A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
"I was on Antarctica for two summers, which are our winters [in the northern hemisphere]. The United States has three bases on Antarctica. I worked for the newspaper out of McMurdo Station, the Antarctic Sun. My job was to write about the scientists there. Before I went, I had to get a physical and a dental exam. If you go for the antarctic winter, which I never did, there's also a psychological exam. They didn't worry about us going crazy too much in the summer.
"Everyone flies to LAX, and from there you fly to Auckland and then to Christchurch, New Zealand. In Christchurch, you go to this big warehouse and get suited up with two sets of long underwear, hats, balaclavas, snow pants, big ol' gray tube socks, these boots called bunny boots that go halfway up to your knee, and then this crazy giant red parka everyone calls Big Red. You get all this crap, and you get assigned a military plane to fly to McMurdo. Fairly often, the weather intercedes and you don't get down there on your first try.
"There aren't really windows on the plane, just little portholes at the front and back, so you go from New Zealand to Antarctica not really seeing the transition. You get out, and suddenly you're on a sheet of sea ice, with these incredible mountains on one side and McMurdo Station on the other side, with a volcano behind it. It's called Mount Erebus, and it has what looks like a cloud sitting on top of it, and it took me a while to understand that that's actually steam coming out. You get put in a vehicle with giant tires, and they drive you to the station, and that's your new home for four or five months.
"I don't think the station is how most people picture it. It's not a collection of igloos connected by underground tunnels or anything like that. It's a little town, basically. An ugly little town. Very drab, lots of beige and gray. It was originally built by the navy in 1955.
"Everyone lives in dorms. There's nowhere to go where you are not around other people. You're eating with about 1,000 people. You see the same people in the gym, at the bar, in the bathroom, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, everywhere. You make friends at a very accelerated rate. It's really hard to date someone down there, because whether it's going well or not, you see them constantly.
"I got to go into the field with scientists maybe once a month. Anytime you went off station, you were required to bring all your heavy winter gear, in case a storm came up and you couldn't get back. I got to go to the South Pole for a day, and there was no question I needed it there. I was there on a very warm day—it was 17 below.
"But most of the time, it was warmer at McMurdo than it was in Chicago. The whole continent's a desert, so it has that dryness which makes it feel warmer than it is, and the sun's out 24 hours a day. Twenty or 30 degrees was a normal day much of the time I was there. I've been way colder in Chicago than in Antarctica."