Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels. If you would like to take part please get in touch – email@example.com – I would love to hear from you!
This week I’m particularly excited to talk to Kiell from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who spent the last two summers working at a science base in Antarctica! Kiell, who currently works at a waitress at a brew pub, has spent the last few years travelling the world (and summering at the South Pole). A lover of reading, writing, travelling, bonfires, swimming, camping and exploring, Kiell is an adventurer at heart and dreams of making a minimalist trip with only her passport, toothbrush, travel journal and a change of clothes. In the meantime, she runs a fantastic blog over at brownpaperblueink.com. Kiell has been kind enough to share her experiences, and has also provided some incredible photos which continue at the bottom of this page, so please check them out!
Antarctica has to be the most far-out destination Postcard From has seen yet! What were you doing there?
The South Pole is cold and bleak and tremendous and bright, with rippling crusty snowdrift formations, a stark blue sky, and few clouds. There is no landscape to speak of, no dirt or mountains or anything to look at really, just a vast amount of ice and man-made buildings. The sun is up 24 hours a day, rotating in the sky, and the wind always blows in the same direction. Some days are brilliant and lovely, and some days the wind blows so hard that the sun is obscured by a heavy mist of ice crystals and you can’t have any exposed skin because it just hurts too much.
There are telescopes that take measurements of the cosmic microwave background to learn about the universe and the big bang, a neutrino detector that is encompassed in a cubic kilometer of ice, a NOAA laboratory that does research on the cleanest air in the world, and a hydroponic growth chamber that is similar to the Lunar Greenhouse prototype.
I’m not a scientist. I have a liberal arts degree and worked as an administrative assistant and translator before getting my job in the US Antarctic Program, but for all the science projects to exist there is a need for support staff to maintain the station. There are folks who cook and wash dishes, an IT department, carpenters, people to land and defuel the aircrafts and build up a fuel supply for the long winter, logistics personnel to receive and deal with incoming cargo, heavy equipment operators and a heavy vehicle shop to maintain that equipment, a waste crew to sort and recycle and process and package the station’s collective waste. And of course, there is a lot of drifting snow and someone has to shovel everything out. So that’s how I got there–my first season I was a General Assistant and I spent quite a lot of time shovelling!
So, what was the base like?
There are about 150 small, individual rooms in the main elevated station. Any overflow staff (people like me, with less seniority and who didn’t work on-call) lived in summer camp, which is a collection of tents about a 10-minute walk from the main station. They are semi-cylindrical canvas and plywood structures from, I think, the Korean war called Jamesways, which stand on platforms a bit off the ice and are heated with AN8 jet fuel. Jamesway living offers only visual privacy: you get your own room in the sense that you have a curtain (or a door, if you are lucky), but you can hear everyone coming and going, you can hear other people coughing and moving around, vomiting if they drank too much, peeing into their pee jars (some people use these since you have to go outside to get to the bathrooms), or sleeping with someone they brought back to their room. You can also smell everyone, which is unfortunate because we only get to take two very short showers a week due to water restrictions.
Not exactly five star accommodation then! What did you get up to?
I spent my first season (October 2010-February 2011) at as a General Assistant (GA) assigned to the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, where the mechanics that maintain the heavy machinery work. A good portion of my job was simply chipping mucky ice up off the frozen metal floor, melting it, and separating out the stuff that had to be shipped off continent (glycol, motor oil, fuel). I shovelled a lot and pushed around a lot of 55-gallon drums of dirty water. Being a GA was both the worst and the best job on station; you got paid practically nothing, did all of the tasks no one else wanted to do, and worked what seemed like harder than anyone else on station (probably not true, but it felt like it). But then we would get to do really neat things like lay dynamite to help blow up the buried original station and defuel military planes while their propellers spun dangerously close, things that lots of other people never got the opportunity to do. So that was fun.
My second season (2011-12) I worked as a Materials person, keeping track of incoming cargo and doing inventory on stuff we already had. I got to learn how to drive heavy equipment as a part of my job training (mostly CAT tracked loaders) and then use those machines to dismantle, inventory, and rebuild an outdoor storage berm. Working outside can be pretty brutal. You have to take a lot of warm-up breaks and use handwarmers in your mittens, and you have to eat a lot just to get the calories your body needs to stay warm, and drink lots and lots of water because it’s so dry and the altitude is so high–getting dehydrated there feels like hell, and it’s easy to do.
For fun, there are lots of different sports (soccer, outdoor kickball, ultimate frisbee, cross-county skiing), dance parties, language classes, photography seminars, movie nights, open mic performances, and pub trivia in the galley. There’s a music room and a craft room, a gym, a library, and you can hang out in the greenhouse and get a dose of humidity. Every Sunday evening there is a science lecture for the community hosted by a different project – sometimes by the people who spend the whole season at South Pole, and sometimes by visiting scientists who are just there for a short time.
Everyone always asks, “what do you do? Don’t you get bored?” but really there are so many activities happening that you could never make it to all of them. Still, it can get pretty lonely sometimes. You have to make an effort to spend quality time with other people.
It sounds like an incredible experience. What was your highlight?
There are a lot of wonderful things about working in Antarctica (and a lot of really awful things, too). But one of my favourite moments was a partial solar eclipse this last season. We went out to the ceremonial South Pole (the barber-shop pole with the shiny ball on top), and looked at the eclipse through welding masks and CDs, and watched the shadows with pinhole cameras and sieves from the kitchen: link.
How was the weather (and don’t just say ‘cold’)?
I got to see weather in the summer season that ranged from -50F with -80 windchill (-46 C/ -62C) to +10F (-12C), which was a record warm temperature and happened on Christmas last year. It felt so warm you could go outside in a t-shirt and be pretty comfortable.
In the winter, when it is totally dark out, the ambient temperature gets down to -100F (-73C) with windchills at -125F (-87C)! The winterovers take part in the 300 club, where you sit in the sauna as hot as it goes and then run outside naked, around the Pole and back. You have to wear boots or you’d injure your feet on the ice.
Now, what do you eat at the South Pole? Poached penguin eggs?!
Haha, no penguin eggs, you’d get in serious trouble for that!
We eat a lot of meat and potatoes, but the galley staff does a pretty good job with vegetarian food, too. Most of the food has been on station and stored out on the ice for probably five years or more, so the meat is usually pretty chewy, and you start to get tired of things like “Mediterranean vegetable blend.” The greenhouse produces some vegetables and edible flowers, though it is really more for the winter season, and every three weeks or so during summer we get a delivery of “freshies,” fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs. This is special cargo that can’t be allowed to freeze, as you might imagine, and it gets transported from the aeroplane right to the station staircase, and a line of people pass the boxes up the stairs to the galley. It’s kind of fun to do freshies pull because you get a preview of the delicious things you’ll see in the kitchen in the next few weeks, and people ooh and aah at the plums, apples, mangoes, and bananas that go by. Also, we actually eat a lot of ice cream.
Do you have any embarrassing stories?
Let me set a general scene for you: a Saturday night at the summer camp Jamesway lounge, a disco ball, loud music, a stripper pole, and people taking shots from an ice luge shaped like Roald Amundsen’s head. I’ll let you guess at the rest!
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone who might be going to Antarctica?
Bring lots of socks! Seriously…between the shower restrictions and wearing boots all the time, your feet will stink.
And finally… did this incredible experience teach you any life lessons?
To be grateful for long hot showers, trees, lakes, good coffee, and quality beer. That you can build great friendships in inhospitable lands. That you can make a life by patching together work and adventure!
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
NB – all photos are owned by Kiell Kosberg