Category Archives: 2015 (01/14) “Ce est l’Antarctique”
[This post was weather-delayed and was written in the field in January; my experience is below.]
January 14, 2015
Recently I returned to McMurdo Station for what was supposed to be a three-day visit to ship some of my water samples home and stock up on supplies, but bad weather (extremely heavy cloud cover and low visibility) left me stuck there for an additional week before the helicopters were able to return to my fieldcamp. It can be nervewracking when you’re away from the field and have so much work to do there, particularly since glacial melt only occurs during a narrow 2-month summer season each year and spending one or two of your “really important weeks” away from camp can make it feel like your limited time is audibly ticking away. What I have to remember, though, is that the weather is out of everyone’s control- there’s nothing I can do about it, so other than catching up on miscellaneous tasks, worrying about a week of ‘missed’ data won’t actually solve anything. I had to just sit tight at McMurdo base, enjoying the luxury of sleeping in a bed for the first time in months but anxiously waiting to return to the field.
There are a variety of ways people address difficulties on the icy continent– at Concordia Station, where I worked in 2012-13, when tough or unexpected situations arose my French colleagues would shrug and say “ce est l’Antarctique”. The translation, “this is Antarctica” is fairly literal, but the meaning behind it tacks on the additional suggestion “…and it was never meant to be easy”.
When I’m asked what the most difficult part about preparing for Antarctica is, I think most people assume I’ll refer to the physical conditioning (hiking, preparing your lungs for high altitudes, adjusting to the cold or sleeping in 24hr-daylight, etc.) but the real answer focuses far more on ‘logistical’ preparation; imagining any and every way that something could go wrong in the field and taking the steps to minimize those complications. If there’s a certain tool you need you’d better bring a spare or two, because there isn’t exactly a Wal-mart nearby to stock up on extra supplies. Need duct tape? Bring a few extra rolls. Use glass bottles like I do to collect samples? Expect a third of them to break. That may not necessarily happen, but I’d rather have a few extra bottles at the end of the year than run out of containers too early.
Helicopters shake things around. Katabatic winds soar down the Antarctic Plateau and tear our tents to shreds. Something that becomes damaged or ineffective when frozen, like lithium batteries or sunscreen, will freeze in your tent when you forget to take it out of your hiking pack and store it in the 2°C equipment shed. Last season my laptop met its demise when an unscheduled helicopter landed at our fieldsite due to weather delays- the helicopter didn’t actually land anywhere near my laptop, which was sitting roughly 150ft away in my zipped-up tent, but we work in a mountain valley filled with magnetic dust, and enough microscopic dust was blown through my tent zipper by the helicopter that it was sucked up by my laptop’s air vents and slowly magnetized and destroyed my old hard drive. Things happen. All we can do is try to adapt to the change.
When it comes to the unexpected, my boss prefers Dwight Eisenhower’s quote; ““In preparing for battle, [or in our case, fieldwork,] I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” What she (and dear ol’ Dwight) mean is that it’s useful to get an idea of what it is you’d like to do, but to keep in mind that there will always be things you couldn’t have anticipated and you’ll need to quickly adapt to new situations. In my case, getting stuck away from my camp for the second time this season means that I won’t have as many weeks of data as I’d hoped for this year. It’s certainly not the worst thing that can happen on a dangerous, icy continent. Keeping an optimistic attitude can be very important in an isolated part of the world like this. So, while I was waking up early every morning in McMurdo to see if the weather had changed and I could get back to my camp yet, I ended up being in town on January 11, 2015, which just so happens to be the day of the Antarctic Marathon.
I wasn’t supposed to be in town that day, but I was. And I had nothing else I could do. I hadn’t trained for the race at all, but I figured, well, when else will I get the opportunity? So I ran the joint McMurdo/Scott Base Marathon across the sea ice near McMurdo Sound along with 63 other people from the American and New Zealand research stations.
I run in the US in order to keep up a strong lung capacity to work in the field, but I never tried to run a 10k or marathon because I couldn’t justify paying the registration fees (often $80-200 per race) required when I can run anywhere else for free. I just didn’t understand the point of paying to run. The day before the Antarctic marathon, though, I was talking to a Canadian pilot I’d met earlier in the season who was describing how excited he was to run. All he wanted was to get his hands on one of the race numbers you pin to your shirt during the race, to try and finish the race, and be able to frame that race number back at home and know that he had accomplished something so great. He seemed SO driven for that goal that he sold me on the race with his passion. I decided I wanted a race number and that sense of achievement too, and since the Antarctic marathon is hosted by a research station and planned by volunteers, it was free. So with less than 24hrs notice, I added my name to the list. I had to search around and borrow an appropriate hat, I didn’t have proper gloves, and I didn’t have a running pack or water bottle (I was only at McMurdo because of weather delays; I hadn’t packed anything for the race) but, well, I didn’t have any long-distance running training either so it was going to be an interesting day.
The day of the race, the 64 of us were shuttled out to the sea ice of McMurdo Sound by large tundra vehicles. I’d guess that at least half of the runners had two or more marathons under their belt already, and I got the sense that I was the only one that hadn’t trained for this race at all. (To be fair, I hike on a daily basis for my job and I wouldn’t consider myself out of shape. I just hadn’t trained for long-distance running, which exhausts a few different muscles than hiking.)
A few weeks earlier, the IT/communications department at McMurdo decided to restrict the bandwidth on social media websites in order to make sure there was enough internet for science research, and after that change many of McMurdo’s residents commented on how slow the “recreational internet” had become. I knew that I would probably be running more slowly than many of the experienced marathoners, so as a joke I made a sign on my back that said “Still Faster Than Facebook!” to make fun of my slower pace. Sure enough, I was one of the slower runners out of the group crazy enough to run a marathon across the Antarctic sea ice on a whipping cold day, but I was determined to see it through. Running across soft snow is much slower than the mountain trails or streets I’m used to at home, and that ‘sink with each step’ feeling can be brutal on your knees. I also had to remember that since I was on day nine of my weather-delayed-standby to go back to the field, there was a small chance that if the weather cleared up at my fieldcamp I would actually be able to leave McMurdo the next day. That would would mean getting dropped off on top of a glacier and having to hike back to my camp with gear, so I couldn’t push myself to an exhausted limit like some of the other runners because I had to make sure I wasn’t too tired to hike the next day, just in case the weather cleared.
What amazed me about the race itself was how friendly and supportive everyone was during the run. Since I spend most of my season at a three-person fieldcamp in the mountains, I don’t know many of the people at McMurdo Station. During the race, though, the entire group of people I’d either never or ‘barely ever’ met were encouraging me, high fiving me as we passed each other during the route, and cheering on “Yeahh! Faster than Facebook!!” while laughing at the self-deprecating sign on my back. That enthusiasm and strong feeling of ‘energized community’ during the race is what taught me why people pay to do it back in the US. Sure, you can run 26.2 miles anytime, but registering for a race is the chance to be part of the collective spirit in a group and I think I understand that feeling much better now. Even when my knees were killing me to run through the snow, and I walked through part of it to make sure I didn’t strain anything I might need to use in the field later. It hurt. It was cold. The UV radiation was devastatingly strong as it bounced off the snowy sea ice and burned my face, because my sunscreen had been wiped off by sweat and wind and I didn’t know how to carry any more with me as I ran. And that whole time I had a smile on my face, as did everyone who passed me along the way.
I crossed the finish line at 4h-44m-44s. The guy with the stopwatch was actually amazed at the pattern of 4’s and showed the watch around to others, but after almost five hours of running through snow, I was a bit too dazed to do much but walk around in broad circles and stretch my muscles until one of the tundra trucks drove a group of us back to McMurdo. (Since I was dressed to run a marathon, I didn’t have as many layers as I usually wear and didn’t want to sit down in the snow where I would’ve gotten cold instantly.) Once back at McMurdo, I sat down with a group of runners and didn’t get back up for a few hours, but it was nice to chat with some of the folks who work at the station. Many of the runners had a bit of a ‘Clint Eastwood’ limp for the rest of the day, walking stiffly like a cowboy, but after icing my knee for a few hours I actually felt much better and wasn’t nearly as sore as many of the others. (I had also stayed VERY conscious of taking it easy during the race, since an injury could ruin the rest of my field season.)
And you know what? After nine days of waking up at 6am every morning to see if the daily weather assessment would allow helicopter flights back to my field site, on day 10, the day after the marathon, the weather cleared. Fifteen hours after I ran my first marathon and was completely exhausted, a helicopter dropped me off on top of Canada Glacier, where I spent a few hours snowshoeing across the ice with my gear and collecting water samples before scaling down the glacial wall to my camp. In a place like this, if you’re going to push yourself ‘for fun’ on a day off, you still need to conjure up the energy to get back to your usual physically-demanding job when the weather clears.
But hey, this is Antarctica… and it was never meant to be easy.