Tuesday, March 01, 2011

December 2010

Antarctica, it is becoming clear to me, is at the end of the earth. I have flown from San Francisco, California to Lima, Peru to Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile to Puenta Arenas, Chile and finally to King George Island in the South Shetlands to arrive in Antarctica.

There were a few other options for getting there that I considered. The most popular one is to get to Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world in Tierra Del Fugo in Argentina and board a ship. But two weeks ago things looked treacherous in the notorious Drake Passage, which divides Antarctica from Tierra Del Fugo at the southern tip of South America. The Clelia II had run into thirty-foot waves and floundered as this dramatic video showed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkPVwE8XQCs ). Wharton Leadership Ventures from my alma mater, The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania offered a spot on their student expedition to Antarctica. But the prospect of camping on a glacier - a moving sheet of ice, no matter how slowly it was moving - and discussing leadership through the examples of legendary explorers Shackleton and Edmundsen was not appealing. Or I could fly or sail directly to one of the many research stations all over Antarctica, including a few on the South Pole. But that would have meant volunteering at the research station for six months as my colleague from Google, Pablo Cohen, was doing at the McMurdock research station. So it was that a rugged sea captain called Ben Williams from Puerto Williams in Chile found me a seat on a six-person plane flying to King George Island.

Antarctica has always held endless fascination for travelers and explorers. It is the largest wilderness on the planet and is owned by nobody. Despite its abundance of natural and mineral riches, somehow a group of otherwise quarrelsome superpowers have agreed to share the continent and use it only for peaceful and scientific purposes. This is a land covered by a sheath of ice so thick that you can drill for five miles before you get to the actual continental surface; a brooding mass of land with an ethereal silence, larger than Australia and Europe combined, tucked away out of sight on most maps and globes at the arbitrarily defined bottom of the world; and a land of endless sunlight and glistening glaciers during summer and a haunting black night throughout the winter.

As our tiny aircraft touches down on a gravel strip piloted expertly by two retired Chilean air force pilots, I look around the diverse group of five other people making this trip with me and wonder what drew them here. Michelle is in her final year studying human biology at Stanford University and lives just five miles from where I live in the San Francisco bay area; she is here on a quest to get to all the seven continents. Slava, a taciturn Russian man, is here to trace the footsteps of his parents; his deceased father, a Russian scientist and metrologist, had spent six years on different Russian research stations in the Antarctica and his mother had lived for one year. Slava himself has lived for eleven years in the Arctic.

Then I discover even more unique ways to see the Antarctic: a few minutes behind us lands a larger chartered plane and out tumbles a friends and family group led by someone from New York. They are boarding a private yacht that will take them around Antarctica. The yacht itself has been brought in from Fort Lauderdale, Florida by a South African captain who was to hand over command to an Ice Captain more familiar with the Antarctic waters. I do a quick math on what the trip must be costing them and the figure of half a million US dollars emerges. Hedge fund manager is what I conclude; who else could spend that kind of money on a summer vacation?

At the runway we are met by a grizzled man with a long white beard looking every bit the part of an Antarctic explorer. If you were making a movie about the legendary Ernest Shackleton, this is who central casting would send you. But Alejo Contreras Staeding is not just any Antarctic explorer; he is a living legend. For the last thirty years he has spent every summer on Antarctica, making him the one human (living or dead) who has spent the most time on the continent. He has made seventeen trips to the South Pole including one in 1989 when he walked all the way to the South Pole from the Weddell Sea, becoming the first South American to do so. For 97 days he pushed uphill on cross-country skis along with Indian Army officer Col. Bajaj, the first Indian to walk to the South Pole. They hauled behind them on sleds all the supplies they needed for their trip. He says that more than the physical endurance, the biggest challenge was mental in trying to deal with the monotony of plodding through an endless flat expanse of white for more than three months.

One of the people visiting with us is Josephine, Alejo’s 22-year-old daughter who is spending the summer with her Dad on the continent. She is a psychology student at the University of Chile in Santiago. I suggest to her gently that for her research thesis, perhaps she should study the psychological makeup of her father and other similar explorers and what gives them such remarkable sustaining power.

Alejo has also climbed Mount Vinson Massif - the tallest mountain on Antarctica - sixteen times including six times with celebrated climber Rob Hall, who died on the Everest summit (made famous in the book and movie, Into Thin Air). As if that was not enough, in 1994, Alejo also sailed around the entire continent in a clockwise direction against the wind, which no sane sailor would wish to do. I am endlessly fascinated as I listen to this living legend the entire trip.

From the Magellan Straits to the South Pole, when someone needs help of any kind from logistics to rescue operations they seem to call Alejo. The Chinese research station is nervous about their vice premier visiting in three days and want a solution to house the 43-person entourage in case the weather turns bad and they are not able to fly out; they turn to Alejo. The expedition from The Wharton School needs a large quantity of food and fuel; Alejo has organized it. Late at night, although the midnight sun is still bright in the Antarctic summer, the radio crackles with the call signature “Big Fish” wanting to talk to Alejo. It is a crew member from the Hedge fund manager’s yacht, whose signature is Big Fish - with no trace of irony. So, even in the Antarctic where Orca, Minca, and humpback whales roam freely, hedge fund managers from New York like to be known as the big fish. “Big Fish” wants an option if they decide not to tow a smaller motorboat behind their yacht; again, Alejo is the man they turn to.

Two sailors from the Chilean Navy take us on a Zodiac to a beach at nearby Ardley Island where there is huge Penguin colony and hatchery. Things look busy in the colony. All the adult penguins I am watching have arrived here after swimming thousands of miles from places like the Falkland and Christmas Islands. With uncanny natural instincts as perfect as a human-built GPS, they return to the same place where they nested before.

Penguins are monogamous birds and Dad arrives first to get the nest ready before Mom finds her way here swimming on her own the entire journey. This is when things can begin to get a bit nasty as neighbors encroach on the nests or steal stones from them to build their own. There is much puffing of chests, expressions of indignation, tut-tutting, and penguin name-calling before it is all settled and the chicks arrive. Penguins are hopelessly devoted to their young, with either the Dad or Mom being constantly present and holding their young close to their chest with their flippers while the other parent is out on their fishing shift. After all, when your nest is a pile of rocks on an exposed beach or rock with predators circling overhead, you are a sitting duck - or in this case a sitting penguin. A momentary lapse of attention could mean your chick disappears in an instant.

The top of the hill on Ardley Island is packed with resident penguins; a virtual skyline of penguins nesting in a neat row. This is a particularly puzzling decision because there is plenty of space on the beach below; sure, the view is spectacular and having a summerhouse on top of the hill overlooking the ocean and bobbing icebergs must buy you status back in the penguin society on the Falkland Islands, but you are now an even worse sitting penguin with no place to hide your chicks from predators. Moreover, penguins, while graceful swimmers in the water, are terrible walkers. Five million years of evolution and they still have not mastered it; with their fins spread out for balance and their underbelly thrust out like badly anchored diapers, they waddle clumsily around the beach on their webbed feet looking very much like two-year-olds lurching around their parents’ living room.

As I look up the hill to a penguin path leading to the top of the ridge, it looks like a freeway at rush hour in Los Angeles. Penguins are waddling up and down ungracefully all day long heading down to the water to fish and heading back up to relieve their husband or wife from babysitting duties. Along the way they stop and exchange news and gossip with a friend going the other way. Perhaps whispering scandalously “Puffy has been hanging out with the hot Emperor penguin who just arrived from South Georgia”.

Across from Ardley Island on the other side of the bay we are in, a 60-storey tall sheet of ice glistens menacingly back at us; a really massive ice cube that could be 5 million years old. All the glaciers on Antarctica between them account for the largest collection of fresh water on the planet. I want to get close to the glacier. but as the wind whips up we have a small crisis when our engine dies and the Chilean sailors work hard to get it restarted. They turn the nose of the Zodiac back to the base; weather changes quickly in the Antarctic and winds can whip up to a speed of 300Km per hour. Instead, the sailors take us to the Navy clubhouse and away from the roar of the elements. Here, they graciously serve us hot coffee and biscuits and ceremoniously present us with certificates that show we landed in Antarctica. Given the bleakness of the social life in an Antarctic base, new visitors are a welcome relief to them.

Back on King George Island, after hiking down a field of ice I find myself on a beach overlooking Nelson Island that looks neatly sculpted and thrust out of the ocean like a dining table for the Antarctic gods. A big colony of Weddell seals and elephant sea lions are tanning on the beach and moulting. If you think penguins are awkward walkers, seals and sea lions do an even more terrible job of dragging their fat bodies along the sand. Yet still they choose to drag themselves as far as half a mile from the water. Small cliques lie together on the beach pressing their bodies tightly, scratching each other with their flippers and looking like the poster children of fat, sloth, and laziness. They allow us quite close to them, having no predators on land. Apparently their reserves of fat (for the long winters with no food) also act as a kind of protection - land-based animals don’t want to eat a sea lion rich in fat and end up with a clogged artery.

China is an economic and industrial powerhouse. This may seem out of context, but I reach this conclusion while in Antarctica. We get invited to the Chinese research station on King George Island thanks to Alejo’s connection and because one of the members of our small group is a venture capitalist from Beijing. The newly built Chinese research station and aptly named Great Wall Base is a monument to the country’s industrial machine: it is breathtaking in scale and impressive in its organization. The base is a beehive of activity, with young Chinese geologists, meteorologists, biologists and oceanographers buzzing around. The chefs are whipping up delicious Chinese cuisine in their kitchens and the leaders of the station are in a frenzy. Two days later, a Chinese vice premier who is also the highest ranking woman in the Chinese government, and a 42-person entourage of Government officials are arriving to inspect the station.

Mr. Shiu, the head of the base, on deputation from the Polar Research Institute in Shanghai, has many questions for Alejo: “What is the weather going to be on Saturday? Can we house the delegation if the weather turns bad and they are not able to fly back? Can we use your white truck as backup?” The Chinese base apparently has an impressive physical fitness center with basketball and badminton courts but, alas, we cannot see it. Having made it sparkle in anticipation of the Vice-Premier’s visit, Mr. Shiu has locked it up till her arrival. No time for fun and games for the Chinese scientists. The conference room has been made ready more than three days in advance with nameplates in beautiful Chinese calligraphy already set up in front of each chair. Perhaps most impressively, an auditorium with a lectern and Chinese flags on the stage has been erected. No doubt the Vice-Premier will stand there and thank the Great Wall Base researchers for sacrificing a year of comforts to support research in Antarctica and to work hard for the glory and greatness of China. I remind myself that I am witnessing all this in the Antarctic frontier and not in The Great Revolution Chinese Comrades and Friendship Hall somewhere in XinJiang province.

When I step outside the cluster of buildings that form the Great Wall base, our Chinese guide leads us to two carved stone dragons brought from China presumably to protect the base. The smell of Chinese food is heavenly. The feeling is almost like walking through any Chinatown in the world – San Francisco, Vancouver, Calcutta, or Jakarta. Just like in most countries I have visited, I realize there is now a Chinatown in Antarctica and soon it will be mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide.

The Russian research station called Bellinghausen meanwhile looks eerily quiet, as if it has seen its glory days and is now hanging on to its badge of honor as the oldest research base in Antarctica. I find it puzzling that the two bases – Chinese and Russian - are both products of communist systems and yet are so different. I only get to walk around the outside of the Russian base. Slava is the only person invited to visit inside and later he comes back to report that pictures of his father are still on the walls inside the base. He even spoke to one scientist who had worked with his father in Antarctica many years ago. As I ask Slava about his visit he is visibly emotional.

The Russian base is dominated by a Russian Orthodox Church on top of a hill overlooking the entire cluster of research stations on King George Island. It comes complete with a Russian Orthodox priest brought in from Russia. A tiny but magnificent structure, it is made entirely of logs of wood, with no nails used in its construction and anchored by chains that rise to the roof to keep it stable in the fierce Antarctic winds that could blow it away like a paper bag. There is something delightfully ironic about the presence of the Church. I don’t think of Russians at large as particularly religious people. This is what I would expect from a group of devout Ecuadorean catholic immigrants in California or a group of Hindu migrant workers from around Varanasi being brought to Fiji by the British. But a group of rational Russian Scientists wanting their own church in a remote research station in the Antarctic is an unexpected twist.

There is anxiety I have about how Antarctica - the last pristine place on earth - could be destroyed carelessly by us humans as we have done so with such ferocity and talent elsewhere in the world. All these permanent settlements mean that we have to cart in so many things from outside and much like the ethos of Burning Man are expected to cart it all out with no trace left behind. As a monument to how humans easily fail at these things, two rusty Chilean amphibious vehicles sit in the middle of the bases. Originally Russian built, Chilean dictator Pinochet purchased them and they ended up in Antarctica for usage here. When they broke down, the friendly Russians from the nearby base offered their help but to no avail; the amphibious vehicles sit exactly where they broke down. The intent was to ship them back to Chile on a cargo ship, but ten years later they sit there rusting - an eyesore and a painful reminder of our power to add ugliness to our beautiful natural gifts. Still, I have a sense of hope. Since western man first set foot on Antarctica, and the Antarctic treaty came into force in 1961, nation states have largely respected it, using the continent for scientific and research purposes, leaving its mineral wealth alone, working hard to preserve its pristine environment and mostly cooperating with each other.

When our small plane lurches off the gravel runway in wet, windy, squally Antarctic weather, Alejo stands by himself along the runaway and waves us goodbye in an exaggerated overhead gesture. The sky is grey, cold and rainy; Antarctica is brooding and the sea looks angry. Alejo cuts a lonely, pioneer figure. While we go back to the comforts of the other world we know, Alejo looks perfectly happy and at home in one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet - and a place where he and Josephine were personally able to show us enormous warmth and hospitality.