Monday, August 31, 2009

First American Trekker to the South Pole:Todd Carmichael

Todd Carmichael

Todd Carmichael, explorer and founder of La Colombe coffee, "the premiere coffee roasting company in the United States" was recently interviewed by Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY-Philadelphia Radio, an NPR station. After barely escaping with his life, he has returned to offer his life lessons and some details of his incredible hike across Antarctica.

What did he do and where did he go? Carmichael trekked solo to the South Pole, departing from Hercules Inlet, Antarctica November 12, 2008 and arriving 702 miles later at the South Pole on December 21, 2008 after a total travel time of 39 days, 7 hours and 49 minutes, breaking a world record. It's an uphill journey to 10,000 feet above sea level. He walked about eighteen miles a day with no assistance and barely survived it.

Why did he do it? He said he enjoys trekking. Maybe three people had done it before, and 45 have tried. It had been done by "a Brit" -- Robert F. Scott and "a Norwegian" -- Roald Amundsen, but not by an American, and he wanted to be the first "American". He also says he wanted to "express freedom". It's the "coldest, driest, highest and windiest" place on earth and he thought he could do it, after making two earlier visits to the South Pole, once when he trekked 45 miles.

What are some of the lessons that he learned? He good-humoredly mentioned making his own "Constitution" of rules, and gave some really great advice all of us can use:

1) Endurance is good for people. Children should learn that, says Carmichael. "Hard things are good for you."

2) Be positive. Banish all negative thoughts. He said he constantly had to "get himself in a good position mentally" to finish the trek, because the wind is strong and demoralizing.

3) Keep going. The wind in the South Pole can be demoralizing because it is so strong and is working against the trekker.

4) Don't negotiate with yourself. No negotiations at all.

5) Don't get in your own way. Don't let your mind stop you. It's a psychological feat, because sometimes people's minds just "jack it in" as the body tires, and they can fail. Your body will get you there, but the mind must be strong as well.

6) Live in the moment. Plans, the past and future are great to ponder, but concentrate on the present.

7) "A stitch in time saves nine."

8) Talking out loud to yourself is okay if you're all alone, and have no one to talk to.

9) Believe in yourself.

10) He discovered for himself that the North and South Poles are "ground zero" in the environmental crisis.

What helped him to keep going? He said he felt his family was with him all the time, worrying about him, and he wanted to console them, but he wasn't able to communicate with them. He said his mind wanted to go to a comforting and safe place, for example, his grandfather's front lawn. He also wanted to return to focus on his wife and regain his health.

How did he prepare for the trek? Carmichael details preparing for the last few months with ultra endurance training for eight hours a day biking and jogging, strength training with machines, and roller skiing pulling a tractor tire on chains, and gaining thirty pounds before the trip.

How did he travel across the snow? He started out skiing but broke his skis the first day, so he walked. Instead of skiing for 10 hours a day, he walked for about 18, for 39 days straight, dragging along a sled on titanium rungs that he called "the pig" and weighed over 250 lbs., taller than him. He found it hard to judge distance and direction.

Did he have problems and what kept him going on his journey? He began his journey with electronic support, but then lost his communication gear, his phone and GPS, and was out of touch for most of it. He had an iPod with music which he enjoyed listening to and kept a journal. He only carried what would save his life.

Since the U.S. does not want to encourage South Pole treks, he was not invited into the U.S. station when he finally reached it, his final destination, but he was so weak he couldn't walk upstairs, and was also coughing up blood and needed food. But they let him in and fed him anyway. He said there is a sign that says "Do not feed the explorers". A doctor at the station said he probably would have died within the next 24 hours, but examined Carmichael and gave him a hospital bed where he could sleep. By the time he reached the station, he was delirious and hallucinating.

South Pole. Courtesy: Iceman's South Pole Page

Every winter, there are about 200 scientists visiting the American stations during the Antarctic summer and about 1200 seasonal visitors to the New Zealand station where there is a nuclear reactor. Carmichael said the American station is as large as a mall. He said the South Pole is marked by a pipe and disc, as seen above.

What did he eat? He ate 7,500 calories a day, a huge amount of food. Before he started his weight was 220 lbs. and when he finished it was 165. He carried his own food, fuel and tent on "the pig", and lots of sticks of butter and other foods to eat, but had to be sure his stove fire didn't destroy his tent. He also drank lots of water. He says that the pig was totally a "she" because he thinks women represent life and it came to represent life itself. By the end of the trek, he was out of food.

Why did he go alone? He went alone for many reasons. It was hard to find someone to push as hard as he could. Also, he had to eliminate all negative thoughts, and he knew he would be able to see pain if he looked at someone else. Also, he didn't want to have to negotiate with someone else and that others make your problems multiply. But there was also much danger in taking on the risks of going solo. He said he would have found other trekkers useful when he found himself inside three crevasses. But he said there are dangers also with going with others. For example, he couldn't rely on someone else to look after the stove fire, and if a stove fire destroyed his tent, he would not have been able to survive.

What was the weather like? It was usually about fifty degrees below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes the atmosphere was incredibly quiet and he was out all alone in it, but usually the wind was very strong. Catabatic, or downhill wind speed was usually about 50 miles per hour, but often it went over what the instrument could measure. There was also an unusual three day storm that dropped three feet of snow, which hadn't been seen since before 1977 when the station made records. He says there are many different kinds of snow, and they affected the speed of his progress. He says Antarctica is the driest continent and the wind starts at the South Pole, which is at the top of a volcano and spreads out across the Continent, reaching very high speeds at the shores of Antarctica.

Did he have medical issues when he finished the trek? It made his voice gravelly, which will improve. He got frostbite in his throat, which the doctor at the South Pole had to remove. He had problems with his face swelling painfully, his hands and everything swelled in the cold. He also had broken bones, especially in his feet, and infections.

Did he record it? Discover Networks has 120 hours of high definition recordings and Carmichael kept a journal.

What did he wear and where did he sleep? He had to keep the wind off his skin. Wind and water were the enemies. The goal was to not be too hot or too cold, as overheating is also dangerous, but he always felt cold.On his face, he wore goggles and a balaclava to tape up his face, and a snow suit with vents and lots of zippers to cover him (except when he had a potty break "as fast as he could.") Carmichael said his tent was a necessity. He said tents are better now than they used to be. When he slept, and he said he didn't sleep much, it was really cold, about 20 degrees inside. His tent wasn't canvas as earlier explorers had used, and it kept out the wind, and he used his stove to make water, to keep himself hydrated.

What did he do after the trek? He needed to recover for at least two months, because of his broken bones. After the trek he said he needed a lot of sugar, and "ate and ate" and gained 32 lbs. in the first two weeks, and regained his normal weight around 195 pounds. He said it felt like he couldn't eat enough. He also regained "the pig" that he abandoned the last day.

Todd Carmichael resides with his wife in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Carmichael is planning many more treks listed on his website, "Expedition Earth".

All in all, a truly extraordinary achievement as the first American and the first of a series of trekkers to reach the South Pole for a long time. Carmichael's story of extraordinary enthusiasm, personal courage and perseverance in the face of adversity truly captured my imagination. It's very inspiring, uplifting and escapist to focus on life and health in someone who is fortunate to have all of these traits in abundance.

Associated with Carmichael is a Facebook page, and a website for his coffee company, La Colombe in Philadelphia.

There is potentially a great book, and maybe a movie here, because it is not something most of us want to do, or even want our loved ones to do. It sounds like a wildly exciting trek and he left some amazing life lessons in the interview, and in the short movie recorded directly after his trek ended here in "Ice Stories". More details about his journey are linked here in "Men's Journal".

My gratitude for this inspiring interview, with apologies for inaccuracies.

1 comment:

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