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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Epilogue of One Year at the South Pole

I have been back home for one month now and it is time to close this blog with the last few reflections of my year spent at the bottom of the world.  The memories and emotions are still fresh in my mind, and it is difficult at this point to sort through them and say what will be the legacy of this amazing experience.  As the days and weeks go by, some memories fade away; others become more vivid.  It will be those memories that are vivified by the passing of time that will define the legacy of these twelve months at the Pole.  Since returning home, a day has not passed without me thinking about the South Pole, thinking about my friends still there, imagining what it would be like to still be there.  Of all my memories, the ones that are most deeply etched in my mind are those of the polar night.  The going out to ski in the middle of winter, when it is pitch black, when it is even hard to follow a flag line, only to see the path suddenly illuminated by an aurora.  And then stopping breathless for a few minutes to look at the ephemeral display of lights, only as long as the -80F chill allows me to stop.  Or the going out with the full moon to enjoy the clear view of the plateau extending forever, while imagining myself occupying a unique location in the cosmos, in relation to our planet and the stars, hundreds of miles away from the closest living organisms, where the only noise that can be heard is the screeching sound of the skis on the crusty ice.  And then there are the memories of the people, some of the most unique and extraordinary characters in the world, who challenge the common wisdom and reject the roads already travelled to seek the novelty, the unknown, and the adventure.  And so it is that I want to close this blog with a few photos taken with some of my fellow Polies, friends for life, and, because I don't ever want to lose it, with my exercise log.

I owe it all to Al, the South Pole Science Manager, my boss, who called me out of the blue in the spring of 2010 and made me the offer that I could not refuse. In this photo we are standing in front of the electronics rack in the Space Weather Laboratory at the South Pole Station in December 2010, a few days before Al went back home and left us behind to watch over the instruments for the winter.  

Another special person that I enjoyed working with is Martin, the South Pole Summer Station Manager.  We took this photo together on the deck of the station in November, a few days before I went back home.  To me Martin symbolizes the spirit of the South Pole.  I believe he loves the station more than anyone else in the world and he cares about each of us as if we all were his children.  He is a role model that I can only aspire to.  I hope I will see Martin again, and I hope it will be at the South Pole Station again one day.

We all pass the baton to someone else before we leave the station.  This is formally called the turnover, when we train our replacement, typically for about one week.  My replacement was the same person who had trained me the year before, so I did not really have to train him.  My real turnover was with Carlos, the ice cube scientist who wants to run outside all winter long, like I did.  We had exchanged email before he arrived, and it was a great pleasure to finally meet him on the ice and pass onto him my little experience and few tricks learnt from running outside in the middle of winter.  We took this photo in the Science Lab on Nov 8, before we went out to run the length of the skiway together, my last run at the Pole; Carlos' first.  Unfortunately it was a windy day, and we had to fight a bone chilling 15-knot headwind for the 2.5-mile trip back to the station, but it was our one and only opportunity to run together, as I was due to fly out only a few hours later.  Good luck, Carlos!  I wish you a great winter!

The summer was a very busy period for me and for most of us on station, but winter is typically pretty mellow.  When all of the scientific instruments were working fine, I could do my work in just a couple of hours per day.  That left a lot of time to kill.  Most of us winterovers develop personal projects to fill that time.  For some the project is picking up a new hobby, for other it is learning a new skill, like making movies, taking and editing photos, knitting, learning some new software, playing games, or just watching lots of movies and reading books.  My winter project developed quite unexpectedly.  It turned out to be my outdoor exercise.  I have never kept a log of my exercise but, for some reason, I started one at the South Pole.  Initially I was just happy to be able to run on the ice a few miles while training for the race around the world on Christmas day.  I started a ski club in the summer just to make friends and have fun, with no ambition, as I am not really a skier.  I had no idea that I would continue running and skiing through the winter.  As temperatures got colder and colder towards the end of summer every day I thought that I was doing my last run and that I wouldn't be able to go the next day if it got colder, but then every day it got a bit colder I learnt a new trick.  Every time that I would get a little frostbite I would learn how to protect that area better, and by the beginning of April I figured that there was no stopping, and I would make the outdoor exercise my winter project.  It turned out to be a very demanding project, as I would spend an average of three hours a day outside, one hour running and two hours skiing.  Considering the time it takes to get ready to go out in -80F in the winter, and the time it takes to warm back up and to eat enough food to replace the calories lost during the workout, I ended up devoting a good six hours a day to my exercise.  I ended up traveling a total of 2,916 miles (4,692 km) on the ice: 1,552 miles on skis, 1,297 miles running, and 66 miles on the bicycle.

On Dec 10 Pablo, who was working at the IT helpdesk at the South Pole Station during the summer, invited me to his house in Palo Alto for a gathering of some of his musician friends.  What a surprise to see Rickey, fellow marathoner, the winner of the race around the world, and of the South Pole Contingency Marathon.  I had not seen them since they had left the station in mid-February.  Pablo has now gone back to his job at Google, while Rickey has turned into an ultramarathoner, having already won a 75-mile race in Canada as well as the race up Mt. Washington.  He has moved to San Francisco, where he is training for his next races.  I am sure there will be more of these reunions.  Left to right Rickey, me, and Pablo.

On December 18 there was another reunion, this time with Linda, with whom I spent so many hours skiing during the summer.  She was our HR manager.  She sent me an email that she was in the area, so we got together for dinner in Newbury Park with some of her girlfriends.  She just came back from the Annapurna trek in Nepal, and she is now on a roadtrip with her motor home to visit her children and grandchildren for the holidays.  We had a wonderful time.  As far as me, I found a dream job, working with a great team of people on a fascinating technology in Camarillo, halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.  I will be enjoying warm climates, and the soft sand of Southern California beaches will replace the polar plateau for my morning runs.  Will I ever go back to the South Pole?  I always say that life is long enough to spend one year of it at the South Pole, but too short to do the same thing twice, yet ... something deep in my heart tells me that I will be back one day.


  1. Hey Marco!! I hope things are going well for you in Camarillo. I read your last post on your blog, it was nice.
    I am in Chile now> I have started my blog but won't be nearly as good at keeping up with it. My blogspot is (as I said I would send it to you when I left the Pole)but don't have another way to contact you. I look forward to seeing you in Camarillo when I stop there to see my aunt! Hugs, Holly

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