Welcome to the Ice
Standing on the edge of an ice runway, shielding my eyes from a sun that shone like frozen lightning, I watched the last Air National Guard LC-130 maneuver into place on a pair of massive skis, pause, and then leave me at the bottom of the world. Trailing a cloud of swirling snow and exhaust, the gray-and-orange plane rumbled across the ice, gradually gaining speed and then rising, almost imperceptibly at first, into the air. Even airborne, it moved slowly, and I watched a long time before it disappeared into perfect blue skies. By now, the only sound was the cold breeze blowing past my face. I stood there for a moment. This is it, I thought. I'm really here. I am spending the winter in Antarctica.
My life in Costa Mesa had already gone south. I was jobless, for one thing, since the company I was working for had gone out of business in the fall of 1997, and the prospect of another employment search seemed incredibly unappealing. But there was a deeper restlessness within me, too. For 22 years, I had lived in Orange County, working everyday jobs, spending too much time on the freeways only to pay bills that ate up entire paychecks. It seemed there must be more to life.
The farthest I'd been away was Mexico. And so I complained. One of these griping sessions was dumped on a friend who had been to Antarctica. She asked me: "Why don't you go down to the Ice?"
The thought had never occurred to me. Not just that I could go to Antarctica, but also that I could do something so spontaneous. Now it was a revelation. I could have an adventure. I could visit a strange land. Suddenly, I was invigorated. I wanted to look for a job-in Antarctica.
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I called Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) in Englewood, Colorado (800-688-8606), where an automated message told me how to go about applying. (There's also an ASA Web site at www.asa.org.) They sent me a packet in the mail with job listings and information. There are many different jobs, and people especially skilled-for example, in plumbing, carpentry, electrical or heavy equipment-have a better chance than people like me. So I relied on enthusiasm, making it clear that I would take any job available, even a janitorial position. Once I got in touch with a human being at the Denver office, I called him every week just to say hello. I went through my physical and got all the papers filled out quickly and returned them to Denver. My strategy was to be so persistent that they'd have to give me a job and send me to Antarctica just so I'd stop bugging them.
What is typically a difficult process-some people wait years for the chance-was surprisingly easy, as if by some coincidence of timing, one door had closed as another opened. Soon afterward, on a November morning, I received a phone call from Denver: in two weeks, I was to be on a plane headed toward the continent at the South Pole, all expenses paid. The call was so exhilarating that when a cop ticketed me for running a stop sign on my way to the store, I didn't care. It would be my last ticket for a long time.
The next two weeks were a blur. I threw the meager contents of my apartment into storage and said my goodbyes. At my going-away party, I was given a large lumpy package. Tearing away the paper and ribbon, I found a big bag of ice.
After a tearful farewell with my mother at John Wayne Airport, my first stop was the New Zealand headquarters of the U.S. Antarctic Program. By the time I arrived in the city of Christchurch after 14 hours in the air, it seemed the world had been rearranged. These turned out to be only the typical realizations of a first-time traveler-cars traveling on the left side of the road, English spoken in lilting Kiwi accents, my blow dryer useless because its plug didn't work in the electrical outlets.
But the next day's changes were anything but typical. At the U.S. Antarctic Program headquarters, they wasted no time getting down to the crux of what life in my new land was going to be like: I was issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, including a huge down-filled red parka with a fur ruff around the hood, and layers upon layers of polar-fleece garments. A day after that, I was on a military plane, seated shoulder to shoulder in cargo-strap seats, outfitted in full ECW gear. After an eight-hour flight, the LC-130 landed on the frozen seas of McMurdo Sound.
I'll never forget stepping off the plane and laying my eyes on Antarctica: it was the purest white all the way to the horizon, where it collided against a blue sky so bright you couldn't look at it without sunglasses. Jagged mountains 100 miles away were visible in perfect detail. And there was the wonder of stepping directly onto solid, bluish ice.
I immediately went to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program, a mostly scientific mission that brings 1,200 people to McMurdo during the austral summer. Those who aren't scientists are part of their support crew. The job that had lured me to the bottom of the Earth? I was an attendant in the galley.
My first summer on the Ice was an endless, exhausting routine of cleaning tables, mopping floors and washing dishes. McMurdo is the largest station on the Antarctic continent. It's nestled on the end of a peninsula on Ross Island, just off the coast of the mainland, which includes Antarctica's only active volcano, the 12,450-foot Mount Erebus. McMurdo's industrial-looking buildings, dirt roads and heavy equipment give it the look of an old mining town, but its history is rich with other kinds of exploration that date back almost a century. After my shift, instead of sleeping, I explored, too. A half-mile walk out of town stands Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut, which was used as a staging location for his Antarctic explorations; it's maintained as a memorial to the highs and lows of Antarctic consequence. Scott, a British patriot, had hoped to be the first man to reach the South Pole, but he arrived there to find that a Norwegian had beaten him by a month. On the return trip, Scott's five-man party perished in a blizzard 11 miles from life-saving food stores.
Considering Scott changed my perspective. Despite hard work and long hours that should have felt deadening, I had never felt more alive.
One day, I was invited to the beach-for a swim in the icy waters of McMurdo Sound, a stunt nicknamed the Polar Plunge. I awoke that morning to weather that was disturbingly appropriate: a storm had hit, and the snow was blowing sideways. A quick check with the weather channel reported the wind chill was 20 below. But I was becoming Antarctican, so when the shuttle van arrived to take us to Scott Base, the Kiwi station about a mile away from McMurdo, I obligatorily climbed aboard. There was still plenty of Orange Countian in me, however, and during the trip, my mind was numb with apprehension at the prospect of flinging my naked body into the 28-degree, ice-filled waters of McMurdo Sound.
About 20 of us, all women, prepared for the Plunge in a tiny, heated building steps from the shore. The atmosphere inside the hut crackled with excitement. We stripped off our clothes and waited our turn. Someone had brought body paints, and we painted ourselves with flowers, lightning bolts and words of courage.
Then it was my turn. I stepped out of the hut and proceeded down a wooden walkway, naked except for a small wool blanket around me. Walking to the edge of a plank, I saw a wooden ladder attached directly to the side of the icy shore. It descended eight feet into a hole cut in the ice to the dark, freezing water below. It all happened very quickly. I dropped the towel, a safety loop attached to a rope was placed over my head and around my waist, and in a split second, I jumped into the water from the top of the ladder, knowing I'd never make it in all the way in if I descended the ladder rung by rung. I hit the water and went under. Like film running frame by frame, I remember looking up through the surface and seeing the wavering images of the people standing at the edge of the hole in the ice above. In the very next second, every cell in my body screamed, "GET OUT!" I clawed my way to the ladder and ascended to safety, gasping for air. As attendants wrapped a blanket around my dripping body, adrenalin took over. Suddenly, I felt warm! I wanted to stay outside and watch my friend go in next. But I came to my senses and headed for the warm hut. It was 15 minutes before my feet stopped feeling like they were on fire.
While recuperating over hot drinks and chips in the Kiwi bar, I noticed a telescope positioned by a window-aimed at the very spot where we had just been. Those clever Kiwi guys! Looking through the scope, we noticed it was the men's turn to plunge. Now who's clever?
Before summer's end, I had fallen in love with Antarctica. I wanted to come back again, and I even toyed with the idea of staying through the winter. But I returned to Costa Mesa to work through the Northern Hemisphere summer.
Home wasn't the same, however. Or perhaps it was too much the same. My daydreams would always carry me back to Antarctica, especially during those smoggy days sitting in traffic on the 55 freeway. I longed for the simple purity of life on the Ice.
Months later, I was back at McMurdo Station, and it felt like a real homecoming. I quickly settled into the routine of dorm and roommate living, 10-hour workdays and six-day workweeks. But I also reached further into the purpose of this enduring expedition into Antarctica's unforgiving environment. It is science, yes, but it becomes more. Two scientists invited me along to Cape Royds, the site of another exploration hut and an Adelie penguin rookery. We traveled by Ski-doo over the frozen ice of McMurdo Sound on a perfect, sparkling summer day-about 40 degrees, which is a virtual heat wave in Antarctica. We sped along a well-used route marked by evenly spaced flags on bamboo poles, designating the safe path of travel over the sea ice. Suddenly, I thought back to my life in Orange County, and I realized with startling clarity what a strangely different life I was living here. An image of myself stuck in the seemingly endless river of cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour entered my mind and then diffused into the pure white "road" that was in front of me now. The Antarctican landscape spread for hundreds of miles without a sign of human disturbance. As the sun reflected off the snow-covered surface of the sea ice, it ignited prisms of colors in the snow like endless fields of diamonds. I was mesmerized in a way that totally heightened my senses, making me aware of beauty in its most minute displays.
And then the Antarctic heaven became complete-the angels came, black and white and walking funny. We stopped the Ski-doos and waited on the ice in silence that was thorough except for the sound of breath and the occasional rustle of fabric. It took about 10 minutes for the Adelie penguins to reach us. We spotted seven of them in the distance-small, strangely humanoid forms, their bodies tipping back and forth as they walked, their flipper wings held out from their bodies for balance. One occasionally flopped on its belly and pushed itself over the ice with its hind feet, like a toboggan. They stopped about 8 feet from us, inspected us, flapped their wings and made strange grunting-greeting?-noises. We inspected them, too. It is simultaneously odd and wonderful to have a wild animal approach you rather than flee from fear. But although penguins can get a little nervous around humans, they do not recognize us as predators. The creatures they fear lie under the ice: leopard seals and orcas. Although it is tempting to touch them, it brings a $10,000 fine if you're caught, but everyone refrains out of respect for these amazing creatures. Eventually, they continued on their way, on some mission unknown to us.
We spent the rest of the day at Cape Royds, exploring another hut from another turn-of-the-century expedition, this one led by Ernest Shackleton. Crates of weathered food and supplies still surround the hut, amazingly preserved by the frigid cold. A broken crate revealed spilled wheat flour, yellowed from time but still in powdered form. The skeletal head of a husky is visible just inside a wooden doghouse. An opened crate filled with jars of salt still sits undisturbed. Inside, the hut is dimly lit by a few small windows. It is curiously still and quiet, but history reverberates in a way that feels unnervingly close. A cluttered collection of various food stores in antique tins; equipment, including sledges (large sleds for hauling supplies); and scientific instruments line the walls of the hut. A huge coal-burning stove is at one end, with cast-iron pots and pans still sitting on its surface. Pinned to the wall, yellowed and cracked, are the original plans used to build the hut. The date on them is 1908.
To the west is the Adelie penguin rookery. Thousands of them dot the rocky hillsides around the cape, nesting and guarding their eggs and chicks from Skuas (Skoo-ahs), feisty Antarctic birds that look like huge brown gulls. It's a lot different from Sea World.
On the way back to McMurdo, I explored the caves within a glacier; the ice caves were formed by the melting and refreezing of ice on the fringes of the Erebus Glacial Tongue. Crawling through a hole in the sheer 20-foot wall at the edge of the glacier, I descended into the cave on an aluminum ladder. It was beautiful. Light filtering in from above created luminescent aqua-blue highlights. Light glittered off ice crystals covering the walls. Ten-foot icicles descended from the ceiling. Other formations looked like giant mushrooms. I slid on my belly through a small opening near the floor to another cave; it was darker and glowing bluer, with more extraordinary crystals lining the walls. Some of these crystals were 3 inches across and hexagonal in shape, with rings emanating from the center like the rings of a phosphorescent tree. Running my glove lightly along their fragile edges produced a faint symphony of chimes, like a rattled chandelier. And then it was back to McMurdo.
People are apt to be drawn to summers in Antarctica from just about any sort of life, from waitresses to Wall Street stockbrokers. But they are not just anybody. Something special motivates them to break away from the cultural norm to spend months in a place at the end of the Earth, where the average temperature is well below freezing. For some, it's another stop on their world travels. Others have made a life of coming to Antarctica. Whatever, being so far away from the real world has an effect on life in McMurdo that is not unlike summer camp.
But now I am going beyond that, facing my first winter in Antarctica. I've wanted to do this since my first day on the Ice, and now it is happening. The days are growing shorter at the alarming rate of 15 minutes per day. A few days ago, at the end of April, the sun set, and it won't come up again until late August. As Southern California heads for another season of sweltering summer temperatures, Antarctica heads for its seemingly eternal night. Imagine going to lunch at noon and seeing the moon and stars above!
Or imagine this: the 191 of us who have decided to spend the winter in Antarctica have all but separated ourselves from the rest of the human race. There are no flights in or out of the continent for the entire winter. That means no mail, either. We have to make the best of the resources we have here. Part of my job this winter is to drive a tracked vehicle called a Spryte out onto the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to the Pegasus airfield to take regular snow-depth measurements on the ice runway. I have learned the Global Positioning System in case I need to navigate back to town in a whiteout. I will sometimes face wind-chill temperatures of 90 degrees below zero.
There is nothing I'd rather be doing. My life is forever changed by this mysterious, dangerous and hauntingly beautiful land. This vast expanse of uncomplicated whiteness has become soothing to my eyes and my soul. Life at McMurdo is unpretentious, simple and fun. There is no dress code except for what is necessary to stay warm. My huge red parka is my best friend. Things boil down to what really matters, not having the newest model this or that. I find it refreshing to have only two choices of toothpaste in our tiny store rather than face a wall of indecision at stores back home in Orange County. There is tangible camaraderie, and the friendships formed here are special because of sharing this challenging environment. I even found love this summer, and my days of dating disappointment back home are fading into the distance. In Antarctica, at the bottom of the world, the restlessness in my soul is-at least for now-quiet.
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