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UCHS graduate adapts to life in Antarctica

Unicoi County High School graduate Matthew Smith has been in Antarctica since October 2016 supporting the efforts of researchers at the South Pole. (Contributed photo)

By Brad Hicks

Matthew Smith’s last summer was anything but typical.

Conditions in his locale made a refreshing dip in a pond or pool impossible. Board shorts and T-shirts were replaced by long johns and thick coats designed to withstand the most brutal conditions on the planet. A good pair of gloves was a far greater necessity than flip flops.

Still, keeping cool was not an issue.

Smith, a Unicoi County High School graduate, has been in Antarctica since late October 2016. Since arriving at the South Pole, Smith has worked to support the efforts of those conducting research in the virtually uninhabited continent.

“I am enjoying the time I have spent here,” Smith said. “It has been a great experience and something I will talk about the rest of my life.”

Smith, who graduated from UCHS in 2003, is a native of Tallahassee, Fla. He and his family relocated to this area at the end of his 3rd grade year. After briefly attending East Tennessee State University, Smith would return to Florida to complete college, earning a certificate in Computer Science from Lively Technical School located in Tallahassee.

After relocating to Colorado in 2010, Smith had designs on earning a computer engineering degree, but he said it wasn’t until he moved to Colorado Springs in 2012 that he put his mind to earning his Bachelor of Science in computer engineering.

“I transferred some of my credits from ETSU and began that journey,” he said. “I am currently a junior at the University of Colorado majoring in Computer Engineering and minoring in Mathematics.”

Smith has also worked as both a chief information officer and information technology director for hospitals in Colorado.

It was February 2016 when Smith received the call that would eventually lead him to the South Pole. Amy Pelton, talent acquisition specialist with the GHG Corporation, found Smith’s resume online. With it, Smith’s phone number was listed.

“Amy Pelton called my cell phone while I was at home with my son Garrett,” Smith said. “We were playing on the floor with some toys when I answered. She said who she was and who she worked for and why she was calling. She wondered if I would be interested in taking a deployment to Antarctica for a systems administrator job at McMurdo base.”

GHG, a Texas-based company that provides engineering and IT services to its customers, is charged with hiring for the IT portion of what is known as the Antarctic Support Contract. The ASC, Smith said, is divided into several contracted agencies that fulfill personnel requirements for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) and National Science Foundation.

But Smith initially believed the job offer that would take him to the South Pole to be a prank call.

“I asked her, ‘What is your website,’ and proceeded to login and keep the conversation going while the page loaded,” Smith said. “Sure enough, there was the posting for the jobs and some details about their agency. I apologized and retracted my previous statements and got down to business. She was very positive and understanding, probably because this was not the first time someone had pulled the scam card on her.”

Pelton continued, advising Smith he would be working remotely in the harshest climate found on earth.

“I responded with, ‘When do I start?’” Smith said.

Paperwork and doctor’s visits followed, and the pre-deployment process took around three months to complete. In June 2016, Smith was contacted by Kevin Schriner, IT manager for the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, a U.S. research facility located at the South Pole. Schriner, who received Smith’s information through GHG, advised the network engineers he had selected to work at the station had all failed the performance quality process, leaving him with “slim pickings” for this base’s IT staff, Smith said.

Schriner, impressed by Smith’s resume and skill set, asked Smith if he would be interested in working as a network engineer at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.

“I said I would be very interested in the position as it had a slight pay bump over my previous offer and, after all, I’d be going to the South Pole, the southernmost United States research base in the world,” Smith said. “I got off the phone feeling very positive about my upcoming future with USAP and Kevin.”

The day following his in-person interview at the USAP office in Centennial, Colo., officials at the South Pole Station confirmed that Smith had been chosen to serve as the station’s next network engineer.

As network engineer at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, Smith has several duties, including helping other IT staff with any issues that may arise.

“Here at the station, I perform as a stand-in for the IT manager and lead the other IT staff during daily duties and attend department head meetings,” Smith said. “The network engineer is directly responsible for the upkeep and security of the network appliances, Internet access routes through the satellite equipment back to Denver, and local user/server access and security. We also monitor network congestion and optimize bandwidth for science data leaving the station’s experiments. I perform many other job functions, though, and usually act as the lead point of contact for all IT needs or issues at the station.”

To prepare for his stint in Antarctica, Smith had to submit his measurements for ECW gear. The ECW, he said, stands for Extreme Cold Weather. Smith is also a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician who previously worked as a firefighter in east Colorado. This NR-EMT designation enabled Smith to step into the lead role as Emergency Response Team 2 – Fire Team Captain for the Antarctic Fire Brigade at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. The team completed a fire team training course at the Aurora Fire Training Academy in Aurora, Colo., just days before being deployed to Antarctica.

Smith arrived at McMurdo base in Antarctica on Oct. 26, 2016. After spending a couple of days there to wait out some inclement weather, he boarded a plane to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, arriving there on Oct. 29, 2016.

“It was a scary yet exciting flight through the mountains of Antarctica, soaring over the tips of the mountains, some never being set foot upon,” Smith said. “I was thinking about what was to come for me when I arrived, if I survived the plane flight.”

And Smith has hardly been alone during his time at the South Pole. He said there are currently less than 50 people at the station with winter in full swing, but that number was around 150 during the Antarctic summer months.

“These were mostly science support staff installing new equipment for science experiments and extras for the station support crew,” Smith said. “Everyone ranges from electrician and carpenter to chef and power plant engineer to network engineer and meteorologist. Then there are the science support staff. This would include research assistants and people working on the individual experiments at South Pole, like physicists and astronomy experts. These are usually staffed by two people each. We help each other where help is needed. We all have extensive skill sets and experience outside of what our job titles represent.”

As for the conditions Smith has faced during his time in Antarctica, they are exactly what one would expect on a landmass known as the “White Continent.” 

“At the South Pole we are anchored to the ice sheet,” Smith said. “It is approximately 2-and-a-half miles of ice below the station. There is usually a constant wind that keeps the surface covered in many feet of fine-grained snow. With the temperatures being so cold, this snow quickly sticks together and hardens, making walking relatively easier than you would imagine.”

Antarctica has only two polar seasons – summer and winter. Summer at the South Pole runs from around late September through the end of March. However, the summer months there are a far cry from the summer experienced by those living in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The weather fluctuates slightly but is mostly cold, colder and what-did-I-do-to-get-here-I-can’t-feel-my-face cold,” Smith said. During the summer it only broke subzero temps once and usually hovered at -15 degrees Fahrenheit to -25 degrees Fahrenheit.”

And while the official start of the summer is on the horizon here, the already-frigid Antarctica is currently midst of winter. Smith said those at the South Pole are seeing temperatures in the -95 range.

“It will get colder as the winter goes on, but this all depends on the weather changes,” Smith said. “It is not uncommon to hit -100 degrees Fahrenheit and lower during the winter.”

Smith is scheduled to leave Antarctica on Nov. 8 if the weather permits. If this pans out, Smith will have spent nearly 13 months on ice. And while Smith said his experience at the South Pole has been unforgettable, he’s looking forward to returning to the much warmer comforts of home.

“The time I have been away from my young sons is the greatest motivating factor to my hasty return,” he said. “I look forward to holding them once again and hearing my older son talk to me in person for the first time. I was deployed already when my youngest son was born. He arrived on Jan. 16. I have not held him yet or spent any time with him. This will be a great reward when I return.”