It was 85 degrees below zero, and Erin hadn't seen the sun in five months. Her skin had lost its pigmentation and she was sneezing blood because her sinuses were so dried out. A marine biologist turned dishwasher, Erin was working in the coldest, harshest place on earth, alongside 42 other slightly frozen, slightly insane people. None of these Polies, who were spending the austral winter at a tiny United States base at the South Pole, had seen a fresh face since March, when the last small plane had taken off for McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. base on the Antarctic continent, about 800 miles away. None of them had traveled more than a mile from where they slept, been outside for more than a few minutes or eaten a vegetable that wasn't previously frozen.
On Saturday, August 1, while everyone in Denver was enjoying a beautiful summer weekend, Erin typed up this list of things that she hadn't seen or done since arriving at the South Pole ten months earlier and posted it on her blog:
— driven a car
— seen grass, or a tree (or any evidence of plant life outside of items in the greenhouse)
— walked on any surface other than snow and ice
— seen a sunset
— played my cello
— had a decent cup of tea
— used a cellphone
— seen my parents or my sisters, or any friends from home
— seen anyone under the age of eighteen
— gone swimming
— seen or smelled the ocean (or seen any large body of water)
— watched live TV or gone to see a movie
Polies work hard — six days a week — which keeps them busy and tired, especially since the South Pole is more than 9,000 feet above sea level (about the same altitude as Breckenridge). And in their off time, there isn't much to do: They read, drink, watch movies until they run out of new ones, cook creatively, talk, drink, play cribbage, have sex, blog (satellite position permitting), drink and make up their own fun to deal with the extreme conditions.
For example, there's the "300 Club," which is convened only when the temperature drops below -100 degrees. "This is where you sit in a 200-degree sauna and then run outside to the pole marker naked...or with very little clothing on. It's just a crazy South Pole tradition... I do not think I will be heart broken if this does not happen," Erin wrote on her blog.
The United States has three permanent stations in Antarctica — McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole and Palmer — and conditions there are tough, especially during the winter (our summer), when it's dark 24 hours a day. The crew members have to be very careful when they go outdoors, and the constant darkness robs them of their normal circadian rhythms and the vitamin D that humans need. After a few months on the ice, many of them develop a condition they call "brain freeze," in which they start mumbling, and it can take seconds, even minutes, to complete a thought or form a cohesive sentence.
The three stations are operated by Raytheon Polar Services, a Centennial-based division of Raytheon, the $23.2 billion, multinational defense contractor that has 73,000 employees worldwide. Raytheon won the ten-year, $1.12 billion Antarctic Support Contract from the National Science Foundation in 1999 and reapplied this year, but it's facing competition from six other conglomerates that have spent millions of dollars just to prepare their bids. The new, thirteen-and-a-half-year contract is valued between $1.5 and $2 billion; it was supposed to be awarded October 1, but the NSF recently delayed its decision without explanation.
The contract involves not just supporting the NSF's scientific research — on climate change, astronomy, biology and atmospheric and environmental science — that has to be justified to Congress and to taxpayers, but also constructing and maintaining the buildings and equipment at the U.S. bases, providing water production and fuel operations, planning missions, transporting personnel and cargo, and maintaining communication. The contractor must also hire, train, feed, house, pay and protect the small army of support staffers who live in Antarctica, whether for five months or twelve, keeping them alive, warm, fed and happy.
That's not always easy, as Raytheon has discovered. Over the years, unusual activities and behavior have been tolerated — in the name of science, but also because word of any antics rarely reached the States before employees returned home. But as blogs, YouTube and social media sites became popular, employees who used to talk with friends and family only via high-frequency radio could start sharing every detail with the world.
Those details aren't always flattering: Stories about massive amounts of drinking and Jell-O wrestling (for which one person was fired), along with other tales of strange and wild behavior, have leaked out. In 2004, Modern Drunkard interviewed an anonymous staffer who told of bacchanalian orgies and cross-dressing parties. In June 2008, a national newswire wrote about a shipment of 16,500 condoms to Antarctica, where they were distributed, free of charge, just before winter began.