Astrophysics and stale beer: What life is like working at the South Pole

Those who live at the South Pole approach the ice with a sense of awe that borders on religious conviction

Published May 29, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

This handout photo dated 31 October 2002 shows an aerial view of the new elevated station (bottom-C) being built at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. (DAVID MCCARTHY/AFP via Getty Images)
This handout photo dated 31 October 2002 shows an aerial view of the new elevated station (bottom-C) being built at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. (DAVID MCCARTHY/AFP via Getty Images)

Excerpted from "Compass Lines: Journeys Toward Home" by John Messick (Porphyry Press, 2023). Reprinted with permission from Porphyry Press.

Ice began hundreds of miles ahead of the continent, great chunks floating closer and closer together until I peered through the portholes of a C-17 cargo transport plane onto a white so white it made my eyes ache. When we began our descent to the sea ice off Ross Island's coast, I glimpsed long fractures, snow-packed ridges, and pockmarked blue ice blown barren by the polar wind.

We landed in late afternoon at McMurdo Station, the last long layover before my flight to the South Pole. Fifty of us, dressed in red parkas, bunny boots and ski goggles, stepped onto the Ross Ice Shelf at 77.51 degrees south latitude. Snow feathered its way to crystalline horizons; sea and land merged with sky, dancing together in bloodless miasma.

The thermometer read 18 degrees below zero; cold sunlight circled the southern sky. A mile away, station buildings sprawled — tan and green, stark and industrial — up the smoking side of Mt. Erebus. Along the distant shore, where the Victoria Range jutted out of McMurdo Sound, the only color came from black volcanic rock and the atmosphere's pallid blue arc.

Standing on Antarctic ice for the first time, I felt like an intruder. It was if I had departed from earth. To simply survive here was to live a post-apocalyptic existence. To feel and smell the reality of 12.4 million square miles of frozen expanse, to place upon a scale the fathomless weight of that much ice pressed upon the earth, left me winded. The land — and my mind — felt as if they had been flipped upside down.

Even as a kid, I was obsessed with Antarctica. I grew up reading Scott's journals, I traced routes from Palmer Station to Queen Maude Land on a map, and I stared for hours at photographs of calved glaciers in the Minnesota Science Museum. I would spread a map across my bedroom floor and trace my finger along the coast. I memorized the names — the Gamburtzev Mountains, Vostok Station, the Pole of Inaccessibility, the Dry Valleys, the Queen Maude Mountains, the Mertz Glacier, Casey Station, Vinson Massif — and always, before I folded it along worn edges, I traced the longitudes to their intersection. South Pole, it read, labeled in bold.

The land — and my mind — felt as if they had been flipped upside down.

So, when Raytheon Polar Services hired me as a General Construction Assistant for a season of work at South Pole Station, even though I knew I was a glorified snow shoveler, even though I understood that the job would be thankless, I still imagined I had joined ranks with those explorers who came south in search of glory, greatness and some inner sense of worth that continued to elude me. I expected to feel lost in an untried landscape. I expected the wind and cold and the glare of never-ending sun. I expected that the people I worked with would be the sort who fell naturally to the fringes of the map. But I never guessed that the bottom of the world would be quite so — weird.


The Antarctic Plateau doesn't warm enough to land a plane on it until the end of October, and the early flights tend to be irregular and dangerous. I lived in limbo while I waited for several days for a flight to the Pole.

Workers and scientists filtered through McMurdo, a summer populace spreading across the continent, and my desire to escape McMurdo grew strong. The station had nearly a thousand inhabitants, bars, yoga classes, seals and penguins, but I wanted more cold and fewer people. I wanted endless white space and a spinning compass. McMurdo acted as the last outpost on the edge of the map, but I hadn't yet fallen off the bottom.

Stuck waiting for flights, my friend Emily, another Pole-bound worker, and I skied out one day onto the Erebus Glacier. We stopped at the fire station, checked out a radio for emergencies, and glided across the ice. Every ten feet, red and blue flags jutted up from the Styrofoam snow, and zigzags of black ribbon denoted hidden crevasses. Halfway up, a bulbous hut, stocked with food, sleeping bags, and stoves, served as a survival shelter.

On the glacier, Emily looked out at the Ross Sea along the distorted horizon and said, "My favorite color is white. Once you've seen ice like this, white never seems plain…there are so many different kinds of white it blows my mind."


The largest scientific project in Antarctica, ICECUBE, attempts to quantify and trace an unfathomably small subatomic particle — the neutrino.

Finally, I arrived at the bottom of the world. My job was simple. Every winter, blowing snow consumes any place left open to the elements — every hole, every ventilation duct, every place where even a screw works loose. Mountains develop between the massive sub-ice fuel storage tanks. Drifts obliterate entire buildings. Each summer season, a mile of storage materials, organized in rows called "the berms," must be uncovered. Raytheon hires a small army of workers to uncover the buried station and help with odd jobs.

For four months, I dug out boxes of station garbage, uncovered four-meter tall stacks of random metal pipe, shoveled off sheeting and L-brackets, bales of wire, old tires, lumber, t-shirts and frozen lobsters. I spent a week tucked under the floor of the station's storage arch, bolting shelving to the floor by hand. Temperatures in the crawlspace where I worked never fluctuated — they remained a constant 40 degrees below zero. The outside air temperatures often weren't much better. We dug deep channels into the icecap and ran hundreds of meters worth of cable, we used chainsaws to cut blocks of ice that had encased the station's pillar supports. I shoveled out telescopes, wind generators, latrines and forgotten military rations, all — as we reminded ourselves again and again — in the name of science.  

Scientific research at the South Pole is, for the most part, pretty esoteric. Telescopes measure ions in the upper atmosphere; meteorologists study weather behaviors in order to predict global climate changes.  Those who support these projects, "Polies," as we are called, are meant to believe that this research places us on the brink of scientific discovery. The entire station becomes, in many ways, imbued with the sense that some larger thing is at work here.

We cannot perfectly describe the experience of a world where earth and sky are indistinguishable, but we may be able to measure it. The largest scientific project in Antarctica, ICECUBE, attempts to quantify and trace an unfathomably small subatomic particle — the neutrino. A grant from the National Science Foundation has built a kilometer square telescope buried a mile and a half into the ice. 5,000 basketball sized sensors measure the rare reactions of these particles and trace them to their origins in galactic nebulae.

By use of a scientific method we might discover the divine

What little we know of neutrinos makes their potential all the more powerful. They are among the most abundant particles in the universe. A German scientist explained to me that, "Every second, a billion neutrinos pass through the nail on my pinkie finger, but across an entire lifetime, they may only react once in the space of a living room." One day at dinner this German researcher admitted to me his hopes for the project — that with ICECUBE, we might pinpoint the Big Bang's location in the universe. And a visiting physicist after a talk one evening, said, "The statistical improbability of the Big Bang having actually occurred on any sort of universe forming level of explosive photonic reactions, is so remote that nothing but divine influence could explain its existence."

These opinions, that by use of a scientific method we might discover the divine, and that the ICECUBE project places us on the cusp of this discovery, seems a uniquely Antarctic sentiment. Here the lines between theory and reality become blurred, perhaps because we do not yet understand this polar landscape. We have experienced the physicality of the Antarctic for less than a century, and it remains difficult for us to believe that an entire landscape exists where the only perceivable entities are imprecise—there must be more than simply ice and light.

I assisted in installing the wires for the ICECUBE telescope. For a week, we used an ancient snowmachine to drag nearly $30 million worth of cable from the cavernous holes they had been lowered into, each hole drilled with pressurized water, consuming 7,500 gallons of jet fuel to dig deep enough, to the two-story computer room that would monitor the reactions.

I spent two days in the fetal position while the cables, a thousand feet long and as big around as my arm, were positioned. As snow blew around in unctuous gusts, ten people heaved these cables through a drainpipe to the second story balcony of the computer building. Once, a tug rope broke, and sent a dozen people tumbling backwards into the pooling drifts of snow. We almost destroyed the entire computer system.


Those who live and work at the South Pole, whether dishwasher or astrophysicist, approach the ice with a sense of awe that borders on religious conviction. I met architects who had quit high-paying jobs to load cargo, SCUBA instructors hired to clean toilets, and a poet who drove a forklift. One woman, who had grown up as a bear hunting guide on the Alaskan Peninsula dated a lobster fisherman from New England. They both put up siding on the station.

Around Christmas, we gathered to watch the arrival of the annual fuel traverse. Fuel use at the South Pole in the summertime exceeds 20,000 gallons per week and requires an expensive type of jet fuel called AN-8. Used only in Antarctica, the fuel is purchased and transported either via cargo plane or by Caterpillars that drive 1,100 miles from McMurdo, towing giant gut sacks of gas on giant sledges.

Occasionally, skuas, Antarctica's aggressive scavenger gulls, will follow the traverse all the way to the pole, where they circle for days, disoriented, desperate and unable to escape, before succumbing to exhaustion. Along with Amundsen's flag, they are buried by the snow, entombed by ice for the next 100,000 years. Life here can only be buried.

Nobody could quite figure out why, when the only illumination came from the Aurora Australis, he spurned even the glow of a light bulb

A strange mythology has worked its way into the South Pole Station's culture. Each season workers uncover dozens of objects that reinforce an odd respect for the brief history of the station. For example, one day we found a stash of bacon bars left over from when the Navy had managed the station in the 1970s. After much debate, we tore open the packages and ate them in homage to the station's history. They were salty, basically bacon bits pressed into the shape of granola bars. A pipe insulator and weightlifter named John, who had worked at South Pole for more than 17 seasons, remembered when boxes of these bacon bars had filled whole shelves in the old station.

One day a dozer operator broke through the upper crust of snow and fell, machine and all, into the dining room of the original station. The structure had been abandoned and buried since 1959 and had migrated fifty yards from its original location in those decades. After the operator, Josiah, had been rescued, he told his story over curried chicken dinner.

"It was crazy. There were still plates of half-eaten food on the tables and coats on the benches. If we heated the steaks back up, they'd be edible," he said. Two days later, they retrieved the bulldozer and filled the hole, entombing those stories in the old dining room forever. 

A former winter-over worker shared a story about the psychological effect of the South Pole without sunlight. After two months, one employee began compulsorily turning off every light in the station. When he started shutting off the dining hall lights while people were eating, a group of co-workers responded by installing flashbulbs in front of his bedroom door. The man took his meals in his room and refused to speak to anyone until the sunlight returned. Nobody could quite figure out why, when the only illumination came from the Aurora Australis, he spurned even the glow of a light bulb. 

During a flight that tested the ability to airdrop supplies in the event of a winter emergency, a box of bread flour, my boss claimed, failed to deploy its parachute and exploded over the snow. After work, I went out to search for the location. I glimpsed a speck near the horizon I thought might be the shattered crate. A friend and I trudged across the flat landscape toward this lone blemish. After two kilometers, we arrived to find only a sastrugi ridge, pockmarked wind deformations in the icy crust. The box had been covered, the flour sifted into the atmosphere and dispersed across the continent.


A strange mythology has worked its way into the South Pole Station's culture

Our stories mimic the heroics of the early explorers here. Like Scott, it does not matter that we are at best unprepared, overzealous amateurs. We want to believe that our myths are true, that an Australian actually did die after drinking glycol filtered through a sock (supposedly, he'd heard the Russians at Vostok Station made vodka that way), or that someone did spend two months walking around the station turning off lights in order to keep the sun from returning. We want to believe these stories are truth, and they may be. Certainly, strange things do occur here, but it is the provable moments that come to feel most important.

The axis of our world shifts several meters each year, a slight defect at the pivot point of the planet.  And so, every New Year's Day the words of Amundsen and Scott, inscribed as epitaphs at the geographic South Pole, are ceremonially moved to the newly measured, precise bottom of the earth. The station manager and perhaps a visiting explorer recite the triumphs of humans over landscape and embed a marker, newly commissioned each year, on the new site. It is a reorientation of the indiscernible.

The South Pole smoker's lounge is famous for wild parties and thirty years of un-dissipated cigarette haze. The lounge comes complete with a stocked bar, a handful of regulars and a stripper pole for when parties get wild. At one such party, a naked electrician used a plumber as a snowboard and rode him down a pile of excavated snow outside the doorway.

In that liminal space between danger and desire, I shoveled snow.  

We drank beer which had sat in cans for half a decade. Our chefs gave up jobs at world renowned restaurants to deep fry tasteless vegetables stored for a decade. On clear days, halos and sun dogs encircled the ever-present sun. A tourist from China flew in for a one-day visit and developed heart palpitations upon his arrival. A group of us who held mostly-expired First Responder and EMT certifications monitored his vitals in shifts for 24 hours before airlifting him out. He had departed from Puntarenas, Chile. When he awoke, his plane was bound for New Zealand.

The lack of bacterial life sucks odor from the air, and after four months of sweating in bunny boots, the only smell they emanate comes from spilled jet fuel. To get drinking water, a steam drill melts ice 50 feet below the surface.

This same water, reprocessed as waste, is dumped into hewn ice caverns. Giant stalactites of graywater stab up from the cavern floor, the crystallized shit of an entire station, buried into the icecap.

The mean annual temperature is -57 degrees Fahrenheit. The mean annual temperature at the North Pole is just -18 degrees Fahrenheit.  The coldest ever temperature at the South Pole was recorded June 23, 1982: it dropped to 117 degrees below zero, and even in summer, the temperature never rises above zero degrees. In the wintertime, a sort of impromptu club forms. To gain entrance, one must turn the station's sauna temperature to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and endure the searing heat for several minutes; then, on a particularly cold day, pull on shoes, dash for the pole, touch it, and return to the sauna. The sprint is clothing-optional, and those who succeed enter the "300 club," for having survived the effort.

The view in Antarctica relies on a skewed perception. Moisture on breath turns instantly into ice crystals, but it is not simply that you can see the steam. Exhalations seem to suspend in the rarified air, and on sunny days, the atmosphere shimmers with a million microscopic flashes, a hoarfrost with nothing to cling to but exposed skin and hair. Occasionally, the crystals linger long enough to glimpse a flash of rainbow. Once, deep in the tunnels under South Pole, I controlled my breathing while holding a cupped hand under my chin. In the beam of my headlamp, I watched the vapor hover in the still air for a moment, then fall in visible shards onto my glove.

One of my favorite paintings is a work by the artist Xavier Cortada, on display at South Pole Station. It depicts the bust of Sir Ernest Shackleton, wearing dirtied yellow suspenders, his face benevolent and tough, but blurred by the thickness of the paint on canvas. In the top right corner are the coordinates of the most southerly point the explorer reached. The materials for the work were gathered on the continent and include crystals from Mt. Erebus, seawater from McMurdo Sound, and soil from Ross Island and the Dry Valleys. How fitting to our conceptions that these natural materials depict a constructed and foreign object to the Antarctic landscape, that the image is displayed in the place that eluded its subject for a lifetime.

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We trickle south in search of a perception unachievable elsewhere. For decades historians have been obsessed with an alleged recruitment ad for Shackleton's 1912 Endurance expedition that advertised a "hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger and small chance of success." Supposedly, more than five thousand people applied, and Shackleton spent months selecting his crew from the pool.

That the story is most likely a fabrication says a lot, I think, about our collective conception of Antarctica. By mythologizing those who venture into those strange southern latitudes, we skirt the threshold between imagination and reality. Consider: Recently the US government sent me a civilian service medal as commendation for the work I did in Antarctica. On the back of the medal are inscribed the words "Courage, Sacrifice, Devotion." In that liminal space between danger and desire, I shoveled snow.  

Perhaps for some—the intrepid and legendary explorers and today's possessed polar workers — the inexplicable pull of the pole stems from the sufferance of a magnetic drive. I still, on occasion, long to return to the icy continent, and I still wonder: if a life's meaning is found atop of 9,301 feet of ice, how will I ever find a place where it feels like I belong?


Working each day in the cold and wind, I became accustomed to the lifelessness. Scientific presentations, musical concerts and a visit from Sir David Attenborough and his documentary film crew, distracted me from the tedium of an imageless landscape. Only when I arrived back in New Zealand did I understand how the deficient nature of the polar world had affected me. To emerge from a place that belies understanding is to realize its importance. Antarctica, it would seem, contains that kinetic potential which can connect us to the imagined desires and landscapes of our souls.

For me, the unfamiliar and harsh desolation a was strange solace. I have sought it elsewhere, but never quite felt the pure release of spirit associated with the Ice.

Only the Southern Polar plateau offers an absolute nothing. In seeking a clearing of the mind, Antarctica's interior offers the sole opportunity for the known landscape to share in scouring clean our excesses. I remember the night before I flew back to New Zealand, in the bright 3 a.m. sun, a moment when the bulldozers, snowmachines and airplanes, the wind and snow even, fell silent. This glimpse of such complete serenity brought me to my knees; I realized the potential of ice, and it crushed me to a humbled speck.

To emerge from a place that belies understanding is to realize its importance. Antarctica, it would seem, contains that kinetic potential which can connect us to the imagined desires and landscapes of our souls.

Antarctica demands to be spoken of differently. The Terra Incognita of our minds is like blowing whorls of snow, perpetually altering itself to fit the progressively shifting frontiers of human awareness. We must be reminded that there is as much value in what Antarctica promises to teach as there is in what we have come to learn of the place. These paltry striated spaces, the organized human outposts of Antarctica, are defined by latitude and longitude, by meteorology and scientific measurements. Today, the continent is understood not through the glorious mythos of explorers, but through the quantifiable strictures of science. Yet Antarctica remains a perpetual frontier, and despite what we understand, the frigid beauty of that ice-shrouded world feels as mythical as ever.

One day, when most workers were asleep, I sat alone in the sauna until the heat had worked deep into my organs. Then with a whoop, I crashed through the storm doors into the everlasting daylight. In seconds, my skin was a sheen of frost, every hair grasping to retain the warm moisture, lest it escape to the dried plateau. My feet pounded the Styrofoam snow, needle points stabbing my heels, crystals froze my eyelids shut. A bulldozer had manipulated the surface into a gradual hill, and with a leap, I rolled downward. My sides and legs chafed against the ice, rubbed raw as if they'd seen sandpaper. Before I returned to the safety of the station, I scooped a handful of blown powder to my face and rubbed the ancient elements into my hair. 

By John Messick

Assistant Professor of Writing at Kenai Peninsula College and author of Compass Lines: Journeys Toward Home

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