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Frequently Asked Questions about life at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica

Jeffrey Donenfeld Ask Me Anything, Travel and Adventure, Trips 16 Comments

I’m currently living at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. My move here was a long time coming, but the final decision to make the journey here came suddenly, and without a lot of time for reflection or preparation – both for myself, as well as my friends and family. And so, as I made my way down here, lots of questions about how, where, why, and when have come up. To help answer a lot of the more frequent questions, here’s a list of a few of the more common questions I’ve received over the past few weeks:

Antarctica FAQ

How did you get your job in Antarctica?

Getting a job in Antarctica was HARD. I tried for 4 solid years to get down here, and only got offered the job at the last minute. Here’s my complete saga of job searching.. Getting A Job In Antarctica: My Long Journey 2009-2012

So, it’s difficult, but if you’re dedicated, you can make it happen. I’ve noticed that most people down here are very specialized at what they do, extremely motivated, smart, and outgoing. The guys I’ve been working with on the Askaryan Radio Array (ARA) drill sled are mechanics, scientists, and drillers – and each one of them is highly experienced.

Even people like me – a cook, and dishwashers, and janitors – almost everyone has a higher degree, or has been working in the field for a while. It’s difficult to get in, especially if you’re good at a lot of different things, or have a lot of experience at a career that doesn’t directly apply to the specific job (like me, with digital media).

So, I’d start working on it now, and making contacts. Look for the Lockheed Martin Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) page on Facebook, and that has links to all the job boards – PAE, GHG, GSC, NSF, etc – start getting organized now, and plan on submitting your filled out applications for all jobs you might qualify for on March 1, 2013 for the 2013-2014 summer season.

2012-12-01 Working with ARA Team

How much time did you have to prepare for your trip to the ice?

Not a lot. About 5 days. Here’s the details: I Got My Dream Job! – Working in Antarctica

How do you get down to the South Pole Station from the states?

It’s a lonnnnnng journey. The basic route I took was: Commercial flights – DEN>SFO, SFO>LAX, LAX>SYD, SYD>CHC. US AirForce Military Flights – CHC>McMurdo, McMurdo>South Pole. And coming back it’s just the opposite. Here are photos from the journey down:
Moving to Antarctica Leg 2: Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Moving to Antarctica Leg 3: McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

My new luggage tag... #Antarctica 2012-11-12 CHC to McMurdo - DSC01554-1600-80 2012-11-12 McMurdo - IMG_0801-1600-80 2012-11-13 McMurdo>Pole - IMG_0802-1600-80

Are only U.S. citizens allowed to work at Amundsen-Scott Station?

Nope, we have people from all over the world working here!

How long is summer season? Is it different at the different stations?

Summer Season is about three months, from November 15th to February 15th. During the summer, we have about 160 people living here, the temperature is around -18F, and the sun shines 24/7. During the winter, which is Feb 15th to Nov 15th, 50 people live here, the temperature gets down to -100F, and it is dark all the time.

2012-11-27 Keck Array Disassembly - IMG_1195-1600-80

What is your job at the Station? Do you enjoy it?

My official job here is as the breakfast cook – that means that I’m solely responsible for making breakfast for the entire station, 6 days a week. In addition to my “official” job, I also have a number of other positions here. I’m a certified W-EMT, and so I work on the South Pole’s “Team 4″, which is the emergency medical response team. If there’s a mass casualty incident here, I’m on the team that responds to it. In addition to Cook and EMS responder, I’m also a tour guide. When expeditions and tourist groups arrive here at the south pole and want a tour of the station, I’m one of the people who can lead them around the station. Finally, I’m working as the south pole station correspondent for The Antarctic Sun, the NSF’s Antarctica news publication.

Landing An LC-130 Hercules

What kind of meals are you making?

Since I’m the breakfast cook, I singlehandedly make breakfast for 160+ people, every morning, 6 days a week. My usual breakfast consists of a number of dishes:

  • Scrambled Eggs
  • Scrambled Eggs w/ ingredient
  • Potatoes – hash browns, potato cubes, tater tots, hashbrown patties, etc.
  • Meat – Sausage links, sausage patties, bacon, canadian bacon
  • 2nd Option – Varies, mostly whatever I want. In the past I’ve made huevos rancheros, migas, biscuits n gravy, bread pudding, breakfast bake, baked eggs, quiche, casseroles, etc etc etc – there’s intense pressure from upper management for me to make something new every morning, so I’m always racing to think up something new and tasty.
  • Sweet – french toast, pancakes, waffles, w/ syrup
  • Yogurt – made from scratch
  • Berries
  • Fruit
  • Granola
  • Cereal – oatmeal, 7-grain, grits
  • Smoothie – fruit smoothie, frappuccino, horchata, chai

And after I’m done making all of this in the 2 hours before breakfast service starts, I stand at the griddle and make eggs to order while breakfast is served. I usually make about 90-100 eggs per morning, usually over easy, over medium, scrambled, sunny, or “in a frame”.

While I’m doing all of this, I also have to be prepping for the next morning’s meal. I get to work at 03:30 and start cooking. Breakfast service is from 06:00-08:00. And then I have to be done with all of my breakfast cleanup, as well as complete prep for the next morning by 09:00. I take my first break from 09:00 – 09:30, and then I come back and work with the lunch lady to make lunch for everybody. I get out of work at 13:30, and then usually try to get to sleep around 20:00, so I can wake up at 03:00 the next morning and do it all over again.

How many doctors are there?

There’s only 1 doctor, and 1 nurse. I’m good friends with both of them, and they are both extremely knowledgeable and competent. Our doctor was the former Flight Surgeon for the International Space Station, and has worked in emergency medicine for many many years – his name is Dr. Sean Roden. Our medical facility is equipped to handle almost anything. We have a trauma/surgery bay, a dental bay, a communications bay, a medical laboratory, and even two ward beds, for sick patients. It’s quite incredible how much capability we have packed in such a small space. We also have every kind of medical device you’d find in a basic modern hospital, including 12-lead EKG, Xray, suction, O2, etc. Finally, there’s a remote video system – so if there’s a situation in which we need an extra doctor’s opinion, we can get somebody “virtually” in the operating room. I’ll have photos of all of this soon.

How much free time do you have? How can you spend it?

Not enough! I work a 9 hour shift 6 days a week – from 3:30 – 13:30. After that, I try to go to the gym, and take time to tour around to various places on the station. I’m also training for the South Pole Marathon, so I try to run outside as much as I can.

2012-12-08 Jean shorts

How is the food? Do you have enough fresh fruit and vegetables?

The food is actually not so bad. We try to be as creative as possible in the kitchen. All of our food has to be flown here, and it’s all stored at -60F in the supply arches, under the ice. We have a lot of food, but it’s all stored away in deep freeze. So anything we make must be able to use food that has been stored and frozen for a long time. Occasionally we get “freshies” – fresh food flown in from New Zealand. That includes fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s never as much as we want, though!

Is it hard to fall asleep with the sun shining all the time?

Nope, not really. My bedroom has a window on it, with a shade that blocks out some light. I taped cardboard over my window, so when the lights are off in my room, it’s completely dark. I have a small red light that I turn on at night, so I can turn off the bright overhead light and make it feel like night time when I’m in my room at night. It took a while to adjust, but nowadays I sleep just fine. Actually, I’m usually so worn out at the end of each day that I fall asleep immediately.

2012-12-08 Jean shorts

Do you know most of the people there?  I guess everyone knows you because you’re giving out the food!

I’m getting to know just about everybody – there are only 150 people, and we see each other every day, so you get to know each other quickly. Additionally, since we all eat in the same galley, we get to sit with each other. I usually try to sit with as many different groups as I can, so I get around to having conversations with everybody.

2012-12-31 New Years

Is it worth it to come down there?

It’s definitely amazing being here, and I think if you’re feeling the urge to come check it out, it’s worth it. Even just the trip down here is worth it. I flew from DEN>SFO ,SFO>LAX on normal flights, then got to fly LAX>SYD on Quantas on an AIrbus A380 which is an incredible plane. Then SYD>CHC on Emirates on a Boeing 777-300ER, which is also very very cool. Then got to spend time in Christchurch drinking with a bunch of scientists. Then a military flight on a C17, then bummed around McMurdo for a day, then to pole on a C-130 Hercules. Even just those flights are incredible in their own right, and the fact that I was getting paid pretty damn good money to do it was great. Then living down here at pole – the work is HARD for everybody, but the free time is incredible. Every second I’m outside walking around, i’m awestruck by this place. So, yes, come down here, it’s worth it – both for the external experience of it, and also for the experience of getting to know yourself as you put yourself through this intense experience.

2012-12-31 New Years

Where do you sleep? Do people share rooms or what?

Nope, we each get our own rooms – they are small, but cozy and comfortable. Here’s a photo and details of my room.

 

My Room at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

What time do you have to get up to make breakfast for everyone? What’s your schedule like?

I get up at 02:30 (and yes that is “AM”, although all of our timing here is 24 hour time, so nobody uses “AM” and “PM”), but that also means that I go to bed around 7, right after dinner. So I have a somewhat normal length day, it’s just shifted forward a bit. It’s a pain in the ass to get up so early, but it also means that I get off of my shift at 13:30 – while all of the scientists are still working. That allows me to go visit them, see what they’re up to. The down side is since I go to bed so early, I basically have no social life here – and believe it or not, there is a huge social scene.

 

I hear there are tourists at the south pole too – what’s the deal?

Regarding tourists – actually, we’re just starting to pick up on tourist season. I’m one of the 3 tour guides here on station, and I get to give one or two tours of the station per week, during high tourism season, which is now. The other day I gave a station tour to a “last degree” skiier with ANI.  This is the trip they were on: http://www.adventure-network.com/experiences/ski-last-degree. These 4 people + guide on the tour are on a guided expedition with ANI, and each paid a decent amount to get flown to 89 degrees south, and then ski the last 60 nautical miles (1 degree). When they get here, they aren’t actually allowed within a certain radius of the station, because we are a “special use area” as per the antarctic treaty – they camp just outside the ring. Their camp is called the “NGO” camp – Non Governmental Organization - and it’s actually quite nice. Kinda interesting to chat with a  bunch of crazy tourists for a few hours.  Their DC-3 just landed a few minutes ago, and they’re taking off today. Pics of the NGO camp will be posted as soon as I can.

Did I miss anything? Have any more questions or want to discuss? Contact me! 

 

Update 20130313 – Some more questions sent in by reader Almos Wattay:

Which is the best job search website for the Amundsen-Scott

positions? I am now using http://aq.indeed.com/All-jobs-in-Antarctica.

I’d suggest you look directly at the LMC ASC Site, as well as PAE, GHG, and GSC’s sites. Also find LMC’s Facebook Page

Are there positions for Logistics and/or Supply Chain manager

regularly? These two positions fall very close to my profession.

Probably – look on PAE’s job site.

Is there normally an overflow of candidates for any given position?

Yes, almost always – LOTS of people apply for each position. Very strong competition.

Are normal contracts for employment only for summer time or

winter-over as well?

Normal contracts are for summer, since there are more staff. However, there are full year contracts available for certain positions, and once you’ve done a summer, you can start thinking about doing a winter.

What are the normal everyday shifts Monday through Saturday (six

day work weeks, I know), 12-16 hours?

My shift was 9 hours per day, 6 days per week. Shifts vary amongst job positions.

Is appendectomy required prior to polar employment?

I don’t now, that’s a good question for UTMB. It will all be addressed during your physical qualification process.

Who finances the trip to Amundsen-Scott upon being hired?

The United States Antarctic Program, which receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

What quantity of personal effects can be taken to the station?

Two 50 lb bags per person, plus a small personal bag, i think. It’s all explained in your deployment packet once you get the job.

Does the employee pay for subsistence (dorm, food, polar attire)?

No

I know showers can only be used 2 times per week for 2 minutes

each. What about washing hands, brushing teeth, using the toilet

regularly?

That is unregulated, and personal hygiene is taken seriously – regular handwashing is strongly encouraged at the station. Additionally, there are instant hand sanitizer dispenses all over the place. We keep it clean! :)

Is it possible to physically be outside during the winter-over

period when temperatures fall to 80-100F below zero?

Although I don’t yet have personal experience with winter, yes, I believe it is possible.

Are you strictly limited as to what you can do on Sundays during

your day off? What kind of recreational activities are allowed? I saw

you jogging outside the base on YouTube, is something like that

allowed?

Yep, we go jogging, skiing, hiking, and everything else. Lots to do, both inside and outside. There’s even a recreational cross country ski loop, complete with a warming hut at half way.

Is regular internet access provided to communicate with immediate

family members?

Yes, this is addressed here.

Is Amundsen-Scott station in New Zealand time zone?

Yes

Are you a winter-over employee?

No

Jeffrey DonenfeldFrequently Asked Questions about life at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica

Comments 16

    1. Post
      Author
  1. Louis Lamoureux

    What are the temperatures inside the station (66F, 68, 72) wondering if you’re bundled up 24/7? There’s a wire across your bedroom is that a clothesline? Thanks.

    1. Post
      Author
      Jeffrey Donenfeld

      It’s a comfy temp in the station. We usually walk around in jeans and sweatshirts, but no more bundled up than that. Yep, that’s a clothesline in my room – very handy!

  2. Henry

    What is the most basic job you can get down there? I would love to work at the south pole station after I finish university but I realistically wont be qualified enough to do anything more than cleaning!

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  5. nana

    hello, im interested in is it true that on South Pole Amundsen are not allowed to switch on camera for Skype??? is it true that cameras are disabled???

  6. Philip Cameron

    Congratulations on your employment! Being that it is an american research station is there any chance that international workers (i.e. Canadians) would be able to get a job at the Smundsen-Scott research station?

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