Friday, April 18, 2008

Decryption

A lot of people told me that they did not understand those messages I sent from the satellite phone while I was on the ice. I guess I have to decrypt them :)

April 2:
ARV@BARNEO SAF.AM GOOD.-35.ICE DRFT SOUT FST.WHE 2STRT TMR NOT KNOW.AMZN SCNE

We arrived at Barneo (base camp) safely. I am good. It's -35 degree. The ice is drifting south fast. Where to start (ie, the location where the expedition starts from) tomorrow is unknown. Amazing scenary (at the base camp)

April 3:
SLEEP OK.STIL DRFT SOUTH FST.STAY@BASE EXPL AREA 2DAY.-35 & WNDY.STAYIN WRM

I sleep ok (ie, I had a good sleep). The ice is still drifting south fast. We stay at the base camp. We will explore the area today. It's (still) -35 degrees and windy. I am staying warm.

MCKUP TRP SURND.WAS GOOD,QUITE TIRING.WIL B INTRESTNG NXT 7DAY.HAD GOOD INSTNT MEAL.DRFT FSTER 14KM SINCE YESTRDAY.STRT@ICE@11AM TMR

We had a mockup trip in the surrounding area. It was good, but quite tiring. It will be interesting the next 7 days. I had a good instant meal. The ice drifts faster, 14km since yesterday. We will start on the ice (ie, start the skiing) at 11AM tomorrow.

April 4:
GEORGE(G) JOIN TEAM GRT HLP.HELI DRP@89 D40'.CLD BUT MOVNG HLP STAY WRM

George joins the team. It's a great help. Helicopter dropped us at 89 degree 40' (where we start skiing). It's cold but moving help staying warm.

April 5:
YESTRDAY WLK 1.5K.2DAY 7K NOT MCH DRFT.LOONG DAY.MAYB BTTR TMR.DNNR & BED SOON

Yesterday we walked 1.5 km. Today we walked 7km. Not much of drifting. It's a (very) long day (for me). Maybe it'll get bettter tomorrow. Going to have dinner and going to bed soon.

April 6:
CORCTN YESDAY WLK 12K WO DRFT.2DAY SLWER DRFT 300MPH.WLK 7KM W DRFT.32K 2 NP

Correction: yesterday we walked 12k without drift. Today it's a slower drift, 300m/hour. We walked 7km with drift. It's (about) 32km to the North Pole.

CKNG DNNR BCON W NDLE.YUK BUT NEED FAT.MIX HOT PWR DRNK CHOC &MLK BUT MLK TSTE LK CHEES ANOTHR YUK :)

I'm cooking dinner, bacon with (instant) noodle. It's yukky, but I need the fat. I (also) mixed hot power drink, chocolate and milk but the milk tastes like cheese. Another yuk :)

April 7:
TUF TERRN 2 NAV LOTS RDGES.WLK 7K WO DRFT.29K FR NP.ALMST NO DRFT.2 BIZ NOT BAD AS THOT :)

(Very) tough terrain to navigate, lots of (pressure) ridges. We walked 7km without drift. It's about 29k from the North Pole. Almost no drift. 2nd business (number two) is not bad as I thought (it would be) :)

CK MEX CHLI W BCON NOT BAD.CRVE 4 COKE WHLE WLKNG WEIRD EH.A GD AD 4 COCA

I cooked Mexican chili with bacon. Not bad (at all). I craved for (a can of) coke while walking (on the ice). Weird eh? (This would be) a good ad for Coca Cola.

SWET LOTS WHLE WLKNG TNT LOOK LK LNDRY EV NITE.BOIL LOTS WTR,DRNK LK CMEL.BED SOON

I sweat a lot while walking. The tent looks like a laundry place everynight. We boil lots of water, and drink like camel. I am going to bed soon.

April 8:
EVDAY&NITE NICE DAY TIL 2DAY.FOG LOW VISI.CMP WAIT 4 BTTR WTHR.NICE&WRM@TNT

Everyday and night here is a nice day until today. There's a fog and it's low visibility. We are camping out waiting for better weather. It's nice and warm in the tent.

DRFT STRNG AGN 600MPH.HEAR DOGSLDGE TEAM ARND.NICE 2KNW PPL NEAR

The ice drift is strong again, at 600m/hour We hear the dogsledge team around us. It's nice to know people are near.

HAD GD RST.WTHR NICE NOW.MB STRT WLKNG 2 CTCH UP

We had a good rest. The weather is nice now. Maybe we will start walking (again) to catch up.

April 9:
DIDNT WLK TIL MRNG.BTFUL DAY 4WLK.ONLY 5K 2DAY.HELI PCKUP TMR 4 NP THEN BK 2 LAND.BIG DAY.XCITD

We did not walk until (this) morning. It's a beautiful day for walking. (We only accomplished) 5k today. Helicopter will pick us up tomorrow for the North Pole, then back to land (ie, Longyearbyen). (It will be a) big day. I am excited.

April 10:
GRTNG FR THE NORTHPOLE :)

Greetings from the North Pole :)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Few Video Clips

Inside the Antonov to Barneo base camp

video

Melting the snow in the tent

video

Just woke up

video

Glacier Caving In Longyearbyen

There was an event prior to the expedition that I just mentioned briefly in the "An Eventful Day" entry. It was the ice caving trip.

Last time I was in Longyearbyen was in May. It was warm enough so all the glacier caves were closed due to water. I promised myself if I ever had the chance to come back to Longyear, I will do the glacier ice caving. So while waiting for the expedition, I had to do it. It was fun, tho the cost is a little on the steep side, but I think it's totally worth it.

Mark Abouzeid is an American Italian journalist who lives in Tuscany. He was off to a two day expedition to the Pole as a reporter. Mark and I went to the ice caving together. The cave is not as spectacular as some of limestone caves I have been to, but this is inside a glacier. That's what make it special. There were Xmas tree, chandeliers and crystal walls. Quite nice. However, the cave can be very slippery and dangerous. After all, we were walking on the smooth ice surface. I tried not injure myself since I was about to go on the expedition. The walk in the cave was okay until when we headed back out of the cave. That's when I slipped and hit the back of my head against the large piece of ice from which I slided off from. Luckily it wasn't bad, since my body took most of hit. I just got a little bump. But I was in panic. There was something dripping out of my hair. And that's when I made another mistake and stepped into a small water hole in front of me. The water got into my boots and was super cold. I didn't care. All I care was the dripping liquid from the back of my head. I had Mark to check for me. It was just the ice crystals melting from my head. Phew!

On the way back to the tour office, I was the driver. I dressed warm that day, but not for riding a scooter. I needed a face mask and gogles to protect my face from the wind. I got none! Mark and I were freezing on the way there so it would be hell on the way back too. So I thought what I could do to improve the situation. An idea came to mind: I could use the hood to protect my face instead of my head. I did not need the hood because I had the helmet. I ripped out the hood from the back of the jacket and and reconnect it to the front. It worked like a champ!

The tour operator (Poli Actici) is an Italian group so Mark felt right at home, speaking Italian. There are many operators for this kind of activities, but Poli Artici is the one using snowmobile to go to the ice cave. Snowmobile tour are really expensive, so we got a great deal combining both.

Mark described best what we saw and did in his blog. We had a great time riding the snowmobile, at least I did.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Home Sweet Home

As the airplane approaching the Bay Area yesterday morning, a soothing sight of green appearing through the window, I know I am home. It's green, at last. The last two and a half weeks, although most days were sunny and gorgeous, they were white. It's nice to be back to the warm California.

When I went out for lunch in Milpitas Square, I felt I was just there the day before. This is not Asia where things change fast within two or 3 weeks, but I am talking about the perception I have after the trip.

It's like a dream. Going to the North Pole was a dream. Being there was a dream. There was no concept of time, the sun is up 24 hours. Everywhere is white. The air is always supercold. The routine everyday is the same. And all are too unreal and yet very real. I am glad I lived this dream.

Last night when I got home from work and after finishing my dinner, I craved for some sweet. I opened the fridge and found the sugar-preserved lemon (mut chanh) my mom made when she was here visiting me a few days before the expedition. They were yummy and sweet.

Home sweet home.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Souvenirs

Yesterday I went shopping despite of the storm. It was not the kind of shopping I usually do while travelling. It was souvenir shopping. To me, this activity is for tourists (okay, I know that sounds cocky but I would love to be considered as traveller rather than a tourist). As expected, lots of polar bears, mooses, and the famous polar crossing sign. I got a few key chains, some tiny stuffed animals and magnets, all resemble or printed the white bears. When I brought to the checkout, I was stunned at the cost. Norway is notorious for being expensive.

I then went talk to Victoria, a Vicaar staff about the gear purchasing idea that I had asked her about since I got back from the pole. I was told she is in charge of acquiring the equipments so she would be the best person to discuss. I want to buy the skis and the ski poles I used in the expedition as souvenirs. This is first time and maybe the only time I thought of buying the stuffs I rent for a trip. After many times, she said she would think about it, and she finally let me know. The skis and the ski poles would cost 300 euros together, and 50 euros for just the poles. Good Lord, prices in Vicaar are even higher than Norwegian counterpart. But I was seriously considering it since this is probably the only time I can get these. I went back to the hostel and searched my wallet. Not much left, only $300 with a few one dollar bills mixed with some receipts. Our dollars feel just like other paper, no value at all. I decided to just get the poles. I checked xe.com for the exchange rate, USD has dropped even further than when I started two weeks ago. Ouch. I called Victoria to tell her I can only afford the poles and tell her I would pay in US dollar. It is $80 for the pair of ski poles that were beaten up even before I got to use them. Damn expensive. But they have some sentimental value.

And the expedition itself, freaking expensive. But the experience and memory are priceless.

And Vicaar knows it and charges people accordingly.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Small Celebration

I slept very well last night. Woke up feeling totally recovered. No more aching muscles. Last night most of my dream was about the time on the ice, all those vivid images flashed back. Guess I really do miss it. Or maybe I still tried to hang on to the special occasion.

Longyearbyen has a storm to day. Very, very windy. Temperature is about -8, with windchill is like -23. I think normally I would feel super cold but I think after the time on the ice, I don’t think it's that bad. It's all relative I suppose.

We had a small celebration at lunch today. Vadim (an experienced polar guide) who works with Vicaar presented us the diploma and the trophy. It was nice to get some diploma or trophy but it's the achievement of personal goals is the most important thing for me.

I talked to another skier, who stayed in the same hostel as mine. His name is Pepe Jijon from Ecuador. He has done the seven summits, including the Everest. He also reached the North Pole, one day before I did. He did the last two degree expedition (while mine is the last degree). A great guy, very friendly. He had a live interview with Ecuador media yesterday and he became the national pride for being the first Ecuadorian to ever reach the North Pole.

This trip has given me the opportunity to meet so many exceptional people. They really inspire me and open up new horizon. I can’t think of how I can meet these people in a normal circumstances. I will have to write about all the people I met in this trip in some other posts.

I am leaving for Oslo tomorrow and stay one night there before heading back to Toronto then San Francisco. More photos and videos to be uploaded once I get better internet connection (that would be in Toronto or back in the Bay Area).

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Day After the North Pole

The first thing I can say is my body is sored, all over. I'd never done anything physically this instense. I felt like I run a marathon everyday. Those sweaty workout sessions in the Cisco gym was nothing compare to this. But I'm glad I did the workout before hand or I don't stand a chance. But even so, I am still weaker compare to the rest of the team.

Another thing is I have to say is I already miss the time on the ice. As we flew in the helicopter from the North Pole to the Barneo base camp, I couldn't help but look out the window and feel that I am missing it. The expedition was extreme, too extreme for someone like me, in any aspect but then it's quite rare to expeirence this kind of extreme, and survive it. I'm glad I did this. But if you ask me now if I jump on any opportunity to get back to the ice, the answer is no :). Not yet anyway.

The first thing I did last night was taking a long shower. Ghosh, I smelled like a pig. Wash my hair twice and my face has layer upon layer of oil :). Most people do not even brush their teeth on this kind of expedition. Every ounce of stuff counts. I slept at the hangar last night since I didn't have an accommodation. Mikhail was nice enough to let me stay at the hangar. It was nice to sleep in a heated room and on a real bed.

There are so much to talk about the expedition. In fact, I wrote diary every night, from day one to 9, almost half of the small note book. I will post them eventually. There are so many things that happened during the expedition and the satellite communication simply could not do it.

Here are a few photos during the expedition:
The tents on the ice

Me


Me lying at the exact North Pole 90 degree, and the rest of the world south of me (well, not really, at least the guy who took my photo was not :))

Thursday, April 10, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

GRTNG FR THE NORTHPOLE :)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

DIDNT WLK TIL MRNG.BTFUL DAY 4WLK.ONLY 5K 2DAY.HELI PCKUP TMR 4 NP THEN BK 2 LAND.BIG DAY.XCITD

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

HAD GD RST.WTHR NICE NOW.MB STRT WLKNG 2 CTCH UP

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

DRFT STRNG AGN 600MPH.HEAR DOGSLDGE TEAM ARND.NICE 2KNW PPL NEAR

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

EVDAY&NITE NICE DAY TIL 2DAY.FOG LOW VISI.CMP WAIT 4 BTTR WTHR.NICE&WRM@TNT

Monday, April 7, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

SWET LOTS WHLE WLKNG TNT LOOK LK LNDRY EV NITE.BOIL LOTS WTR,DRNK LK CMEL.BED SOON

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

CK MEX CHLI W BCON NOT BAD.CRVE 4 COKE WHLE WLKNG WEIRD EH.A GD AD 4 COCA

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

TUF TERRN 2 NAV LOTS RDGES.WLK 7K WO DRFT.29K FR NP.ALMST NO DRFT.2 BIZ NOT BAD AS THOT :)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

CKNG DNNR BCON W NDLE.YUK BUT NEED FAT.MIX HOT PWR DRNK CHOC &MLK BUT MLK TSTE LK CHEES ANOTHR YUK :)

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

CORCTN YESDAY WLK 12K WO DRFT.2DAY SLWER DRFT 300MPH.WLK 7KM W DRFT.32K 2 NP

Saturday, April 5, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

YESTRDAY WLK 1.5K.2DAY 7K NOT MCH DRFT.LOONG DAY.MAYB BTTR TMR.DNNR & BED SOON

Friday, April 4, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

GEORGE(G) JOIN TEAM GRT HLP.HELI DRP@89 D40'.CLD BUT MOVNG HLP STAY WRM

Thursday, April 3, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

MCKUP TRP SURND.WAS GOOD,QUITE TIRING.WIL B INTRESTNG NXT 7DAY.HAD GOOD INSTNT MEAL.DRFT FSTER 14KM SINCE YESTRDAY.STRT@ICE@11AM TMR

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

SLEEP OK.STIL DRFT SOUTH FST.STAY@BASE EXPL AREA 2DAY.-35 & WNDY.STAYIN WRM

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

SMS from 881641452516@msg.iridium.com

ARV@BARNEO SAF.AM GOOD.-35.ICE DRFT SOUT FST.WHE 2STRT TMR NOT KNOW.AMZN SCNE

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Da Nguyen Code

Ok, that’s too much :)

Just wanted to say from tomorrow everything will be short, no internet to blog properly. Again, I will try to shorten everything due to the limit of the message from satellite phone. Here’s some sample:
CH = Christoph
SG = Sergei
TMR = tomorrow
EZE = easy
WRM = warm
CLD = cold
CLDY = cloudy
STRM = storm
TNT = tent
And pretty much some of the conventional way. Have fun decrypting :)

Ski the Last Degree, Here I Come

I am officially excited.

Yes, we are going to the North Pole, on schedule too. April 2 is the day. Everything is confirmed yesterday after the meeting at the Radisson hotel with Victor.

There was so much uncertainty past few days regarding when we can depart and how many people are going, etc. Last night we know what we will be doing. For the 9 day expedition that I participate, there's only 3 of us including the guide. Christoph Hobenreich (http://www.franzjosefland.com/center_frame.htm), an experience professional polar guide, who has lead 10 polar expeditions and many other mountain climbing will be my guide. Sergei who is a deputy director for a medical supply company is another participant. In the other post I mentioned Mikhail said there was 12. Well, they had been trying to merge our group with an Indian navy group, but they did not like that, so we only have two. The journalists are also participating in an expedition but much shorter one, one day or two on the ice. Vicaar invites them to participate to get some publicity. This is pretty much paid for but they can write pretty much anything, be that good or bad, about what they learn from the trip. I would love to get paid to go to the North Pole.

Since there only two of us for the 9 day expedition, the training/mockup trip around Longyearbyen is cancelled, instead we will do it at the base camp Barneo. And you might have guessed, no fitness assessment test either. What if both of us fail :). Actually, the way it works is this is more tourist oriented, although the 9 day is physically demanding. Those journalists didn't even step on a tread mill, or even know what to prepare, but their trip is only one day.

So this is the plan for the expedition:
- We fly to Barneo tomorrow (April 2)
- We stay there one day, training, and camp outside
- The following day we fly to a location a little less than one degree in the North East and start skiing from there
- We will reach to the Pole a week or so later
- If the nature stop us from reach there by skis after a week (say the ice drift backward or some storms, etc), we will have the helicopter take us there.

The base camp is currently at south of 89 and the ice drifting south fast. So Christophe decide to move to North East a little less than one degree and with the drifting ice to take advantage of the drifting.

Today we went to the airport warehouse again to pack our sledges, pick up food (ghosh, I can't wait to eat those yummy dried food they provide - NOT :)) and test out some of the hardware such as stoves, fuel, tents, and sleeping bags. Before going there, Christoph checked out my gears. He said I am very well equipped. And he's ok with the food I bring with me. We will definitely exchange some of the stuffs we are not going to eat with something more swallowable. It was fun to prepare for this. It seems everyone there is busy. Met more people, one Spanish guide who will lead a group of Spaniards from the last degree (like my program), an Indian navy team (which I video taped them), Frank a British journalist and George. George is a very special character. He's going this time to the pole unguided just to test out his gear. The grandeur he is looking for is crossing the Artic Ocean from Russia to Canada via North Pole, solo, unsupported, and he has to swim too. No one has done this kind of expedition before. He tried this once but failed after 5 days so he has to try it one more time in Jan 2009. Apparently this will cost something like 170K euros. This time it is a test, he has to pay 12K just to have Vicaar just for the flight, no supply or equipment. So the cost for my trip isn't much more than what he pays, but I have pretty much my private guide and all needed the equipments.

Speaking of polar guide, I like Christoph. He's really professional. Maybe a little too professional, but maybe because we just met. We have more than a week working together, day in day out, lots of time to get to know each other. I observe him as we pack, he's a little more of a perfectionist too. Maybe it is Austrian thing (or German - they're known for being perfectionists). Sergei, on the other hand, is totally unprepared it seems. He is still in business mode. He has some paper/docs with him and still calls people at work. Hopefully he doesn't expect we do everything for him. This ain't a regular vacation or even a safari in Africa. He doesn't speak much English, but enough to converse. He has two daughter, one is 6 month old. Christoph prepped us last night, stating all the risks, challenges and all, but one thing he is really make us feel safe and show his resposibility is he said he has a family and his children are looking forward to meet him. And another thing is missing a finger (by frostbite) is not worth the trip, that means our safety and health is the priority. I'm glad he leads us and there are only two of us for him to be responsible for. But on the other hand, I would love to have more people on the trip. To me, I am ready to take on whatever challenges this expedition brings, but one thing I'm not sure is how I will do to make this more enjoyable, in term of human interaction. After all, you're stuck with two other strangers for 10 days. Christoph and I can definitely get along fine but Sergei is a little different. This is a team and we should work as a team. The success of the expedition depends on the team. Anyway, will see how everything turns out. Maybe I'm way too sensitive about this. But I wouldnt mind to have those journalists in my team :). They're fun to talk to.

Oh, Mark and Emma-Kate are going to video interview me today. Boy, I look ugly :) but they said they want real people who are going on the real trip, not like theirs abd they want to interview me in a guest house not at a nice hotel :). Well, that's me at this time, looking ugly, staying at a guesthouse sharing room with 3 other strangers (who luckily don't snore at night so far :)) trying to get everything ready for a biggest trip of my life.

Lights, Action!

Eventful Day

Yesterday was an eventful day. Started out as my glacier caving trip (I might as well do something while I was here waiting) got cancelled. I decided to walk around to "downtown" strip for lunch. Everyday I always find some "excuse" for myself to go somewhere. And as I go, I carry my backpack loaded with stuffs (including the CCNA book :) -- it's been useful as a dumb bell so far LOL). The backpack is bcak breaking heavy, but i need it to stay in shape as a form of exercise. Not sure if it's a good one but there is no stairs master here. Anyway, after the lunch, Mikhail, Sacha (a driver for Vicaar) and I went to the airport to pick up my guide Christophe (Austrian), my partner for the trip Sergei (from St Petersburg) and two journalists Mark (from Italy) and Emma-Kate (an aussie). We picked them up and stopped by the hangar (more like a warehouse) meeting with Victor and some other people then we off to our hotels/hostels. Mark and I then went on the afternoon ice caving trip for 3 hours. After we finished, we rushed to the Radisson SAS hotel for our first meeting with the team for the expeditions. The day finished at 11-something pm for me.
Me riding the snowmobile