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On the Ice

Meet the Coloradans who choose to spend half their lives on the planet's most inhospitable continent.

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The passage is like this: 130 bodies crammed elbow-to-elbow in a C-17 cargo jet, a plane built to carry tanks and crew into war. Outside the plane, the summer landscape of New Zealand is lush and green, but the passengers are dressed for the most severe weather possible-long underwear, fleece, insulated bibs, bright red parkas, giant red fur-backed mittens, hats, heavy wool socks, goggles. Their feet sweat in bunny boots, huge white clodhoppers made to withstand the harshest climate on Earth.

They are seated so close to one another that there are knee prints in Keith DePew’s government-issued peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Four hours into the flight, DePew, 32, can see snow-shrouded mountains through the frosted glass pane of one of the jet’s four windows. As the plane nears the landing strip, a runway built on sea ice, the temperature on board begins to drop. Passengers maneuver back into the layers they’d shed. And then they disembark into a world of white and blue, savoring the cold, dry air after the claustrophobic flight. To one side, Mount Discovery, an 8,800-foot extinct volcano; to the other, Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano, standing over 12,000 feet high and exhaling white smoke.

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DePew and his fellow passengers are not going off to war but to battle against the elements, headed for several months of difficult work in a world of snow and ice. After their five-hour flight, they land at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, roughly 9,000 miles from Denver, near the edge of the sea ice at the bottom of the Earth, in a 5.4 million-square-mile mountainous expanse of ice and snow.

The newly arrived passengers cluster like a flock of strange red sheep before being ushered onto a massive tundra bus. They have arrived on “The Ice,” as it’s known in Antarctica-speak. And while conditions may seem extreme, McMurdo is located in one of Antarctica’s balmier regions, and only the uninitiated wear severe-weather clothing around the base. “You’re in your parka, you’re a total dork. You don’t know anybody, and you’re herded into this room in your parka. The first thing you do is pull your shoes out of your carry-on. You start to molt, basically,” DePew says. “Assimilation is key.”

DePew belongs to an interconnected tribe of Front Rangers that disappears each winter down a rabbit hole of sorts, dropping through a portal in Centennial and landing in a universe of ice. They sometimes find it difficult to explain to friends, neighbors, and even family why they choose to leave home, year after year, for months at a stretch, to work in Antarctica. Spending half the year in a land that is unimaginably far away to most people-and that the vast majority of them will never visit-leads to a strange way of life where “home” and “reality” are increasingly fuzzy notions. It means often being absent for major holidays and family events, and not knowing your neighbors back in Colorado. And yet many who work on the ice cannot imagine not returning to do it again the next year. For them, Antarctica is more home than home is.

DePew has spent about half of the past seven years on the ice, as firefighter, cargo mover, and drafting designer. He generally spends the austral summer-our winter-in Antarctica, but has also gone down for two austral winters, during which the sun won’t more than peek above the horizon for close to five months. The portal through which he disappears each fall is Raytheon Polar Services, the Centennial-based company under contract by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which currently runs the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). The USAP promotes research in geology, geophysics, glaciology, climatology, oceanography, biology, ecology, chemistry, astrophysics, and just about any other field of science someone might want to research at the bottom of the world. Each year, about 600 people-scientists and their staff, funded by the National Science Foundation-travel to Antarctica to study everything from global warming to the mating habits of seals. And Raytheon Polar employees are there for them-outfitting the researchers with polar parkas, building their field camps, flying their ice cores and water samples around the continent, grilling their frozen steaks, treating their sprained ankles and respiratory viruses, and recycling their trash according to strict environmental guidelines. And more of these employees hail from Colorado than any other state.

For the gateway to such an exotic part of the earth, Raytheon Polar’s offices are housed in a surprisingly nondescript, low, flat building in a series of other nondescript, low, flat buildings on a windswept stretch just east of Centennial Airport. Inside, it’s a field of standard-issue cubicles-only, in this office, the cubicles are covered in detailed topo maps of the Dry Valleys and the Ross Ice Shelf, photos of penguins and the aurora borealis, and striking snow-covered mountains rising over cracking sheets of ice.

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Although Antarctica is the most isolated continent and remains uninhabited by any permanent residents, life at McMurdo-the largest of the three USAP stations (the others are South Pole and Palmer)-is a far cry from the world of early Antarctic explorers like Ernest Shackleton, whose legendary expeditions were characterized by hunger, plummets into gaping crevasses, and perilous foot-travel through blizzards. McMurdo was built in 1953, a collection of bland government-issue buildings heavy on sheet metal and low on charm. But this military-base simplicity belies the relative comfort and normalcy McMurdans find on their arrival. In summer, the base becomes a bustling town of 1,100 people, and is home to three bars, a groovy coffeehouse, a radio station, two ATMs, yoga classes, cable TV, a rugby team, an indoor bouldering cave, a general store, a sewing room, and a small but thriving music scene. Phone calls to Denver are crystal-clear, fed by satellites, and cost no more than a call from LoDo to Englewood.

“When somebody asks, ‘What’s Antarctica like?” and you explain it to them, they just cannot envision it,” says Mike Hush, formerly in charge of shipping all cargo to and from McMurdo. “When you step off that plane and it’s minus 40 or 50 degrees, you go, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ And you think back to the explorers 100 years ago. What the hell were they thinking? And people go, ‘It must be horrible to work there.’ Yeah, it’s horrible, man. I come back to my room and turn on ESPN, pour my bourbon, and have a nice drink.”

The only way to visit Antarctica-unless you are a researcher on a National Science Foundation grant, on a cruise ship, or with a costly private expedition outfitter-is through Raytheon Polar. First-time USAP participants are drawn by the lure of visiting the world’s last great wilderness, a chance to live in a treeless white moonscape and return with the ultimate dinner-party conversation. But as often as they sign on for the scenery, they return for something more mundane.

“Going the first year, you get that, like, ‘I’m going to the moon’ feeling,” says Katy Burke, 34, a four-time ice veteran who now works full-time in Centennial helping coordinate the IceCube Project, an international collaboration to study neutrinos (subatomic particles) at the South Pole. “You have absolutely no idea what to expect. My reasoning for the first year was to go to this place that’s foreign. But then you realize there’s this huge sense of community that you don’t get in the real world anymore.”

The mean annual temperature at McMurdo is 0 degrees Fahrenheit (at the South Pole it’s minus 56), and the wind can gust to 100 knots. Despite McMurdo’s relative cushiness on the inside, outside it’s still Antarctica and basic needs like keeping warm, dry, and well-fed become a very big deal. Of these, food is paramount.

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It is Delma Irvin who cooks. Irvin, a ruddy-cheeked bear of a guy who works in Centennial when he’s not presiding over pots and pans in McMurdo’s kitchen, serves as station chef. He and his staff serve up four meals a day-the usual three, plus one at midnight-to 1,100 people in summer and 150 to 200 in winter. The fare, served cafeteria-style, is based on classic French cuisine. More than 18 months ahead of time, Irvin plans the menus, envisioning what his Front Range colleagues and the other McMurdans from all 50 states might want to eat when it’s February and their families seem a million miles away.

Canned and frozen food arrives on the ice by ship from California once a year, 14 months’ worth at a time. There is a greenhouse at McMurdo, a 2,000-square-foot space with its own full-time gardener growing salad greens, herbs, and peppers. While the wind whips the snow around outside, inside the greenhouse lettuce grows, happy and warm, oblivious to the oddity of its own existence.

In summer, shipments of “freshies” come in by air once every two weeks or so. As news of their arrival spreads, residents congregate near the kitchen. The more tropical the food, like pineapples, mangoes, and bananas, the more people covet it. There are no freshies in winter, because there are no flights in or out. At “WinFly,” the first flight to the ice before the summer season starts in earnest, McMurdo’s winter residents are treated to their first pieces of fresh fruit in five months.

Bag lunches on the flight from Christchurch used to contain cartons of milk-not exactly an appealing refreshment on a cramped, bumpy flight. Those who didn’t know better would toss their milk in the trash upon arrival at McMurdo, and those who did know better would dumpster-dive for it-there is no fresh milk on the ice.

Irvin works at McMurdo from October through March, and the rest of the year, at Centennial, he plans menus, orders food, and hires kitchen staff-a particularly tricky enterprise. “Everyone will tell you exactly what you want to hear in order to get down there,” he says. “You have to really dig a lot deeper to figure out what they’re going to do when the novelty wears off. What are they going to do when Christmas rolls around and their family is 12,000 miles away? What are they going to do when somebody passes away? Family emergencies often crop up. How do people react? These aren’t generally things that folks think about when they’re applying for the job.”

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Irvin knows this firsthand: A few weeks into his maiden season at McMurdo, he fractured his elbow and broke his wrist. He stayed. Two months later, shortly before Christmas, his wife, who lives in Florida, learned she needed a hysterectomy; he stayed. While she was recovering from the surgery, the couple’s son broke his arm. He stayed. “That was the hardest year,” Irvin says, with the understatement characteristic of people who have spent time in Antarctica. “It took a lot of soul searching.”

He interviews aspiring Antarctica cooks by phone. “Trying to figure out whether someone can actually cook, over the telephone, is a difficult thing to do,” he laughs. He asks them questions about classical French cooking-how would you cook such-and-such? What would it look like?-as well as about the job’s particular challenges. “Obviously, frozen vegetables have different properties than fresh vegetables. So how would you compensate for the extra moisture? Or how would you use dried milk to make Alfredo sauce, instead of heavy cream, which we don’t have?”

During the four seasons Irvin has spent on the ice, his family has stayed at home-their home-on Amelia Island, in northeast Florida. “My primary communication with my wife and kids is through the Internet,” Irvin admits. “And I also call them pretty much on a daily basis.” Because he’s a contract employee with Raytheon-rather than a full-timer-he is never entirely certain he’ll have a job the next year. So it seems unfair to relocate his family. He spends a month before and after deployment at home in Florida and the rest of the year in Denver, during which he sees his family about once a month, depending on airfare.

Irvin’s wife, Carol, a teacher who is studying to become a nurse, supported her husband’s Antarctic endeavor from the beginning, despite the distance it would put between them. “I know that seems strange to everyone around us, even my family, but people have the wrong perception of a marriage,” she says. “It’s about pushing each other, even if it’s in separate ways. We’re two different people who just happen to be completely in love with each other.”

Someday, if the timing is right, Carol might join her husband on the ice. For now, though, Irvin throws himself into his work at McMurdo and tries not to keep track of the days or weeks or months or holidays. “The holidays are really hard. Especially when the kids were younger, they were like, ‘What do you mean you’re not coming home for Christmas? Why don’t you just get on the plane?'”

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As rough as it’s been to be apart from his family, the hardest part may be learning to live together again when Irvin’s ice days are over; he’s aiming to put in five years, to earn his master chef stripes from the American Culinary Federation. “When you have two adults in the house like we did for the first four years, you’re able to give and let other people help you,” says Carol. “And then, since he hasn’t been here, I have control of everything. When he comes home I am a little bit afraid that I may have to go to therapy.”

Inside the buildings of McMurdo, it’s almost possible to forget you’re on the planet’s harshest continent. The lending library is stocked with Louis L’Amour novels, and the coffeehouse serves up hot chai and live music.

But outside McMurdo’s walls sits a forbidding wilderness. And while many of the station’s summer residents don’t fancy themselves explorers, there are still those drawn to the earth’s underside by the call of the wild. Matt Kippenhan spent the 2002 season on a Challenger tractor traversing the vast snowfields on the western part of the continent and trying to steer clear of yawning crevasses.

Kippenhan landed on the ice in 1992, the same year he graduated from the University of Colorado, lured by the idea of witnessing one of the great wildernesses of the world. He started working in the carpenters’ unit, where he helped build remote field camps, a task that involved shoveling tons of snow and hauling frozen barrels of urine from field camps so they can be flown back to McMurdo via helicopter. He worked his way up, building field camps and then managing them. In 2002, he was assigned to the U.S. team of the International Trans-Antarctic Science Expedition, a group that’s been traversing western Antarctica to collect ice cores used to study the Earth’s changing climate.

“We had two Challenger tractors, six sleds, and one snowmobile,” Kippenhan says, recalling his six-person team’s 1,500-mile ice traverse from South Pole Station back to McMurdo across some of the most inaccessible parts of the continent. The group visited eight field camps and monitoring stations, fixing equipment and cleaning up the sites. At several points during the two-month journey, Twin Otters and C-130 cargo planes airdropped supplies, including fuel. “We navigated with GPS and had ground-penetrating radar. We had a hard time. We got stuck a lot”-in snowdrifts-“but we pulled it off. No one got hurt, which is amazing.” The team worked 16 hours a day for 55 days, averaging 4.5 miles per hour across the mountains and crevasse-lined ice fields. “A bad day, we would make it maybe 12 miles. A good day we’d make it like 50 miles.”

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The weather on the traverse was “awesome,” sunny with a constant but light wind and temperatures hovering around 20 below. At the South Pole, though, it was close to minus 50. Still, Kippenhan would rather be traversing the continent than living in the relative comfort of McMurdo. “You know, I took three showers in that whole traverse. Three two-and-a-half-gallon solar-bag showers in a tent, where we dug a hole to stand in. McMurdo’s real easy living when you get back there. That’s what you realize. You’re like, ‘Holy cow, I can wear street shoes.'”

Kippenhan’s next project involves construction of a drilling station in west Antarctica where researchers will spend five years drilling more than 10,000 feet through the ice to bedrock, collecting cores they hope will shed new light on global warming. This austral summer, Kippenhan made two month-long trips to west Antarctica, returning to Denver in between. In 2004 he got married to a woman he had dated for five years, who works in Houston and commutes back home on the weekends. She has never been to the ice. “After the first summer we dated I left for six months. But then she’d come to meet me. So we’ve done two trips to New Zealand, a trip to Tasmania, one to Australia. If you have relationship issues,” he says, only half-joking, “you say, ‘Meet me when we get back’ and they always fall for that.”

The dating scene in Antarctica, particularly at McMurdo, resembles a Hollywood movie set or summer camp-or, as residents describe it, junior high school. The intense togetherness, and perhaps the cold, makes fertile ground for relationships. The general store at McMurdo doesn’t sell condoms; rather, they’re distributed for free by health services at the medical clinic and in bathrooms around the station.

When it comes to meeting and hooking up, “it’s just not the real world,” says Katy Burke, the IceCube research project staffer. “There are things that you can’t learn about each other because you just don’t have the opportunity. You don’t know how they drive. You don’t even have to pick meals. Can they cook? Would you choose the same restaurants? Would you choose the same movies? Do you like doing the same activities on the weekends?”

Burke has had three “ice relationships.” All three have resulted in “tarmac divorces,” relationships that quickly fade once the return plane touches down in New Zealand’s greener pastures. The main problem, in Burke’s case, was distance: One guy lived in Minnesota, another worked as a Forest Service firefighter in Idaho, and the third was from New York. Many of Raytheon’s seasonal workers do seasonal jobs elsewhere, such as Alaska, during the rest of the year. After an intense relationship in a small community, long-distance can be near impossible. Bad breakups are also a way of life, with the added excitement of living in close quarters with your ex for the rest of the season.

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Before he met his wife on the ice, Keith DePew spent his first two seasons there in an increasingly rocky relationship with a girlfriend from home (they’d signed on with Raytheon together). Their second summer, both had affairs while living in separate dorm rooms at McMurdo.

DePew later met Jessie Crain, 29, at Scott Base, New Zealand’s center of operations on the ice. It was a Thursday, “America night,” where denizens of McMurdo go by shuttle or two-mile hike to mingle with the 80 or so Kiwis who reside at Scott. Crain, then a geology grad student studying Mt. Erebus, an active volcano with a lava lake at its summit, was cracking her knuckles at the bar, and DePew intervened, showing her how to do it right. “I didn’t really pay that much attention to him,” says Crain, “but I always thought about it every time I cracked my knuckles.” They didn’t see each other again for three years; he spent winters on the ice, and she spent summers. But in 2003, their paths finally crossed again, this time a few days after Crain had arrived at McMurdo in her current job, helping scientists plan their research expeditions. “We’re sitting at the bar and he cracked his knuckles, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I know you! I’ve been thinking about that for the last three years!'”

Some ice returnees-Raytheon employees and scientists-have been known to keep long-term “ice wives” and “ice husbands,” despite the fact that they have a regular spouse, and kids, back home. Others have split with long-term partners as a result of new entanglements on the ice. At least once a year, someone proposes on the ice, and some couples have even been married there. Though the ceremonies are performed as they would be at home, the marriages aren’t considered legal, as the Antarctic is not U.S. territory. (Unlike the States, New Zealand considers Scott Base to be N.Z. territory, making the Kiwi residents’ marriages legally binding.)

Jay Fox, an ice veteran, cured his ice loneliness by convincing his wife, Sophie, to come along. Sophie quit her high-powered banking job to work as a janitor at McMurdo. “It was great,” he says. “She went to the bar every day and put on Neil Young and mopped the floor.” Fox asked Sophie to marry him shortly before he was set to deploy for 10 months. “I was like, ‘Do you want to get married before I go or after?'” She chose before, so they were married in December and in January he headed south.

DePew proposed to Crain while climbing the First Flatiron in Boulder, and they now live in a townhouse in Parker-chosen over a freestanding house so there’s less for Crain, who only deploys to the ice every other year, to do when DePew is gone. Still, DePew spent much of last summer doing house projects to make things even lower-maintenance, like installing a drip irrigation system for their newly installed garden. Crain and DePew got married in June 2004 and honeymooned in Thailand; four months later he packed his bags and headed for Antarctica, leaving Crain on her own until February. “It’s a long time to be apart,” she admits. “People would say, ‘Does it feel like you’ve been married a year already?’ and it’s like, well, no.'”

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If Delma Irvin is McMurdo’s equivalent of the Jewish mother, making sure everyone gets enough to eat, it’s Jay Fox who actually satisfies their cravings.

Fox, 40, has graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses and wears Converse sneakers around the station. He’s a 10-year ice veteran who lives in Denver the rest of the year. His official job is running the commissaries at all three stations, a mission-critical enterprise: If he fails to order enough tampons, things on the ice could get ugly in a hurry.

In addition to “necessities”-drugstore-type items-Fox’s store sells things like cigarettes, snack food, liquor, Mount Erebus T-shirts, South Pole baseball hats, and useful items to have on the ice, the stuff you don’t think about packing when you’re more concerned about staying warm for five months, such as wine glasses. The McMurdo store is officially open during mealtimes, though Fox runs it more like a small-town general store: “If you knock and I’m there, it’s like, yeah, come on in.”

Managing the store gives Fox unique insight into the quirks and compulsions of McMurdo’s residents. “There are people who come in every day and buy one pack of cigarettes at a quarter to one,” he says. “And people who buy 12 pieces of bubble gum every day at lunch.”

Fox is also the self-anointed promoter of McMurdo’s music scene. He posts flyers for concerts, plays bass in the McMurdo band Anaesthesia and last summer released a six-track CD, titled White Cold Days, featuring music by Anaesthesia and two other Antarctica outfits; the record party was held at Denver’s Larimer Lounge.

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Antarctica, in Fox’s opinion, is “an exciting hotbed” of music; many USAPers haul their instruments down with them, and McMurdo’s recreation department offers a practice studio as well as microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment. Fox records every concert and calls himself the unofficial chronicler of McMurdo’s music scene. Each summer, several bands-playing everything from bluegrass to folk to punk rock-take the outdoor stage at Icestock, a New Year’s festival and chili cook-off.

Lyrics on White Cold Days capture slices of life at McMurdo. On the eponymous folk-rock track by Fox’s band, the singer croons, “I thought this was the last time/But you never say never/I got the sun on my mind/And ties I cannot sever/… and there’s no difference where I work and I play/ ‘Cause I’m walking out of another white cold day.”

“Here and Now,” by a band called Under the Trellis, is a ballad of Antarctic love: “If I choose to stay/What will become of me?/If I choose to go/What will become of you?/It’s so damn safe here/I’m lying next to you/It’s so damn safe here/I’m lying to you/In the here and now.”

Whereas Kippenhan and others get panic attacks when they first return from the ice, Fox often loses it on the departure to Antarctica. “It’s not like I’m going off to the wild someplace,” he says. “But I always get a panic when I see my guitar going on the conveyor at the airport. I know it’s coming out in New Zealand”-and later, Antarctica-“and so I have to go, too.”

There is a saying at McMurdo that you can walk all the way around a building in one direction and the wind will always be in your face. Occasionally, that wind whips up a whiteout and the normally familiar landscape of the base becomes unrecognizable.

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Residents know that the station and its comforts lull them into a false sense of security, that there are moments when the wind turns and a storm erupts and you can’t see your own hand in front of your face.

But therein lies the draw. Beyond the walls of McMurdo, beyond the trappings of normalcy so delicately strung together there, Antarctica is an extreme place to live. Ice veterans often talk about what they do as “just a job”-but if that’s all it was, they might as well find a gig in Denver and spare themselves the hassle of the commute and the agony of leaving family behind. The seduction of life on the ice is something more.

“We all live together,” says Jesse Crain, “and it’s easy to look out for other people. For better or worse, you know what’s going on in other people’s lives.”

“In a lot of ways,” says Keith DePew, Crain’s husband, “it’s a remote, frontier type of place.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, with few outlets left for pioneering souls in the suburbs and sprawl that now crisscross the state, so many Coloradans light out for Antarctica. That frontier mentality, once embodied by Colorado and the West, is now just a memory in all but the planet’s most remote locales. But escaping to the ice isn’t about escaping civilization. The allure of the Antarctic is about the community that makes life on the ice possible, the fragile web that holds the lives of those who come for the chance to brace a cheek against nature at its most raw, to experience the pull of someplace pure and wild. m

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Hillary Rosner is a Boulder-based writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times.

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