In 1990, in the middle of the Antarctic winter, Kristin Larson and a colleague left the warmth of McMurdo Station and set out on the Erebus Ice Tongue, a sliver of glacial ice flowing off the nearby volcano. It was 30 degrees below zero. She had been cooped up for months, so she and her partner rejoiced in the opportunity to throttle up their snow machines. Still, they stopped every 20 minutes to be sure that the sea ice was thick enough to support their 500-pound machines. At one check, many kilometers from shore, Larson’s ice auger went right through. They turned and raced back to solid land.

It was the closest she came to dying during her eight years working as a scientist amid the ice, penguins and general otherworldliness of the globe’s most forbidding continent. Armed with degrees in molecular physiology and marine biology, she went to Antarctica in 1988 because “it was the wildest place to go.” She wasn’t disappointed.