I spent a year at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, AMA
First off, there are certainly redditors out there with far more Antarctica experience than I have. I was there for a year and I have friends who've spent way more time down there. So if you know more than I do, chime in! Still, I was a general assistant and later a carpenter's helper for a year. Because of my job I got to fly to a lot of camps that most people don't get to visit. I loved it and encourage more people to try for jobs on our harshest continent. (Kind of an inside joke there) Anywho, AMA
Proof: http://i.imgur.com/ZYJUF.jpg I'm looking for a more "this is obviously Antarctica picture. I'll search for a picture from the winter as well."
Also, check this guy out: http://www.frozensouth.com/ I was down there with him and he's making what looks like will be a great film about his vast experience on ice.
Edit: Alright All, It's been great but I've got to head off. This has successfully kept me from writing an essay for long enough. I"ll probably answer some more questions later if they come up. Thanks for the great time.
Not nearly as cold as you would think. If I remember correctly, the summer didn't get too far past zero. Plus the sun is out all the time which makes thing seem more pleasant. McMurdo was tropical compared to Amundsen Scott.
Winter sucked though.
The mods may have verified your account, but did they verify you to be a human and not a thing?
I saw that movie for the first time during my winter in Antarctica. Super ill advised.
Was McMurdo REALLY the best place to put the second Stargate in Continuum? Wouldn't it have made more sense to put it at a more defensible location?
I always thought McMurdo be a great place to hide things. They have a large cargo yard full of shipping containers holding all manner of things, most are just barely labelled. I used to be sure that at least one of them held some "Indiana Jones style warehouse" secrets.
Any nazi bases?
Did you experience any dangerous situation?
I fell through the ice into a frozen lake in one of the dry valleys. Mostly my fault, but very spooky. Somebody grabbed me by my collar but I was wet up to my chest. Luckily it wasn't too windy so I was able to just shiver in my extra long underwear until my clothes dried out.
Was it lonely?
See any cool animals?
Summer wasn't lonely. McMurdo is a constant buzz of activity and there are lots of people coming and going. Great people. Winter was kind of brutal but still not awful. No traffic any, but still, Antarctica seems to aggregate awesome people. The darkness of winter makes everything worse though.
I got lucky by getting attached to the carpenters so I got to visit some of the field camps. There really isn't that much wildlife to see around McMurdo other than skuas but off station I got to see whales, penguins, seals, all the stuff you think of when you think Antarctica. I made the mistake of bringing a larger SLR instead of a smaller camera so I don't have many good action shots of animals.
Did you need to use a refrigerator?
Well the inside of the buildings are heated so. . . .yes....
I did know some people that cached extra food under some of the buildings though. Good way to hide stuff
A carpenter's helper? That is a neat and unexpected job to stay in Antarctica for--everyone thinks of the scientists, but obviously there need to be people who do all the non-science work.
How exactly does someone get a job like that, anyway?
Do the people in McMurdo really watch The Shining/The Thing immediately after being sealed off from civilization for the next six months? How is the mood after the movies, and how crazy are they in general?
Good point, there are way more non-scientists at McMurdo than there are scientists. EVERYTHING needed to run a modern town has to be in one place so McMurdo has plumbers, electricians, steel workers, cooks, a barber, mechanics, the whole nine yards.
As for getting the job, I just applied online and got lucky. It helped that I went to a job fair, got some business cards, and then pestered some of the people I'd met. The biggest luck was actually ending up with the carpenters. I see them as kind of the dream position for the entry level laborer, mostly because they get off station a lot.
That is actually pretty neat.
What were your interactions with the scientists like? I can see how they could either be really nice because so many people are working for their benefit, or really obnoxious for the same reason.
Did you need to do any kind of psych screening prior to getting the job?
You only need a psych screening before you can stay for the winter. It's a several hundred multiple choice questions and an interview with a psychologist they fly in.
The scientists were great for the most part. Most were more than willing to talk about their work, show you what they were doing and many would let you lend a hand in some circumstances. Plus there were weekly lectures that were surprisingly well attended. Working with the carpenters I got to spend time at field camps with some of the scientists. They all seemed generally aware that they're research depended on all the support staff doing their jobs correctly and acted accordingly. A few bad apples, but overall I think that the close quarters makes most people down there friendly.
Did you ever feel so isolated that you panicked?
Nope, "felt so isolated I drank?" Yes
What kind of booze can you get in Antarctica? This will bear heavily on my decision to travel there.
Lots of it. That enough info?
So, two of the staples of humanity: sex and money.
How were you paid, was there a policy to not form relationships, any interesting drama to share? If you can think of anything related that I did not ask, feel free to add it.
Direct deposit to my bank account. There's a wells fargo ATM there and you can get money from the finance office if you need cash. However, there's not much to buy, just snacks in the station store and booze. Both of which are pretty cheap.
I didn't really have any relationships to speak of. Probably more to do with my personality than actually being in Antarctica. There's nothing really verboten about it as far as I know. I did have a fling with a woman who was working on an oil tanker that came by, but they were just in town for 72 hours so things were cut short.
What was the actual pay like, though, if I can ask?
I mean, they stuck you in an isolated frozen wasteland for a year, I imagine you got more than a normal 9-to-5 job doing the same thing elsewhere would have?
The pay for low-level guys really isn't that great. I think I got $500 a week after taxes? The thing to consider is that room and board are paid and you don't have any other expenses. So the salary is low, but I put like 90% of my earnings into the bank.
How are you greeted when you arrive there? Welcome to McMurdo, I love you?
I love this story. So I get off the bus at the kind of lobby of the main building. A lot of representatives from different departments are meeting people their new staff. There are two guys who are both looking for their new GA, a guy from the waste water plant and a guy from the carpentry shop. They don't know which one of them is supposed to have me and I have no idea either. After a short discussion the guy from the carps says "He must be mine" and we hop in a truck. Apparently he didn't know for sure and told me "You didn't look like you wanted to work in the poo plant" I owe him a lot of happiness
Biggest misconception before you went down there?
That it would be a "foreign" experience. The truth is that you're at an American station with other drumroll Americans! This is not to disparage my time at all, it just comes up a lot when a friend says they are going to someplace like Thailand and then looks at me funny when I say "Woah! That sounds super exotic!"
Have you seen the Werner Herzog doco "Encounters at the End of the World," which spends a lot of time at McMurdo? If so what did you make of it?
I got the impression that Herzog was looking for a wild west outpost full of crazy people and was disappointed by what he found: fairly normal people doing semi-normal jobs in a crazy environment. I saw the movie right before I left for Antarctica and it made the whole place seem a lot stranger than it actually seemed when I got there.
BRO, is there a gym there?
Can you explain more about the "last" plane in winter? Since the winters so long, that's literally the last plane out of the continent for the next 6 months? What if someone needed surgery or something else not readily available?
They can do emergency flights out but I believe that the average time it takes is something on the order of three days in good weather. They have to send people out to clear the runway and such. So yeah, it's possible to get out. But if you have something happen to you that requires a hospital in the next few hours, I'd say you are SOL
Worst thing about it?
No fresh food during the winter. We had a little greenhouse that provided some vegetables, but towards the end of the winter I would have paid $10 for an apple.
I've always wanted to work at a base in Antarctica. How would I go about looking for an opening?
Also, did you spend most of your time inside? Did you ever have a "cabin fever" type of experience?
If you don't have any special skills the easiest way to get down would be with the kitchen staff. I think they are through this company now: http://www.gscgov.com/opportunities.htm
The main portion of the other jobs will be through Lockheed Martin: http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/isgs/antarctica.html
I was in Antarctica back when Raytheon still ran things so I'm not sure if the procedures are the same but my big advice is to start getting in contact with people early and be flexible when the time comes. A lot of people on the "wait list" get called on at the last minute when one of the primary hires fails a health check or something else comes up.
Why did you go to Antarctica and why did you stay? Also is it easy to travel to Antarctica (as in is there an application process or something like that?)
I went to Antarctica because I had just graduated from college and wanted a job on the other end of the intellectual spectrum to let things settle, manual labor seemed appropriate. I stayed for the summer because it was awesome, and I stayed for the winter because I got tricked. It wasn't an awful trick, but I was kind of misled about what my job would be and by the time I figured it out the last plane had left for the winter.
Dang I would have been pretty upset about that. Were you?
During the summer I was a general assistant, lowest guy on the totem pole. A hiring manager told me that I would get a promotion if I stayed for the winter. I interpreted that as "awesome, I won't be the lowest guy anymore!" By the time I figured out that they hadn't hired anyone underneath me it was too late. They also moved me from the carpentry shop to a big remodel project they were doing on the power plant so that was also kind of surprise.
What would they do if you just quit? Since they cannot fly you out any time how are "defectors" handled?
It's easy to quit during the summer. Lots of flights in and out of McMurdo.
Not sure what they would do during the winter, it came up a lot around the dinner table. "What is someone went crazy and just started stabbing people. Would we lock them in a closet for 3 months?" Again, no idea what they'd do during the winter.
How do they deal with law enforcement down there?
Are there jails / police of any sort? Thanks for the AMA :)
[edit: Are there ANY laws in Antarctica? I know there are territories]
You are a US citizen working at a federal facility. So all that comes with that still applies. Antarctica exists in kind of a neat, not in the USA but not anywhere else either thing. I heard it compared to being on a Navy ship in the middle of the ocean as a civilian. No jails or police, I think one of the guys during the winter had some sort of deputized authority. Didn't come up much
What was wintering like? How did you pass the time? Would you do it again? Do you still talk to the people who were there with you? Any human drama?
Wintering was rough. It's dark and there aren't nearly as many people around. Plus the weather keeps you indoors a lot more than it does in the summer. It's a 54 hour workweek so that took a good portion of my time but other than that I did little hobby projects in the carpentry shop, played board games with friends or, that old Antarctic standby, I drank.
I would go back for the summer, probably not the winter.
Yeah, I keep in touch with a good number of the people I met down there. I can't say enough about how great the folks I met down there were.
Favourite penguin species?
Adelie are cute
Would you describe the community as being similar to a small town?
Small town fits. Best explanation I ever heard was "small university campus in the middle of a mining town." Lots of tradespeople, good number of scientists, everybody doing something. That's the key thing that made it unlike just living in a small town. Everybody in Antarctica is there to do a job in support of a common goal. The DA's keep the food coming, the electricians keep the lights on, the mechanics keep the vehicles running. All so that the scientists can do their thing. Strong community with lots of divisions depending on worksite.
I looked at doing this through Raytheon (want to hit all seven continents) and with the regulations cutting the tourism numbers allowed to go to Antarctica this was an interesting option. Did you go through Raytheon? How was food handled was there a buffet style cafeteria or were there smaller places that offered different types of food? I read there is a bowling alley, and 3 bars there can you tell us about the social life there? Did you get the sense that a lot of people get cabin fever and sleep around? I read that somewhere on someone's blog. Was there a vacation package in the deal? I seem to remember reading that people who stay an entire year get a ton of vacation which they have to take and that most take it at the end when they land in New Zealand. Did you do this?
1) Buffet style 2) As far as I know, the bowling alley is closed. That whole building got condemn when I was there and I have no idea if it's reopened. I'm sure one of the other Antarticans can tell you if it got fixed. 3) As of '09, There are two bars and a coffeeshop that serves wine. Lots of socializing to do but not as much promiscuity as I would have thought. Way less than college. Though I did live in one of the smaller dorms and spent time off station, so maybe I don't know. I hear the DA's get pretty wild. 4) Most people are contract workers and not full-time. You don't really get a vacation, you just aren't working. They make you leave after 12 months and I believe you have to wait 60 days to come back assuming you get a new contract. I spent a bit of time in New Zealand but, after a solid year I was just about too burnt out to enjoy a vacation.
Also, Raytheon doesn't have the contract anymore. Lockheed Martin would be your employer now
Ha! I was just about to do this! I was at McMurdo last Winfly thru Summer. Were you there last season? I went down as a DA and am going to Pole as a Steward this summer season. Are you going back?
Last winfly. . . . Did you know a Edited for privacy
I am actually getting ready to start nursing school. I plan on going back at some point in the future once I actually get a career going. I loved my time there, but I want to go back with some job skills instead of just as helper or an assistant.
What can I do right now to improve my chances of finding employment in Antarctica?
I am currently employed as database manager, but somehow I don't see that being very useful on that particular continent. I'm a 25 year old white male living in Pennsylvania. Am I too average?
I'm sure you've got downtime, what do you do for fun?
How is the Internet connection down yonder? Being so remote, I feel like it would be slow as molasses, but being to high tech, I feel it would be like greased lightening. Thoughts?
I'm sorry if any of these have been addressed already. I really wanted to get them to you before I left. For what it's worth, I love the bitter cold. My dream vacation is not that of hot, sandy beaches, but rather of a barren tundra. Thanks for your time!
1) Start trying to talk to people who work for the program. I'm not qualified to say more than "be persistent" 2) There are lots of IT people there. I was told once that knowing Mac as well as PC is an asset 3) Drinking, hiking, skiing, basketball, crafts, all kinds of stuff. During the winter it was mostly just that first thing 4) The internet is super slow. In 2008 it was all routed through the Denver office by satellite to an island a couple of miles from McMurdo and then beamed to the station from there. Sometimes the bandwidth was alright, but latency was always terrible. Plus the scientists, rightfully, get a lions share of all those resources
What's the coldest it got while you were there?
During the winter we had a storm that got the wind-chill down to -100. This is NOTHING compared to the low temps at the Pole though so I've got nothing to complain about.
To winter over, did you have to pass any psychological requirements? I've wanted to go down there for a few years now but I have a history of depression and I figure that might not mix.
Answered below: There's a long psych test. Also, not knowing much about the disease, I'm not sure you would want to spend the winter down there with a history of depression.
Alright All, It's been great but I've got to head off. This has successfully kept me from writing an essay for long enough. I"ll probably answer some more questions later if they come up.
Thanks for the great time.
Most creative place you fapped?
It's too cold for that. Gotta avoid the dreaded "icicle dick."
The non-scientific work is only for US residents?
Not sure on this one. I want to say yes, but I'd recommend you check the companies websites. A number of countries have stations down there, but most are small so I'm not sure about the job prospects.
I have an Uncle who has winter-overed in Antarctica for about 8 years on and off at the Amundsen-Scott Station. How'd you deal with no sun for so long?
I think I handled it better than some but worse than others. The darkness has the effect of shrinking your world down to just about nothing. In a city, there are usually lights in the distance but McMurdo is all there is for hundreds of miles. Plus the planes stop coming so it just gets to feeling very isolated. That said, I know a number of people who ONLY winter over so it can't be all bad.
If you were to do it over again, would you have taken the general assistant job, or were there other jobs you would have rather had? What is the minimum time commitment for summer employment, and what would the typical dates be?
Good AMA, I was actually just looking at the Lockheed Martin job postings a couple of days ago!
I think that if you can get a GA job you are GOLDEN. If you are mostly going for the experience and not for work then the general assistant route is great. They get tasked to help out all over the station for whoever needs the help. I think they've changed the structure somewhat since I was there but the other GA's I knew got to see a super wide range of the station. I was kind of special because I was attached to the carpentry shop which meant that I didn't get to do much work for other departments but I did get to fly off station with the carps. The only non-carpentry thing I did on station was when the oil tanker came in and they needed extra help doing tank readings.
How do you feel about increased tourism there, and the possible effects on the environment?
I can't imagine the McMurdo side will ever get much tourism. I think most of the increase is on the Antarctica peninsula side. My opinion is this: Antarctica is still a remarkably pristine place and I think we should attempt to keep it that way. The Antarctica Treaty is an amazing work of international agreement and I think it should be stronger in regards to tourism.
How's the music scene down there?
Amazing. Lots of amateur DJs and musicians. I have a great t-shirt I got at IceStock. The annual McMurdo music festival.
Does everyone there during the winter drink heavily to keep warm? Were the bars expensive?
I drank because I kind of like drinking. Warmth wasn't really a part of it. Plus the bars were super cheap.
What do people actually do down there? With the internet giving everyone a chance to get their story out, I've actually come across quite a lot of people who work or have worked at McMurdo.
Most of them are pretty vague about what they actually do though, aside from the occasional carpenter or mechanic.
It's all about research. There is way more of that than I can name off. So every carpenter, electrician, etc there is there for the purpose of furthering science.
Check this guy out too: http://vimeo.com/antz I was down there with him and he's got way more experience than I do.
I've read a lot of accounts from people who've done the whole Antarctica thing, and it seems like they all say that the buildings there are REALLY fucking hot, almost all the time. Is that true? Or does it just seem that way because it's so cold outside?
Some were way way overheated. Depends on the vintage. Some of the field buildings with only diesel stoves could get pretty toasty. Most were comfortable though
*down there It's dry, but it's a dry cold. . . . not as bad as you'd think during the summer.
The winters are pretty awful though. youtube "Condition one winter" for an idea of how bad it can get.
Have you ever seen anything weird out there on the ice? Do you have maybe a strange story from your time in Antarctica?
Strangest thing I saw would be all of the mummified seals in the dry valleys. I've heard differing reports for how they got there and their age. Ranging from "the Navy used to drop them from helicopters" to "we have no idea and they seem a least 100 years old". I'm sure the truth is out there but I kind of like the mystery
I imagine employers would be pretty impressed by your experience. Was your time in Antarctica a big help when looking for work afterward?
It definitely helps me get noticed. I try to work it into most job interviews
Was it cold?
View HistoryShare Link