Thursday, February 24, 2011

Visual Journey of the PIG Traverse

This is not a good forklift: one of our 3 traverse tractors

Until I got my 297C I had to load the sleds with this

my trailer coming together - we slept in those red "wagons"

This was the easy part

my sleds and krell tool

our biggest problem day: build a groomer in the field after it fell off the sled

tightening up the straps on my 3K fuel bladders. this is how we fueled our tractors in the field

lots of flat white desert

6 miles an hour for 8 days

parking at night, head into the wind (though there never was any on the trip out)

inside our PIG Polar Haven

after 5 days of storm, racing out to work at PIG camp

spent most of our time in camp digging stuff out. we got BURIED!

the one day where we were not in Con 2

there was a surreal beauty at camp

on the return trip our load was much lighter

Simon switched out with me on the second run. I stayed at Byrd as the Equip. Operator

Friday, February 04, 2011

Some Notes from Season Seven


That's what it felt like. On the hundreds of flights I've been on in my life, none felt sweeter than flying into Mactown from Byrd camp after the traverse to Pine Island Glacier (followed by a month of working at Byrd camp). After completing the first round trip run of the traverse, I remained at Byrd as an operator, while a British mountaineer drove my tractor back to PIG for the second run. It was a win-win situation: he wanted to drive instead of ride out to the Glacier, and I was grateful for something different to close out my season with. But that last month moved glacially show. Each day at Byrd seemed unending and I was chomping at the bit to get back to McM. It wasn't busy enough and there was nothing to do after work and no place to go. My tent was too cold to hang out in so I just sat in the galley until it was time to go to bed. The people there were kindly and good to me, which was  a welcome relief after being on the traverse with boys who thought I was incompetent, but field camp life is just not exciting enough for me. It would be fun for a week or too, as a break from Mactown, but for as long as I was there there's just not enough going on.

People keep asking me how the traverse was and I keep trying to come up with a simple answer. I don't really have one. I can say I'm glad I went but glad it's over. It was grueling. Not one minute of it was "fun." We worked usually 16 hours a day. There was animosity felt towards me that was not disguised, and I was alone in my little world of just keeping myself together while trying to be a stalwart and helpful part of this team that did not want me on it. It was a strange position to be in. I had to work alongside guys who were griping about me all the time. My heart was not in it, and I'd been given an opportunity to get off the traverse before it started (but not go back to my really fun job in mactown), but I felt like no matter how rotten it could get, I may never get this opportunity again and it was just two months of my life and how bad could it be. I tend to like to put  myself in situations to see if I can handle them. I guess this has its good and bad aspects, but doing what's easiest and most comfortable is not the option I usually go for. Doing something for bragging rights is. The driving days were a mixture of boredom, apprehension about cargo falling off the sleds, and the incredibly awkward mealtimes with the 5 of us crammed into to equivalent of a 4 person tent. I awoke each morning bracing myself for the day and hoping for the best: that I would drive all day and not have someone gripe at me about how fast or slow I was driving, that fueling would go smoothly without my part in it being criticized every time, and that mealtimes would not last long. I started eating quickly and then sitting outside or in my tractor talking on the phone. The boys had gotten into a routine of bullying me and I was getting sick of it. I was doing my job well but they needed a scapegoat for whatever insecurities they were going through so I used this situation I was in to practice "not taking things personally." It's one of those concepts that sounds really good but is really hard to implement while something is telling you "you should not have come on this traverse!" Gloriously, I found I could read in my tractor while it was moving! Because there was no escape from the sniping, I had to deal with my reactions to it. I found that it helped immensely, but in general I was just counting the days that this ordeal would be over. The problem was, "the boys" ,as I call them, wanted some old school operator on the traverse an they got me. They thought I wasn't experienced enough and perhaps they were right: I was a first year operator performing a heavy equipment operator job, which requires 6 years experience.  I had to fake confidence in everything I was doing, and I couldn't disappear like I wanted to so I was just (ironically for being in the middle of nowhere) utterly self conscious and  sometimes fumbling. I can only remember being like this a few other times and it was when I was under extreme stress from being around someone who made it clear they thought I was incompetent. Even as I am writing this I am aware that this is not the face I wanted to show of the independent woman who went on an Antarctic traverse, that the reader is probably wanting to hear about the rolling dunes of snow that sparkled for eternity, the absolutely surreal feeling of knowing that we were the first humans to traverse this path, or the scientific urgency of why PIG is a big focus of interest in Antarctic research. The science facts can be googled, but what it's like to be on a traverse is the only thing I can write about. I read Jonathan Franzen's new novel while I was "driving" and that was one of the highlights of the traverse for me. I talked to people on the phone in my tractor sometimes for hours at a time. Pulling into field camps was fun as they all were wowed by us and we got to take showers and get away from the grueling reality of our lives together for a day or so. One guy on the team said after the first long driving day: this is like a prison sentence. I felt the same way. After 8 days of driving we arrived at PIG. It looked like the previous 350 miles of terrain: flat and white. At no time on the traverse was I cold. If anything we got overhead in our cabs, and in the heated cataraft tents at night. We spent 11 days at PIG setting up camp. It was kind of nice to be parked somewhere for a while, and made so much better by the arrival of 3 Mactown friends to help set up camp. I was avoiding contact with the other pigs as much as possible, only dealing with them in a stony professional manner which was how I was coping with our messed up team. I was really looking forward to our trip back as I knew that the break-up of the boys (two of the three were staying at camp while 3 us of drove back) would end the lord-of-the-flies-esque milieu of the traverse. After 5 days of storm, and 5 days of working our asses off, we were ready to drive again, but not before I was to have my one & only screaming fight with one of the pigs. Unfortunately, it was with one that was driving back with me. I don't like fighting or yelling and it has always scared me, but this was provoked, necessary, and primal. I was shaking and hoarse at the end of it, ready to quit, ran to the other side of camp to work with the carps. Didn't think I could ever be around this person again, but the next day we sheepishly drove off in an oddly communal silence. I was relieved  that the world didn't end after the million curse worded screaming match we'd been in, but it had battered what was left of my propped up fake team-player persona. By never telling these guys to f---off, I just blew up in rage. Not pretty but it kind of softened us up and mellowed us out for the trip back. The return had some dramatic sled problems in the first days, but the remainder of the trip was dead silent and free from tension. No radio chatter and three little pigs in their own worlds in their tractors spaced far enough away for privacy. I knew I was going back to Byrd to close out my season so I was happier - not as happy as if I'd been going to Mactown, but that was a ways off still. When we finally pulled into Byrd I saw one of my oldest and dearest friends from the Ice in camp to greet me and I had a great first week there. I had DONE the traverse. I survived it. I actually did a good job for never having done any of this stuff before. And now that it's been a few weeks since it's been done, it seems like the whole trip was done in just a blink of the eye. Snap, and it's over. The only hardship was mental, and I got through it.

The first 24 hours in McMurdo were glorious. I was home. But as I discovered with my South Pole Traverser friend, your are only a celebrity for about 15 minutes...then you just wander highway one, drinking coffee and visiting your previous work center, which seemed underwhelmed by my presence and epic journey.

I had three different jobs in one season!  I got to be in Fleet Ops, go to three field camps and do a traverse, which was everything I ever wanted to do, and even though it was challenging, I am extremely grateful for the chance to do it. Duty fork was challenging in a good and fun way, the Traverse was challenging in a painful way, and Byrd camp was challenging in a fear of being swallowed up by boredom way. My relationship with the Ice is starting to feel like a marriage - I'm stuck and committed...hating and loving her at the same time, slavishly loyal but can't wait to get away each February. And now I'm sitting in New Zealand, missing her. Typical.