MMAAH documentary: Yosemite in Antarctica

4 Feb



Guest Blog from friend at Topline Magazine, Chuck Watson



It might be best to begin with a short introduction to the US Antarctic Program (USAP) for those that are not fully immersed with the details of the United States’ involvement with the continent of Antarctica.  The US currently operates 3 full time year round research stations, several other temporary or seasonal camps, and two Scientific Research Vessels all scattered about this cold empty white landscape.  There is the relatively massive McMurdo Station (1000 people strong), the South Pole Station (coming in at 120 people), and lastly Palmer Station with about 40 people.  Both the McMurdo and South Pole stations are accessed by aircraft flown through the country of New Zealand, meanwhile Palmer Station can only be accessed by ice breaker which you reach in either Chile or Argentina.  The US maintains these stations, camps and vessels for the sole purpose of supporting scientific research on this last truly wild continent.

This is my 9th time in Antarctica – having started with the USAP in 1999.  Overall, I’ve spent a sum total of about 2 years of my life “south of 60” which is another way of saying south of 60 degrees latitude.  In that time I’ve come to establish a genuine appreciation for these colder climes.  Antarctica itself is often summed up like this:  It is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, and loneliest continent on Earth.  It, like Alaska goes through extended periods of 24 hour sunlight in the southern summer and equal but opposite periods of 24 hours of darkness in the southern winter.  The communities of the USAP are tight knit, hardworking, and fun loving.  People from all over America commit anywhere from a few weeks to 14 months of their lives at a time to either perform or support the activities of science.  We do everything from operate massive & complex astronomical telescopes, to plying the frozen oceans in search of wildlife, to washing dishes and everything in between.

This year I am deployed to Palmer Station, and it’s my first time to this small but charming facility.  It itself is located in an archipelago on the small Island of Anvers which can be found on the Antarctic Peninsula just south of Chile and Argentina.  The station is nestled right up against the water of the Hero Inlet – a small bay that provides some refuge from Antarctica’s unforgiving waters.  The facility is small but comfortable,  offering dormitory style berthing (1-2 to a room), incredibly well prepared food, a self-service bar, a TV Lounge, craft areas, a cozy “living room” with a fire place where we eat, full service Internet through satellite connectivity, and laboratory space for all the scientific efforts.

People pass their off time here in a myriad of ways; there are devotees of card playing, avid and astonishingly productive knitters, ping pong tourneys, and as you might expect, good movies.  All of these pursuits are taken pretty seriously, so when we get a chance to see something inspiring, adventurous and new we get pretty excited.  Combine that enthusiasm for movie night with a story about through-hiking the John Muir Trail in California (of which some of our population here has hiked as well) and we pop the popcorn, pour the hot drinks and settle in for a long night in front of the “big” screen together.


Movies that are still on tour in the United States like Mile… Mile & A Half are tough to get down here and take a lot of preparation to obtain.  I coordinated with The Muir Project crew roughly two weeks prior to movie night so we could get a copy of the movie downloaded in time to show here.  I should mention that while we DO have 24 internet connectivity, it isn’t that… robust.  That being the case, I set up the movie to download through the online service, VHX, over the night time hours.  The next morning I came to a fully downloaded copy of MMAAH – or so I thought.

Sunday, November 4th at 730PM came at me fast.  We eat dinner at 530PM and that’s followed by G.A.S.H. or Galley and Skullery Help.  GASH is the process where we, the non-cooking population of the station, pitch in to help clean up the kitchen and common areas after dinner every day.  I was assigned to GASH duties on the movie day which left me precious little time to prepare the movie ahead of time.  After cleanup I ran over to the TV lounge and rigged up the movie through my laptop.  The crowd, popcorn in hand – became immediately transfixed by the scenery.  Green is a color not too often found this far south, so witnessing California’s rugged peaks and lavish evergreen trees melted our snowy souls.

Then, in true Antarctica fashion, we were thrown a curve ball when we least expected it.  It seems our downloaded copy of the movie had somehow errored out at some point during its download two weeks earlier which had rendered the movie unwatchable at the 30 minute mark.  Thinking fast, my fellow IT coworker and I sweated through several minutes of troubleshooting the file until we ended up switching gears away from watching the downloaded copy and towards using VHX’s amazing streaming service – using it to pick up where we had left off.  Even with our sketchy internet, which is traditionally notorious for hobbling online streaming videos, the VHX service came through for us and carried on the torch as best it could to finish the last hour of the film.

Like true Antarcticans, the crowd easily endured the unplanned delay and the sporadic periods of video buffering.  Again, we were captivated with images of lofty alpine peaks, warm sunny days, and that ever precious greenery.  After the showing everyone gave a happy round of applause and heaps of thanks.  Later, the movie inspired numerous conversations of trails gone by and trails we were all eager to hike someday.


For several days afterword, my fellow ‘station-mates’ would ask me for more information on the movie – where it was available and how they could get a copy.  They loved it and I loved showing it.  The Muir Project srew produced something special with Mile… Mile & A Half and that certain specialness was not lost on us Antarcticans – despite the yawning miles in between us and the greener pastures of California’s John Muir Trail.