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Winters in Antarctica Are Not for the Faint of Heart

From April to August, life in Antarctica is isolated, brutally cold, and physically taxing—but some return year after year for the thrill of living there.

Antarctica's Palmer Station. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On July 30, 2014, the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI Research Station lost power. In the Antarctic summer, that would've been an inconvenience for the 70 or so scientists and maintenance workers on the base. Their time-crunched and bustling experiments would be interrupted for hours, or even a day, if they had to await outside assistance from the nearest major British settlement on the Falkland Islands, over 1,800 miles away. But in the Antarctic winter, stretching from late February to early November at Halley VI, there is no outside support. Temperatures plunge so low that plane hydraulics can freeze, and from April 29 to August 13, the absolute lack of sun makes finding the little station—a string of eight huts that sit 45 feet above the ice shelf on stilts and skis—extremely difficult. So for the skeleton crew of 13 men tasked with keeping the station and its experiments running over the long winter, when Halley VI went dark, they found themselves alone save for a satellite phone, thousands of miles from civilization, in temperatures below -67 degrees Fahrenheit with blistering winds, for 19 hours as they diagnosed and fixed the problem themselves.

When Halley VI finally limped back to life with partial power, the station’s electrician Anthony Lister shrugged off any despair or anguish and instead tweeted home: “Got internet, lots of @YorkshireTea tea, and a big kettle. Really, what more do you actually need?”

Not everyone who endures the Antarctic winter has that kind of fortitude. There is no single personality profile, no unified culture, no standard type of base, and almost no common experience among the people there. The one thing they share in common is extreme mental stress and wear. Not everyone makes it through, and many wish never to return, but there is a small population who come back year after year, because despite all the duress, they've found a way not just to survive the Antarctic winters, but to seemingly thrive on them.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Spending an entire winter in Antarctica is known as a "winter-over." During the first one, in 1898, the American surgeon and polar explorer Frederick Cook wrote of the grinding isolation, physical brutality, and sensory deprivation of life alone in the frigid dark:

The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls. Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy.

Conditions for modern winter residents on the seventh continent are much better than they used to be—workers live in more than timber shacks and when the power is on they have access to satellite networked internet, with a connection strong enough to tweet but not to watch Netflix—but Cook’s general sentiment holds true. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth. The continent is technically one giant desert, and in parts of the interior the temperatures reach almost -129 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest natural temperature ever recorded on the planet. Stepping outside in the heart of winter, skin chaps and icicles form on beards or eyebrows almost instantly; one has to wear body armor and thermal underwear just to walk a mile. Even then, you can still get sunburned. The cramped quarters, extreme climate, and lack of greenery or fresh food are now being used as an analog for a manned Mars voyage. The only warm-blooded creatures who breed during the brutal winters are emperor penguins, and even they have the good sense to stay on the sheltered coasts.

That helps to explain why humans didn't even set eyes on Antarctica until 1820. The first confirmed landing was in 1895, and it took another 16 years for Norwegian explorer Roald Amudsen to reach the South Pole. The next visit wasn’t until 1956, by which time there were planes and mechanized land exploration vehicles to help out. The Brits were the first to try to build a year-round base in 1903, cobbling together a 20-foot by 20-foot stone, wood, and canvas shack on an island chain just off the coast to pave the way for imperial land grabs. Argentina followed the next year with their own year-round base, and for the next 55 years, these two nations—alongside Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway—gobbled up territory and built the bases to claim them, until a 1959 treaty froze claims and recognition, making the continent an international territory. Still, all the original claimants, plus Brazil, Peru, Russia, South Africa, and the United States, continue to stake out their zones of interest.

South Pole Station in the 1960s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Now, Antarctica is mainly a haven for scientists, thanks to their early presence on the quasi-imperial bases. Between 28 countries, there are about 70 research stations spread out across the continent, 40 of which operate year-round (the latest of which is the South Korean Jang Bogo Station, new this year). During the summer, there are usually about 5,000 people spread across these bases, but in the winter that number plummets. According to America’s National Science Foundation’s rough numbers, only 1,418 people have wintered-over on US bases between 1957 and 2013, compared to more than 100,000 who’ve visited Antarctica in total. Of those who winter-over, about a thousand have done so more than once, and at least one person, Gerald Ness, has clocked 15 winters. Most of those who stay are private contractors, just keeping the base going, mixed in with a small contingent of scientists.

Life for these shoestring teams varies from station to station. For Americans in Palmer Station, one of three American outposts, people live in cramped dorms where it’s hard for two people to stand at once—but they never fully lose contact with the outside world. The Amudson-Scott Station at the South Pole is much more isolated, totally cut off in the winter with about two dozen men, but with a rec room, a gym, and a fair amount more space. Then there are the lucky ones at McMurdo Station, the largest Antarctic base with enough power and facilities to cause light pollution, which grinds on the astronomers traveling to the Antarctic for the view. The station houses up to 1,000 people in 100 buildings over the summer, and about 200 over winter. The base boasts a club, bar, and coffee shop, and is just about a mile away from New Zealand’s Scott Base.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On average, though, a station holds about 50 people in the summer, and between 15 and 20 in the winter, packed into dorm rooms. “Winter crews have a separate culture all their own,” write Jim and Lisa Mastro, who have 102 Antarctic months between them. “And because each crew is different, each winter is different.” Those who’ve studied the psychology and sociology of over-winter residents, like Professor Lawrence Palinkas of the University of Southern California, say there’s no single type who comes down, but the extremely competitive application process does weed out a more adventurous subset, usually half of whom are 25 years old or younger. But even then, they’re usually average folks rather than extreme adventurers, as employers use a basic psychological screening to filter out those with glaring personality problems.

“Personality characteristics or a history of substance abuse or mental health problems may tell us something about how an individual may act under conditions of prolonged isolation and confinement, but there are other factors that one cannot simply control for," explains Palinkas. "An individual may have a great winter one year, and a terrible winter the next because the composition of the crew has changed." Many who aren’t scientists are driven, along with the thrill of the job, by the potential to put away 90 percent of their modest salaries, living in sponsored housing with free food, spending their paychecks only on extra snacks and booze from the shockingly cheap station stores. The ones who have a good winter are those who embrace and thrive on the quiet isolation. “Winter is more of a maintenance time at the station, very quiet and slow-paced,” writes David Nold, who served as a safety engineer with Antarctic Support Associates at McMurdo. “There’s no mail, no fresh fruit, no salads, etc., but many of the winter-overs see this as a good trade off for the relaxed winter pace.” They’re more likely to get private rooms than summer employees, freer to wander around an empty station, and often eager to embrace the small town community vibe their fellow loners get into, where the scientists and support staff actually get to intermingle and share the load of running the station. One Antarctic blogger likened it to an extended, adult version of summer camp, with plenty of Mario Kart, Settlers of Catan, card games, and bar nights—and even a few short-lived and officially tolerated “ice relationships.” Winter employees, writes Nold, are often eager to get out before the summer bustle, and some choose only to winter.

A sun halo at South Pole Station. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

But every year there are those who can’t cope with the isolation, or those whose personalities clash, or those who just run out of things to talk about. On stations where the only thing to drink is water, powdered milk, or booze, a few folks fall into alcoholism. “A friend of mine who wintered two times at McMurdo and two times at Pole [Amudson-Scott’s nickname] in the Navy days told me the story of the guy they had to lock up because his drinking caused violence and threatened others,” recalls Bill Spindler, an old South Pole hand and unofficial Antarctic historian. The psych exams try to screen for drinking problems, and in the past officials have tried to restrict drinking or put liquor stores under control of the station physician, but this never lasts. “Forbidding [drinking] at this point in time,” says Spindler, “would probably make many folks not want to go.”

Whether they embrace the experience or spiral into depression, all winter-overs experience the mental duress of sensory deprivation. Even with full spectrum lighting, it becomes easy to lose track of time and command over language and social communications. “People slowly divest themselves of concerns about the external world,” write the Mastros. Spindler refers to this as part of "winter-over syndrome," which some people call getting “toasty,” an effect of sensory deprivation, isolation, and maybe even the effect of extreme cold on the thyroid gland, which can cause memory loss, sleepiness, sluggishness, or depression. Even the most eager can slowly grind down under unexpected pressures or bad social dynamics.

McMurdo Station in 1960. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“We try to break the monotony of the long winter nights at every chance,” writes two-time winter-overer Guillaume Dargaud. “Birthday parties, Easter, Labor Day... every date in the calendar is a reason to make an even nicer dinner than usual.” Crews use rec rooms, movie nights, and massive themed parties to help keep their spirits and community up, the most important of which are the mid-winter celebration and the return of the sun. But often crews go beyond just little parties, inventing extreme, machismo-laden traditions to bind them all together. Almost every station has a tradition of the 200 or 300 Club, wherein one sits in a sauna 200 to 300 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, then runs outside in nothing but his or her shoes and plunges into near-freezing water. Some traditions, like “packing”—taking new recruits outside and filling their suits with snow—have been forcibly ended. Amidst all the night walks and coldest games of name-a-sport, perhaps one of the strangest traditions is the shockingly common midwinter viewing of The Shining and The Thing, which you’d think would hit far too close to home for crews stranded in extreme isolation. The latter feels especially real given that last year scientists actually found 100,000 year old microbial fossils in the Antarctic ice, which Vanity Fair blogger Juli Weiner pointed out is basically the plot of The Thing.

One way or another, people muddle through. It helps that, for many, even the calm of winter still entails a 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM workday. And more than depression, many are simply worried about injury or, as at Halley VI, systems failure. “If we run into a really bad emergency, we can pull someone out,” writes Nold. “But it’s not easy. We line the runway with 55 gallon drums, fill them with fuel, and burn them [just] to light the runway.” Between work, constant vigilant concern, community, personal projects, a patchy internet connection to the outside world, and a little booze, somehow people make it through year after year. And shockingly quite a few, maybe even a handful from the disaster at Halley VI, will come back again, gambling on another good year.

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