By Jake Norton
Antarctica didn’t let us go easily. It was 1 a.m. when we saw the definitively Russian Ilyushin lumbering through the Antarctic sky. The temperature was some 20 below, and the 30-knot winds made it feel much, much colder, ripping heat from exposed flesh with efficiency. But, for a huge jet landing on a strip of blue ice, a strong headwind is a nice thing, helping to slow the giant bird down.
With a delicate landing that defied its massive bulk, the Ilyushin touched down to many a camera-shutter click and loud cheer. After days of delay, strikes, broken parts and other issues, we were all ready to move onward.
After unloading many tons of Jet A aviation fuel in 55-gallon drums, the ALE team called us all to board. A few moments later, doors were closed, engines spun up, and the pilots lifted us off the runway as smoothly as they had landed. It was hard to tell we had even gone airborne.
While on the flight down we all were wired with excitement and slept little, this flight was the opposite. Tired from days of climbing, we all quickly succumbed to the late hour and fell asleep. In hindsight, the bit of wine and beer we had at Union before leaving might have helped a wee bit, too.
At 7 a.m., another masterful landing thumped us down on the tarmac in Punta Arenas. As we exited the hulking Ilyushin, we could all smell it and see it: Green things.
Trees, plants, animals. Life. After three weeks on the ice—in a land of intense beauty, but almost completely devoid of life—it was a welcome sight. The idea of a bed rather than a Therm-a-Rest and walls instead of nylon wasn’t bad either, so we quickly headed to to the hotel.
It always amazes me how quickly we transition in these modern times. It wasn’t that long ago that expeditions wound down slowly, and reintegration into “normal” life took time. The body, and more importantly the mind, was granted simply through logistics the luxury of moving from the stark mental and physical environment of the expedition back to the frenetic pace of life in a slow manner.
Today, it’s anything but slow. Just hours ago we sat on a glacier on the bottom of the world, climbing mountains and routes that had never seen humans. And, now, just hours later, I’m on the internet in a hotel amidst a bustling city, and the rest of my team is on an airplane, well on their way to home and family. It’s amazing and hard to digest.
Like the departure, the return home is something of a bittersweet affair. Certainly, in the words of Big Head Todd, “more sweet than bitter,” but still a challenge.
We who go to the mountains generally do so for a reason. It feeds us. It grounds us. It makes us thrive. The simplicity of the mountain life is wholly engaging, and leaving it is tough. Only by leaving home do we realize how fortunate we are, and for some of us it is only by living the mountain life—and then leaving it for a time—that we remember to value it and apply its lessons and teachings to our lives back home.
As I sit here in Punta, backing up gigabytes of images, listening to CNN and watching ships bob in the nearby harbor, this all rushes through my mind. I am excited beyond words to get home. It’s been far too long since I’ve hugged my children and my wife and patted my dog’s head. I long to answer my daughter’s questions, to hear about her day and listen to my son say her name—a new trick he developed during my absence. I also know that, before long, the flood of emails and deadlines and bills and housework and the frenetic pace of modern life will threaten to overwhelm.
It is then, I hope, that my mind will harken back to the austere simplicity of Antarctic life. I hope I will be able to conjure up the invigorating lessons of the high peaks, my mountain mind speaking to me through the fog of modern life: “You’re but a small part of a big machine. Be humble. Hug your family. Be thankful. Smile. Relax…. Focus on what’s important in life, the fundamentals, for soon you’ll be back again in the mountains.”
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