Reflections on Antarctica

Note: this page contains some musings and thoughts about my time in Antarctica. They are bittersweet and probably not that interesting to read. But they are not the end of neither this journey, nor this journal. I didn't fly home directly after coming back from Antarctica, but spent some more time in Chile, watching penguins on Magdalena Island, walking in Torres Del Paine National Park, looking at glaciers near Puerto Natales and more. So feel free to ignore my selfish ramblings on the rest of this page and skip directly to the next part of the travelogue by clicking here.

Quote to live by

The journey of a lifetime.

Sounds great!

Sounds scary...

Because, once that's over, what's left? Is everything downhill from here? Is that the one peak that casts a looming shadow over everything I'm ever going to do now? Am I using already overused verbal imagery to fill this web page?

The year preceding this trip, I had wondered a lot about what would come after the South Pole. All my travel plans for the future ended with this trip. The South Pole journey was so far above and beyond any trip that I had ever done and will ever do, that I had no idea whether this would be my last big journey. Whether this journey was so 'ultimate' that everything else would be dull, and hence worthless by comparison.

Maybe, after this, my future vacations would consist of renting a house on a beach or in the woods somewhere, sitting in the sun, reading books, walking around in the afternoon and relaxing for three weeks.

Or maybe I would have finished my 'ice phase' and seek out other kinds of places. India? China? Russia? Never been there. Should I go there?

Or did I need to go to the North Pole now, which was all that was left?

And was I just 'checkmarking'?

I used that term quite a lot of times down there. Mostly talking about the Seven Summits climbers. (The 'Seven Summits' are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents [there's some discussion what actually defines a continent here, but I don't want to go into that] and there are quite a few people who climbed all seven of them or plan to do that.) And the 'Grand Slam' people - those who do the Seven Summit and both Poles.

While not on the same level, in the past I had travelled to Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Islands, Scotland, Norway, Svalbard, Sweden and Finland. Making my way across the Arctic destinations. Was going to the South Pole just striking another polar destination from the list? Did that mean that I had to do northern Russia and the North Pole now to be done with the list? Should I get a new list? Should I go back to the beginning of the list and start again?

Should I stop worry about putting vacations in some kind of conceptual frame, as if I had developed some grand plan fifteen years ago instead of taking it one trip at the time? (And the list above is quite misleading anyway - it leaves out lots of non-polar destinations from the Jordan desert and the suburbs of Tokyo to the sandstone formations in Utah or the beaches of Tasmania.)

But, regardless of this being silly worries, I didn't have any idea on what to do after the Antarctic.

I still don't know what to do next, but I have more of an idea now. Going to the South Pole was clearly 'checkmarking'. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. It was the greatest experience of my life, but I feel no need of ever doing it again. (It was a perfect experience and doing it again could only be disappointing. It couldn't be a better trip and even if it was as good as this one, some excitement would be lacking. [On the other hand, if someone offered me a second trip to the South Pole, right now and here, I'd be gone in minute. The fact that it wouldn't be as good as the first time does not mean that it's not worth doing again.])

But the more important (and surprising) part for me was how much I enjoyed being in Patriot Hills. I had been standing out there in the wind, looking at the landscape for hours and kept loving that. To a certain extend, I was standing there to find out when I was going to have enough of it. When it would be boring, cold, miserable and I would go back to the tents, sit down, read, write and think of getting home. But that never happened. And while I had been 'checkmarking' in the past, I also re-discovered why I had done that in polar places. I really love the sight of snow and ice. And I enjoy being in such a landscape. Seeing the 'The Wave' in Utah or watching whales in New Zealand or a lunar eclipse in Zambia were awesome sights, but not even close contenders to just standing there in Antarctica and seeing the snow drifting towards me from the mountains.

And, as far as future travel plans go, having been to the South Pole is not even remotely the big damper that makes everything look small and insignificant and not worth doing. It's more like a summit, which helps you to get a better look of the terrain you're going to go through. I guess that future travels will be a lot like the last day in Antarctica. The big goal is reached and the worries are gone and you can just enjoy yourself and do stuff you like, not caring on whether something specific will happen or not. It's liberating. Right now, I don't care much on whether I have been somewhere before and should go to a 'new' place instead. There are no unchecked boxes left, so I can throw the list, which never really existed in the first place, away and can do stuff I enjoy, like standing outside and looking at snow and ice, even if it does not look very exciting to anyone else.

(No unchecked boxes? What about the North Pole and Siberia then? Well, if I ever get the money to do that, I'd like to go to the North Pole, but that will really just be 'checkmarking'. But, unlike the South Pole, it's not really a place, there's nothing interesting there and it would really just for being able to say that I have been to both ends of the Earth. If I could do it, I would, but if it doesn't happen, it's not much of a disappointment. And Siberia? I don't think I'll ever go there.)

Anyway, the summary of all this is that the one big trip was not that overwhelming that everything else would be meaningless. It was more a trip that made me aware of what kind of travel was meaningful to me.

What else did I notice while being down there?

I don't miss things when I'm on vacation. Sometimes you hear people returning from holidays and they tell you how much they were looking forward to getting back to 'real coffee' or 'wholemeal bread' or something else that they couldn't get on the trip. I'm surprisingly (at least it surprised me) good with living with "what's there". Ok, it was a 'polar luxury' trip with sushi and champagne, big tents and mattresses to sleep on, so I'm not talking about any sort of hardship here. And it was just a bit more than a week anyway. But that's not the point. The point is that I don't mind living in (admittedly luxurious) local conditions and won't get distracted by longing for anything I can't have right now. Like a notebook, an Internet connection, a flush toilet or a shower. Sure, once being back at the hotel, it was nice taking a shower again, but I while being at Patriot Hills, I didn't really miss having one.

What does that say about me? Nothing relevant, I'm afraid, but it was something I noted with other people that didn't happen to me.

I also realized quite clearly that I'm a tourist. Even on a trip like this, which is quite unusual, I have no illusions of being an explorer or adventurer or something even close to it. After getting back from the pole, someone said something along the lines: "Now we got a bit of an idea on what Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton have been through." And my immediate reaction was: No, we don't. We've been sitting in a warm plane, with a medic and emergency equipment nearby. At the South Pole we've never been away more then a hundred meters or so from a well equipped, safe and warm station. Or the plane as a safe shelter. Someone told me, after I went topless at the South Pole, "that was a brave thing you did", but I knew it wasn't. I wouldn't have done that somewhere 'out there'. I only did that (or wearing a t-shirt at New Year's Eve) when I knew that the next warm place was only a couple of steps away.

Those people doing the 'Last Degree' (or the Norwegians, skiing the last eight degrees), they may have a bit of an idea of being on an adventure, but even they can, in case of trouble' just pull out the sat-phone and call in an evacuation plane (most of the time). And they know the way. It's been all done before. So even for them it won't be quite the same feeling as Amundsen had, but they were much closer. For us, going to the South Pole was about as tough as taking the train to work. (And, I suspect, less dangerous.) But that's not meant negatively. It was more fun that way. But I won't pretend, especially not to myself, to be more than a tourist, being along for a fun ride.

I also don't possess the sufficient determination to change my life radically. While being down there and talking to Mike Sharp, on of the owners of ALE/ANI for a while (well, more listening than talking to him - I was to awestruck to ask the questions I wanted to ask), I considered asking him about a job down there. Wouldn't have happened anyway (mostly because I don't have any skills that would be useful on the ice - there's not much call for a programmer in residence), but I didn't even ask. It has also something to do with something I once read in an interview with someone at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic). They get a lot of letters of people with no previous experience in computer animation, wanting a job at ILM, since it would be 'so cool' to work there and they are 'real fans'. They are very enthusiastic, willing to work hard and all that, but that just isn't sufficient for the job. What is required is being qualified for the job, not just wanting to have it.

Wanting to be in Antarctica is good. But it's no qualification. I'm old enough to realize that. And I wanted to avoid acting equally silly.

But I wonder, whether I would have asked twenty years ago. Asking someone what qualifications would be needed to work for ANI and spend the next year working very hard on acquiring those.

But, in the end, I'm just a tourist. Getting into a strange environment, fantasizing about giving everything else up and just staying there, but finally getting on the plane and returning to normal life.


I have never regretted doing so as much as on this trip.

And if there would ever be the (admittedly, completely unlikely) need to install an UPnP media system in the tents and have somebody on site to perform server modifications on the fly, I wouldn't, tourist mentality or not, even hesitate for a second to apply for the job.

Or, if for some reason, they needed someone to winter in the ice cave or the hangar at Patriot Hills and decided to make a lottery among their customers to find someone willing to do that, I would go at a moment's notice. Never been anywhere that felt as 'right' for me as Antarctica (and it's a pity that I'll probably never get to go there again). Though it's still better to have been there, even for a short time and not being able to go back, than never having been there at all. What's the proverb? "It's better to have loved and lost..."

And there was one more thing I learned in Antarctica...

(And here comes the pathetic, overdone part I was dreading since I started writing this page.)

I learned that you can fall in love with a continent.

Don't know how else to put it, put when coming back to Chile, I was pretty much lovesick for Antarctica.

I felt emotionally raw.

I didn't listen to any songs while being on the ice, but for the first couple of days, I couldn't hear any song (love song or otherwise), which didn't remind me in some way of Antarctica and brought me close to tears. (This was not a good thing while driving.) I don't think I have ever been that strongly emotionally affected by anything.

It also spoiled the next couple of days somewhat. I was moping a lot about not being in Antarctica anymore, and while I was seeing places that would have been a highlight on any other vacation, I was just standing there, thinking "this is nice, I should really be enjoying this, but *sigh*, it's not Antarctica". So much about 'not missing things' while being on vacation. I missed Antarctica a lot.

But enough of this and onwards to those things I saw in Chile. The link to that is only a few lines away now...

Closing this topic, I just want to add one more bit about the trip to Antarctica and the South Pole. There is a song by U2 with the title "I still haven't found what I'm looking for".

I, after Antarctica, have.



A year after standing at the pole, I have written a sort of postscript to the journey. It's mostly more of the same stuff, but written with a bit more distance. If you like 'blog' style selfishness, read views from a year later.

I also wrote some reflectons about how much of a change the trip made (or didn't make) exactly a decade after standing at the South Pole.

If you want to read more about the trip and what I did in Chile, go onwards to the penguins at Magdalena Island.

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