Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011 - The Year of PhD Research, Pubs, PR's, Peak Bagging, and Polenet

Looking out over Union Glacier - Nov - 2011

Here we are again in December, and I find myself in the all too familiar McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  The time has come again for me to reflect on another year gone by....and what a year it's been.  Every time I start to gather my thoughts and photos for my end-of-the-year posts, I find that I often think back to a specific moment in 2006; A moment that I remember quite vividly.   I was sitting in my cubicle at what had become my stagnant, dilbert-style, IT job, with my life decaying around me.  I was lost, alone, and miserable.  At that moment, I took out my cell phone and recorded a very short video of myself.  The video is only about 5 seconds long and I only say one sentence while looking into the camera, completely emotionless.  That sentence was:

"You have to get out of this..."

That day was my pivot day.  That was the day that I realized I had nothing left to lose and that I was going to be taking some risks if I truly wanted to seize my day.   That day was also the day I told my boss that I would be accepting the grad school offer from Penn State, would be quitting my vested 7-year long job with good benefits, and would be hiking the Appalachian Trail the following month.  And as they say.....and so it came to pass.

What a ride it has been since then.  In five short years, I've done more living than I had in the previous 15.  I have forced myself to never slow down, and to keep pushing myself however I can.  I refuse to have "if only" and "I wish I would have" regrets when I'm a dying old man years from now.  

Yeah yeah...enough with the existential mumbo jumbo John, let's get to the Year-In-Review.  Ok....

2011 was another fun-filled and jam-packed year for me.  Again I started, and now end the year, in Antarctica.  I ran over a dozen races (7 of which being ultras), set all sorts of new PRs, played in the mountains of Colorado, worked on my research, and became a published author.  Let's start from the beginning......WAIS Divide, Antarctica

Celebrating 3000 meters in early January

2011 started just as the previous two years had started.  I found myself celebrating the new year at the WAIS Divide field camp in West Antarctica.  I again had the privilege of working at the camp as a science tech.  Our goal for the season was to hit 3330 meters and finish the main borehole.  After working long hours through several major issues and setbacks, we finally hit our goal depth on January 28th: 3331 meters.  There was a huge celebration at camp and NSF applauded our heroic efforts in drilling and processing the deepest ice core in United States history.  I left the ice under the assumption that I would not be returning to Antarctica the following season.  Drilling was done, I played my part, and I would likely be home for the holidays the following year.  Well it didn't quite go like that, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Pointing out a high-density crust in a snow-pit wall at WAIS Divide

The title of this post, and again keeping with alliteration tradition, focuses on what I consider to be the highlights of the year:
  • Getting some important, and new, PhD research done
  • Finally getting published in a scientific journal
  • Setting, and resetting, all sorts of personal racing records
  • Bagging several Colorado 14ers
  • Participating in the Polenet project out of Union Glacier

After spending just a few short days in New Zealand in early February, I quickly headed back to State College.  I immediately dove into data processing and manuscript editing.  While on the ice, my submitted paper (based on my masters work) had gone through review and was waiting for me to begin the long process of dealing with the edits and comments.  It took me over two months of back-and-forth with my advisor and various co-authors and reviews to get it where needed to be.  Finally on April 4th, the paper was officially accepted and sent to the publisher.  On July 13th, it finally appeared in print in the Journal of Glaciology.  What started in 2007 as an interest in glaciology and paleoclimatology, and progressed into a Masters Degree project, was finally realized as a 10-page paper in scientific journal:

During the late-winter and early-spring, I also began to focus heavily on some new data sets.  It started to dawn on me that while a Masters project was difficult, a PhD thesis was basically doing three Masters projects at once.  I began juggling my time between processing new ice-core gas data, ice-core physical properties data, and WAIS Divide surface observations.  I was able to get through a good portion of it and even presented a preliminary poster at the graduate school student colloquium in late March.  My goal for the remainder of the year was to simply clean up those data sets and start to pull together an overarching theme that would define my thesis proposal.  I knew that sometime within the next 12-18 months, I would have to formally present my thesis proposal to my committee and defend that proposal during my comprehensive examination (aka "Candidacy Part 2").  

One new development with regards to my research was my introduction into the world of ice-core gas processing.  I had always wanted to incorporate a gas study into my PhD somehow, and had found an opportunity with one of my committee members that studies methane concentrations.  As a part of my research, he suggested that I work with total air content data that are obtained through his "spider" apparatus.  In a nutshell, this machine takes ice samples, melts them down, extracts the trapped air, and then analyzes that air.  In particular, he is interested in the methane, but the overall gas content can also potentially be used as a paleo-barometer, and thereby tell us about the elevation history of the ice sheet.  A secondary bonus to all of this, was that it allowed me the opportunity to prepare gas samples from the WAIS Divide ice core at the National Ice Core Lab for two weeks in June.

Cutting a "gas sample" from the WAIS Divide ice core

The ice-core library at the National Ice Core Lab

Working in Colorado for two weeks also gave me the wonderful opportunity to bag some 14,000 foot peaks.  Ever since driving up Mt. Evans and hiking past the summit of San Luis Peak on my CT thru-hike, I had been interested in knocking out some of Colorado's fifty-four 14'ers.  Certainly there are those out there that bag all 54, and some even try to break the speed record for bagging them all.  Me...well I just wanted to climb them, stand on top, and have fun while doing it.  And so I did.  Here are the highlights from the first Colorado trip (I went back in August and bagged a few more):

View from the summit of Mt. Bierstadt

Running up Mt. Evans during the Mt. Evans Ascent Race

View from the summit of Mt. Sherman

On top of Grays Peak

Summit of Torreys with Grays in background

While all of this was going on, and my school work progressing, I was intently focusing on a rigorous running and training routine.  In 2009, I proved to myself that I could physically run several ultras in one year.  This year, I wanted to prove to myself that I could run multiple ultras in one year fast.  I trained hard.  Harder than I had during any other period in my life.  I changed my diet, lost nearly 20 pounds and became a lean, mean, running machine.  I signed up again for the Vermont and Leadville 100, and even signed up for Finger Lakes as a training run again.  I figured my 2009 plan worked pretty well, this time I would just step it up a notch.

I started the year slowly by easing my way into marathon training for a 3rd attempt at the Pocono Marathon.  I didn't have high expectations on beating my previous PR of 3:39, but kept an open mind.  After finishing the marathon in May with a strong 3:21 finish, I knew I had the strength and fitness to do well throughout the year.   I pushed my training up to the next level and started on a roll of setting new PR's one after another.  Just as I'd set a PR, I'd beat it a month later with a new PR.  As an example, I reset my 50-mile PR three times over the course of the year.  Previously, my best 50-mile time was 10 hours 34 minutes.  In July, I finished finger lakes 50 in 9 hours 20 minutes.  Two months later, I finished the Vermont 50 in 8 hours 42 minutes.  Then just a month after that, I reset it again at the Tussey Mountainback 50-miler with a finish of 7 hours 49 minutes.  In all, it was an incredibly successful year for my running, and I was not only able to finish every race I started....but finish them all well.  Here are some (not all) of the highlights:

May - Pocono Marathon PR 3:21

Jun - Rothrock Trail 30k PR

Jun - Laurel Highlands Ultra 50k PR 5:54

Jun - Slacker Half-Marathon PR 1:30

Jul - Finger Lakes 50m PR 9:20 (finishing lap 2 of 3 above)

Jul - Vermont 100 PR 21:48

Without question, there were two pinnacle performances for me during the year.  The first was my nearly 4 hour improvement at the Leadville Trail 100.  While I didn't break the coveted 25 hour time, I still managed to finish in the dark; something that was very important to me:

Aug- Coming down Hope Pass (mile 45) Leadville Trail 100

Aug - Finishing Leadville Trail 100 in 25:36

Sep -Vermont 50 PR 8:42

My second pinnacle performance of the year was my running of the Oil Creek 100.  I signed up for this race not expecting much.  I enjoyed the course after pacing a runner at it back in 2009 and thought why not give it a stab.  I ended up not only finishing in under 22 hours (and winning one of the special gold buckles for sub 22), but placed 5th overall.  To this day, my best place finish ever.  As a side note, while I did miss my 100-mile PR by 3 minutes during this race, the course was actually 100.6 miles...which actually put me at or near a PR for 100 miles (unofficially of course).

Oct - Oil Creek 100 : On my way to a 21:52 and 5th place finish

Oct - Sub 22 hour Oil Creek 100 coveted gold buckle

I ended the season with a big bang by racing strong at the Tussey Mountainback 50-miler.  This is my hometown race, and I wanted to make a strong showing.  I ran it hard and finished in 7 hours 49 fastest 50 miler ever....and one that will probably stand a long time.

Oct - Rolling fast at the Tussey 50 PR 7:49

In August, after my running at Leadville, I also spent a week relaxing in one of my favorite states.  While there, with good company, I was able to see many wonderful places and bag a couple more 14ers.

Mt. Elbert Summit (Highest Peak in CO)

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Summit Lake : Mt. Evans

Climbing Uncompahgre Peak

Uncompahgre Summit

Fun with rented jeeps and crazy 4-wheel drive roads

So last but not least comes the final "P" in the title of this already too long post.  Polenet.  I could write an entire 2nd post just about the beauty I saw while deployed for Polenet...but my last post covered it pretty well.  In September I was asked if I wanted to participate in a 2nd Antarctic deployment (after already hearing that I was wanted back for another year at WAIS).  After learning what the project entailed, and where I would be stationed (Union Glacier), I jumped at the chance.  In October I went out to Socorro New Mexico and spent two days training at Passcal.  It was there that I learned the inner workings of the Polenet seismic stations.  When I deployed South for Antarctica on November 3rd, I had no idea how incredible the scenery and the project were going to be.  Instead of picking through photos, I'm just going to re-post the youtube video montage I put together.  It sums it up pretty damn well.

And so...
Here I sit in McMurdo again.  Waiting to deploy to WAIS Divide for what will be my fourth season there.  We hope to extend the main borehole about 100 meters deeper, and then begin drilling replicate cores.  I anticipate a much slower-paced season than previous years.  I will once again spend my Christmas amongst a small field camp group of about 35 people.  And on New Years Eve, I will welcome in 2012 from my familiar 2nd home.

There are a few other sub-stories from 2011, like my weekend trip to New York City, my three-day weekend in the Redwood forests of California, a weekend away in Cook Forest State Park....but I think maybe I will leave these memories to myself.

As far as goals for 2012....well I have a few.  First and foremost, my primary goal is to pass my PhD Comprehensive Exam.  I surmise this exam will probably take place some time in late Spring or Summer.  I'm optimistically hoping to finish it up before Summer though.  Outside of school, I've again signed up for a number of races.  Some are old favorites, and some new ones.  As of right now, I have no time goals or race goals except for maybe....just maybe, to break 25 hours at Leadville.  BIG maybe though.  I've been missing the hiking a lot lately, so maybe a long overdue Long Trail thru-hike will be in order instead.  Guess we'll see.  I'm leaving 2012 pretty open right now.  Sometimes it's more fun to be spontaneous.  But there's a chance, I may have a few other devious ideas up my sleeve *smirk*

Happy Holidays everyone, and on the 100th anniversary of Amundsen and Scott's epic "race" to the South Pole, I'll leave you with this sobering and powerful quote from early 1912, written by Scott on his return journey from the Pole,

"... but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of providence, determined still to do our best to the last ... Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for."  - Captain Robert Falcon Scott's Last Journal Entry before perishing on his return from the South Pole

Friday, December 2, 2011

The True Majesty and Beauty of Antarctica

Mt. Rossman and Union Glacier

The dictionary defines “awesome” as “extremely impressive or daunting, or, inspiring great admiration”.  In my vain attempt at finding a word to best describe what I have seen and experienced over the past two weeks, all I could come up with was “awesome”.  Try to remove yourself from the colloquial usage of the word, and think of a time when what you gazed out upon truly triggered a goose-bump raising response; A sense of shear wonderment at the spectacle that our little orbiting rock can sometimes present.  Think of a moment where you may have stood, in such utter disbelief at the beauty that lay before you, that you were unaware of everything else around you.  Now imagine that normally ephemeral feeling, lasting continuously for two weeks….

This is the “awesome” to which I refer.

Over the past three seasons, I thought that I had experienced the very best that the frozen and wondrous 7th continent had to offer.  I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.  Everything was in order for me to come down to Antarctica for my 4th season this year at the flat and white camp of WAIS Divide.  In the few months leading up to my deployment, I was asked by one of my PhD committee members if I would go down earlier in order to assist with the Polenet project.  Initially I responded with little interest, but when I heard I’d be going to the Ellsworth mountains and staying at the Union Glacier (ALE) camp, I knew I’d probably never get another chance.  Add to that the prospect of working on seismic and GPS equipment, and I was sold.

A little background:  For over 20 years, the Patriot Hills camp has been the single longest lasting privately run camp on continent.  Any time you hear about someone paying money to go to Antarctica, or paying to run a marathon there, or paying to climb Vinson Massif (the highest peak in Antarctica), OR, paying to mount a ski expedition to South Pole…it was through Patriot Hills.  If you had lots of money, and wanted to experience Antarctica apart from the NSF funded science projects, you came down to Patriot Hills by way of Chile.  Starting last year, the Patriot Hills camp moved further north in the Ellsworth Mountain chain up onto Union Glacier.  The scenery is arguably more breathtaking there, and the winds much calmer.  Most recent opinions do agree that the Union Glacier site is better overall.  This is where I was based out of the past two weeks.

But…it gets better.

For those of you that have read my blog posts before, you’ll know of my fascination and near-obsession with going to extreme and remote places.  Places that no other person would have any interest in…I’m drawn to like moth to a flame.  Nothing excites me more than the prospect of going to a remote nunatak in the middle of Antarctica, if only just to stand on it and take in the utter isolation of it.  The Polenet project is basically tailored for someone with just this sort of fascination.  The work I was asked to do, involved getting into very small ski-equipped planes, and flying to the most remote outcrops on, in, and around the Ellsworth mountains in order to service independent seismic and GPS stations.   Probably the single best job on the planet in my mind.  Let see:  Cool polar science – check, cool gadgets – check, flying in small planes – check, going to ridiculously remote places – check, working with great people – check, and seeing the most beautiful places on Earth….- check.  No brainer.

Rather than rambling on, I’m going to just post some pics to give you a small idea of what I saw.  These pictures can’t possibly do it justice, but it’s the best I can do…

Site Visit Map

Day 1 – Our first full day at Union Glacier, we flew out to, and serviced Pecora Station (Pecora Escarpment).  I desperately wanted to go to this site as it was the farthest South (86 degrees), but with all of the equipment and fuel, the pilots could only take 3 out of the 6 of us.  I worried that this would be the trend for the project, but I was thankfully proven wrong.  After this first day, I was able to come along and assist at every other site we visited.

View from my tent

Days 2, and 3 – On our 2nd and 3rd days, we visited and serviced the Mt. Suggs station up in the Merrick Mountains at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula.  This was a beautiful and remote location and my first flight in a ski-equipped Twin Otter.  It was also my birthday…and so quite a present.  I will never forget my 35th, that’s for damn sure.

Loading up the Twin Otter

Twin Otter going out to refuel

My kind of scenery

On Day 4, we all went out to the Cordiner Peak (Dufek Massif) site.  The flight for this site was long and required refueling at a remote cache along the way.  The site itself was on a beautiful and tiny spec of exposed rock just jutting up through the ice sheet.

view from the plane

Dufek Massif

Dufek site location

Work-site heroic Antarctic photo-pose

Foundation ice-stream

Remote refueling

On Day 5, the GPS team took a short flight up to the Wilson Nunatak GPS-only site about 50k away, while the seismic team (of which I was a part of), drove snowmobiles out to the seismic station that was about 5 miles outside of camp (on the flank of “Peak 942”).  Despite being only 5 miles from camp, the local site had some of the best views of Union Glacier and the surrounding mountains.

View from Peak 942 (local Union Glacier Site) w/ALE camp in far background

View across Union Glacier

On day 6, we finished strong by hitting two sites in the same day: Howard and Haag Nunataks.  Haag was probably my favorite site that I was able to see.  It was a stunning and perfect little piece of exposed rock surrounded by ice in all directions.  What made this last day even more spectacular though, was that the pilots flew us right along the main ridgeline of the Ellsworth Mountains.   About 40 minutes into the flight, they flew us up to nearly 15,000 feet and right past the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest peak in all of Antarctica.  It was mind-boggling, and absolutely breathtaking. 

Snowy Peaks

Vinson Massif

 Mmmm folds and stratigraphy

Nunatak Jumping

After 6 days of site-visits, we took a well-deserved day off for Thanksgiving.   Weather eventually turned sour in the area over the next few days and we were not able to hit the last station we were hoping to service in the Whitmore Mountains.  This was not a priority site, however, and will still be serviced out of another camp.  All in all, it was a ridiculously successful season for our little Union Glacier Polenet group, and one that I was extremely fortunate to be a part of.

Union Glacier Christmas Tree

Beautiful clouds over the Ellsworth Mtns.

Here’s a little video I quickly put together set to some music to help put it all in even better perspective: