Before going to bed, the expedition leader told us to expect rough waters over night as we tried to approach the station. Tried was the key word, they hadn’t been able to visit yet that season due to high winds and an overabundance of ice. It was hard to believe looking out at the calm waters and thinking about the crystal clear and sunny skies we enjoyed earlier that day. As soon as I woke up and pulled open the window shade the next morning though I understood what he meant as I gazed across another universe.
The world had transformed overnight. Gone were the brilliant blue skies and glass-like waters and in their places were dark, grey, ominous skies and a sea that was more ice than water. The entire world looked like a black and white movie, the only glimmer of color was a building off in the distance. O’Higgins Station, Chile’s Antarctic Base appeared as a reddish beacon on the shores amidst a sea of ice and rain. (I was in Antarctica thanks to a partnership with Adventure Life, the adventure tour company.)
To those new to Chilean names, O’Higgins seems unlikely. Many of us would imagine a Spanish sounding name of some sort, but there is deep meaning with the name of the station. In fact most Chilean cities have an O’Higgins Street somewhere in town. Considered to be the George Washington of Chilean history, Bernardo O’Higgins helped free Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence. So when Chile established their base in 1948, what better name than Base Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme? Thankfully everyone just calls it O’Higgins Station.
In general, Antarctica isn’t what I would call a warm and fuzzy place to live. It’s tough, even in the so-called summer months. Take a look at the pictures shown here of the station. They were taken during the Austral summer. Imagine how foreboding and inhospitable the winter months must be. I didn’t have to wonder for long though, I soon learned all about life at the station as I toured with the base’s stalwart residents.
The base is a military one, so many of the residents are military officers on a one-year assignment. The 16 hearty souls arrive in the spring and leave one year later. They’re not completely alone though, during the summer months they are joined by another 30-40 people or so, there for a few weeks at a time conducting scientific research and projects.
O’Higgins is made up of modular compartments, all connected and containing everything one would need for months of survival. I couldn’t help but think of The Shining as we walked through the main reception hall of the base and shuddered just to think about the confinement many of these men have to endure. When winter arrives everything is boarded up and no one leaves the confines of the base for several months. That is how bad winters there can get, even leaving the building for a moment is forbidden.
As we walked through I felt like the ultimate interloper. We were the first guests they had had in months and around every corner people were staring at us. Excited to see something, someone, anything different than the usual people and things they must see every day of their lives. After we left the game room and bar area, I turned to our guide and asked him why people volunteer for this position.
He shrugged and said that it’s Antarctica, isn’t it? It’s the greatest adventure there is. He went on to say that the appointments are very coveted and along with higher pay, can help junior officers advance through the ranks faster. It’s a badge of honor to serve at O’Higgins Station; to willingly separate yourself from the rest of the world for 12 lonely months.
O’Higgins is one of the oldest bases in continuous operation in the Antarctic Peninsula. The base has been staffed since 1948 without interruption. They have endured untold of hardship and have lost comrades along the way. This isn’t a vacation; this is something to be taken seriously. It is a deep commitment and demands respect. That’s why visiting as a tourist was a little unsettling. I felt like the consummate weakling seeing men who quite literally put their lives on the line. There I was in my oversized parka and camera, a weird observer into what is undeniably a strange world.
As we left I walked out to an overlook where I saw thousands of penguins milling about the tail end of a glacier. It was stunning in a stark and austere way. Antarctica truly is the end of the world; a place that even though technology can connect, is still as far away from the spirit of civilization as you can get. I understood then and there why those men volunteer to spend a year there because our guide was right; it’s Antarctica after all.