A day in the life of a McMurdo’n

by wonderfullyrich on October 20, 2005

Splat!  (you’ve just been hit by an Antarctic snowball)

Now that I’ve been on station for a week I’d like to give you all a better general feel for what it’s like.  I’ll give you a typical work day on station with a lot of description of the difference in life, and hopefully give you a link to some new videos of common events on station that are different from most work days.  I imagine that this is rather similar to working on a oil rig or ship in some respects, but remember this is my version of a typical day.

Let’s start with sleeping.  I go to sleep around 10-11pm down here, and end up sleeping for 7 or 8 hours and wake up around 6:15am or so.  This is dorm living so my roommate (who is a type A personality) wakes up around 5am or so, which means that I’ll wake up too or at least come out of my slumber.  Now for me this is great as I’m a type B personality and have more trouble getting up, and for others living with a type A can be disturbing, and others are okay with it and enjoy it (like me).  But it varies from person to person.  (two type B’s barely get up on time) 

So now that I’m up, I’ll take a quick shower. Oh and taking a shower at McMurdo isn’t really bad, it’s half way between dorm showers and regular showers.  I think most showers are individualized (like home), but I haven’t seen them all.  There’s a few dorms that are suites and have a bathroom per 4 people.  As far as restrictions, we don’t have any right now.  This year we are asked to conserve, but I’ve already heard stories of people taking 20 mins showers.  McMurdo uses a Reverse Osmosis (RO) system that pulls water from under the ice and gives us pure water.  I talked to the water quality management person and they do add calcium to the water in order to keep from eating the pipes (I think).  I have to say that the water out of the galley or from the many drinking fountains around her tastes like crap!  I mentioned this and he didn’t really have an answer, but he claims (and I believe him) that the quality is better then what we get at home.  (No fluoride, etc)

So in the shower I use Dove (1/4 moisturizer baby!) which is a life saver.  Oh and if you ever come here, DON’T forget your towel!!!   Anyway, this place is the driest place on earth, so you are always being sucked dry of water. (They only serve juice, water, coffee, and tea at the galley; pop & beer can be purchased, but is not served.  They highly recommend constant hydration, and make hydration a *big* exception here with the conservation.) 

Being done with a 5 minute shower I start dressing, which is a slightly different process then for most people.  Most of the time if you’re a guy and work in an office, it’s dress shirt, kaki pants, dress socks, a pair of office shoes, and perhaps a tie.  Down here, the dress code has little to do with looks and everything to do with weather protection.  They issue each person a pair of long underwear bottoms both in fleece and in mid-weight as well as a long underwear top.  It’s been recommended to me by many people to bring down your own as well, given that your never sure where those long underwear have been (although 2 of the three of mine were brand new).  So during about 3/4 of the year we are wearing long underwear under everything, depending of course on your natural temperature.  For guys, this may necessitate a change to boxer briefs or alike depending on how much it bugs you.  Now in the participate guide book they tell you not to bring cotton down here, as it’s not warm enough.  This is total crap.  If you were only to bring wool or thermal insulated outerwear you’d be spending a pile and be over warm an unbelievable amount of time.  We spend a great deal of time indoors and I hear most of these building have old furnaces in them, meaning they are hard to control and it’s hot.  So the modus operandi is to bundle up before you go out and then debundle on your way back in.  Tee-shirts are rather useful if your in an office job and don’t need to stand outside all day. 

Footwear is rather drastically different too.  Hiking boots are the norm around here, although tennis shoes do work fairly well.  The issued Bunny boots (white rubber boots that are water proof and don’t breath) are the best to stay warm outside and extremely good for long period, the FDX are more comfortable but are not totally water proof and not as warm as the bunny boots, but both are bulky and certainly aren’t thought of for day to day office use.  (Pipe fitters, fuelies, or alike will want to reconsider this)  For the rest of us (like us PC Tech types) we go from one building to the other and spend a lot of time walking this town.  What we are walking on is useful to keep in mind.  We don’t have paved streets, it’s all volcanic rock, snow and ice, around here.  For those of you who don’t know, volcanic rock can be fairly sharp and is fairly dense so it eats away at shoes fairly well. 

Most of the time I go out with my hiking boots, a pair of wool socks (maybe with liners depending on if a hike is involved) my long johns, a pair of jeans, a tee-shirt, and maybe my fleece or a over shirt depending on wind.  Oh and wind is the kicker down here.  I could be 5 or 15 degrees out but if the wind is blowing then your going to be bloody cold walking from one building to another.  It makes or breaks a "nice" day here. 

All of the clothing above is worn in addition to what we call "big red" (the Canadian Goose jacket most everyone is issued, if not that it’s a slightly lighter insulated Carahartt jacket) which for me and most, contains my liner gloves, a pair of leather gloves, and a hat or ski mask.  I also do wear a ball cap, as do many people.  Polies (South Pole deployment) get a green and black jacket that’s apparently less insulated then big red (although it’s also Canadian Goose) and a few trade them in for big red.

I haven’t even gotten out the door yet and you can already see how this is different then living in most of the lower 48.  (I wonder though if the northern states and canada might not be used to this) Once I’m out of the door, it’s a 5 min or less walk to the galley (otherwise known as building 155) for a dorm like breakfast buffet.  During the summer we get fresh fruit once or twice a week, depending (bananas, apples, strawberries, etc.).  We always have a fruit or veggie available out of a can.  Sausage, eggs, hash browns, sometimes omelets or waffles are available.  Toast, grits, oatmeal, cereal are all available all of the time (as is peanut butter & honey/jam).  They say that we should be eating something like 6000-8000 calories down here (the norm in the states is 2500, or so the FDA says).  Frankly I think this depends on what you do, and how good your metabolism is.  If you’re a carpenter, on your feet and outside all day then you’ll need the calories, but an average person in the office isn’t going to need that and is just going to get fat.  Which not surprisingly is what happens.

The food down here isn’t horrible if your expecting extremely bland buffet food, as it’s not bland generally.  It’s great considering the number of people they have to feed, and what they have to work with.  They make some decent roasts, great sandwiches down here, and wonderful deserts.  On the other hand nearly every meal down here has chicken, so the joke is to ask "what are we having with our chicken today?" I hear that the South Pole is better (less people overall), and Scott Base is even better, but haven’t tried them yet.  Oh the one thing these guys seem to excel at is bread.  Summer means 700 loaves of fresh bread a day for 900-1100 people.  We have 5 bakers who do our pastries, bread, and everything else.  Not all their experiments work, (they just tried sourdough, and it wasn’t all that great) but there’s something about having fresh bread in the mist of this harsh continent that’s refreshing and reassuring.

Once you get your food, during the summer it’s called combat dining.  The galley is generally full and people are everywhere.  Your best chance at a calm meal is to come in early or late.  During the winter everything is calmer so I hear it placid and quiet around here.

Having survived with only minor wounds, we head off to work.  In McMurdo, work for most people who are not shift workers starts at 7:30am and ends at 5:30pm with two 15 minute breaks and one hour break for lunch generally at 11.  Shift workers like Dining assistance could start mid day and work till after midnight rations, or some people like Shuttle drivers work five 12 hour days.  I won’t bore you with the details of my work as it varies from person to person around the station.  I’m lucky enough to have a job that requires me to walk most of the time as well as occasionally get sent out to more remote places like the Ice Runway, or perhaps Black Island (our communications depot), or maybe even the south pole for a time.  With all the food that you can consume I find walking is an essential part of keeping a shape.

After work (or before for some) you can also improve your shape by drinking at one of the three local bars…oh wait that’s the wrong shape.  I meant to say that you can go to the gym and work out with weights, run on a treadmill, or just play basketball, doge ball, volleyball, or some such from about 7 to 9 or 10.  There’s also a board where the recreation department posts all the regular and special events that happen on station such as stitch-and-bitch, or climbing wall hours, or the 70s party. 

Let me give you an overview of the various common hang outs.  There’s no order to this, as so far as I can tell everyone has their own opinion.  The Coffee House is really sort of a wine bar, meeting house, and what suffices as a movie theater as well as being the coffee house.  (No Starbucks here, haha!)  Of course the advantage to this place is that they serve several alcohols like Baileys or Schnapps as a shot for your coffee or cocoa.  This is also where many of the board games are as well as a few ports and computers for internet browsing.

Southern Exposure, aka Southern, is the smoking bar on base.  (I’ll digress about smoking here in a minute.) It has a pool table, and a poker table, as well as the best stocked bar on base.  Not many of the parties are held here, but it’s fairly popular.

Last of them on base is Gallagher’s, which is the non-smoking bar.  It also houses the burger bar (right now Wednesdays and Fridays), most of the parties (like the 70’s Party we just had), and events like bingo and karaoke.  It also has a pool table, as well as a shuffle board.  It’s bigger then Southern by a bit so it’s slightly more useful as a party place.  I’ve heard comments about Gallagher’s that it lacks the real "bar" atmosphere.  To me it’s not about the place as much as it’s about the distraction.

There’s one more worth noting which is the bar at Scott Base.  First of all let me mention that Scott base is a mile and a half away from McMurdo on the other side of Observation Hill.  Scott base is the New Zealand base for Antarctica and as a random note it’s almost entirely green outside.  Much like the South pole (although the pole has other challenge that it was built to overcome) all of the base can be reached from the inside.  It’s effectively one big building.  One of the rooms in this building is a galley/bar room.  The bar has a separator in it and is carpeted.  As compared to the McMurdo Bars, Scott base is luxury (especially right now).  They actually have couches and atmosphere that’s comfy with a view as well as a pool table and dart board.  More then that right now, they are the only one’s who have a decent selection of alcohol.  Because of the alcohol shortage here at McMurdo, good alcohol is coveted.

Let me digress a little and talk about smoking.  There’s only three places on base that you can smoke and a lounge on the second floor of 209, 155 1st floor smokers lounge, and Southern (as mentioned).  People do smoke here, and they sell cartons of cigarettes at the base store.  I have to admit that with how cold it is here and how hard it must be to stand outside and smoke when you can’t get to one of those three spots.  It’s rather strange that people continue to smoke when they come down here.  Especially with the McMurdo "Crud" (equivalent to the flu or a cold) going around constantly.

So with that said, you have the bars as an outlet, the Gym as an outlet, and best of all you have the landscape to explorer.  As a resident of McMurdo there are trails that surround the area and although they aren’t extensive, they are all beautiful and ever changing.  Deadly as well if handled improperly, but generally fun and beautiful.  Not all trails are open during the spring, winter, and fall but they try their hardest to make them open during the summer. 

After your wanderings of the day or the night (remember that during the summer the sun doesn’t set so you go to a bar, walk out and it’s still fairly bright out) you wander home to do your chores which include laundry, a bit of vacuuming, taking your trash can and sorting it, calling home, and other more normal bed time stuff.  Laundry is free down here and detergent is provide, but should only be done once a week.  Again there’s no enforcement on it at this point, but if there is ever a water shortage that might happen.  (We are rebuilding power and water faculties to be "redundant" so they are telling us to conserve more while they do some musical chairs) 

Trash is a daily difference in life down here.  Something that I’m sure many of you would like to see happen in the states.  Because no nation is allowed to turn Antarctica into a dump, everything that goes on to the ice must come off.  To help facilitate that, we have a waste recovery system (known as retrograde material, or just retro) that involves sorting our trash into various recyclables and hazard classes.  Food waste, burnable, aluminum, light metals, cardboard, bio-hazard, oils of varying types, wood, construction debris, plastics, glass, batteries, mixed paper, white paper, and of course Skua.  Skua is actually the name of a bird that shows up here at McMurdo and is much like a camp robber in the states.  If you take food outside (say back to your dorm) it’ll dive bomb you and get it unless it’s covered.  So you can see it’s sort of a scavenger and that’s what Skua the bins sort of are.  Instead of throwing it away, you put it in Skua and others will pick it up and use it.  Sort of like Goodwill or ARC except it’s free.  Each trash area in dorms has a Skua, and there’s also "Central Skua" behind building 192 which has a small room of all sorts of stuff. 

Where would you get all this stuff?  Well first you could ship it to yourself, but the bloody Air Force are weenies and don’t make much in the way of flights so this year (and many I hear) your luck to get your mail by Halloween.  It was said to me officially and unofficially, (and I’m not blaming them) that you could send your Halloween costume (a huge event down here) and it would be here in time for Halloween.  This year we are going to be luck if that happens.  (That’s my rant on the Air Force, we should have contracted the Navy to shuttle stuff!) 

So as a general warning, to anyone thinking of coming down, plan to carry everything you’ll need for at least a month and maybe two. (This can only get worse as the years progress.)  OR, and there’s a big or, flat (envelope) mail everything that you’ll need as letter mail almost always shoved in corners and makes it down regularly.  Now you only can take 75 pounds in checked weight to the Ice and technically your carry-on is supposed to fit inside the carry-on box checker (like the metal things you see at the airport), but with the C-17 they don’t seem to give a damn.  The C-141 they heavily enforced it.  This means that you can get away with a 60+ pound carry-on and 75 pounds of other shit plus your laptop in a separate bag.  (think about this, it’s a lot of crap)  Winter-overs (year long deployments) get 145 pounds of check-in plus the carry-on. Now if there’s an alcohol shortage or you like a specific alcohol, I highly recommend making that carry-on contain three things.  Interesting and different fruits, alcohol, and kit for two days in Christchurch (CHC) in case you don’t actually get off the ground or do a boomerang (return to CHC after being flight).  These bloody bastards ran out of Vodka early on and now I’m stuck with 3 bottles of tonic trying to find a way to get some.  (I’m an idiot)  At least I bought a bottle of Jack, which I enjoy and they don’t sell right now.  (Although they do sell Crown Royal for 23 bucks)

Oh and speaking of buying things, this is where you can get all your other stuff.  The town store is located in 155 off of Highway 1 across from the coats.  It would take me a few paragraphs to cover everything and I’ll try and put a tour video of it up, but in brief they have snacks of many types (chips, dip, chocolates, peanut butter, crackers, etc), lots of memorabilia including mugs, water bottles, shirts, stickers, sweat shirts, other things like batteries, film, toiletries (they have Toms of Maine, Dove, and a bunch of others,), this is also where you buy pop, alcohol, and random things like calling cards.  Most are decently priced, but not all ($1 stickers? verse 5 dollar 6-packs of beer, uh whatever). 

Speaking of calling cards, calling home is actually easier then you’d think.  (Although I’m an email guy)  They have 4 outbound lines for all of the stations, but if you can’t get an outside line you can flash the hook, then dial 85 and the number your trying to reach and it’ll ring you back when an outside line is open.  The call originates from the states (we are in the middle of a switch over from a Brewster Washington downlink to a Denver downlink) so it’s just the cost of an continental call.  Home always likes to hear from you, as do friends and family and after work can be the time to do it, but remember it’s a day earlier plus 5 hours (depending on where and daylight savings time) from McMurdo’s view so right now our 5 pm is about 10 pm for MST. 

At the end of the day there’s lots left to describe about this place, but here’s an amazing start.  If this is your first trip, then inevitably by the time your head hits the pillow in your twin xl bed, your tired but amazed at the things you’ve done and the place your inhabiting.  Hopefully your sleeping next to someone you enjoy, but if not we hope your sleeping fitfully.

I hope this gives you a good view of how McMurdo works and what a day in the life is like down here.  Continue to pepper me with questions, and I hope to have video to commentate on the areas that I’ve described.


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