On Getting Drunk in Antarctica

Someone someday will make a chart of the inverse relationship between "activities available" and "alcohol consumed." Another Antarctic winter-over and author, Nicholas Johnson, once offered the following list when asked what he wished he had brought with him:

Right now I wish that I had a beer brewing kit, another bottle of 16 year old Lagavulin, a greater selection of wine, a pocket-sized classical Greek dictionary, the electric guitar that didn't make it onto the last flight with mail, a blender, the copies of my thesis with reviewers' notes, some cave-aged emmenthaler and a pomegranate.

One day early in his time there, Broughton walked into Club 90 South, sat behind the bar at the only available seat, and became the default South Pole bartender.


Club 90 South, with Broughton doing a "dragon" trick with liquid nitrogen. (Courtesy of Phil Broughton)

The bar operated on an honor system: take some liquor, leave some liquor. The system didn't work perfectly, though -- they were out of all but their worst beer (New Zealand's Export Gold) two months before the end of the winter.

The workers became best friends; then they ran out of things to talk about.

"By the time a year has gone by, you pretty much know everyone's stories," he said. "There is no escape."

Co-workers stationed back home would phone often, but they would forget that the people on the other end of the line were trapped in a frozen wasteland.

"They're talking to you about the ice cream social and saying you need to submit your minutes for the departmental meetings," he said. "I would think, 'How did I end up with corporate culture at the bottom of the earth?'"

Eventually, workers who were predisposed to seasonal affective disorder were hit hard. The darkness and cold caused sleepiness and memory problems, and over time some of the winter-overs became disoriented and lethargic.

"You were supposed to write copious notes to yourself in a notebook," Broughton said. "Life gets rough when you can't remember things. My strangest thing was that I lost complete command of written grammar. And I pretty much don't remember the month of October."

There were occasional tee-totalers and plenty of moderate drinkers, but for some, alcohol became a refuge.

"You see things that leave you uncomfortable. There were a good dozen people who were drinking to kill the days -- that was hard to watch, and it was hard to serve. Though at some level, I'd rather have you drinking in front of me than drinking on your own."

Broughton said he tried to swap in sodas and other drinks for his inebriated colleagues, but non-alcoholic options didn't last long. Coke and Mountain Dew were gone a month into the winter, and their pallet of wine froze one day. There were six months where the only beverage options consisted of beer, hard alcohol, and powdered milk. (And of course, the purest glacial water this side of the Bellingshausen Sea.)

But for Broughton, serving someone in a bar until they passed out was sometimes a better option than letting them drunkenly wander outside by themselves. As he wrote recently about the experience:

The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide him over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85F night.

(National Science Foundation/Deven Stross)


Broughton heard that the following year, the station management tried to get the winter-overs to cut back on drinking, but that did not, as one might expect, go over well. 

They eventually did successfully cut smoking rates, though, by insisting people smoking near their dorms do so outside.

In spite of everything, Broughton told me that not a day goes by when he doesn't think about Antarctica, and he says that he would go back if he had the chance. And he would still pick the polar winter over the alternative: the continent's five-month summer of nonstop sunlight.

"The summer in Antarctica is a rat race to try to batten down the hatches and fix everything before the winter sets in," he said. "I would be much happier to play caretaker for the long night."

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

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