It was on the fourth day of being trapped in an eight-foot-by-eight-foot tent with his colleague that Con Curtis really began to go stir crazy. ‘That’s your whole environment,’ he explains. ‘We were there about four days, and you get tent fever. It’s your sleeping and cooking space, and there’s only a gap of about two feet between the sleeping bags. That’s your home, 24/7. It’s a real test.’
He and his partner on the expedition to the Antarctic to work as a base field assistant – the equivalent of a mountain guide – for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) had been kept indoors for close to 100 hours because of a massive rainstorm that – in the bitterly cold conditions – turned into a whiteout. ‘You go out into it even though you’ve got to get dressed up like the Michelin Man, and even though it’s minus 50 with the windchill, because it breaks the monotony of sitting in the tent 24/7,’ he says. ‘Being in a tent that long and not getting out of it other than to use the toilet is quite a test.’
Not that Con’s complaining. Yes, the lowest of the lows on this first, three-week expedition to Antarctica might have been difficult – and the sight of a colleague Con (who was dangling on a hanging rope) was tethered to slowly skidding towards a hole in the snow through which both of them would soon fall was slightly terrifying – ‘But the sights are worth it,’ he says. ‘You forget about those bone-chilling times when you see the blue skies and the fantastic scenery: that drives you to want to go back there.’
The still surroundings of the Antarctic are a world away from Con’s everyday life, and particularly his upbringing. ‘I grew up on a really tough council estate in Leeds, just outside the city centre. I think there’s not many people from that background get to go places like Antarctica,’ he explains. ‘When you walked out the door, there was all sorts going on.’ Despite growing up in a close-knit Irish immigrant family with two hardworking parents, and two brothers and a sister who would keep him in check, ‘Once you stepped out and socialised with your peers, things got quite messy,’ he recalls.
In his late teenage years Con dreamed of escaping the mundanity of city life, and found a passion for mountaineering. ‘I was 17 and playing rugby at the time. Con explains. It was okay for fitness but a friend said: “You want to try walking up the hills with a rucksack on your back”. Growing up in an urban environment it was just council flats and tower blocks. My first foray anywhere outside Leeds was into the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Once I got there, I was hooked.’
It was in the late 1980s, as Con was about to head to the United States to teach outdoor activities at a summer camp after a mountaineering break in Scotland, when a friend of his showed him a magazine. ‘An advertisement jumped out at me from the page saying “Wanted: people with a sense of adventure. Must like danger and life-threatening situations.”’ It was an advertisement to work with the BAS, who were looking for mountaineers to help with their work in Antarctica. They had two tasks: to measure the accumulation of snow over time, and to retrieve buried ice cores a previous excursion had left to transport back to base. But there was a third, implicit job: surviving in subzero conditions.
‘I thought, “That’s cool”, and applied. I went to interview, and got the job. It was all my dreams rolled into one.’
‘Life-threatening situations’ wasn’t an exaggeration. Antarctica is a remote destination, still relatively undiscovered and desolate – for good reason. It’s dangerous. ‘People say life-threatening situations and they use it quite loosely, but that was happening at least once a week, if not daily at times,’ Con explains. ‘We were going through uncharted territory. It was a 280km trip that nobody had done before.’ And all this was done at a time before the widespread adoption of GPS and mobile phones. ‘From an urban environment to Antarctica, it was a sharp contrast.’
It was also, as you’d imagine, mentally challenging. The BAS job interview had all the people you’d expect to be grilling candidates – plus a psychologist sitting at the end of the table taking notes. ‘You’re going to be in a tent for a month, two months or three months with another person,’ explains Con. ‘It’s probably the biggest psychological test I’ve ever had, being in that environment.’ If anything went wrong, the nearest manned BAS base was about two and a half hours away. Getting there required good weather – not always a given in the remotest climes of the Antarctic. ‘We were really out on a limb,’ says Con.
It’s for that reason that the training before leaving for Antarctica was so rigorous: a week shadowing an A&E surgeon, plus cold weather survival training. It was all in aid of one goal: if something did go wrong, Con and his colleague would be able to survive long enough to potentially be saved. ‘Once you’re in the field, you can’t just go to the doctor. You can’t rely on the emergency services to get to you.’
And life-threatening injuries were just one wrong step away. ‘I’d spent a lot of time in the mountains and had been in hair-raising situations before, but nothing like this. I think you adopt this attitude of “I’m fully trained, I’m fit”, but ultimately you know a crevasse can open up at any time,’ says Con. The solution? ‘You just go with it. You’re not blasé, but you appreciate there’s always a danger, and you have to put all the factors in place to mitigate against that.’
When he first arrived in Antarctica, following a six-week ocean journey on a research ship, Con was awestruck. ‘I’m into natural beauty: I feel more at home in the mountains than I do in an urban environment,’ he says. ‘I’ve travelled all over the world but when you go to Antarctica it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. It’s vast: it’s the size of Australia and India put together, and the mountains are like the European Alps. I didn’t expect to see mountains. It’s awe-inspiring; breathtaking.’
Not that he had much time to admire the views: being posted to the field for three months costs £250,000 with all the support staff required at base, so you’re working 18 hours a day to make the most of the time you’re out there.
When he returned home to Yorkshire, Con had changed. ‘I had a much more relaxed attitude and calm approach than ever before,’ he says. ‘The day to day workings of normal society seem a little bit insignificant when you’ve been to a place that hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years.’
It was a culture shock, too, to go from standing on snow and glaciers for weeks and months to being on terra firma. ‘It was a bit overwhelming coming back to a major city like Leeds within 24 hours of leaving Antarctica,’ he says. ‘The amount of people, the noise, the fumes, were all alarming.’
Although the surroundings – and the experiences Con went through while in Antarctica – were astounding, he’s not sure he’d go back. ‘The second season was so intense, and I lost quite a few of my nine lives in the first season anyway,’ he says. ‘I got offered a third season but I turned it down.’ Instead he’s content to test himself on a new challenge: working with teenagers with behavioural problems, using all he learned at the end of the world to help him along the way.
Working at the End of the World by Con Curtis is published by Austin Macauley Publishers, £8.99