I sat in my small cabin as the waves gently rocked my bed. My face revealed a big goofy grin. I was on an adventure!
Several hours prior I had stood out on the deck of our expedition ship as we sailed out of Ushuaia, Argentina. I let out a huge sigh of relief, I was officially on my way. In a t-shirt (the last time I would make that mistake), I went to the stern and watched the town disappear behind us. I jokingly asked the first person I saw if this was the ship heading to Hawaii. We laughed together. Next stop was Antarctica.
An Unlikely Place
The very first thing I noticed about the Frozen Continent was how alive it was. It seemed that despite everything about the habitat, there was life everywhere. Our first landing was on Deception Island, a horseshoe shaped island that was the home of a giant colony of chinstrap penguins. Excitedly, everyone on the ship loaded onto Zodiacs and we made our way to land. We landed on a black sand beach and spotted what would soon become the most photographed penguin of the trip. Like a goof ball, I took dozens of photos of the confused bird.
He looked at me and squawked.
We explored the island and found an abandoned airstrip, a whaling facility and several more penguins. The expedition crew told us about the Chilean scientists who had lived there previously. Apparently, they had had to leave after the volcano that created the island erupted and contaminated the base. In the middle of a ice field, stood a single grave piece marking the tragedy.
Before we reboarded the Zodiacs, a group of us decided to take a polar plunge. It was not often that we were in Antarctica and we didn’t know of anyone else who had braved the frigid water. That was enough reason for us. I hadn’t traveled all the way to Antarctica to stay comfortable.
On the freezing beach, surrounded by penguins and other shipmates, we stripped down and dove into the water.
I have never jumped into a pile of razor blades but I have an idea of what it might feel like. I landed in the water and immediately gasped for the nearly freezing air that lay just above the surface. I reached it and ran involuntarily back to the shore. I was greeted by plenty of laughter and a towel.
Leap after leap, groups of people jumped in like adventure seeking lemmings.
We reboarded the Zodiacs and traveled outside of the barriers of the horseshoe island. In the distance, our captain pointed out a peppered hill. As we got closer, the cameras came out. The spotted hill was a colony of penguins!
This was exactly what I had imagined Antarctica to be like. I shot hundreds of photos and multiple times I had to check myself to make sure the images I was seeing through my viewfinder were in fact real. There were penguins and they numbered in the hundreds.
We spent the afternoon exploring and eventually made our way back to the ship. It had only been our first landing and I was already completely content with my trip. If I saw nothing else, I would have been happy. I didn’t realize it at that point but 24 hours later, I would be mountaineering up a distant peak.
Climbing Mountains at the Bottom of the World
That night I enjoyed a delicious meal and started learning more about my fellow adventurers. There were people from all over the world with a huge variety of backgrounds. Some people were professors, others worked for various governments, some were filmmakers, a lot of people were scientists and a choice few were retired and just looking to explore more. The common theme was that everyone was excited to be there and were very into adventure traveling.
I took some preventative sea sickness medicine and went to bed disoriented but smiling.
After an extremely unlikely morning, I caught the last Zodiac to Antarctica. This was my first official step on the continent itself (the island from the previous day didn’t technically count as being an island it wasn’t technically on the continent.)
I tightened up my crampons, connected my ice axe to my wrist and looked up. It was go time.
We spent the next several hours climbing our way to the top of an Antarctic mountain. My first thought was that this was not what I had expected when the crew had mentioned mountaineering. The slope was harder and more technical than my summit of Mt. Rainier (although thankfully not as long of a climb). I looked down at the harbor below. We heard and saw the effects of a avalanche that landed in the harbor. The ice moved slowly toward our ship which was anchored in the distance. The climbing guide called in the avalanche and we watched as our ship sailed out of sight. This outing was a lot more intense than I had expected.
We eventually summited the peak and stopped to catch our breath. The view was awe-striking.
That night, we congregated at the small bar to retell our adventures of the day. Everyone had a story to tell about a funny penguin or a close call while hiking. We closed down the bar at 3:00am with the sun still up and went to bed knowing that the next day would have unveil even more adventures.
Camping on the Ice
Partway through the trip, a group of passengers, including myself went camping for the night on the ice. It was the summer solstice and we knew that that night the sun would not go down. We landed on the ice at about 9:00 PM and set up camp right between two giant seals. Some of the adventurers used tents but most of us used bivy sacks, a waterproof bag that is just large enough to fit over a sleeping bag. The idea was simple, it was hard to heat an entire tent with one person’s body heat. A bivy sack however would act like a thermos and was easier to warm up with a single body.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, it was simply too cold! The bivy sack helped but there is no way around it. Sleeping on the ice in Antarctica is cold!
In the middle of the night, a group of curious penguins stormed our beach and started to investigate the weird people in oversized bags. One of the smartest/luckiest things I did during the entire trip was set up my camera to auto take photos of our camping experience. I was able to record the entire penguin adventure in a beautiful timelapse.
We eventually got back on the warm ship and I slept in late. The combination of a lack of normal sleep, a sun that refused to set, late bar nights and phenomenal day adventures put me in a dreamlike state. It was unlike anything that I had experienced before. I was awake (mostly) but didn’t feel like the normal rules of life applied anymore. Every day of the trip, I saw some of the most beautiful scenes I had ever seen. Be it penguin invasions or magnificent peaks, it just seemed too good to be true. At the top of one of our summits, I had the thought that if I died now, heaven would not be that far away. It didn’t seem like normal reality.
A Peak Below
On my last climbing adventure, I unintentionally had the highlight of my trip. We were a team of about 8 and were climbing yet another peak. We were roped together and walking about eight feet away from each other. We knew the ground we were walking on was riddled with crevasses. The sun was hot and the ice was melting. Our guide, who had led multiple climbing expeditions in Nepal, warned us of the unsafe conditions. He said it with a smile and a little hint of forthcoming adventure.
Halfway up the mountain, I found that adventure.
I was 6th in line and was following in the steps of the people in front of me. I was sweating from the heat and narrowly focused on making progress on the steps in front of me. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. The clocklike routine was my only way to continue making progress.
Left foot, right foo… CRACK!
Like an anvil dropped on glass, I fell through the surface of the mountain directly into a hidden crevasse.
Instantly, I extended my ice axe and started kicking my crampon equipped legs. I looked down and between the pieces of falling ice, I saw darkness. I couldn’t see the bottom of the hole I was following into.
Six feet into the crevasse, I finally got enough force to jam my ice axe into the wall in front of me. I supported myself with my back up against the opposing wall. Meanwhile, my feet were dangling.
In a line that I would get teased about for the rest of the trip, I broke the silence of my startled climbing crew, “guys… I am doing okay!”. For a reason that I will never know, I yelled it in a voice better suited for a cartoon character than a person in the middle of a near-death experience.
They tightened the rope and I started the process of climbing out.
Halfway up a mountain in Antarctica, there is no medical help. Had I broken a leg or become seriously injured, my team would have had to drag me out. There was no option of helicopter evacuation.
That didn’t deter me though. Later on the same climb we encountered a 20 foot rock wall that was covered both with ice and crumbling rock. At that point, I was feeling comfortable and like a badass after my fall so I volunteered to be one of the first to climb it. Unluckily for my ego, it was a lot harder than it looked. I made it up pretty quickly but it was clear that Antarctica was winning that day.
The Circle of Life
The last day out exploring was the most beautiful. We rode in the Zodiacs and traveled around an area called the Iceberg Graveyard. The water was shallow and hundreds of icebergs had become beached.
As we passed one of these frozen works of art, we heard the sound of a multitude of penguins eating in the distance. We hauled around the big bergs and came into a small bay that was full of feeding penguins. The experience was the most beautiful scene I have ever seen.
A group of about ten of us sat in a Zodiac surrounded by hundreds of feeding penguins. They were ecstatic about the enormous school of krill that had unintentionally swam up to their colony.
The commotion of the penguins ended up attracting multiple seals and the party grew. We sat with our front row seats and just watched. In the distance we saw the puff of a submerged whale. One turned into four and we sat speechless in what is best described as the aquatic version of the opening scene of the Lion King.
Minke whales, who were enjoying perhaps the best meal of their lives, started rubbing up against our Zodiac and playing with us. Meanwhile, penguins surrounded us and jumped in and out of the water. Seals enjoyed the game as well. All of this took place on the stage of an iceberg graveyard.
It was a good day for the penguins, a phenomenal day for us a and terrible day for the krill.
An Adventure of a New Level
This is the fifth time I have sat down and attempted to write this post. The writer’s block I kept encountering over this piece was the worst I have ever had. How could I possibly do this trip of a lifetime any justice?
On this attempt, I think I finally figured out what Antarctica meant to me. Visiting the White Continent was the greatest gift I have ever received. The aspect that I was having difficulty getting into words was that the gift wasn’t the experience itself, rather it was the state of mind the trip put me in.
It was like peaking behind the curtain of my life and seeing a version of myself that I had never believed could exist. I climbed mountains, dove into one of the coldest bodies of water in the world, fell into a crevasse, made new friends from countries I had never been to before and learned a new way to view the world. I was able to live a week without the artificial barriers that normally exist in my life.
Put simply, Antarctica unveiled who I could be.
I am writing this from my desk in Seattle. Today my Super Bowl tickets arrived in the mail and I received my passport back from the Russian embassy. I opened the Fedex envelopes and was half sure I was going to explode with excitement and laughter. I just finished processing my last life list adventure and it is already time to start another one. Life is incredibly short, I plan to fill it with as much fun as possible.