Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015: A Year of Reflection and Antici.....pation.

At the South Pole

As I write this first half of this post, I'm sitting here, again, in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, waiting to deploy to my field camp.  For years, I started my review post with this very sentence...and it seems it is again true.  Only this time, I'm not deploying to WAIS Divide, but to South Pole.  I am scheduled to fly in just a few hours from now, and will again be "off-the-grid" for a few months.  It will be quite strange to be in a place where every direction is North.

I can already hear the conversations in my head:

"Hey John, which direction is McMurdo from here?" .... "North"
"Hey John, what is the ice flow direction at the drilling site?"  .... "North"
"Which direction is the storm coming in from?"  ....  "North"
"Yeah, yeah, ok smartass"

Seriously though, I talked in a previous posting about how going to South Pole has been a lifelong dream of mine...literally for my entire life, as long as I have memories.  And in just a few hours, it will happen (provided the weather gods cooperate).  I feel incredibly fortunate to have been invited to help on this project and I'm humbled to say the least.  This is my 6th Antarctic season, and every one has been special.

2015 Quick Thoughts
Generally for these posts, I try to walk through the year, and walk through my memory banks to reminisce on all of the ups and downs I went through. I've had many people tell me over the years that creating postings like this is tantamount to bragging, and I guess I could see how it might seem that way.  So if this is how you see this, I apologize and that is honestly not my intent.  The truth for me has always been that I am simply terrible at keeping memories straight in my head, particularly since surviving graduate school (it has fried my brain quite a bit). Putting together a yearly summary post, gives me something I can go back to in later years to easily remember some of the defining moments of each year.  I suppose that I could just do this in a private journal, but it's just easier to use my existing site.  As I've said in years past, nothing that I choose to do with my life is necessarily more unique or special than anybody else's experiences, they are just what they are.  I choose to keep this journal site as a way to organize my life memories and it works for me.  I love to share experiences with family and friends, and read about their experiences too, in order to hopefully get new ideas and to perhaps give others ideas that they may not have had.  Maybe someone reading this right now had never thought of trying to work at South Pole or running Vol State...and maybe now they are.

At any rate, I'll try to walk through my year...and it will most assuredly be a bit scatterbrained.  2015 was another wonderful year...a year that was incredibly good to me.  I feel that there were definite events that have punctuated the year, but also some themes that I seemed to have carried through the year.  There were also a few things that happened this year that were incredible important to me, and that I will remember for as long as I live...that just don't need to be written down.  So those things will remain in my memories, and my memories alone.

2015 has been all about new beginnings, closing some chapters, and starting new ones.  I still had my share of ultra races and adventures, but overall the year was much more subdued, especially when compared to last year's defense craziness.  My long tenure as a graduate student officially came to an end, and my adventure started with my new job, new town, new life situations.  After living for nearly 8 years in the exact same apartment in State College, PA, I quite literally packed up over a weekend, and moved to an entirely new state.  I thought that this transition would be a lot harder and that the nostalgia or sentimental nature of things would make leaving PA really sad.  Instead, I found that I moved on with a sense of catharsis.  It was time to move on.  What has been admittedly hard though is no longer seeing the people that I left behind in PA.

2015 started off in a rather unusual way.  I watched the Sun set on the last day of 2014 to the west, over water, but on the East coast.  Think about that for a minute....(It is actually possible).  For the holidays, C and I drove down to Florida to visit with family.  On the return trip, we took the ferries out to the outer banks on the 31st and watched the Sun set over Pamlico Sound. This is how we watched the Sun set over water on the East Coast.  It was a really unique way to ring in the new year, and we were quite literally the only passengers on the ferry.  We stayed the night in Ocracoke, and I sat out on a bench, looking out over the water on the morning of Jan 1st, with a warm coffee in my hands.  It was quite a lovely first day of a new year....

Later that day, we hiked on some island trails, flew a kite on a remote beach, and visited the famous Hatteras Lighthouse at dusk.  On the return trip to PA, we drove through DC and I tagged the DC highpoint at Ft. Reno. It was a fun little trip.

Sunset from the back of the Ocracoke Ferry

Final moments of 2014

Morning of Jan 1, looking out at the Ocracoke Lighthouse

Having some fun at the Hatteras Lighthouse

Hatteras after sunset

Flying kites alone on the outer banks

The moon at dusk over Hatteras Beach

Washington DC highpoint (Ft. Reno)

Following this trip, I was back at Penn State to get working on publishing my Thesis chapters into journals, and to TA the undergraduate "Ice and Climate" course.  It's always a blast TA'ing that course.  One memory I have that is very poignant in my mind, is that of walking up to the graduate school building on campus, and turning in my signed dissertation form.  It was at that moment, that I finally felt like my long journey to getting my doctorate was truly going to be over.  I was finally going to finish.  All that was left to do at that point was to order my gown, and show up for graduation.
Walking up to turn in my signed dissertation form...

A few short weeks later, I had my first real test in ultrarunning for 2015: the HURT 100.  It would be fair to say that I had not been keeping up very well on my high fitness level, and I knew any big run would be slower than usual for me.  I did what I could in the first 3 weeks of January to crunch in some big miles, but I knew I wasn't up to peak level yet....especially for what would be needed to do well at a brutal course like HURT 100.  I had already conceded that if I were to finish HURT, it would very-likely be an over-30 hour effort.  I was ok with that realization, and mostly just thrilled to be able to run a crazy course in January no less.  Besides, this all meant that I would be able to see Hawaii for a proper visit.  I made my flight a 3-legged one, and planned a 2 day stopover on the Big Island.  Certainly I would have loved to see the volcanoes, but for me, the side trip was about one thing....getting up Mauna Kea (Hawaii's highpoint).

Here was my write-up:  HURTin' and Highpoints

I spent a few days upon arrival, just acclimating.  It was immediately apparent that I would  be suffering through the race, as the humidity levels were well above what I was prepared for.  I drove around Oahu, and even spent a day doing hill repeats up an old Railroad line that goes up volcanic crater (Koko Crater).

Looking down from the top of Koko Crater

The old railway climb up Koko Crater

Race day went as expected.  It was a long, slow slog through the humid rain forest flora of Hawaii.  Lots of climbs and descents, and lots of roots to navigate.  Still, I was incredibly happy to have made it through to the finish.  I would certainly rank the HURT 100 in the top 3 hardest 100-milers I've ever done.

At the start

Somewhere early on in the race...still smiling and feeling good

32 very long hours later...and just happy to have made it to the end.

After the race I spent a day geo-touring around Oahu and taking some beautiful pictures.  I knew I'd be headed back to Winter as soon as I left, so I wanted to get as much of the Hawaii vibe as I could.

One of the many beaches (and its view) on Oahu

The next day, rather than fly home, I hopped over to the Big Island for a day, simply so I could experience the town of Hilo, and drive up Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  I rented a 4x4 Toyota and had a spectacular day just making the drive up the mountain.  It was admittedly weird starting at sea level...and a short 40 minutes later being over 13,000 feet.  It really put into perspective how big of a volcanic island Hawaii really is.  Mauna Lau (Mauna Kea's neighbor) is the largest shield volcano (by volume) in the world.  I visited both volcanoes before heading back to town.

My 4x4 for the long drive up Mauna Kea

The official Highpoint of Hawaii!

Holding a sign that reads 400 ppm 
(a reference to the C02 concentrations measured in Hawaii)

My GPS dot while headed up Mauna Loa

Before heading to the airport, I took a nap along the rocky beach in Hilo.
It was a very relaxing setting to unwind.

Half a day later, I arrived in State College, PA during a wintry storm.

Shortly after getting back, C and I decided to take a very long overdue trip to New Zealand.  We had talked about it for years, and with all my frequent flyer miles still saved up, we were able to get 2 free tickets all the way to Auckland.  We knew this would be our last big trip before starting new jobs, so it was a "now or never" approach we took.  I had only just recently found out that I was likely to get offered a new job in an Ice Research Lab in New Hampshire.  I won't share too many thoughts here about the trip, as I wrote a very-detailed report from that trip here:  New Zealand Escapade.  I will say of all the times I've visited NZ on my way back from Antarctica, this was easily my favorite visit of them all.  It made me realize so much of an amazing adventures is sharing it with the right person.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures.

Milford Sound area

Holding a piece of Fox Glacier

Hiking the Kepler Track

Vista on the Kepler Track

Our home for 14 days

Once back home, I spent a lot of time up in Montreal.  C had a post-doc there and I was making the trip back and forth almost weekly (a very long 10 hour drive).  We had a blast living the French-Canadian urban life and spent many hours exploring some of the local/hip places.  On of my favorite memories is when we went to the Butterfly Exhibit...a giant nature museum with hundreds of live butterflies in an open viewing room.  Below are some of my best pictures from that visit....

Another big theme for my 2015 was the visiting of State High Points.  I have only recently started seriously accruing new points, but I made a considerable effort in 2015 to bag quite a few more and even crossed the half-way point.  As of writing this, I now have 28 of 51 completed (including DC).  This was a theme I came back to many times throughout the year, so rather than split up my visits with various posts, I thought I'd highlight them all below with some pics. I wrote a few posts about this theme too, but mostly talked about it here: 

Rhode Island's Jerimoth Hill

Jerimoth Hill

Oklahoma's Black Mesa

New Mexico's Wheeler Peak

Kentucky's Black Mountain

Vermont's Mount Mansfield

My current completion map (green).
Red states indicate failed attempts due to weather or snow

At the end of March, I decided I wanted to head to do the Barkley again, but this time as a spectator and fan.  I had actually applied to run again, but pulled my application sometime in February as my heart just wasn't in it.  I decided I simply needed a year off from running the briar-infested hills of Frozen Head.  Plus, I felt it was my duty to give up my slot to another eager runner.  I had hogged a coveted spot for 3 years in a row and was feeling a bit selfish.  I didn't take many pictures from my experience as a spectator, but I can absolutely say that I had an enormously fun time.  I spent 4 days running and hiking around the marked trails at Frozen Head, all while cheering on some of my good friends.  It was a tough year for the runners with only 2 even completing the fun run.  Jamil Coury made the best attempt with 4 completed loops (although over the time limit).  Here are a few pics from the weekend...

Laz blowing the conch after 10 am...a very late start

Start of loop 1 with many eager runners thinking "5 loops"

Jamil ascending Rat Jaw

Springtime in Pennsylvania was subdued, but pleasant.  I toned back my training significantly, and simply focused on running fun runs with no concern for times or place.  I just wanted to get in as many outdoor experiences in I knew that it would be my last year there.  I spent most of the Spring running local races like the Hyner 50k and the Dirty Kiln.  I also made my 2nd appearance at my home town's "Mind the Ducks 12hr"... a race I had actually won in 2014.  This year though, I was simply there to enjoy a fun day in the park before my graduation.  

Here was my write-up on it: Springtime in PA

Running the Dirty Kiln Half-Marathon

Topping out on Hyner's Humble Hill

Making loops at "Mind the Ducks" during my 
last day as a graduate student.

Watching the sun go down over North Ponds Park (Mind the Ducks)

It was again a lovely day in my home town of West Webster, NY

One of the most anticipated, important, poignant, and memorable experience of 2015 was my graduation from graduate school.  I had spent almost 8 years of my life back in school trying desperately to finish...and at many times I was honestly worried I wouldn't.  Working towards a doctorate in any field takes an incredible amount out of a person, and I have a profound respect for anyone that survives it.  When I started graduate school in 2007, all I had my sights set on was a Masters Degree...and even that seemed lofty.  Through the many years, many classes, many hours in the lab, and countless months deployed in the field, I had somehow worked my way up through a doctoral program. I barely survived my candidacy exam, and eeked my way through my comprehensives.  In August of 2014 I stood in front of my committee, friends, and family, and somehow successfully defended my dissertation.  I'm pretty sure the old man was there that day too.  I had countless hours of edits to work through before all of my committee would approve my work, so I missed the cut-off for a December graduation.  This meant that I had to wait almost a full year to actually walk across the Penn State commencement stage, and be addressed as "Doctor" for the first time. was entirely worth the wait.  I will never forget, for as long as I live, that moment walking across that stage, being handed my doctorate, looking out an enormous crowd, and knowing that my 8 years of hard work was finally over.  It was the hardest, longest, and most trying ultramarathon I had ever made it through....and somehow I survived.  I have so many people to thank for their support, which ultimately allowed me to actually finish; mostly my family and my wonderful C.  I was there with you on your day, and I will always be grateful you were there for me on my day.

Here was my write-up on graduation...and beyond:  Graduation

Getting excited before graduation

Me and my advisor getting ready to make an entrance

Waiting in line to "walk"

The moment I finished being a grad student

Advisor and "former" student

Celebrating with C on her doctoral day (2013)

C Celebrating with me on my doctoral day (2015)

My dissertation acknowledgements

My dedication

The following weekend, I made my 3rd appearance at "3 Days at the Fair".  I knew I wasn't in very good shape for a shot at 250 miles, but I still wanted to make the best effort I could.  In the end, I came up just a hair shy of my 250 goal and finished with 248.  Honestly this was probably way better than I should have expected given my fitness level, so in the end I was quite thrilled.  Every year I've run 3 Days, I've improved.  Here is my detailed write-up from this year's event: 

Early on in the race

My 200 mile buckle for the event, and my 500-mile coin for total miles.
(I have 725 miles total over the three years)

Plot of 2015 data

After 3 Days, I headed out to Colorado to spend 3 weeks in the National Ice Core Lab.  While there, I analyzed 556 meters of ice that was recently drilled at South Pole (the same project I was assigned to this year).  Using data from this visit, I was able to construct a preliminary depth-age scale for the core.  I always have a blast working at the ice lab in Colorado, because it means I get to spend the weekend and evenings playing in the mountains.  I played on a few more 14ers and drove down to hit the NM and OK highpoints.  I even ran a half marathon (castle rock) outside of Denver.  It was a great time.  After my time in the lab, C came out for 2 weeks and we had all sorts of fun in the San Juans.  Definitely my favorite vacation ever.

Looking at an ice core in the dark booth.

American Basin

Jeeping in view of San Luis peak

View from the Alpine Loop

Engineer Pass

2015 marked another return for me...a return to Vol State.  In 2014 I wanted desperately to return to Vol State, but my impending dissertation defense made that impossible.  I honestly wasn't sure I'd be able to return in 2015, and my training certainly was under-par.  But, in the end, I decided to go for it and simply enjoy my time there.  I made the decision early that I would not be "racing", but more "thru-hiking" the event.  I ended up having a fantastic time and still eeked out a 2nd place screwed finish (3rd overall).

Here was my write-up:  Vol State 2015 and the Denver Ice lab

At the flooded start

Bench of despair 186 miles

Leaving the Kimball hotel (mile 300)

Just finished...and very tired

Once back from Vol State, my new life began.  I moved up to New England to start my new job at the Cold Regions Lab in Hanover, NH....and got a small, temporary, place in VT, as well as a bigger place in the Boston area (My new arrangement actually has me spending more of my time down near the Boston area, but the idyllic little town in VT where we have our small apartment is quite lovely too).  I wrote about settling in and getting familiar with my new arrangement in a post here:

We managed to get in a few fun side trips like Cape Cod and Plymouth Rock, while also getting ready for our new jobs.  I spent many nights learning the hilly areas around VT as well, and began establishing my new daily running routes.

The covered bridge in our VT town

Some new trails I've begun to play on

A common sight across from our VT apartment

On a trip out to Provincetown

Something else that I managed to do before the weather go too cold was to finally complete my first century ride.  A good friend of mine that was leaving Dartmouth to start a new post-doc was gracious enough to sell me his old commuter bike pretty cheap.  I found that despite owning a much more expensive Surly Trucker, that his 2007 REI Novarra fit me better, and that I enjoyed riding it way more.  I completed my first century along New Hampshire's North Rail Trail (gravel).  Here was my write-up:

View along the trail

One of many rest stops along the 100 miles

Quaint covered bridge along the route

Mile 50...the turnaround

100 miles later...and very sleepy.

As the days got shorter, but before heading south for my 6th Antarctic deployment, I managed to get in two more short adventures.  For the 2nd year in a row, I joined 3 other Barkley finishers for a running at the Mountain Masochist.  We again had a swell ol' time sandbagging for nearly 12 hours.  The entire weekend was full of fun, merriment, and of course laughs.  I really enjoy this group of guys and I hope they will be kind enough to invite me along for the ride in future years.

Mile 37ish on Mt. Pleasant (high point of race)

The five Barkers at the finish line (JB, Horty, me, Trav, AT)

I also managed to eek in a 40 mile fun run outside of Boston just days before heading South.  I quite literally came in last place during this event, but it was absolutely my plan all along.  I wanted to maximize my time in the woods, as I knew I would not be seeing any trail, dirt, or trees for another 2 months.  Here was my brief write-up on the event:

And that brings me to today.  As I write this last part of my update, I am headed back from South Pole after a very successful season.  There are so many wonderful stories to share from my 6+ weeks at the Pole, that I do hope to write a more-detailed entry specific to my field deployment.  For now, I will say that the project was a complete success and that I was so very grateful to have been a part of it.  We managed to drill over 250 meters more ice than we had originally planned for, giving us 10,000 more years of valuable climate and glaciological history of the site.  I really do have dozens of unique stories and fond memories from this season, but for this post, I will simply say that 2015 ended wonderfully at South Pole, and I am incredibly blessed and fortunate to have had the year that I did.  Every year when I write these posts I think back to that day I sat in my cubicle in Cleveland, telling myself "I've got to get out of this".  Here I am now, 8 years later, a new Dr. of glaciology that has spent 6 seasons doing incredible field work in Antarctica.  I have been able to complete 3 long thru-hikes, travel all over the country and world, run in countless ultras, and most importantly, have found someone that likes to share in my crazy adventures with me.  I always wonder how I can ever have a better year than the one I had...yet somehow come December, I am always amazed that somehow I have.  I think I can say without hesitation, that 2015 was the most important year of my life, and the one that I will most remember.  This of course all leads back to the title of this post.  I am eager with anticipation at what 2016 might bring. I have several ideas of things I'd like to do, but for now, I will just smile, prep for my journey back North, and dream of what fun I might have this year....

Here are some pics and quick stories from my time South.  I hope to write-up more details once I get home and get re-settled.  Some of the quick highlights involved running the South Pole Marathon, running the first ever 50-mile ultra, and setting a new course record at the South Pole Triathlon.  In addition, I successfully installed my temperature sensors, we drilled over 1750 meters of ice, and I even participated in an acoustic open mic-night.  We dug a snow pit, toured the Cosmic Background Radiation telescopes, and re-created some classic explorer photos from 1912.  There's just so much to talk about, but I will leave the details for the later post. I would not be exaggerating if I said that my time at South Pole was probably my most memorable experience in Antarctica (except for maybe my time at Union Glacier)

Here was a quick update I posted from the field too:  Safely at Pole

6 seasons, 6 obligatory photos

My annual climb up Ob hill (mt. Erebus in background) while in McMurdo

I took many photos at the Pole (90S)

My Garmin got it right!

Great panorama of some sun dogs at the station

Examining a core

Playing at the bouldering gym at Pole

Finishing the South Pole Marathon

26.2 miles at pole....done!

The ceremonial/international South Pole

The large CMB telescope

On the dish of the telescope

During the "Pole Moving Ceremony" on Jan 1st.
It's during this event that the new pole marker is revealed.

My first time driving a 953

Another ice core pic

Jumping in my back lit snow pit

Sensor string deployed

Having just finished the first ever South Pole Ultra Marathon (50)

SP ultra course map

SP ultra recorded times

My official station certificate for completing the first ever ultra at pole.
(Signed by the station manager and the NSF representative!)

One of my better "remote Antarctica" shots.  We set up this
tent about 3 km from camp so we could sleep a night "out there"

In all times zones and longitudes at once

The new pole marker (revealed Jan 1st).

1st and 3rd shifts after just completing 1600 meters of drilling
(2nd shift was sleeping)

Celebrating the traditional Danish way, with a shot of GammelDansk

Fun picture at the ceremonial pole

Original Amundsen pole photo

Our re-creation

Original Scott pole photo

Our re-creation

And lastly, I would just like to add a final word and tribute to Henry Worsely.  Here is what I wrote to my friends online:

"A few weeks ago I had the honor of meeting Henry Worsley and shaking his hand as he was coming through South Pole on his Solo, unsupported, Antarctic traverse. Our ice-coring group were the first people he had seen in over 6 weeks. It was an incredibly inspiring and humbling experience to meet him. He was definitely tired from his journey, but he was in great spirits. He had told us that the first half of the trip was very difficult and the surface sastrugi (hard-packed dunes) were rougher than he anticipated. He accepted no aid/help, and only wanted to share his stories before heading out on the 2nd half of his adventure.  I’m not entirely sure all the reasons why just yet, but this news is particularly sad to me this morning.  Meeting a fellow explorer-at-heart like Henry was so very inspiring. Seeing his eyes light up as he came up to us told me just how much it means to be in the company of others.  Here was a man who has done many traverses in Antarctica, but yet seeing other people and being able to smile and laugh amongst us for even a few hours, made him into a new man.  

I learned this morning as I prep for my long trip home, that Henry's journey ended tragically just 30 miles from his end goal. Rest in Peace my fellow Old Antarctic Explorer. You’ve inspired us all.

Glad I got to meet him"

Henry having just arrived at Pole

Listening to some of Henry's stories. He was in great spirits and eager
to begin the 2nd half of his historic journey.


Ultra Monk said...

Well, I like your blog so am glad you keep it up. I nearly cried a second time reading about your graduation.

R A said...

It's not boasting if it's true. I enjoyed your adventures over the years and glad you update it. I'm sure your journeys have inspired a few. Those who complain can choose not to read.

All the best at south pole. How are the postcards coming along? ;)