Living in Antartica

Travelled by Margo Rhys-Jones on 22 January 2009 | 3 Comments

Living in Antartica
Living in Antartica

My original post on working in the Antartica was so popular I have been asked lots about how to get a job and what it actually entails.

Scott Base - my home for the summer

Scott Base - my home for the summer

Applying for a job in Antarctica is easy, like any job positions are advertised on the internet and in papers. Getting a job isn’t necessarily so easy, but its not as difficult as many people think. I’d heard things like I’d have to have my appendix and tonsils removed, that no-one gets accepted the first time they apply…. (from people who’d never been there) etc!! No, none of that. The process is application, selections, interview, final selection, testing (medical, dental and mental), training, final preparation and then departure – may the fun begin!

Depending on whether you are going for a year, or just for summer, everyone undergoes mental and medical testing – the ‘winter over’ people get tested in a bit more detailed, for example MRI scans. There’s also ‘pshyc’ testing, which isn’t a ‘pass or fail’, it just gives more of a background to the chosen few. A years stint goes from October to October, summer is October to February.

Also, whoever you’ve put down as a character reference is called for a telephone interview, one of my referees told me he was on the phone for 45 minutes and felt like HE was getting psych tested… Apparently that is pretty normal.

The training course is 2 weeks in Christchurch New Zealand, home of the New Zealand (and American) Antarctic programs. The first week was pretty much ‘Scott Base 101′ and week 2 was fire-fighting – the kiwis are their own fire crew, and its an integral part of training for obvious reasons. And its the ‘for real’ fire training! We werent given a softer version! From blacked-out masks while crawling through drains, to making your way (with a blacked out mask) through a purpose built building that has the heat cranked right up, to using fire extinguishers and on the last day crawling through a burning fuselage to put out a fuel fire, it was a full on week and I was pleased when it was over.

All dressed up in my Antartic bikini for the summer

All dressed up in my Antartic bikini for the summer

Everyone gets ’suited and booted’ at the headquarters during that first week. Four layers of clothing including the outer ‘ECWs’ (clothing for ‘extreme cold weather’), 3 pairs of gloves, goggles, socks, sorrell boots and ‘mukluk’ boots – big and solid, looking more like something for a lunar walk than to get around in in Antarctica!!

By the end of the training weeks we were a fairly tight knit bunch of base crew, about 34 of us in all (mechanics, engineers, snow safety, cleaning staff, computer technicians, chefs, plant operators etc..) and departure day soon comes around – but the guys heading off for a year leave first. Us summer dwellers went to the airport to watch them leave, exciting stuff because you know your flight is coming soon! Well, weather permitting! It’s a bit of a nervous time because until you’re past the ‘turn around point’ you never know if you’re actually going to get there or not let, alone before you’ve left Christchurch. We were lucky in that our flight was delayed by four days but at least we got the early call to tell us to stay in bed! And when we did leave, we got all the way down. Check-in is done at the American base and starts at making for a very big day!

The flight down is only 5 hours from Christchurch, in a US Airforce C-17. We were given a packed lunch to take onboard and the seats weren’t too bad! There were only 4 small windows in the whole of the plane, but exciting to look out of when we were flying over ‘bergs. Everyone got a chance to go into the cockpit. I was rampantly looking for coffee and thought I might have been able to sweet talk my way to one but no, wasn’t to be.. dam!

As we were coming into land folk were getting all their layers on – for the flight you have to have all your issue gear on / with you. I got ready to disembark, expecting frozen nostrils and frost-nip but NO! There was not a breath of wind, so it wasn’t that bad to step out into. We were fairly hustled into NZ’s waiting 4 wheel drives, and set off for the base. Drove to Scott Base via McMurdo station, the American base (and also past one of Scotts huts on the peninsula next to McMurdo) and tried to take everything in!

Straight onto base for a guided tour and then finding your rooms – which are assigned before you leave. I still think I had one of the best ones, and my room mate was cool, double bonus because the rooms are not large! A set of bunks and a wardrobe. We had a reasonably sized window which was nice – of course you cant open windows but it adds a nice touch. There were wooden shutters on it and with a bit of duct tape around the edges we could have ‘instant darkness’! The base has two sleeping quarters – one is for staff the other is for visitors.

There’s a small type of sunset phase when you arrive in October, but it doesnt take long for that to end and then its constant light. You just get used to it, so it was never normal or abnormal, although I did notice the light seemed at its best at around 4am. And the sky, its so changeable, especially over Mt Erebus, where amazing cloud formations can happen at any given time.

Getting ready for my overnight tent experience

Getting ready for my overnight tent experience

Everyone (staff, scientists, visitors, VIPs etc) has to undergo a night in a tent as part of survival training, and its usually done within the first couple of days of arriving. Time to get familiarized with what the survival boxes carried in vehicles have in them, how to use various things, how to put a tent up etc. (the tents are still ‘polar tents’, heavy, durable canvas like material and in the shape of a teepee) That night in the tent was utterly miserable, Ive never been so cold in my life! My watch was starting to lose battery power at -27 C, apparently it got as low as -34C. We had been instructed to dig a small ‘trench’ between us for keeping the stove and the food box in, for easy access. Well, as much as a hot drink would have gone down superbly, neither myself nor my tent mate had the balls to sit up and make one, it was far too cold, plus! there’s always the ‘toilet thing’ to keep in mind – using an FUD in a sleeping bag?!?! Ok, so I did have to do it and I did it!! Was a wee bit tricky getting the length of hose from my ‘P’ bottle because I was worried about spillage, but I prevailed!

We also did arresting work with ice axes, used radios and built shelters. To drive any vehicle on the ice you need to be put through training – for the 4WD thats a cruise over to McMurdo and back. The day I went the weather was deteriorating, and as it is I dont drive a manual it was a bit more challenging, but I passed (I rarely did manage a drive to McMurdo without stalling at some point early on). The cars need to be left in neutral with no handbrake on and plugged into the ‘hitching rail’ (a purpose built rail with power cords attached that plug into the cars to keep the engines warm) at the early, cold part of the season, and the back seats pulled forward – its set up to keep the cab warm.

Two firemen from the training centre in Christchurch come down during that first two weeks to run drills. I was a BA person (breathing apparatus) and I think the drills must be the same each year because one day I was informed where the ‘fire’ would be and what would be ‘on fire’, from my BA partner who had been down before. He was spot on too! The last day of fire drills they go hard out and blacken out a room the size of a hangar, used for storage and has snow safety gear and offices, the gym etc… This is the grand finale of fire drills, where the Americans are radioed to come over and assist. There was no mistaking their arrival in the smoky dark – flashing lights on their helmets, radios and a massive sense of urgency!! They pretty much took over but it was all in a days training..

Then its back to base and the next day your work starts. Its a 5 1/2 day week, although as chefs we didnt get the saturday afternoons off that other staff get after their mornings work and mandatory base meeting. Our kitchen hours varied from the usual 8-5pm that most roles get away with and I still think my 2pm-10pm was pretty sweet.

Scott Base has a gym, a bar, kitchen / dining room, internet room, movie room, library, laundry, shop, sauna, drying room etc and is fairly well spread out, but all buildings are joined together – great if the weather deteriorates and you’re not allowed off base! The American base (about 3km away) is like a mining town, with up to 1200 people working there during summer. They have a library, church, yoga, alcoholics anonymous, cinema, 2 gyms, cafe, bars, night club, huge science lab, internet cafe, shop, bowling alley, climbing wall, ceramics classes, band room. Us kiwis are allowed over anytime to their base, but Thursday nights are the nights the Americans can visit our bar – always very busy the first half of the season and then it really died off.

Flights south from Christchurch are frequent, so fresh food comes in regularly also. Its really not as ‘backwards’ as some people imagine it, there’s no living off tinned food or rations. It was a rotational diet – fish, pork, lamb, beef etc with a roast dinner on sunday nights. Breakfast was various cereals, tinned fruit, yoghurt and toast, lunches an array of salads with a couple of hot dishes also and a dinner of meat, vegetables and a dessert every second night. Everything is made on the base – bread, pastries, all baking infact.

Perhaps the worst thing for me was the constant static electricity! You get shocks ALL the time because the air is so dry. I don’t like shocks so it freaked me out, but, wearing a lot of natural fibre helps, and rubber shoes in the kitchen – it was always at the back of my mind though. I saw blue arcs of electricity jumping off metal to zap someone, and changing your bed really gets things charged up. Next to each telephone on base there is a metal pad to discharge yourself with, a big enough shock can throw the whole phone system out.

Me with Adelie Penguins in the background

Me with Adelie Penguins in the background

Sundays on base are usually filled with an organised outing – I’ve been to both Scotts huts and one of Shackletons, and New Zealand also allows base staff trips out in the helicopter when seating permits, so that all staff get an outing. I was on one of the first flights, across the ice-shelf to Black Island with the Telecom technician and then again before I left I went to Cape Bird, an amazing Adelie penguin colony, to drop off gear to the scientists based there for summer. Sundays are also ‘brunch’ day at the base, and usually follow a big Saturday night. Antarctica’s an incredibly social place with parties most weekends, some famous ‘annual’ ones and yes, people do hook up and have ice relations – and it can make for some HOT topics, who’s doing who, what, when or where! There is a ’social club’ at McMurdo, those staff spend their summer working as ‘party planners’!! The best job? A couple of us thought so.

Because of its sheer size, the Americans can’t just step off base for roaming like the kiwis can – what a shame! I enjoyed cross-country skiing, on kilometres of groomed ice shelf, walking / running (the road to McMurdo is gravel) and going out to take photos.. To go off base you firstly need to get someone to cover your role if you’re on fire duty, and then sign out with details of where you’re going, if you have a radio or not, and the time you’re due back – if you’re not back ten minutes from that ETA then Search & Rescue will be instigated. There was only one instance of that happening, bit of a mistake over who signed who back in after a party at the American base – guilty party was found ’shacked up’ with a member of the opposite sex over there. No-one gets too upset though, the desired outcome is that the person is alive and well. All staff staying for a year had to do SAR training, while secondary SAR was voluntary. I wasnt involved in either, and on the really crappy days outside, secretly? I was relieved..
Everything done on the ice is in the name of science – and the bases operate to support scientists. Because there was a drill team staying the year I was there, our base numbers were around the 65 mark, usually they’d be around 40 – everyone else is a visitor, and usually has one or two nights each side of their stay at the base. There were few visitors who spent all their time at the base. The scientists that go there are the leaders in their fields, and there’s lots of opportunities to learn more about what they get up to as most of them give a talk at least once, free for anyone to attend. I worked the afternoon/evening shift, so missed most of these but I still managed to have some great chats with people there – its amazing who I’d find sifting around the corridors at night.

Christmas Day was fun – everyone picked a staff members name from a hat and had to get that person a gift. One of the boys dressed up as Santa and gave out everybody’s presents. And we had a huge spread for christmas dinner. Its up to the individual whether or not they make their birthday known, if it isn’t a secret then tradition has it that you will be given a gift from the ’skua bins’ at McMurdo. Skua’s are the antarctic seagull, notorious, ruthless scavengers – the ’skua bins’ are like recycling bin found in most towns, there’s also a building with clothing and bits and pieces in it. Some of the items I saw given as gifts made me wonder what people were thinking when they brought such things down, makes for a hugely entertaining time though because the rule is you have to put on the clothing you’ve been given.

Another entertainment factor on the ice is urinating, in the field, especially for women. It’s against regulations to go to the toilet anywhere on the ice – so everyone is given their own ‘P’ bottles, that hold around a litre. Women are given a ‘Feminine Urinary Device’ or ‘FUD’ – a thin, anatomically shaped piece of plastic to fit over your ‘bits’ with a small hose attached. I first used it when we were doing our survival training, and I used it in the toilet tent, standing over the ‘P’ bucket. Because survival clothing is specifically made, the zips on each layer go right under the crutch and its way too much of a hassle, and too cold to take layers off. From that first time, I was hooked! Sometimes I suffered from ‘performance anxiety’, like trying to go in the back of a vehicle while the boys were all waiting outside in the cold, and there were a couple of times I felt I was going to over-flow my bottle but luckily, I did’nt. All drinking water at the base is processed sea water, all rubbish and recycling is flown back to New Zealand for disposal – food scraps, sewerage (what’s left of it after processing), all recycling etc. Keeping Antarctica clean is a major priority, a necessity, from all bases and everyone who goes down there.

And no, it’s not impossible to spend money down there – not only is there a souvenir shop, a bar at Scott Base (and a bigger shop and more bars at McMurdo) there’s also the Internet! Any mail can be sent to the Antarctic Christchurch address and it then gets put on the next available flight. It’s not as technologically behind as people assume – except there’s no cell coverage (yet?).

It certainly gets into your blood when you’ve been south, and I think I met only one person who decided it wasn’t for them. Its a lot of fun and crazy times with life-long friendships formed because of the experience. One day, I’d like to go back and do it all again.

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