Under the influence of scopolamine (a prescription strength hallucinogenic drug used for preventing sea sickness) I laid down barely conscious in a world of vivid dreams. In the far off realms of this surreal world, I heard the odd sound of a telephone ringing out on the edge. It kept getting closer and closer until it was too loud to ignore. I jumped out of bed completely confused by my surroundings. I lunged at the phone and put it to my ear.
“Is this Danny Dover?”, the voice said at the other end.
“Yessh”, I mumbled half coherently.
“Your climbing expedition team on Antarctica is waiting for you. The boat was supposed to leave 15 minutes ago. We need you on the 4th floor at the stern right now.”
“On my way!”, I stated and hung up.
Like a fireman prepping for duty, I put my three layers of pants and a harness on in one fluid motion. I grabbed my shirts, parka, gloves, mittens, hat, life vest, crampons and climbing boots and bolted out the door toward the back of the ship.
Mid-sprint down the stairs, I passed my roommate Ian. He was flirting with a girl he had met on the ship and stopped himself only to say “Dude! You are running really late.”
I reached the back of the ship just as the last Zodiac was about to leave. Victoria, one of the climbing guides told me that I was very lucky and that the other climbers were not very happy. She said it with a British accent and a pleasant smile.
Victoria and I boarded the Zodiac and the pilot, a husky bearded man who I later found out spent alternating winters guiding in Antarctica and working with Grizzly Bears in Canada, piloted us toward the shore.
We made a bumpy landing on some rocks and I stepped onto land.
It was my first step on Antarctica.
Going Down South. Down Down South.
I had a million things on my mind as my co-founder, Sam, drove me to the Seattle airport. I had 5 legs of flights and 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) ahead of me. We talked business and I told Sam I’d call him from Argentina. He said he would be flying to New York but would do his best to answer.
The trip didn’t start well. My first flight was delayed due to a LED light that refused to turn off. We boarded and then de-boarded the aircraft. I quickly got on the phone and called the United premier line to figure out my options. All other flights were sold out until that night. My international flight from LAX to Lima was leaving in four hours.
Noticing me being perturbed, the person in front of me asked me where I was trying to go.
“Antarctica”, I said with a half smile.
The person laughed and told me to go in front of them. “I am just trying to get to San Francisco!” they said with a smile.
Just then, the pilot of the aircraft came up the ramp and said he had fixed the light. We all cheered and re-boarded the plane.
I flew Seattle to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Lima, Lima to Buenos Aires and then stopped for an overnight to regain my sanity and investigate my ship options.
In BA, I met up with my old friend Morgan. I had known Morgan from when I lived in BA about a year ago. He supports himself through a multitude of semi-successful technology startups and had been living in Argentina for about 10 years. He has strangely arranged himself into the center of the the ex-pat community in Buenos Aires.
We swapped e-mails and he told me to meet him at a cafe that happened to be a block away from where I used to live. I double checked the name of the cafe as I had never heard of it.
I hopped in a cab (they are super cheap in Buenos Aires) and went to my old stomping ground. It occurred to me that due to my bucket list lifestyle, I have odd bases in Argentina, Spain and California that I can now call home. I went to the address and saw an unmarked door. I rang the only button on the wall and a cute Argentine girl opened the door slightly.
“Me llamo Danny, Mi Amigo Morgan Stern”, I said in very broken spanish.
She smiled and let me in.
It turned out the meeting spot was more of an oasis than a cafe. It was three stories tall and contained an outdoor area with a cabaña and waterfall pool. It had been a block from were I lived and I hadn’t known it existed.
I greeted Morgan and we both sat down at the bar to catch up. We talked Argentina, bucket lists and business. I asked him about ships to Antarctica and he said he would talk to some people. We met with several CEOs from the area and discussed marketing and travel.
I left well fed but without any additional information about how to get to Antarctica. It looked like it would be up to me. That night I went to one of my favorite steak restaurants (Don Julio) and fueled up even more for what was sure to be a cold adventure.
The next morning I boarded yet another plane, this time headed to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.
El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World)
I arrived in Ushuaia, and was elated to see that my baggage had made it. I figured I had less than a 50/50 of my two bags making it to me via the Argentine airlines. I made it to my hotel and laid down on my bed. This was where my arrangements ended. It would now be up to luck and cleverness to figure out how to get on a boat headed to the frozen continent.
I tested the bed and the Internet and then ventured out into the town. Ushuaia is a tourist town that is located at the very southern tip of South America. It is full of hikers, adventurists and tourists. I made small talk with locals and hikers alike. There were a lot of people there but not a lot going to Antarctica. After some investigation, I determined my options.
The most straightforward way to get to Antarctica from Ushuaia is to book a cruise online before you arrive. (I had already known this.) The other way to do it was to go to one of the tourist agencies in the city and book a last minute trip on a boat. This seemed like my best bet.
The best deal I could find in my first three days was $5,000 for a 150 person ship in a two-person cabin. I figured I could do better.
At the end of night three, I went to one of the local bars. I sat at the bar and started to try to chat up the people around me. There were no fluent english speakers so I did my best with my limited Spanish.
I eventually met a local named Pablo and he explained that he worked at a tourist agency. He spoke a little more English than I spoke Spanish but even still our conversation was choppy at best. We stayed to the non-fluent Script (age, origin, food, directions, favorite activities, basic politics). We did a fairly good job of discussing Obama’s reelection and our corresponding thoughts on the matter. I think Pablo was intrigued by strong beliefs but realism with regard American politics. This later proved to be key.
Eventually some of his friends showed up and he asked me to join them in a game of cards.
My gut reaction was to decline as this sounded like the makings of an elaborate pickpocketing. I didn’t have anything valuable on me and was in a public place so I decided to join, although I stayed cautious.
We continued our (broken) talk with the group and I bought the first round of drinks. I told everyone that I was trying to get to Antarctica and Pablo and his friend’s smiled. There message was clear.
Better you than me.
I am a terrible card player so I was hoping my game would get better as the night went on. Unfortunately, I was having difficulty figuring out what game we were playing. The rules were similar to Blackjack but some of the moves didn’t add up. The game wasn’t for money but if it would have been, I would have been broke.
The drinks kept flowing.
The combination of the upcoming summer solstice and Ushuaia’s longitude, made it so the sun stayed out extra late. I had no idea what time it was when we started to finish up our game.
On the last hand, one of the friends (Nico), put in 100 pesos (20 USD). The others did the same. Pablo, looked straight at me and said “Antarctica” and put down a coaster in the middle. Everyone laughed excitedly and then looked at me.
I think I literally said “holy crap” out loud. I had reread The Alchemist on the way down and this seemed like a solid example of the Universe conspiring in my favor. I threw in a 100 pesos and the cards were dealt.
Now all I needed to do was win.
We each traded in cards with the top facing card in the middle. I picked up an ace and the group booed. I took this as a good sign.
Nico went first. He put down cards that added up to 22 and laughed. (I thought this was odd)
The next guy put in 15 and also laughed. (This was odd too.)
I was next. I shouted “veinte-uno!” (Twenty-One!) and slammed my cards down excitedly.
Everyone looked at me strangely. It became immediately apparent that we had not been playing Blackjack…
Pablo looked at me strangely and put down 24 and grinned.
Two of the friends looked at me annoyed. The others in the group looked at me with an expression of excitement.
Pablo patted me on the back and wrote down an address on the coaster and pushed the winnings toward me.
I had won?
I still had no idea what had just happened or what game I had just dominated but I was not going to let that take away from my victory.
Everyone, including Pablo looked a little annoyed at me. I was confused so I gave everyone their money back but took the coaster with the address. In hindsight, I think this was important.
The next morning I woke up and went to the address on the coaster. It was indeed a travel agency and at the desk was Pablo. He greeted me with a huge smile and showed me the itinerary for a ship to Antarctica. Apparently a friend of his had had to back out last minute and I was getting their spot.
I was floored.
The Unsinkable Ship
It occurred to me on my way to the ship that my current scenario was exactly how the movie Titanic had started. With a smile, I made a joke to myself about there being no icebergs in Antarctica. :-p
I boarded the ship (a 120-person converted research vessel) and was overcome with excitement. This was better than I could have planned. The crew was made up of ornithologists (bird scientists) who specialized in penguins and albatrosses, hydrologists (water scientists) who specialized in antarctic ice, lecturers, professional photographers, kayak guides, and mountaineers. The other passengers were adventurist tourists and also incredibly excited to be going to Antarctica.
The very first person that I met, Cooper, was an Australian who supported himself by making short films. Everyone else who I met was equally interesting. There was a person who investigated international financial crime, a person who identified themselves as an office manager but was more likely in the special forces, multiple professors, a Ph. D student who was studying MRI technology and a Romanian who ran an international electronics company.
I spent the next few days meeting everyone and enjoying the ship. It took us two days to make it across the Drake Passage and to the Antarctic peninsula. The weather was fantastic and the trip was mostly calm. Even still, I took precautions against sea sickness.
That night as the sea picked up, I put my climbing gear next to my bed and applied another scopolamine patch. The next morning I was scheduled to reach the actual antarctic peninsula for a climbing expedition. All I needed to do was wake up on time.
This is the first of what is going to be a multipart series. Antarctica was NOT a typical bucket list item. :-)
P.S. I am testing a longer post format which is more in line with chapter lengths for the book I am writing. Let me know what you think!