Stupid Traditions – Cold, Naked and Dumb

This post was prompted by @nuclearanthro and @pinkrocktopus leading me to notice that I have never actually written down the tale of The 300 Club before. Certainly told it enough times in bars and pretty sure I did while doing Legos With Friends. But now here it is, committed to posterity for your reading pleasure.

When people think of Antarctica, they normally picture Shackleton and the Brave Gentleman Explorers stage of the continent’s history. However, these poor scurvy ridden men never really stayed and thus never built any continuity of culture on the continent. The whaling stations hung around longer but didn’t last to continue propagating their local All Whale, All The Time culture. An Antarctic culture, such that it is, didn’t happen until after the International Geophysical Year in 1957. That’s when year long habitation on the continent began and all the governing international bodies were established. But the culture on the ground wasn’t established by Antarctic treaty and the program managers heading their respective Antarctic programs, nor the first explorers, not even the transitory researchers. For the American program, the founding culture comes from the 1950-1980s enlistedmen of the Seabees of the US Navy. Please allow your imagination to go wild with the Venn diagram of Navy, very old Navy traditions, inventive construction workers, and all men in their early to mid 20s. Accordingly, the base culture of Antarctica got a firm fraternity-like stamp. As part of the de-Navifying the stations when the NSF took over, the vintage old porn that used to be all over the place got buried in giant tri-wall boxes (note the plural) somewhere in the snow.

But those are mere physical objects. Culture continues. I’m also happy to report that each station regards the other’s traditions as absolutely bonkers, why would you even try to do that?

If you live somewhere cold where lakes and rivers freeze over, you’re probably familiar with some version of the Polar Bear Club. Usually for charity, sometimes for sheer bloody mindedness, people will jump in holes cut in the ice and stay for some amount of time in the freezing water before getting back out again to warm up. Or against all sense and caution, jump in the Hudson River or off Navy Pier in December . If you rub some extra Slav or Scandahoovian on it, your next stop is a sauna/banya and then maybe back into the ice hole again. Accordingly the two coastal stations of the United States Antarctic Program, McMurdo and Palmer Stations, learned from their cold weather home sailors and they have the Polar Plunge. And because Navy, all traditions were levelled up to being done naked. While the name is the same, there are some important differences between the two.

McMurdo’s Polar Plunge is performed by going out onto the ice sheet on McMurdo Sound once it gets thin enough for the auger to bore out a hole in the ice, so 24″ thick or so. You then mount the confined space rescue tripod over the hole, put people into the harness, and then yo-yo them naked into the hole that is now trying to freeze back over. They get a full dunking and then right back up into towels, socks and parkas. Except more often than not the Plunge, which was advertised on bulletin boards all over the station, got cancelled due to “Excessive Fecal Matter” with a helpful pre-printed label (because it had happened so many times) covering the date.

You see, there used to be a design flaw in McMurdo’s infrastructure, one that was a little bit of an ecological disaster. No one regularly builds things to cope with Antarctica, usually going with the approach of “Whatever works in upstate New York, but with more insulation, I guess.” This usually isn’t good enough for places that thaw out never, so you start adopting Alaskan pipeline construction techniques and tricks from cold weather mining towns and it’s still not enough. Also, the Navy never really buys the good and correct things, instead relying on the ingenuity of their sailors to make it work. And so, the unsung heroes of McMurdo did their best to keep the water & sewage treatment plant running and all the pipes flowing. This is a very much a non-trivial task in any normal city and I want you to take a moment to appreciate what these folks did because shitting in a hole isn’t much of an option when the permafrost is right under the volcanic dust at your feet.

Anyway, the important thing to know here is that sewage used to flow untreated into McMurdo Sound. That sounds gross to 2021’s ears but until very recently it was also the norm around the western world. But it had a problem in the winter when there weren’t enough people flushing warm things down the toilets to keep things flowing out into the sound, so the outflow would freeze over. Every winter, McMurdo was effectively constipated but that was okay because there’re weren’t enough people there to make it a problem for those months. Every spring, the outflow would let go, releasing The Great Turd of McMurdo. The critters of the sound loved it as it was a giant warm nutrient input piling up beneath the outflow of the pipe. An ecosystem dependent on that shitpile sprung up, a clear violation of disturbing the wildlife in the Antarctic treaty. The warm part is important because that lets the biology keep going and to keep things warm, also warmer things float on top of colder things. Also, continuing biology leads to the evolution of sewer gas that can’t escape because it’s trapped under ice.

Sometimes when they got out there with the auger to make the hole for the Polar Plunge, they ended up freeing one of those pockets. The term that was shared with me to describe what this was like is “shit geyser”. So, yeah, definitely cancelled due to Excessive Fecal Matter.

NOTE: There’s a reason we made fun of all the low bid contractors for construction in Antarctica being based in Florida, Texas, and in the case of the design of Pole’s current elevated station, Hawaii. At least the operations contract was with folks in Colorado that might encounter snow now and then. For further discussion of pooping at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, please enjoy this essay.

Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), AKA pack hunting complete bastards, only orcas who eat them are scarier

At Palmer Station, just north of the Antarctic Circle, on the balmy Antarctic Peninsula things went a bit differently. It was still called the Polar Plunge but there’s no ice you need to punch through. Instead you get to run, naked obviously, down the ice dock, jump into the waters off of Anvers Island, and then swim back to the snow covered rocks of the shore. Easy, right? Assuming your body doesn’t fail you immediately on contact with the cold Southern Ocean water, those muscles have to keep working to get you all the way back. And you will want to get back quickly because unlike the other two stations, Palmer has abundant local wildlife. Local wildlife that has no particular fear of humanity and every reason to believe you might be food. As I’ve said before, Antarctica will absolutely kill you if you don’t respect it and the wildlife on the coasts will happily remind you that you aren’t the apex predator down here, especially in the water. To the right, I’ve helpfully included a picture of a nice bullet-headed leopard seal. Without seeing their cleaned skull, where the size and teeth are on full display, it really doesn’t do justice to the fact that they’re about the same size as African lions, they’re pack hunters, and are aggressive. There is a USAP budget line item for Zodiac repairs as the leopard seals have learned that if you bite and put a hole in the floaty bits you might be able to get to the juicy human center.

So, yeah, the Polar Plunge at Palmer has been known to get called due to Excessive Wildlife. Watching leopard seals play with a penguin while tearing it apart is enough to make me happy I spent most of my year in Antarctica hundreds of miles from shore.

The old weather monitor from South Pole Station, heralding the first running of The 300 Club in 2003.

Which brings us to South Pole Station and The 300 Club. During the winter when the outside temperature finally drops low enough to hit -100F, an all call goes out to the entire station to let everyone know that they should report to the sauna. At which point, the safety in the sauna is disabled and it is cranked up to 200F, thus creating the 300 degree temperature difference that gives The 300 Club its name. You stay in there as long as you possibly can, then run from the sauna and out to the South Pole marker, naked other than shoes of course, and then back to the sauna again. Someone, me the second time I did it, gets to wear gloves to hold the door open as everyone runs past.

This all sounds simple, but as everyone discovers human bodies just aren’t used to that kind of cold. When I say you “run” to the Pole, it’s more of a holy fuck is it cold shuffle. Also, one of your hands should be covering your nose & mouth to help try to pre-warm some of that -100F air. Your nose, sinuses, pharynx, and trachea are all there not just for filtration but also as conditioning to get incoming air to the right temperature & humidity before reaching the lungs. At -100F, it doesn’t work and the cold air hitting your lungs causes the moisture in there to condense, giving you a flash pneumonia. Everyone spent the next couple days with the 300 Club Hack as their bodies reprocessed that condensation in the lungs. We didn’t know this for the first time, but we sure as hell did for the second running of The 300 Club.

It doesn’t hit -100F at Pole until the winds absolutely die down to nothing and the air is even clearer than normal. At 1% relative humidity, it’s an incredibly dry cold which means it feels okay for way longer than you’d expect. Air is an okay insulator and there’s no wind chill to steal your heat. Also, it doesn’t get this cold until the dead of winter, so it’s dark other than the Aurora Australis and whatever moonlight you may be lucky enough to have. A full moon at Pole feels as bright as noon with the moonlight reflecting off of the snow. Of course, you’re also getting a full moon from everyone else during the 300 Club, except you probably can’t see them due to the ice fog. Hot sweaty bodies shuffling in the cold air make a lot of fog, which makes it easy to get lost heading back to the sauna. Remember what I said about one hand to cover your nose & mouth? You may want to use the other one to cover the important extremities of your choice. One woman got off course in the fog and ended up taking the very long way back to the sauna via the Garage Arch, leading to some frostbitten nipples.

Personally, I thought it was neat how ice sheets of sweat formed and then cracked and fell off me as I ran. Also, don’t actually tag the Pole marker. You might stick and that’s embarrassing.