Penguins and Polar Fleece: Postcard from the Pole |

Penguins and Polar Fleece: Postcard from the Pole

by Karl Horeis Ezra Hohmlund of Portland, Ore., who will be a cook for the next four months at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, tries on the giant red parka supplied for him by RaytheonPolar Services.

This is the first in what we hope will be a regular series of missives from Karl Horeis, a Nevada Appeal reporter on leave while he works for the next few months as a dining- room attendant in Antarctica.

By Karl Horeis

Christchurch, New Zealand – After a yearslong hiring process to get a job on the bottom of the earth in Antarctica, we finally felt like we are were on our way this morning when we slid our arms into our giant, red, government-issue parkas.

This happened in the CDC, or “Clothing Distribution Center,” which is part of the Antarctic Center at the airport.

About 40 of us — firemen, barbers, cooks, etc. – went through orientation this morning, with our departures for “the ice” scheduled for early tomorrow.

During one of many safety presentations, we heard a line we’ve read many times already during the long hiring process: “Antarctica is the highest (more than a mile high in most places because of all the ice), driest (less than 2 inches of precipitation each year), coldest (it was -128.6 F at Vostok Station in 1983), windiest (often up to 200 mph) and emptiest (there are no indigenous people nor terrestrial mammals) continent on Earth.”

They showed aerial video of the Ross Ice shelf which took our breath away – a shelf of ice more than 100 feet above the sea, extending into the distant horizon. Equally impressive were the statistics: Antarctica has 70 percent of the world’s fresh water locked in ice and 90 percent of the world’s ice. It’s 5.4 million square miles — larger than the United States by almost 2 million square miles.

A presenter explained she first went down to see Antarctica 15 years ago, and has gone back every year since just to be a part of such a fascinating program.

Scientists study more than glaciers and penguins, she explained. There are projects such as the Amanda Neutrino Telescope – the world’s largest scientific instrument – which uses the ice cap as a sort of lens to look for particles passing through the Earth.

Other scientists use Ballon-Borne telescopes to measure cosmic microwave background radiation and the “antifreeze” in the blood of Antarctic fish.

We, the employees of Raytheon Polar Services (a division of defense-aerospace provider Raytheon), may not be searching for subatomic particles or uncovering secrets of the universe as we fix the plumbing and cut the hair of the scientists, but we are an important part of the “stewardship of an extraordinary place,” she said.

I was hoping to pursue my career in journalism in Antarctica – flying in helicopters to research camps to see the latest fossil finds and to ships to see whales, but it appears the folks who have that job never quit. So I finally took a job as a “dining-room attendant” (which I suspect is code for “dishwasher”).

I’m still excited to go.

I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call scraping 2 inches of clam chowder putty from the bottom of a soup pot “stewardship,” but, hey, anything for science.

Now our only concern is a “boomerang.”

This is when you have checked your bags; had them weighed, searched, and sniffed by dogs; put on all your extreme-cold-weather gear; waited around endlessly; then boarded a New York Air National Guard C-17 or C-141 airplane and been cleared to take off – only to fly five hours and get within 30 minutes of Antarctica to hear the runway has been closed because of blowing snow, and you have to turn back. Then you fly all the way back, spending nine or more hours on cargo seats to be right where you started.

A veteran pilot we ran into during a break in the orientation pulled a wooden boomerang from his backpack and kissed it, saying, “Gotta pray to the boomerang gods.”

The rest of the orientation was about energy conservation and proper behavior on ice. One of the biggest problems for Raytheon Polar Services is alcohol, someone said. Several folks already have spent their last night in civilization partying until dawn and shown up drunk for early-morning flights. These people are not allowed on the airplane, and some, they say, are sent straight home.

Another issue is spilling fuel on the ice. If you accidentally spill and report it, you cannot be prosecuted. If you fail to report it, however, you can.

Safety is also a major thrust for Raytheon, which, in 2000, took over the contract to operate the three U.S. Antarctic research stations (like Halliburton has been given the contract to fix oil pipelines in Iraq).

During a video provided by the parent company, we were encouraged to “adopt a zero-injury culture.” Sounds good to me. I wouldn’t want to get sent home early from the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, emptiest continent. At least not until I get to try out that giant red parka.

Karl Horeis is on a leave of absence from the Nevada Appeal to work at McMurdo Station, the largest research facility on the Antarctic continent. Contact him at