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How we met: ‘He played footsie with me under a coffee table in Antarctica’

Ross Island is beautifully bleak. It is home to penguins, seals, volcanoes and two Antarctic research bases. Keri, who is American and works for the US Antarctic Program, was running the stores and other services at McMurdo station. Alex, a Briton who was doing a PhD in sea-ice physics, was 1.9 miles (3km) away at New Zealand’s Scott Base. They met in February 2009, as winter was approaching. But dating in Antarctica was tricky. “You don’t get your hopes up about anybody there,” says Alex. Isolated in a cold little bubble with a fairly transient community, people fall in and out of love quickly.

There was a lot of interaction between the two bases, which is how they stumbled across each other – although neither remembers the exact moment. “If there was any big event happening at either base, it was made with the other station in mind. I would say at least once a month there would be something,” says Keri. Sometimes the two bases would play each other at volleyball. Alex sometimes noticed her at the bar. “But other people, too,” he says, and Keri laughs.

The US base held a Fourth of July party. “I think we decided we should get to know each other a little bit more,” says Keri. They ended up talking for much of the night. “We came from really different backgrounds – I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and Alex went to grammar schools in England.” She remembers him “playing footsie with me under the coffee table”. At the end of the night, says Alex, “most people went home and I made the excuse that I didn’t really want to go back to Scott Base that night; it was quite late”.

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Keri liked Alex’s intelligence: “I felt we were on the same wavelength.” Alex also appreciated how clever she was, “but in a different way” from him. “I’m a logical, science guy and Keri has these great insights into how people behave. She is a fascinating person. I think we just clicked and we keep surprising each other.”

They got together that night. “We weren’t sure if anything else would happen, but I kept going to see Keri and Keri kept coming to see me,” says Alex. They would meet a couple of times a week, with Alex usually making the relatively short (but sometimes -40C) trek between the stations, often in snow storms, or kite-skiing across the sea ice – because Keri had lettuce. “Lettuce is valuable down there,” says Keri. “We had a greenhouse at McMurdo station, so I would take my share and save it until Alex came over and we would sit on the couch and eat it.”

He would bring her small presents – gingerbread men, a stuffed elephant. When you pack for a stint in Antarctica, many people bring small gifts to give to their friends and colleagues whenever they need a little lift. “Keri got most of them,” he says.

Sometimes they would both set out from their respective bases at the same time and meet in the middle. “The auroras would be going off above our head, so we would watch that together,” says Keri. “We found patches of snow and pretended we were penguins and slid down the hill. It was very cute and almost makes me want to barf.” She laughs. “I don’t think either of us were really serious about each other at that point. It was just an Antarctica winter thing that was happening.”

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Once their time there was over, Keri went back to the US and Alex to university in New Zealand, so they started a long-distance relationship. Keri returned to work in Antarctica the following winter, still not sure if their relationship would work long-term, but there was no pressure from either of them. “The idea that we were probably going to break up meant that if we didn’t feel like breaking up, that was cool, too,” she says. Alex says: “It was always worth waiting for Keri.” They got married five years ago and now live in San Francisco.

Their longest stint together has been 14 months; most years, Keri goes back to Antarctica for about six months. Video calls from the base are rationed, but they keep in daily contact by phone and messages. “It was always expected that Keri would keep doing this, so we both understand the situation we’re in,” says Alex. It helps that they are independent people, says Keri. “We both haven’t cared very much about the way things are ‘supposed’ to be. We like our alone time.” Then, says Alex, “you meet each other again and you get to fall in love again”.

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