Sunday, October 24, 1999

Forrest's Path

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Those crystal-clear blue eyes. They’re the first thing you notice when Forrest McCarthy sits down in front of a group to give his opening lecture at the Field Safety Training Program. One-on-one, they lock on to you and never let go, like a visionary to a dream.

It’s been a long journey, through Boy Scouting, on road trips as a Deadhead after high school, on rock climbs in Colorado, treks in Nepal, and beyond. Forrest lives the dream, and made it back to the Ice this season after three years away.

Recently, he helped start a program to prevent drug and alcohol addiction among Inuit youth near Nome, Alaska. “The white guy from Wyoming was taking the Eskimos into the wilderness,” Forrest laughed. He even got to make the Eskimos do Eskimo rolls while teaching them to kayak, a traditional Eskimo skill which has been lost over the past couple of generations.

He said they were enthusiastic learners, but they had some wisdom to impart of their own. “My background is ‘leave no trace,’” he said, “and these people have been part of the ecosystem for thousands of years.” Modern backcountry methods weren’t the norm for his students.

“I’d tell them to filter their water, and they’d just look at me. They’d been drinking it all along,” he said.

Forrest has been drinking the water of Antarctic lore for years now. “I remember asking my mother if all deserts were hot, and she found an article in the encyclopedia on the Dry Valleys.” He was about 5 years old at the time, and ever since, has been interested in Antarctica.

Over the years he learned more, getting a big picture book for Christmas the year he was 10, and, later, meeting clients in the Tetons who had been grantees on the Ice. He even met Buck Tilly, a longtime sea ice safety instructor, who helped Forrest get an interview for the position at FSTP.

He didn’t come back after that first season, choosing instead to finish his college degree in outdoor education with a minor in human ecology. But his return now, older and perhaps a bit wiser, gives him a rare perspective on changes around McMurdo.

The Field Safety program has a bigger role now, he said. “No one goes out in the field, except maybe the National Guard, without going through training.”

Also, he finds that people and offices throughout the U.S. program are using the expertise of the Field Safety staff more, for planning routes over sea ice, or scouting potential deep-field landing sites. “We’re being used more as a resource,” he said.

But Forrest is not just a nice guy who teaches you how to get along in the cold. A member of the search-and-rescue team, he’s one of the people who will show up in a tracked Hägglunds vehicle in whiteout conditions, pick you up from your feeble snow shelter, and get you warm and dry and home in bed.

One day a week, Forrest and his colleagues on the SAR team train. They alternate between practicing scenarios with the primary team and helping to prepare the secondary team for the winter, when they become the primary team.

There’s more high-tech gear available to them now, and more experience with the equipment, which Forrest said leads to better training. He’s very happy with the capabilities of the new SAR vehicle, a Hägglunds outfitted with GPS and radio direction-finding equipment, but warns against feeling overly confident in bad conditions just because there’s a great rescue team with good equipment.

“It’s an incredibly powerful tool, but it shouldn’t be a crutch,” he said. It’s a lot like your town’s first aid squad getting the Jaws of Life: You don’t drive faster and more recklessly just because they can get you out of the wreck when it happens. Forrest encourages safety, and he teaches people how to practice it in the outdoors.

He does so by combining the best outdoor-equipment technology with traditional skills, choosing FDX boots, the government-issue boot modeled on the Eskimo mukluk, and building snow-dome huts with lightweight snow shovels.

Every so often it goes a bit far: At McMurdo Dome, he said, “We made an igloo once cutting the snow blocks with chainsaws.”

His Antarctic experience, while broader than most, is still limited to the official U.S. Antarctic Program. He’s never done any commercial expeditions in Antarctica, but has a client who hopes to climb Mount Vinson, the continent’s highest peak. Maybe Forrest will get to help with that trip.

Antarctica’s a tough environment in which to live and work, but Forrest still said, “I truly believe the world would be a better place if more people got outside.” He helps make it possible for that to happen safely, even here.