Friday, January 22, 2010

Antarctic "Traverse" - Sort of...

Today was my last scheduled day at WAIS Divide, and my scheduled
departure date. Unfortunately the flight back to McMurdo was canceled
and sent to the Byrd camp instead. The good news, however, is that I
instead got to accompany our mechanic Rick out on a 42 mile (84 mile
round-trip) traverse from camp. When the Penn State guys came back
from their Thwaites Glacier traverse, they had to dump a sled full of
fuel about 42 miles from camp because the Tucker's differential went
haywire. After fixing it at WAIS, RIck needed someone to accompany
him out to pick up the sled and bring it back to camp. Since I had no
flight, I happily volunteered. This turned out to be an incredible

I realize that this experience is a far cry from the 200+ mile
traverse the other guys went on, but for me, driving 42 miles up and
over the ice divide and down Thwaites was pretty damn exciting. The
weather was perfect until we hit the divide about 18 miles from camp.
Immediately, the visibility dropped to nearly zero, and we were
driving completely on GPS. Going about 15 miles per hour, we hit the
sled about 3 hours in and hooked everything up. On the way back we
stopped 22 miles from camp to pick up one last stray empty fuel drum
that was left on the ice, and I got to drive the last 20 miles back
into camp.

While we were out at the fuel sled I paused for a brief moment and
realized that it was (and may be for the rest of my life), the most
remote place on the planet I have ever been. It was a rather mind
numbing notion.

Never I have been happier that my flight was canceled ;-)

For those of you wondering and want to google earth it, here are the
coordinates (in decimal degrees):
WAIS: 112.085 W, 79.467 S
Fuel Sled: 111.03581 W, 78.90150 S

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2009 - The year of the Defense, Dizzying Runs, the Down-Under, Driving-the-West, & Decisions

The Great White Nothing - WAIS Divide, Antarctica
First Sun Dogs of 2010

Here it is now, 2010. We are out of the aughts, and I again have a little time to look back at the year. Overall, I am pretty darn happy with how 2009 turned out and pleased at my own progress. I set myself new goals at the beginning of the year, and accomplished them. I give this posting the title that i did, because I feel that there were 5 major achievements that punctuate the year for me: The defense of my Masters Thesis, the successful completion of two 100-milers (in addition to several 50 milers and marathons), TA'ing undergraduate summer geology fieldcamp (lots of driving out West!), two separate stints down in New Zealand and Antarctica (Dec/Feb of 08/09 and Nov-Feb 09/10), and several important life-decisions (i.e. where to go for my PhD and what do I do in the summer of 2010).
New Years Day 2009 I found myself standing outside the galley in -15C temps with nothing but jeans and a t-shirt on screaming "Happy New Year"!. I was standing on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet at the WAIS Divide camp in what was my first field season down here.
New Year's Day 2009

New Year's Day 2009

The season ended up being an incredible experience where I learned a lot about ice-core science, made many new friends and connections, and had an experience I will never forget. When I left camp at the end of January, I had my eager eyes set on some New Zealand hiking! I ended up spending over 3 weeks touring and hiking all around the South Island and Stewart Island. I hiked the Cascade Saddle Track, Northwest Circuit (on Stewart Island), the Kepler Track, and the Wilkin-Young Track. All were unbelievable. Towards the end, I spent a few days road-touring in a rental car and got to see some very cool sights around New Zealand, like the pancake rocks, Fox Glacier, glow-worms, Arthur's Pass, etc. All in all, it was a pretty damn good way to start the year.

Wilkin-Young Track, New Zealand

Cascade Saddle Track, New Zealand

When I got back to Penn State my mind shifted rather quickly to two concurrent goals......Write and defend my thesis by October WHILE training for my first 100 miler in July. I spent February through May fine-tuning and double-checking my data and results and writing a basic outline for my thesis. On the side I was stepping up my running and re-ran the Pocono Marathon in mid-may....shattering my old PR with a time of 3:39 (still my best marathon time). In June I headed out with 27 undergrads and one other grad student to TA 3 weeks of undergraduate fieldcamp. This was an incredible teaching experience, and allowed me to see some of the most beautiful areas out West. We toured through Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Book Cliffs, Utah (with 27 Undergrads)

Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Old Faithful, Wyoming

When I got back in late June, I continued training and began writing the first few sections of my thesis (very poorly). After writing a terrible intro, I realized that writing my Thesis was not going to just materialize and would take A LOT of work. In early July I ran the Finger Lakes Fifties. This marked my first ultra of 2009 and my final "training run" for the Vermont 100. As soon as I got back from that, I spent 5 days in Corvallis Oregon (at Oregon State) attending a Paleoclimate Conference. It was a blast. I learned a lot about climate change, and paleoclimate techniques (not just ice related). My advisor gave the keynote talk on the last day.

In mid July I had competed the first two sections of my thesis draft and headed off to Silver Hill Meadow, VT to try to finish my first 100 miler. 23 hrs and 15 minutes after the start, I crossed the finished line with my first 100 mile completion and belt buckle...and promptly collapsed from utter exhaustion. By early August, my thesis was beginning to take shape. I kept at it until late August when I headed out to Leadville Colorado to run my second 100 miler in 5 weeks....the Leadville 100. My goal for this race was simply to finish in 30 hours or less. 29 hrs later, I again crossed the finish line...barely. The altitude nearly did me in. I am forever indebted to both Kati and Elizabeth for crewing and pacing for me during this insane race.

Mile 70 at the Vermont 100

Finish at the Vermont 100

Mile 16, Leadville 100

Finish Line, Leadville 100

When I got home, September became the high-stress thesis writing month. I spent every day writing for hours trying to fine tune my draft so that I could defend on October 6th. I wrapped up my draft at the end of the month and headed out to the WAIS Divide science meeting in La Jolla California. While everyone was spending free time on the beach, I was preparing my defense presentation. The good part was that I got to talk with a lot of faculty from different schools that I ended up applying to. I learned about several good projects that are going on now...and that are funded (if I choose to leave penn state).

I came back from the meeting on oct 5th, and defended the next day.......result: PASS! Not only a pass, but I only had to make a few minor revisions before submitting to the graduate office. October became my de-stress month. I tried to enjoy the 3 weeks of post-defense time as much as possible. I spent a lot of time with friends, and drinking coffee, and mental-vacationing. I started taking care of my Antarctica prep and packing on the side, as my deployment date was quickly coming up on Nov 2nd.

On Halloween, I said goodbye to everyone and headed to Rochester NY to begin my 2nd journey down south. Made it to New Zealand in no time, and then spent 18 days in McMurdo waiting for weather to clear up at WAIS Divide. I celebrated my birthday in Antarctica, finally made it out to WAIS Divide on Nov 24th, and celebrated Thanksgiving here. for the past month, I've been busy packing ice cores, and taking physical properties samples for the I-168 grant (my advisor's grant).

Today I sit here on our day off and I've been thinking a lot about the past year. I wonder if I accomplished enough, or would have made the old man proud or not. I look back to 2005 and 2006 and remember how I couldn't possibly get any lower....and somehow i've ended up where I have today. I can't help but be somewhat content. There was high probability 4 years ago that I might not have made it out of what seemed like an infinitely deep mental/physical/emotional pit....and yet here I am. I am a firm believer that we learn a lot more about ourselves when painful/bad things happen to us or around us. I also believe that we become stronger and more focused on what exactly it is that is important in this infinitesimally small sliver of existence we get here on this planet. There was a time when I was very lost....and now my compass has at least found magnetic north. I haven't necessarily headed right for it, but at least I know where it is now.

as far as 2010....well...a lot more is going to happen, and I can't wait. I have some ideas in my mind of what I would like to accomplish, but at this point, I'm just going to let some cards fall where they will and see what falls into place.
so a toast to a fun and exciting 2009, and a hopeful 2010! *clink*