Learning a Big Life Lesson in Antarctica

Clearly, a cruise around Antarctica is an absolute dream trip. We’re so grateful to have had the experience, to have made our acquaintance with the Adelie “bad ass” penguins (my favorite breed, though you can’t help but love the gentoos and chin-straps, too), admired gradations of color in icebergs, and were pampered onboard Silver Endeavour (trust me, a comfortable, cozy, home-away-from-home really matters when your days are spent so ruggedly). It was inspiring to experience a new world with fresh eyes.

To enjoy the experience, particularly the most rugged parts, is absolutely do-able as long as you have the right gear — and we appreciated the extras from Silversea, like the parka, the rental of boots that were incredibly maneuverable and that also kept us dry and warm, and the waterproof pants.

Zodiac Cruise, Hope Bay, Antarctica
Zodiac Cruise, Hope Bay, Antarctica

As we’re headed home from Santiago tonight, what stays with me, though, is something else, something even more than all this (the mind boggles). In all seriousness, following replacement knee surgery just over a year ago, Antarctica seemed to suddenly have gone out of reach. I simply didn’t think I could do it with the (new) odd-feeling knee that didn’t feel quite balanced, and the cranky old other one that hasn’t yet been fixed. I tried to rationalize that there were plenty of new adventures on the horizon even knowing that Antarctica might not be one of them.

As I sit here, waiting for the long-haul flight home, what stays with me is the fact that I experienced Antarctica, even with my newfound physical imperfections! I did the hikes (not all of them but a good chunk). I walked for long, flat stretches in places like Deception Island, and trekked uphill, steeply, in so many other landings. I learned that a Nordic walking stick (thanks, Silversea, for providing) is a huge gift, whether you’re in Antarctica or on a city street.

Most of all I learned, freshly, the power of people. This was my first expedition voyage. Before the trip, when I thought about what expedition guides do, I assumed they gave us information (based on their fields of interest, such as ornithology, marine life and history, even Antarctic navigation). And yet: they do so much more than that. They get us safely on the Zodiacs, even in rolling seas. They help us out of the reinforced rubber boats, when we beached on land, this time against occasional breaking waves, rocky steps that the guides actually carved from ice that morning, and uneasy shoals underfoot. They waited for us around every bend at every landing, sure, to provide information (usually quite fascinating), but here’s the thing. They also kept an eye out for passengers who might, for one reason or another, have to work a little harder to reach Antarctica’s summits.

My issue was confidence (my knee works fine, my balance is a little off), and from the second landing, Filip, Jamie, Claudia, Alexandra, and others knew when I’d need a little bolster before I did. It goes without saying (well, almost) that expedition team leader Marieke was also incredibly intuitive.

And there’s more. There was one landing that was pretty tough, straight uphill, a lot of rocks, a bit of steepness, some sliding, and at the top some elephant seals awaited. I forgot to pick up the Nordic walking stick, and a fellow guest whose name I do not know, insisted I wait while she got one for me. At one point the precipice was so steep, I signaled that she and her two friends should go ahead, and I planned to give up, head back down. She wasn’t having any. “You are not giving up as long as we are here,” she told me, fiercely, and it literally felt like there was a trio of angels sitting on my shoulders. I made it to the top that day.

For me, it’s clear that this trip, this travel around Antarctica, had triggered more issues about confidence than about physical fitness. Now that I’m on the other side of it, all I can think about is when are we coming back? The guides, the guests, they inspired me at a time when positive inspiration is very hard to find. I am still not what I was in mastering the unearned confidence I had in earlier days, but huge progress was made.

And at the end of the day, there are still more penguins to meet, more icebergs to decipher, and more new types of sunset cocktails in Silver Endeavour’s Observation Lounge to sip.