Doug Sperlich could have taken the conventional route once he’d decided to become an aviator.
But instead of joining a commercial airline, he went in a different direction: he went south — as far south as possible.
In January, the 24-year-old from Enderby, will make his second trip to Antarctica, where he works as a co-pilot transporting scientific researchers and logistics workers to sites across the icy continent.
Last year, Sperlich started working for Kenn Borek Air, the Calgary-based airline that transports virtually all of the cargo and people that move about in Antarctica.
Sperlich will spend two months at various national and private camps there.
Getting there takes two weeks and a number of stops along the way. When he gets to Chile, it’ll be time for the daunting flight over ocean waters.
Once the plane passes the halfway point between Chile and Rothera Research Station — a large British base in Antarctica — there’s not enough fuel left to turn around.
“It’s a one-way trip,” Sperlich said. “They call it a point of no return.”
Weather conditions on the southernmost continent can be intense and volatile, and if the visibility is poor planes aren’t allowed to take off.
But when hopping over the ocean, there’s no choice but to land, whether you can see the runway or not.
The weather, it turns out, can be just as hazardous when on the ground.
“There’s been times where to go to the mess hall from my room I would have to crawl out to it because the winds are so strong that if you try to stand up you literally just get blown backwards slowly,” Sperlich said, describing some of the worse days on Antarctica’s plateau, elevated 13,000 feet at the top.
“If they’re expecting high winds they put a rope around the camp so that if you accidentally wander off you’ll find something. Because if you get lost out there in a windstorm, I don’t think anybody’s going to looking for you.”
Sperlich first learned how to fly and maintain an airplane from his uncle, an aviation mechanical engineer.
He also flies in his spare time. Two years ago, he bought a four-cylinder airplane built in 1963, which he keeps at the Vernon Airport.
“I take this thing for joyrides all the time,” he said one day while doing some regular maintenance.
It’s a much smaller plane than the Twin Otter he takes down to Antarctica — and a lot more affordable.
“You’d be surprised,” he said when asked about the price. “It came up to about $30,000.”
Once he’s made that first, nerve-wracking landing from across the ocean, Sperlich says his stress levels go down — perhaps more so there than anywhere else.
“I count it to not having good access to the internet, not seeing what everybody else is doing, just being in my own world,” he said, describing a mental state of pure equilibrium he found there that is owed to isolation mixed with adventure, and a healthy dose of peace and quiet when the howling winds die down.
“You can step out on the ice, stand there and hear your own heartbeat because there’s not another sound. Sometimes if it’s really sunny you can hear the ice melting. I’ve never heard ice melting before,” he said.
“It was the most alone I’ve been, however, the least lonely I’ve felt.”
Coming home after his five-month stint last year was an adjustment.
Sperlich said it wasn’t easy to reacquaint himself with crowds of people, and the general discordance of everyday life in North America.
“It was hard to come back to at first,” he said.
“My heart would start pounding because there’s too many people around.”
Sperlich has a lot of stories from his experience so far.
He remembers playing football out on the ice with members of his base, while the British contingent played cricket with a bat fashioned from a pallet and a ball of ice.
He recalls speaking to researchers he was transporting — stories of spending decades drilling into the ice in search of bacteria millions of years old.
These stories add up to Sperlich’s reasoning for choosing this path, as opposed to working for WestJet.
“It’s the adventure,” he said. “Completely the adventure.”