ANTARCTICA is on the top of everyone’s bucket list these days as people spend tens of thousands of dollars to check out the world’s southernmost frozen continent (read: bragging rights).
But have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually live there?
While there is no native population on Antarctica, there are 40 permanent research stations, with an average of 1000 people living there year-round (around 25 people per station), braving harsh winds and an inhuman cold that once, in July 1983, dipped below −89.2 degrees Celsius.
All in the name of science.
This time of year — winter — there is sunlight for only three hours a day, and it’s like being on the moon, and just as isolated.
As Antarctica is so difficult to get to, once you arrive, you can’t leave — until the next ship/airdrop comes six to eight months later.
You are completely isolated from February to October, when the cold and the dark make flights too dangerous to attempt.
So what do you do? What happens if you’re stuck in a station for a year with really annoying people or a crazy sociopath? What does one do for fun in 21 hours of darkness? And how do you deal with such extreme cold, or boredom?
I’ve always wondered about these things, and I got really excited when I found out my friend Tony Donaldson was doing a one-year stint as a field training officer at the Australian Antarctic Division, Mawson Station, in East Antarctica.
I met Tony in 2014 during the Afghan Ski Challenge in Bamyan, Afghanistan (he was a ski instructor and avalanche prevention guide for locals in Bamyan, I was… not).
I got even more excited when he agreed to answer my many and sometimes nonsensical questions to satisfy all of our curiosity. Enjoy!
[Note: this interview was conducted via e-mail and Facebook over two months during the infrequent times when Tony had his spotty internet available, so it may not flow in a typical conversational way. Some questions were asked multiple times, and the answers have been condensed.]
Me: How you doing down there?
Tony: We had a big storm all weekend so I was trapped inside, it made me insane. At least today it’s not too windy and a balmy (-18 degrees).
Me: So what’s your setup like?
Tony: Well, we have three huts on the glacier and three huts out on islands, which we drive over sea ice to get to on a caravan-type thing on skis — that’s my favourite because you can take it anywhere.
Me: Who else is there with you? What’s your room like?
Tony: I live with 13 others. There are 12 men and two women (total). Our house looks like a big red apartment block — it is a pretty big building, with a bar, pool tables, cinema, etc. I have my own room — just a single bed and a desk — (the) room is as wide as the bed is long — maybe 7-by-12 feet (2m x 3.6m).
Me: What are most people down there for?
Tony: Most people are here to maintain the station over winter, so (it’s) plumbers, sparkies and mechanics. There’s also a doctor, a chef and (scientific) observers.
Me: Is it hard to be away from friends and loved ones for a year?
Tony: Yeah, it’s hard to be away, and most people talk to family a few times a week.
It’s a bit like a space station — it’s windy and cold every day, so going outside requires a big cover-up and another big takeoff (of all the clothing) when you get to your work building. It’s a pain.
Me: What do you wear to go outside?
Tony: In the field I put on thermals, then polar fleece and then a padded pair of pants and a big goose-down jacket. Then I put on a neck-warmer, a face mask like a bank robber and goggles and hat. Finally there are small finger gloves and a big pair of mitts with fluffy tops for wiping the snot off your face.
Me: What’s the coldest it’s gotten?
Tony: We were on a trip when it was (minus 48 degrees) — that was cold! Throwing a cup of hot water in the air makes it explode and turn to ice before it hits the ground.
Me: In winter is there any way out? Are you iced in?
Tony: Yes, we are iced in as the sea ice has frozen. Also, with the light being so short and the (extreme) weather there are no flight options. We are all alone until November!
Me: What is a typical day like down there?
Tony: I use some of my day to do paperwork and get prepared for the field, and then a bit of gym. I take some naps, and then drink some beer. Yesterday I had a spa and gym — it’s not such a hard life. We should be able to walk on the sea ice pretty soon and it’ll be easier to play golf and fly kites.
Me: Are you even allowed to drink booze? I heard it was banned at some stations.
Tony: Oh yes! We brew beer supplied by the division and we all sent down enough other types (of alcohol) to keep us happy — certainly enough for the odd sore head. (More) alcohol is sent down on resupply paid for by expeditioners.
Me: What do you do for food? Do you eat penguin? If so, what does it taste like?
Tony: We get food once per year at resupply, around February. There are a lot of frozen vegetables, and we have a small hydroponics building for some fresh greens and herbs. We get all of our supplies from the ship at resupply time, but this year the ship ran aground in a storm. We aren’t allowed to eat penguin, but it doesn’t look that good anyway.
Me: How often do food ships come in?
Tony: Once per year on our station! So not a lot of fresh veggies now, but now we have a hydroponics set up (so it’s OK).
Me: What do you do with your trash? Is there plumbing or a sewage system? Do you freeze your poop and ship it out?
Tony: We ship all of our recycling and hard waste home. We have a wastewater treatment plant that breaks down and filters our waste water and poo and then puts the almost-pure water back into the sea.
Any waste from the field, including poo, is already frozen, and we burn it all in a large incinerator in the kitchen.
Me: What do you do if you find yourself living with someone in close confines for a long period of time and they annoy the hell out of you? Have there been any fights?
Tony: I just dream about hiding the body under the sea ice and try to imagine them as people with head injuries. [Author’s note: This is a joke].
There aren’t any fights — it’s pretty easy to avoid annoying people and most are fine. There is a long process before people are chosen to come here, especially for winter (and many are weeded out).
Me: Are you going bats**t stir-crazy?
Tony: I was always crazy, but getting out in the field and exploring is great fun. Keeping busy is my biggest hurdle.
Me: Speaking of which, do some people go (really) crazy?
Tony: I wouldn’t say crazy, but there has definitely been some mood swings going on, and some people getting really quiet.
Me: Is there a psychiatrist there?
Tony: No, but we have one in Australia available (by phone) anytime.
Me: I heard there’s a straitjacket on base — have they ever had to use it? Is there a gun if someone goes completely mental?
Tony: No straitjackets here, although we might end up needing one. No guns either.
[Author’s note: A friend who spent time on another unnamed base said there was a straitjacket at his station].
Me: But you must get bored — what do you do?
Tony: I do get bored, but we have a cinema so we can watch movies — we have millions of gigabytes of TV shows and movies. I like sci-fi and comedy movies — you can book to put a movie on in the cinema or watch TV and movies from your room off the server.
Me: Do you guys have, like, robotic dogs for company?
Tony: No, I wish. Although I’m looking into making a Chia Head today, just to have something to grow in my room and be a different colour than white!
Me: Are you allowed to have visitors? Like if someone wanted to come say hi and found someone to take her there — would that be allowed?
Tony: It is a government station, so there’s no tourism, although there are a few VIPs that come for short trips in summer.
Me: In lieu of entertainment, do people have sex a lot there? Like a “what happens on base stays on base kid of thing”?
Tony: On other stations and in summer when there (are) more people, yes. But not here.
Me: What’s the biggest misconception about living in Antarctica?
Tony: That it’s dark all the time — we still get about three hours of light on the shortest day.
Me: If something serious goes wrong, what is the soonest rescue available?
Tony: For us that would be in October I think, and we’d have to make an ice runway first. We have a pretty full-on medical suite here and can do most surgeries (such as for a burst appendix).
[Author’s note: Rescues do occur, however rarely. Recently, two people were flown out of Amundsen-Scott station due to unspecified illnesses. According to The Guardian, a midwinter rescue had been attempted there only twice before, “in 2001, when the base’s only physician came down with a potentially fatal case of pancreatitis; and once in 2003. Both airlifts were successful.” In 1999, Jerri Nielsen, a station’s doctor who had been treating herself for breast cancer was flown out in spring, when weather conditions are better.]
Me: What do you miss the most?
Tony: I miss being able to walk outside and sit in the sun. I miss walking on grass and the smells and colours of the outside. This time of year there are no animals, so it is quite nice to see a bird fly past!
Me: Will you do this job again?
Tony: I will do it again, maybe in the summer when there is more deep-field work.
And a final word from Tony: “Went out and found the penguins the other day and today we are going for our midwinter swim! (-2 degree) water and (-25) air (temperature)… hope its nice and warm over there!”