||Life in Antarctica
Imagine a whole world covered in ice and snow: ice on the mountains, ice capping the sea, ice tumbling off the cliffs, whole caves and hills made of ice, ice crunching under your feet, and ice crystals glittering on your eyelashes. Imagine that, and you have an idea of what it's like to be in Antarctica at about 78° South latitude, the approximate latitude of McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Take people from all over the country, from all walks of life, and from the entire ethnic and socio-economic spectrum, toss them together in this stunningly beautiful, exotic, and hazardous landscape, then season the mixture with isolation and deprivation. Do this for about forty years. The result is...well, a rather unusual culture.
To understand that culture, you have to understand the place. So, first I'll describe the structure of the U.S. Antarctic Program and the environment in which it operates. Then I'll go on to describe some of the cultural events and rituals that have developed over the years.
There's a lot of snow to cover, and I'm bound to forget things, so I welcome any and all input from fellow Antarcticans on the culture of our favorite southern land. In addition, though I've tried to be as accurate as possible, much of what follows is entirely subjective, based on my own experience. People with differing perceptions are welcome to let us know what they are.
A further note: This section deals only with the U.S. Antarctic Program, and almost exclusively with life at McMurdo Station.
Overall Structure of the Program
The U.S. Antarctic Program is funded and managed by a government agency, the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs (NSF/OPP). The NSF accepts grant proposals from scientists all over the country, reviews them, then decides which ones to fund. The lucky scientists (called "grantees") receive the money they need to do the Antarctic (or Arctic) research they proposed.
It takes more than money, though, for a scientist to go to Antarctica and conduct a scientific investigation. It takes a huge logistic infrastructure. For many years, the U.S. Navy provided most of this support. In 1955, the Navy launched Operation Deepfreeze I to establish Antarctic bases in anticipation of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY). U.S. Navy SeaBees built the McMurdo Sound Air Operations Facility, which would later become McMurdo Station. After the IGY, the Navy stayed on, largely to maintain a U.S. presence in Antarctica. Navy personnel and Navy facilities generated power and fresh water, cooked and served the food, maintained the roads, repaired the vehicles, managed communications, and maintained the buildings. Scientific research was piggy-backed onto this existing infrastructure.
There were a few things the Navy was not set up to do, however, such as manage a biology laboratory and an outdoor equipment depot for scientists. A private contractor was brought in to takeover these functions. Over time, the private contractor (Holmes & Narver) began to assume more and more of the support functions for the scientific work, even though Navy work centers for many functions still existed. For a while there were two mechanical repair shops, two carpentry shops, two utility repair shops, and two sets of heavy equipment vehicles. It was often confusing who was responsible for what.
In the 1980's, the support contractor (now ITT Antarctic Services) began to assume some of the primary support functions, such as power generation and water distillation. Still, the Navy remained in control of communications, air transportation, and shipping, among others. Science had begun to take on increasing importance, though, which led to occasional friction over the direction of the program. In 1989, I attended a question-and-answer session in the Chalet (the NSF Administration building in McMurdo) featuring the second in command at the NSF and the Commanding Officer for the Navy. In response to the question: "What is the main purpose of the Antarctic Program, science or presence?" the NSF Representative answered, "Science" and the Navy Captain answered, "Presence" at exactly the same time. An embarrassed moment of silence was followed by uproarious laughter on the part of the audience.
Other elements of the U.S. military were also involved in Antarctica. The Army handled logistics and transport, the Air Force flew planes full of supplies and people, and the U.S. Coast Guard brought in icebreakers to support the resupply vessels. But the Navy was in overall charge, and they always had the most personnel in McMurdo.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the military saw no further need for a presence in Antarctica. Besides, Deepfreeze was expensive and the Navy could use the people elsewhere. The pace of turnover to the civilian contractor increased. By 1998, the Navy was gone. The new contractor, Antarctic Support Associates (ASA), now manages communications, medical services, fire and emergency services, food service, and just about everything else. Sub-contractors are responsible for helicopter and fixed wing operations, though the Air Force still flies in people and supplies, and the U.S. Coast Guard still uses their icebreakers to support shipping.
For many years, then, McMurdo society was composed of four separate elements, each with its own rules and group culture: the Navy, the civilian contractor, the scientists, and the NSF managers. It was not unusual for one entity to give permission for something, only to have another entity immediately revoke it, amidst much finger-pointing and hand-waving. For a newcomer, navigating through the different regulations and sub-cultures proved be be a challenge at times.
It may or not be simpler now. It's true there are now only three major groups: the civilian contractor (whose employees comprise most of the population), the scientists, and the NSF. However, there are also five sub-contractors for air operations (the NY Air National Guard, Petroleum Helicopters International, Ken Borek Air, the New Zealand Air Force, and the U.S. Air Force), numerous technical and scientific sub-contractors, the U.S. Coast Guard, and merchant marine resupply vessels.
With all this complexity, it sometimes seems amazing that anything gets accomplished. But the truth is, the U.S. Antarctic Program is very successful indeed. The responsibility for that rests on the people; whether civilian or military, most of the folks who end up in Antarctica give it their best effort. Despite the occasional personality conflicts, the vast majority of people go out of their way to assist others, no matter what group they're in--and this has always been the case. All the important work that needs to get accomplished does get accomplished.
The U.S. maintains three permanent, year round stations in the Antarctic: McMurdo station, on Ross Island in the southern Ross Sea; Palmer Station, on Anvers Island near the Peninsula; and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. McMurdo Station is the largest, with upwards of 1200 people at the height of the summer season. Palmer Station is maxed out at about 45, and South Pole can accommodate about 125 people. There are also two research vessels in the USAP: the Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Laurence M. Gould.
All U.S. Stations are nothing if not high density, especially in the summer. Residents live in crowded dorms, eat in crowded dining halls, and generally work in crowded offices and labs. There's a frenetic pace, because time is limited. Essentially, people need to get a year's worth of work done in a few months.
McMurdo is the metropolis of Antarctica. It is not only the largest U.S. station, but also the largest station on the continent. McMurdo sits at the tip of Hut Point Peninsula, a gangly arm of volcanic rock that juts out from the flank of Mount Erebus on Ross Island.
McMurdo Station serves as the logistic hub for much of the U.S. Antarctic Program. All resupply flights to South Pole originate in McMurdo, and numerous temporary inland and coastal stations are supported by the McMurdo logistic infrastructure. At the height of the summer, McMurdo is a hopping place, with planes, helicopters, and vehicles coming and going at all hours.
It's actually possible to be partly anonymous in McMurdo. With 1200 hundred people bustling about, and with everyone extremely busy, it's impossible to meet and know everyone. And new people are arriving all the time. In fact, for the first couple of weeks of main body, it's not unusual to have 200 people arrive every week! The population can triple in just a few days. This is much less the case at South Pole, and not at all the case at Palmer.
Just two kilometers away, at Pram Point, sits New Zealand's Scott Base. The two bases are located as far south as it is possible to go and still see open water (on occasion). Though each base (and each country) runs its own, separate Antarctic research program, quite a lot of resource sharing takes place between the two. U.S. aircraft carry New Zealand passengers and cargo, and vice versa. There is also frequent collaboration between scientists. And, of course, residents of each base frequently visit the other base's pubs, leading to a fair amount of cultural cross-pollination. (Good on ya, mate!)
Palmer is the smallest of the U.S. stations, with a maximum population of about 43. Dorm rooms would be considered tiny for one person, but they are assigned to two. (To give you an idea of their size, both occupants find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand and dress at the same time.)
Where McMurdo is like a small city, Palmer is more like an extended family. Interactions between support personnel and NSF administrators are generally informal, even by Antarctic standards. The scientists mix in with the support personnel, doing their part of base clean-up and kitchen duties. (In fact, that is a long-standing tradition at Palmer. A few years ago some folks with good intentions tried to change things, but the collegial atmosphere on the station was disrupted. Disharmony can be incredibly disruptive at a small, isolated research outpost, and that turned out to be the case in that situation.)
Palmer is supplied on a fairly regular basis by a research vessel which departs from Punta Arenas, Chile. The vessel often conducts research cruises in the vicinity of Palmer, and may return several times to the station before heading back to South America. Though the ship is sometimes prevented from getting through in the winter, because of ice conditions, there is no set period when Palmer can expect to be isolated every year. During the summer months, numerous cruise ships and private yachts stop by. Though it's always good to see new people, the visits can be so frequent and so obtrusive that they puts the work of the station in jeopardy. So the NSF has had to impose some limitations on visitation.
When the research/resupply ship does pull in, a few people (usually scientists) might disembark for a stay, but the percentage change in population is generally much smaller and less dramatic than at McMurdo.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station:
South Pole is the second largest, permanent, U.S. station, with upwards
of 250 people at the height of the summer. As the name suggests, it's
located at one of the coldest and most isolated places on Earth, literally
in the middle of nowhere. For the last few years, South Pole Station
has been undergoing a major upgrade. The old dome pictured here is
now empty. A new, elevated station has been built that houses everything
except for a few stand-alone astrophysics laboratories, which are
located nearby. In many ways, the big new building is a vast improvement,
but as is often the case with modernization, a certain level of "hominess"
has been lost. All newness aside, South Pole Station is still little
more than a few buildings and an aircraft skiway sitting on a seemingly
endless plain of two-mile-thick snow and ice.
South Pole is also the highest station. Located on the polar plateau at about 9300 feet above mean sea level, the station sits on a two-mile thick mound of ice and snow.
There currently is a high level of activity at South Pole Station.
Several high-profile and expensive astrophysics experiments have recently
gone on-line or are are under construction. The bottom of the Earth
is fast becoming the premier site for astrophysics research, research
that can be done nowhere else.
Forget Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The terms don't really apply to Antarctica the way most people are used to them. In a sense, there are really only two seasons: cold and colder. Or, perhaps, light and dark. At McMurdo, there are about four months of 24-hour daylight (that's "summer"), four months of 24-hour night ("winter"), and two months on either end where the sun is either coming or going. From a temperature standpoint, it's coldest from about May through October, with the coldest months being August and September, and warmest from November through April, with the warmest months being December and January.
Instead of relying on these criteria, the Antarctic year is divided up according to human activity. At McMurdo, the year is divided into three main "seasons": Winfly, Main Body, and Winter. In late August, about 200 people are flown in to begin preparing the Station for the main summer research season. Since this air operation takes place at the end of the winter, the operation and the subsequent six week period of no flights are both called Winfly (short for Winter Fly-in). When the planes arrive, the sun is just beginning to clear the horizon on its return after four months of darkness. Even so, it's hidden behind Mount Erebus, so early Winfly is a period of a few hours of twilight and many more hours of winter night.
Winfly is without a doubt the most beautiful time of year. With the sun just returning and the entire area covered with snow and ice, the display of colors is phenomenal. Sunsets last for hours and paint the world with an astounding array of subtle colors: blues, purples, indigos, pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, and every shade in between. Winfly is also the time when nacreous clouds illuminate the sky. These are clouds of ice and nitric acid crystals that act like prisms to the setting sun's light, producing a spectacular display of color in the twilight sky. Finally, Winfly is the coldest time of year, and one of the stormiest. Temperatures of -40° F are not uncommon, and wind chills can dive to -130° F.
The main research season, called "Main Body," starts at the beginning of October. Plane after plane arrives (weather permitting), disgorging hundreds of people and tons of cargo. The population triples, quadruples, quintuples in a matter of days. McMurdo becomes an incredible hive of activity. People work 60, 80, even 100 hour weeks. It's exciting, but it's nuts.
As the month wears on, the sun stays up longer and longer and gets higher and higher. There are real days now, even though they still tend to be very cold. By the third week of October, daylight is a 24-hour-a-day business.
By mid-December, temperatures have stabilized to around 30° F, though some days can reach 36° or more. Since the air is so dry, this can seem very warm. People often walk around on days like this in shorts and T-shirts. Wind is a major factor, though. If there's the slightest breeze, the jackets go on. Antarctica tends to be a windy place, and the wind often has more to do with how cold it seems than the actual temperature. Wind doesn't much affect solar absorption, though; when it starts to get "warm," the dark volcanic rock that composes Ross Island heats up. All the snow that had accumulated over the winter begins to melt. McMurdo becomes a messy place, with flowing streams and plenty of mud: "McMudhole." By January most of the snow is gone from around the station and McMurdo becomes known affectionately as "McDustbowl."
People start departing in earnest at the beginning of February. By the end of the month all of the summer people have left and only the winter crew remains to take care of the station for the six month winter.
Each season, and each change in seasons, is marked by particular and unique dynamics. These dynamics are related to environmental and work variables, but like the overall environment, they remain essentially constant from year to year. I'm only familiar with McMurdo dynamics, so it's those I'll describe here.
After February, no planes come and go. For six months the only people you see are those who, like you, have elected to stay in McMurdo for the winter. You are completely isolated, beyond the reach of the rest of the world. The sun disappears and 24-hour darkness prevails. The visual field diminishes, so that even under a full moon you may not be able to see the mountains lying across McMurdo Sound that so dominate the summer landscape. What you can see, in fact, is usually limited to what the lights of McMurdo illuminate. The world quite literally closes in.
In this environment, people slowly divest themselves of concern about the external world. They settle in to their jobs and their social roles. Almost everyone gets to know almost everyone else, and when someone needs something done, he or she knows exactly who to ask. The community generally becomes closely knit and insular. (In some winters, there have been serious personality conflicts and the community has become fragmented and antagonistic. Fortunately, this kind of dynamic has been rare.)
When Winfly arrives, the population suddenly doubles--or more. The winter-over's familiar home is overrun, and the winter-overs themselves are overwhelmed by a flood of newcomers. It truly seems like a hostile invasion at times. Although most winter people are happy to see new faces after so many months, there is always a period of adjustment. Their home has been taken over by strangers who want to take control. When a winter-over picks up the phone, she hears a strange voice. When she walks into the dining hall, it's full of strangers. Worse than that, there's a waiting line for food! It can be hard to take at first. Many winter-overs withdraw for a couple of weeks. Others become irritable, and have to keep reminding themselves that the sun is returning and their departure is imminent. Ultimately, though, most adjust to the new circumstances and the station enters a new equilibrium--one which is then completely disrupted by Main Body.
At Main Body, the newly arrived Winfly people feel as the winter-overs did, with their world overrun by strangers demanding attention. The winter-overs tend to be pretty sanguine at this point, because they are about to head north to trees and birds and warmth. By the middle of October, in fact, most of them have left and the Winfly and Main Body people have established their own equilibrium.
For the newly arriving people, the feeling is a little different. Whether they arrive at Winfly or Main Body, for them it's the start of an adventure, or the beginning of a huge job that they have to finish in a short period of time. Most are full of energy and enthusiasm, while the people they are replacing are calm and equanimitous (and sometimes completely burned out!). The transition times make for interesting people watching.
(Obviously, this brief description only scratches the surface of population dynamics. I could write a book just on winter dynamics (and maybe someday I will)! For now, this is just to give you a general idea of the ebb and flow of population in McMurdo.)
Free time is usually precious in Antarctica (unless you're sitting in a tent for four days, waiting for a storm to pass). In McMurdo there is plenty to do to fill up any spare time you might have, especially if you want to exercise. Many of the people who elect to go to Antarctica appreciate the outdoors and so spend as much time outside as time and weather (and regulations) allow.
There are several cross country ski trails, and plenty of places to hike. If the weather isn't conducive, McMurdo has a weight room and an exercise room, and even a small bowling alley (though at least one of the two lanes is slanted and warped--which makes it challenging). Most seasons there are swing or country dance lessons, and aerobics exercise classes are held two or three times a week in the gym. In addition, basketball, volleyball, soccer, and bowling leagues are formed every season. The teams play each other every week, and rankings are closely tracked. Then, the lead teams face each other in the playoffs for the Continent Title.
There's also a library, a fairly comprehensive video library, and McMurdo even has its own T.V. and radio stations. Plenty for the couch potato to (not) do.
Believe it or not, even Antarctic Stations have nightclubs. In McMurdo there are three: the Erebus Club, Gallagher's Pub, and the Coffee Shop. All three are usually pretty busy. For those who like to breathe, the Coffee Shop is entirely non-smoking and, when I was last there, the other two had designated non-smoking nights. The Coffee Shop is usually a pretty pleasant place, with soft music and even occasional folk concerts. It's a great place to sit over a hot drink and talk. The other two clubs are a bit more like traditional nightclubs. People do go there to socialize and talk, but in my experience the music is usually cranked up to such a high volume that actual conversation is almost impossible.
(Incidentally, those clubs have an interesting history, dating from McMurdo's military days. The Coffee shop used to be the Officer's Club, and only officers were allowed in. The Gallagher's was the Chief's Club, the Erebus was anyone's club (populated mostly by enlisted), and there was an enlisted club called the Acey-Deucy. Civilians were always allowed into any club, but it was interesting to see how they apportioned themselves. Scientists seem to naturally gravitate to the Officer's Club (where the pilots hung out), while construction workers and laborers tended to spend their time in the Chief's, Erebus, or Acey-Deucy. The Acey-Deucy was converted years ago into the Exercise Room. As civilians became a larger and larger component of the population, the Chief's Club was renamed the Southern Exposure. It was rechristened again last year to honor Command Master Chief Chuck Gallagher. Chuck was a long-time McMurdo resident who always went out of his way to make life better for both military and civilian personnel. After retiring from the Navy, he went to work for ASA as the Housing Coordinator. Chuck died during the McMurdo winter of 1997.)
The Scott Base pub is a popular place to go, too. For an American, an invitation to the Scott Base pub--smaller, quieter, and more like someone's living room than a bar--is highly sought after. Unfortunately, because Scott Base is so much smaller than McMurdo (100 people vs. 1200 people), their pub cannot be open to all Americans all the time, and visitation has to be controlled. I suspect this is harder on the New Zealanders than the Americans, since Kiwis are the most cordial and most hospitable people I've ever met. It's probably painful to them to have to say no to anyone who wants to visit and shoot the breeze over a good beer (which is the only kind they have.)
Finally, on any given night, it's usually possible to find several private parties and social gatherings around town. Groups of people will frequently reserve "Hut 10," the former Captain's quarters and now a private party room, for their functions.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Antarctic culture, especially in McMurdo, is that you find yourself interacting on a daily basis with far more people than you normally would. Though some people keep to smaller groups, others (particularly those directly involved in science support) may find themselves interacting regularly with 100-200 people. And many of these people come from sectors of society with which they may not normally interact. It's a part of the job scene, and part of the nature of the place. The result (if you're at all social and gregarious) is that you find yourself at more parties and get-togethers in five months than you probably would attend in five years at home. (Besides, with this many people around, it's always someone's birthday.)
Safety Rules and Regulations
There are rules everywhere, and Antarctica is no exception. McMurdo, I think, may well be the Rule Capitol of the World. Safety is a prime consideration, and a majority of the rules and regulations everyone must abide by are safety related.
There's a good reason for most of them. In 1987, three hikers broke one of the cardinal rules of travel: Stay on the flagged road. (Flags are placed in the snow or ice to mark a safe path.) Two of them plummeted into a crevasse and died. Now, before anyone is allowed to go hiking or skiing, they must attend a safety lecture and be issued a certification card.
The conduct of work and science is also carefully regulated, and again the purpose is to keep people safe. However, all the rules can at times seem a bit suffocating, and sometimes they seem completely unnecessary. There are just a few common sense guidelines that need to be followed to work and play safely, but there will always be a few people who break them. When they do, new rules are added. It's impossible to legislate common sense, though it is the nature of government to try.
The result is that sometimes people feel like they're being treated like children, and it can get frustrating. This is especially true for those highly accomplished outdoorspeople who naturally gravitate to Antarctica. Though they may have years of experience in cold weather and ice climbing, or even years of experience in Antarctica, they must abide by the same limiting strictures as someone who has never seen sea ice in his life. It's very expensive to get someone to Antarctica, and the NSF is right in trying to prevent injury that will result in lost productivity. Every day on the Ice is valuable. However, regulations that are too burdensome and inflexible may also end up costing a great deal in lost work time. The total could easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars every year.
The truth of the matter is that, according to recent mortality data, Antarctica is one of the safest place in the world. (Personally, I think it is the safest place.) Violent crime is virtually nonexistent, and injuries related to motor vehicles equally so. It is vastly more dangerous to walk down a New York city street, or drive on an American highway. Generally, the most dangerous activity for people in Antarctica is the flying it takes to get there--and to get around once you're there. However, the airplane and helicopter pilots and mechanics are extremely meticulous and careful, so accidents are infrequent.
Surprisingly, despite the obvious hazards, since the IGY few people have been killed or injured from factors directly related to the cold or the environment. This is a little known and under-appreciated fact. Certainly, the safety rules can take some of the credit for this, but the bottom line is that most people have a very keen appreciation of the inherent dangers of working on Antarctica and don't take risks with the environment. A final note: The vast majority of the injuries that occur in McMurdo (and that result in lost work time) are caused by playing basketball and volleyball, two activities that are completely unregulated.
The Parties and Cultural Events
Following is a list of most of the major parties and cultural events in McMurdo. It is not meant to be comprehensive, however.The McMurdo cultural scene is always evolving, and new theme parties and events (like the Beach Party) are constantly springing up. The venues of these events also tends to change, depending on what building is most available or most appropriate at the time.
In order to find their way over the trackless ice and snow, researchers need to establish flagged "roads." These roads consist of bright orange or green flags tied onto bamboo poles and stuck into the ice at regular intervals. Even in the worst storm, people out on the ice or snow can find their way back to camp with a good flagged road.
These flags don't come tied to poles, though. And that's the reason for the first party of the new austral summer season: the flag-tying party. For the promise of free beer, soda, and food, a large percentage of the McMurdo population convenes in a large building (usually the vehicle repair garage) for an evening of tying flags to bamboo poles. It's generally a low-key party, with a DJ providing music and a little impromptu dancing between the shuffling of bamboo bundles and cardboard boxes of individually wrapped flags. Perhaps the nicest thing about the flag-tying party is that it's the first occasion where the soon-to-depart winter-overs and the newly arrived summer support people can come together and interact in a social gathering. It's marked by camaraderie, a feeling of working together toward a good cause, and a lot of laughter. It's always been my favorite party.
In direct contrast to the flag-tying party is the Halloween party. October is one of the busiest, most stressful months of the summer season, and by the end of it people are ready for some release. The gymnasium is set aside and lavishly decorated by volunteers. At least one band (and sometimes it's two or three) sets up to play, usually at about 160 decibels, and a DJ fills in the blank spots during breaks.
People go all out on their costumes. I have always been amazed at the ingenuity and creativity displayed by some of the costumes at the Halloween party. It's even more remarkable because almost every costume is created from scratch, from materials available on station. This has to be what Halloween was before the days of costume shops, and before drug stores filled their aisles with rubber masks. In that sense, Halloween in McMurdo is almost purist, in a way it can no longer be in American cities. It is truly a celebration of creativity and unadulterated fun.
This holiday is marked by quiet gatherings of friends, both before and after the big feast. The galley staff, with the help of numerous volunteers, prepares a dinner as good as any celebrated in the U.S. Because the population is so large, everyone must make a "reservation" and arrive at a particular hour. (If everyone arrived at the same time, the line would stretch around the building.) Even so, people usually have to stand in line for 30 minutes or so, but there are friends to talk to and hors d'oeuvres to munch on.
Thanksgiving is a pretty quiet holiday. I suspect that is partly because this is the first day off anyone has had (except for Sundays) since they arrived in McMurdo. Also, November is as busy a month as October, and after two solid months of a non-stop, frenetic pace (9-hour days and 6-day workweeks), people are starting to get a little worn out.
In years past, the Penguin Bowl football game was a big affair. Two teams would square off on Thanksgiving Day at a makeshift football field on the snow of the Ross Ice Shelf. That tradition seems to have waned in recent years, however.
Christmas and New Year:
By the end of December, the pace has slowed slightly. Many scientists have left McMurdo to be home in time for Christmas. The holiday in McMurdo is somewhat bittersweet. Most of the contractor personnel are happy about having two short work weeks in a row (Christmas and New Year's Day), since by now people are starting to get burned out. But most miss being with their families.
On Christmas Eve, there's another station-wide party, with music and lots of food, but it's nowhere near as rowdy as Halloween. The Christmas Choir performs during the party, which is usually held in the garage these days. In past years the party has been held in the carpenter's shop and, in 1990, in the unfinished Crary Laboratory.
After the party, there's a choir recital and carol sing-along in the dining hall. Despite the absence of family, there's something quite peaceful about celebrating Christmas in Antarctica. Perhaps it is the complete absence of commercials. (No one's trying to sell you anything, so the Christmas Spirit arrives unsullied by advertisements and commercialism. It's very liberating.) Perhaps it is because you are a million miles away from everything else, away from the war, crime, and other problems of the world. Or perhaps it is because you are in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, just a few hundred of you in a frozen corner of the world, surrounded by as much white as any Christmas could ever want. Whatever the reasons, Christmas in McMurdo always seemed to me to be more peaceful than anywhere else I'd been.
New Year's Eve and New Year's Day bring another station-wide party, a myriad little semi-private parties, and another welcomed day off. Better yet, New Year's Day marks the beginning of the real Antarctic cultural season.
The brainchild of the indefatigable Dane Terry, the Icestock Music Festival started during the 1989-1990 austral season and it has been a tradition ever since.
Dane saw the vast resource of talented musicians that came to work in McMurdo every year, and he decided to bring them all together in one musical extravaganza. It was a huge success. Now, every year (usually on New Year's Day), a stage is set up in the open area behind Building 155 (dining hall/dorm) and for about six hours everyone who wants to sing or perform music (or even do stand-up comedy) gets a chance. Most have practiced for months just to get ready. The rest of the population sets up chairs (with coolers full of drinks and snacks), or they dance, or they just stand around and listen, or they do all three.
Since January is typically the warmest month, most Icestocks go off without a problem, though in some seasons the musicians' fingers get colder than in others. Temperatures are usually around 30° F.
This is a left-over from Navy days, but it's still a popular cultural event. Like Icestock, the chili cook-off takes place on a Sunday early in January to take advantage of the warm weather. Several temporary kitchens are set up in milvans behind Building 155 and teams of erstwhile cooks compete to concoct the best tasting chili in Antarctica. A panel of judges tests the products and votes the winner, but the real winners are the innocent bystanders who get to sample to various recipes. Most of the concoctions are pretty good, and a few aren't. Surprisingly, the bland-dieted New Zealanders often throw together the spiciest chili of the bunch, a real fry-your-mouth, burn-your-butt, pure jalapeno brew. I could never figure it out.
Scott's Hut Race:
Another long-awaited event, this traditional foot race also takes place on a Sunday in January, typically early in the month. Participants earn a specially designed T-shirt for crossing the finish line. Some people take this race pretty seriously, train for months, and race to win. Others are quite happy just to stroll the course as a way of being involved in the event.
This McMurdo tradition was begun in the 1993-94 austral season. That year, we formed the McMurdo Players and I produced and directed the first royalty-paid play in Antarctica (to my knowledge). It was a one-act romantic comedy called "The Mice Have Been Drinking Again," starring Patti Gage, Sheri McCann, Jason Dorpinghaus, and Aaron Abarbanell. A veritable army of volunteers made the production possible. They did everything, from building the set to finding costumes to hanging the stage lights. We had six performances, and over half the entire population of McMurdo turned out to see it, as well as a large percentage of Scott Base personnel.
In 1994-95, we produced a full-length romantic comedy called "Saving Grace," and in 1995-96 another one-act entitled "Me Too, Then!" All played to full houses.
The plays were all performed in early January, for several reasons: it's the slowest period in the season (relatively speaking), it's relatively warm (the playhouse is notoriously drafty), and it's the perfect antidote to post-holiday blues. Most summer seasons now have a theatrical production, and many winter crews also produce and perform a play.
The McMurdo Art Show offers an opportunity for craftspeople and artisans of all types to display their creations for everyone to see. Exhibits are set up in the dining hall for an evening (typically in January), and most of the population of McMurdo and Scott Base stop by to look things over. The range of skills and breadth of talent on display is always amazing. Everything is there, from paintings to knitted sweaters, from photography to welding, from knot-tying to ceramics. Even performance art appear once in a while; one season a vocal trio sang a-capella for the crowd.
Casino and Comedy Nights:
Other cultural events occur sporadically. Casino night used to be pretty popular, though it didn't take place every season. There have also been one or two comedy nights in seasons past, but this never caught on as a tradition. Both of these events tended to be Navy affairs, so with the Navy now gone from McMurdo I don't know if they will continue.
Sunday Night Science Lecture:
This event is one of the longest-running traditions in McMurdo. Almost every Sunday night, one of the researchers will deliver a lecture and slide show on his or her work in Antarctica. Visiting artists, photographers, and writers are also encouraged to present their work to the McMurdo and Scott Base populations. These lectures offer support personnel the opportunity to see and understand the science their own efforts are contributing to, and other scientists will attend to see what their colleagues are doing. The lectures usually draw standing-room-only crowds.
Since the practice of "packing" has been outlawed (this involved taking a new person outside on a pretense and then proceeding to "pack" his clothing full of snow), the most famous and most enduring of Antarctic rituals has become the Polar Plunge. The Plunge used to be strictly a winter affair, taking place two or three times--but especially on mid-Winter Day.
Now, however, there are summer plunges as well, in which both McMurdo and Scott Base personnel participate.
On plunge day (which is actually "night" if it's in the winter) Scott Base personnel carve a hole in the sea ice. Brave (or perhaps foolish) people then divest themselves of clothes, tie a rope around their waist, run out of a warm building into -40° F air, and jump into 28° F water. For reasons I have never been able to fathom, this is a very popular activity.
People at Palmer Station perform the same ritual, though neither the air nor the water are quite as cold as on Ross Island (cold enough, though!).
I will admit that I have joined the Vanda Swim Club, but I only did it to get the patch. This ritual initiation is another one invented by the New Zealanders, who seem to have a perverse talent for such things. It involves walking slowly into the 32° F water of Lake Vanda (a fresh, glacial meltwater lake in Wright Valley, near McMurdo), then submerging completely. You're allowed to exit as quickly as you wish. Fortunately (for me!), this can only happen in the summer when there are people at Lake Vanda. (Since the New Zealanders have closed Vanda Station, though, the Swim Club may have been discontinued.)
Winter crews have a separate culture all their own, and because each crew is different, each winter is different. In a way, too, each of the three stations becomes more like the others, characterized by a small, closely knit group of people isolated from the rest of the world. At McMurdo, it is no longer possible to remain anonymous. Everyone knows everyone else.
At Palmer, the ships may continue to arrive, although less frequently. The resident population falls to perhaps half the summer population, or a little less. South Pole is cut off from the outside world in about mid-February, with about 25 winter-overs. They don't see another airplane or human being until November. At McMurdo, the last plane leaves at around the end of February and the 165 or so winter-overs remain isolated until August.
The kinds of cultural events that take place during the winter depend on the mix of people who are wintering. Because the population is so much smaller, interpersonal dynamics become much more important. These dynamics greatly affect the cohesion and activity of the winter crew. Some winters, people keep more to themselves and to small groups. Other winters are marked by frequent parties and community events.
Some of these parties can be somewhat unusual. In 1983, the entire 83-person winter-over crew put enormous energy into a theme party based on the corny movie "Escape From New York," with people dressing up as characters in the movie (even to the point of shaving their heads) and acting out scenes in the movie--while the movie was being played. It was all pretty...interesting.
The Kiwis take the prize for most creative and bizarre of party themes. For example, in 1983 they sponsored a fake-eye-and-nose party and a "Big Eye" party (celebrating the sleep disruption caused by 24-hour darkness; attendance in pajamas was mandatory).
Perhaps the most uniquely Antarctican winter ritual (apart from the Polar Plunge) is joining the 200 or 300 Club. In McMurdo, unfortunately (!) it only gets cold enough to have a 200 club. To join the club, people must subject themselves to a 200° F change in temperature. They wait for a really cold night (say, -40° F), then crank up the sauna. Once they're good and cooked, they run outside and dash, naked and steaming, around the building. Winter- overs at South Pole join the 300 club in the same way--from a 200° F sauna to -100° F outside. They try to dash the 100 yards or so to the ceremonial pole and back without incurring frostbite on essential reproductory equipment. Not all are successful.
The people who go to work in Antarctica, either to do research or to support it, come from all walks of life and all corners of the U.S. They are as different as a group of people can be and still come from the same country. But they generally do have one thing in common: they are adventurous and they like a challenge. That's why they come to the bottom of the earth.
Until recently, the U.S. Navy maintained a huge presence in the Antarctic. Since 1955, in fact, when the Navy first established the McMurdo Sound Air Operations Facility, they've been an integral part of the USAP. The Army, Coast Guard, and Air Force have also had substantial roles, but the Navy was the major presence. However, the Navy has ceased support of the USAP and former military roles have all been taken over by civilians (though the Air Force still flies the jets in, and the Coast Guard still provides icebreaker support).
As I mentioned before, the McMurdo population now consists of three main groups: support personnel, scientists, and NSF administrators. Of the three, NSF personnel form the smallest contingent, and they are usually the same people from year to year. The scientist population is always changing, as new projects get funded and others finish up--though many scientists do come back several times over the course of many years. Like many people who experience the Antarctic--and perhaps more than most--it becomes almost like an addiction to make that annual pilgrimage to the last place on Earth. One particular science team leader (or "Principle Investigator") has been to Antarctica every year, save one, since 1961.
Contractor support personnel make up the bulk of the population. These people form the backbone of the Antarctic Program. They are mechanics, laboratory managers, cooks, forklift drivers, outdoor safety trainers, welders, carpenters, plumbers, phone technicians, communications experts, divers, secretaries administrators, and more. They are as diverse, dedicated, and hardworking a group of people as you are likely to find anywhere.
It stands to reason that if you take such a widely diverse group of people, representing all geographical regions and numerous sub-cultures, and throw them together in a high-density, high-intensity environment, you're bound to get an interesting mix--and an interesting culture. Probably the most interesting thing is the splendid variety of talents that emerges. For instance, there's never a problem finding enough talented musicians to cobble together a band. More often than not, each season gives rise to two or three bands, each of them as good as the others.
In addition to musicians, there are painters, photographers, dancers, comedians, and actors, and many contribute their time and talents to enlivening the cultural life. At times, there have been dance lessons, music lessons, yoga lessons, karate lessons, origami lessons, and language lessons (not surprisingly, more of the Americans who go to Antarctica seem to be polylingual than the general public).
Perhaps the best thing about the people who go to work in Antarctica is their willingness to try new things and to interact with people they don't normally encounter. Antarcticans as a group seem to want to live large, to experience the new and unusual. I know of few other places where forklift drivers and construction workers and cooks and scientists all sit down together to share a meal or a drink. Many end up becoming life-long friends. If any one thing binds everyone together, it is the adventure of working toward a common goal in one of the harshest but most beautiful places on Earth. Everyone is aware that science is the reason for the USAP's existence, and everyone understands its importance.
Like the scientists, many of the support people also return year after year after year. There's a saying that applies to them: The first year they go for the adventure, the second year they go for the money, and the third year (and forever after) they go because they're so screwed up they can't work anywhere else. By "screwed up,' it is meant they are hooked on seasonal employment, no expenses, no rush hour traffic, and plenty of freedom and time off to explore the world. It becomes an easy life (though it often precludes things like home and family).
The real bottom line, though, is Antarctica itself. Dealing with the crowding, the inevitable bureaucracy, and the multitude of rules and restrictions can become tedious, but the magic of the place itself always seems to win out in the end. There's no more beautiful or challenging place on Earth, and it continues to pull at the heart of anyone who has been there.
For the latest goings-on in McMurdo, check out Raytheon
Polar Services, "Antarctic Sun" newsletter, which is
available for downloading.
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