Can I go too?

October 1st, 2001

"Do they have curbside check-in at the airport in Antarctica?"
- My Mother upon learning I'm going to Antarctica this winter.

See how bad I am at keeping a diary? A whole month has passed and not one entry. I warned you it was going to be this way. It will probably get worse instead of better.

How do you go to Antarctica? It's not that easy, it turns out. Most of you probably haven't looked into it the same way you haven't spent time looking into a vacation in the isolation ward at Marlboro psychiatric hospital. Let me be the first to tell you that getting to Antarctica is either very expensive or nearly impossible, but mostly both at the same time.

Price tags on adventure vacations to Antarctic range in the tens of thousands of U.S. dollars which puts it into the realm of the "extraordinarily expensive" for most of us who haven't won an Oscar for best actor in a feature film. Even then, were we to go into hock we would brave several days of green-faced sea sickness on a reconditioned Russian icebreaker before we got to "the ice", as Antarctic veterans like to call their continent of choice.

Once there, the experience on the continent-proper would be marginal. The reasons for this stem from the fact you've gone by boat and venturing from the boat is a life-threatening adventure. Another reason is that all of the wildlife is clustered near the shore. Nothing lives inland except for bearded, anti-social, and half-insane physicists. And finally, activity on Antarctica is regulated by international treaty.

Nobody "owns" Antarctica but many nations have made claims to pieces of it, so that as soon as we all decide that someone can write deeds to Antarctic real-estate these countries will already have in their dibs. The U.S. is one of the countries that has no claims to land Antarctica. Another is Andorra. Those may be the only two.

The main issues on the treaty seem to be cast around concern for the environment. For instance, it is a violation of international law to have an oil spill or frighten the penguins. Permanent settlements are also illegal. Nobody "lives" there, though there are semi-permanent bases ostensibly for the purpose of harboring chilled scientists and their support staff. Perhaps the primary objective of the treaty is to keep people from establishing military bases or mining towns in the Transantarctic Mountains. The U.S. presence in Antarctica used to be managed by the Navy, but that's now been commercialized. U.S. Antarctic activity takes place under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, and Raytheon Polar Services who contracts to the NSF for on-site services.

Back to your Antarctic vacation: you'll go by boat and at best you'll see the Antarctic Peninsula and some shoreline but you won't get on to the continent itself and you won't get to the south pole, if that's what you were thinking.

There are services which will fly you to the south pole for a couple of hours from bases in Chile or New Zealand. It will cost you about $25,000 in U.S. funds to get your picture taken next to the metal stake they use to mark where the pole is. You get there by plane. You go in, you go out. The people at the base there don't enjoy having tourists around because they don't do anything to decrease the outlandish workload. When your job is to bore an ice-tunnel twenty feet below the surface with a 30-year old steam machine with leaky pipes, having someone sipping a grande latte, ogling your progress can be annoying.

This brings us to ways normally poor and unfamous people who have that "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" sort of urge can get to the continent. Way number one is to get a job there. Yes, apparently you can get paid to go there.

"But what will I do?" you ask. And the answer is probably going to be something like: clean toilets, or, chip ice off heavy machinery, or bus tables. There's lots of opportunities for people who would do manual and even menial labor for ten hours per day, six days per week, for less than half minimum wage. If you really want to get away you can wax the floors at the science base at McMurdo sound for five months during the Austral summer. You'll live in a dorm room with up to three other people, shower no more than once a week, and live in the same clothes all season. Add to those perks the ability to trade stocks over the internet and you have the perfect get-away for the techno-geek who wants to get away from civilization for a while. And yes, you get paid, apparently. Raytheon Polar Services has a web site and a job recruiting fair every year. Try them out.

I did. I was ready to quit my job as a VP in a Silicon Valley electronics company and sign up for five months washing dishes in the cafeteria when way #2 came to me.

The other way a normal person can get to the continent is to join a science project that has an NSF grant to do research.

Through a variety of interesting coincidences and surprises I landed a slot as half of a team of two who will go to Antarctica each year for the next four years. My trip will be paid for through tax-payer dollars and all I have had to do is to work my ass off for the past year building an electronics package and programming computers. Small price for a trip to the ice.