Antarctica (I of III)
‘What is this, an Arctic for Ants?’ is a three-part series about some dude’s experiences while living and working in Antarctica– Part I details ‘Lifestyle, Activities, & Stories’
Soon after university, I moved into my mother’s basement (literally) and applied for a few jobs in major cities. I felt as though I wasn’t ready to start my career, so, I did what any sane person does when avoiding ‘the real world’ after university.
I signed up for the United States Antarctic Program.
After extensive physical testing (have you ever had to poop in a bag?), the NSF cleared me. They purchased my tickets, and I left for Christchurch, New Zealand. Now this was all back in late 2013, when the American government endured a shutdown. Because of this political Mexican standoff over the national budget, many ‘non-essential’ government programs shut down as a result.
I spent two wonderful weeks in New Zealand with a $115 per diem before the NSF bought me another plane ticket and told me to pack my bags.
The entire journey home drained me. When I finally arrived in LAX, I turned on my phone to find an email sent mid-flight that informed me, if I were to stay an extra day, I could have been included in the ‘essential staff’ to keep minimum facilities running.
Finally, the government rebooted like the old Acer laptop I had when I was fourteen.
I found myself on ‘The Ice’ within a matter of weeks.
Stepping off the huge Boeing that had just landed on the ice runway, I opened my mouth to immediately suffer from a brain freeze attack. Ice creamed…
Before we start, I want to give you guys the 411:
In 1959, twelve countries signed some boring but important document called the Antarctic Treaty System. It prohibits any use of the continent for anything but scientific endeavors; basically, no military, mining, or economical gain.
For the unaware, Antarctica is the driest, coldest, and southernmost continent on Earth.
I lived there with roughly 650 other people, in a small station called McMurdo.
No, there are no polar bears. That’s the North Pole.
These are my stories.
So McMurdo, managed by the NSF and US Government, is a sweet little utopia where everybody shares everything- either because it’s free (yay socialism?) or because the bottle of Crown we just bought cost eleven bucks. Trucks have the keys left in them; if you want something you can go to the Skua building and find literally anything people leave there for others, the list goes on. Everyone is vetted meticulously before they go. It’s a very safe place.
People like to drink there. I mean, seeing as there is clean gajillion-year-old Antarctic ice to put in your old scotch everywhere, why not?
As you can probably imagine, there are limited recreational activities to partake in. Yes, there are many clubs, sports, instruments (every once in a while someone particular would rent out the bagpipes, climb the nearest mountain, and play them over the town?) two bars, and PS3’s to keep morale up. Most people down there have a skill, and some even left their good paying jobs just for a chance to experience The Ice. So, many people provide the skills and services they have to the public for free- to keep their knowledge, but also for the good of the community. There was everything from Laughing Yoga, soccer leagues, to Latin classes, all for free. So, naturally, I took Latin and joined the Antarctican soccer league.
There are plenty of events, especially around the holidays and they generally involved the whole station For instance – every year we hold ‘Icestock’ (on New Year’s, and a few shows are put on by artists who want to be heard. They build a stage; everyone freezes their asses off, and Jared drinks a little too much.
Many scientists visit Antarctica to study wildlife, simulate conditions as if it were the moon, (because it’s the most like the Moon), and to learn more about Earth’s core and history. I did, though, meet a particular scientist with purple hair and gauges, who was studying what she called ‘sensory deprivation.’
The sounds. The silence. There are no birds, no public transport, airplanes, construction sites, dinging of your cell phone – no hum of the world, no signs of life. No wifi, no cell signals. It’s eerie. It’s beautiful. More than one occasion, at times I was alone for hundreds of miles on the ice shelf; I did feel as if I was the only person in the world.
The smells. There’s diesel fuel and BO. It’s actually fascinating when you finally arrive in New Zealand after the stint, you can smell EVERYTHING. I mean, the flowers, grass, and life. You don’t realize how many things you smell on a daily basis until you’re deprived of them for nearly six months.
The sights. Seeing the same thing every day. The same walls, the same utensils, the same people, the same ever-expanding ice with the same Fata Morgan. The sun never sets during the summer, so for five months I did not see nighttime. The sun just circles the sky. It’s very strange coming out of a bar to broad daylight. Eventually it seems like time stops, because you do and see the same thing every day. I remember having difficulty recalling if I had had a conversation with my friend that day or two weeks ago. There are no pivot points, or important life events, in time to relate to. More on that in Part II.
One would think, well! There must be an unlimited amount of ice and snow activities to partake in because it’s an icy wonderland. Nope. Everywhere in the ever-expanding ice there are ravines or long, narrow cracks in the ice that go down for sometimes hundreds of feet. Where you walk, the ice may look and seem stable on top, but below some random sections there’s danger.
There is a special unit down there that assesses the ice’s stability using sonar. They map out safe, stable areas so that we can go to some of our favorite destinations. So, we do have special marked walking routes we are allowed to safely traverse- but that doesn’t mean when the soccer ball was accidentally kicked into an undocumented field, someone daring didn’t run out there to kick it back. I never had the balls.
To be fair, there are a few awesome outdoor activities you can do every once in a while if you feel like getting away from station.
There is an active volcano there called Mount Erebus. I took a snow machine out there once; unfortunately an incoming storm blocked most of our view. The volcano produces crystals called ‘Erebus Crystals’ which are found only in two active volcanoes in the world, the other in Kenya. I think I was more surprised there are volcanoes in Kenya than in Antarctica. These crystals would be illegal to take off the continent as per the Antarctic Treaty system, of course.
So I definitely wouldn’t happen to have any bags full of those.
In the sixties and into the seventies, a nuclear power plant resting on the nearby Ob Hill supplied the station with energy, until it’s removal in 1972. They completed dismantled it, other than the floorboards, which now sit shelf-like on the side of the nearby mountain/hill. On midnight of the winter solstice (again, still day-time because the sun is always whirling in the sky) we had a Super Secret Summer Solstice Silent Dance Party, where every danced on the platform after climbing the mountain, put their headphones in, and danced. I have a video of myself just laughing my ass off, once I actually pulled myself away from dancing to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ for the ninth time in a row.
Thursdays were ‘storm the Kiwi (New Zealander) base day.’ Not really, but due to the sheer population disparity between them and us, it kind of felt like that. You see, the kiwis have their own station on the other side of Ob Hill consisted of roughly 60 people. Despite so few people, they still had a small bar and on Thursdays, we were allowed the opportunity to hear something other than the standard American drawl and drink some Guinness. I also joined the soccer league for a good time there, and burnt some fuel running around a cold gym with them.
The same gym supposedly acts as the de facto morgue, and has been used after a plane crash in the 70s.
As you can imagine, there are a few interesting stories that come out the isolated McMurdo. The people are fascinating, and there are strange resources and traditions left down there over the years. I’ll go first.
Now, Australians and Kiwis commonly consume a popular beverage called ginger beer. Many of our products at McMurdo do come from the southern hemisphere; naturally I fell in love with many products from Oceania. Maybe you’ve heard of ginger beer, maybe you’re thinking, ‘wow um duh, it’s similar to ginger ale, but go on.’
So early on in my Ice stay, I was invited to a party in the de facto morgue gym. Before I went, I bought a thirty rack of ginger beer and pre-gamed by myself with a few shower beers and room beers, just to get my blood flowing. It was early in the year and I wanted to make friends at the party. I decided I would bring the rest of my case to the gym as friendship bribes.
So I show up weirdly excited to share my ginger and beer friendship bribes. I begin to offer them around, but people kept politely declining. All the while I’m slamming these things faster and faster, thinking, ‘these are so weak, I’m not feeling anything.’ Anyway, that weird dude who keeps trying to push ginger beers on everyone, whilst chugging them, starts to feel a little ill in the stomach. On my seventh ginger beer, I cut my hand on the strange pull-tab things, and yell, ‘GOD, I JUST WANT MY BEER!’ jokingly.
At this point, someone leaned over and said, ‘Do you know those are non-alcoholic?’
Facilities at McMurdo and the South Pole are limited, and during winter time, it is next to impossible to get flights in or out of the station because the darkness and weather. Because of this, there are a few horror stories associated. There is the story of the man who had a heart attack at McMurdo, but since the flight back to New Zealand can take four hours he died during transport.
One woman discovered a lump in her breast during her winter-over, and had to operate on HERSELF while doctors Skyped her from New York. For added intensity, the internet only works during limited times due to the angling of the satellites and the bottom of the globe, so she was under a time crunch. Another man reached the South Pole to be permanently sealed in for the winter (approximately four months) before receiving a message informing him his two young daughters died in a car crash.
There was an incidence at the South Pole that occurred while at I was McMurdo. The South Pole is much more difficult to get to and has a much smaller population. The term being thrown around McMurdo about the situation down there was ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Supposedly, the people down there had begun to create factions and plot against each other. In one instance, pool cues were being used as weapons to keep the opposing side in check. I don’t know too much about it, but the South Pole is starved for oxygen, much smaller and isolated, with fewer people and activities.
Eventually, some FBI agents came through McMurdo to head down there to sort out the situation.
There are also instances of strange psychological occurrences, or perhaps what some would consider boredom. Things like building a hovercraft out of a vacuum and a chair, or giving your beard away for another woman to glue onto her face, did not seem that strange at the time. Supposedly, one chef brought his bathroom mirror into work to use it as a cutting board, declaring there was nothing strange about it.
I definitely never did anything out of the ordinary.
Love and poorly-acted movies about surfing penguins,
Post (fun-fact) Script: The sun in Antarctica circles the sky in a different direction (counter-clockwise) than in the Northern Hemisphere, (clockwise) such as in Alaska. Think of yourself as viewing a transparent clock in front of you, and the hands are the sun and moon. If you view it from one side, it circles clockwise (the northern pole). If you walk around the clock to the other side (through the wall?) and view it from the other side, it circles counter-clockwise. (the south pole)