Midwinter Polar Plunge

Today is Monday, June 18th, 2012.  I’m currently sitting in the toasty warm dispatch office in the fire house.  I’ve spent the last hour trying to think of a fun catchy blog title to use while writing about the polar plunge I participated in over the weekend.

Wait.  What the what?  Tori are you insane?!?!

No, you heard me.

Polar Plunge.  In Antarctica.

A few weeks ago, a sign up sheet was placed in front of the recreation office for people to sign up if they wanted to participate in the 2012 Midwinter Polar Plunge.  It took me .02 seconds to decide that this idea was deliciously delightful and rush down to the office to get my name on the list.  I was the 15th person to sign up for a Saturday morning slot.

We crazy people travel in flocks/droves/herds.

I’d kind of put the whole idea on the back shelf of my mind since I was concentrating on ideas for the Midwinter dinner photo booth *more on the dinner in a different post*, that is, until Wednesday, June 13th.  Our recreation activity coordinator, Cindy, sent out an email to the participants.  In the e-mail, we received information about the time of the shuttle (8:45am) and required protective clothing (shoes).  Yep, the only REQUIRED clothing was shoes.  I thought of doing the truly adventurous thing and participating in the nude but:

1)  After hearing that the colossal Antarctic squid is attracted to lights, I assessed my pale complexion and determined I would look like a megawatt streetlight under the light of just one star.  I have no desire for a cephalopod to confuse me for a welcome sign.

2)  No group of people should be subjected to seeing me in that state.

There were also a couple of documents attached to the email which contained the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for Scott Base’s Polar Plunge.  What can I say, I’ve got a tendency of living next to super nice people.  Yes, the friendly folk at Scott Base host the event.  A few excerpts from the SOPs, which I wasn’t going to post or talk about before doing the jump because I didn’t want to freak out my family, include:

Significant Risks

  • Cold Shock (duh)
  • Cold Incapacitation (duh)
  • Cardiac Fibrillation / Tachycardia (hm, that doesn’t sound good)
  • Hypothermia (not really interested in that either)
  • Frostnip / Frostbite (there are parts I do NOT want to lose!)
  • Injury from Slip / Fall (yeah… Grace is NOT my middle name…)
  • Environmental Damage (AKA you can get cut by the ice, then salt could get in the cut.  Ew.)

Severe Risks

  • Drowning due to inhalation of water because of cold shock  (gotcha, don’t attempt to extract oxygen from water)
  • Drowning due to inability of the participant to get out of the water unassisted because of cold incapacitation (can I wear my “Big Red” when I jump?!)

Yes, I included the comments in the parentheses.  Don’t think badly of the Kiwis.

I assessed the above information (quickly) and decided that jumping into the icy cold water was still calling my name.

So, I worked from 7am Friday to 7am Saturday.  No nap.  No sleep.  No checking my eyelids for holes or cracks.  It was actually a long night of intense weather watching and wondering if we would be able to jump that day or if the event may be postponed.  The weather forecast called for a low of -62 with the windchill with wind gusts up to 50 mph.

I had gone out with the group that did the plunge on Friday to take pictures of them.  There was NO wind and no one complained of being overly cold.  I was beginning to regret my decision of not stripping down, getting harnessed up and jumping into the water Friday.  I went with them so I could take pictures since my B shift fire guys were supposed to be jumping, as well as most of the lovely Galley folk.  I was glad I was able to be there to cheer them on.

Shortly before 7am on Saturday, Marsha relieved me at work.  We spoke briefly and very matter-of-factly about the looming plunge.  I then left to take a nap.

After a 20 minute cat nap, I called the station to confirm that the jump was still on, and indeed it was.  I changed into my bathing suit (yes, I brought bathing suits with me because I planned/plan on traveling when I leave), threw on a pair of sweat pants, a fleece shirt and my boots.  I packed my post-plunge pack with two towels (I didn’t want my hair to freeze), clean undergarments, long underwear, another pair of fleece pants, quick wick shirt and my newly acquired skua plunge shoes.

No, I wasn’t going to wear a pair that I brought down with me when there were perfectly acceptable ones for FREE in skua.

I trudged down to Derelict Junction, DJ, to meet up with the others and wait for the shuttle.  I was joined by Marsha, Wes and the others that were in our group.  We all loaded up in the van like an excited group of high schoolers on their way to a playoff football game.

We arrived at Scott Base and all went into the bar/galley area to hear the pre-plunge instructions and wait.  and wait.  and wait.

Marsha and Wes decided to go first,  I walked down to the water with them to show them the way as well as take pictures/cheer them on.  They went into the wannigan (warming shack) to change shoes and finish getting mentally ready for the dip.  After I watched both of them successfully leap into the water I went back to the galley to wait for them.  The plan was for them to photograph my jump after theirs, but I wanted to make sure they had plenty of time to warm up and dry off some before jumping.

Upon returning to the galley, I found that more people had arrived and had basically formed a sequential order of who was jumping next.

No worries.

I was one of the last people to head down to jump.  If I hadn’t been worried about falling and hurting myself BEFORE jumping, I probably would have skipped down there.  The winds had died down to somewhere around 25 mph, taking the perceived windchill temperature down to approximately -45F.  I knew the water was somewhere around 26 degrees Fahrenheit.  I stepped into the wannigan, removed all of my outer layers of clothing and changed into my plunging shoes.  There were five other people in the wannigan with me as I was getting ready.  Two of the kiwi base personnel who were helping the jumpers with their harnesses (we were required to wear safety harnesses), one person who just finished jumping and two that were getting ready to rotate out.  I was helped into my harness and wrapped in a nice warm blanket.  I watched out the window as my friends jumped into the icy abyss.

I started feeling adrenaline rush through my veins.  I started bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet in anticipation of the jump.

Finally, it was my turn.

I opened the door and stepped out towards our FD Captain and the guys who were in charge of hooking up the safety ropes.  I handed the captain my blanket and was quickly clipped to the “leap line”.  This was the only moment were I felt any sort of trepidation.  Earlier, two of my fire guys jumped and found that they had gotten some weird abrasions on their arms.  Neither one of them knew what caused it.  We figure they scraped against some chunks of ice on the way down but neither of them felt anything.  I wasn’t concerned about the possible pain of the abrasion.

I was concerned because that night was the big, fancy Mid-Winter dinner and I was going to be dressing up for it.  I was going to be out in something other than jeans or fleece pants and I didn’t want to be battered and bruised in my dress.  I’m not normally prissy, but dammit, I’m still a girl and I like getting dressed up!

So, along with the worry that my legs or arms might end up with abrasions, there was also a slight concern about running into a disgruntled seal.  Or a colossal giant squid.  Or something else that I’d never heard of.

I was going to be jumping into a slushy.  Between each jumper, the top of the water would freeze a bit, so chunks of ice had to be fished out.  Naturally, there was some left.  The more jumpers, the more “slush”.  The water, in its slushy state, made it hard to see down from the surface except for the small area they cleared out right before the leap.  It was very similar to going swimming in the creek behind my parents house.  I couldn’t see what was down there, but at least I knew that there were NOT going to be any alligators.  That was the thought I reassured myself with as I walked to the ice edge.

I walked to the ladder and stepped down onto the ice step that was the leaping point.  It was barely snowing and I glanced up to the heavens, giving a quick prayer that I wouldn’t die doing this, and then I gave the people on the other side of the water a double thumbs up.

I took a deep breath.  I held my nostrils closed.

I pushed off, leaping towards the spot they had directed me to, exhaling partially since I heard this would help with the reflex to gasp for air once I hit the cold water.

I heard the splash.  I felt myself enveloped as I dropped down a few feet below the surface.

It was cold, but not unbearably so.  It felt thick, almost silky.  Feeling the cold, salty water made my skin tingle.  I can only describe it as feeling pins and needs all over your body.  Not painful, but every inch of me felt alive.  My sense of touch felt heightened.

With one sense heightened, the next thought I had was to open my eyes, despite the salt water I was in.

I saw darkness below me and the pale teal color that is the underside of ice around me.  I started to feel myself rising to the surface, and I felt the urge to, well, breathe.   As I kicked my way to the surface (I was only down a couple of feet from the surface), the color of the ice became lighter and lighter.  I could feel ice brushing against my fingertips as I cleared the area I was going to surface.  I shot out of the water to mid chest, taking a deep breath of icy Antarctic air.  Despite holding my nose, I still got water up into my nasal passages.  I was snorting, trying to clear my nose while swimming back to the ladder.  As I was pulling myself up, the anchor guys were asking me if I was ok.

That’s when I realized I couldn’t talk.  I had the words in my head (YEAH! I’m FANTASTIC!  I wanna do it again!) but I couldn’t say them.   I was trying to catch my breath, clear my nose and talk all at the same time.  I grinned, nodded my head and snorted at them.  The fire captain looked at me with great concern and finally I cleared my nose and was able to say “It was great but I feel like liquid potato chips were shot up my nose!”

My eloquence amazes me.

I wrapped up in the blanket that I was handed and walked into the wannigan to get dried off and changed.

I forgot how quickly salt water dries in the desert.  It doesn’t matter if the water is ridiculously cold, it still dries quickly.  I almost didn’t need my towel.  I licked the salt off my lips and laughed as I saw my “baby curls” starting to form along the nape of my neck.  Ah, it was like being back on St. Simons.  There were 4 other people in the wannigan in various states of undress, all crowded around the heating stove.  Luckily, I didn’t feel cold.  At all.  My fingers were fine, my toes were fine.  I felt warm.  I grabbed my towel and started trying to figure out the schematics of changing in the shack.  Other than one of the kiwis who was helping people get ready, I was the only female in the room.

I found that the years of playing softball and changing on the bus or in the car on the way to games paid off.  I can change in a room full of people without exposing a thing.  Yes, I am proud of that fact.

After putting on dry socks and shoes, I headed back to the galley area.  I felt exhilarated.  I was warm.  I was giddy.  I was so glad that I did this and lived to eventually tell the tale.

After the rest of our group finished their jumps, we all loaded up into the shuttle and headed back to McMurdo.  Almost all of us that jumped that morning sat together.  We were a group of smiling fools that looked like they were rolled in pretzel salt.  It didn’t matter though.

It’s Antarctica.  It’s a harsh continent.  Being a fool, albeit a cautious one, is accepted as well as encouraged.

Remember, we’re all here ’cause we’re not all there.

Until next time.

Oh, I know the pictures are out of order, I’m working on fixing that though!

5 thoughts on “Midwinter Polar Plunge

  1. In your list of risks you forgot to mention, “Being eaten by the unfathomable horrors from beyond the bounds of time and space that are currently lurking beneath the Antarctic ice awaiting the day that global warming unleashes them upon an unsuspecting world.”

  2. Great re-creation of the event!!! That looks like such a cool experience, so glad your having fun and doing once in a life time adventures!!!

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