Posted by: Geoff Gloeckler on January 11, 2012
After 39 days on the ice, the Polar Vision team made it to the South Pole on January 3. As the team members begin to re-acclimate to ‘normal’ life, we have asked each to give us a recap of the experience. The last of these entries comes from Andrew Jensen.
The South Pole, as represented by its ceremonial marker, is a peculiar destination. The marker is a large, reflecting orb with a circle of flags around it. Skiing up to it, one finds…themselves. This makes sense. The South Pole is not a mountaintop. If it weren’t for astrolabe readings (in the earlier days) or GPS readings (now), there’d be no way of knowing if you’d actually arrived there.
The idea of wanting to stand at the bottom of the world is a modern one, because it is only in modern times that humankind realized the world did, in fact, have a bottom. Unlike a mountaintop, no one has grown up in the shadow of Antarctica. Rather, we read about the continent in textbooks as children. It appeals to us because it is as far from the familiar and comfortable as nature can be. If it is possible to traverse such a land as that, we think, who knows what else might be possible? How does one’s view of themselves change after almost 600 miles and viewed upside down through the bottom of the world?
The reflection the Polar Vision team earned a few days ago when we stood at the Pole was hard earned. We spent more than two years preparing for our 39 day journey—about 20 days of prep for each day on the ice. Staring into the Pole’s orb, I realized that it was literally impossible for us to continue heading on our previous bearing—we could not take another step south. It seems rare to have such an obvious metaphor for the necessity of an organization to change its course, but there we stood, our breath coming in great gasping clouds that temporarily obscured our own images in the Pole’s metal gleam.
Our primary goal is no longer to challenge the status quo and prove that Alan's dream is possible. Rather, having reached the end, we need to turn around and share our message with all of the people we missed so much on the brief rests in our tents late at night, between marches.
I walked with Alan to the Pole not sure what I would learn. I'd worked on demanding projects before--two years in Iraq and Afghanistan were not easy. And yet, doing this with a very small group of people (never more than six on the team at any time), and doing the majority of it as a business school student after almost 10 years of military life, have taught me quite a bit.
I remember an old Hemingway quote we used to kick around constantly when we were deployed overseas: "The world breaks everyone. But some get stronger in the broken places." Stumbling across that quote as a 23 year old, I always interpreted it to mean "suck it up," that being tough was what being a grownup was all about. The last day on our trip, about ten miles from the Pole, the slender metal fastener attaching my ski to my foot gave way with a silent snap. The ski shot off my foot. It was my turn to lead. Not wanting to process the implications of losing my ski for good, I threw off my other ski, ignored the calls from the rest of the team if I was okay, and started stomping through the snow.
I realized very quickly there are some excellent reasons we'd been wearing skis for the past 500 some odd miles. Each time I took a step, by boots sank into the snow. The heel of my foot would always sink deepest, making it feel like I was walking up a steep hill, even though the terrain was relatively flat. The snow didn't want to give up the boot, which meant I had to yank each foot up. The sled, as always, clawed at my back through my harness. The consistency of the snow ahead was always unpredictable. Sometimes I'd sink in 18 inches, other times I'd be standing right on top of frozen ice. This made my gait unpredictable, and I weaved from side to side as I moved like a tea cup about to fall off the edge of a table.
I made it about a third of a mile in this manner before I was completely covered in sweat, panting, and starting to see spots. I stopped. The rest of the team skied up from behind me (where they'd been following with much, much less effort) and we all wordlessly began to redistribute weight out of my sled and into theirs. We'd been traveling together for 39 days, and we somehow intuitively knew what amount of weight needed to be moved and whose sled it needed to go into. The distribution took less than a few minutes, then we continued across the snow again, still silently. With less weight, I was now moving at a speed reasonably close to the rest of the team.
That was the moment which really encapsulated what I learned on Polar Vision. If it really is true that the world breaks everyone, I learned that people don't recover from those breaks on their own. After the ski snapped I swallowed my pride and gave up some of my weight.
Alan had a lifelong dream to travel by foot to the South Pole before what was left of his vision deteriorated. He asked some of his closest friends if they'd be willing to help. We, as Polar Vision, realized we had no funds for an expedition, no relevant polar experience, and were trying to do something that had never been done before. We found a trainer, we found funding and equipment sponsors, and we built an outstanding support network for ourselves while we were on the ice.
The best moments of the expedition, whether during the planning phase or during the actual movement, were when we were open and honest with what we were trying to accomplish, when we needed to accomplish it, and where we thought those accomplishments would lead. This openness and honesty led to collaboration and let our supporters really be a part of the expedition.
As for the expedition itself, it went as well as we could have hoped. We completed it with no injuries and ahead of schedule. A major part of success was emphasizing safety, rather than speed. We decided early on that if we avoided taking unnecessary risks and focused on the movement of the team, then speed would come. This turned out to be true. We budgeted enough food and fuel for 45 days and finished in 39.
There is room for improvement when we turn to our next projects. I would have revised some of the pre-trip social media outreach we conducted in order to try and create more of a community mindset headed into the expedition. I would have changed the way I identified members of the visual impairment community and changed the way I approached them about the expedition. Still, overall the team is very proud of how we functioned.
The story of the trip is something we're working together to tell. We already have some invitations to speak. In a way, this is the most exciting part of the project because it allows for face to face interaction with people excited about the project. We've done a lot, we still have a lot to do.
In late September we introduced you to team Polar Vision, Alan Lock, Richard Smith, and Andrew Jensen, three recent MBA grads who are trekking to the South Pole to raise awareness for visual impairment. While on their journey, the team will be filing periodic blog posts. This is their final post.