I spent a year as the cryotech and bartender for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, 2002-2003. I tried to write a lot of things down before I forgot them all.

Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 2

We last left our intrepid heroes at the trailhead of the Otago Rail Trail in Middlemarch. Apologies for the delay getting to part two because one of the hard things in reconstructing this tale is that the websites I used in 2003 have dramatically improved and it’s hard to recreate my old errors. Pretty sure I figured out all the places we stopped correctly.

Anyway, I need to take a moment to describe the backpacks we were going to take on this trip. I had a 70L North Face pack that was a hand me down from Mark, who had taken this pack on hikes/climbs to pretty much every 14k peak in Colorado. It was in remarkably good shape despite the mileage. I’d never done much backpacking so this was a rather nice starting place for me. Mark was well experienced with it, could help with adjustments, and it was large enough to hold all the gear I was bringing with me for my three post-Antarctica weeks in New Zealand.

Mark and Tony had both purchased new packs. Mark’s was a 80L that he’s ordered months earlier and it was waiting for us at the Antarctic Deployment Center. He expertly packed that thing and it was half empty as he’d purchased an upgrade for future long climbs, not simple hikes like this. Tony had gotten the largest pack that Kathmandu sells which I swear was like 110L. It was a goddamn wearable steamer trunk, though it looked proportionally correct on him as the 70L did on me.

When we were unloading the packs from the car, I reached for Tony’s and that fucker didn’t move. Despite a winter of weightlifting and being in the best shape I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t budge his pack. Tony hefted it with a grunt and put it on. I made a joke of being happy he was carrying that one rather than me. Mark, a former Army Ranger, pointed out the old adage that the pack gets lighter with every mile as you slowly eat the food you’re carrying. Tony, a former Navy meteorologist, said that this sounded like some Army bullshit but that he hoped so.

Otago Rail Trail Map with kilometer distance between landmarks. Follow along to track our misery. (courtesy of otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz)

And so we began walking from the former Middlemarch train station toward our first navigation point, Ngapuna. As I previously, mentioned a little girl with a camcorder captured our departure. As we later discovered, this was the mayor’s daughter. The mayor wanted to make sure there was documented evidence just in case we died. That’s New Zealander courtesy and hospitality right there.

An hour or two later, we took our first snack break off the side of the trail at Ngapuna, leaning against a fence, we cracked open our packs. I brought out my Swiss army knife, some cheese and a salami I’d picked up in Dunedin that morning. Mark had an energy bar of some sort. Tony took out a full bottle of red wine, three camping wine glasses (this being very decadent at the time), silverware, crackers, cheeses, terrine, and his first mini baguette. Mark and I boggled at him and I asked if that bottle was going to last him the whole hike. He looked at me like I was a dumbass, “Pfft, no. I figured a case worth on the trail would last us until we got to wine country and can restock.” Now I knew why I couldn’t shift his bag. We finished up and got moving down the trail again.

This is where things get tricky as the maps my memory recalls from 2003 had a different name for a town at the next stop than what is on the current map, Rock and Pillar, but I do not remember what that name was. The planning we had done said here was a small town we could stop on the trail after a leisurely 14km before some of the longer days ahead of us. A beer or three, some dinner, maybe camping outside, maybe there’d be rooms at the pub.

There were no rooms at the inn. There was, in fact, no inn. There was nothing but a small shed and the plains of Strath Taieri, overshadowed by the tall granite hills that we were just starting to notice had a persistent, maddening wind down blowing from. It was here that we realized that the maps we had might reflect historical towns that weren’t there anymore. We took out the maps to figure out what the next place with definitively stated lodging was and, this was key, that all the maps agreed existed. This appeared to be the town of Hyde, another 14km away, a surprise doubling of the distance of our first day. The point of the short first day was to ease us into it, especially me who wasn’t really accustomed to long distance backpacking. With heavy hearts and packs, we resumed the hike but without quite the same spring in our step.

We trudged away from the Town That Wasn’t, following the trails through another 14km of farms. Not long into this next leg, we encountered some sheep and we were clearly the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to them. I know this because they ran ahead of us, shitting in abject terror, most of the way. I had no idea sheep contained that much poop but that smell has never left me after following, collecting more and more sheep, and frightening an entire flock for quite some time, as the unending wind blew the smell into our faces. I managed to forget it for a few years until I had my first glass of bad scrumpy in Exeter, which was like drinking the smell of that hike. Somewhere around kilometer 18, I started noticing a twinge in my right hip which got progressively more and more painful as my iliotibial band slowly seized up. I started dropping further and further behind Mark and Tony, but we were already well past the point of no return. This is when it officially became the Otago Rail Trail Death March in my head, as I had to make it to Hyde or die trying.

Unfortunately, what was waiting for us in Hyde was the GLORIOUS FUTURE, except that in the present the Hyde Inn was closed for renovations to greet all the bicyclists doing the Orago Rail Trail next season. The despair really hit when we crossed the highway and learning no town was there either. There was a picnic table on the side of the road as this was effectively a trailhead. So, we put down our packs, sat down at the table to look at the map and see what the next step was and saw that the next town was another 20km+ down the trail. This was the critical error for me as ceasing movement caused everything that had been protesting for the last 10km to lock up and fail. The attempt and immediate failure to get back up, gracelessly falling onto my pack rather than kneeling down in the process, meant I had to call hiking for today. There was no hope to get to the next town for me and I was quite happy to camp and/or die on the shoulder of the highway if needed because I wasn’t able go any further.

Mark and Tony decided that the only answer was to try to hitchhike. I pointed out that no one in their right fucking mind was going to pick us up. The highway running from Dunedin to Queenstown is comparable to Highway 50 running from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, if it also spent half it’s time going through the wine country of Napa & Sonoma. There were a hell of a lot of two-seater BMWs and Porsches moving at high speed to get to the slopes and wineries. They sure as hell weren’t stopping for three sweaty backpackers that still had South Pole Madness in their eyes. While Mark and Tony tried to hitchhike and argued about the best ways to do it, I saw a building nearby and I limped down to what I discovered was a sheep transfer station in hopes of…anything. Really, I have no idea. There was a building with other humans in it and I was broken. I hoped for mercy of some sort, even if it was just a swift death to end the increasingly excruciating pain. Instead, what I got was an ice cream sandwich from their freezer as they asked what we were doing. The humorous exchange of “We’re hiking the Otago Rail Trail”, “Bike?” from the Fisher & Paykel store repeated itself here as I tried to explain our failure. The very kind station manager said “Bruh, you fucked up” (oh, I knew) and told me to go get the other guys because they’d give us a ride back down to Middlemarch in a sheep truck, as long as we didn’t mind the mess from the last load. We most certainly did not.

As we rode in the back of the truck bouncing back down the highway to Middlemarch where the driver lived, he radioed ahead to the town and had them open up one of the empty houses for us to crash in and light the water heater. When he dropped us off, the driver told us to walk over to the Middlemarch Pub if we were up for it after we had a chance to clean up and rest. Let me tell you, I have never had a more luxuriant, pain easing hot bath in my life. With great difficulty, despite the long hot bath, I hobbled over to the pub with Mark and Tony. As we entered, it was a full house and we were welcomed with a shout of “STUPID FUCKING AMERICANS!!!” because yes we were. Even the little girl that filmed us departing was there. At this point, I have to admit that memories of the evening get a bit foggy because I was exhausted and was introduced to the second beer I’d ever liked at that point in my life called Otago Strong. No idea who makes it, never saw it again, but it was flowing freely from that tap once I got put behind the bar by the publican after Tony mentioned I’d been the bartender at Pole.

We left the following day after breakfast on the entirely reasonable basis that if we didn’t leave, there’s a good chance we never would. Mark had already gotten an offer to do some electrical work on a farm and we’d been introduced to the Middlemarch Surfing Club. (NOTE: Middlemarch is nowhere near the waves, and it’s really just an excuse for farmers to go drink beer and smoke weed in a shed.) In an alternate timeline, I’m probably a plumber and still running the pub in Middlemarch. Tony is probably an exotic dancer in Queenstown as you can’t keep him down on the farm.

As I learned later, I had strained the iliotibial band on my right side by overexertion. This gave me a slight limp for the rest of my time in New Zealand and it still acts up to this day if I overdo it or go too long without enough sleep. It’s my little reminder that thorough research and paying attention to cues is important. You’ll end up crippling your dumbass if you don’t.

Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 1

Because I promised I would write this up when I found time, and was rather annoyed to find out that I hadn’t already done so, here you go. It’s a tale as old as time: three men set out on an adventure they are not prepared for and suffer in a hilarious manner. Really, since this was during our time in New Zealand after a year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I kinda feel like we were paying homage to the early Antarctic explorers and their misadventures.

TL;DR Version: You should absolutely bike the Otago Rail Trail. It’s gorgeous and is the best way to enjoy the Hills of Rohan and the Walls of Moria. DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID.

My Fellow Victim of the Otago Rail Trail, Tony, the Sexiest Man at Pole 2002-2003.

This story begins in the bar at New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is on the other side of the hill from McMurdo. I had gotten marooned in McMurdo for a bit waiting for my ship to come in with a large dewar of liquid helium, and I wasn’t particularly welcomed to help the science tech assigned to McMurdo, I kind of drifted to helping the New Zealand Antarctic Program a bit. The atmospheric scientist who was there, Becs, had two important suggestions for me when I got back to New Zealand:

  1. That I should make the acquaintance of KAOS (Killing As Organized Sport) when I got back to Christchurch. That they were my people and I should go unto them. The current state of their page confirms that still.
  2. The Otago Rail Trail had just opened up, it was awesome, and a great way to see New Zealand from the sea to Queenstown, AKA the Lake Tahoe of New Zealand. For the record the website for the Otago Rail Trail is much more detailed now than it was 16 years ago, when it was pretty much “This is a map with few details and some towns. Here ya go.”

Over the subsequent months during the Long Night, sitting at the bar of Club 90 South, one of the frequent topics of conversation was what vacation plans you were making for when you finally got off the Ice. Many people were planning round the world trips that would land them right back in Christchurch in time to start their next winter at Pole. Tony, Mark and I didn’t have globe trotting plans, but there were going to be some good times in New Zealand. We looked at the map (remember: less detailed than the current one), saw that there were towns at fairly regular intervals, making this a very nice backpacking/pub crawl from Middlemarch on the coast to Queenstown.

…at least, that’s what it looked like on the map with Yahoo Maps cross-referencing (Google Maps was still two years in the future). Because it was a NZ Department of Conservation brochure, much like a US National Park Service map, it had highlights. It certainly didn’t have all the towns that Yahoo Maps popped up on the way along the trail.

And so after our return to Christchurch and a week of thawing out, we picked up a rental car, drove down the Pacific coast to Dunedin and then took the turn up to Middlemarch, the coastal terminus of the Otago Rail Trail. Middlemarch wasn’t and still isn’t a big town. It had ~200 people in 2003. At the time, the town consisted of the old train station, which was the start of the rail trail, the Middlemarch Pub, and the Fisher & Paykel store that specialized in farm equipment (it also doubled as the post office, video store…everything, really). We parked in the side lot and walked in to ask the nice lady running the joint if she minded if we left our car in her lot for a week or so while we hiked the Otago Rail Trail. The exchange went like this:

F&P Lady: Where’s your bikes, lads?
Tony: We don’t have any. Like I said, we’re hiking the rail trail.
F&P Lady: Bike?
Tony: Hike.
F&P Lady: [still confused] Bike?
Me: [over-enunciating] HIKE.
F&P Lady: Ohhhhh, you’re hiking. Alright, then. Park as long as you like.

It was an odd exchange. It got odder when we got our packs out of the car and walked over to the trailhead/defunct train platform. A small girl was there with a camcorder. She wanted to film us as we took headed out and waved goodbye. It felt oddly final and creeped us out a bit.

The Middlemarch Death March had just begun. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!

Antarctic Medical Evacuation 2003

I’m putting this here to, potentially, stop questions.

I, honestly, remember near to nothing about the medevac we had in late 2003. Hypothyrodism due to protracted exposure to cold and dark takes a lot of forms and mine was memory loss and appalling Yoda like grammar. I remember very little about September 2003 and near to none of October other than excruciating frostbite at the very end.

I remember two people leaving. One due to a serious medical issue and one who wanted out before he got lynched.

I remember a plane basically didn’t stop moving for fear it would freeze up and never move again.

I remember a BBQ that needed a continuous propane torch to keep burning because it was too cold to go otherwise. That probably has nothing to do with the medevac flight.

I know there is another one happening now in the 2016 winter season, in the dead of austral winter. September was bad enough, but at least the continent was warming up at that point. Late June, right after Midwinter really, is as bad as it gets. Wish them well, everyone. This is dangerous as all fuck and they wouldn’t even attempt if it wasn’t dire.

Regarding Breathalyzers in Antarctica

As I have been asked by a number of people about the latest Office of Inspector General’s report, and in the case of Wired they interviewed me and generated a very cherry picked set of quotes designed for maximum clickbait, allow me to share my collected thoughts about it here. TL;DR version: the NSF response to the audit is good and proper in my opinion, not that my opinion is all that important, though I’d worry about breathalyzers a bit.

  1. Remember there are three different groups of people going to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation: grantees (research staff paid by NSF grant, AKA beakers, from various institutions around the world), contractor (station support staff paid by any of a number of management contractors and subcontractors), and military (the Air National Guard provides flight support and the Navy Cargo & Handling Group does ship offload). That said, the NSF has overarching responsibility for all the operations going on there.
  2. Compared to contractor personnel, grantees going to the continent have a “license to kill”. This is not to say they are unsupervised or lack any repercussions for their actions, but the chain of command over them and enforcement for infractions is looser. This is supposed to be intentional over the whole population to leave the latitude to manage a small and remote crew with as much flexibility as possible through the long winter. The NSF Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that no contractor is allowed to be looser than, but in practice the contractor has much more management staff on site to enforce their corporate policies, which tend to be more strict than the NSF. It’s a matter of perspective.In my opinion, the NSF has been doing the right things to keep things open enough that the program is responsive to needs as they arise. Codify things too tightly in the safety of an office back at home and you may be inadequately prepared for problems as they come up.
  3. The station managers are deputized as special Deputy US Marshals to deal with the worst contingencies of human behavior that can happen in a remote place. This isn’t exactly law enforcement and it sure isn’t part of the day to day duties of a station manager; it’s an emergency response role. Response to incidents that require using this aspect of their duties is something I suspect is documented quite well and rare.
  4. The idea of using of breathalyzers for cause by managers to insure fitness for duty isn’t all that out of the ordinary anywhere in the American workplace, particularly under government contract. The weird thing for the Antarctic stations is that your workplace also is your home. What you do in your own time should be up to you, but for South Pole Station the population is small enough that there are no separate emergency responders. If you’re in no shape to respond to an alarm going off, that’s a tricky problem. Can I be upset with you for not being respond outside of your regular work hours?During work hours, just like anywhere else in the world, if you’re staggering up to a piece of heavy equipment because you just had a three martini lunch, people are going to notice and have cause. If you’re so badly hungover from the night before that you can’t clearly see which buttons do what on a console, same deal, testing for cause. Your boss would be delinquent in their duties if they didn’t pull you aside and send you to the doc.
  5. Now, whether those breathalyzers are going to work properly on the Antarctic Plateau is another question entirely. You’re hard pressed to get most manufacturers to certify equipment for high altitude, very low humidity, or temperatures below -40 and without that certification any actions you take based on the results will lack foundation. Hell, I couldn’t even get the manufacturer of my “arctic expedition grade sunglasses” to give me assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart at Pole. That said, it can be done, but it’s going to require some testing. The contractor says they’ve found one that will work without calibration so all the better. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make this happen for almost any gear.
  6. The bar culture of Antarctica is not a bad thing and it had the best interests of the crew in mind when established by the US Navy. Thousands of jokes about sailors aside, the Navy has long experience of how to manage crews in tight quarters, morale building, and how to blow off steam. Acknowledging that people were going to drink, the bars were created make sure they were drinking safe booze rather than homebrew hooch (which happens when you go “dry”) and to bring people together to reduce consumption. You might not think of a bar as a place for moderation of drinking, but it gives your fellow crewmates a chance to watch out for you. If you’re drinking alone in your room, and hoo nelly is that a bad sign, there isn’t any potential for the positive aspects of peer pressure to help rein you in or ask if you’re doing alright.When I got asked why I wouldn’t cut people off, it’s because I was much happier for them to pass out in front of me in the warmth and safety of the bar than have them “finish the job” alone or, worse, lose consciousness in the cold on their way back to their room. Really, the bar is a safety mechanism.

Carbon Dating Primer

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

This was originally written on June 16th, 2012 after my family’s Father’s Day viewing of  “Prometheus”. It was then published in the final issue of Coilhouse. The editor of Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos, immesuarably improved my words by adding excellent illustrations, such as the one to the right.

Hollywood, we need to talk about your dating habits. In particular, how important it is to have a reference to verify ages before you get in trouble. No, I’m not talking about the hypersexualization of 12 year old girls trying to pass for 18. Nor am I talking about the 60-somethings trying to pass for 18 as well. That is a totally separate head shaking situation.

I would like to blame the movie Prometheus for this rant, but they’re hardly the only guilty party; it’s just the one that finally made me snap. Hollywood, you don’t understand how carbon dating works, that there are other dating methods that sometimes work better, and that the true (unattainable) goal is to find the perfect point of reference to scale them all against. But underlying all of that is a body of scientific work and assumptions that you’ve conveniently ignored in the interest of “character driven plot”. But I have news for you: your characters and your plot make less sense when you take these shortcuts. And when you do this people become confused as to what science and technology actually are, to the point that we have to deprogram juries and judges of the CSI Effect in capital punishment trials because Reality. Just. Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.

You have science advisers. You ignore them at your peril. To quote Atomic Robo‘s Brian Clevinger, “What’s particularly frustrating is that it takes so little effort to find the intersection between plausible science and your fiction such that the audience will go along with everything.”

I’m here to help though. I’m giving you this quick primer on dating methodology, and the humorous ways they fail, for free. Of course, you get what you paid for.

We start by discussing cosmic bombardment. No, not “Nuke ‘em from orbit” Ripley-style, although I like the way your mind works, but rather the continuous rain of high energy particles blasting from The Great Beyond.  By far the biggest source is our own sun, but that just because it’s so close. But we also have all our neighboring suns of the Milky Way, many of which are much larger and energetic than ours, and the monstrous galactic core belching stripped nuclei at relativistic speeds at us. Oh, then there’s the entire rest of the universe, supernovae, black holes and all, sending nuclei (mostly hydrogen & helium) at us at 99.999% of the speed of light, exploding in particle physics collisions with our atmosphere. The atomic fragments of this are still energetic to have a half dozen more of these collisions. This is what is known as the “cosmic ray air shower”. NOTE: at no point in the process do you create the Fantastic Four.

Next, let’s tackle radioactivity and isotopes. For any given element, its chemical properties are dictated by the number of protons, and thus electrons, that it has. Chemically speaking, you can have any number of neutrons you want in the nucleus and it will still be the same element; those different mass nuclei with varying numbers of neutrons are known as “isotopes” of that element. However, nuclei with too few or too many neutrons are unstable and they will shed energy, in the form of light or ejected particles, to try to achieve a stable nuclear arrangement. This is radiation. An isotope that emits energy in this manner is “radioactive”.

For the bonus round, the particles generated by the cosmic rays can interact with the stable nuclei of the atmosphere to create new radioactive isotopes. Carbon-14 (or as I will shorthand it from now on, C-14) is one of the many naturally occurring isotopes, in this case generated in the atmosphere due to the cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen-14 with neutrons. Cosmic ray bombardment of Earth does vary with latitude and the Earth’s magnetic field but due to atmospheric and water mixing, the ratio of radioactive C-14 to plain old stable C-12 is considered to be constant through in the environment.  When an organism dies, no new C-14 is taken into its tissues and it starts to radioactively decay away.  We can date thus things based on the changing ratio, relative to the half-life of C-14 (5712 years).

“How does this all relate to dating?” you may ask. Through some rather painstaking observation, we’ve been able to establish that any given radioactive isotope decays away to stable ones at a constant rate (the time until only half of the starting amount is left is known as the half-life). If you know how much of the radioactive isotope you started with and observe what’s left, you can then calculate how much time has passed. Simple, right? All I need to do is go measure how much C-14 is left compared to normal non-radioactive C-12 and, bam, I know old the thing is. Let’s examine the underlying assumptions of let C-14 dating techniques. Please remember that anytime the words “every”, “always”, and “only” appear in assumptions, one should be wary:

  1. A living thing has the same concentration of C-14 in it as everything else in the world, right up until the moment it dies.
  2. C-14 concentrations are the same everywhere on Earth and always have been the same.
  3. C-14 is being created in the atmosphere at a constant rate by a cosmic ray bombardment that has always been the same.
  4. Cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14 production.
  5. We have a KNOWN C-14 reference point in time to calculate against calibrated to our calendar.

To seemingly completely change gears on you, My Lovely Assistant found this article regarding the oddity of the Dry Valleys near McMurdo in Antarctica.  I would like to bring your attention about two thirds of the way down to the picture of the Most Important Seal Carcass EVAR.  “Why is this most important seal carcass”, I hear you ask, “Do you have the brain worms again?”  No, I don’t but let me explain myself.  It is important because:

  1. It is a good example of the danger of doing science and not questioning your assumptions.
  2. It is used as a basis of support for Young Earth Creationism (YEC) that is less shaky than the idiocy of carbon dating dinosaur bones and I want you to be able to call bullshit on it.

Carbon dating is not perfect.  First, you need to calibrate the carbon “clock”.  We’ve done this by comparing the carbon ratios in organic matter that we are pretty sure of the age of, such as tree rings.  In particular, we tie specific events we know the date of, like volcanic eruptions in the historical record, and a particularly ashy tree ring. Sadly, we have no trees older than ~6000 years.  Second, your ratio is only as good as your ability to detect AND count the beta radiation from the decay of C-14.  The amount of C-14 in the environment is minuscule, hard to detect, and it doesn’t get any easier as there is progressively less of it.  After about ten half-lives (~60000 years for C-14), we in the radiation detection game declare a radioactive isotope to be effectively gone.  Really good mass spectrometry equipment can see beyond that, but the error bars on the measurements get progressively larger as you have less and less material to work with.  For this reason, we add spikes of C-14 to bring really old samples out of the background noise.

For these reasons, carbon dating is best used within the last 6000 years or so and gets progressively less accurate the further back you go.  Beyond 60000 years, your dating is more or less useless.  If anyone tells you they carbon dated something and got a date older than 60000 years, you are allowed to call bullshit on them or you should closely examine their method and decide if you need to award them the Nobel Prize.

This should go without saying, but carbon dating is useless on something that wasn’t organic material to begin with.  If you want to be really, really picky you could point out that limestone and calcite, both being calcium carbonate, were originally teeny tiny organisms’ shells so they’re organic material, right?  I would give you the finger for being a smartass, albeit a correct one.  However, it tends to take more than 50000 years to create a limestone deposit.  Sure, I can go hit the tops of coral reefs for samples but I don’t have to drill very deep on the reef to find coral too old to accurately date.

Back to Antarctica…

Down in the Dry Valleys, there was a researcher had been passing by this seal corpse every day and decided “Dammit, I want to know how old this thing is” and took a sample for dating.  The corpse read as being about 10000 years old.  This was somewhat mindblowing as the specific seal carcass was a modern seal. The problem cropped up when they dated a bit of seal from a recently collected sample to help calibrate the carbon dating “clock” for the local area.  The fresh sample, from a living seal that unhappily flopped away, dated as being 2000 years old.  Uh oh…

Sharing these results, this turned into an immediate proof for refutation of carbon dating, and thus all science that might suggest an Earth older than Bishop Usher’s estimate, by the YEC believers.  A simultaneous contradictory thought accepting carbon dating commonly held by YEC that carbon dating of dinosaur bones shows them to fall in the last 10000 years.  They generally fail to discuss the likely contamination from sample collection (say, perhaps, plaster…) and that DINOSAUR BONES ARE FUCKING ROCKS, NOT ORGANIC SAMPLES. Sorry, I get excitable about these things.

Scientists, on the other hand, were very puzzled by the discrepancy.  They repeated the experiment several more times.  Except for elephant seals and orca, every time they sampled a local organism, they kept getting an anomalously old carbon date.  The exceptions were what broke the mystery; every other organism they sampled did not leave the Southern Ocean on its migration.  From this, we learned to question the underlying assumption of carbon dating, that the C-14/C-12 ratio was constant in the environment.  It’s not.

Imagine, if you will a place that is very cold, and isolated from the global carbon cycle due to the austral circumpolar flow of air and surface water.  Relative the carbon cycle, it is an island.  There is deep flow of the cold water along the ocean floor to Antarctica, but it takes centuries to get there.  The low intensity of the high angle cosmic ray bombardment on Antarctica means there is less locally produced C-14 inside of the isolated area.  Antarctica is a naturally C-14 poor environment.  Relative to the carbon dating calibration curves of the rest of the world, everything looks ancient.

From this we also learned that our numbers get skewed in the vicinity of volcanoes; they’re big CO2 carbon output from very old carbon locked in the Earth’s mantle that ends up saturating the local environment. So, while it’s great to use that nice ash layer in a tree ring to help set your chronology clock, you might not want to carbon date that specific ring when choosing your samples. Also, we figured out that we have completely screwed up carbon dating for the future (without creating major correction factors) by dumping huge amounts of most venerable carbon into the global cycle by burning fossil fuels.

Humanity also kind of, sort of, if you want to be really picky, manufactured a bunch of C-14 through nuclear testing that we’ve blasted into the atmosphere that negates the assumption that cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14. For this reason, when we do carbon dating “The Present” is defined as January 1, 1950. It’s the consensus date the scientific community could agree upon where, after that, we’d muddied the waters with nuclear blasts too much to do dating. Because I’m funny that way, I created a word to describe this: nuclearche, the onset of nuclear activities that are widely observable in the geologic record. Truly, we live in the Anthropocene Epoch and the pulse of interesting isotopes and their decay products will be the signpost that the geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists of the future uplift raccoons society will use to study our times.

(I might be wrong about the raccoons. It could be crows. It pays to be nice to your future corvid overlords now.)

To bring this all back to complaining about the science of Prometheus, all of this goes out the window when you leave Earth. All those assumptions don’t hold true 100% on Earth, much less another planet. We established the primordial radionuclide dating system thanks to meteorites, which we assume (assumption 1) are made from the same uniform mixture of starstuff (assumption 2) that condensed into the solar system. These systems might work for Mars, but you have no idea what an alien solar system’s chemical and isotopic make up is. We have no signposts for alien worlds. Sure, we could take the time to establish what the C-14 generation rate on a given planet is, but we have no frame of reference when we first get there.


When the good doctors date the corpse of the Engineer’s head and body they discovered with the Magical Dating Stick of Science, they immediately come up with 2000 years. The only way that possibly makes works is if he was born and bred on Earth, made of atoms from Earth, went to LV-223 in a vessel with no cosmic ray bombardment, and then died promptly on arrival without breathing or eating much of anything on that moon.

And this all is what went rattling through my brain and distracted me from the rest of the otherwise very pretty movie. Not nearly as bad as when I stood up in the middle of The World Is Not Enough and yelled at the screen, “THEY NEVER LOOK LIKE THAT!” to scantily clad Denise Richards when she introduced herself as an IAEA nuclear physicist.

But that’s a rant for another time.

Alcoholism in Antarctica

This is a post over two months in the making as it’s pulled together some hard times from Pole. I hope it helps someone. While I stand by what I’ve done and my justifications, I can’t say they give me great comfort.

Today is Midwinter in Antarctica. It is one of the most important dates on the calendar because it means you’ve hit the halfway mark of the Long Night and every day from here is one closer to the sun coming back above the horizon. You might think this is cause for jubilation. While it was certainly the reason for a feast and party, the more common reaction was “Fuck. It’s only halfway through winter. At least four months until the station opens again. Fuck. Pour me some more whiskey, dammit.”

I once gave a presentation to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where I opened, “Hi, I’m Phil Broughton. I’m not an alcoholic but I am a compulsive bartender.” From there, I told a tale of alcoholism and enabling from the perspective of a safety professional serving people booze to oblivion. In my previous tales of the Ice, I’ve discussed the fun associated with being at the end of the Earth, rivers of ions swimming in the sky over head, and a cocktail in your hand. This has generated a lot of fine detailed questions about the drinking culture of the continent which I’m going to try to tackle with one post. But it’s also time to discuss when that goes wrong, because when you’re 14000mi from home there’s a lot that can go truly horribly wrong. There are times I still wish we’d had a chaplain down there like they did in the Navy days but, alas, there was me. I like to think I did right, at least well enough, by people that were hurting.

Whichever US station you were at dictated how and what alcohol was available to you. Each of the three had a ship store from which you could by whatever sinful products of comfort you wished: liquor, beer, wine, smokes, soda, Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies, etc. One of the stereotypical flags that you might have a problem with alcohol is that you’re in your room drinking alone. The Navy knew this, which is why the bars were built; if you’re going to be consuming alcohol, you need to do it in public where everyone else is watching. McMurdo, being the largest station, was also unique among the stations for having three bars that all charged for drinks. Barbaric, I say. South Pole and Palmer Stations operated on the “bring some, take some” honor system. You want to drink in Club 90 South, you better put a bottle up on the shelf or beer in the case now and then. No one really said anything, but yes a silent tally of your consumption versus contribution was being made in the heads of your comrades. I formalized the honor bar a bit by making broadcast announcements of what the bar was lacking so that when the ship store opened on Saturday afternoon people could make sure we were well stocked for the evening and through the next week (this didn’t necessarily go over well with management as it was seen as encouragement).

I’ve been asked when the bars opened. Again, depended on the station. McMurdo’s bars had specific hours that they were opened to serve the various shifts and you as customer were supposed to attend the correct bar accordingly. I don’t know about Palmer, but Club 90 South at Pole was open 24/7/365. Not that I was there 24/7/365, mind you; my bartending duties were purely a volunteer matter which guaranteed me a chair when I showed up in the bar. At first during the summer it was just Saturday nights, but by the time winter rolled around I was up there most every night doing my thing for folks. This is the joy of an honor bar; come on in any time, no one’s gonna charge you, so help yourself. You are, of course, supposed to be working during the day but if it’s just you in the bar, and no one’s keeping a tab, who’s to say you were even drinking? (this is a very Zen alcoholic justification) The answer: me, when I find you passed out on the floor with a toppled barstool beside you when I come to “open” the bar at 8pm.

Antarctica’s problem is that you’ve run as far as a person possibly can to “escape”. I heard about every relationship shattered by the distance to the Ice…and all the ones that ended before you even thought about coming to Antarctica. The strings of jobs and towns abandoned as you tried to make a new start, a new life, in the next town, or state, or country over. But once you get to Antarctica, there’s simply nowhere further to go. Then the station closes for the winter with no more flights for nine months. When things start going wrong for you again, because the common denominator in all the situations you’ve fled from is you, you’re trapped. So you’d better get acquainted with yourself OR you can just drink yourself to oblivion and kill the days so that you aren’t even there. I’m not going to put a number on how many people took the latter route, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any that really made the former work.

I recall pouring glass after glass of Crown Royal for a person that, against all odds, was still managing to sit on a stool and semi-coherently ask for another drink. There were three people that individually pulled me aside and said, “Dude. STOP SERVING HIM. He is so far gone it’s not even funny.” Assuming they remember, as it was a decade ago, they were drinking too, and the ravages of hypothyroidism in Antarctica on memory, they probably still blame me for serving irresponsibly. I had a different perspective. I try to keep in mind and control the most serious danger and deal with the other ones as they come up. The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide him over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85F night. I was doubly happy to be serving him in the bar rather than have him get to this state, or worse, alone where something dumb/wrong might happen and no one would be able to help him until it was far too late.

So, yes, I ended up cleaning up more than my fair share of puke from my fellow Polies that were in a bad way. I apologize for any bruises I may have given manhandling them into chairs or onto couches because I wasn’t going to let them lie on the floor. But I am happy to say very few people had to shamefully look at their vomit permanently frozen into the ice, until painstakingly chiseled out so that the crew wasn’t embarrassed when the new people arrived. And no one, no one, had to be treated for hypothermia and frostbite due to getting drunkenly disoriented or passing out in the cold.

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA "The Dragon", with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA “The Dragon”, with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Oh, the Crown Royal. One of those odd things that just happens, any bartender will tell you this, is that bars have peculiar booze consumption characters. That there will be a type of alcohol that sells remarkably well in one bar but doesn’t even move in the bar the next block down. Or, for similarly unknown reasons, a college town bar will see that each different year progressing through college has it’s signature booze, i.e. the class of 2014 all order dry martinis, but the class of 2015 is all Jaegerbombs, all the time. For the South Pole 2002-2003 winterovers, the booze of choice was Crown Royal, I think because of the lovely felt bags the bottles came in. Every time a new bottle was opened, the bag got suspended from the Christmas lights over the bar, slowly making a curtain. In the picture to the above, taken January 2002, it was still pretty sparse up there; by July, one of the communications techs took down about 50 of the bags to make a quilt. There were so many by then that we didn’t even notice.

A fair question I’ve been asked is “How did you get all that booze down there? What did you have? Was there non-alcoholic anything?” At Pole & McMurdo, you could buy hard liquor, wine, beer, and soda from the ship store, though as memory serves we had a better variety at Pole though not the same vast inventory. It is telling that the very first cargo pallet that came off the plane when I arrived at Pole on the opening flight was nothing but beer (my luggage didn’t arrive for another two weeks).   While bulk cargo can be brought to McMurdo & Palmer by boat, everything that comes to Pole has to do it by plane. I would describe the variety of booze in the ship store as comparable to a middling supermarket. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see both sweet vermouth and Makers Mark on the shelf, because it meant that I didn’t bring the Angostura bitters in my luggage for nothing and that there’d would be manhattans to drink all the way through winter.

Actually, the fact that I was in no danger of running out of Makers Mark or sweet vermouth is an interesting point, given that the United States Antarctic Program and the contractor running the station had made a commitment to reduce alcohol dependence. Turning the stations dry was, frankly, out of the question, though it was threatened. During the offload of the cargo vessel in McMurdo by the NAVCHAPS (US Navy Cargo Handling And Port Services), all the bars and booze sales in the ship store shut down lest there be trouble, again, for the who knows how manyeth time. Of course, the research vessels constantly circumnavigating the continent are always dry vessels, not that this stops homebrewing in the finest of prison wine traditions on the boats. So, there was proof of concept that it was possible to go dry…but booze sales were a decent moneymaker for the contractor because, really, how many t-shirts are you gonna sell to each person? Alcohol, tobacco, and candy are consumables and have the possibility of repeat business that selling souvenirs lacks. People generally got some percentage of their paycheck paid to them on continent in cash and then promptly went to the ship store to buy booze with it.

As bartender that year, I was paying attention to our consumption rates and what things ran out when (something not done before, it seems) and, frankly, it wasn’t complimentary. Remember for this timeline, South Pole Station opened on October 30th with first flight and the station closed on February 14th, with several resupply flights coming in per day while the station was open:

  • Ran out of Dr. Pepper & Mountain Dew in late March
  • Ran out of red wine in early April. SEE ALSO: South Pole “Enhanced” Sangria
  • Ran out of Coke & Pepsi in mid to late April
  • Ran out of Diet Coke & Pepsi, 7-Up, and root beer in early to mid May
  • Ran out of tonic and Bailey’s Irish cream in July
  • Ran out of Crown Royal, Bacardi 151 and club soda in August
  • Ran out of all beer except the worst one (New Zealand’s Export Gold) by early September.
  • Ran out of Export Gold the night before first flight arrived and the station opened.

At the end of the year, we still had more hard liquor than you could shake a stick at on the shelves and in storage. Of the three we ran out of, this was due to irrational popularity (Crown Royal), a special item shipped down by a cargo manager one time, three years prior (151), and for only one of them, a bartender that made mixed drinks (Bailey’s). As a responsible bartender, I made a point of trying to alternate people’s booze with non-alcoholic options but I ran out of those damn early, other than water. We had quite a few varieties of New Zealand’s beers available but they dwindled away one by one through the winter, leaving only Export Gold by the end. Therefore, as the months wore on, the alcohol consumption not only increased in quantity, but it increased in alcohol content per drink. By the end, I was regularly tossing out 4-7 empty liquor bottles a night for a 6-12 people. This doesn’t jibe with a desire to reduce alcohol dependence and the letter I wrote to the USAP and Raytheon stating this got no response.

The other thing all this booze did was cause an extra rift in the station population. Antarctica has always suffered a cultural split between the “beakers” (researchers on NSF grants) and “support” (all the workers from the Contractor that operate/build the stations, i.e. everyone else). As support staff that very directly helped keep experiments up and running, I was in an odd bridging role that let me play in both camps. The new rift that revealed itself was the Teetotalers vs. the Drunks and it was a roughly 40/60 division in a winter station population of 58. I’m to understand that the bar became much more central in the life of the station my year than it normally was, and that might partially be my fault. It was a standing complaint from the Teetotalers that any event that happened always drifted to Club 90 South, or that the event just didn’t work because everyone was at the bar instead. Stitching these two groups together, which were almost but not quite broken along the traditional beaker/support lines, is a task our station manager had that I didn’t envy.

I’m to understand the solution that was implemented the following year was an HR representative from Contractor HQ that stayed for the whole winter to help with problems, by doing such things as sitting in the bar and monitoring drinking habits. When I was told of this plan I predicted the HR representative would be the Most Hated Person At Pole. The result was a lot of solitary drinking and little cohesion in the crew, which made for a very hard winter for everyone. Being at the bottom of the globe for a year, surrounded by two mile thick ice sheets, and no escape is hard enough without trying to do it alone.

While I have misgivings about my bartending and the things I saw in Antarctica, I still think it’s preferable to the alternatives.

EDIT: The original 2nd to last paragraph said “no cohesion in the crew”. As someone that was there the year after me was quick to point out this may also have been a function of a largest station winterover population ever, spread across the old Dome and the new berthing in the elevated station, separated by a decent hike and 96 stairs at ~10000′ of altitude. More people is an opportunity for more cliques so, by comparison, two major blocs looks cohesive next to a dozen or so smaller fractious groups. However, even one friend that isn’t a bottle is a better than none.

St. Patrick’s and ANZAC Days, 2003

ANZAC Memorial, Sydney Australia July 2010

April 25th means little to Americans other than, probably, waiting anxiously for whatever you ordered with your tax refund to arrive. But to the fine folk of Australia and New Zealand it is ANZAC Day which, generally, means a fall holiday. At the very least it is an excuse to have gunfire breakfast, AKA coffee spiked with a very respectable amount of rum, which is something I learned as retaliation for my observance of St. Patrick’s Day with my exceptionally Irish coffees.

For St. Patrick’s, I got up early, relatively speaking, checked my dewars and telescopes, and then went up to Club 90 South. I then spent the next five hours cleaning up months of accumulate detritus and generally ignored maintenance in the bar. FACT: one of the reasons bars are dimly lit is so you don’t have to clean them as thoroughly. Once cleaning was completed, I compiled the finest 14 hours of drinking music that the X Drive had to offer, and then decorated the bar with shotglasses and bottles of Jamesons. At 5pm, I pressed play on the tunes and poured myself some whiskey so that I would be ready to salute whoever came through the door as I poured them their shot.

It was good time. Eventually, people started biting beer cans and spitting torn aluminum at each other. That’s how good a time it was.

A little over a month later, our telescope mechanic and former New South Wales rugby prop walked into the bar a plunked down a bottle of something special he’d brought down in his luggage: a bottle of Bundaberg rum. I was familiar with and fond of Bundaberg’s ginger beer but had no idea they made a rum. Flavor-wise, it’s a grassy salty rum agricole similar to St. George Spirit’s Aqua Libre. I can’t possibly do justice to Allan’s accent which was so thick you could drown sheep in it, but when I asked what that was for he said, “Have a Bundy with me. It’s ANZAC Day.”

Turkish Artillery in the Morning – rum by Bundaberg, mug by R. Stevens of dieselsweeties.com

While I knew the history well, it was thus I was made privy to many of the modern cultural secrets of ANZAC Day, primarily the concept of the Gunfire Breakfast, which is coffee with sufficient rum added to it that you didn’t care about the guns anymore. In honor of that, and the fact that they’re running almost 20 hours ahead of the west coast of the US, I made myself a mug of gunfire breakfast with the Ipsento Panama BBotE and my bottle of Bundy I picked up three years ago in Sydney. This was, perhaps, not the best idea at 9pm but it was goddamn delicious and I hereby dub it “Turkish Artillery in Morning”. The recipe:

  • 1 part BBotE (I found the blueberry fruitiness of the Ipsento Panama went well)
  • 3 parts boiling water
  • 1 part agricole rum (grass, salty flavored rum that uses the whole cane)

So, to all those who fell at Gallipoli, all those that mourned them back home, and all those that returned short a few limbs or marbles, here’s to you. And to the people of Christchurch who had to endure me giving a damn long semi-inebriated lecture on the history of the Great War and why the Arch of Remembrance at the end of Cashel Street was there to my ignorant fellow American Polies in 2003, I apologize again.

With that, the band played Waltzing Matilda…

Station Closing – Settling Down For A Long Winter’s Nap

Ten years and eighteen days ago, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station closed for the winter, with the last LC-130 ski cargo plane departing the skiway on Valentine’s Day 2003. I watched it disappear from a mostly abandoned experiment in the Dark Sector (AKA the pie wedge extending from pole with all the telescopes in it). With the rapidly vanishing dot in the sky, I don’t know if anyone else felt it but the weight of 8-9 cold dark months finally settled down on me.

If this all was a terrible mistake, it had officially been made. There would be no escape. The last planes leave Antarctica when the temperatures start dipping below -50F and won’t return until the temperatures are reliably above that. Below -50F, we’re no longer entirely confident that we can keep the engines running (possibly freezing solid, ne’er to move again, should they stop), keep the skis from welding themselves to the ice, or that the JP-8 fuel won’t start to gel in the lines thus leading to tragic explosions. I list these things as they’re all incidents that have occurred in Antarctica or near Thule AFB in Greenland. It is also worth noting that the very first LC-130 is buried roughly 30′ under the snow where it crashed at the end of the skiway. Shit happens when things that would normally be a minor error can easily turn fatal at the hairy edge of safe operation. One of my favorite sayings when trying to teach radiation safety to recalcitrant undergrads, grad student, and postdocs is “Every safety regulation is written in someone’s blood. Try not make any new rules, okay?” My other favorite is “Stupidity is a harsh teacher and pain is Her lesson plan; not everyone is lucky enough or survives to get a second lesson.” but that one’s somewhat more insulting.

Antarctica, however, is the most unforgiving classroom. Every year, at least one person dies on the continent for failure to appreciate that Antarctica Does Not Care About You. Humans are only the apex predator at South Pole Station because absolutely nothing else except, maybe, bacteria can live there. On the coasts, you can get your ass handed to you by the goddamn penguins; the little bastards fly through water so don’t think for a moment that they aren’t a hell of a lot stronger than they look. The bruises I got on my shins from a 18″ tall adelie lasted for weeks; I’ve been told of the 4′ tall emperors breaking bones. The lack of fear of humans in all the animals of the Antarctic isn’t necessarily just because they have no experience of us, but rather that the average human isn’t much of a threat down there. We are a frail and feeble ape that is a few hours away from death in the environment that they happily live.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - Last Flight Out, Valentine's Day 2003

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station – Last Flight Out, Valentine’s Day 2003

All that and more went running through my head as I watched this through the viewfinder of my camera before the battery froze up.

I invite you to look long and hard at this picture. The VAST white expanse with a bunch of footprints I made. You can see something that looks like buildings in the background beyond the skiway that my last escape to civilization is leaving on. They aren’t buildings, they’re pallets of supplies on raised berms that can survive the average -85F temperatures that are coming in the winter. Almost enough equipment to rebuild the entire station. There’s enough food on those berms to survive three to five winters without rescue, depending on the size of the winter population (fifty eight questionably damned souls when I was there). Mind you, there isn’t enough fuel to keep the lights on, buildings warm, and water liquid for more than about 18 months…maybe.

So, it is vitally necessary to keep in your mind that YES, a plane is coming back for you to maintain sanity. Actually, that’s not true. Most of my compatriots weren’t thinking more than a day or two into the future, focused on the task at hand and whatever hobby they’d chosen. If there was ever a moment of existential crisis where someone started losing it because they were afraid they were going to be stuck at Pole forever, I never saw it. Maybe I did and that was one of the nights as Station Bartender that I served alcohol until someone reached sweet oblivion and killed one more day of winter which they didn’t have to remember on the way to Station Opening. It’s hard to say.

But what helps most people through hard times are customs. The Antarctic traditions run back to the early explorers with a strong naval slant, which means many of them are dumb, most of them involve alcohol, and some corporal punishment. After the last flight leaves, everyone goes back to their rooms to get ready for the Station Closing Dinner, something that’s happened every year since South Pole Station was established in 1957. I want you to all understand that the desire for adventure that brings people to the bottom of the Earth also brings some truly fantastic cooks. The man in charge of the food for the continent as whole while I was there was a Michelin starred chef from New Orleans, Cookie John. Despite the limitations of being at Pole, Closing Dinner may have been one of the finest meals I’ve eaten in my life. People bring tuxedos for this dinner despite the limited weight allowance. It is, in a word, a soiree.

After that, a more modern custom that dates to the early-1980s happened: the full station viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This movie is grossly inaccurate about how an Antarctic station looks like and is run, but let me tell you the mindsets are spot on. You want to know how are things are a few months deeper into winter, you need only watch this MacReady’s thousand yard stare as he fumbles with the bottle of whiskey. At the end of the movie, I turned to the station manager and pointed out that we were woefully under armed, particularly with respect to flamethrowers, for an American station. I’ll treasure the look he gave me for life as he realized he was trapped with me for nine more months.

You might have thought we’d watch The Shining. Goodness no. We saved that for Midwinter, along with Dark Star (not surprisingly, also by John Carpenter).

NEXT TIME: Winterizing the station, because you’re still not quite ready for it to get really cold.

The Antarctic Musical Tradition (AKA: NYE 2002)

What do people do when they are trapped with no possibility of escape or parole? An Antarctica station is not all that different from an old gulag in this respect; you’re welcome to try to flee, but the surrounding environment will kill you more surely than any guard will. To keep this properly nerdy, let’s have a quick word from the Warden of BEAUTIFUL Rura Penthe!

So, now that you have the proper vision of Antarctica as a frozen prison in your head, the leisure activities of choice are just what you’d expect in modern prison, e.g. weightlifting, art, reading, gambling, and music. As I recall from my tour of Alcatraz, one of the greatest privileges a prisoner could be granted was a musical instrument. Per the Institution Rules & Regulations of Alcatraz (1955):

46. MUSIC RULES: Musical instruments may be purchased if approved by the Associate Warden. Guitars and other stringed instruments may be played in the cellhouse in a QUIET manner only between the hours of 5:30 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. No singing or whistling accompaniments will be tolerated. Any instrument which is played in an unauthorized place, manner, or time will be confiscated and the inmate placed on a disciplinary report. Wind instruments, drums and pianos will be played in the band or Orchestra Rooms on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. At no time will you play any wind instrument in the cellhouse. Permission to play instruments in the Band, Orchestra or bathrooms may be granted by the Associate Warden to inmates in good standing. The Band room is a privilege and permission to play there must be requested from the Associate Warden. A limited number of inmates may be allowed to take musical instruments to and from the recreation yard. Permission must first be obtained from the Associate Warden. No inmate on “idle” status or on “report” or restricted will be allowed to use the Band Room, Orchestra Room or to take instruments to the yard. An inmate whose musical privileges have been restricted or revoked shall be removed from all musical lists, and his instrument stored in “A” Block until otherwise authorized by the Associate Warden. No inmate is allowed to give, sell, trade, exchange, gamble, loan or otherwise dispose of his personal or institutional instrument or to receive such from another inmate. Institutional instruments may be loaned to inmates in good standing upon the approval of the Associate Warden. All instruments will be listed on personal property cards. Institutional instruments shall be listed as “On Loan” from the institution, together with the date of the loan and the identification number of the instrument. Surplus parts for musical instruments together with and including extra sets of guitar strings shall be kept in “A” Block. Guitar strings shall be purchased in the regular manner and stored in “A” Block until needed. An old set of strings must be turned in to the cellhouse Officer to draw a new set.

South Pole Station’s rule was a little simpler: “Play it in the Music Room, or play it outside.” Given the choice, most people chose to stick to the small room in the Skylab tower of the Dome. I do know for a fact that at least one person decided that the Ceremonial Pole needed some mindblowing riffs with the Stratocaster and portable amp. Because if you can ROCK at the bottom of the Earth, you can ROCK anywhere.

But every year, people come to Antarctica with disparate musical abilities, some with their instruments. The IT guy from the previous post, arrived at Pole with his banjo and mixing turntable, presciently predicting the musical future eight years later. When you put more than two people and musical instruments together someone decides it’s a good idea to form a band. And, as we all know, the very first thing you do when you form a band is name it. Generally, the bands have US Antarctic Program topical names. A few samplings: NPX (the airport designator for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station), Clear and Copious (what the urine of a well-hydrated Polie should be), NPQ (“Not Physically Qualified”, justification from the screening period to not go south and/or stay the winter).

These bands were were ephemeral creatures of the Ice, disintegrating as people left the continent. While they were there though, they were an invaluable part of station festivities. Heck, this is been the case since the dawn of exploration when the harmonica quartet was an important part of sanity for Shackleton’s crew. The Scots cannae help but bring the pipes.

But what of the people with no instruments or particular musical talent, which included yours truly?

Such begins our tale on fateful day in early December 2002. Having finished my work in the Cryo Barn, I walked next door to bother my neighbors in the Balloon Shack (Meteorology launched at least two weather balloons a day using the reclaimed helium vent gas from my giant LHe dewars). Nobody was there. Still craving people to bother, I went to the next closest building, the Cargo Shed.

In the Cargo Shed, I found Tony, my favorite meteorologist, shooting the shit with the cargo handlers and eating their stash of cookies. One of the cargo guys, Forrest, had already been messing with his guitar in the Cargo Shed, somewhat to the annoyance of the ladies that were wrangling the manifests. The woman who set the chain of events to come in progress had been listening to her guilty musical pleasure on headphones from her computer as she did data entry. Forrest was lamenting that he didn’t have anyone to play with. We all stated, pretty emphatically, that there were dead penguins in McMurdo with more musical skill than us. It was about then that she got up, Patient Zero forgot she had headphones on and pulled it out of the jack, letting us hear the N Sync she’d been listening to the whole time.

In that moment it was revealed to us what we could do with our complete lack of musical talent: we could form Antarctica’s first lip synching boy band. There was some resistance, at first, to the idea:

Dan: I can’t sing.

Tony: You don’t need to! That the joy of lip synching.

Dan: I don’t think we have enough people.

Me: What are talking about? Five is the scientifically proven ideal boy band size. We even have all the requisite members?

Forrest: What do you mean?

Me: Look, you’re the All American Aryan. He’s the cute one. Dan, you’re the rugged one. Tony…

Tony: Go ahead, say it. I’m gonna hit you anyway.

Me: Tony’s the token minority.

Forrest: Well what are you?

Me: Isn’t it obvious? I’m the bad one. I have the goatee and everything.

And thus it began. First things first, we chose our name, the Antarcticly relevant -98 Degrees (my sister still groans at this name). N Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” was chosen as it was the song that had brought us together. We had a couple weeks of dance practice as even more important than lip synching is your choreography. I’m not gonna say we’d have impressed Paula Abdul, but we managed to not injure each other. But then we had to work one the important bits, like fan base. As proven by the Beatles, New Kids on the Block, One Direction and the immortal Fingerbang, the crowd of screaming ladies for the Garmlich Effect is vital. Luckily, we had plenty of willing accomplices for this, not the least of which being Patient Zero who thought this was the funniest thing ever.

For the grand New Year’s Eve party, the heavy shop garage was cleaned within an inch ofit’s life and turned into a stage, dance floor, and buffet. If I recall correctly, there were two different band and the mixmaster skills of DJ Banjo-IT between. Ending the evening, before the countdown, was -98 Degrees.

As we all gathered in the gym for our final preparations, along with our half dozen screaming fan accomplices, the Rugged and the Cute Ones were getting cold feet. I, wisely, had brought a bottle of Captain Morgan to provide the necessary liquid courage. Between us all, that bottle went away along with and everyone was ready to kick ass. Our accomplices left, our parkas went on, and the light in the garage we brought down.

Emerging from the light of the corridor came five completely parkabound men.

-98 Degrees: Their First & Only Performance of "Bye Bye Bye"

-98 Degrees: Their First & Only Performance of “Bye Bye Bye”

The crowd erupted into shrieks of delight and anticipation. As we walked forward, we hugged the throng on either side of the path to the stage, gave high fives, and signed autographs on body parts. We walked on stage, stood in a line, with hands crossed and heads down. It was dark and quiet, the music began. With the “Hey Heyyyyyy”, we stripped our parkas, threw them to the floor and it was ON.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is one of best displays of how little shame I have. Good luck trying to embarrass me, because I did this and rocked the shit out of it. Thank you and good night!

The South Pole Bar Albums, Volumes I-V

This is my holiday gift to you as I put together some other thoughts about Antarctica. A lot of things happened around New Years 2003, so they will take some collating. In the meantime, I have a YouTube playlist for you. While I was bartender at Club 90 South at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I was not it’s DJ. Two weeks into summer I walked into the bar, looked around, and saw the only available seat was behind the bar. So, I sat down and put my feet up on the beer case.

Random Polie: “Hey, get me a beer.”

Me: “Do I look like a fucking bartender?”

Random Polie: “You’re behind the bar…”

Me: *tosses him a beer from the case* “Whatever.”

Random Polie: “Hey, can you mix anything?”

Me: “As a matter of fact, I can.”

And there I stayed for the next 11 months after mixing that first manhattan.

Me, Club 90 South, Amundsen-Scott Station, 2003: Performing "The Dragon" by exhaling a mouthful of liquid nitrogen

Me, Club 90 South, Amundsen-Scott Station, 2003: Performing “The Dragon” by exhaling a mouthful of liquid nitrogen

I got to see and hear a lot behind that bar. I also became the unofficial barometer of mood for the station manager. As an honor bar, Club 90 South didn’t have a bartender like the bars in McMurdo, so mixed drinks didn’t usually happen before my tenure there; typically just whiskey and beer. Unfortunately, this also really cemented the barfly vs. teetotaler factions for that winter. Mixing between the groups was somewhat limited in the first place and got no better as the year wore on. Over the coming few Antarctica posts, we’ll discuss that a bit more.

The link to the playlist above is five CDs worth of music that I culled from our Winamp player for our most listened to songs over that year. I would like to reiterate that I was not in control of the music. I suggested many songs and as the person most likely to be in the bar at any given moment that winter, I have some honorable mention in presence of songs like Oingo Boingo’s “Insanity”, Royal Crown Revue’s take on “Beyond The Sea” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. Ultimately, control of the music was in the hands of the person sitting next to the keyboard for the computer installed in the wall of the bar connected to the, in 2003, 2TB jukebox of the X Drive on the server. This was typically the IT guy or the belligerent heavy equipment operator that liked tequila.

NOTE: Dear MPAA auditors searching for the X Drive, you will never find it. It is normally buried in the snow. Antarctica is big and mostly made of snow. Please accept that people at the ends of the Earth would like some music and that we collectively share what we’ve all brought down.

Some of these songs may be tied to specific people. Fore example, Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently” became the 2002-2003 Winterover Anthem thanks to one amazon Alaskan equipment operator/boat captain/pilot that demanded it be played for her during the summer. By the time winter hit, we had an entire drink in hand dance routine worked out for that song we loved it so. The song “Tribute” kind of came along for the ride.

David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Call Me By Name” is the Australian telescope mechanic and former New South Wales rugby prop that could drop a sheep dead with his flatulence at 20 yards. He was also fond of the Lee Kernaghan’s “Goondiwini Moon” but that’s not included on the albums.

The Geto Boy’s “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster” may be squarely laid at the feet of the very meek meteorologist who went a bit off the rails early. She loved that song.

The Dropkick Murphy’s “Spicy McHaggis” is my favorite electrician, Mark. He comes up prominently in many of my stories. In many respects, Mark and I were the same person that lived completely different lives. We got along like a house on fire, without actually committing any arson.

Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is Drew, the other IT guy. When not in Antarctica, Drew wrangled his family’s marina in Logan Harbor, ME. He brought this nautical disaster gem to us near midwinter and we adored it. Along with the construction manager’s love for Led Zepplin’s “No Quarter”, these two songs combined were for relaxed, leaned back in the chair, contemplation of the glass of whiskey.

As you look at the song list, you might notice some trends. I can’t help but see the repetition of the topics of madness, alcohol, and murder. Of course, I’ve been listening to these songs for the last decade and the music of Antarctica never leaves me. I can only hope you enjoy them, despite the ads that YouTube inserts.