Antarctica Round 3

I’ve started two other iterations of this post and keep putting off finishing it. Why does updating my blog always feel like such a chore? Maybe if I didn’t leave such big gaps in between posting…

I got back from New Zealand a month ago now. Luckily, it was right before the pandemic hit the US and I didn’t get stuck anywhere (there are some people I worked with who are still stuck abroad from post-ice traveling). New Zealand closed their borders not long after I left, so people who left the country to travel couldn’t get back in to get their stuff or catch their original flights back to the States. It took some people upwards of 50 hours to make it back after airlines started cutting their flights.

This season in Antarctica…

This was my third season on the ice and it was a struggle for me. Despite having a great job, working with awesome people, living with my boyfriend and getting to go into the field multiple times with work or Search and Rescue trainings, I just couldn’t manage to be happy. I started feeling miserable about a month in.

I chalked it up to many things: the bad food (and lack of fresh food), the lack of autonomy which had started to feel suffocating, living with too many people in too small an area. I wasn’t even hiking which I always love doing – I blamed it on the fact that I worked outside all day every day and was too tired. I blamed my being miserable on not wanting to be down there anymore. I didn’t even realize it until the physical therapist (yes we have a PT!) I had been seeing noticed it and pointed it out: I was experiencing depression.

We all know there’s a stigma attached to mental health and even the PT was very careful not to actually say the word ‘depression.’ I tiptoed around it for awhile before accepting it. I opened up to my boss, which was hugely helpful for our working & personal relationships. I opened up to friends about it and found I wasn’t the only one going through it. I don’t mind talking about it because I think it’s healthier for me to acknowledge it than to hide it. Once I started taking medication I felt much better. I was still not 100% stoked to be on the ice, but I wasn’t waking up with dread every morning or having trouble leaving my room to get food at mealtimes.

My job this past season was as a fuels operator, or fuelie as it’s known on station. Opposite of last season when I sat at a desk most of the time, I was almost always outside as a fuelie. I was responsible for helping to keep the station fueled, which meant fueling airplanes, fueling buildings, doing fuel transfers and more. I got to go to Black Island for a couple days, a field camp about 20 miles away, to help deliver fuel. I helped dig out a fuel cache south of station along the transantarctic range which included a stunning flight in a Twin Otter. I went to the South Pole at the end of the season for three weeks when one of their fuelies quit, and helped offload fuel and train winterovers. Going to Pole was great mental break – there were only 200 some people compared to the 1000 at McMurdo, the food was great and they have a hydroponic greenhouse! Freshies!

Flying along the coast
Strapping the line before a fuel transfer
Pole reflection selfies

With Search and Rescue I was able to participate in weekly trainings, one of which included a high altitude rescue scenario on Mount Erebus, the 12000+ ft (southernmost) active volcano. We tested oxygen bottles with nasal cannulas to see how they did in the cold (turns out not well).

Erebus and Erebus glacier tongue en route to training. Mount Terror in the background

I enjoyed the diversity of being a fuelie and loved the goofballs I worked with, but I came away from it with mixed feelings. I’m in no way passionate about fuel, and as someone who considers themselves an environmentalist, I felt guilty working directly with fossil fuel. This made it hard to stay motivated about the work toward the end of the season.

To be fair, diesel is currently the only feasible way to keep a station of that size running. But it is frustrating to me that the program doesn’t take renewable energy more seriously. They did purchase 3 wind turbines a few years back, which only has the capacity to replace one of three generators at our power plant (according to the power plant electrician) – and that’s when the wind speed is just right. At field camps they use some solar power. But the plans for the new station they’re starting to build includes ZERO plans for renewable energy. I think the National Science Foundation could do better.

At Williams Airfield, where we sometimes delivered upwards of 6,000 gallons of fuel for a single flight

My contract ended at the end of February after 4.5 months. My medication ran out right before I left and I decided not to refill the prescription so I could see how I felt once I left. I feel so much happier being back in the “real world,” and decided I don’t need it – for now anyway.

I spent two weeks traveling around New Zealand with the boyfriend. We rented a car and drove from Christchurch down to Frankton, south of Queenstown where some old ice friends live. We lazed about for a few glorious days and also went paragliding (he went hangliding) and did some hiking. We then drove southwest to Fiordland and boarded an overnight ship to cruise the length of Doubtful Sound. I had previously been to Milford, but found that I preferred Doubtful, which is 3x bigger and also has noticeably less tourists. We spent the rest of our time in that same area in an Airbnb and adventuring nearby. My favorite day was when I hiked part of the Kepler Track 16 or so miles in one day to get stunning views of the surrounding alpine. New Zealand really is insanely beautiful. Then it was time to fly home.

I find it Doubtful you wouldn’t enjoy this scenery

I had plans to drive out to Colorado, Utah, Washington and then up to Alaska. I bought a car (my first one – a hybrid!) and packed up my stuff. Then two days before I was supposed to leave, Colorado shut down their ski resorts, and my river course in Moab cancelled as did my mountaineering course in Bellingham. I put my plans on hold as it seemed irresponsible to be road tripping right now. I had planned on visiting national parks along the way, but I don’t want to put gateway communities at risk. So I’m nestled up at my parents house in Virginia for the time being, waiting to see what becomes of my summer season in Alaska.

I’ve decided I’m not going to go back to Antarctica next season. With everything going on now I think next season looks very uncertain for a lot of people anyway. They’ve all but cancelled the summer’s Greenland contracts (a lot of Antarcticans work there in the off season) and they cancelled most of the winterover contracts for people who were deploying from the States in March onward.

I will really miss the community of people on the ice. They’re some of the weirdest, goofiest, most creative, kind people I know and they are what make that place so special. And of course I’ll miss the scenery and wildlife too.

Fuelie fam
Somewhere along the Beardmore Glacier between Pole and McMurdo

I’m excited for the next chapter of my life, though. I’m looking forward to staying put somewhere after the summer. I’d like to work for an environmental organization out west. Actually have a space of my own (which I haven’t had since living in Colorado 3 years ago), have a community that I don’t say goodbye to after four months, maybe even get a doggo?! I’m hesitant on this last one, since I’d still love the flexibility to pick up and leave for 3 months to travel.

Who knows, but I do plan on staying put somewhere for a while. Maybe I’ll have to change the name of my blog? Maybe not. I’ll still be roaming, even if it’ll be concentrated to one region for a while.

I hope everyone is staying healthy, safe and AT HOME.

One comment

  1. Sarah,
    Always good to hear of your adventures. For someone who has been in the same place for half of my life, I’m fascinated by what you do and your awesome photos. This “stay at home” stuff is not hard for me with plenty of food, jar of yeast to make bread every week, box of wine, neighbors to share food with, Netflix and plenty of books. You take care.

    Liked by 1 person

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