The Antarctica Experiment: Best Laid Plans

Credit: Ted Hesser

Yvon Chouinard once said WHEN EVERYTHING GOES WRONG—THAT’S WHEN ADVENTURE STARTS. If that’s true, then my 5-week expedition to Antarctica was the adventure of a lifetime. Not only did things go wrong, it seemed that nearly anything that could go wrong, did. And while I’m no stranger to adversity or physical suffering to achieve an objective, I can honestly say that this was the most trying and at times, psychologically demanding trip I’ve ever been on. But, let me start at the beginning...

In May of 2019, I summited Mount Everest in record-breaking time, going from my home in San Francisco to the top of the world and back in 2 weeks. At the time, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. For reference, most Everest expeditions take about 2 months, to allow for acclimatization and multiple rotations up and down the mountain before the final summit bid. But, the physiologist in me wanted to know if it could be done faster, making only one single push up the mountain from base camp and limiting time on the mountain and exposure to objective hazards. As it turned out, my “lightning ascent” of Everest was a success and I managed to gather real-time biometric data from the “death zone” (altitudes > 8000 m/26,000ft) as part of my PhD research.

I received an invite to meet the design team at Marmot HQ less than a month after returning from Everest. The Senior Designer, Aubrey, was eager to show me a prototype for the new 8000-Meter suit, and how the redesign would allow for more female-friendly sizing. (Backstory: My down suit on Everest had been heaps too big and, despite aggressive alterations, I had struggled to move efficiently under its bulk). Half serious, I mentioned how a suit like that would be great from my upcoming expedition to Antarctica, just 6 months away. Intrigued by the challenges of this adventure, Aubrey and the Marmot team quickly stepped in to support the trip, including gear that was custom made for me. Better yet, I would be first in line to test out the new insulation technology, WarmCube™, that Marmot was launching later in the year. As someone who works in Research and Development (at GU Energy Labs, a sports nutrition manufacturer best known for the ubiquitous energy gels seen at marathons and beloved by athletes worldwide), I knew the value of field testing and athlete feedback, and I was thrilled to lend a hand. Plus, we would conduct preliminary testing on the suit in an environmental chamber in Japan, which could replicate all sorts of environmental conditions, including rain, solar radiation, wind, sub-zero temps, and blistering heat. My inner nerd rejoiced. In August, I signed on as an athlete/guinea pig for Marmot and hopped on a plane to Osaka.

Credit: Taylor Morgan

In Japan, we spent two full days simulating the harshest mountain environments possible while I wore the 8000-Meter suit and walked uphill on a motorized treadmill. A big screen that dominated one entire wall of the chamber projected mountain scenes, making the sterile, stainless steel chamber seem a little livelier. Meanwhile, the control room technicians monitored my body temperature and used infrared cameras to determine how effective the WarmCube technology was at insulating me from the cold, wind, and rain. I felt a bit like the proverbial hamster on a wheel. The suit was perfect, however, and I knew it would do the trick in Antarctica, where I planned to climb the continent’s highest peak, Vinson Massif, ski to the South Pole, and climb the highest volcano, Mount Sidley. It was an ambitious itinerary, never attempted in a single “season” (i.e., austral summer, opposite of the northern hemisphere) by any female, but I rationalized that it made sense to do everything at once, since the logistics of simply getting to Antarctica are one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. It was going to be the longest and coldest expedition I had ever undertaken.

Credit: Taylor Morgan

Antarctica was a special project for me. It was the last continent I had yet to set foot on, and the culmination of my mission to complete the Seven Summits, by scaling the highest peak on each continent. Of course, I would be collecting data again, since much of what we know about polar exploration and physiology is largely based on military research and predominantly involved men. I saw another opportunity to provide insight into the unique requirements of female athletes in extreme cold, and high-altitude environments. From a nutrition and exercise physiology standpoint, I wanted to know what happened to a woman’s metabolism and thermoregulation during prolonged polar travel. How many calories were burned at rest and during activity? How much of that was from fat versus carbohydrate sources? Did body temperature regulation change over time to adapt to the environment? How stressful were all of these things—environment, exertion, limited nutrient availability—on the body during 30 days or more of exposure?

Credit: Taylor Morgan

To test these questions, I wore a custom garment designed to monitor astronauts’ vital signs at the Space Station. That’s right, I went to the folks responsible for keeping astronauts safe in space (Astroskin, Carre Technologies) in order to continuously monitor my biometrics. Energy expenditure, heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, blood pressure, EKG, oxygen saturation, all of these vital signs, basically the equivalent of a wearing a hospital bed, would be recorded during my trip. In an inconspicuous tank top embedded with advanced sensors, tucked away underneath my WarmCube layers, I would be a walking science experiment at the end of the Earth. Sure, it would cost me a few extra pounds worth of equipment, but what the heck, this was for science.

In early December, I packed up my life—quite literally—in preparation for my trip to Antarctica, the world’s driest and highest desert (true story). I moved out of my apartment in Berkeley, California, packing my furniture and non-polar gear into storage, while also packing two giant duffels for the frozen continent, and sending two additional duffels ahead to Australia, where I was heading directly after my trip to continue my PhD research studying the physiology of heat. It was no small task packing my life away while simultaneously packing for the needs of both the coldest and hottest environments (the Australian summer is no joke) I had ever encountered.

I had my custom gear, nutrition, and scientific equipment packed, along with so much cold weather gear I was certain I’d never stop sweating. I had everything dialed…or so I thought. As it would turn out, in my packing frenzy I had managed to overlook a couple of key pieces of equipment that would have serious consequences on the mountain. Despite my meticulous planning, the 10% overage for food and other consumables, which usually covers me on expeditions, was no match for the conditions I would face. I flew out of San Francisco on December 14th, heading for Punta Arenas, Chile, where I would catch a flight on a repurposed cargo plane bound for Union Glacier, Antarctica. Adventure, and disaster, awaited.