Looking for a different experience this year, Laura Rip ’04 decided to winter in the south. She didn’t bring along any warm-weather gear or suntan lotion though, as the average temperature at her locale is minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and she won’t be seeing the sun for more than six months.
Rip has signed on as the facilities engineer for the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘How did this happen again?’” she said. Most of the time, though, she just appreciates the simplicity of life in a community of only 60 people surrounded by snow and ice.
As an engineering student at Calvin, Rip, 24, never imagined herself doing work in exotic locations. “I had never been on another continent other than North America,” she said. (Rip, because of her work, has traveled to five continents now and believes that the other two—Africa and South America—will be fairly easy to add to the list at some point.)
“Sometimes I wonder, ‘How did this happen again?’”—Laura Rip
What interested her at Calvin was the study of renewable energy. “I found that I wanted to put my energy into trying to be a better steward of God’s creation by trying to remedy some of the issues we have with pollution. That’s a cause I’m excited about,” she said.
That cause initially drew Rip to a position at the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo. There she spoke with someone who had spent some time in Antarctica. “She had a great experience, and the idea kind of got stuck in my mind,” Rip said.
She pursued the idea and landed a position as a facilities engineer at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for the summer (October–February); she returned last summer and from there was contracted by Raytheon Polar Services as the facility engineer for the South Pole station, making her an official “Polie.”
Her job is to monitor and maintain the heat system, which runs on waste energy, for the winter inhabitants of the South Pole (an important necessity with temperatures sometimes reaching below minus 100 degrees). “It covers a broad range of structural, electrical and mechanical know-how,” she said. “We work closely with our Denver headquarters, and we do get 12 hours of satellite connection per day, so there is outside support available.”
That’s a good thing as once winter begins in mid-February, no supply planes of any kind fly to the pole for about eight months. And no one leaves the pole except in case of dire emergency—“and it would have to be pretty dire,” Rip explained.
While her job consumes 50 to 60 hours of her time every week, the other 100-plus hours are filled with some usual and some more unusual pursuits.
Life at the pole
“I live, work and eat all within 50 feet,” Rip said. “It’s hard to leave work at work because it’s all tied into one.”
When there is spare time, Rip sometimes plays basketball in the gym or picks up a book from the reading room. The station also includes a craft room and a music room. “I hope to pick up some new hobbies while I’m down here,” she said. “There’s a stockpile of stuff down here like books and movies. People bring stuff down here and then don’t want to pack it up and bring it back.”
Occasionally it’s possible to go outside. “We have what’s called the 300 club here,” she said. “We have a sauna that gets to 200 degrees, and when it’s minus 100 or lower, if you get out of the sauna and run around the pole, you’re a member.”
The temperature occasionally reaches as high as minus 1 F. In fact, it reached that temperature in January of this year. “That was pretty nice for here,” she said. “It’s so dry here that you don’t lose heat as fast; it doesn’t feel as cold as it is.”
Even at these subzero temperatures, residents don’t have to worry about catching a cold; there are no native life forms at the South Pole—not even bacteria or viruses.
“We don’t have penguins down here, either,” Rip said. “It’s too cold and too far from the water.” (There are penguins in locations north of the pole.)
So with no penguin watching to do, stargazing is a preferred activity.
“That is definitely what I’m looking forward to—that and the southern lights,” Rip said. “I’m told there are stars here like you can’t believe.” And for most of the winter you can see them 24 hours a day, as the sun never breaks the horizon.
“The sun only rises and sets once a year,” she said, “and there’s a party for when it goes up and down.”
Because of the pristine conditions, most of the scientific research occurs in the winter. Most of the summer is spent on construction projects to support the winter research, Rip said. The winter projects include gathering energy from deep space, billions of light years away, via telescope, Rip explained—of which one of the goals is to find the center of the universe and determine how old systems are.
Reflections on being a ‘Polie’
“Sometimes I’m dumbfounded by both the simplicity and diversity all at once,” she said. “All it is is snow and rock, but it’s so expansive it boggles your mind. The remoteness is awe-inspiring, mystical, in that spiritual sense.”
Rip tries not to become too accustomed to it all, she said. “Sometimes it’s like living in a small town, where you’re very keyed into what you’re doing, and it really doesn’t seem that different.”
Life is simple at the pole, she said. “You have time to do your own thing,” she said. “And everything is so close together, you don’t have to make plans for what you’re going to do and then get there. You just go do it. It’s easy to get to know people here; you’re in very close quarters and you see them every day.”
Living in a Christian community is something she misses, though, she said. “Christians at the South Pole are few and far between,” she said. “You don’t have people to hold you accountable. What you have to practice here is being accountable to other people. I think that’s one way you can make a difference.”
Life after the pole
Contracting for more work in Antarctica isn’t out of the question either, she said. “Most people don’t winter here two times in a row,” she said. “I would think about doing something else for a while, but it might have to be a pretty flexible job. There’s always an open window to come back here to try something else.”
Calvin siblings share adventurous streak
“When I first heard about my sister’s plans, I thought, ‘You’re going to Antarctica? Who in their right mind goes there?’”
Turns out about 1,000 people every Antarctic summer, including Laura’s older sister, Andrea, who spent October to February there driving a shuttle from the airport to McMurdo Station, as well as helping to maintain the airports and serving as a town taxi driver.
“I guess our family has an adventurous streak in it,” said Andrea Rip, whose interest in travel was piqued after visiting her brother, Matt ’02, in Africa, where he was serving with the Peace Corps. “Laura told me I should apply to do something like this, so I did.”
“People have asked us, ‘What did you feed them?’” laughed Clare Rip, whose youngest daughter, Sara ’07, spent last semester in China. “I don’t think we did anything that much different than other parents. We raised them to be independent, and you always hope your kids get to do things that we didn’t get to do.”
Going to Antarctica certainly qualifies. “My husband, Ken, would love to go down there and visit,” she said. “It’s been a real education for us as parents. I didn’t know much about Antarctica before.”
McMurdo Station, where both Andrea and Laura spent summers, is the “Club Med of Antarctica,” according to Laura. “It gets above freezing there,” she said.
“I was thinking about the best part of being here, and it’s the sense I get at least once a day when I realize where I am and just smile with a childlike glee; I am amazed by God’s creation here.” — Andrea Rip
A bowling alley, a coffeehouse and daily organized activities are part of the lore of the McMurdo base, which is a three-hour plane flight from the South Pole. And the residents sometimes get to experience wildlife—including penguins.
“We do have a bowling alley that was built in the ’60s, but it’s not exactly what you would think,” Andrea said. “The lanes are warped, and we have to have people in the back pin-setting and rolling the balls back.
“It’s a strange lifestyle,” she said. “The closest thing I can compare it to is being back in college again.”
Andrea has experienced peace while living on the snowy continent, she said. “I’m surprised that I don’t miss more than I do,” she said. “I’ve actually experienced the opposite; it’s a relief to not be around so much stuff.”
Andrea has also experienced God’s calling, she said. “God wanted me to find joy in this place,” she said. “I was thinking about the best part of being here, and it’s the sense I get at least once a day when I realize where I am and just smile with a childlike glee; I am amazed by God’s creation here.
“And I know this is not a mission field, but I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve had to explain myself, where my faith comes from. I’ve tried to show love to people that maybe have never experienced it before. It gives me a purpose.”
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