Mike High stood in a treeless, grassless world and listened to an extraordinarily powerful wind. It was summer, or so he’d been told. Steadying himself on a sheet of ice, he gazed up at Mount Erebus, an active volcano nearly 4,000 meters high. When he tilted forward, his arms outspread, the wind kept his 245-pound frame nearly upright, as if he were floating.
Until last October, the Orange County resident who grew up in northern Virginia had never traveled farther from home than Nebraska. Now, here he was in Antarctica, helping to run the wastewater treatment plant at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research facility operated by the National Science Foundation on Ross Island.
When he first got there, he said he thought of Antarctica as “a vast, dead land, very lonely and empty.” But once he got over the altitude sickness that bothered him for a few weeks, he changed his mind. “Before long, I began to see the amazing beauty of it all and realized it wasn’t actually dead, just very remote. The most impressive thing was the amazing scenery,” especially the icy mountains visible across McMurdo Sound on a clear day.
High, 55, retired early from his job managing a wastewater plant at Quantico in 2010. In more recent years, he worked contract jobs, and he and his fiancée, Tina Bucci, launched a ferret rescue operation out of their home in Unionville.
Going to Antarctica was on his “bucket list.” When he saw a social media posting for carpentry jobs there, he wrote to the contracting agency and asked if there were openings for wastewater treatment operators.
Of course there were. High signed on for a summer hitch below the equator, which meant he would be at McMurdo during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months. He left in early October and headed to Christchurch, New Zealand., where contractors are prepped before going “on ice.” A trainer told the group their operative question should always be, “How will Antarctica try to kill me today?” One key survival lesson was to stay hydrated, since the ice-covered continent is actually a desert with extremely dry conditions.
A massive storm delayed the final leg of his inbound flight, but on Oct. 16, an Air Force jet touched down on the ice and brought High to his temporary new home. Early on, he saw the sun set—and then rise 10 minutes later. That was the only bit of nighttime he saw in a place that gets six months of daylight and six months of darkness.
For more than four months, he worked six days a week, but after hours and on Sunday, he explored the area around McMurdo and got to know his intrepid and fun-loving colleagues, some of whom had started out in the station’s galley and worked their way up to operating heavy equipment.
Contractors run the power and desalinization plants and generally keep the infrastructure in tip-top condition at McMurdo and other research stations, so scientists from around the world can study the weather, volcanoes and climate change, among other topics.
He added that summer temperatures, once typically in the teens and 20s, “are now creeping up into the 30s”—a sign of climate change. However, it still gets plenty cold. During his stay, the typical low temperature was a couple of degrees below zero.
The windy, dry conditions created a startling situation. High discovered that when he touched metal surfaces, long jagged lines of static electricity would shoot out from his fingers, “like the emperor from ‘Star Wars.’” He learned to ground himself first to avoid getting shocked.
Antarctica is in many ways what High calls “a sterile environment,” due to the extreme cold. There are no insects or vermin, but penguins, seals and huge seabirds called skuas manage to thrive there—and High has the photos to prove it.
Human society is quite different from what most people are used to. High said there were between 500 and 1,000 people at McMurdo during his time there, and during the dark, inhospitable winter, the number drops to around 150. In his estimation, the ratio of men to women was about 18-to-1, with men dominating carpentry, welding and other trades and women filling many of the clerical and galley jobs. His boss at the wastewater facility, however, was a woman, and there were women who worked as “fuelies” refueling planes.
To handle living near the South Pole for a few months or longer, he said, “You have to go with the understanding that, above all else, you’re there as support. It’s something you go into and you think, ‘Wow, this is something I’ve never seen before, and I’ll probably never see again, and it’s really great to be here.’”
But, he noted, it is a work assignment and must be treated that way.
Beyond that, he added, “You have to be able to live with pretty much no contact with the outside world other than phone calls and computer. …You have to be able to live inside yourself to some degree.”
He said, “Most people love it while they’re there” but are happy when the time comes to return to their families and the creature comforts of home.
High and the other contractors were assigned roommates and lived in furnished dormitory rooms, each of which came with a TV tuned in to the American Forces Network. They could communicate via Skype with family and friends back home, and High talked by satellite phone every day with Bucci. The internet service was “fairly good,” but there were no accessible radio stations other than the one at McMurdo run by volunteers.
In addition to a salary, contractors received free room and board. High said food was plentiful and available at all hours, but there were times when bad weather prevented planes from bringing in fresh food—“freshies,” in local parlance—and every meal came from cans. That was “not all that much fun,” High admitted.
During their free time, he and his coworkers played ping pong and pool, hiked and watched videos. They could also go on “boondoggles,” working trips that involved digging supplies out of a depot on ice, or take “morale trips” via helicopter. There is a crafts room on the base and a non-denominational church, Chapel of the Snows.
High ended his assignment in February and took a restorative vacation in St. Thomas with Bucci before settling in at home.
“I’m enjoying rain and nighttime and getting what I want to eat,” he said.
High has crossed Antarctica off his bucket list. But that doesn’t mean he’s gotten it out of his system: “I was offered a contract to come back next October.”