On Getting Naked in Antarctica

Stuck at the South Pole during its coldest, darkest season? Find a sauna, grab some bunny boots, and join the most exclusive club in the world. 

Jay Studer took this picture of Sven Lidstrom at the South Pole when the temperature was -103 degrees Fahrenheit. (Jay Studer/NSF)

Antarctica, as my colleague Olga Khazan explained in 2013, is basically outer space on earth. Scientists who hole up at Antarctic research stations during the continent’s eight-month-long winter deal with serious burdens of both the physical and mental sort: the cold is deadly, the darkness oppressive. Once cabin fever sets in, it’s tempting to just knock yourself out with alcohol. But one particular line in Khazan’s article demanded further investigation:

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

Make no mistake: Streaking at the South Pole isn’t an activity to be taken lightly. And it’s not something you do on a whim, after one too many shots of whiskey at Club 90 South. On the contrary, getting naked in Antarctica is a hallowed tradition that requires planning and teamwork.

The objective: to endure a temperature swing of 300 degrees Fahrenheit by warming up in a sauna, heated to 200 degrees, and then running, naked, to and around the Ceremonial South Pole when the outdoor temperature is below -100 degrees. The select few who have participated in this rite belong to an exclusive group: the 300 Club.

The Ceremonial South Pole is surrounded by national flags of the countries that were the first to sign the Antarctic Treaty. (Deven Stross/NSF)

First, let’s get you situated. The U.S. operates three research stations in Antarctica. McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, is considered “the New York City of Antarctica” because many visitors to the continent either go there or pass through the facility en route to another station. Palmer Station, on Anvers Island, is smaller and only accommodates 46 people at most. Then there’s Amundsen-Scott, also known as “the South Pole Station” because it’s located on the Antarctic plateau at the geographic South Pole. The Ceremonial South Pole, an actual pole with a sphere on top, circled by flags of nations, stands a few hundred feet from the station. Up to 150 people work at Amundsen-Scott during the South Pole’s summer, which lasts roughly from November to February. Around 50 scientists and other workers stay there over the winter. It’s this latter group that has the opportunity to join the 300 Club.

Kevin Bjella, now an engineer at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Alaska, spent the winters of 2001 and 2002 at Amundsen-Scott as a carpenter. His recollection of joining the 300 Club highlights the downright hazardous nature of the challenge. “It’s not that far of a distance” from the station to the ceremonial pole, he told me, “but when it’s dark, and a hundred below, and people are naked, the safety aspect is really huge.” Most people do the challenge in groups, and usually there are helpful bystanders who line up outside the station with flashlights. A fair bit of anticipation precedes the event; the temperature only drops below -100 a few times each winter, and when it does, you’ve got to be ready to go.

Inside the station, key weather information is displayed on a video screen. It’s usually around late July or August when the “winter-overs” start watching the screen more closely in anticipation of a -100 degree day. When the timing and temperature were right one weekend in 2001, Bjella recalled, he and eight others—“pretty equally split, men and women”—went up to the second floor of "the dome," the station's iconic building that was demolished in 2009, and got in the sauna. “I remember spending something like 20 minutes or half an hour in the sauna, [although] it’s supposed to be 200 degrees. I can’t believe I spent that long in a 200-degree sauna, but maybe it was just psychological, knowing we had to really get warmed up.”

“And then we went and did it, wearing just our bunny boots,” said Bjella, referring to the white rubber boots that the U.S. military issues for use in the extreme cold, and that nearly everyone wears in Antarctica. “We put on the bunny boots and just ran out of the sauna” to the floor of the dome, and then up a long ramp, “like a big white snow ramp,” that spans about 50 yards from the door of the dome to the ice of the Antarctic plateau.

“The physiological altitude there is pretty intense,” he added (the plateau is almost 10,000 feet above sea level). Despite being physically fit and having grown up at an altitude of 7,000 feet in Colorado, Bjella “never really acclimated” to Antarctica. The cold air and the low pressure combine to produce a “physiological altitude” that exceeds the 10,000-foot physical altitude and changes every day according to the barometric pressure. Even after being at the South Pole for a few months, Bjella and others still found themselves getting winded, on occasion, just by walking up and down steps. And running up the ramp to the ice during the 300 challenge was exhausting.

“You get to the top of the ramp and you’re winded,” he recalled. And even then, participants still have about 100 yards to go to get to the Ceremonial Pole and another 100 yards to run on the way back— provided they don’t add extra yards to their trip by running off course.

Few 300 Clubbers are lucky enough to have their -100 degree day coincide with a full moon. This photo shows the Amundsen-Scott telescope under the moon in April 2012. (Carlos Pobes/NSF)

When Kris Perry, who lives and works in Alaska now, did the 300 challenge for the first time, he walked right past the pole. He was wearing a headlamp, but the pole was just outside the light it cast, and he didn’t realize his mistake until he had missed the spot by at least 20 yards.

“I never heard of anyone ever getting lost (other than myself that first time),” Perry wrote to me in an email. “Most folks were smart enough to have a warmly dressed body standing out at the pole with a flashlight to help them find their way. After my first solo attempt, I realized if I was going to do it solo, it was best not to wear a headlamp.” Perry said he completed the challenge five times that first night alone. “The first two times it had warmed up to -99 by the time I got back [to the station] and I decided that didn’t count,” he explained. “The third time I made it back and the [temperature] was still good but I also got the idea that I wanted someone to take a picture of me with all my body hair frosty white. I found someone to take the picture and did it again just for that sake. I did it again later that night when a couple early risers wanted to get in on the action and I couldn’t resist joining them.”

One of the first things people wonder about when they learn of the 300 Club is the incidence of frostbite. Perry and others who have been there confirm that this is a valid concern. Perry remembers one unlucky couple from his second winter at the South Pole: “[They] both suffered some minor frostbite—she on her nipples and he on the tip of his weenie. Fortunate for her, I had gone outside to do a weather observation and saw them heading from the pole back to the station. She was moving very slowly and had probably become mildly hypothermic. I gave her my parka and helped her get back inside. I think there might have been one or two other incidents of mild frostbite on some guys’ weenies that winter.”

“It wasn’t until I rounded the pole and came back that I started to get concerned about body parts,” Bjella said. “That’s about when one hand was covering one area and the other hand was up around the head covering the ears and the nose.” As he returned to the dome and headed back into the sauna to warm up, he thought to himself, “Okay, this was just about the right length. Any longer would be a little scary.” He estimates he was outside for no more than three minutes.

These days, some Antarctic streakers choose to wear neck gaiters in addition to their bunny boots out of concern about the cold air’s impact on their respiratory systems. Bjella said breathing cold air wasn’t an issue for him. “A little gulp of hundred-below air warms up really quickly” once it gets in your chest, he explained. Perry noticed that 300 Clubbers coughed quite a bit in the days after exposure, and thought it prudent to avoid really running during the challenge. “If you do any heavy breathing in that temperature,” he noted, “it’s very hard on your lungs and you pay for it. My rule of thumb was to walk at a steady pace with one hand covering my mouth and one hand covering ‘the boys.’ I never had any coughing fits and the boys never suffered.”

The exact origins of the 300 Club are unknown, but the tradition dates back to at least the winter of 1959, when Howard Redifer, who was working at the South Pole Station as a meteorologist, started the “200 Club.” The winter-overs that year had built a makeshift sauna inside a large empty packing crate. Inside the crate, atop a small stool, sat a hot plate and a steam kettle with a thermometer poking out of it. “Rules said you couldn’t stay in there for more than 10 minutes when the temp inside the box reached 120 degrees,” according to an old email exchange between Sid Tolchin, who was on site as a Naval medical officer, and Bill Spindler, who wintered at the South Pole in 1977 and now keeps track of the station’s history on his website SouthPoleStation.com. “Not great, but a fair substitute for the rare weekly quick’nhot shower,” wrote Tolchin.

According to Tolchin, when temperatures outdoors dipped below -90 degrees, Redifer would sit in the nude inside the 120-degree box and then run outside, roll in the snow, and run back to the “sauna” for recovery. “Naturally, most of the crew of 17” at the South Pole that winter, wrote Tolchin, “had to belong. If I remember correctly, [Redifer] made certificates which he awarded to each completing applicant.”

The improbable existence of the 300 Club may arise from a desire to claim identity in an elite fraternity, according to medical anthropologist Lawrence Palinkas, who’s based at the sunny University of Southern California but has spent decades studying the mental health effects of living in extreme environments like Antarctica and outer space. “It’s elite not just in the sense that people have done something very exotic and very hazardous, but it gives them an identity that very few people in the world have an opportunity to share,” he told me. Furthermore, and most importantly, joining the 300 Club alongside others—whether running on the ice together or completing the challenge at different times during the same winter—offers an opportunity for groups to grow closer. “Polar expeditioners have always had certain rituals and customs that have involved activities that are somewhat hazardous but also serve the same function of providing a means of bonding together,” Palinkas explained.

At the South Pole, group social dynamics can make or break the entire winter. Bjella said this reality was the hardest thing for him, personally: “I didn’t go down there to find out how people would act,” he explained, “I just wanted to experience the geographic location of the South Pole. I wanted to see the darkness, and the three-day sunrise, and the three-day sunset.” But, he added, “The emotions get very intense and people get very intense when they realize that they’re stranded for nine months and isolated in a very weird place … the good comes out in people and the bad comes out in people, too.”

“Keeping a balance between being down there as an individual and being down there as a member of a group is one of the major challenges people face when they’re in a place like the South Pole,” said Palinkas. “They’ve all made a decision to spend an extended period of time in a very hazardous environment but one that’s also very isolated and very confined. The best way to survive in an environment like this is to have established rules for relating to one another.”

The National Science Foundation, which operates the U.S. Antarctic Program, officially frowns on the 300 club, according to Palinkas. That may only make the challenge more attractive, though.

Many of those who head to Antarctica “looking for adventure end up disappointed,” Palinkas added, but spending a winter in Antarctica does make the soul hearty (300 Club-induced frostbite aside). “My earliest research in the Antarctic found a very interesting response to being isolated and confined for such a long time,” he noted. Palinkas had assumed that the winter-overs, “because of prolonged exposure to the stress of isolation and confinement … would end up being at greater risk for stress-related illnesses” such as heart disease and cancer. “I found the exact opposite—they ended up being healthier after their tour of duty in the Antarctic compared to people who had the same physical and mental health status prior to the experience.” People responded to Antarctica by developing increased levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy, an attitude of “if I can handle this, I can handle anything.”

And there’s no more jarring way to boost your confidence than streaking in -100-degree weather.