Living at the Ends of the Earth: Antarctica

Antarctica is quite literally the ends of the Earth.

It’s the coldest and driest place in the whole world. It has few natural resources to speak of (ice, penguins) and so it’s never been settled by humans. It’s unsurvivable without extensive external support.

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At Taylor Valley. Trover photo by Fernando Begay.

And yet, every year in September and October, a small group of people begins migrating southward. Geologists, zoologists, glaciologists and other scientists use Antarctica’s pristine, unspoiled environment for their experiments – and they want to live in a functioning town.

So not only is Antarctica actually survivable – you can actually get a job there. The bases hire for everything: from janitors and line cooks to firefighters and tech support.

What’s it like, living and working at the ends of the Earth?

Meet Fernando. He spent two seasons living and working in Antarctica.

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He’s a radio communications tech and intrepid globetrotter, originally from New Mexico. Through hard work and pursuing his dreams of travel, he’s made a life for himself working all around the world.

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The ceremonial South Pole. (The actual “true” South Pole is 75m away, and inching further, because the ice is shifting.) Trover photo by Fernando Begay.

Trover: So, what exactly did you do in Antarctica?

Fernando: I worked in radio communications my two seasons there. My first season was from Oct-Feb, and my second season was from Sept-March. My job involves setting up and maintaining radio towers, which are located everywhere across the continent. I got to travel a lot.

I was able to travel to the Dry Valleys, where a lot of science is going on (studying microorganisms that live in the soil, rocks, frozen lakes and glaciers). And to the top of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano in the world, as well as three active penguin colonies at Cape Bird, Cape Royds, and Cape Crozier.

I was even able to make the trip to the South Pole, where the US-operated Amundsen-Scott Station is at.

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Installing a new communication tower at Lake Bonney, Dry Valleys. Photo by Fernando Begay.

What did a typical day look like, working in Antarctica?

In a lot of ways, it’s similar to my normal jobs: prep the equipment, assemble it, test it, and install it. It’s how we got to the places and where the places were that made working in Antarctica cool.
Most of the time, we rode in helicopters, and in some cases (like deep field camps) in C-130s. And the places were cool, atop mountain peaks such as Peak 1882 to set up repeaters and microwave links, and beaches where there is a penguin colony of maybe 10,000 penguins.
Of course, its always cold but as long as you take precautions, and dress properly, its not so bad.
My average schedule in Antarctica was this:
[6:00AM] – wake up
[6:05AM-6:45] – make bed, shower, get dressed for work
[6:45-7:15] – head out to the galley and get some breakfast, sometimes I’d eat there or get it to go, and get to my work shop early to read internet news
[7:15-7:30] – walk to work
[7:30-12:30] – normal work stuff (but often in remote locations)
[12:30-1:30] – lunch
[1:30-5:30] – normal work stuff, then return home
[5:30-7:30] – either eat dinner, or exercise then eat dinner.
[7:30-10:00PM] – varies, watch a movie, hang out with others, go hiking, play sports, read a book, sleep
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How does one pack for Antarctica?

It feels like you need everything, but it’s not as remote as you think.

They do give you ECW (extreme cold-weather) gear, which includes a red down parka (“Big Red”) and wind pants. And depending on your line of work, you might also get boots, several types of gloves, balaclavas, beanies, socks, Carhartt jacket and bibs, thermal shirts and pants, or ski goggles. And people like to bring down their own clothes to wear when they aren’t working, of course.

A main building called the Jamesway hut commonly used in Antarctica.

A main building, built in the arched Jamesway hut style commonly used in Antarctica.

You can bring your own guitar (to practice or play in one of the bands there), iPads, PCs, and personal things to make your dorm room feel like home, with maybe some posters, pictures, nice bed sheets, small speakers, favorite candy and snacks.

I ordered my vitamins from GNC and had them shipped down… it’s possible to have items sent down since it’s a APO address. I got my shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc. from drugstore.com, which has free shipping.

The only ATM within 2000 miles.

The only ATM within 2000 miles. Trover photo by Fernando Begay.

What’s it like actually departing? Leaving the real world behind? 

The first time I went down, I was nervous and excited.

“Am I gonna get frost bite?”

“Will I see penguins?”

“What if I get homesick?”

“I’m going to Antarctica!!!”

“Wooohooo!!”

Penguins at Cape Byrd.

Penguins at Cape Bird. Trover photo by Fernando Begay.

You think about how cold it must be (it’s Antarctica, after all!) but it’s really not that cold. You come out of the plane bundled up with parka, gloves, beanie, goggles… and you’re like “Hmm, not that cold.”

Unless you arrive during Winfly, when it’s still -30 degrees outside.

Traveling over sea ice at Erebus Glacier Tongue.

Traveling over sea ice at Erebus Glacier Tongue. Trover photo by Fernando Begay.

What’s your absolute favorite part of the whole experience?

The stillness.

When we got dropped off at a remote work location, like a mountain peak… the helicopter flies away, and it’s just you and the 2-3 others with you, it’s so quiet.

You only hear the wind, and the stillness is amazing. If the weather is super nice, you can see for miles all around. The air is so fresh and clean.

Atop Castle Rock Trail.

Atop Castle Rock Trail. Trover photo by Fernando Begay.


And now you have some insight into what it’s like to travel to the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on Earth. Cool, or what?

Follow Fernando on Trover today and stay tuned for his upcoming adventures as a curious, adventurous, international radio communications worker.

He’s also more than happy to chat about his experiences, so give him a shout!