It’s four A.M., you’re in the midst of a bleary-eyed hoard of people dressed in super-thick red parkas and comically bulbous white boots. You’re being herded, like cattle, onto a giant military aircraft. In five hours your flight will be landing on a sheet of ice. The cargo door will open and you’ll be aware of the frigid temperatures, but that’s not what consumes your attention. The vastness, the Seussian landscape, the overbearing brightness of the sun are the things that try to wrestle your senses into submission, but your senses have no frame of reference from which to draw on so your experience becomes nearly incomprehensible.
You’re in a helicopter, flying over what appears to be a topographical model of Mars. The ground below you hasn’t seen rain in millions of years. The aircraft lands; supplies and people are shuffled, the aircraft takes off again, repeating this ritual a few times before landing at a remote fuel station. While the helicopter is being refueled, you’re treated to fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies. You board the helicopter and depart for “home” – but you don’t go directly home. See, it’s early February and the sea ice is in full retreat. The helicopter hovers just over the very edge of the ice – where it meets open ocean. The point where ice meets water is teeming with wildlife; seals, penguins and orcas all feeding on krill. You don’t know it now, but in a few years, you’ll get to experience what krill tastes like when it’s served at a celebratory mid-winter meal. Through the headphones built into your flight helmet, the pilot’s muffled voice says something, but you’re too immersed in the experience to hear it or really even care what is being said.
You board a ship at the southern tip of Chile. For the next 11 days you will be sailing to Antarctica. Several days into the cruise, the ship sails into the caldera of a volcano. A volcano – you’re sailing INSIDE a volcano! You’ll go ashore aboard a rubber boat. On the beach, you dig a pit that rapidly fills up with geothermally heated water. As the impromptu hot tub becomes too hot for comfort, you dig a trench to allow cold water from the ocean to mix with the hot water, creating a pool of absolute bliss. A few days later, the ship enters the Neumayer channel. The surrounding landscape is so pristine that it appears as if it were a painting. Nothing this beautiful could be real, could it?
You’re road-tripping from Colorado to Utah with nine people you met only a week ago. You’ll go on a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. You’ll commiserate with your new friends about the absurdity of Utah’s liquor laws. You eventually find yourself combing the desert for clues which will help you find a “lost” doll. In this unlikely desert environment you are training for search and rescue in Antarctica. You’d like to believe that you have now seen the pinnacle of absurdity, but you know better. On your way back to Colorado you stop at a roadside diner where you meet an ex-con turned artist who is so open and interesting that you will always remember him and his story has become irreversibly enmeshed with your story.
Job satisfaction is attained when you are 40 miles away from town and the ambient temperature is 40 below. Your behemoth tracked vehicle breaks down, stranding you; your mind is the only resource available to get you out of this situation. The difficulty of each task is magnified by whiteout conditions, windchills exceeding 70 below and only a couple of hours of daylight. Though it takes three days, there is no describing the feeling you have when you manage to get yourself out of this mess with no external support. You now have a new yardstick with which to measure possibilities and you can’t imagine how grave a situation would have to be for you to think of it as impossible.
You see seas as smooth as glass and a landscape that looks like it was colored by an eight-year-old girl*. You and your friends are going to enjoy a day of boating. You’re surrounded by icebergs that are bathed in a hue of blue that is absolutely indescribable and unimaginable. A blue so deep, pure and bright that your eyes try to refuse that you are seeing it. Penguins are porpoising beside your boat and in the water you witness the serpentine grace of a leopard seal. The sea ice has set up in places, and at times you think that all forward progress will been halted by it, but alas you get through and around the next bend you’re confronted with another vista of infinite beauty.
You step outside on your way to work. The temperature is an inconceivable 80 below. Your first thought might be that you need to expedite moving between buildings – but then you see it – the sky above is lit up with colors not of this earth. The lights dance against a backdrop of stars so thick that if it were called the “creamy way” that still wouldn’t be descriptive enough. The temperature isn’t even noticeable as you’re mesmerized by the light show above. You realize that this is what the sky will look like for several more months.
Imagine that your circle of friends includes several people who have terrain features named after them or who have summited Everest (and other notable peaks) multiple times, though these people certainly aren’t boastful of their accomplishments. Imagine that one of the best meals you’ve ever eaten was prepared in a tent, 800 miles from running water. Imagine that you’re one of a handful of people who has seen the once-per-year sunrise at The South Pole.
All of these things that you’ve experienced are part of your job!
These things are only a minuscule part of working in Antarctica, but over time these threads are woven into the fabric of fond memories and revered experiences.
Most of the time, working in Antarctica is drudgery, pure and simple. We have hellishly arduous conference calls, awful fluorescent lighting, a never-ending mountain of bureaucratic red tape and ineptitude, budget struggles and a vast array of nonsensical corporate rules, as well as many of the other things that people deal with in their jobs each and every day. We have all of that AND we have the problems created by extreme weather; and we have to wash dishes and scrub toilets, yet all who come, and especially those who return, do so because the experience, as a whole, surpasses imagination.
I’m often asked why I keep coming back – the short answer is usually something along the lines of “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand” – but when I actually stop and think about how privileged I am to get to do some of these things I realize just how badass it is to work in Antarctica.
*paraphrased quote from Neal