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The Perils and Pleasures of Bartending in Antarctica (2017) (atlasobscura.com)
124 points by mpweiher 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

As an aside, there is a public bar at Vernadsky Station in the Argentine islands just off the Antarctic peninsula. It was built back when it was Faraday Station, with a shipment of lumber that was supposed to be for a new pier.

All other bars in the Antarctic only serve alcohol to base staff, as they import their stocks, and they’re limited. Understandable. They’ll still happily sell you a coffee at McMurdo, but you’re SOL for a drink unless you BYOB.

The drinks menu at Vernadsky is somewhat limited, offering Zamagonka or Samogonka, depending on how you want to spell it - the guys there make it using their potato rations, and it’ll knock your socks off.

So yeah, if you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods, stop on by, have a few, shoot some pool, admire the pound coin embedded in the bar for which the station was sold to Ukraine, chat gravity waves and atmospheric phenomena with the researchers, and then go hang out with the penguins.

At McMurdo it's not strictly BYOB, like you have to bring your own alcohol to the continent in your luggage allowance, there is a "store" where you can purchase things.



Well aware - been there - but as I said, booze is for base staff only - if you’re a visitor you can buy pretty much anything you like in the store, so long as it isn’t a consumable.

It’s also not a “store”, it’s a store - they even take cards!

In the 1970s, there was a woman in my social circle from New Zealand. She did two tours of work in Antarctica. Both times she said she took 500 condoms and two cases of liquor as part of her allowed personal luggage. I remember her talking about life there, basically periods of difficult work and lots of free time also. She said that it was an interesting experience but that two tours were enough.

Another friend in our social group had a job freeing trapped porpoises from tuna nets. As a programmer, my work life seemed tame compared to my two friends.

I’m sure I’ll be laughed at, but I wonder what the condoms were for. How long is a “tour”?

I’m assuming she wasn’t sexually active 100% of the weeks in her tour, so 500 seems like a lot even if the tour was for a year. Were they distributed among colleagues? Were they used for some other interesting reason (like when the Top Gear presenters took viagra when driving over a volcano)?

Or is there really nothing else to do in Antarctica than have sex all day?

"About four or five months for typical summer contracts (October thru February) in McMurdo, three and a half months for a summer south pole contract, or thirteen months for winter-over contracts. A winter-over usually starts at the beginning of summer (October-ish) and lasts until the beginning of the next summer."


I also really enjoyed this quote from the same page:

"The first time you come down for the adventure. The second time for the money. And the third time because you can't function anywhere else anymore."

That FAQ is super interesting, but this line made me even more confused about the woman with the 500 condoms.

> About the only thing the dispensary ever dispenses is advice. Drinking is officially sanctioned, condoms are freely distributed and sledding is against the rules, which gives you some idea of the managing philosophy.

Also, this line made me giggle:

> Just don't come down here expecting a good love life (unless you're a woman, in which case the odds are good but the goods are odd).

Probably those freely distributed condoms are the leftovers from that lady's trip.

You can trade them for weed.

> freeing trapped porpoises from tuna nets

Is less glamorous than it sounds

>>Both times she said she took 500 condoms ...she said that it was an interesting experience but that two tours were enough.

I guess she knows best, at some point it does take a toll on you :)

Encounters at the End of the World is an entertaining documentary about the people and circumstances of living on Antarctica. If you’re curious about life on the ice and the researchers and people make up the society there.

> https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encounters_at_the_End_of_the...

Oh that movie.. it's so good.

And the saddest penguin scene ever, I believe.


That penguin might be the best character and metaphor. I would like to imagine the slow accumulation of such penguins that find some strange way to survive (imagining a Gary Larson cartoon).

Do you think it would be possible for me to make an application to work at a research station?

Surely they need to do some important experiments to see how cold affects the performance of a software developer, when it comes to typing and bug levels. :)

The australians have their own recruiting website:


The US government does a great deal of its hiring through Lockheed Martin, which took over from Raytheon Polar Services in 2012.


There's a big IT department at McMurdo station. There's a ton of infrastructure, after all. It's essentially a small town. The money is good down there for support workers, and your sole significant living expense will be alcohol. Sure hope you don't mind sleeping three to a room though!

A downside for working at McMurdo is that your only day off is Sunday, and the hours are long. Due to safety restrictions, there are very few outdoor opportunities. There's only a few relatively short hikes near town that are allowed. Fortunately, there's plenty of social opportunities (three bars) and a lot of culture. The people down there self-select to be rather interesting. I've only been there for a few weeks at a time before going out into the field, but I enjoyed it. I don't know about a full season, though. As support staff, you would be hired for an entire summer. There's 200-300 people who overwinter as well (compared to ~1000 in the summer). But, for God's sake, do not do that. You will lose your mind.

The money is good, but not great. Formerly it was possible for people to claim up to the first $85,000 USD of their income tax free, as long as they remained outside of the US at least 330 days in a tax year (part of the time spent in Antarctica, and part of the time anywhere else that was not the US). Now that exemption apparently no longer applies and the US IRS is taxing employees of Lockheed Martin, or direct NSF employees, as if they were domestic jobs in the US.


Well, see if your country has a research station, go to their homepage and check their openings. If you know how to fix electronics maybe there is a possibility.

Never say never.

I know a developer through the local meetup who has done a couple of tours for British Antarctic Survey, he's mostly a dev but he's experience with electronics and some other stuff so he can cover a lot of ground.

Either this is me, or there are multiple ex-FIDs with the same background hanging around meetups in the north of the UK ;)

To the GP: I started off as a sysadmin / dev many years ago, but always wanted to work in unusual places like Antarctica. Trouble was I couldn't see how I could get there or what use they might have for me. Turns out, of course, that the bases also need all of the logistics and support services that any modern office needs. I spent a while following blogs of the IT / radio support guys who were working down South and eventually realised that I could do everything that was involved in their jobs. I applied and got in, and have since been to Antarctica three times. I got to see and do some _incredible_ things down there and meet some awesome people.

It can be done.

What kind of interesting things are there to do?

The question sounds probably a bit stupid, but if safety regulations prevent you from exploring much, I would imagine that mostly picture taking is the interesting part.

Aside from meeting people, what are other kinds of things you can do there?

Different countries have different approaches to outdoor activities and trips; I hear some are particularly keen on 'safety' regulations meaning you can't do much at all. Fortunately the British Antarctic Survey strikes a more sensible balance.

Some of the things I got up to (bear in mind I had a primarily office-based job with long hours -- I spent most of my summer time in a radio tower, but did manage to get out and play sometimes.)

- Off-piste skiing and boarding on small slopes near the base

- Nordic skiing around the base perimeter

- Kite skiing

- Abseiling into and exploring crevasses and bergschrunds [a crack where a glacier joins a mountain]

- Learned to cox RIBs and visit small floating bergs and local islands

- Got to fly in a light aircraft a few times on the way out to field sites. Actual hands-on-the-controls flying on a Twin Otter -- essentially acting as a human autopilot under the supervision of the real pilot. Awesome fun, but turned out to be rather expensive in the long run, since it got me into flying -- I now have a private pilot's license of my own.

- Flew into the field to install a remote weather station somewhere where quite literally no human has ever set foot before.

- Spent a few weeks in the field at Fossil Bluff [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil_Bluff] which is an incredible experience in its own right. You're living in a small cottage from the 60s with one other person, approx. a 1 hour 40 minute flight away from any other humans. The planes bring supplies when they visit; otherwise you can spend your days taking weather observations, baking bread, and enjoying the scenery.

- Spent 6 - 7 weeks on a ship wandering the southern ocean. Upgraded from the RIB and learned how to helm the ship through ice.

- Visited some of the sub-Antarctic islands from the ship including Deception (extinct volcano with a old British base), South Georgia, and Signy (both have current British bases)

I also went on a couple of week-long Winter trips, which involved driving a skidoo away from base into the interior of the island and setting up a camp, from which we did things like skiing tours, visiting old bases, crevassing, climbing, etc.

As well as outdoor activities, there's also a lot to learn on base as well if you're interested -- most of which comes from the fact that the bases are small and there are none of the outside services we take for granted in the rest of the world. I can now bake bread; not kill people in a commercial kitchen; repair skidoos; use firefighters' breathing apparatus; make curtains; build my own office furniture (I wanted a monitor stand, and Amazon didn't ship.) etc. etc.

If that's not enough, for those on the coast there's plenty of wildlife to be seen. I'd regularly see different types of whales from my office window, and there are penguins and seals all around the base I wintered at. I also got to visit an Emperor penguin colony a few times. Others got really into music, photography, art, or woodwork.

So... yeah. There's plenty to do if you're willing to get involved. I have _no_ idea how people say they'd be bored down there.

OP here,

I am a Developer but my background is in Biological sciences and I am in the north of the UK.

Had a look on the British Antarctic Society site and they have Scientific support roles which sound interesting over the summer.

Big skier myself :)

There's plenty of marine biology happening at Rothera! This is the time of year to apply if you're interested -- this is about the time when jobs for the next austral season are posted.

Feel free to drop me a line at $USERNAME @gmail.com if you've got any other questions.

Ah, that sounds like a really cool place to visit then.

Harsh, but cool.

Thanks for sharing so much detail!

>I spent a while following blogs of the IT / radio support guys who were working down South

Any that you particularly recommend? Or have all the ones you followed then now all finished up and gone home?

All long gone now I'm afraid -- my first visit south was nearly 10 years ago now.

Small world, yeah it was you :).

I recommend becoming a physicist, much easier to go to Antarctica that way :)

Reminds me of this book, which I recommend; Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica http://feralhouse.com/big-dead-place/

Hah, drinking has been a big part of how people wintered over at the South Pole since almost the beginning, e.g. in 1967: "Trivia: average winter alcohol consumption was 54 cases of beer and 6 cases of liquor for each of the 20 men (some of whom were nondrinkers)." That's quite a bit...

Source, which is worth spending some time exploring: http://www.southpolestation.com/trivia/igy2/igy2.html

see also: http://feralhouse.com/big-dead-place/

It grew out of the author's blog. Sadly, he took his own life in 2012.


Let me guess before I read. One of the pleasures is that ice is abundant?

Not really, but the freezer is a hole in the wall.

That must be dangerous. I certainly wouldn't drink a shot of sub-zero liquor. There have been occurrences of people having their stomach frozen dead by ingesting liquid nitrogen enhanced drinks.

Comparing sub-zero temperatures to liquid nitrogen temperatures doesn't quite do justice to liquid nitrogen. Imagine how hot boiling water is, and how cold ice is. Think of the temperature difference between the two. Now, take a step of that same size, colder than ice. Now, take a second step. That's how cold liquid nitrogen is. Liquid nitrogen will be at -196 degrees Celsius. Even Antartica, at the coldest temperature ever recorded, only got down to -89, still nowhere close to LN2.

The problem with the liquid nitrogen enhanced drinks is when people drink them before the LN2 has evaporated. You then have that -196 degree liquid in your stomach, and that's what freezes sections of it. Safety regulations require that the bartender not give you your drink until all the LN2 has evaporated.

I used LN2 to cool gamma-ray detectors for a while, and it is really fun stuff. Like driving a car or cooking raw meat, you just need to know what the dangers are and how to avoid them.

I think there is quite a difference between a shot of sub-zero alcohol and a ingesting liquid nitrogen, which is at minimum -210°C vs the at most -70°C the alcohol will have, though likely the easier drinks will freeze at higher temperature anyway, usually starting at -5°C for a beer.

edit: It also helps that ethanol is likely going to stay liquid in your stomach, liquid nitrogen boils off; that pulls a lot more energy from the environment.

Cheap and cold. Perfect for your drinks.

What kind of research do these science teams do at South Pole?

I recommend checking out some websites which explain in detail, e.g.


> The station has an Atmospheric Research Observatory, the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory for astrophysics, and computer systems for research and communication including Internet access. It has collected the longest continuous set of meteorological data from Antarctica's vast interior ice plateau, and it is well located for studies of the cusp region of the magnetosphere. Astronomy and astrophysics have flourished in recent years, taking advantage of excellent optical properties of the atmosphere (resulting from its high elevation, low temperature, and low humidity) and, for neutrino detection, the extremely clear and homogeneous thick ice below. A small biomedical research facility is present. Other areas of interest include glaciology, geophysics and seismology, ocean and climate systems, astrophysics, astronomy, and biology.

The ICECUBE neutrino observatory, for one.


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