For many people Antarctica is a disease. There are reasons that cannot be articulated using rational human speech, so one simply says she just wants to go when asked, "why?" Why go to the highest, coldest, driest, windiest, most isolated land on the surface of the Earth?
For most Antarctic junkies there is no socially acceptable answer, only heartbreaking desire. To quench that desire one searches in vain, for there is no easy way to Antarctica. But there are three or four places to start looking.
- Adventure Travel Agencies
For anywhere from $10,000US to $25,000US one can get to the seventh continent via refitted Russian icebreakers. These ships leave from Puenta Arenas, Chile, or Christchurch, New Zealand. One sails through the roughest waters on the planet, swells cresting 50 to 60 feet high for three puke filled days of travel. Upon arrival one can do everything from cruise the Antarctic Peninsula, the warmest and most northerly part of the continent, to fly for a quick stop at Pole station. Tourists are tolerated but not entirely welcome on bases operated by the United States Antarctic Program. For instance, it is fine for arriving tourists to walk around McMurdo Station and spend their money in the gift shoppe, but tourists are not welcome at midrats or supper unless a Condition One is called suddenly and they're trapped with everyone else. Tourists have been spotted at the dry valleys and frequently at Pole Station where they are looked upon with flaming disdain by the beakers there.
- Raytheon Polar Services Company
Raytheon Polar Services Company is the current 10-year contractor to the United States Antarctic Program for Antarctic logistics and operation. RPSC hires civilians with a variety of backgrounds. They hire everyone from cooks to aircraft mechanics to metal workers to network engineers to electronics technicians and software developers. They hold a big job fair every year in Englewood or Denver, Colorado and everyone is welcome to apply. Key qualifications include technical chops for techie jobs, background and accomplishments for tradespeople. All applicants have to pass a semi-rigorous physical qualification exam known as the PQ. Candidates for winter over must also pass the so-called knives and flowers test, which is a psychological exam. Raytheon Polar Services Company naturally favors candidates who have already been to the ice or are recommended by someone who has been an employee on the ice. There is usually a 10 to 30X applicant to job ratio, so competition is fierce and aiming low doesn't help. There are trial lawyers who spend seasons as janitors, and wartime news correspondents who bus tables in the 155 galley just to get to the ice. It seems to many the best way to get the attention of a hiring manager at Raytheon Polar Services Company is either to have a skill they're in desperate need of, or to know someone. Pay is low as room and board are supplied, and the work week is known as six nines--nine hours per day, Monday through Saturday. Sunday is the only offical weekend day. Holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day are observed and provide an extra day off for support workers.
- The Office of Polar Programs
The National Science Foundation provides travel to Antarctica for those who are awarded research grants through the Office of Polar Programs. Grantees go through a rigorous submission process where the value of their research proposals are evaluated through peer review. Those awarded grants receive funds from several tens of thousands of dollars US plus travel, to several million dollars US plus travel. Large projects like the Long Term Ecological Research program send several scientists, grad students, post-doc fellows, and support personnel per discipline. Small programs may send one or two workers. While getting a grant depends on one's academic pedigree as well as reputation in one's field of research, free travel to the ice has been known to occur when one contacts a Principal Investigator at a major university and offers one's services as an unpaid grunt or lab tech. The National Science Foundation provides travel for grantees and their entourage from each individual's home airport to the ice and back.
- Antarctic Artists and Writer's Program
The National Science Foundation has a program akin to the NASA program which allows artistic personnel to participate. Applicants to the Antarctic A&W program must submit their proposals to the NSF's Office of Polar Programs during the month of May in any year for travel to the Antarctic in the austral summer of the subsequent year. That means you apply this year in May to go NEXT year in November or October. The criteria for acceptance to this program are quite tight. Writers are required to have a book contract to make the first cut for consideration. Photographers are required to have an upcoming museum exhibit or gallery show where the work will be shown. The list of those who have been accepted in the past is available on their web site. As with everything Antarctic it appears the means to acceptance to this program is to know the proposal reviewers or to be outrageously famous. Artists and Writers are provided travel to the ice and back from Christchurch, New Zealand, and they are expected to pay their own way to that point.
- Non-US Antarctic Programs
The British, Australians, Italians, Russians, Japanese, Chinese, and Kiwis, all have strong programs in Antarctica though not as elaborate as the US program. The British program tends to favor sending skilled outdoors people trained to do science rather than geek scientists trained to survive the outdoors. Thus the Brits are able to concentrate their efforts more on science and less on survival skills, but it is more difficult for the average schmoe to get into the program. The Aussie and Kiwi programs seem to be more similar to the USAP. Mawson Station is the largest Australian location. Scott Base is the Kiwi station and it's located 5 short miles from McMurdo Station which makes it very convenient to visit for their regular Thursday evening American night where $1NZ will get you a fine kiwi beer and a chance to play pool with a bunch of ringers. Remember to always wear a hat in the Scott Base pub and do touch the violin. Both of these programs are less than 1/2 the size of the American program, so competition for slots must be even more severe than with RPSC or the USAP. It is not clear to this writer how citzenship affects eligibility in non-US countries, though it is not a requirement for the USAP. This writer has met members of the Italian and Russian programs , and they also seem to favor those with former military or mountaineering skills, though eligibility requirements other than looking spectacular in a red survival suit was not clear.