As you may recall, I interviewed Todd Carmichael (and his future fiancee Lauren Hart) in late November about his upcoming trek to the South Pole. Well, in December he joined a very small fraternity of folks who have succesfully made that hike, as he walked over 70 miles through the frozen tundra of Antarctica in an effort to hip people to the plight of the orangutan. Uh, yeah. Orangutans are highly endangered, and will be extinct in just a few years unless something drastic is done. So, in an effort to raise awareness, this coffee entreprenuer attempted the most insane stunt he could think of. In this follow up interview, you’ll learn about the isolation of the trip, the hikers who didn’t make it, and the hardcore scientific gurus who hang out at the South Pole.
Johnny: First off, Todd, tell me a bit about the flight down. When we spoke before, you said you were more frightened by that aspect of the trip than by the actual trek to the South Pole.
Todd: It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was a little uncomfortable, because I was sitting on top of fuel drums for the full flight, but it didn’t live up to my greatest nightmares. And it was a little weird to be flying with an oxygen mask on.
JGT: The cabin was unpressurized?
Todd: Yep. And it was weird, because I brought a sandwich, and to eat it, you gotta pull off the mask, take a bite, chew quickly, and put the mask back on and try to catch your breath.
JGT: How long was the flight?
Todd: It was about seven hours. We took off from a town called Punta Arenas and landed in an ice field. It’s a field than forms when wind comes over a mountain, drives into the snow cap, so no snow can accumulate on it. So it’s real slick. The problem is, you have a cross wind, that’s how it’s generated. So you have to land on this thing, on tires, and when that guy hits the brakes, it is just full on.
JGT: Is this the only place to land down there?
Todd: Hercules is the name of the military base, and if you lose a leg or something down there, they might fly you out of there, but for big planes like we were on, this is where you come in. And we’re on a plane that’s bringing in fuel for the South Pole, to run the generators.
JGT: For researchers?
Todd: Yeah, you basically just hitch a ride. Now that landing marks the day you stop showering, brushing your teeth, using any type of hygiene, and it is just freaking cold. Amazingly cold.
JGT: Why is all hygiene impossible?
Todd: Because water just freezes immediately down there. And I thought I was going to be all slick and bring wet wipes, but they just froze immediately, too. And then you’ve got the problem that it’s so cold and so dry. People don’t realize that it’s so dry, because there is absolutely no humidity. So just breathing, you lose two gallons of water a day. That’s not even exercising yet. So your big battle is dehydration.
JGT: Kind of like Todd Pinkston’s.
Todd: Yeah, exactly. I don’t even want to go there. I mean, come on, dude, just eat a banana. Anyway, you burn a lot of calories. Because of the altitude and because of the temperature, your body goes into overdrive to keep you warm. So you burn about 7,000 calories a day, and you can’t eat that. So it’s a race against the clock, and your body is just deteriorating.
JGT: How do you fight off dehydration when everything freezes immediately?
Todd: You just melt snow. Your day is like this. In the morning, well actually it’s always morning. But you wake up around five, you melt snow for like three hours and you try to eat something and keep it down. And the first four or five days, because of the altitude change, you get altitude sickness, and you can’t keep anything down. And you’re eating instant oatmeal, and that’s all you’re eating. After three hours, you start pulling. You’d think everything would be slippery, but it’s not. It’s more like sand. That was the first shocker, and I was like, “Aw man, I’m screwed.” It’s like dragging a sofa across the beach with people on it.
JGT: How much weight were you carrying?
Todd: About 250 pounds.
JGT: And that’s on a sled?
Todd: Yeah. You wear a harness around your waist and your body is on a 45 degree angle from the start until the end. And you’re hiking about 12 hours a day.
JGT: Now how many people were in your group?
Todd: There was a team of people who had done the world’s tallest mountains, and now they wanted to do the poles. So you think, “Well, they’ve climbed the seven tallest mountains in the world, they’re good.” So they hook up with us. So in total, seven left, and four arrived.
JGT: Four arrived?
Todd: Yeah, the winds down there are about 75 miles per hour. And if you’re not careful, your going to lose things. And one lady in our group lost her tent, and dove after it, and lost a glove. Now you’ve got about 20 seconds without a glove on before things start getting scary. She runs after the tent without a glove on, doesn’t get it, and by the time she gets back, her hand is a mess. So they had to evac her out. One guy shredded his achilles. Another person just had mental problems, just crying, crying, crying.
JGT: And these are people who had climbed the seven tallest mountains in the world?
Todd: Yeah. But it’s different than climbing a mountain. Because with this, you don’t have the feeling you’re progressing. There’s no reference. And it’s the dehydration, and it’s sleep deprivation, too. Because it’s light, and that plays with your head.
JGT: So is it light 24 hours a day?
Todd: Oh, yeah. We arrived on December 21st, and that was the highest it ever gets. And it looked like eight in the morning. And the sun just keeps spinning in a tiny little circle all day. So we left the three of ’em in a tent. And that day it was like 35 below zero, and it was blowing hard, and we said, “Good luck”, and kept walking.
JGT: So what happens, people come to get them?
Todd: Yeah, and they’re saying, “We have to wait for a weather window.” They’re always waiting for weather windows. So they came and got them, and they were back at base camp by the time we got there. And she was ok. Her hand was ok. It just burns.
JGT: So it doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in?
Todd: No, and the weird thing about frostbite is that you don’t feel it. There’s one guy in the group, this geologist, built like Vin Diesel. He put tape over his nose, but didn’t cover it with his mask. We check each other out every hour and I looked at him, and I was like, “Dude!” It looked like someone had held a lighter under his nose. Burned hardcore. And he’s like, “What?” See it attacks the nerves first, kills the nerves, then burns them. So it wasn’t until later that night that he’s back at his tent, screaming for his momma. But he made it. He was a warrior. But he had to sleep outside, so he could stay cold. Because once his nose got warm, he was screaming. But he was one of those guys that was just going to make it. He had that look in his eye like, “I don’t care if I miss a limb. I’m goin’.” He’s been planning this for like 15 years.
JGT: So seven people went. Four arrived. What was the motivation for the other people to do this?
Todd: One lady, her name was Kay, an English lady, she was trying to raise money for leukemia. And here’s the thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever climbed mountains or anything like that.
JGT: Uh, no.
Todd: Well, when you start, you look at the team, and you think, “Alright, who’s gonna make it, and who’s not.” And I’ll tell you who always makes it. Middle aged divorced women will kick your butt. So she made it.
JGT: Okay, so you’re doing this for over a week straight, and nothing’s changed, the scenery hasn’t changed, nothing has changed. What’s going through your mind? Do you ever think, “What the heck am I doing?”
Todd: No. It was a lot different than I thought. I thought it was going to be this real lonely quiet thing. It’s not. One thing, you get stripped down to the core. There’s no food, no water, you haven’t slept. You’re frozen, everything’s going wrong. It strips you down. And what you find there is a whole kaleidoscope of your life. And there’s just so much to see. Not to sound schitzo, but you sort of have conversations with people, and you come up with all these ideas. And not to sound like, “I see dead people…” but I found myself like conversing with my grandfather, who passed away years ago.
JGT: So it’s like a deep meditation?
Todd: Yeah, and when in life do you really get a chance to do that? There’s nothing to interrupt your mind, that’s what it is. And people say, “Well, what can you think about, because there’s nothing in your field of vision.” And what you realize is (get ready for some heavy alliteration.-ed)that the things that are in your field of vision are the things that stop you from thinking about things that you would think about without them there. Only one time, I had a really bad day, and other people in the group were really falling apart. So I started taking on other people’s weight. And that was getting to me. The other thing that was tough is when you get within two days of the pole and you can see the pole, and it…just…doesn’t…get…any…closer. And then, get this, they’ve got some experiment going on right before you get there. There’s this like giant antennae that’s trying to pick up stuff from the big bang. But it goes on for like two miles. So you’re within 300 meters of the flag, and you’ve got to take a detour around this thing. So that was a bit of a mindbender. I mean, all around it, it says, “High Voltage,” but after hiking for a while, I was like, “Screw it, I’ll take my chances.” So anyways, we hike around that thing, and get to the base and there’s a bunch of scientists there. And they give you a tour of all of there scientific experiments, and it’s so interesting.
JGT: So there’s a base camp right at the South Pole?
Todd: And the stuff they are working on is just so surreal. I mean, you got guys working on capturing quasars, these guys are way out there. These guys are just like this unbelievable brain trust.
JGT: So these dudes stay there for months on end?
Todd: There’s only a couple of people who stay through the winter. I mean, that’s when the sun goes down and you lose all contact with the outside world. But in the summer there’s a population of about forty scientists, and we’re talking Rain Man times ten guys, way out there, they’re just switched on hard.
JGT: How long did it take you total to get from landing in the plane to the South Pole?
Todd: I was on the ice for almost a month.
JGT: So how many people hike there in a year?
Todd: I don’t know, but I got my stamp that authorized that I was the 272nd human to walk there.
Todd: Yeah, ever. (About 700 people have climbed to the peak of Everest.-Ed.) So that’s my new lucky number. And you get your passport stamped, and that’s a good one.
JGT: Did you get to sleep indoors that night at the base or did you still have to sleep in a tent?
Todd: You sleep in a tent.
JGT: The scientists that live down there, do they have an indoor sleeping area?
Todd: Yeah, they have habitats. They have showers and stuff. They don’t take you in, because then they would have to take everyone in. So you’re walking through the habitat, and you see the showers, and it’s like seeing the Holy Grail, man. Sometimes people get stuck there for weeks waiting for a weather window to get out, so I thought I might as well kick back and relax. But we got a call the next day, they said, “Hey, the window’s open” and they flew in and got us. They called up and said we’ll be there in four hours. I spent Christmas day in Santiago on Christmas, and got back into Philly on the day after Christmas, and I’m 25 pounds lighter. It was just like, “Wow, four days ago I was standing on the Pole and now I’m home.”