January Antarctica Update

McMurdo Station, Antarctica viewed from Observation Hill.

When I last wrote, I was healing from shin splints and the accident with my right foot while working at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. I am glad to report that my body has adjusted to the terrain, and the two toes have healed well. I feel stronger than ever. I am grateful. Currently, I am recovering from an upper respiratory virus that we call “The Crud.” I got it about a week ago. The virus moved into my eyes, and both eyes turned blood red like a zombie! Thankfully, I feel better than I look. I am almost completely healed. Unfortunately, viruses like this are common here. It is just part of the experience of living and working in a small, self-contained community.

Since I last wrote, we have celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day. In true McMurdo fashion, we shifted the dates to accommodate our work schedules, but we celebrated nonetheless. We feasted on Lobster tail and Filet Mignon for Christmas dinner and celebrated with Ice Stock, an outdoor live music event for New Year’s Eve. Loads of frivolity ensued, and I am happy to say I was in the thick of it. It was memorable.

The saying around the base is that Antarctica is harsh, and then it gets worse. The summer has been mild and, at times, warmer than winter in Michigan. We are enjoying the highest temperatures of the year. For the most part, temps have hovered in the upper twenties and low thirties. The warm Antarctic sun has melted the snow that accumulated over the winter. Outdoor stairwells that used to be covered in ice are now clear. On the warmest days, you can sun yourself on the loading dock for the store. Just throw down a blanket, put on some sunglasses, and read a book as if you were on a beach somewhere.

Dust and dirt are everywhere. I call the base McDurto Station. The dust gets everywhere. It coats everything. It filters into every crevasse indoors and out. The fine dirt is the one aspect of life in McMurdo that is a constant irritation. It is like a pebble stuck in my shoe. When I clean a bathroom, I am not so much cleaning toothpaste from sinks or poop freckles from toilets. Primarily, I wipe down the dust on every surface. And most of the time, the surface was just wiped down twenty-four hours ago. The amount of dirt we sweep off the floors of the highways in building 155 every day is astounding. Worse, the dust grinds into the carpet wherever there is foot traffic. It is impossible to get it out completely. Eventually, carpeted areas look like the floor of a barn. It is impossible to clean thoroughly. No matter how often I vacuum, I can never get it all out.

What ends up happening is that people stop trying to keep it clean. The standard is just to make it livable, not necessarily clean. And that is depressing. The fight to survive Antarctica has less to do with the temperatures. It is a fight to reject the status quo, to not settle for what is easy instead of what is best, to keep your head in the game, and not let the culture of McMurdo overwhelm you.

I wrote last month about the importance of controlling your attitude when everything else in your world feels out of control. If I am not careful, I can get beaten down by the culture of chaos in the administration and the culture of clutter in the living quarters. So instead of becoming irritated, I choose happiness and enjoy each day. I choose to love others, to love folks who may be beaten down and tired, to share a smile of encouragement saying, “You’re going to make it. It will be okay.” Little did I know how much this would impact my journey here.

All those little moments when I was just trying to love on people had been noted. Each small moment built upon the last until a widening influence had been realized. When I came to McMurdo, I had grand ideas about what I wanted to do in ministry, ideas based on what I had done in the past. I thought I could plant a small prayer gathering that might become a house church. But the Father God had other plans. I began to understand that all he wanted me to do was to express his love for kids who may not know him yet. Just love them. At first, honestly, I felt like a failure because everything I wanted to do for God had failed. But the Father God clearly spoke to me one day and told me I was doing exactly what he wanted me to do. Just love people. It was a disassembling of what I think ministry is and embracing the idea of a simpler version of ministry, one that is an expression of the Father’s love for his kids.

Jesus himself said two commandments mattered more than all the others. In fact, he said all the other commands hung on these two. First, I was supposed to love the Father God with abandon in such a way that it eclipses everything else in my world. To love him with such passion that nothing matters outside of that one relationship. Out of that relationship, he fills me with his love. Somehow, the Father God lives inside of me. When I am overwhelmed by his love and filled with his presence to the full, then he loves everyone around me through me. I find myself loving everyone despite how they look, what they do, what they say, how different from me they may be. I love them because they deserve to know the love of the Father. This fulfills the second command to love others as we love ourselves. I ache for them to find what I have discovered, this unfathomable relationship with the Father God that has transformed my life. And the Father loves them so much he sent his son Jesus to pay the penalty for their sin so that he could reconnect with them again. He loves them even when they turn away from him. Shouldn’t I do the same? If the Father God lives within me, is there another way?

And so, for the past few months, this is all I have done. I have cleaned toilets and loved people. And it has been the most amazing few months of my life. I have fallen in love with the people at McMurdo.

When I left home in early October, I could never imagine the events that would transpire. I was expecting to pay my dues in McMurdo for summer and winter, hoping that, possibly next year, I could get a position at the South Pole Station, the crown jewel of the USAP.

In December, I made an appointment with one of the hiring managers, asking for fifteen minutes to discuss a path forward to eventually working at the South Pole and Palmer Station. The fifteen-minute meeting lasted forty-five. I left the meeting encouraged that I might find a path to the Pole someday. About a week later, the hiring manager contacted me and asked me to stop by his office. Leadership had created a new position to winter over at the South Pole. It was not funded yet, so there was no guarantee, but if I was interested, I could sign an Alternate Contract for the position. It was a combo platter job description, both production cook and steward. While there was no guarantee the position would be funded, I eagerly signed on the dotted line. Just the possibility of going to the Pole kept me awake that night. And in a shocker moment, the next day, the position was funded! Never in my wildest imaginations could you have told me I would enter the United States Antarctica Program as a Freshman and a Janitor, and three months later, I would be transferring to the Pole, as a chef no less, but that is precisely what has happened.

I still had to have a four-person panel interview to gauge my ability to handle conflict. Wintering over at the Pole is not for that faint of heart. Forty-four people live and work at the base over ten months in some of the planet’s harshest, darkest, coldest climates. It is so severe that there are no flights in or out for eight of the ten months. Planes cannot land because their hydraulic systems would freeze. The station is entirely isolated. Even the international space station gets visits monthly. At the South Pole, you are stranded for eight dark months. One year, a mutiny broke out, and two rival gangs formed. People were afraid to walk the halls at night alone without an escort. One engineer locked himself in his room with several days’ food supply. It can get that bad. Thankfully, leadership has gotten better at weeding out potential problems in recent years. But the reality is none of us know what eight months of complete isolation can do to our mental state. So I had the interview. It went well. The Primary Contract to winter over at the Pole was extended and signed. I was going to the Pole! I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.

Now here is where it gets interesting. While I have the chef experience necessary for the position from years of doing private catering, it wasn’t my experience that led them to offer me the position. It was my attitude. Two leadership team members stopped me in the hall to congratulate me on the job. Both of them separately said that it was my positive attitude and the influence I had on the life of McMurdo that led them to offer me the position at the Pole. They felt I could have a positive impact on the staff of the Pole over the harsh winter months. Isn’t that interesting? Who knew that just loving on people could make a difference like this? And on my last day of work at McMurdo, I was surprised with a special award from the station manager for employee of the week for the love I have shown and for boosting morale across the base. All I had been doing, just loving people, had been noticed. It was humbling.

So I think I am on to something with this focus of simply loving people and letting go of what I think ministry is. I’m beginning to see that it has a wide-ranging effect. The love of the Father God is a powerful force more deeply felt than if I had done what I thought I wanted to do in ministry here. I’m pretty sure I impacted far more lives than if I had done what I used to think ministry was. It is a lesson that is profoundly affecting me personally. It is a letting go of what I think ministry looks like and embracing what the Father thinks is best.

Last Friday was my last day at McMurdo Station. I turned in my work uniforms and cleaned out my room. I packed everything into two thirty-eight-pound duffle bags. I had already mailed a couple of boxes ahead to the Pole. I packed my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather gear) and met a shuttle to take me to building 140 for passenger pickup. At 140, I changed into my cold weather gear and left the building to load up the van that would take me to the airfield. There, outside, waiting in a line stretched out into the parking lot, people from across workstations and all walks of life were standing in line, waiting to see me off. I walked down the line receiving a hug from each one, trying to hold back tears. One friend was seriously ill, but she bundled up and covered her face with a mask so she would not miss the opportunity to say goodbye. These were some of the people I had had the privilege of loving for the past three months, people that I treasure. I struggled to keep my composure. Some will stay lifelong friends. Other friendships may fade, but warm memories will resurface when I least expect them. My Jano team was at the end of the line, and their silly chants lightened the mood. These were the people the Father loved through me. This is my McMurdo family, whom I dearly love. Finally, it was one last wave goodbye as I boarded the van for the airfield and the flight to the Pole.

Our plane sat alone on the ice at Willies field, engines warming up for the journey. It was an LC-130, one of only ten C-130s in the world equipped with skis to land and take off on the ice. It is a relatively small aircraft with two prop engines on each wing. Inside, webbed seats and seatbelts lined the sides, and cargo filled the center from front to back. Four researchers, a physician, and I sat down the sides, and six Air Force personnel crewed the flight.

The flight to Pole lasted about 3 hours, covering eight hundred and fifty miles inland from McMurdo Station, which sits on the coast. It was cloudy, and I couldn’t see anything out of the tiny port lights that lined the plane’s side. It wasn’t until I felt a bump and the snow’s drag against the skis that I realized we had landed. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was at the South Pole.

I gathered my bags, tightened the hood of my big red parka, and stepped out onto the blinding white surface of the snow. On my way to the station building, two teammates met me holding a cardboard sign with “Welcome to South Pole, Tim” written on it with a black marker. I almost cried again. I just could not believe this was happening.

All of us who arrive have to isolate ourselves for a total of ten days to help stop the spread of Covid. The base has already had cases of Covid, but they are working hard to keep it from spreading further. So I am writing this from my room, where I will rest for the next ten days. For five days, I have to stay in the room except to get water, meals, bathroom breaks, or to go outside for recreation. After that, I have five days to begin assimilating but still with a mask on and social distancing where possible. All personnel rooms at the Pole are single rooms. They are tiny, with barely enough room to turn around once you enter, but it is your own space to nest in. I am enjoying it immensely. It reminds me of my tiny space when I lived on the sailboat.

The days of rest and isolation help me adjust to the altitude. The base sits at 9301 feet of elevation, but it feels more like 11,000 feet because of atmospheric conditions. Because the air is so thin, there is 30% less oxygen available. High Altitude sickness is common in the first few days. I am taking medication to prevent it, and so far, I am feeling well. Sitting around for five days is the best way to acclimate, so I am taking full advantage of that. I had a rough night my first night with a headache and insomnia, but I feel great today.

Oh, and the best part about the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station? There is no dirt outside! Ha! There are only nine thousand feet of snow and ice beneath my feet. This means there is no dirt in the station hallways or carpets. None. I am overjoyed.

Because the hiring process is such a roller coaster, I hesitated to say anything publicly until I knew the new job would go through. In fact, I still need my final medical clearance, and until that is complete, there is no guarantee that I will stay here for the winter. I expect to get approval in the new few weeks as I live here and begin working. I met with the Dentist this morning. He cleaned my teeth, replaced three older fillings with new composite fillings, and cleared me for his part. Next, I have blood labs on Monday and a chest x-ray. I am not expecting any issues, but until medical clears me, it is not a done deal.

I will live here at the base until November, a little over ten months. I will work as part of a team of three chefs preparing meals for 44 people through the winter. I will have some duties as Steward in the galley as well. For now, we still have sunlight 24/7. But the sun is already getting low in the sky, and it will dip below the horizon in a few weeks, not to reappear for six months. For six months, darkness will settle upon the continent, but a night that reveals unspeakable beauty in the galaxies with waves of aurora australis, Southern Lights, like green curtains sweeping through the sky. (Think of it as Northern lights for the Southern hemisphere.) Temperatures will average around -60 F before wind chill with occasional dips below – 100 F. The base is like a lunar facility, self-contained in one sprawling building. I will work and play inside for the most part, but of course, I will explore outside occasionally.

The good news is that these few days of isolation have given me the time and energy to bring you up to speed. There is so much more to write, and yes, I intend to write a travel memoir when this is all over. But for now, I hope this helps. Once I get back to work, there is little mental space to think about writing updates. So, again, thank you for understanding. I appreciate it.

Until next time, love the Father with abandon and selflessly love others.