Hanging in Randy Skinner’s bedroom is a framed photograph of a flat, icy landscape that extends almost forever until it melts seamlessly into a white, unfriendly sky.
Skinner hung the photo so he would not forget lessons learned in Antarctica, where he survived a fierce Christmas storm, frigid temperatures and weeks missing his family while camping on an ice sheet.
The Hermiston native and Brigham Young University geology professor flew to the Earth’s southernmost continent in late 2010 as part of a polar research team. The five-person team camped for several weeks, traveling by snowmobile and drilling a series of ice cores. With grant money from the National Science Foundation, the researchers gathered information to determine at what rate the layer of snow is shrinking or accumulating.
Skinner had embarked on the expedition at the last minute when a colleague had to withdraw from the trip. Though he would miss Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, Skinner volunteered after his wife Dedi encouraged him to go.
A year ago November, he and four other scientists climbed aboard a plane bound for McMurdo Station where they had “10 days of training of how not to die.”
Skinner, 45, and four 20-something researchers set out into the wild with snowmobiles, traveling about 60 miles a day. The adventurers dressed in layers of long underwear, fleece, a wind shell and bulky red goose down coats with compartments for hot water bottles.
“I looked like the Michelin Man,” said the 1984 Hermiston High School graduate.
Skinner said the researchers did not fret about their waistlines, consuming 6,000 to 8,000 calories each day and burning them all. A sticker on the wall of the McMurdo Station mess hall reads “Don’t be afraid of the butter.” He and his comrades took the challenge, frying almost everything in butter and eating pounds of chocolate.
They hauled the food along with a radar sled, drilling equipment, camping and kitchen gear and other supplies like cases of hand warmers.
The team quickly got into a rhythm. Skinner’s job was to drill ice cores to label and store for later study. The layering would offer data about snow accumulation.
Except for bright coats, tents and snowmobiles, their world was white and featureless. On cloudy days, they lacked even the sky for reference.
“On some days, we couldn’t tell the difference,” Skinner said.
Only a small amount of Skinner’s face was exposed to the elements, but he still suffered frostbite and sunburn. He quickly learned to put sunscreen inside his nostrils after a nasty burn inside his nose.
If the Antarctic had a chamber of commerce, it would do well not to hire Skinner as director. The geology professor quoted British explorer Robert Scott who wrote of Antarctica in his diary, “Great god, this is an awful place.” Scott reached the South Pole in 1912 to learn that a Norwegian expedition led by Roald Amundsen had beaten him there. Scott and his exhausted team never made it home.
“It’s a harsh environment,” Skinner said. “It’s so lonely — there’s nothing there to love.”
Nothing drove home this impression harder than a raging storm that pinned down the team a few days before Christmas. Wind ripped at their tents and brought the wind chill to 60 degrees below zero. They built walls around their tents for protection.
“Several tons of snow drifted in,” Skinner said. “We shoveled constantly so our tents wouldn’t collapse.”
To stave off exhaustion, they broke the day into two-hour shifts. During his shift he shoveled, boiled water and delivered hot beverages to the others in their tents.
During the ordeal, his mind drifted often to his wife and his children, Keylea’Shaye and Brennon. He was appalled to realize he had put his family behind everything else, wearing his busyness like a badge of honor. If he made it home, he vowed, his priorities would change.
“It was an abrupt revelation,” he said. “I had been borrowing time from my family and not giving it back.”
Skinner remembers feeling intensely lonely when he placed a Christmas Eve call to his family on a satellite phone and could not get through.
Back in Hermiston, Randy’s father Malcolm Skinner was concerned about the storm, but figured his outdoorsman son would be fine.
“He’s the kind of person who can take care of himself,” Malcolm said.
Finally, on Christmas, the storm passed. The team finished its work and returned to McMurdo, where Skinner took his first shower in almost two months. From there he flew to New Zealand, where he smelled grass and flowers again — scents absent in Antarctica.
Skinner said his time at the bottom of the world changed him forever, focusing him on home and family. The Skinner clan now spends mealtimes and Sundays together sans television, telephone and friends, going for drives and playing games. When his priorities waver, Skinner simply looks at the photo of Antarctica and feels the loneliness roaring back.
“I was in Antarctica to make me a better person,” Skinner said. “I came back a different man.”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.