Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Rez and Missing Expedition Life

I finally come to Rez (short for Resolute) tonight. I have been on the run the last few days, except for the time being stuck in Iqaluit. It's pretty cold outside with the temperature about -30C, but feels much colder due to wind, probably below -4oC (according to the weather network it feels like -44C, not that I can tell the difference between the two).

So tonight I am staying at the Co-op, a hotel owned by Inuits. It's completely empty. I am the only guest in this hotel while the other one owned by Ozzy, a business man in Resolute, is quite packed with expedition groups to such as Eric Larsen's Save The Poles , Sarah McNair-Landry's, Catlin Arctic Survey to name a few. In a way it's good because the internet will be faster for one :) But looks like I'm going to switch hotel tomorrow. Not only I miss the expedition life and this would be a place to pseudo-live it, but I want to help out the Save The Poles team if they need me.

Past couple days have been great fun, sharing a room with Eric, Darcy and AJ in Iqaluit. It was not what I envisioned to do when I booked this trip, but it's was a nice alternative. So I have helped them with miscellaneous things like weighing and packing the food. They still have a lot to do before March 2, but from my perspective, having been with them for the last 48 hours, I see the team spirit is high and they are ready for and excited about the trip. And that's a great thing.

I wish I were part of the team. I thank them for letting me live the pre-expedition life again, with all the excitement and some nervousness about the unknowns. Also I appreciate Eric to include me in his update.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I did not plan to go Iqaluit. It was supposed to be just a stopover enroute to Resolute. I planned Resolute trip almost a year ago, even before ALE accepted me for the South Pole expedition.

Why Resolute you may ask. Well, this is the furthest point a commercial airplane can fly to in the North America. I used my Aeroplan points, for 25k miles you can fly anywhere in North America. That means it costs the same for flying from SFO to LAX or San Francisco to Resolute. Obviously I chose the furthest point to maximize my points. The ticket to go there is well over 5k from the US. But to get the ticket, you must book so far in advance, 350 days ahead to grab one of very few (if not only one) mileage tickets.

Money aside, I always wanted to visit Resolute, some of the most northern community in Canada, as you already know how much I am interested in these places. So voila, I'm on my way to the town at the tip of Canada.

So this morning I went to Ottawa airport after a night of not sleeping well because of the noise and the bad bunkbed in Ottawa Backpacker's Inn. When I was at the gate, and check out who I saw. It was Eric Larsen. That's right, the person who I was supposed to train with for my South Pole but didn't happen and we met in Patriot Hills. Well, I knew he was going to the North Pole as the second leg of his 3 poles quest for his Save the Poles project. But I did not know he might be on the same flight with me until a couple days ago when I read his blog. It was very cool to see him there, with his team mates AJ of UK and French Canadian Darcy who lives in Winnipeg.

Eric was exhausted from the long road trip from Colorado to Minnesota crossing the border to Canada and across Ontario on less traveled roads in the winter. Not a fun road trip according to him. In fact the whole team looked tired as they didn't have much sleep and lots and lots of things to take care of in short amount of time. Even AJ was the last addition to the team as Ryan Waters (who made history with Cicillie to cross Antarctica unsupported -- I had a chance to talk to them at the South Pole when our expeditions converged) decided not to come. It's amazing how they come this far, ready to hop out on the ice and start their expedition to the North Pole for 50 days (estimated).


Even before we boarded the plane, First Air personnel advised us that the plane to Resolute was cancelled and we have the choice to stay in Ottawa or fly to Iqaluit and find our own accommodation. We chose to fly.

At their Iqaluit airport, I ran into Marlin, a girl who worked at Patriot Hills. Again, I knew she was going to go to Resolute but did not expect she would be in Iqaluit, also waiting for fly to Resolute. She is a cook for the British's Catlin Arctic Survey expedition at a base camp they are going to set up just outside of Resolute. I also met Martin Hartley who is a member of this expedition.

It was a nice surprise to meet these people here. Since we're stuck here for two days (next flight out to Res scheduled for Sat at 1:30pm), I am sharing a room with Eric's team. Interestingly enough, right after our South Pole trips, I also shared the room with Eric's team (Bill and Dong) in Punta Arenas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Treasuring Antarctica

Antarctica is a truly magical place. It has the power to change or has deep effects on most people who set foot there, in many different ways.

After our return to Punta Arenas, I pretty much hung out with Dong from Eric Larsen's team, a young Chinese Canadian business man, all the way to Toronto. He told me his journey to the South Pole has changed him a lot, to be a better person.

Before coming to Antarctica this time, I am proud to say I am pretty much environmental conscious. But I am also not so proud to say it is not all about the environment, but more about my own pocket.

For the last two years since I moved into my current place, no heat or air conditioning has been used, be it in the middle of the winter (albeit winter in the bay area is not that cold) or summer (we do have some super hot days). Every night after work, only one light bulb (CFL - I wanted to change to LED but they are not bright enough) is on in my place. Besides the energy star fridge, nothing else in the house sucks electricity on a regular basis. My PG&E bills are usually less than $25/month.

As far as trash is concerned, obviously we do recycling here. I go one small little step further - only bring out recycle bin when it is really full (and that's like two or 3 months worth of recycle-able materials). Each lift from the trash truck uses some gas!

The one thing I hate to say is I am driving my car daily. California's car culture is almost impossible to get rid of. Also it would take way too long and impractical for commuting using public transportation, at least 1 hour an a half one way. I did carpool before but schedules wouldn't allow it easily. Next car I get will definitely be more environmental friendly.

Back to Antarctica, I was really glad to witness ALE's efforts to protect and impact the least to Antarctic environment. All waste, including human waste in both forms, were brought back to Chile to dump at proper place. It is very difficult just to deal with these kind of issues, let alone others such as safety for the crew and clients. Kudos to ALE.

As for us, we happily carried our faeces in the skiing journey. I never knew I could produce that much. The weight of the sleds practically didn't change much, if not slightly heavier due to the moisture in the bodily waste matter. They only changed when Tanya and John left and we got to dump all of our un-wanted onto theirs.

So I brought along with me my version of environmental message: "Treasure the Beautiful Gift from Mother Nature". As much as I treasure the place, not because I have set foot there, but also because I want to impact the least on my bank account. I hope you share the view and if not already, start to practice ways to make less dents on your own wallet, and hence environment.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New Year's Eves

I would never dream about celebrating my New Year's Eve at the South Pole, even in my wildest dream, before coming to Antarctica this time. On the departure day for Patriot Hills, I asked Nick Luis, one of the owners of ALE, what would be the chance of us being stuck at the South Pole until New Year. He was not too amused, "Are you hoping for bad weather?". Of course not but I want to know the odds and my chance to be at the South pole for New Year celebration. To be clear, my goal was anything but a celebration at the pole.

Anyway, as you all know, we reached to the South Pole on New Year's eve New Zealand timezone (Dec 30 Chilean time).

That "night", it was so cold, -40 with windchill. Despite the bitter cold, a few of us, some women from the Commonwealth group, Andy and I went to the ceremonial pole. There were about 8 people already there. Those were the people who work at the station. We joined them, making a circle around the steel ball. This is no Time Square so no ball dropping at the strike of midnight. It is a steel ball that is attached to a pole permanently.

We mingled and chatted in the cold. The guys from stations were really impressed at our expeditions, especially the women team. We did not have a countdown, for some reason. We were busy chatting and forgot to do the countdown. Bummer. But when we realized it was midnight, we all said Happy New Year" and shook hands, with our gloves and mittens on. Some hugging too. After about 10 mins, we dispersed and back to our tents.

That was our New Year celebration at the South Pole - ubercold, no party, sans alcohol, very few people, and no countdown. Yet it was special. Not too many people have been at the South Pole, few of them have been at the South pole at the turn of the year, and among that, even fewer skied there in time for the midnight. I felt very privileged.

The new year did not end there. The Twin Otters came picked us up at the pole on Dec 31 Chilean time (New Year day New Zealand). By the time we got to Thiels for refueling, it was "midnight" again. As the aircraft took off, we had our champagne with the wish for a happy new year yet again. Celebrate twice has always a dream, and twice in Antarctica is even more surreal. And I was in that surrealism.

Today is Lunar New Year's day. Happy the Year of the Tiger, to those to celebrate it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Coke Ad

I am not a hardcore coke drinker. I do have crave, however, of coke once in a while mostly for its caffeine content. Especially with those greasy fast food and pizza. In my trip to the North Pole, I got this crave of cola and I blogged about it. Well, in this trip, the same thing happened again.

It’s strange that such environment, cold and all, one can think of a cold can of coke. It could have been I was overheated while skiing and hence I wanted something to cool me down. Or because I couldn’t sleep well the night before and needed some sort of jolt to keep me awake. Or it simply it was the taste of carbonated sugary brownish drink. Whatever it was, all I knew was I wanted a coke while on the ice.

And I wasn’t the only one. Andy too. He was telling me he felt like to have some of cola drink.

When we knew the plane would come to pick up John and Tanya, we actually plotted out a plan how to achieve our goal – obtain some of the magic drink! The plan was I would nicely ask the air crew if they could give us a bottle. If they refuse, we would sneak on the plane while helping load the sleds. And since we know where the food and drink area was (we flew in the same plane to the last degree), we could steal a bottle or two.

And the plane came. I executed our plan A. I asked Shaun, an ALE staff, who was flying to the South Pole to help out those groups who already reached the pole, “Hi Shaun, can I have a coke?”. He did not answered. I thought he did not hear me. He did. I was doing the loading with Andy. We both looked at each other. Time to do move on to plan B.

We did not have much time. Loading the sleds and saying good bye to Tanya and John did not take too long. Just when I thought of climbing into the plane, someone passed out one bottle of light coke. We were joyous. I turned to Andy, asking him if he wanted to drink right away as I couldn’t wait. He said let’s save it and enjoy it gradually. Great idea! After thanking Shaun and the crew for the coke, and saying good bye to the couple, we were off to ski for another few hours.

That night, after meal, we took out the bottle. As if it was precious (it was!) Luis XIII Remy Martin cognac , I carefully poured a little into our cups. We did not even drink the way we drink coke at home. We sipped it. Sip by sip. Talked over coke. For God’s sake, it wasn’t even regular coke, I thought. We made sure we did not drink all and have some for the next day, while we ski.

Before we went to bed, we strategically put the bottle on the side we knew there would be sun when we wake up. That way the drink wouldn’t be frozen.

All went well as planned. The next morning, the coke was in liquid state. We had some more of the taste-bud-pleaser fluid, and put it away in my sled and hoping it wouldn’t freeze away while we ski. Shortly before the break at noon, I took it out. Still good to drink. We again shared it and enjoyed to the last drop.

It’s only in these kind of situation that you know you take a lot of things for granted. A simple bottle of soft drink is nothing but in my trip, it was such a joy and we ridiculously treasured it. The bottle certainly had sentimental value to it now.

Not sure if this is enough to get Coca Cola to sponsor my next trip, but that’s my coke story. It’s real.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Unexpected Birthday Present

I normally do not celebrate my birthday. It's the day I officially age one more year. I don't care much about the aging part, and to me, it's just another day. In fact I almost forgot it was my birthday today until people sending me birthday wishes on Facebook and private messages.

Last week BBC Vietnamese asked me to write an article about my trip to the South Pole. I have been very busy at work as we were about to ship a new product, so I procrastinated the writing. Actually, it was more like I wrote it slowly. Not only because I didn't have much time, but also the writing was in Vietnamese. As I mentioned in some post before, I could write in Vietnamese pretty well, but it's not what I do often, and a lot of vocabulary and the writing style I have lost over the years.

So the process of writing was very slow. I had to use an online dictionary to get the exact meaning of some English words . And in a few cases, I almost gave up as I couldn't find the equivalent terms, for example, the word expose as in "expose my skin to the cold". You would think all languages should have that, right? Yes, but depends on how you use it too, at least in Vietnamese. I couldn't choose the right word for it because it would sound strange in Vietnamese, something to the extend of "display", "show" or even "strip off" which may have some negative connotation in Vietnamese, while what I was looking for was contact or tiếp xúc in Vietnamese.

Anyway, I sent them the article last night. And by this afternoon, some Vietnamese people at work forwarded me the article on BBC Vietnamese. I was surprised they would publish it so quickly. It was a sweet surprise though. I'm sure they did not know it was my birthday and I did not expect any gift. It was unexpected for both sides. And a nice one too!

Thanks for the gift and birthday wishes, everyone.

Click here for the article (if you read Vietnamese).