“I’ve come to Antarctica to find a husband,” Nicole McGrath told Cole Heinz, mock serious.
Heinz laughed. The two were eating lunch at McMurdo Station, a US research facility built on volcanic rock on Ross Island, surrounded by mountains, snow and ice.
It was 2013. McGrath, then 25, had graduated college in the midst of the recession, she was unsure what she wanted to do and job prospects were grim.
When she heard that the US government employed people to work in dining and janitorial roles at McMurdo, McGrath was intrigued and immediately applied.
It was a couple of years before she was accepted, but then before she knew it, McGrath was boarding a military flight from New Zealand to the planet’s southernmost continent.
“Who gets to say they go to Antarctica?” McGrath tells CNN Travel today. “That’s just like something I’ve never even heard of. I’m from Florida originally, so I’d never even lived anywhere cold ever.”
Upon arrival, she was informed of her duties as a dining attendant: working the galley, washing dishes and serving food for the McMurdo team.
Heinz, a McMurdo veteran who’d just turned 29, was set to train McGrath, along with several other new recruits. He recalls the moment he first saw her.
“I walked in, and I was just like, ‘Woah,’” he says.
McGrath was equally taken with Heinz.
“I remember like seeing this redheaded Texan with a baseball cap and just being like, ‘Oh, he’s cute,’” says McGrath.
Still, she was only kidding about heading to Antarctica to husband-hunt, her joke referred to the fact McMurdo was roughly 75% men.
The two strangers quickly realized they shared this dry sense of humor.
“I think what drew us to each other that first day was that we joked around a lot, and we made each other laugh,” says McGrath.
There were other new recruits joining that day, and McMurdo was always a hive of activity. It was hard to find much privacy. But McGrath and Heinz happened to eat lunch alone on day one.
“We had kind of our own little – not really a date – but just a little private lunch together that first day,” says Heinz.
Life at McMurdo
As McGrath settled into her work, she found herself comparing McMurdo’s atmosphere to that of a college campus. Everyone lived in dorms. There were organized movie nights and events. There was a friendly, welcoming vibe.
There was also patchy Wi-Fi, communal computers and no cell phone signal, so connections were forged quickly and strongly.
“They’re really big on community there, because everyone is in the same position, you’re 10,000 miles away from home and family,” says Heinz.
The only downside of the buzzy environment was it was difficult to be alone with a potential love interest. But amid their busy work days, Heinz and McGrath found time to chat one on one, with Heinz often stopping by McGrath’s work station in the dining room.
On day three of her Antarctic adventure, McGrath asked Heinz out on their first official date. She suggested they hike to Hut Point to see the abandoned Discovery Hut, once used by British explorer Robert F. Scott during a 1901-1904 Antarctic expedition, and later by Ernest Shackleton.
“It’s just exactly the way it was over 100 years ago, because of the cold and the lack of humidity, everything’s perfectly preserved,” explains McGrath.
The two chatted the whole way, marveling at the spectacular, ethereal landscape as they carved a path in the snow.
“It’s like this very beautiful, cold, desolate place,” says McGrath, recalling the icy terrain.
Back at McMurdo, the two headed to the coffee house and spent the rest of the day chatting and playing board games together. They shared their first kiss, and were inseparable from that day forward.
“That was that,” says McGrath.
The two soon realized dating at McMurdo Station was slightly different from dating in Florida or Texas. For one, there was the privacy issue.
“You kind of have to just be creative with dates,” says Heinz.
They’d go out on hikes together with no one but Antarctica’s penguins for company, looking out for seals or whales en route. Back at the station, they’d watch movies in the communal lounge.
Evenings were spent sharing a drink with their friends, or playing games in the coffee hut. The McMurdo workers put on events, like banjo lessons or language classes, for one another. Often the scientists based at the station gave fascinating talks about their Antarctic research.
On the eve of 2014, the station hosted its annual New Year’s Eve festival, dubbed Icestock. Heinz and McGrath attended the live concert, along with all their friends at McMurdo.
“It’s the southern hemisphere, so the sun’s out for 24 hours, the snow around the station has melted. So they’ll build this big platform and people can sign up to play music,” explains Heinz.
One hut at McMurdo is reserved for visiting VIPs, but when not occupied by congressional delegates, it’s available for the residents to hire out for 24-hour periods. On one of their days off, Heinz rented out the spot and used the opportunity to cook McGrath a special steak dinner.
McGrath called her parents from the McMurdo landline each day. She didn’t mention Heinz until she’d been at the station for a few months, but her mom had already guessed her daughter had met someone. Whenever McGrath was able to grab a turn at the communal computer, she’d send her family photos of her adventures, and her mother noticed a red haired man popping up in almost every picture.
In January 2014, the couple told one another they loved each other for the first time. They were hanging out together, stealing some rare alone time.
“I heard her whisper something,” recalls Heinz.
“What did you say?” he remembers asking.
McGrath repeated the three words, softly.
“When she finally said it a little bit louder, I was like, ‘I’ve been thinking for the past week I wanted to say this to you. But I’ve never said it to a girl before,’” recalls Heinz today.
“I said it first. And I knew I was in love with him,” says McGrath. “But part of it was always like, I don’t know, sometimes McMurdo felt like a bit of a fantasy world, like a reality show.”
She wasn’t sure how their relationship would translate to the “real” world.
“Maybe it’s easy to be in love because we’re in this beautifully protected space,” she remembers thinking.
The summer season at McMurdo came to an end in February and McGrath had planned to travel around New Zealand for the six months following, while Heinz was set to stay on for the winter. The two hadn’t really talked about what that meant for their relationship.
“I knew I still wanted to be with her,” says Heinz. As February edged closer, he decided he needed to be honest.
“What if I came to New Zealand with you?” he suggested to McGrath one day.
McGrath hesitated. She didn’t want Heinz to give up the opportunity to work the winter season – those winter roles were coveted, as there were fewer jobs than there were in summer. Plus, she was still worried that their relationship may only work in this specific Antarctic bubble.
McGrath said she thought it was best if Heinz didn’t join her.
“I was just like, ‘Okay, I mean, I love you, I want you to be happy and do whatever you want to do and if we crossed paths again, that’s great,” Heinz recalls.
“After that, things were sad and tense between us. It was hard to know how to be around each other knowing our relationship would be coming to an end soon,” says McGrath.
But a couple days later, she says she found herself alone in her room, thinking about Heinz.
“It hit me that once I left, I wouldn’t get to see him every day and it made me so sad,” says McGrath.
Her mind made up, she went to find him, and reopened the discussion.
“I told him if he was really OK with giving up his winter contract then I wanted him to come travel New Zealand with me,” McGrath recalls.
New Zealand adventure
A plan started to form, and the two set about organizing working holiday visas in New Zealand. Once they were there, they bought a converted camper van and toured the country together.
“It was a little bit nerve wracking at the beginning,” says McGrath. “But I feel like we just had so much fun. We had already fallen in love in Antarctica. But that trip is what made me realize, ‘Okay, I really do love this guy.’”
On a Skype call from the New Zealand van, McGrath meant Heinz’s parent’s in Texas for the first time. Meanwhile, her parents flew out to join the couple on the last two weeks of their trip.
“Weird way to meet my parents for the first time,” laughs McGrath. “Like, ‘Here’s my parents and now we’re going on a two week road trip with them!’”
The couple grew even closer as they navigated the ups and downs of their camper van odyssey. When the six months came to an end, McGrath geared up to return to Antarctica.
“Originally, I was going to be one and done in Antarctica, I was just going to do one season, but then I loved it so much, I signed up for a second season,” she says.
Heinz wasn’t able to join her, so the couple were going to be long-distance for five months. Neither of them were sure how this would pan out.
“We had just spent literally almost a year together of always being around each other – living in the van together, seeing each other 24/7. And then me going to Antarctica and doing long distance for five months where we couldn’t even FaceTime or Skype or anything – it was just phone calls,” says McGrath.
“But we made it through and I figured, ‘Well, if I can live in a van with this guy, and also do long distance with this guy, then we must be able to make it long term because we’ve been through both extremes.’”
When McGrath came back to the US after her second Antarctic season, she’d also settled on a career – she wanted to work in urban planning and she’d lined up an internship in Florida.
Meanwhile, Heinz had a job working for the National Park Service and was about to move to Colorado. The couple were still long-distance, but it was a lot easier now they were in the same country, and they organized regular trips back and forth.
On one of McGrath’s visits, the two were hiking the canyons of the Colorado National Monument together, when Heinz proposed.
“I was actually a little panicked when he asked me, because I knew I loved him, I knew I wanted to marry him. But at that time, I was just like, ‘How is this even going to work, our lives are so apart?’” recalls McGrath.
“And again, he was the one that was like, ‘We’ll just make it work. We love each other.’ So after some slight panicking, I said ‘Yes.’”
The two decided to do one more trip to Antarctica to celebrate this new chapter. This time, they’d work at McMurdo for the summer and winter season, enjoying the opportunity to see the last sunset before the darkness of winter 2016 took hold, and getting an opportunity to visit the South Pole.
An Antarctic-themed wedding
Back home in the US, the two got married in McGrath’s home city of Miami in January 2017. Florida felt like a world away from Antarctica, but the couple still found ways to incorporate the continent into the celebrations.
The color scheme was blue and silver, evoking the polar ice. Heinz made a miniature replica of Scott’s Discovery Hut, into which the guests dropped their wedding cards. Rather than a guest book, loved ones signed a mounted map of Antarctica. On top of the cake were two miniature penguins. And Heinz’s cufflinks were engraved with the coordinates for McMurdo Station.
McGrath wore a wedding dress once worn by her late Chilean grandmother, and later passed on to her mother.
“We also had pictures of my grandmother and mother in the dress at our reception, so our guests knew the backstory of the dress,” she says.
After their wedding, the couple moved to Texas, where McGrath had been accepted into graduate school for city planning.
She graduated while seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child, Samantha. McGrath and Heinz say a bit of Antarctica has already found its way into Samantha’s day-to-day life.
“She gets lots of penguin stuff all the time, she was dressed as a penguin for her first Halloween, and she has penguin decorations in her room,” says Heinz.
Today, the family lives in upstate New York. McGrath and Heinz say they moved north partly because of McGrath’s job, and partly because they missed the cold.
As for Heinz, he now works in the aerospace industry – he developed a fascination with air transportation and logistics during his final season at McMurdo.
The couple are still close with many of the people they met during their time in Antarctica, and they’re always encouraging others to seize the chance to work there.
“I’m always trying to push people to go for a season because I mean, it obviously was very life changing for both of us because we met there – but even just the experience of being there is life changing,” says McGrath.
The couple always mark Antarctica’s winter solstice, which takes place in June, with a reunion with friends from McMurdo. The celebration was virtual in 2021, but in previous years friends from Antarctica have flown in from across the US to celebrate.
“It’s a holiday that we consider very special to us and then it just keeps us connected back to the place that we fell in love,” says McGrath.
McGrath and Heinz, who recently celebrated their five year wedding anniversary, say they’ve enjoyed embarking on new challenges and a new phase of life together over the past half decade.
“Over the years of marriage, just being around each other, you learn so much more,” says Heinz, who says it’s inspiring to witness McGrath’s “motivation and the intelligence, and just the passion she has for everything.”
“From the beginning, I always knew that he was a really kind, sweet person. And so I knew he was always going to be there,” says McGrath of Heinz. “Now we have a kid, and parenthood has opened up this whole new set of challenges and I’m continually impressed with the father that he is and, and just how dedicated he is to being a great dad and to being a great partner.”
The couple say they would love to return to McMurdo when they retire, and ponder if a grown-up Samantha, and any future children they may have, might be interested in joining them.
When the pandemic allows, they also hope to take Samantha to South America, where McGrath’s mother is from, and to Switzerland, where she also has family.
Whatever the future holds, McGrath and Heinz are excited to experience it together.
“Every day is still just like that first day in Antarctica, everyday is exciting, different and fun,” says Heinz.