear My Sunglasses At Night

The engine room drone of the US Air Force C17 all but seized the conversation amongst us 65 passengers on the flight from Christchurch, NZ to the McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica. We’re shared the hull of the plane with several “small” shipping containers, a forklift and a large sno-cat. The passengers are a mix of scientists (geologists, meteorologists and biologists), Air Force flight crew and a small portion of the staff that makes up the majority of Antarctica’s summer population. This staff includes shuttle drivers, cooks, radio communication specialists, janitors, US post office employees (subcontracted out to Raytheon who has the contract from the National Science Foundation to run the South Pole Station, McMurdo Station, Palmer Station and several small camps across the continent), logistics coordinators, doctors, gift shop attendants… the list goes on.
A curiosity for this continent germinated inside my bean several years ago and became an obsession only in the past couple years when it occurred to me that getting a job here isn’t impossible. “I’ll wash dishes if I have to,” is what I was telling people over a year ago, and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing for the next four months.

The C17 flight was preceded by a couple days in Christchurch where the weather was lapsing back into a cold and dreary winter… not what we were hoping for before being deprived of warmth, trees, smells that we normally take for granted, night!, for god’s sake! STARS! We flew to Christchurch from Aukland, LA, Denver… wishing I had frequent flyer miles.

We got our first glimpse of the continent (regulars just call it The Ice) four hours into the 5.5 hour flight. The first thought that crossed my mind looking out the tiny bay window of the airplane was of Superman’s little home from the first Superman. Sterile, serene, quiet, perfect. Though Antarctica is all of these things, it is also hostile and unforgiving which I’ve learned in a very short period of time.
Following two very cloudy passes over the station we were able to land on the Ice Runway which is the landing strip used from WinFly (Since airplanes are unable to land in –50f and below no planes fly in or out of McMurdo from about June-September. The first flight in is called the Winter Flight, or simply WinFly) until early December. This runway is constructed annually on the eight-foot-thick Ross Ice Shelf just off shore of McMurdo. A Swedish icebreaker comes in to clear a path through the Ross Sea whence the airfield is moved inland.

We were ushered from the plane to “Ivan” the Terra Bus entirely too quickly to take it all in and driven the mile into McMurdo for a late meal in the one and only cafeteria. After dinner I stole off for a run to Robert F. Scott’s 1904 hut from his Discovery expedition (the one that didn’t end up with his death). Where I encountered a dead seal that I later learned has been there for several years – the conditions have essentially mummified it. I continued my run out to Cape Evans and up the Ridge Trail. It was warm enough (-10f) for an easy run but cold enough that I wasn’t able to stop (not wearing enough clothes) or run fast (wind chill made it drop to –20/-25f). From the high point on the ridge I was able to look out across the Ross Ice Shelf at the mountains on the opposite side of the sea. At 10:30pm the sun was just beginning to go behind the horizon at a low, sweeping angle. At this time of year the sun never dips more than a few degrees below the horizon and even the middle of the night is bright enough that wooden blinds are used in the rooms in order to be able to sleep.

(photo - Haile Buffman)

Nearly a week has passed since my arrival. The next and final flight of my agenda for the next several months was scheduled for yesterday but the airplane that I’ll be flying in (Basler) from here to the South Pole was stuck at an American base in Punta Arenas, Chile for longer than expected, postponing the flight until Monday – two days from now. I was told to have patience waiting for this next leg of the trip – it is sometimes postponed for weeks. The flight into the Pole will be the first flight going there for the year. We’ve been instructed by the chef not to eat any of the “freshies” (fresh fruit) brought in with us on the Basler as the 50-or-so “Polies” that have wintered-over have been without fresh fruit for seven months.

My time here in McMurdo has been spent working in the laundry room where I sorted through a mound of bedding the size of a dump truck. I’ve spent the past four days working in the galley (the cafeteria) – washing dishes for the 900 people here, scrubbing pots and taking advantage of the few things that I’ll be without once I reach the Pole in a few days time – that is dirt, hills and bars. Yes, there are two bars here in McMurdo. Gallagers and The Southern. Last night a live bluegrass band (Phatass Bluegrass) played until midnight at Gallagers.
I have so much to tell about the past week, but I think that this will have to do for now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Single Crossing of the Grand Canyon

may 18
A half mile from the top of the rim i was being reminded why i've opted not to train with a watch for the past several years. I looked down: 3:02.40. For what was certainly several minutes, I suffered in agony as i stumffled (that's stumbleshuffled) my way up the dusty trail past the germans, french, japanese, new yorkers, russians, texans, mexicans and babies of all types. 3:02.43. Three seconds passed.

The final querter mile of the South Kaibab trail, saturated with sweat, tears and mule shit, zig-zags up the white limestone face that defines the final few hundred vertical feet of the Grand Canyon. 3:05.34. Looking at my watch, I tripped and fell into the chalky, limestone powder that pads the trail. With three switchbacks to go, I look down at my watch and see it slip away. 3:06:43,44,45,46,47. Arriving at the rim a minute and change later, I sat myself down on a rock wall and watched as a steady stream of devote naturists slogged thier ways up the final switchback.

my exhausted body and dehydrated mind day dreamed back two miles where a quarter mile of trail crew yelled at me for running through their work zone, and how I felt like a jerk for not slowing down. back six miles with the colorado river a stones throw behind me where I was walking behind the stench of sweat and manure of mule and driver for two minutes. I used the time to drink water, down a fourth gel, remove my shirt and prepare for the 5,000 vertical foot ascent out of the Canyon.

back eight miles where i was wondering if this side canyon would ever reach phantom ranch. and then back eleven miles... ten miles into the canyon from the north rim. i had just passed an intersection without giving it much though. a man called from behind me "exuse me!" i turned around and the man my memory shows me is the tom wait's character in the imaginarium of dr. parnassus which i had just seen and i recomond that you put it next in line on your net flix account. "is that the way to phantom ranch?" i hadn't thought about it to be honest. i was just following my nose, as they say. "are you sure it's not this way, towards ribbon falls?" he asked. the way i was headed was unmarked which put doubt in my head and the way towards ribbon falls had a fancy bridge to get you across the stream running the entire valley. I returned to the intersection, and for a couple minutes, ran down the trail towards ribbon falls and what i hopped would be phantom ranch beyond. another hiker pointed me back in the direction of the intersection telling me that i was headed the right way initially. i never saw the first hiker again. four to five minutes had passed before i returned to my turnaround point on the trail. though i've never attempted this run before and couldn't possibly know how i was fairing compared to Allyn Cureton's 1981 record crossing, i knew that the run had just shifted from leisure to potential torture. My head turned dark and a state of focus was nearly impossible to maintain.

back 19 miles, passing through the supai tunnel. back 20.6 miles, standing on the North Rim, trying to recall why i thought this was a good idea for my birthday.

Back at the South Rim, I sat next to the fountain, drinking cup after cup of water. Even though there wasn't much room for standing, people prefered to give me my own seat on the bus. I picked up my backpack at the Bright Angle Lodge and went to the bar to celebrate my birthday with an overcooked burger a warm beer and uncooked fries. After stocking up on water, bananas, tortillas, peanut butter and honey, I started making my way back towards the North Rim. By the time I was no longer able to walk the crescent moon was about to set and the bats were out in full force.

Having rafted down the grand canyon twice, the lure of running from one rim to the other has allured me for some time. with the ski season over and the racing season on the horizon, i decided to make a road trip out of this run. while in boulder, i replaced the battery to my motorcycle put some new tires on the wheels. i headed out of town in a windstorm to arrive at Simon G.s steps hours later. And the steps of a friend from highschool the night after that. mancos, four corners, hovenweep, kyenta, page. 1500 miles on the motorcycle gave me pleanty of time to think about the record.

a bull snake includes my motorcycle in it's crossing of the road.

f650 in the forground, grand canyon in the background

mancos, colorado

i'm back in aspen now and the full moon has me running at night.

don't feed the animals

0:00.00 north kaibab trail head
12.43 supai tunnel
19.29 first bridge
34.53 roaring springs
49.06 cotton wood
1:38.00 phantom ranch
1:45.00 colorado river
2:09.00 lower rest area
2:28.00 i don't know why i hit lap here
3:07.51 south kaibab trail head

Friday, April 30, 2010

How do you sum up 220 days in a single post? you don't really, I guess. but I'll try.

Snow has fallen here five of the past seven days. I hiked up Aspen Highlands on the first of May and found the snow at Cloud 9 to be even better than it was in February. I shared the deck with one other skier that had hiked the 3,000 feet up to get a few last turns before spring and summer come in with a vengeance and take this wonderful season away from us.

May 1st marked my 103rd day of skiing for the winter. telemarking that is. I worked three jobs - two on the mountain and one in the town of Aspen. I bussed tables at the latter and waited tables on the mountain. DeNiro recognized me from one restaurant to the next. One of my several bosses did not. I landed my first 360 (I've been trying for nearly 20 years). In four and a half months I left Aspen only once whence I drove four hours to Crested Butte for the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, a 40 mile ski race from there to Aspen (the race was turned around due to foul weather conditions and we had to drive the same four hours back to aspen, unfortunately). I raced four uphill races in my newest invention - the Ajax Ascenders. On March 13th I put the Ajax Ascenders to the ultimate test with America's Uphill (video from 2008).

Though I won the race (40:28) and set a new record for the course (previous record was 41:01) my time, unfortunately, comes with an *asterisk*. 1. Carpenter's 1999 record was set in snowshoes which was a requirement for the race at the time. 2. There was a time dispute: a couple racers that timed themselves reported a different time than the "official" chip time. Some slower, some faster. My refusal to use a watch in both training and racing was once again put in check (the other time - when I nearly missed the one hour cut off for Mt. Washington by two seconds because i was unaware of the time). Realistically, I'd like to run the course in under 40minutes. It is Aspen's 4minute mile.

Between working and skiing I managed to squeeze in plenty of short, fast runs - 40-50 miles/week if I were to guess on a figure. I chased elk and they chased me back. I discovered the beautiy of running by moon and star light (why'd it take me this long!?). I tried to skin up to Cloud 9 Bistro most days that I was working there (8,000 to 11,000 feet). This restraunt was the highlight of my winter. It was the waiting job that I've wanted for years - fun people, good food, beautiful view and a party everyday at 3pm.

Tending the bar on the final day of the season.

Next post: summer plans....