South Pole Centennial Photo Extravaganza!

As promised, here is a glut of photos from the Centennial and the days preceding it. 

Tourists camping on hardened sastrugi and skiing for transportation and recreation:






Polar Solar:


The ceremony sound guy:


Video in –25F:


The ceremony itself:



The unveiling of the ice bust of Amundsen:


The press:





The fashion:







And the celebration:







We went inside to get ready for the cocktail hour in the gym and the special dinner in the conference room.


Centennial Menu





Sydney Clewe, Dining Assistant by day and Graphic Designer/Artist by night, painted this amazing canvas mural especially for the dinner (as always, click to enlarge):



The night went perfectly and the dinner was divine (I tested everything, especially the julekake, which brought me back to childhood Christmases).

Kitchen staff, waitstaff and runners:


Antarctic waitress brigade:


Happy Camper

Last night, I slept on the ice.

Many workers in the US Antarctic Program participate in the Field Survival Training Program (FSTP, pronounced F-Stop), better known as Snow School and even better known as Happy Camper.


The idea behind the course is to give us skills that could save our lives in the case that we are at some point lost or trapped in the Antarctic Wilderness, whether at a very remote field camp or traveling off South Pole Station to work with surveyors for a day trip (don’t worry Grandma, I don’t think either of these situations apply to me). There was some pretty tangible stuff in there, skills I feel I could employ winter camping at home, and some really intangible and theoretical stuff, like Risk Management. Which makes sense in theory and is really quite pragmatic, but if I were lost in a whiteout/blizzard/shark attack I doubt I would stop to consult this graph:


We did classroom type stuff for the first part of the morning and had calorie-intense lunches: Reuben sandwiches, chicken soup and french fries. After stuffing ourselves to the point of discomfort, we put on extra fleece pants, donned our balaclavas, used a flushing toilet for the last time and filled our water bottles. The weather was hazy and overcast, which was a good thing because weather like that usually traps warm-ish air above us. The actual temperature was somewhere between –20 and –30 F, with windchills between –40 and –50 F. Perfect camping weather.


We loaded up the Pisten Bully (car camping, Antarctica-style), and headed out past RF about a mile and a half, to the End of the World. The first thing we did was set up an emergency shelter in case the weather turned bad, a common and fast occurrence in Antarctica, although much more of a risk at McMurdo than here at Pole. This was a Scott tent, designed by Robert Falcon Scott himself, a ridiculously heavy yellow canvas monstrosity that can evidently withstand Antarctic storms, heavily drifted snow, 150 MPH winds, and atomic bomb detonations. We learned how to place a bamboo T-support to prevent tent stakes from ripping out in high winds, how to make an ice wall from igloo blocks cut with a saw from a little ice-quarry, how to best build a galley hole/wind wall, how to best build a toilet hole/wind wall, and how to dig and protect a sleeping trench.


Putting in a T-support. I felt like I was digging a grave for the family gerbil.





We had to stop for a body-needs-calories-right-now break. The chocolate was frozen, ridiculously hard. You had to suck on it for minutes at a time to warm it up so you wouldn’t break a tooth.


Then we set up mountaineering tents, which are more like what are in the off station emergency survival bags.


Trench digging:


Explaining the finer points of building/sleeping in a trench:


The galley (which was actually really nice: take note, winter campers).



Dehydrated dinner:


The loo:



And finally, we were finished working and ready for bed.





I slept in a Scott tent with Sven the Swedish Scientist, on an open snow floor on top of 2 mat pads, 2 flat sleeping bags, my parka, and inside of a sleeping bag with a fleece liner. I filled my drinking water bottle with boiling water and snuggled up to it. In the beginning, I felt the heat from my body seeping down into the ice little by little, and fidgeted for an hour dreading the night ahead. And then, I fell asleep so hard that I didn’t hear the LC-130 land or Sven get up to pee or other campers wandering around awake for no reason at 3am. I slept through the night, which almost never happens to me here.

In the morning when the other campers started to wander around, I awoke to the sounds of footsteps, deep, resounding creaky screeches in the snow, and a creak-creak-creak-FWOOMP as someone compromised the structure of the ice shelf beneath them and the whole ground shifted a bit.

Morning (the same as evening, but clearer, and the sun had rotated 90 degrees in the sky):




Antarctic Sunbathing:


We packed up and the Pisten Bully came back to bring us home to learn about HF Radio Ops and search and rescue techniques. I’m glad to be done, but Happy Camper was pretty neat.




Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand (February 2010)

Our last trip in New Zealand was to Arthur’s Pass, a small town located in the middle of the impressive Southern Alps. We left Christchurch early Friday morning, and on the bus ride after passing by many cattle, llama and ostrich farms, were able to get our first good view of the mountain range with the sun coming over the ridge. We arrived at about 10am, and after having a quick cappuccino (drip coffee is pretty uncommon in New Zealand, most people drink instant coffee at home and espresso drinks are the norm at cafes, to our tongues’ delight and our wallets’ dismay), we walked to the visitor’s center down the pass road.

Originally we had intended to camp at one of the huts that are a part of the country’s extensive camping system, but the trailheads to both of the closest hut paths were at least 15 kilometers in either direction–and that was before beginning your ascent into the mountain to hike to the hut. Not having a car and not being very experienced mountain trampers (ahem–not experienced at all), we decided to camp at the flat, open site between the main road and the train tracks, which left a little to be desired and made us marvel at how great Minnesota’s state park system is.

We set up the mini tent in the softest spot we could find and in no time we became acquainted with the Kea that live in the park– the world’s only alpine parrot, which can only be found in NZ’s south island. They have dark green feathers mostly, apart from their brilliant fiery orange underwing feathers, and a long, loud call. The Kea are smart, strong, and comically brave and inquisitive–they have been known to destroy tents with their hooked beaks merely out of curiosity, according to the signs in the information center. A little Kea and a big, fat, disheveled-looking Kea landed at our site, and the smaller one jumped up on Daniel’s bag and stuck his face right in, emerging with a toilet paper prize. Before leaving for a hike, we Kea-proofed our tent as best we could (we were rewarded with only a smallish hole in our water bag).

We hiked for hours both of the days we spent in Arthur’s Pass. On our first day, we tried what we thought was the shortest-looking hike, the Avalanche Peak trail. In raw distance it was probably fairly short, but we never made it to the end; a serious trail in New Zealand is much more vertical than horizontal. We turned back before it was too late, and returned to ground level to enjoy some of the “flatter” hikes out to the Devil’s Punchbowl and Bridal Veil Falls, both of which were beautiful.

Day two was much more exhausting. We decided to attempt Avalanche Peak again, only this time along the more reasonable Scott Track–where we could have descended from the peak if we had made it all the way up the Avalanche Peak trail. The overall amount of climb and estimated time was the same though, 1000m of altitude gain to the top, and a 4-hour trek one way. The first half of the hike, from 700m altitude where the road lay to the bushline at approximately 1300m, took us through narrow avalanche paths of fallen rock, over natural stairways of exposed root systems of beech trees overgrown with plush moss, across waterfall-fed streams and under some dangling feathery lichens that seemed to be right out of the pages of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. When we got to the bushline, where the trees and plants receded behind us the farther we hiked, the wind kicked up and the hike became a little more challenging. We scrambled over rocky paths on narrow-ish ridges with a precipitous drop in either direction, and we climbed high enough to be level with the line of snow on a nearby ridge. After a few false sightings of the peak (we could see it and it was so close, but then coming over the ridge would reveal more, steeper path) and coming to a point where the path looked much more daunting, we decided to have a snack and head back down: another four hours or so, which gave us an awesome view of a waterfall across the road, possibly one we had hiked to the day before, with a brilliant rainbow in its mist. We camped again that night and slept a little better having left our bags with our non valuable stuff in the shelter nearby, which made it possible to actually lie down in a straight line, sort of.

The next day we wandered around on the main road for a bit, and found some nice tourists from London who had rented a camper van who gave us a ride back into Christchurch. We stayed at Foley Towers, a sweet little garden-y backpacker with awesome rooms and staff (and also lots of little references to the show Fawlty Towers, which was amusing). We flew up to Auckland and had two relaxing nights with Nicole playing Zioncheck (Daniel’s family’s traditional Thanksgiving marathon card game) and Shanghai (Nicole’s family’s version of a similar game), and got to see the city Auckland at dusk with the streetlights coming on from the top of Mount Eden, where the air smelled like honey and we were surrounded by huffing and puffing mountain joggers. We took the bus to the airport on Wednesday afternoon, and began our journey to what was the first city entirely new to the both of us.

Bike camping in Motukarara and Little River, New Zealand (February 2010)

Day 1
We started off pretty slowly in the morning, true to how we normally get on the road at home, sort of unprepared. First order of business was to stop at the travel agent’s office as he had called the airlines to get everything set for our round-the-world ticket and figured out all the flights as well as Daniel’s credit from Raytheon for his trip home. After meeting with Richard the travel agent and paying the largest sum of money either of us has ever spent on anything in our entire lives, we had to decide where we were going that day.
We had an extremely general idea of where we wanted to go–South, basically– and having heard from locals that you can pretty much camp wherever you like and that it’s normal to bike on the highway, we just had to get a map. We went to the office of the Department of Conservation, and the woman at the office told us about something called the Rail Trail, a bike path built onto the old railway.
We had biked most of the way down highway 75, which had some pretty awesome views: the rolling mountainous farmland and lots of cows and sheep, but which was also kind of scary as the shoulder of the road had turned from bike lane to nothing. When we were most of the way to Motukarara where we were planning on camping that night, we figured out that the reason I was having such a hard time biking was not only a cheap bike and having everything I own on my back, but also the brakes on my bike had gotten stuck on, somewhat permanently. We didn’t have any tools to work on the bike with, and I was pretty ready to get where we were going, so we just biked the rest of the way to Motukarara and camped in a park right next to a horse racing track, where there was a race going on. We managed to build a fire from found wood (we were pretty proud of ourselves, as we did not have the benefit of either fire starters or Peter C. and his machete), and as we were boiling water over the fire for dinner, a man named Mark wandered by, got excited about the fire, and went to get some sausages to share. We had a short dinner with him, and when we were done eating, we set up camp. We had optimistically purchased a large one person tent (we couldn’t turn it down: it was on sale and only weighed one kilo) and had a rather cramped and chilly night.
Day 2
In the morning, we decided to try to find an allen wrench, and after coming up empty-handed at the caretaker’s office and at the cafe down highway 75, we started to walk the bikes back to the Motukarara camp site, very frustrated and without a plan. A driver slowed down on the highway and asked if we needed help, to which we said yes please, and he happened to live just on the other side of the property adjacent to where we had camped that night. His name was John and he also happened to be an avid biker and know exactly what to do to fix the brakes by adjusting the cables on the spot and adding grease to the caliper springs–this was much better than our original plan which was to take off all the bolts and see what happened. He also lent us a whole set of tools to take with us on the next leg of our trip and gave us a tour of his property (he and his wife Heather oversee an accomodation/halfway house for people in the community and surrounding area).
Having two working bikes and half a day left, we set out to reach shelter and water before nightfall. Our eventual destination was Little River, a small township on the Banks Peninsula which marked the end of the Rail Trail, and the beginning of the volcanic mountains which surround Akaroa. After a quick false start we found the Rail Trail, a gravel-and-rock path that wound its way through the creeks and inlets nearby. Much of the trail itself is on the coast of the Kaituna Lagoon, which connects to the much larger Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora, in Maori), which is itself split off from the Pacific Ocean just barely by the Kaitorete Spit. The ride was beautiful, the sun was shining, and even though the path was rocky (without bike shorts, “a bit rough on the bum,” as John put it) the view and the environment made it worthwhile.
We stopped and had a snack at Birdlings Flat, a tiny town with a pebble beach on the Pacific. After we noticed the sun getting low we hopped back on our bikes, realizing that we both definitely wanted somewhere indoors to stay the night. We rushed through the last leg of the path, sadly missing some fantastic photo opportunities of the sun setting in the hills, and arrived just in time to find the one guest room still available. It was a little out of our budget, but beautiful; halfway up a hill, with a view of the surrounding hills and a giant garden covering the property. Without any light pollution from the city, the view of the stars from the trellised and flowery patio was fantastic. We took showers, did some laundry, and went to sleep in a bed that was decidedly softer than the ground by the racetrack.
Day 3
We took our time heading back and enjoyed the path through Birdlings Flat since we knew there was a place to stay and water to drink in Motukarara. We took some great panoramic pictures along the way (we will post these soon), and had plenty of time to moo at the cattle and slow down for the sheep who were grazing alongside and in the middle of the rail trail path. We made great time and were able to stop at the restored railway station mini-museum, and signed the guestbook. We were the only people from Minneapolis in it!
John had offered to let us camp on his land when we came back to return the tools he had lent us, and he and his wife kindly set up a mattress in the back of their camper/customized half-semi truck bed, and offered us use of the toilets and shower block that was a part of the property. They were so kind to us, complete strangers from out of town, and we are very grateful to have met them along our way.
Day 4
Rather than taking the most direct route back to Christchurch (ie., highway 75) we decided to take a westward detour through Lincoln and Prebbleton, where another section of the rail trail was laid (you can check out the rail trail at John and Heather had asked to to return a library book for them since we were going through Lincoln anyway, and after finding the library, we had a quick iced coffee and got back on the road. This section of the rail trail was sealed, which was a pretty exciting surprise for our sore seats. We made it back to Christchurch’s city center with plenty of sun left in the sky and we are now staying at the Foley Towers backpacker which is Northeast of Cathedral square. We only have a week left in Christchurch and are gearing up for the next leg of our trip–Bangkok!