"THOSE ARE THE professional dreamers," says a forklift driver of his fellow South Pole denizens in Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary tour through Antarctica. "They dream all the time, and, I think, through them the great cosmic dreams come into fruition."
Mikey Kampmann, sometime Portland comedian and kale evangelist, shares that spirit. Watching something like Herzog's engrossing, high-definition film wasn't enough. "More than anything else," Kampmann says, "I wanted to get to Antarctica." After netting a cooking job at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Kampmann got his chance.
Sunday at Mississippi Studios, along with comedian Ian Karmel and bands Brainstorm and Interiors, Kampmann will detail the exploits of life and science in the 24 hours of sun and extreme cold atop nearly two miles of ice in one of the most inhospitable, hard-to-reach places on earth. He'll show pictures, video, and interview a scientist from the station.
What was the draw of Antartica?
I've gotten in to this kind of extreme travel—the idea that there's no such thing as bad travel as long as it's intense.
I thought: this is as close I can get to space, like as an astronaut. It's like entering a whole new world. Don't say 'whole new world,' that's awful.
Humans aren't supposed to live there. For me, that was something that was appealing. It's weird, but yeah. More than anything else I wanted to see that landscape for myself.
How'd you manage to get there?
I applied for the one job that I thought I had a reasonable shot at getting, so I applied to be a cook and a week later I was offered the breakfast cook position at the South Pole station. And once it was the South Pole I knew instantly that I was going to go. I could not turn down the opportunity to go to the South Pole.
Were there physical tests to getting hired?
A whole medical, physical qualification including blood work and dental work. When I took the blood test the results came back and I had this really rare condition where I had too much iron in my blood—most people are deficient. And I know 100% for a fact that it was because I was eating too much kale. It has to be, man. I was working at the farmers market and I'd been eating so much kale. So I had to stop eating kale for two weeks and then I re-took the blood test and luckily I was able to pass.
Is working on the research station the only way to get to the South Pole?
There is extreme tourism where people go to Antarctica. There's the trips to Antarctica where you go to the coast and see penguins. And then for the really rich people you can go to the South Pole and it costs somewhere between $40,000-$60,000. You get flown in. We would watch them from the window. They get out of the plane, they have one hour to take their picture and leave.
And you just wonder, why is that worth it to you? What does that mean? So you can go home and put a picture of you on the South Pole on your wall? Were you ever there? Did you take a moment?
What was getting there like?
First I went to Denver, Colorado, where the US Antarctic center is located. Then from Colorado I flew to L.A., from L.A. to New Zealand, then to Christchuch, New Zealand for three days of training and to get our gear. It's called extreme weather gear. Then we took a military C-17 to McMurdo station in Antarctica. McMurdo is awful.
We got delayed in McMurdo for 12 days, waiting for good weather to go to the South Pole. We were the first in to the South Pole after their long winter. When we got there the people looked rough. There's a term for it: "toasty," in relation to their look and social skills. Finally we took a LC-130—a HERC, it's a badass plane—2 1/2 hours from McMurdo to the South Pole. It's an exciting flight.
What was your first impression when you stepped off that plane?
Fucking cold! It was negative -49 1/2 degrees ambient with a windchill of negative -89. We thought McMurdo was cold but McMurdo was negative -3. The jump from -3 to -49 1/2 is huge.
I got off the flight and in the first two minutes, through three layers of gloves, my hands were going numb. I was like, are you fucking kidding me? How am I going to survive here?
At that point, were your fear and anxiety levels like, oh crap, was this the right choice?
No. I knew. I knew. I knew from the minute I got on the plane from Portland to go to Denver I was doing the right thing. I think most of my fear was: can I cook breakfast by myself for 250 people every day for the next four months. That was the thing: You're there to work. You work your ass off.
They tell you, especially for people who it's their first time, when you get there for the first time your adrenaline is pumping so hard but you have to take that day to just chill out and sleep and let body acclimatize, because it's also at 10,000-feet elevation.
That's one of the coolest facts about the South Pole: If you took the ice away the landmass underneath would be 300 feet above sea level. The South Pole is essentially sitting on two miles of ice.
It's cold and dry—which makes it a great place to do scientific research. That's kind of the irony of it.
What kind of science do they do there?
The main scientific research they're doing down there is telescoping. The particularly dry climate with the long winter nights basically allows for great telescoping conditions. And that's not looking at stars. It's more, what they're doing, a very specific kind of mapping using telescopes that are checking the cosmic microwave background. Basically it's light in the universe that's still from the big bang. They can essentially learn information about how the world was created. [Laughs]
It's pretty rad. That's why I think I had a problem with standup comedy when I got back. I'd been interacting with people who were doing incredible science and stuff like that and all of a sudden I felt like, I'm going to go up on strange and talk about my lunch?
They must be people at the top of their fields?
It's also like science camp for them. They're all together all the time and they can get laid and stuff like that. The scientists down there, I think for them it's as fun—this is their chance to get out there and get their hands on a project and also on each other.
How widespread is that? Is it really a fuckfest?
People are definitely having sex down there. A lot of sex. I really stayed away from it because I was—I'll be careful what I say. Just from a personal standpoint I wasn't attracted to most people down there.
People are lonely-ish, down there. I should be careful what I say. They hand out free condoms in every bathroom at the South Pole. It would be a pretty common sight to look around the room—it was 70-30 percent men to women—and there'd be a girl standing there and she be surrounded by five guys. Women have all the power!
Is there a drama that surrounds that? People getting in fights over one another?
I personally didn't have any drama with it. I made out with one girl, one night, drunk. Whatever. But there was definitely some drama going on. It's an isolated, small community. There's going to be drama. Everyone knows everything, etc, etc.
Are there people on Antarctica and the Pole that don't leave? Does anyone call it home?
Yeah, definitely. There are people who consider Antarctica their home because at this point in their life it's where most of their stuff is. But there is a rule: the longest you can stay in Antarctica before leaving is 12 months. And if you do an entire year—which is a summer and winter—even then you have to leave the ice for a season and then you can come back. One of the guys down there had just spent his 16th or 17th winter down there at the pole.
Wow. Could you see yourself going back?
[Exhales] You know, it has a way of drawing you back into it. I think if I got an opportunity to go back to Antarctica later in my life to do something that I really cared about—as opposed to just cooking eggs—then I would probably go. But when I left I was pretty sure that was it.
You talk about the isolation, and the small number of people. What was that like?
The isolation thing, you're not personally isolated. You're surrounded by people. You see people every day. The isolation is more: We're 850 miles away from the next group of people. It's also a communication isolation... 8-9 hours of internet and phone a day. That's a lot, actually.
The isolation was more just that you can't just leave the station and walk down the block and suddenly be in some other zone. You're there and it's an extreme environment outside. And you're there until the end.
Any difficult times because of that?
Oh yeah. There were times where I was so close to just saying 'fuck it' and asking to leave.
What made you feel that way?
I realized what I had left behind was a community of people that I really loved and that culturally they were inspiring and stimulating. At the South Pole I had a community of people that I was interacting with and that you learn to enjoy and make the most of. But at the same time I had my life back home. And I'm getting worked like a dog. We were working 10 hours days six days a week. I'm from SE Portland. I'm used to working like 20 hours a week.
So that was really hard. Some days at work I'd just have to put my head down and get through the next hour. It made me a tougher person. It's a blue-collar community. From the workers standpoint, it's blue-collar.
Any moments where you or anyone else on the station were in danger?
Luckily no one physically got hurt. People got asked to leave or they got fired and flown out. Usually it happened because of drunk behavior. There's a lot of drinking down there.
In order to take photos and make some of my videos I put myself in situations where I was dressed in basically a tank top and clothing that I shouldn't have been in.
So that was not as form as it might've appeared?
No, no—it was very, very cold. The picture of me where I'm standing with the kale and the "kale" tank top around the south pole, I was outside for five minutes and it took 36 hours to get the feeling in my ears back.
Shut the fuck up.
I'm dead serious. I was really nervous about that. I was super nervous. Because it was my first week there and I was really excited to take that photo.
There's this thing down there: if you get hurt you're not supposed to go to the doctor, because there's a lot of bureaucratic paperwork that ends up getting them mad at you. So I just played it cool and just kind of kept waiting for my ears to feel normal again. And eventually, after 24-hours they started to come back.
But it was worth it!
So while there you started a blog, Mikey Going Down. It seemed to gather some steam.
Oh yeah, definitely. First of all, I thought blogs were dumb. I'd never had a blog before and never really read a blog.
And so when I first started blogging at the request of my friends and family. I had a couple friends who have more of an internet presence and they started re-blogging some of it. And then it just started to grow from there. It got featured in the Tumblr spotlight. And all of a sudden my blog was next to Anthony Bourdain's blog. I was just like, wow, that's pretty cool.
The climax of feeling that following was I received a couple pieces of mail at the South Pole from people who read my blog that I had never met before. And that was really special.
Any particular moments that stand out?
Well, I got the opportunity to cook breakfast for the Norwegian prime minister, and that right there I don't think i'll ever get the chance to do that again. And he loved it.
And then also the tunnels—the ice tunnels that are dug 50-ft below the south Pole into the ice—which were this really highly restricted area that you needed permission to get into. I was able to go down for my first visit. Then I went for another visit and another. And by the time I left I had gone down enough times that they just allowed me to go down there for myself.
The very last thing I did before I left the South Pole—the very last thing I did, the plane was arriving in an hour—I went for one last visit to the ice tunnels. I'm down there all by myself, 50 feet below the ice in this extraordinary environment and I took a moment right there. I was like, this is unlike any other thing in the world.
What made you want to do the show?
Well, the blog was successful, so that told me it was an interesting subject that people have liked and they like the way I presented it. And then when I got home everyone I'd see would just immediately start asking questions and just genuinely interested in the life down there. And normally I would get board of answering those kind of questions but a part of me was like: I'm more than happy to do this because I'm aware of the fact that I have gotten to go to a place that a very small percentage of people will ever get to go. And if I can offer an almost education event where I can show that, that's what I want to do.
The blog is being made into a book, and once that's done it seems like a way to wrap a nice, neat little bow around the whole experience. The book will be completed by August.
What have you got planned for the show?
I have that performance side in me. And I went to such an extraordinary place. The show will be pictures and descriptions of the life down there, including the science and the day to day stuff. Also, we're celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Roald Amundsen making it to the south pole, which I was down there for.
I'll be interviewing a scientist from the south pole. And i'll also be presenting my videos from Antarctica, which are more of comedic performance pieces from that time down there.