Here We Go Again

I’m not an expert, but when people ask, I have plenty of opinions about what it takes to get into, and survive the US Antarctic Program. The main points all come down to different flavors of the same thing: be ready to cheerfully go with the flow and pitch in, wherever that flow goes, no matter how abruptly or frequently it whiplashes into a new direction.

When things change, it’s easy to dismiss the “I know we told you X yesterday, but today it’s Y” as mindless flapping. But as big and bureaucratic as it seems from the outside, the entire program is a miniscule strand in the unfathomable web of federal allocations, policies and procedures. And when things whiplash halfway around the world, pretty much every one of those folks, whether driving a desk at headquarters, shoveling snow at Pole or holding down a line on the back deck of an icebreaker is doing what they can to hold things together and make stuff work with what they’ve been given from the next rung up on the ladder. So the way to survive, to further the program’s scientific mission in Antarctica, and to basically be a decent person, is to stay on your toes, be ready for the next whiplash, and say “Thanks for the heads up – I’ll do what I can” when it comes. Then do it.

Which explains why, instead of being in California this afternoon with my lovely bride, I’m riding in the back row, corner pocket of Alaska Airlines Flight 620 from Seattle to Denver.

To back up a little, some of you may remember this marine software project I’ve been working on for the past eight or so years. The inspiration was to improve the data collection capabilities of Antarctic research vessels, and it’s kind of spread from there. The code is open source, and I’d begun planning to use it as an excuse to travel: “Hey, pay for me to come out to your ship in [some exotic location] and I’ll get your system set up for almost nothing.”

But two things got in the way of that. First, you know, COVID. Second, we appear to have made the code so easy to set up that no one actually needs me to come out. Which, I have to grit my teeth and admit, is a good thing in the grand scheme of the world. Because, you know, Science. By now, I’ve lost track of how many ships and other installations are running it, and the computer infrastructure of the next generation of US research vessels is being designed specifically with it in mind. So I’m going to call this a win.

But seasickness and puking aside, I still like getting on ships and working on code for them. So I’ve done what I can to keep deploying with the Antarctic Program and others when I can. All of that’s been curtailed because of COVID, of course. And while I have managed to spend time working on my favorite icebreaker, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, over the past few years, that’s all been in little stints while it’s in port, either up in California or down in Punta Arenas. My manager has been doing his best (see above!), but the last time I saw water off the stern of any ship I’ve worked was…oh dear, six years ago.

Leaving the NBP in McMurdo, January 2017

Well, fast forward to 2023: a slot finally came up, and it was a slot I’d been coveting for years. Y’all know I spent that one season at the South Pole, and have been through McMurdo a couple of times, but in none of my deployments on ship or land have I ever made it to that tiny, elusive third US base out on the peninsula: Palmer Station. Mind you, last month while Devon and I were playing tourist on the MV Seaventure, we cruised within 20 miles of Palmer. But with the bulk of Anvers Island between us, it could have been on the far side of the moon.

Palmer station photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

And I have an actual valid reason for wanting to get to Palmer Station. They’ve got a data collection system gathering meteorological data. And while it’s a fine little system, it was cobbled together quite a while back, and even the cobblers agree that updating it with this bit of code I’ve been developing would be a Good Thing.

So my manager managed a bit of organizational Tetris and found me a slot on the schedule this coming May. I’d be riding the NBP from Capetown to Palmer Station, then back up to Punta Arenas. Woohoo! I mean, May was when I was hoping to be in Ireland again, but any slot is a good slot, and (see above) if I could help out by going in May, then by jiminy, I’d go in May.

Fast forward a couple of weeks more, to last Thursday when some things shifted on the other side of the world. And when the grand logistical game of Mousetrap that keeps this program going adapted, my manager was left with a Pablo-shaped hole in the middle of next month instead. I’d be heading to Palmer Station straight from Punta Arenas – any chance I’d be able to shift and take that one? See above.

The problem is that March is just a wee bit sooner than May, and the whole Security/Background/Physical Qualification process that I’d begun would need to get, well, accelerated a little. Think “Plaid-level” accelerated. Tesla Plaid.

My background and security check paperwork was already in the hands of the relevant powers that be, but the physical qualification – aka PQ – process was still in my hands. It involved bloodwork (I hate needles. I really hate needles.) A physical exam. Eye exam. Dental exam. Other exams I’d rather not discuss. EKG. X-rays. Etc. Etc. All to be collected and collated and sent to Antarctic medical specialists in Texas for evaluation and recommendations. And the challenge with speeding this up was that the earliest appointment my local healthcare provider could give me was still a week and a half out. This put a bit of pressure on the planners: if they got me slotted in and ticketed for deployment and my vital stats came out awry, there’d be no time for them to find a replacement.

Pages and pages of checklists like this.

But around the corner from USAP headquarters in Denver is a medical center that churns PQ evaluations out like popcorn. I called, and they said they could take me any day this week. All I had to do was get my body to Denver.

And so here I am. (See above.)

13 responses to “Here We Go Again

  1. Wow, going back down at the end of summer. Good luck, and I hope you don’t encounter too many violent storms on the way there and back.


  2. I hadn’t meant to make the PQ process sound quite so self-sacrificing. I mean, the Denver trip doesn’t even scratch my frequent flier miles. And while the seats are more comfortable in my favorite coffee shop, I can work on my laptop almost as well at 35,000 feet. Better, if you take into account that I’m not tempted to pop online to check news or webcomics…


  3. Wonderful! I am so glad I found and follow your blog. I am interested in travel, adventure, science and most of all, it what other people do for a living.
    Barring the fact I came back from Vietnam with hearing loss and had bad eyes until my cataracts were replaced, I too have been blessed with exceptionally good health. But then, the little matter that I will soon turn 79 and have no scientific background makes it unlikely you will ever see me down there. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of my first thoughts was “And after the exam I can swing by HQ and see Elaine, and BK and Peter and…oh.” Still going to swing by HQ if Mary lets me in :), but will be sad that so many folks who welcomed me to the program won’t be there. Will do on SW, though!


  4. This is such great news Pablo! I’m really excited, and happy for you! I can hardly wait to read about your work and adventures.




  5. Loved the intro – and glad you finally made it, though I’m exhausted just reading about your getting there.


  6. Pingback: “Strangely enough, it all turns out well…” | David Pablo Cohn·

  7. Pablo, I’m sorry you got Covid and glad you came through it well and are on your way back to what you love. Excited to continue reading about your adventures.




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