Saturday, December 19, 2009

South Pole Update. Christmas-time, 2009.

Here’s to a white Christmas!

It’s so easy to forget that being at the South Pole is remarkable. After the initial wow-factor, life takes to its ruts and everything seems quite normal. Consequently telling you all about it seems sort of silly. BUT, here I am, remembering that this is a pretty incredible place to be.

Some words to describe the South Pole – away from station, in the wilderness:
Sharply inhospitable

And some words to describe the station itself, as seen from the white desolation beyond:
Civilized, and what an ambiguous word that is

I do like it here, but what a weird place it is.


I’m sick. Have been for two weeks. It’s just a regular cold – referred to by the many sick in this dessicated petri dish as the MacTown crud because it came from McMurdo like everything else – but I can’t kick it. It’s cold here, and dry (very very dry), and there isn’t much oxygen. Sleep comes irregularly, so your body struggles. This regular old cold, then, is dragging along, keeping me whiney and tired, and forcing me to slow down. Which is good, as I’ve been quite busy:

Snow School.

A few weekends ago I got to go to snow-school, or ‘Happy Camper’. Awesome. We learned about radios and airplanes and field-camps and everything, and that was all good fun, but then we went out and lived in the snow, miles from station, for 23 whole hours. Dropped off in the stark white, 12 of us set up tents, built a wind-wall out of snow-blocks, cooked dehydrated noodles, and generally grinned our little faces off. It was warm – minus 15 – but still, just sitting around out there gets you cold. Instead of sleeping in the tents, they said, we were welcome to dig survival trenches. So I dug. And slept five feet under, wrapped in a really huge sleeping bag, nestled up to my hot water bottle. I slept better than any other night here in my survival trench.

Also, I’m in a band.

Well two really. One of them plays Violent Femmes songs and is loud. The other plays folky-bluegrassy songs and is loud. Loudness is crucial.

I sing for the Violent Femmes cover band, which is incredibly fun. We headlined an open-mic night (is that even possible?) and if I do say so myself, which I do, we rocked the house. I never realized how much cardiovascular fitness it requires to shout and sing and yell into the mic while strutting and jumping and waving your arms. Like I said before, incredibly fun.

Other than playing in the snow and playing music and being in a movie, I work and occasionally sleep. There is an infinite supply of laughter, of good food, of sitting in the sauna and skiing out into the cold. Life here is good. But I do miss animals, plants, smells, and the woods.

So that’s life at the South Pole.


Open mic night, go preppie-emo-Eli!

Open mic night, rocking so hard oh man.

Open mic night, so happy to be rocking.

My survival trench, pretty spiffy I think.

This is what it looked like from inside.

The boy is so happy with his survival!

This is how I dressed for snow-school. Yup.

How many polies does it take to set up a Scott tent?

Me 'n Raydene, King and Queen of the South Pole store.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On the way to Pole - pictures

The view out the window on the way from Christchurch to McMurdo. This is what Antarctica looks like people.

Us and our faithful steed, the C-17. We landed on sea-ice, and are being herded to busses that will take us to McMurdo Station, or new and temporary home.

McMurdo is big enough it has both power lines and stop signs. Whoa. We started calling it New Yorktica.

Ob hill! McMurdo has topography! I'm pretty envious actually. Not shown in this photo is the giant smoking volcano next to McMurdo. Yup.

Here I am on Ob hill! Oh! And there's a tiny little Australian on my shoulder, so cute!

The view out the window of our Basler to Pole. That's the trans-Antarctic mountains out there. Turns out they're beautiful. Who'd of guessed?

And yes. Here I am at the actual South Pole. The little tiny point that stays still while the rest of the world rotates around it.

Daniel and the dome, soon to be destroyed. The dome that is, I don't think Daniel is scheduled for destruction.

And me in the dome spitting out the glowing crystal that I created with my mind-power. South Pole is awesome.

And this is the South Pole.

The scenery is fairly minimal, but desolation has its own beauty.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So a botanist and a horse are at the South Pole...

Well, there's not really any horses here. But maybe we could make one out of cardboard and carpet scraps.

So I'm at the South Pole.
It's cold here, as you might expect. What you might not expect is how used to it everyone gets, and quickly too. Like today I was out helping move all of our food out of the old dome - which is destined for deconstruction - and everyone was very casually working away in the shade at about -50F. And last night, the wind died down and it was only -30 out, almost tropical! Me and a friend sat in the sauna for a while, then ran outside in our shorts and shoes to do a loop around the pole, and found it so bearable that we loitered at the pole for a few minutes, had a snowball fight, lost feeling in our hands, and bolted back to the sauna.

But I digress.

I got here about three weeks ago, just before Halloween. From Seattle, it took 11 days to get here, by way of Denver, LA, Sydney, Christchurch, and McMurdo station. We figured it was a total of about 30 hours of flying, whoa. But, from McMurdo we flew in a Basler. Baslers are awesome. They're tiny little planes (retrofitted DC-3s from the 30s, yup, the 30s) that work better in the ultra-cold than any modern planes. When you go above 10,000 feet you have to put an Oxygen tube in your nose. Like I said, awesome.

So that got me to pole. I already miss a lot of the people I met in Denver and had to leave at McMurdo (yup, miss you guys), but I'm settling in here.

THE SOUTH POLE: a fact sheet.
Elevation: 9300 feet
Average summer temp: -30F
Relative humidity: 3%
Thickness of ice under station: ~2 miles
Number of people here right now: 261
Hours of sun per day: 24
Amount of soft-serve ice cream I ate before the machine broke: so much
How I feel about the machine being broken: dismayed, horrified, despondant
What I eat instead: cake, but I'm thinking about ice cream the whole time

I live in the elevated station, the centerpiece of this giant work-camp they call South Pole station. This building is where everyone eats. It's where the gym is and the computer lab. It's where the sauna is, and the greenhouse too. Out the window of the galley you can see the ceremonial pole - positioned perfectly in front of the station. You can also see the real pole, which moves away from the station about 30 feet every year, as the ice the station sits on slides towards the ocean, pulling the whole operation with it.

All around the elevated station (named for the fact that the whole thing is on stilts in an attempt to prevent snow drifting) is scientific out-buildings, enormous telescopes, and a village of half-cylinder tents called Jamesways. The village is called summer camp and is home to most of the folks that live here as well as various carpentry shops, storage for everything, and the little climbing gym. Hurray for climbing!

We work six days a week - I'm about 2/3 in the greenhouse and spend the rest of my time working in the store - stocking beer and folding t-shirts - and doing training and drills with the rest of the trauma team. I mostly work alone, which can get a bit lonely. My main purpose is the greenhouse, which I'm cleaning right now. My mission is to get the place all cleaned and fixed up then plant it so when the last flight leaves (mid February) and the sun starts ducking for the horizon, the winter crew is already chowing on fresh veggies.

So here I am, working long hours and playing all night. Loving all of the wonderful folks down here, dancing and playing music. The hardest commodity to find here is sleep, both because of the social scene and because of the weirdness of 24 hour sunlight and living at high altitude. I do miss trees and mountains and rain and the smell of dirt. But really, I'm glad to be here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mount Rainier is really big

After I got back from Japan, I had a week or so to move out of my house and try to get my head together. Then I threw some clothes and a bicycle in my truck and went to Mount Rainier. I had somehow scored a job working for the park service for two months.
I ran for those two months. After so long being unscheduled and alone, I launched into work and friends with gusto – and fell immediately into the welcoming arms of the community. I came on about three months after everyone else, but they welcomed me into their potlucks, parties, and conversations without hesitation. Work was long, and on top of my new social life, a hurried romance soon filled in the rest of my time. On weekends, blessed three day weekends, the frenzied momentum from the week launched me into the woods.

The woods
Mount Rainier is surrounded by deep moist woods. Mushrooms everywhere – Big orange lobster mushrooms pushing up through the carpet of moss, little brown mushrooms on stumps, wrinkled purple caps popping out from under leaves. My first weekend there, I hiked a day out through those woods and camped next to a place called Mosquito flats. And aptly named – mosquitoes in my eyes, on my hands, everywhere. I got like 20 mosquito bites on my butt when I used the pit toilet. Searching for solitude a few weeks later, I rode by bike into the park to scramble up a scree-field at the base of Mt. Wow. I found a flat rock like a patio balanced on the tip of a buttress, reaching out towards Mt. Rainier. Mountain goat hair matted the top, and cougar poop squatted on the edge. A little river twisted through the valley below me and gave way behind it to rumpled hills and rock faces and above everything, towering, the mountain.
I climbed Rainier with two buddies. We started after work on an overtime Saturday, and made it to Camp Muir – 10,000 feet – with just enough time for a nap. An hour and a half. Ooh. But you have to get up and down the mountain before the ice turns to slush in the sun. So my alarm went off at one thirty and we went for it. Cramp-ons, rope, skirting the dark depths of crevasses. We threaded our way through broken ice fields, scrambled up crumbling buttresses, and switchbacked ourselves up 45 degree ice. As we pushed and puffed up the last couple thousand feet to the summit, the sun slid over the horizon and shot a burning red glow under the clouds and onto the glacier fields spreading below us. When we finally made it to the top, I was too tired to realize where I was. I couldn’t even work up the motivation to take a picture, so I took a nap and wandered around the crater a little, resting on a steaming patch of dirt – it’s a volcano, dang. Half an hour of huddling out of the wind, and we headed back over the edge of the crater, and down. When we were below the crevasses, we untied and separated. I came down the mountain slipping and falling in the slush, cursing and muttering, burned by the high sun. Exhausted. Crushingly exhausted, and questioning why the hell I would put myself through such an ordeal. The next day it started to make sense though. Maybe I just forget about discomfort that quickly. The sunrise under the clouds, the stars above them, and pounding myself up that thing as hard as I could and doing it. I love it.

The work
I caught the carpool every morning at 6:30 so we could drive through the dawn, up the river to the office. Our crew, nine of us, would kick around cracking jokes, wandering into the kitchen to get coffee and schmooze with the flood crew until the morning meeting. Almost all of us were in gray-green park service uniforms (everybody thought we were rangers), and almost all of us hated them. I actually liked wearing the thing, maybe I just like feeling official or something.
After a quick meeting, we drove out to different work sites around the park – we worked on roadsides and in muddy planting beds, pulling weeds in some places and putting in native plants in others. The hard days – rain, cold, mud, mosquitoes – primed me to love the good ones. Sun and friends and views of the mountain that slammed a new understanding of bigness into me. Some days bears would wander close to us, hoping for a handout. We were joined by marmots and pika, ptarmigan, and once a cascade fox. Even though we worked in the front country, I developed a connection with the park, like now we’re part of each other. It sounds kind of mystical and froofy, and maybe it is, but it comes from day after long day of numb fingers and digging in mud and rocks. Working on hands and knees and wishing PLEASE GOD is it lunch time yet?!
Work filled my days, but really I was consumed by romance, by the people, and by the woods. Mostly romance. So there I was, giddy with new love, exploring the park, and hanging out with some of my new favorite people.

Those two months raced by and shot me out the other side spinning. Money in my pocket, filled with love, no plans for the rest of my life, starting right then. Nothing to do but go to Vegas.

Old Rainier

Pictures from the big giant mountain! It's very big.

This is the mountain from on top of Pinnacle peak.

Here's the view the other way from on top of Pinnacle. That's Mt. St. Helens in the background.

Can you spot the mountain?

Oh my god! There's two!

Sunset on the way up to camp Muir.

Turns out big mountains like this have big crevasses, like this.

Yup, that's me.

Sunrise. The guy I'm tied to is the inestimable Travis. The little peak there is little Tahoma.

The mountain from High Rock Lookout. Also, check out that spine!

There it is again, I just can't get enough!

Like I said.


Me and Ms. Sarah. We spent a lot of time together, and it was awesome.

Japan addendum

A hike near Furano, and one of my best birthdays EVER!

More of that wonderful hike, and Yukie, a wonderful friend.

Yukie again! We went to the ocean, and it was wet.

That's all. Sort of a retrospective update I guess. I spent a lot of time with Yukie in the middle of my bike trip. We hiked, ate, sang, and laughed. I played mandolin for her, and we hung out at my camp site. This led to a lot of mosquito bites. A LOT. So many. But I was happy enough that the itching didn't matter.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The final countdown.

Niseko retrospective! I went rafting. Then I fell out of the raft. The guide, in the red, in the back, is a good friend of mine. Her name is Yukie.

Farm cat

Mandolin Fingers

Farm-lad on the drums

Yotei from the farm

Completely Hilarious South Korean Girl

Big wooden stuff in Kyoto

Me and Ms. Ashley! Under a weirdly non-Japanese aquaduct in Kyoto.

This is the Zen rock garden that everybody freaks out about.

Parade time! Look at all that culture!

Lanterns. There were people dancing under them, but I couldn't get a good picture, and the guy yelled at me when I stood on some other guy's ladder.

These are, yes, temples.

Some of them were painted different colors.

A warning that applies to all of Kyoto.

Me 'n Ashley went on a hike, and it was awesome.

The sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji. Dang.

There were a lot of people on Mt. Fuji.

It looked nice up there.

More clouds from Fuji.

This is the top of Mt. Fuji. The buildings are souvenir shops.

Me on Mt. Fuji. Dang.

Aoba and I. On Mt. Fuji.

The clouds of Tokyo.