Chapter 1: The Last Continent

Here we go, my final continent. I kind of can’t believe I’m already here. Standing on the dock in Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, I suddenly realize I’ll have visited six continents this year alone, and all seven in the last 14 months. So much for slow travel. Whoever said you have to stop and smell the roses clearly didn’t realize you can get roses to-go now.

It’s funny to look at these photos now. When I boarded the Ortelius, it was just some boat. But after twelve days where it was our entire world, keeping us alive in the wild Antarctic seas and serving as a crucible for our group bonding and various amazing adventures, it feels almost like looking at a photo of my childhood home.

After we returned from the trip, my friend Molly and I were walking down the street in Ushuaia when we spotted the Orteilus in the port, loading up a fresh batch of passengers for her next voyage to Antarctica.

I must have felt excited and happy for all of those folks who were about to have the same wonderful adventure we’d just had, right? Hell no! Who do those people think they are? What are they doing in our house? YOU MOTHERFUCKERS! GET OFF OUR BOAT! Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled that.

I feel the same way looking at this photo of us all of us doing a safety drill with our life vests before we left the port on our first day. When I took this photo, I didn’t know who any of these hosers were, they were just a bunch of random schmoes who had got on the same boat I did, possibly on accident. Now I look at the photo and recognize every face, and every one brings back memories. I could tell stories about any of these people, and I miss them all. I’m fascinated by how our experiences change us, how we’re a different person for taking a trip than we would have been if we had stayed home. And this photo makes me think about how I know a lot more cool people than I ever would have if I hadn’t got into travel.

I’ve always had awesome luck with the people I meet while I’m traveling, but this was an especially fun group. One of the ongoing surprises of travel for me has been that when you travel to cool, interesting places, you virtually always meet cool and interesting people there, because you’re meeting all the people who are interested in visiting cool, interesting places. If you stay home, you generally meet the people who are interested in hanging out in your home town.

Antarctica is the most expensive continent to visit, in spite of Australia’s sincere efforts to top that list. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s stories about how they’d eaten Ramen for two years to be able to afford this trip. There was a little bit of the normal filtering happening, where you expect to meet people who are doing pretty well in their careers to be able to afford a trip like this. But there were also far more people than I had expected who had done it the old fashioned way, by stealing social security checks from the elderly. No, of course I mean by living off of Top Ramen and Taco Bell hot sauce packets for far longer than any medical professional would condone.

We pulled away from land and Ushuaia disappeared into the mist behind us.




Chapter 2: The Drake

The voyage to Antarctica involves a perilous journey across the Drake Passage, a body of water connecting the Atlantic and Pacific with the Southern Ocean, a passage so hot it was named after the Canadian rap sensation. The Drake experiences some of the roughest seas on the planet and has also been heavily criticized for doing a song with Chris Brown. Travelers on their way to Antarctica wonder in hushed tones if they’re going to experience the “Drake Lake” (calm waters) or the “Drake Shake” (a dance by the Canadian rap sensation).

We’d met with the ship’s doctor the first night on the boat to determine our strategy for not barfing all over each other like the pie eating scene in Stand By Me for the entire two and a half days of the passage down. I don’t get seasick, so I turned down the medicated skin patches most were applying to prevent two days of fire-hose-like projectile vomiting. My cabinmate Dom took completely the wrong lesson from my blasé attitude and passed on both the patch and Dramamine pills as well.

On the walk back to our cabin the ship began to pitch from side to side. I tried to get a photo of how bizarre Dom looked walking down a diagonal Inception hallway and promptly fell into the wall myself the second I took my hand off the railing to get a photo.

The next morning I began to notice the barf bags placed strategically all around the boat for anyone who suddenly regretted having eaten anything ever.

I’d seriously lucked out on the cabinmate front, since Dom, a coder from Texas living in San Francisco until his stand-up comedy dreams materialized, was very fun, funniest when he wasn’t trying to tell jokes, and extremely easy to get along with. We were fast friends. I had somehow ended up in a spacious two-person cabin in spite of only having paid to share bunk beds in the bilge room with the three other smelliest people on the boat. Thanks life! Dom wasn’t nearly as lucky, as he had been led astray by my “We don’t need no stinking patches!” insouciance and woke up the next morning to the sound of himself barfing his everloving brains out.

It turned out we were getting the full, adult version of the Drake Passage, as the ship bucked like a horse nonstop over twenty-foot waves. I know exactly how big the swell was because I saw our very no-bullshit Russian captain at the bar and asked him exactly how big the swell was. He smirked at me like I was clearly not Russian enough for his tastes and asked sarcastically if I was going to write it down in my diary.

…maybe? Smartass.

The wind howled outside and all the outdoor areas of the ship were put off limits due to the extremely high likelihood of people being washed overboard. Unless you were a smoker. You smokers can do whatever the hell you want, life and death clearly mean nothing to you guys.

All of my dreams during the Drake Passage were fascinating since they all incorporated the movement of the ship somehow. One night I was swinging on a huge swing hanging from the Golden Gate Bridge, the next I was riding a wild rollercoaster hidden beneath Paris.

Jeez I just realized I even travel in my dreams now.

Having an immunity to jetlag and sea sickness are generally pretty wonderful travel superpowers to have, but the latter is somewhat less fun when everyone else on the boat is just fucking wrecked. There were a lot of people on the boat I didn’t even meet until day four, when they emerged with sweaty palms out of their dark cabins like bears apprehensively greeting the spring.

Thankfully though, many more handled it like troopers and I got to make a lot of great friends during the passage. Molly from Iowa, an exuberant goofball who was teaching kids in Angola, had once been turned down by a LARPing group for not being cool enough, and who would quickly fill the role of the awesome female buddy I'm lucky to meet on so many of my trips. Jeff from Chicago, who was quick with priceless, sly observations and who my cabinmate Dom immediately announced to all was the best-looking man on the boat. Katie from Indiana, whose whirlwind romance with one of the crew members was absolutely and hilariously the worst-kept secret on the boat. Orion, a chill Canadian who reminded me so much of my brother Aster that it was like having him along with me on the trip, which I loved. Helen, a brilliant veterinarian from the UK who actually knew what all the birds constantly swirling around the boat were, down to the last rare snow petrel, and who was polite every time we asked if they were all seagulls. Erin, a funny and sarcastic Minnesotan who was on her first trip outside the US (go big or go home!) and who handled the crossing like a trooper, if troopers were horizontal vomit fountains.

Dylan from Pennsylvania, a beefy, mohawked Army brat, whose upbeat energy bounced off of Dom’s until they’d improbably bonded as hetero lifemates. Jonty, a simultaneously awkward and very funny visual effects artist from South Africa, who I had thoughtful conversations about movies with when he wasn’t busy running up the ship’s largest bar tab and having Jeff’s ice-cold feet put on his naked back as the consequence of a game of Uno that went so far off the rails it was fucking mind-blowing. Alana from New Zealand, who started out quiet and then floored us all with the most disgusting story anyone had ever heard in their entire lives. Teresa, retired from the Navy, who had seriously incredible guns and great stories about poop happening on boats in places where it really, really should not ever happen.

And last but not least Jake, an American flight attendant who was full of great stories and who got naked out in the cold seriously at every opportunity and also some other times that weren’t really even opportunities, Jake.

“Snowman building contest? TIME TO GET NAAAAAAAKED!!”

This is, wonderfully, just scraping the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to all the great people I met on the boat. There were 115 passengers and I feel like the only ones I didn’t get to know where the couples who stayed siloed in their own little couple worlds. I could go on for pages but I think this might test the patience of anyone who wasn’t there.

Dylan, Jonty, Dom, Chuck, Teresa, Erin, Wendy, Xandra, Orion, me, Jeff and Katie

We killed time on the passage down by picking up our muck boots and life vests for the landings and signing up for all of our activities on the trip. The activity sign up was like picking your classes in college, we lined up in groups in front of the guides for each activity, priority going to the people who had booked this trip first. I knew I wasn’t going to be at the head of the line since I had only signed up back in March, the day I accepted my new job. Sure, it was November now, but that’s a relatively late sign-up when it comes to Antarctica trips. I’d literally snagged the last men’s 4-person bunk on the entire boat when I booked. Waiting in line, I found out some people had signed up for this trip two years in advance. Damn guys.

I was mostly concerned with getting into a good day for the mountaineering, as that was my passion and I’d bought $500 mountaineering boots just for this trip. I’d heard that they varied the mountaineering activities greatly to accommodate all skill levels, and I didn’t want to get stuck on a mellow glacier walk when I could actually be climbing some awesome Antarctic peak, roped up with a bunch of other lucky sons of bitches.

Signing up felt a bit like auditioning for the guides, who were way cooler than all of us put together. For mountaineering you had to bring your boots with you to be inspected, since if you didn’t have actual serious mountaineering boots you were going to be relegated to one of the geriatric glacier walks for safety reasons. As I stood in line, the guy in front of me got the last spot on the first day’s mountaineering, which turned out to be by far the coolest actual mountain climbing that happened on the entire trip, but I didn’t know this at the time. S’okay, I’m not crying!

I told the mountain guide Tim that I wanted to do the most challenging activity they had. He asked if I was up for ice climbing? Hell yeah I am! Okay, you’re booked. Well okay then.

We passed the rest of the passage time by constantly spilling drinks everywhere as the ship pitched and rolled, and getting to know each other over games of Cards Against Humanity, Euchre, Uno, Catan, Speed and Never Have I Ever. Eventually, electronic Catchphrase would emerge as the champion game of the trip, as Molly’s poor little game got flung around the boat during intense and unforgettable rounds of hilarious, drunken shouting.




Chapter 3: We’re Here!

I woke up on the morning of the fourth day and suddenly realized the boat had stopped. Why aren’t we- Oh my god, we’re here. We’re here! I pulled on my coat and ran out onto the deck. The sun was bright in the cold morning air. As I walked out to the bow of the ship, the panorama of mountains and icebergs unfurled all around, pure white against the blue sky. Oh my God.

I stood there, stunned, as it all sank in. The pictures are beautiful but they fall far short of conveying the experience of being there in that moment. Undoubtedly, there was a sense of relief and joy that the rough sea voyage was over. And of reaching a place I’d dreamed of for a long time. I’d left my job of 19 years in large part so that I could take this trip. And I’d used this image in my mind, of me standing on the deck of this very ship, looking out at the icebergs, hundreds of times as my mental mantra in an effort to manifest the future I was looking for, a job and life situation that would support all the travel I wanted to do. And now here I was.

And without a doubt the scene around me was magnificent, the black rock of the mountains contrasting with the whitest snow imaginable. The scale and vastness of where we were completely overwhelmed the eyes.

But there was something more than that, something I don’t think you can truly understand until you’re there yourself. The purity of the energy in this space was absolutely transformative. Here at the ends of the earth, where no one lives and so few people have been, nature in as untouched a form as you will ever experience churns through the seasons. Part of why I like living in Minnesota, and in Alaska before that, is that I believe extreme cold has the energetic effect of purifying a place, cleansing the discordant vibrations of our activities and leaving it new again.

I’d missed that feeling of walking through the woods in Alaska in the middle of the night, the air at 50 below zero feeling like it was going to somehow crack in half, all of the dissonance of human thought and emotion shattered, leaving only clarity behind. Antarctica had experienced that cleansing all winter long and we were one of the very first boats to come down for the spring. I’d never experienced any place that felt so pure and light.

It felt like I was standing in the doorway to another dimension, a heaven of some kind. And in that moment, my life felt complete in a way I had never even realized it was incomplete before. I felt foolish somehow for not coming sooner.

On the trip down, our guides had talked about catching the Antarctic bug. The need to come back again. That had kind of seemed crazy to me at the time. Antarctica is the living definition of a once in a lifetime trip, right? Who goes back a second time? Now I understood. Standing on the deck of the ship, breathing in the immaculate air and the otherworldly scene sparkling all around me, I understood. Of course I would come back.

I need to tell everyone to come to Antarctica.

I stood there wondering how much of what I was feeling was a sense of completion regarding the energetic work I was doing, traveling all over the world. Perhaps this was like a puzzle piece falling into place, anchoring the last continent in the energetic grid around the planet. Maybe a part of what I was feeling was the surge of energy from all of this connecting together. Fascinating.

After breakfast, everyone bustled to get ready for the day’s activities. I stood on the deck of the ship and watched as the Zodiac full of mountaineers cut across the dark water, headed off to climb glorious Spigot Peak out in the distance.

Oh man. I’m not someone who’s prone to jealousy but this is like a knife twisting in my heart, standing on the deck like an idiot while they head off to climb something amazing. At the same time, I felt thrilled for my friend Orion who had got into the Spigot Peak group and sat grinning on the Zodiac as it pulled away. That’s going to be fantastic you guys.

I walked down the deck and watched as the crew lowered the kayaks into the water.

Oh wow. You guys are gonna have an incredible time too.

I was booked in the photography boat, which was truly, truly the lame third place back-up option of all available. The worst of it was that we were leaving the ship last and had to watch everyone else zip off in orgasmic glee, embarking on many and varied adventures, while we waited. And waited. Oh well. It’s still going to be amazing to get out there. After a green eternity we suited up and climbed into the Zodiac.

Oh my God, I’m bobbing up and down in a little rubber boat, slicing through the Antarctic waters. This is pretty great.

I didn’t have an actual camera, just my phone, but no one cared. We motored around icebergs and by the large chinstrap penguin colony on a rocky outcrop at the edge of the land.

In the distance, the mountaineers were making their way up to Spigot Peak.

We went around the bend and spotted them again way up on the crest, where there were, inexplicably, also quite a few penguins.

After a morning of collecting penguin photos it was time to head back, but our guide was having trouble with the Zodiac’s engine. All of the other Zodiac engines were pissing water out the side, which looked concerning but is apparently a sign of robust Zodiac engine health. Ours, not so much. Might be a prostate problem.

Koen, possibly the most cheerful human and certainly the most cheerful Dutchman in the world, motored his Zodiac over to ours and after some shenanigans with a paperclip, our engine was pissing like a pro.

The sea between us and the ship was clogged full of what they call brash ice, floating hunks of ice smaller than a full-on iceberg but too big to fit into your martini. Driving the boat, our guide managed to hit every last piece of ice, resulting in huge chunks getting trapped up against our engine underneath the boat, stalling our progress. The last thing you wanted to do was to wreck the propeller on the ice, so we were repeatedly having to stop and watch her struggle to dislodge the propeller.

After a few rounds of this I grabbed one of the oars and started to help, leveraging it under the car trunk sized hunks of ice to pry our boat up off of them. On a few occasions, our boat got stuck on ice so big the guide and I had to stand, one foot on the boat and the other foot on the floating ice, to shove it out from under the propeller. I’m 100% certain this is counter to all known safety regulations. We eventually made it back to the ship, but not after a dozen radio calls asking what in the hell we were doing.

That afternoon, after moving the ship further south, we took the Zodiacs out again and I got to set foot on Antarctica for the first time, wading through the water off the shore and stepping carefully over the penguin highways before strapping on a pair of snowshoes. We’d been briefed on how not to be dicks in Antarctica, which mostly involved not leaving deep footprints in the snow that penguins could fall into and become trapped, as crazy as that sounds.

The penguins were immediately curious about us. One of the great surprises and marvels of being in Antarctica is that the penguins aren’t afraid of you at all. They’ll waddle right over and check you out. We were instructed not to approach them too closely, leaving them a 15-foot buffer in case they decided they weren’t into this encounter at all. But they could waddle right up and hop in your lap if they wanted to, because penguins just don’t give a f... fish? Something.

It was amazing to get this sense of intimacy and closeness without feeling like you were disturbing the animals, such a rare combination.

Hiking up into the hills, we got a view of the penguin colony from above.

Photo by Jeff Pfaller

I hiked back down and sat for a long while, watching the penguins stream by, a foot away on their packed-down penguin highway trails, stained pink by their krill-rich guano. The heavenly white peaks surrounded the bay and the sun glistened off the sea. Goddamn. This is incredible.

So many people had asked me why I wanted to go to Antarctica. This question seemed insane to me at the time and a sign of an impoverished imagination. But I think most people look at photos and think there’s nothing to see down here, just white. And there is a lot of white, sure, but that’s not the point. There’s also every shade of blue you can imagine, in the beautiful deep water and in the sky. Every shade of red in the sunset. Every moment is so clear and crystalline, it’s not something you can really relate to until you’ve been there yourself. Photos and words only go so far.




Chapter 4: Ice Climbers

I may have missed out on that glorious Spigot Peak climb, but couldn’t really feel bad about this in the end since I was in the only group that was going to get to ice climb in Antarctica, and this seemed at least equally cool to me.

Our Zodiac landed on the beach on Danco Island, near a sheer wall of glacial ice. Oh my God. We’re going to climb that?

We were told repeatedly that our mountaineering guides Tim and Jonny were a big deal, world-class accomplished climbers, and over the course of the trip we gradually realized this was completely true. We were in very good hands.

It was an incredibly beautiful day. The guides kept talking about how lucky we were to experience a single sunny day in Antarctica, and here we were on our third in a row. We didn’t fully understand what they were talking about until the weather turned to sloppy shit the next day, but for now we were basking in the almost absurdly fine weather. It was so warm we all wanted to strip down and wade into the water.

Photo by Erin Fickle
Or not. Go Katie!

We harnessed up, got our helmets and crampons on, and carried our large and dangerous-looking ice axes to the base of the ice wall while Tim scampered across the ridge above us, rigging lines.

Molly, Alana and a very distant Tim

Jonny gave us a very brief demonstration of how to ascend the glacier, making it look much, much easier than it actually was. We were each harnessed to ropes with a belay partner operating the other end of the rope, making sure we’d only embarrass ourselves if we fell off the glacier.

Our guides had created three routes up the glacier, each one appearing more difficult than the one before. The left route followed a diagonal path with no vertical ice, the middle had a long vertical section in the middle of the climb, and on the right, the ice actually seemed to curve inward in a concave shape. Huh. After we were all done, opinions were split on whether the middle or right hand routes actually ended up being the hardest.

Dylan was the first one up the ice, going balls-out up the right hand route with an enthusiasm that was almost frightening. Molly took issue with the calls to “man up!” when Dylan got stuck part-way up the ice (“woman up, dude!”), but after Dylan unleashed some sweaty cave man grunts as he flailed up the ice, I think Molly decided he could have it if that’s what manning up was.

Photo by Dylan Carlson
Thank you Dylan for getting a shot of what it looked like from up there!

Dylan was also the first one to fall, losing his grip going up the concave ice as it curved into a bit of an overhang. We all gasped as he came free of the wall, but the belay rope caught him immediately and he dangled off the glacier. Whew.

Before long he was over this obstacle and up to the top of the glacier. Nice, dude!

Several more of our friends followed, some making it look easier than others.

Photo by Jacob McCarthy

Alana impressively worked her way methodically up the slope with complete composure. Jake made it look pretty easy too. As for me, I almost fell off the little ridge we were standing on twice just while waiting for my turn to actually climb the ice, so yeah.

Photo by Dylan Carlson

Karen got stuck halfway up the left hand route, and it took a lot of shouted encouragement to get her to continue on. I was holding her camera and taking photos of her climbing for her, though unfortunately they were mostly just shots of her butt since I couldn’t move to get a different angle from our tiny ledge. It’s also hard to get action shots of someone who is just clinging to the ice and yelling that they want to come down.

I could tell it was scary once you got up there, a weird axe you’ve never held before the only thing keeping you from falling off this goddamned huge glacier. Eventually Karen made her way up. Nice, way to not give up!

Photo by Dylan Carlson

Then it was my turn to climb. I had figured we’d all get a chance to climb twice, so I wanted to do the easiest route once to get my bearings and then tackle the hardest one, resolving to try and be more sensible than I normally am. Someone was climbing on the left hand route though, and I didn’t want to hold up the entire group, since it was pretty much impossible to pass anyone on the little ledge we were standing on. So I decided to tackle the middle route instead.

Photo by Dylan Carlson

Getting to the ice wall was an adventure in and of itself, since this involved climbing up a slope of hip-deep snow. I flailed my way up this slope like an epileptic walrus in the ball pit of a Chuck E Cheese, falling several times and sliding back down to where I’d started before I managed to claw my way up to the base of the ice wall. Okay! Let’s do this shit.

Photo by Dylan Carlson

The crampons strapped to our boots had spikes sticking straight out from our toes. I kicked my crampons into the wall and stood up on them. All right. Not bad. This is why you needed the rigid mountaineering boots, in anything less stiff you’d be fighting with your calves to stay upright as the soles of your boots flexed.

I’d been closely watching the other people climb, noticing what they seemed to be struggling with. It seemed like a lot of people weren’t hitting the ice wall hard enough with their axes, not giving them enough oomph to dig far enough into the ice to provide a solid grip. I wasn’t going to make that mistake, so I took my first swing hard and absolutely buried the ice axe into the wall. Nice.

I pulled myself up and kicked into the wall again with my crampons. Cool. Now to just remove the ice axe and- uh oh. It wasn’t budging. I’d buried it all way way into the ice, up to the handle, and that thing wasn’t budging without a written invitation from the queen. Shit.

I struggled to pull the ice axe out, putting all of my leverage into it. Nope, not moving. Shit. I climbed back down.

While I was wrenching the ice axe out with both hands, Tim yelled up. “Pull it out from above!” Getting some leverage with my elbows against the ice, I managed to wrench it free. Let’s try this again.

I made my way back up, hitting the ice not quite so hard with the axes this time. I was getting a good grip with each axe but wasn’t getting much grip at all with the crampons on my feet. I was basically climbing 95% with my arms, just getting enough purchase with my feet to boost myself up for a split second until I could bury the axes a bit higher up.

Photo by Dylan Carlson

This went fine until I was half-way up the ice wall, when both of my axes suddenly slipped out of the ice at the same time. My feet looked up at me like “Hey, you already knew we weren’t attached to anything, bro” and then I was falling. Shit. Shit shit shiiiiiiiit.

Suddenly I stopped. I was hanging from the rope. I looked down at Jonny belaying the other end of the rope way below me. Ah. Thanks dude. I mean, you guys caught Dylan like six inches after he fell and I feel like I fell halfway down the glacier, but thanks for noticing before I hit the ground. That’s what matters.

I fought my way back up to the same spot in the middle of the ice wall. It was such a nice day out, it looked like the ice was starting to melt, which probably wasn’t helping matters at all. I still wasn’t getting any grip at all with my feet, but I was really getting the hang of the axes so I think I can SHIIIIIiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiT

I fell again. Hanging from the rope, my heart pounded. Dammit.

“Take your time, Sean!” Jonny yelled from below. Yeah. I think I’m trying to do this too fast.

“I got some great photos of you falling off the glacier!” our photographer Australian Tim excitedly told me later. Awesome, Tim.

I got this.
Uh-oh. Don't got this at all.
Photos by Australian Tim
Yep, totally falling. This was the nanosecond before I dropped completely out of frame at high speed.

I worked my way up the ice again, trying to mimic Alana’s calm and determined march up the wall. Then, this fucking spot again.

Suddenly, there was some commotion happening on the ice wall over to my left.

“DO NOT TELL ME I CAN DO IT!! GET ME DOWN OFF THIS FUCKING ICE RIGHT NOW!! RIGHT NOW!!”

Oh my God, somebody was completely losing her shit on the route to my left. What is going on? She’s on the scary part of the ice and has clearly decided she’s had her fill of this adventure. Her belay partner began lowering her back down.

Okay then! On up. I kicked my feet into the ice as hard as I could, over and over again, until the crampons seemed to grip deeper into the ice. My heart was pounding and sweat was running down the inside of my sunglasses in a cascade.

Just get a good grip with the axe. THUNK. Okay, another kick. THUNK. I slipped a little and then stopped. Next axe. THUNK. I wrenched my body up another few feet. THUNK. THUNK. Suddenly I realized I was past the section of ice I kept falling off of. Holy shit!

From there something clicked and my body suddenly knew what it was doing. THUNK THUNK THUNK THUNK. Hand over hand, I felt as if I was climbing up the axe handles like they were rungs of ladder. THUNK THUNK THUNK THUNK. Over and over, on up.

Suddenly something was yanking me back toward the ground. What in the hell?

I turned around and looked below me, and realized I had climbed up above where the rope anchor was. I was up near the top of the glacier, well above where we were even supposed to climb to. Oh holy shit. I made it! That was amazing.

I signaled to Jonny and leaned back on the rope. It was a bit of a trust exercise to rappel back down the ice face, trusting that your belaying partner would be dealing the rope out just enough for you to descend, but not the really fast oh my god splat way.

I reached the bottom. Holy shit. That was fantastic. I just climbed that shit with an axe! I was pouring sweat and I felt like I had just sprinted a mile. My heart felt ragged. Wow.

“Man, you took forever getting up that first part but then I looked away and when I looked back you were suddenly at the top!” Dylan cheered. “You must have figured that shit out.”

Yeah. Whew. I’m gonna go pass out now. I started to head back toward the Zodiac.

Oh man, wait, I forgot I was going to climb it again! I felt like I had just run away from a dinosaur. My head was swimming and my whole body was tingling. Jeez, can I even do that again?

I watched as Molly climbed up the middle route. Go Molly! Okay, maybe I can rest while she’s climbing and then give that third route a go.

Molly made it all look way easier than it actually was.

“Okay, we’re heading back!” Jonny announced as Jake was rushing up to get his second climb in. Oh, okay? I took stock of my body. I felt like a floating cloud of bees. Okay yeah I think I’m probably good with one climb. That was great.

I stripped down to my undershirt, the sweat pouring off of me as the sun glistened on the perfectly clear water and our ship waited out in the bay. Man. I am going to sleep great tonight.




Chapter 5: Trading in His Chevy for a Kayakakakakakak

The weather having turned to sloppy shit after we had mysteriously enjoyed San Diego’s weather for three days, it seemed unlikely we were going to get to kayak at all. We suited up anyway, pulling on awkward full-body dry suits, windbreakers and neoprene booties. Every single person who had been kayaking on the trip told me their hands had fucking frozen and that gloves hadn’t helped at all. This seemed like a perfect time to break out the berserk overkill gloves I had bought just for this trip, huge, elbow-length Marmot mittens designed for researchers at the South Pole. I was under the mistaken impression that they were waterproof.

After we gathered on the deck, our guide Zet, a former member of the Swedish national kayak team and a man with shoulders wider than I am tall, gathered us conspiratorially to one side.

“We are not allowed to kayak when the winds are over 10 knots. They are 24 knots right now but fuck it let’s go.”

Okay! I’m all in on dying with Zet in the Antarctic. Let’s go.

We motored out in a Zodiac, towing all the two-person kayaks in a long string behind the boat. Once we were clear of the Ortelius, we began climbing awkwardly out of the Zodiac and into the kayaks, like an extremely lost bobsled team. Helen and I slid into our kayak without issue and before we knew it, we were paddling around icebergs in the Antarctic. Damn this is cool!

Photo by Alana Dodunski

A stiff wind was blowing but the sun was out and the view was beautiful. We paddled around the Zodiac in a loop while everyone else got into their kayaks and we were off, kayaking in a unified pod, inseparable wait shit where did that Indian couple go?

A married couple from India who I’d had a nice dinner with earlier in the trip were somehow off paddling in completely the wrong direction and were disappearing off into the horizon behind us. What the- Zed kicked it into Swedish National Kayak Team Mode and ran them down like a lion closing on a very drunk wildebeest. He then gently escorted them back to our pod of kayaks and we were off again, heading toward an old whaling station on the coast.

The sun glistened off the water and penguins porpoised in front of us, leaping gracefully into the air like little black and white missiles before slicing back into the dark blue water. Man, those guys are a totally different animal when they’re in the water. A large white iceberg loomed ahead. We’d want to be careful to not pass by it too closely since icebergs can break apart or flip over with little notice, creating a dangerous- Wait a second, where the hell did that Indian couple go?

I looked around and spotted them disappearing off over the horizon in the opposite direction from their last disappearance, which was also not the direction the rest of us were headed in. Literally four minutes had passed and they were half way to New Zealand. Zet sighed and paddled away with Terminator-like precision to bring them back before they ended up swallowed by a whale.

When he returned, he was towing the couple in their kayak behind his own with a rope. That’s… probably for the best. I don’t think they have any control of their kayak at all, and the wind is pretty intense, making precise steering a tricky game of compensation. They looked like they were having a great time regardless.

Kudos to them for having what was clearly their very first kayaking experience in freaking Antarctica! That takes some nerve. This summer I had taken a kayak rescue class on a lake in Minnesota, where you intentionally flip your kayak and learn how to get out of it underwater, then drain the kayak and get back into it all in the middle of the lake. We’d also practiced how to get other people back into their kayaks if they fell out, all of which I was very happy to know as we cut through the choppy waves between huge chunks of floating ice.

All together again for the first time, we paddled through the wind into the cove where the whalers had once operated. Penguins watched us from the rocks and a huge Weddell seal lay motionless, absolutely not giving a shit at all.

The water in Antarctica is unbelievably clear, due to being too cold to support much plant life. We looked down from the sides of our kayak at the whale bones clear as day on the sea floor as we cruised overhead. How old are those bones? 100 years? 150?

Helen snapped photos as I steered the kayak and made sure we bonked into every single other kayak in our group, establishing maritime dominance. Alana and her dad cruised by us with Kiwi calm, as the young couple in the boat behind them amusingly bickered constantly about which of them was steering the kayak wrong.

Photo by Alana Dodunski

The Indian couple paddled along joyfully, seemingly unaware that Zet was actually the one dragging them through the water.

By now I had discovered that my bombproof mittens were, in fact, not the slightest bit waterproof. Each contained roughly a gallon of water at this point. But the wonderful thing was that it didn’t matter. The mittens were so warm that not even several pints of ice cold arctic sea water could put a damper on the toasty finger party happening inside. We paddled on.

It was around this point that Zet announced that we were going to ram our kayaks up onto the sea ice. Wut?

My only regret about kayaking on this particular day is that everyone else from the boat was getting to walk on sea ice while we were out daring the icebergs to tip over onto us. Which sounded amazing.

But Zet was determined that we not miss out on this experience, and for this I loved him, even if I was pretty sure he thought I was a narrow-shouldered simpleton.

“You will need to get paddling very fast, so that when you hit the shore the kayak will jump up onto the ice and slide far enough for you to climb out.”

Yep that’s insane but let’s do it!

We paddled along the icy shore, looking for the right spot to relive that episode where the A-Team went kayaking (I’m kidding that probably didn’t happen. But it should have.)

After exploring the coastline for a long while, enough people were complaining about the solid, frozen blocks of ice where their hands used to be, forcing Zet to quickly formulate a Plan B.

“Okay! We will jump the boat up onto the ice instead!”

Wait, what? My hands were fine and I definitely wasn’t ready to be done kayaking, but I also definitely wanted to see them intentionally ram a Zodiac full of people at full speed right into the shore.

We turned and paddled toward the approaching Zodiac, cresting the choppy waves like we were all tiny Orteliuses. Ortelii? This was by far the roughest water I’d kayaked in, but that was part of the fun. We reached the Zodiac and bailed out into the boat like Howard Hughes having second thoughts about the experimental aircraft he was about to crash into the Beverly Hills hotel.

We turned toward the shore and put the hammer down. There’s actually no hammer involved in Zodiac piloting, this is a common misconception. It’s more of a twist grip thing on the engine, I’m not sure what kind of vehicle actually accelerates with the use of a hammer but I want to drive one right now.

Almost as an afterthought, Zet turned to our Zodiac pilot and over the rising wail of the engine, asked “You have jumped boat on the ice before?” nonchalantly like he was asking to borrow a chapstick.

“…yeah?” the pilot answered very noncommittally, as if he was agreeing to loan someone a chapstick.

WHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-

The shore swelled in size in front of us as we picked up speed and rapidly closed the distance across the dark water. This is- Yep. We’re doing this. Hold onto something.

There’s not a lot to hold onto inside a Zodiac. If you reach around the outside edge there’s a rope out there, but this seems just as likely to pull you overboard if you cling to it for dear life. We were all wedged into the boat pretty tightly, so either friction was going to keep us in place or one of us was going to pop out like a champagne cork and hopefully snap a photo of the view from up there before they hit the ice like a fried egg and set a human curling record for ice sliding distance.

The pilot gave the engine one final twist WHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII- we all leaned toward the back of the Zodiac, helping the front of the boat pitch up into the air and oh shit wait was this a good idea-

KABAAAAAM we hit the ice.

We lurched up onto the ice shelf, which promptly snapped off under our boat. Shit. This was not the desired outcome. We fought our way off the ice and gave it another run further down the shore. WHIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-

KABAAAAAAM!@#?%@!!! This time we slid up onto the ice, and it held. We skidded to a halt. Whew. Q*Bert, we’re going to have to talk about your language later, man. There are young penguins present.

We all climbed out of the Zodiac and out onto the huge shelf of sea ice, which stretched out to the mountain in the distance. Zowie. This is a rare treat.

Photo by Alana Dodunski
Zet, who's going to tow us and the Zodiac back to the ship by a rope clenched between his teeth

We walked around and snapped photos. Off in the distance, our other friends from the Ortelius were crossing the ice in a long line. Wow. Those poor SOBs probably landed on the shore like suckers.




Chapter 6: Land Ho

The days swim together in a wash of shore landings, educational presentations about terrifying six-foot-tall prehistoric penguins, “boy who cried wolf” proclamations of killer whales off the bow that fooled our shivering asses every time, and the important announcement that Molly had diarrhea. Actually, word was that last part may have just been a rumor that Caio from Brazil started when he was bored, but it was much, much too funny to not bring up at every opportunity for the rest of the trip.

One of the funniest things about the twice-daily shore landings was that once you’d figured out who everyone on the boat was, which was no mean feat with over 100 passengers, you had to start all over again with memorizing what everyone looked like all bundled up in parkas, hoods, hats and balaclavas. I had several full conversations on the first few landings without having any idea who I was talking to. Good to see you too, blue coat!

During our landing on Damoy Island, we got to explore a British field hut where researchers had lived and worked from the 70s through the 90s, in close proximity to the “runway” on the ice ledge above.

Jake and penguins, pretending they don't know each other

I was fascinated by the group photo from Christmas Day 1979, which showed ten dudes living in this tiny hut all winter long. They either got awesome at Catchphrase or slowly lost their damn minds.

One of those has got to be Jack Nicholson
Photo by Jeff Pfaller
Dr Manhattan, me and Koen

We snowshoed a huge loop around the island, taking in the pack of penguins who had gathered around an idol they had created to honor their new, triangular god.

Photo by Dom Joseph
Jeff and me

After that hike we had some free time before heading back to the ship, so Orion and I sat down in a quiet spot overlooking the bay.

No one else around, we sat in silence for a good 20-30 minutes, watching seals swim through the clear water and listening to the sound of the tiny waves rippling against the icy shore. This was the most beautiful and Zen moment of the entire trip for me.

Photo by Jeff Pfaller

On the way back to the ship in the Zodiac, we noticed that our guide Rustyn had a scary-looking knife attached to his life vest. We asked him what it was for.

“All of your life vests inflate automatically when they go into the water, which is great unless you’re in the water because the Zodiac has flipped over. Then you can get trapped underneath because you’re too buoyant in the vest to get out from under the Zodiac. We all have to carry a knife so we can dive in and pop your vest if we need to.”

We all sat in shocked silence for a second. And then we started laughing.

“Okay, so don’t piss off Rustyn.”

“HOLD STILL! *STAB STAB STAB STAB*”

“The victim didn’t drown, but he was stabbed 37 times.”

Good times.

On our first landing on the Antarctic peninsula itself, we climbed up the mountainside and watched as an iceberg birthed across the bay, sending a giant cloud of powdery snow across the water, as the penguin colony looked on.

The weather turning rough added new adventures to the daily excursions. I was in line waiting to board the first Zodiac off the ship on the day with the roughest seas, and as we stood on the metal gangway stairs, the waves bashed the Zodiac wildly against the side of the ship as the crew struggled to hold it steady enough to load people onboard. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, the Zodiac was being thrown to and fro, surging below and above the loading platform unpredictably. This looked like a very real opportunity to miss the boat entirely and go straight into the drink. I laughed out loud. This is awesome.

The Zodiac bashed against the platform and I grabbed the driver’s forearm and jumped in. STUMBLE OOF SHIT I grasped the side of the Zodiac and plopped down. Whew!

IMMEDIATELY after our Zodiac pulled away, they announced over the radio that they were going to load everybody else from the opposite side of the Ortelius, because that shit was bananas.

During one of our landings we encountered a couple of Scandinavian researchers who had not seen human beings in seven long months, all winter long. We were so sorry for them that it was us.

On our visit to Petermann Island, I was able to have a nice long meditation overlooking the cold bay, as a colony of rare Adelie penguins squawked nearby.

Photo by Dom Joseph

The vast mountains loomed in and out of the mist and the stillness of the scene felt like a peace you could climb inside.

Photo by Jeff Pfaller

Making my way down the hill, I found Molly, Katie and Erin standing at the edge of the water, watching a Leopard Seal drift ominously through a tiny inlet. Whoa. You don’t see those guys every day. They’re also scary and insane and attack boats. We were far enough away not to worry, but the penguins gathered on a rocky outcrop above were not so lucky. They were contemplating a dip in the water.

We watched in silent anticipation, half willing the penguins to jump in and give us a Wild Kingdom-style show about Leopard Seal attacks and half willing them to run far, far away, you cute little bastards. Suddenly, the penguins spotted the seal and took off back up the hill.

Awwwww. No show today.

Our guide Pippa went around the corner to get a photo of the leopard seal and we half-expected her to punt one of the penguins into the water for us while she was out of sight behind the rocks.

Molly figured out the only way to see things right-side-up from the bottom of the Earth.
Katie, me, Erin and Molly enjoying the invigorating smell of pink snow

Our journey south took us through the Lemaire Channel, a breathtaking narrow slot between steep cliffs that saw our captain weaving amongst icebergs with steely resolve. We all stood on the bow of the ship in anxious anticipation, looking out at the icebergs that we seemed to be playing chicken with and then nervously back at the captain up on the bridge, who was signaling fine adjustments to his first mate with hand gestures. Once we were miraculously through the channel, the captain looked down and gave up a hilarious thumbs-up, which was like getting double high-fives from this stoic badass. We all erupted in a cheer.

I realize only now that I somehow didn’t get any other photos of this whole adventure, but in my defense it was really bitchin cold out there on the bow of the boat and my hands were super happy in my pockets.

Later on we found our passage completely blocked by a huge sheet of ice that stretched as far as the eye could see. Our ship wasn’t an icebreaker, but it was an ice-strengthened research vessel, and as I mentioned, our captain was Russian. And he wasn’t about to let any goddamned ice tell him how to live his life. We motored straight for the vast ice sheet, daring it to flinch first.

All of us who were shivering out on the bow waited in nervous anticipation. What was going to happen? Were we going to make it through the ice? What happens if we don’t? What kind of fantastic sound is the boat going to make when we hit that massive ice sheet?

Photo by Jeff Pfaller

We counted down out loud as the ice approached. Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Okay! We messed up the timing on that countdown a little bit. Here it comes!

Jake and I leaned over the front edge of the bow to watch the Ortelius just absolutely fuck up this ice sheet. And… it didn’t make any sound at all. We just cut through the ice like it weren’t no thing. It was totally anticlimactic and that probably made it a lot safer than what we had been hoping for.

I looked over the side of the boat and watched the ice fracture and bend as the boat pushed its way through. Channels in the ice opened as the ice split open under the pressure, and we joked about getting the kayaks out to explore the ice channels, until they suddenly closed like a vice, massive sheets of ice grinding on top of massive sheets of ice. Okay. Never mind.

I’d thought the difficult thing in writing this blog was going to be cutting down on the absurd number of penguin photos I took. It turns out it was actually the absurd number of sunset photos.

Me taking a photo of Clouds taking a photo of Jake taking a photo of the sunset.

Other memories stream by like icebergs, of the BBQ picnic we had on the helipad one warm evening, and the snowball fight that broke out in that same spot one day when it wasn’t so warm.

Dylan and Dom, somewhat questionably hucking frozen snow at the guides who were keeping us alive

On our last day of adventures off the boat, Dom had decided he wanted to sleep in, so I got up and dressed quietly in the dark, careful not to wake him up. Out on to the deck and in line for the Zodiac. Safety check, down the gangway and onto the boat. We motored away, Rustyn at the propeller. We flowed by icebergs in the overcast haze.

We were about 20 minutes into the Zodiac cruise, enjoying the beautiful abstract iceberg shapes dipping up and down in the water, immense creatures seeming to breathe as air and water were sucked into their curving ice pockets, when I had the thought “Wow, I am really comfortable.”

I must be getting the hang of all this gear, not a moment too soon on our final adventure off the boat. I wonder what I did differently- Oh. Oh shit. Where is my life vest?

I wasn’t wearing a life vest at all.

This is definitely not ever supposed to happen. I’d come close to forgetting my vest several times before, and had got in the habit of leaving it out in plain sight in our cabin for when I was getting dressed, but that doesn’t help when you get dressed in the dark. They’re supposed to check that you’re wearing a vest before you get on the gangway to board the Zodiac, but the ship’s hospitality manager Sigi was filling in for Doctor Rob and was probably distracted by the orange jacket I was wearing.

Shit. Should I say anything? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. And I really don’t want us to have us all have to go back to the ship and miss our final Zodiac cruise of the trip.

But… neither of those things is worth drowning over. I was confident in my ability to swim if we went in the water, but being fully dressed and wearing giant Muck boots in the icy water was probably a whole other challenge, let alone if I caught an oar in the face or something if we flipped the Zodiac. We’d already been coached that we could last up to 30 minutes floating motionless in the cold water but less than five if we tried to swim, since moving too much prevents your body heat from warming up the water around you. Shit.

Well, this probably isn’t a big deal, I’m sure they have extra vests in the Zodiac.

“Hey Rustyn, sorry man but I just realized I’m not wearing a life vest. Do we have an extra one on the boat?”

His face went white and I could see his brain going “Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit.” Nope, no extra vest. That’s not good.

Rustyn got on the radio and one of the other guides agreed to Zodiac another vest out to us from the Ortelius. We met them half-way back to the ship and were on our way without too much of an incident, aside from the fact that everyone in all the boats who heard this on the radio immediately guessed that, yeah, it was probably me.

The upside of this detour though is that it put us in perfect position to discover this crabeater seal maxing and relaxing on an iceberg, which was one of our coolest nature encounters of the entire trip.




Chapter 7: Ballad of the Blue Waffle

The only activity I hadn’t got to fit in yet was the camping, which was a huge deal for me. I badly wanted “spent the night on Antarctica” on my resume. Camping on this trip involved digging a “coffin” into the snow and building a wall of ice blocks around the perimeter to keep you below the cold wind. You slept in a mummy bag inside a bivy sack, no tent, so you could fall asleep under the stars. Assuming it got dark enough for stars at night, which it totally didn’t, but you can imagine them. Friends who had done it already told stories of penguins wandering over to peek over the rim down into the snow graves, to check out what was going on down there. It sounded cool as shit.

Due to the foul weather, we’d had two nights in a row of camping that were cancelled. This seemed like an overabundance of caution until we realized that the bay was clogging completely with ice every morning, meaning anyone who’d been camping on the shore the night before would basically live there now because it would be impossible to extract them.

I had shot myself in the foot a bit without realizing it, since I had switched my camping from night 2 to night 3, after realizing every single friend I’d made on the boat was camping on night 3. Both nights were cancelled, so it hardly seemed like it mattered, until I found out they were giving people from the earlier nights priority when it came to filling in the extra spots on the last night of available camping. Everyone from night 2 made it into the group for the final night. Damn.

I didn’t make the list, but showed up at the gear pick-up in case anyone didn’t turn up. Dylan and Caio had the same idea, and the three of us waited in the hanger with growing anticipation as the deadline passed and there were three sleeping bags left on the floor. This is awesome, we’re going to get to go!

“Oh,” Zet pointed out, innocently but cruelly. “One of these is for the guide.” Two sleeping bags left. Dylan and Caio where ahead of me in the three-person line, and they sprinted off for the Zodiac with their sleeping bags like amped up little kids. I was left standing there empty-handed. Balls.

I headed back down to reception and there was a commotion stirring as someone else had dropped out of the camping at the last second. Oh wow maybe- They’d just given the spot to Wendy, who was next on the list. Dammit- Okay Wendy is so excited I can’t be mad. She sprang out into the hallway in a hoodie and sneakers, as if this was in any way a preparation for camping in Antarctica. Go get dressed you goof! Have fun guys.

It turned out Molly and I were the next two on the list. We stood in line for dinner, listening to Douchey Steve, who had somehow convinced a group of people to pay him to “lead” them on this trip, in spite of the trip not being something that in any way required or even invited such a thing. Steve loudly complained that he had to go camping with his group tonight. Not cool Steve.

After dinner, the lucky campers off shivering in their ice graves, the rest of our group settled into a booth in the bar and embarked on the longest, funniest, and most wildly inappropriate conversation I’ve ever been a part of. I honestly can’t have any sour grapes about not getting to camp in Antarctica because if I had, I would have missed out on this epically disgusting and deeply wrong eight-hour journey into the darkest underbelly of the human condition.

I can’t even remember how it got started, but suddenly we were talking about blue waffles. This was like that scene in Anchorman where Steve Carell is suddenly holding a grenade and everyone is like holy shit guys, what just happened? For those lucky enough not to know, the blue waffle is an extremely, catastrophically and beyond comprehensionally diseased vagina, or what once was a vagina and is now just a howling abyss of regret. Don’t do a Google image search for this.

I repeat, do not do a Google image search for this.

Please, enjoy a sunset instead

The conversation circled back around to this nightmare every time someone new was drawn over by the loud peals of laughter that were drowning out everything else in the bar and joined our conversation, which they immediately and deeply regretted. Our booth was basically a huge human bug zapper. This happened pretty much every five minutes all night long.

Somehow we even drew in the guides, one by one, who hadn’t really been mixing with the marks in their free time very much up until this point. We were loudly explaining to Rena that a hairdresser cannot refer to tousling someone’s hair as “tossing their salad,” ever, even if you’re from Canada, when the ship’s amiable doctor, Rob, wandered by and was sucked in by the conversational tractor beam.

We insisted that Rob immediately tell us his most disgusting doctor stories, which led into tales of a post-transition surgery patient on a boat Rob was working who couldn’t wait the recommended weeks to put his new junk to use, to catastrophic effect. This was followed quickly by life lessons on the many things you should never, ever do with a cock ring.

Suddenly Tim, our stoic British mountaineering guide, was sitting next to me and telling the story of a young man in the UK who had decided that the quickest way down off the roof he had drunkenly climbed was to slide down an adjacent light pole. These poles are apparently not as smooth as they look and this adventure resulted in, and I’m so sorry this term even exists, a “degloved penis.” God, I winced all over again just typing that.

Nature guide and Zodiac crasher extraordinaire Ian, a fun and very easy to like Canadian, spoke up next. He was quick with a story about one of the campers on a previous trip, a dignified older British gentleman who was staying in the most expensive cabin on the boat. This man climbed the gangway from the Zodiac up onto the boat, and handed the guide tallying the returning campers a plastic bag, which she distractedly accepted before eventually realizing to her horror that she was holding a sack of his shit.

I should have prefaced this all by mentioning that you can’t leave anything on Antarctica, anything at all, which requires you to bring a pee bottle when going ashore. I think most would deal with this reality by taking care of their messier business before leaving the ship, but if you don’t plan ahead that well, well, your colostomy bag is your own problem.

Many, many stories of misplaced poop followed. Why do people poop in showers? Is it easier, somehow? I don’t get it.

Pippa wandered by and shared the story of a previous Antarctica journey where well into the trip they suddenly discovered that one of the guests on the boat had a penguin in their shower. This one brought the house down, as just the logistics of this situation are mind-blowing. Sure, the penguins were adorable and we all wanted one, but how do you coax one into your backpack during a shore landing when the crew is looking the other way? And get it back onto the ship unnoticed? These are not quiet birds. And how long was it in their shower? Were they bringing it sardines from the salad bar the whole rest of the trip? I mean, all these penguins actually eat are krill but good luck finding that in the salad bar.

What were they planning on doing with it if they somehow got it off the boat? How do you get a penguin onto a plane? Buy it a ticket and dress it as your child? The whole scenario was fascinating.

Anyway, the guest and the company were both fined extremely heavily and hopefully the penguin got a chance to leave an angry Yelp review.

People kept rotating into the conversation and then bailing out once they realized they were in way over their heads and had heard more than they bargained for, off to hopefully sleep a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Quiet Alana joined us told the shocking story of a friend in the New Zealand police who responded to a call from a man who had been kidnapped and tied up. When the police arrived, he was covered in blood, with hands tied and duct tape over his mouth. When they removed the tape, his severed penis fell out of his mouth.

The punchline is that they eventually figured out he’d done it to himself. The logistics of this are almost as mind-blowing as the penguin kidnap story. You clearly have to call the police before you cut your poor penis off, and then it’s too late to turn back. And then you have to tie your hands at the very end, with a penis already taped in your mouth and all of you completely covered in blood. That’s impressive dexterity that probably could have been put to better use, but I’m not here to judge how people live.

Alana got a lot of practice retelling this story every time someone new came over to see what we were all yelling about, so I think she’s ready to tell it on Jimmy Fallon now.

I’m barely scraping the surface of our journey into the underworld, but I’m going to leave it at that because there are young penguins present.




Chapter 8: The Return of the Drake

Every evening of the trip our expedition leader Clouds, a warm and larger than life South African woman who was clearly doing her life’s work, would gather us all in the bar for a recap of the day’s activities and to lay out what we’d be doing the next day. These recaps were always heavy on “The captain’s not going to be very happy with me, but-” good-cop-bad-cop-antics and enough “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” to fill a large boat.

For the last day, our group of friends lobbied to take over the meeting with our own presentation, educating all the passengers on the behavior of all the guides as if they were exotic species of animals. I say “our group” but really Jeff and Molly did all the work, my contributions amounted solely to priceless scribbled bon mots like “Rob – Cock Rings” which Jeff translated into work-safe comedy gold, and my surreal observation that 195% manly man Zet loved to sing showtunes, which almost made it into the presentation until I noticed at the last second and pointed out that I had totally been kidding about that.

The presentation went over like gangbusters, bringing the house down and sealing what had already been a great camaraderie across the entire boat. Great job guys.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the Drake Passage, that charmingly howling vomit tunnel. This time the winds were up over 60 miles an hour and the waves were even bigger than they had been on the way down.

Clouds helped pass the time by showing us her favorite movie, Around Cape Horn, which featured amazing home video footage from a sailor in the 1920s on his wild voyages through these seas, narrated by the same man in his old age. This movie was full of comedy gold about the crew punching the ship’s dog “who liked it that way just fine” and the narrator’s frequent descriptions of the hardened sailors he admired best as “super seamen.”

We’d seen a lot of Humpback whales on the passage down, they may have been out there on the way back too, getting thrown over the boat by the dozen, but hell if I know, I couldn’t see shit out there. One night at dinner we were suddenly startled into silence when a crashing wave hit the windows of the dining hall, up on the 4th floor of the ship. Holy shit guys, that was a huge wa-

The next wave hit, throwing the people sitting near the windows out of their chairs. All the glasses on our table slammed back down, dumping Ginger Ale all over my lap as we scrambled to pick people up off the floor. Damn!

But our group’s primary time-passer on the way back was playing wingmen and wingwomen to Katie in the saga of Katie and Ian, the absolute, 100% worst-kept secret on the boat.

Katie’s crewmember crush had surprised her most of all by turning into a real live thing. Which should have been no surprise at all, as she had the best wingpeople in the world, Molly taking the biggest bullet of all by giving up her seat at dinner so Ian could sit next to Katie on their first date (which we were all along for somehow). Molly ended up sitting next to Douchey Steve all dinner as he bragged about how he was cheating on his taxes so he could qualify for Obamacare. Molly’s sacrifice was seriously the same thing as somebody diving on a live grenade during WWII.

I was in the Molly role the next night, but pulled a far, far better hand as I ended up sitting with Alana and the couple from Latvia who were on their honeymoon and who I got to talk with all dinner about my summer trip to Russia, Latvia, Belarus and Chernobyl. They suggested that the Russians had been so friendly to me on my trip because I look Russian, which, okay.

Photo by Erin Fickle

Koen was humming something strange. Oh, we’re playing Name That Tune. Huh. It sounds like he’s humming Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” But that can’t be it. Are Dutch people into Rage Against the Machine? That doesn’t seem likely at all.

Nobody was guessing it right, so I decided to chime in.

“Koen, is that Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the-”

“YES!” he jumped up excitedly, knocking a full tray of drinks right out of the hands of the waitress walking behind him.

Oh Koen, we love you dude.

All dinner I tried to keep the conversation from pivoting to North Korea, because the second that trip comes up it’s all anybody wants to talk about, and this was Katie’s time. Over the last several nights of the trip, Ian and I got into many conversations about travel, as he was intrigued by everywhere I’d been but struggled to understand my desire to go to Yemen this coming February. I explained that it just made sense to me, of course you’d want to go to Yemen. Yemen looks amazing! Having kids? That makes no sense to me at all. I don’t understand why people do that. I guess we should all just do the things that make sense to us.

During the Blue Waffle conversation, Ian had told us stories of all the illicit and not-really-all-that-secretive sex that had occurred on the various boats he’d worked over the years, the best story being about the winner of the Antarctic Marathon and a groupie who were drunkenly “celebrating” on the floor right outside the door to the bridge, and the crew member who had to step over them to go inform the captain that this was happening.

Of course, something somewhat similar but much less graphic happened to Ian and Katie soon after, so before we knew it we were keeping Molly company in the bar late at night as her and Katie’s room was very occupied. While crossing the Drake, the crew warned us to always keep “one hand for you, one hand for the ship” to keep from falling on your face as the ship pitched and rolled. And now you can write your own sex joke with that set up.

We made it through the rough seas and approached Cape Horn actually too early to return to Ushuaia, as our spot on the dock wasn’t opening up until early the next morning. So we spent the afternoon motoring along very, very slowly as the sun emerged and land gradually faded into view on the horizon.

Photo by Dylan Carlson
Jeff, me, Caio's calves, Dom and Wendy

Leaning over the edge of the boat, you could look down and see a fogbow forming under the ship. Cool.

The ship’s flag hung tattered from the mast, battered to hell and back by the wild storm we had just sailed through.

Our final night on the ship was very, very sloppy. No one wanted to leave the boatwide family we had formed and return back to the real world. The guides were, I guess, officially off duty at this point, and we saw them all get sloppy for the first time. Molly and I caught the worst of the drink Pippa was trying to throw at Rustyn, adding a new wrinkle to the question of which were the least wrecked pair of pants in my luggage now. This whole night was a bizarre, shattering reversal of perceptions, as all trip long we were looking up to these awesome guides, who are definitely living a cooler life than you are, and are also keeping you alive. Then on the final night, your guide crush comes crashing down in a hail of flying white wine.

The next morning we were woken up by Sigi’s sadly final “Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning!” announcement over the loudspeakers, and we wistfully finished our last breakfast together as the ship pulled into port.

Photo by Molly Elverson
Sad to go.

We dragged our luggage down the gangway and out onto the Ushuaia dock. Hugs, exchanged info and regretful goodbyes. What a trip! We’d left it all on the boat, and couldn’t have asked any more from a trip to Antarctica.

And most importantly of all, Molly finally got over her diarrhea.

Until next time guys.






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