On Getting Drunk in Antarctica

When you spend nine months isolated in nonstop, freezing darkness, you run out of the good beer fast.
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A scientist stands outside the Ice Cube Laboratory at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on August 17, 2012. (National Science Foundation/Sven Lidstrom)

There comes a point every summer where the hot weather starts to feel less like an opportunity for outdoor fun and more like a full-body rash that won't go away. New Yorkers are flocking to an ice bar. Japanese workers ditch their suits for Hawaiian shirts. Here in D.C., the summer is so swamp-like that when you go outside -- even when it's not raining -- people tell you to stay dry.

So naturally, when I learned about Phil Broughton, a health physicist who once worked at the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, I was drawn as much by the frigid setting as I was by his amazing story.

This time of year, when days in the northern hemisphere are long and sweltering, those near the South Pole reach lows of -100 degrees Fahrenheit or less, and the continent is in the throes of its yearly six months of darkness.

Each winter, the few dozen workers at the South Pole research station spend nine months in total isolation: No airplanes can fly in or out until the base "warms" up to 50 below zero -- otherwise the fuel might freeze and kill the engine.

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Employees at the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole pose for a picture with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on Dec. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/ Norwegian Prime Minister's Office) (Reuters)

To hold the workers over, the company running the station stocks a store ahead of time with provisions, including plenty of alcohol. (After all, who wouldn't want a healthy gin reserve before embarking on months of endless night with your co-workers?) To round out the standard liquor and beer staples, some of the "winter-overs" bring special treats with them in their 125 pounds of allowable luggage.

"I brought Angostura bitters because I guessed (correctly) that the bottom of the globe would be missing the critical ingredient to make a proper Manhattan," Broughton said.

Broughton's downtime during his Antarctic days mostly consisted of watching DVDs left by previous tenants, talking online with family back home, and reading an assortment of books that had been abandoned by previous crews. There was also a pool table, some rusty musical instruments, and a gym "meant for all sports and thus good for none."

Occasionally, they entertained themselves with daredevil stunts, like running from a 200-degree sauna to touch the South Pole while wearing nothing but shoes. (He did this twice).

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The sun rises above the horizon on September 22 for the first time since March 22 at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on September 24, 2012. (National Science Foundation/Katie Koster)

But there was a major downside to living in what is basically earth's version of outer space: the torpor of nonstop winter set in quickly, and so did depression and alcoholism for some of Broughton's compatriots. And as the resident volunteer bartender, he saw first hand the ugly side of living in the "big dead place."

***

If you want to escape your problems, Antarctica is the furthest you can go, as Broughton has noted. In 2000, he was working in Silicon Valley, and after a particularly bad day at work, he came home, sat down at his computer, and thought:

"What is the furthest I can get away from these assholes?"

He typed "Antarctica" into a job search engine, and by October 2002, he was at the bottom of the earth, working for a National Science Foundation contractor as a science cryogenics technician. ("It was my job to take care of the liquid nitrogen and liquid helium for experiments.") He was deployed for a year -- including one very long winter.

The continent is vast, high desert, and it's one of the driest places on earth. A one-mile walk across the glacial ice required suiting up in the local body-armor, complete with thermal underwear and a special parka. Broughton said that while he struggled with permanently chapped, cracked skin, he eventually acclimated to the cold. At first, negative 30 didn't feel so bad, he said, and on some days even negative 80 could be tolerated, albeit briefly, in a t-shirt.

Broughton is from Florida, and before he landed at the South Pole, he had seen snow a total of five times.

"I've now seen enough snow to last me a lifetime," he said.

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South Pole employees remove snow from the top of buildings during the winter darkness on May 9, 2012. Red lights are used outside to minimize light pollution during the winter to lessen the impact on the scientific telescopes. (National Science Foundation/Sven Lidstrom)

***

A bored, trapped, and cold population naturally gave rise to a bar. Club 90 South was a simple, wood-paneled joint with a hole in the wall opening up to the outside, where the bartenders would put the Jagermeister to keep it chilled. Massive pallets of beer, wine, and liquor were flown in with the winter crew, and they prayed it would last until them all nine months. The previous year's team, Broughton said, ran out of wine and beer early.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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