Not a men’s club anymore: Antarctica

Antarctica is one of the toughest environments in the world. In the first of a series of interviews with adventurous, inspiring women, Jess McCabe talks to Allie Barden, better known as blogger 'Sandwichgirl'. about visiting the geographic South Pole, penguins and the challenges of working in subzero temperatures.

, 6 February 2007

Playing on the ice

Q. What is behind your handle, Sandwichgirl?

I bought a sandwich-shaped lunchbox at a yard sale for 50 cents back in 1995. I have never gone anywhere without it ever since. I have it tattooed on my left leg.

Q. How long have you been working in the Antarctic?

I started as a dishwasher at McMurdo Station in 2003. I have been coming every (austral) summer season since.

Q. Could you explain what your job involves? What did you do today, for example?

I work in a department called supply/materials. I inventory and manage materials in warehouses that are needed by the scientists and support staff. At this time we are nearing the end of the summer season, and preparing for winter. Today I checked all of the barrels of fluid and compressed gasses that are used by our maintenance crew, making sure we have enough and that they are in order and accessible for winter.

Q. Why did you make the decision to work in Antarctica?

I heard there was a bowling alley. No really, I am an adventure-seeker at heart, always looking for extreme challenge and wanting to earn my keep for it. The work is exhausting, the science is exciting, and the community is small and tight. It’s amazing to see how it all comes together. Did I mention the bowling alley? It’s pretty cool.

Q. You say you started as a dishwasher – is it pretty easy to work your way up?

It depends. Some people only come for one season for the experience. Some people find a new way of life. Some years there’s high turnover, some years, very little. Dishwasher and janitor positions are the easiest way to get into the program, and then you can see what else is out there.

Q. What are the wages like?

The weekly salary is probably a bit lower than elsewhere in the States, but we get an end-of-contract performance-based bonus and there is the free room and board to consider. Depending on what your financial responsibilities are at home, it can be a good place to go to and put away a bit of savings.

Q. Are you on the base all year around?

Some people are. Generally, there are two seasonal contracts: summer (October to February) and winter (February to October). The summer is the busiest time of year – there is 24 hour sunlight, the weather is the most reasonable, and science can be conducted 24/7.

The population can reach up to over a thousand people between support staff and scientists. In the winter, the population shrinks to under 200 which are mostly maintenance staff. It becomes dark for months at a time, the temperature plunges, the work is constant, and there are no flights in or out between the end of February and the middle of August.

Usually I leave Antarctica (locally called ‘the ice’) in February and travel and relax for a while before going home. This time around, I have decided to stay for a full year, and will be here through the winter.

Q. What are the best and worst things about working and living in the Antarctic?

Best: the feeling of contributing to something big. To associate with brilliant people who do what they do and make this place what it is. Even though it’s a temporary community here, it’s pretty amazing.

Worst: missing family and friends. I’ve learned to be pretty creative with the US Postal Service, but in the winter, I will have to rely on electronic transmissions.

Q. How many times have you got to go to the South Pole, and what is it like?

I have only been to the South Pole once – last week I was sent to work on the winter food supply inventory. The station there is a lot smaller than McMurdo, and very interesting.

The South Pole is on top of 9300 feet of the polar ice sheet and a temperature of about -30. The cold and altitude affects everyone, yet everyone still has boundless energy to work. It’s incredible.

Q. Do you get out of the base to see the wildlife much?

Not really. We have scavenger birds in town called Skuas, but they are more of a nuisance. Weddel seals sometimes pop up in cracks in the sea ice. We’ve been lucky this season, and a couple times we’ve had waddles of Adelie penguins show up at the edge of town. They were wonderful and provided hours of comedy. In past seasons, I’ve seen a penguin or two or five. The last couple of months have showed the most penguins I have ever seen.

Q. From your blog, I can see that the wildlife comes to you, too. Did the penguin who visited the base earlier in the month get away without being run over?

We are always very careful not to disturb the wildlife. Everyone on station was made aware to take precautions so as to not endanger it.

Q. Do you get much opportunity to explore?

At McMurdo we have a few recreational routes to go hiking or cross-country skiing, but none of them take you more than a few miles from the base. They are beautiful walks though, and offer different perspectives of the stunning scenery. It’s not common to get an opportunity to go very far unless your particular work calls for it.

Q. From your blog, it seems like you have a lot of fun. Are there any examples of hijinks you’d like to share?

It’s not all fun and games, since we work about 10 hours a day, six days a week. It can be pretty challenging at times, but we’re pretty dedicated.

That being said, we try to have as much fun as we can in what little time off we have. Santarctica [when the crew dressed up as Santas] was an incredibly fun time. Some Santa enthusiast friends at home all pitched in and had 30 Santa suits and 30 Elf suits sent here a few years ago, and no shortage of interested parties to fill said costumes on our end.

Every Christmas we change the route a little and it’s always a good time. How ironic – Santa in Antarctica.

Other antics? Well, I don’t know about antics, but I do play tuba in a band and sing songs about local vehicles and forklifts. We have a little bit of a live music scene here, which is a huge treat.

Halloween is fun, and the entire community participates. Costume-making is taken very seriously.

Q. What are the challenges of working in such extreme conditions?

Exhaustion, staying warm, and keeping hydrated. It’s the driest continent, as well as the coldest. You must be prepared and be conscious of your environment at all times.

Q. Judging from the photos of you in your swimming cossy out in the snow, you’re learning to deal with the cold. Was it tough?

Yes. I don’t recommend twirling about in a bathing suit at -30 degrees. I threw my clothes on rather quickly and ran inside to warm up. It took a while.

When I first landed at the South Pole, I didn’t think it was very cold. At the moment, Pole is about 60 degrees colder than McMurdo, but being dressed in all my gear – two layers of thermals, insulated Carhartts, socks inside of booties inside of giant blue boots, glove liners inside of gloves, hoodie, puffy red parka, neck gaiter, two hats, goggles – I was ok. You must be careful not to let skin be exposed for too long, though, it’s easy to get frostbite there.

Q. How big is McMurdo station? Do you know everyone there?

In the summer, McMurdo is about 1000 people. It’s like a small college campus. I don’t know everyone, but I recognize all the contract workers who are here the entire season. Winter will be different. This winter, we will have 124 people on station, and they will be the same 124 people until August. I’m sure we will all get to know each other well.

Q. How did your family and friends react when you told them you were going to Antarctica? How often to you get back home?

My family and friends kind of expected it. I could go work on the moon, and they would say ‘yeah, I was wondering when you’d get around to going there.’ I find myself in far-flung corners of the globe, seeking adventure and absorbing all I can. This is the kind of adventure I like, as there is so much to learn here. I live in San Francisco, and usually go there for five months between seasons here. I grew up in New England, so I try to make it back there a couple times a year to see family. It’s a great life for awhile, then it gets to be exhausting. I think after this winter I may take a break from Antarctica and go back to school. (We all say that.)

Q. Do you end up working mostly with men? If so, what’s the atmosphere like? One of camaraderie?

I’m not sure the ratio anymore, but I think it is about 1:3 women:men. It’s not just a men’s club anymore. The girls here are pretty solid. They drive heavy machinery, they’re electricians and carpenters, they manage field camps, they are scientists, they are explorers. Men here don’t think of Antarctic women as ones ‘who are not fit for the job.’ It’s all pretty equal, in my experience.

Q. Do you get much of a chance to have a love life?

Me personally? No. Others? Yes. It takes a certain kind of person to work here, and those certain kinds of people end up meeting other certain kinds of people, and they end up with something. Sometimes, it’s very temporary. Sometimes, they get married.

Q. [We had to conduct this interview by email, because there are no telephone calls into McMurdo] Following on from what you say about telephone calls into the base, can you give some examples of how your life is more restricted because of where you work? Is it less restricted in other ways?

At McMurdo, we have 24 hour telephone and email access. At Pole, it is only available when the satellite is above the horizon. Life is more restricted here in other ways – for example, if you run out of, say, clear packaging tape, you can’t just go to the store and buy some. We find ways to make it all work, though.

Q. Did you meet Warner Herzog – I understand he filmed there recently? Do you get many interesting visitors?

Yes, I met Werner Herzog… He is a rather interesting fellow. I’m not sure what the premise of his movie will be, but I’m sure it will be interesting. Sir Edmund Hillary and Prime Minister Helen Clark (NZ) were here a couple weeks ago. I got to see Sir Ed speak the last time he was here in 2004. Amazing person. True quality.

Q. What advice would you give to women who would like to work in Antarctica?

It’s a tough gig, a lot of hard work, but an excellent experience. The most important thing, I think, is a positive attitude and ability to get along with others in close quarters. It’s an incredible community, and a unique and beautiful place. It’s wonderful to be a part of it.

Sandwich (Allie Barden) works for Raytheon Polar Services Corporation, which is contracted by the National Science Foundation (US). British Antarctic Survey runs the UK’s scientific programme in Antarctica. Jess McCabe blogs regularly at The F Word and lives in London.

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