In Antarctica, there are no days off. Not really. To live down here, you must work at one of the dozens of research bases and remote field camps scattered across the continent. Sustaining life is so difficult and costly that everyone—the scientists, technicians, plumbers, electricians, and chefs, like myself—is compelled to work all the time. Even on your day off, you often end up watching other people work. Or joining in. It’s all part of the constant adventure that makes up life on the ice.
Some of us were drawn here for the chance to escape from urban life to one of the world’s last true wildernesses. Around McMurdo Station, where I live, there are several hiking trails, the longest extending nine miles, much of it across a glacier with panoramic views of Mount Erebus’ smoldering crater top and the Ross Ice Shelf. There’s also mountain biking (outfitted with fat tires) and downhill skiing. When the wind is strong enough, we can kite-ski across the flat sea ice. There’s even a marathon every January.
Where else can you spend your downtime volunteering to drive a forklift or operate a two-megawatt power plant, no experience necessary? On my weekly rest day I volunteer as a dive tender—which means I spend hours out in the blowing snow lugging around equipment like rebreather systems and 360-degree virtual-reality camera rigs.
The scientific diving here is simultaneously some of the most extreme and most comfortable in the world. Divers must don thick dry suits to endure the 28.5⁰F water and navigate back to the hole they’ve drilled in the ice without the help of tethers. Yet they have helicopters and submersible scooters at their disposal, and back at McMurdo, amenities like saunas and, yes, 24/7 pizza—which is often made by me.
One Thursday—my day off—I dive-tend for Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor at Oregon State who studies methane-eating extremophiles. We drive two hours across the frozen sea ice to the base of Mount Erebus in a PistenBully, a smaller version of the machines that groom ski slopes. We occasionally stop to gawk at solitary Adélie and emperor penguins waddling upright across the endless frozen landscape. In our convoy is a towering drill, which in a few minutes cuts through the eight feet of sea ice. Then we roll our mobile dive hut, which is elevated on skis, over the hole. With the stove lit, it’s Tshirt weather inside. At one point, I get so hot I climb a frozen iceberg outside to cool off.
Famed explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott launched his ill-fated 1910 expedition to the South Pole just a couple of miles away. Later in the week, I visit his hut on a “rec trip,” an out-of-town excursion you win by lottery. Due to the extremely dry and cold environment, Scott’s iconic outpost—equipped for two dozen men to survive an Antarctic winter—has been frozen in time, with thousands of artifacts perfectly preserved, including a 100-year-old bottle of Heinz ketchup I come across in the galley. These rec trips are an essential way of keeping morale up, especially given how isolated this research station is from civilization. Of course, the isolation is part of life in Antarctica—as is the endless opportunity for discovery.
Prince Harry and Bear Grylls have explored Antarctica in environmentally sound, old-world luxury—featuring lodgings with leather club chairs, brass fittings, and a professional chef— with White Desert. An eight-night adventure will set you back 64,000 euros (about $68,000); a one-day tour goes for 9,800 euros ($10,500). Your guides? Actual polar explorers. white-desert.com
Cox & Kings
This Mumbai-headquartered luxury outfitter has been in business since 1758. They’ll spirit you to Antarctica from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, through the Drake Passage, where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans converge. Twelve-day trips range from $7,695 to $17,525. coxandkingsusa.com
Abercrombie & Kent
Abercrombie & Kent first took travelers to Antarctica 26 years ago, and they’ve been back more than 200 times since. You can expect top-tier service on an A&K expedition, with high crew-to-guest ratios and field naturalists, marine biologists, ornithologists, and other specialists leading the way. Prices range from about $15,000 for a 12-day adventure to around $21,000 for a 17-day excursion.