By Jack Vertovec
“Where to next?” my family and friends asked me after I returned home in April 2008 from a four-month stay among the cloud forests of Monteverde , Costa Rica. “I don’t know, maybe Antarctica is next on the list?” I would sarcastically answer. I knew a few people who had made the epic journey south but I never thought I would actually get there, certainly not while I was a CU student.
But after a while I started to daydream about the cold and dry southern tip of our planet. I talked to friends who had been there. They told me if I really wanted to go, I certainly could. That was all the encouragement I needed. In a matter of, well, quite a few months I was shivering on the enormous continent of Antarctica.
Getting hired and physically qualifying for the United States Antarctic Program is a long process. It took over six months. There were stacks of paperwork and tons of doctor appointments to attend.
When I was finally hired, I hopped on an airplane bound for Christchurch, New Zealand on Oct. 13, 2009. From Christchurch I took a military plane down to McMurdo Station in eastern Antarctica. This would be my new home for the following five months.
McMurdo Station, on the Ross Ice Shelf where it meets the Ross Sea, is essentially a work camp where up to 1,000 people live during the summer. It’s the largest station in Antarctica. (Eight countries claim territory in Antarctica and researchers from 27 countries spend time there.) Everyone at McMurdo works 10-hour days six days a week as a support team for the scientists. As you can imagine, most of the work is labor intensive and your one day off is a good time to relax and recreate. I spent most of my days off playing basketball and recovering from the Saturday night party.
My job on the ice was as a general assistant for operations. Every day was different. Some days I worked with the fuels team and other days with engineers working to solve problems on the roads made of ice and compacted snow. I also worked a lot on the general town infrastructure. Twice I got the chance to leave McMurdo and go to research camps in various parts of the continent.
The first time I left town, I went to a research camp in the middle of Eastern Antarctica. The camp was named AGAP (Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province Project), where researchers use ground-penetrating radar on a mountain range located two miles beneath the ice sheet. It’s located at roughly 14,000 feet above sea level in one of the most remote places on the planet, and about 20 people are there at any one time.
Since AGAP is so high, I had to acclimatize my body at the South Pole, which is 9,000 feet above sea level. This took three days. During these days, I had to take it easy and take a prescription drug called Diamox. While at the South Pole, I prepared mentally to be in arguably the most remote place on the planet during the Thanksgiving holiday. I knew I was going to be at a place that is unbelievably flat and white. I also knew that I would be staying in a tent for 12 days in a place that doesn’t get much warmer than minus 35 degrees.
Once at AGAP, the carpenter team and I took on the challenge of uncovering 12 tent-like structures that had been buried by snow drifts over a long winter. It took us 11 very long and strenuous days. Thankfully we got Thanksgiving Day off. On turkey day we ate a full feast made on three Coleman camping stoves. Truly astonishing! That day, I also got the chance to call my family from a satellite phone. As you would think, my mother was pretty surprised to answer the phone and hear me on the other line.
After dinner and my phone call, I decided to take a walk a mile outside of camp. This was honestly the most remote and alone I have ever felt. I kneeled down and listened to the wind howling at my back. I took a moment to reflect on this incredible journey I was on. As I thought, I began to tear up. I was growing as a person every day I spent on the ice. I felt I was learning more and more and that the only boundaries in this life are the ones you impose upon yourself. As each day passed, my work ethic and attitude in general were becoming stronger and more solidified.
Upon my return back to McMurdo, my boss explained to me that in a couple of weeks I would be embarking once again to another research camp. This time I would be going to WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) Divide. There I would be helping sustain a comfortable style of living for the scientists who were doing research using ice cores.
When I arrived at WAIS, I was very surprised at the size of the camp. About 50 people worked and lived there. My job was to assist in any way I could. Some days I worked with the fuel technician or helped in the oil drilling process. Most days though, I worked with the heavy equipment mechanic. This was very different work than I had ever done.
Before WAIS Divide, I was extremely ignorant on the subject of mechanics. While there though, I quickly learned heaps about the subject. It was pretty neat to do my first oil change on a large bulldozer. I would have never thought that changing oil was as simple as unscrewing a filter. Man did I learn the hard way though that you need to keep a good grip if you don’t want all the oil to end up covering the engine compartment.
I spent Christmas, New Years and the following three weeks out at WAIS Divide. What a wonderful time. Christmas dinner consisted of duck and prime rib followed by an array of desserts. Antarctica was special, you know? Some nights I sat and ate with an award-winning scientist and other nights with a town janitor. Never a dull moment.
When I got back to McMurdo Station, the penguins were out and there was open water in front of the town. I saw almost all of the Antarctic wildlife in my last three weeks in town. Emperor penguins molted by the ice runway. Whales breached in the open water. Skuas (Antarctic sea gulls) dive bombed people walking outside with food. What a magical time those last few weeks were. And what a great send off.
On my way home, I stopped off in New Zealand for five weeks and Australia for four. In New Zealand I bought a car with a great friend from the Antarctic ice and snow times. We toured around, hiking and taking in the sights. In Australia, I spent most of my time in Sydney visiting my girlfriend — who was studying there — and surfing nearly every day. I got the chance to get to Darwin (northeastern tip of Australia) long enough to see a few crocodiles and nearly melt in the 95 degree heat with 95 percent humidity. After enjoying my travels in the southern hemisphere, I came back to the U.S. long enough to see my friends in beautiful Boulder, my parents in windy Chicago and my brother in the rainy Pacific Northwest. I truly made it around the world.
While visiting with my parents, my father asked me what I got out of the whole trip. I didn’t really know how to answer at the time. After reflecting for a while, I realized that I learned that anything is possible so long as you put in a good solid effort. I also learned that this world is a wonderful place full of excitement around every corner. Sometimes you just need a little flat and a little white to realize it.
Jack Vertovec grew up in Littleton, Colo. His parents were the ones who inspired him to travel as much as possible. He will be a junior anthropology and Spanish double major at CU in the fall. In the future he plans on continuing his travels and hopes to combine his two majors and work in Central or South America.