Frozen Reflections: Adventure in Antarctica reveals unexpected beauty

On Dec. 8, 2012, eight students left Bozeman for Antarctica as part of an out-of-class academic adventure — and I was one of those students.

The trip was organized as part of a pilot program launched through MSU’s Department of Ecology, which aims to make students interested and invested in the climate, ecology and politics of the Antarctic Peninsula.

I had many expectations before departing on our journey. I expected Antarctica to be cold, snowy and filled with penguins. However, before even reaching the continent, I quickly learned that Antarctica is a place of the unexpected.

As we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, humpback whales, blue summer skies and thunderous noises from glacial ice calving greeted us. I expected a distinct sound of silence, but most of the time this is not the case. Icebergs flip, avalanches tear through mountainsides and glaciers break away from the rocky terrain.

Stepping onto Antarctica for the first time, not only were we surrounded by snow and ice, but thousands and thousands of penguins. There is no mistaking when you are near penguins; their lively calls and foul-smelling rookeries quickly give them away.

On land, penguins are clumsy creatures, often falling on their faces in the snow after only three steps — but in the water, these flightless birds dart through the crystal-clear sea with little effort. Because they have no land predators, penguins are just as curious of you as you are of them. They approached us fearlessly and continued without hesitation on their paths to the ocean.

This being an academic learning trip, we had many “class” times aboard the research ship — which we lived on throughout our 10-day stay — in order to learn about what we were seeing outside. We learned of the various penguin species and life cycles, the politics and proceedings of the Antarctic Treaty and the geographical makeup of Antarctica. Miraculously, we managed to stay on task and squeeze in these learning times between whale watching and zodiac cruising.

About a week into our stay on the ship, our group had the opportunity to go camping in the snow. Around 30 people participated in this excursion. We dug our own pits to block the katabatic winds and nestled into the bags provided for us.

Because it was summertime in Antarctica, there were 24 hours of daylight. Peeking out of the bivvy bag, I could see the mountains that surrounded us, and every hour or so, I could hear the ever-shifting ice and snow rolling off the faces of those mountains. It was 10 degrees that night we slept in the snow, but looking back on this hardcore mountain experience, I would do it all over again.

There is a lot to say about Antarctica through stories I am unable to write in a simple article, and sights to show that cannot merely be captured by a camera lens. Seasickness and a harsh climate accompany the panoramic glory of the Antarctic continent. While these factors are mildly unfortunate, they are worth it for the sake of adventure.

Antarctica encompasses all of your senses. You can see it, feel it and even taste it at times. It is not just a place — it is an experience.