Overwintering in Antarctica: Winter's pull is strong for many

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"The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls. Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy from which, now and then, one arouses with an empty attempt at enthusiasm."

Frederick Cook, 1898-99 Belgica Expedition, on the first winter spent below the Antarctic Circle.

Zoe Vida approaches winters in Antarctica with a very "Buddha" attitude: reminding herself to let go of the ego and become immersed in the experience of the long austral night.

Embarking on her fourth winter in five years, the McMurdo Station retail coordinator says winter is "ugly and beautiful, the worst of times, but the best of times," when people tune into one another, but also when all sense of privacy evaporates.

"Here you're companions with a diverse group of people. You know so much about them and you care so intensely about them," said Vida, 35. "I return to the Ice since I have more to learn."

Vida is one of several hundred people - winter-overs - who choose to remain in Antarctica when that curtain of blackness, as Cook calls it, falls across the continent. She's also a member of a growing fraternity who repeatedly reserve space on the continent during the winter year after year.

The three permanent U.S. Antarctic Program stations - McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer - are staffed year-round, with smaller crews during the winter months. Palmer is at one extreme, where winter isolation is relatively brief thanks to the occasional ship visit, and there's rarely more than a score of people living at the small station.

On the other hand, South Pole normally goes into deep freeze from mid-February through late October. Over the last several years, winter crews have been relatively large in order to complete construction on the new elevated station. Liesl Schernthanner, the South Pole winter site manager, said she expects a winter crew of about 70 when the welcome mat is rolled up until October.

There is a certain machismo associated with wintering at the Pole, along with a host of proud and quirky traditions. For example, on the day the last summer flight leaves, Polies will gather for a showing of the movie, "The Shining," Stephen King's horror classic about a hotel caretaker driven insane by isolation.

McMurdo snugly straddles the middle road. It houses the biggest winter population on the continent, with about 200 people expected to stay the night this year. The darkness itself is about a month shorter than Pole's. But the time of isolation is even briefer: several passenger flights arrive in August every year to help prepare the station for the coming summer season, which begins in early October. Mail, along with fruit and vegetables, or freshies, are usually on those flights.

Another one?

There are many allures to wintering on the Ice, according to those who have turned it into a lifestyle. It's quieter and less crowded. The ghostly, shimmering aurora sweep across the night sky in a celestial dance few ever see. And with very little to spend money on, winter-overs can bank lots of cash, which many will habitually spend bouncing around the world for weeks or months at a time.

Vida spent three months on the island of Bali in Indonesia last year between winter contracts. This year between winters there was a 40-day trip to Thailand.

"I would never be able to [travel like] that working retail in the United States," she said.

Dennis Calhoun, a 58-year-old grandfather from Michigan, worked in oil fields in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia before coming to Antarctica. He first came south in the summer of 2002-03 and remained for the winter as the power plant mechanic at Pole. He returned in 2004, and the following winter moved to the big city, McMurdo, splitting his time between the heavy shop and the power plant.

Calhoun said the longer winter season puts more money in his pocket. But that's not the only reason he's planning on spending his third winter at the South Pole this year.

"Winter at pole is beautiful," he said via e-mail, after finishing a nightshift as a mechanic in the heavy shop. "The cold, crisp air is full of lights from the stars, moon and auroras. There are fewer people, and everyone pulls together to make things happen."

Intimacy and friendship are definitely big draws for people who do repeat winters. Chuck Kimball, a satellite communications technician at Palmer Station, first wintered there in 2003 and repeated the trick the following year largely because of the friends he had made.

"I guess the biggest thing is the community," said Kimball, who is currently at Palmer for the summer. "It was a really enjoyable group. We got along together."

While McMurdo is significantly bigger than the other two stations, it still has a small-town atmosphere for Chris Wilt, who is down for his fifth winter season. He did three in a row starting in 1998, working in the hydroponics growth chamber (greenhouse). He also did a winter in 2002 in the recreation department, and this time he committed for a full year in the waste department. He's also notched three summers.

"Winters are nice because you get to know everyone "you get to know who's grouchy and who to leave alone," he said. "You get to know people's grandkids' names, and what's going on with them. It's more family style."

Taking it in stride

A winter in Antarctica is not easy no matter where you are on the continent. Folks tend to get more irritated and have trouble sleeping. Memories turn into dry sponges, unable to absorb too much stimuli at times. In Antarctic lingo, wintering personnel generally sum up all those traits in one word: toasty. Incoming summer personnel are warned, half-jokingly, not to look a winter-over in the eye.

Calhoun agreed that some people do become quite toasty, a problem psychiatrists call the polar T3, or winter-over syndrome. It's believed that the body's thyroid gland, which is responsible for metabolism, is affected by the extreme cold. Depression isn't uncommon, accompanied by sleeplessness and even memory loss.

Larry Palinkas, with the University of California, San Diego, has studied the syndrome for years. He said in an e-mail that "alterations in thyroid hormones, the isolation from family and friends and interpersonal conflicts can produce symptoms of depression, sleeplessness, anger or irritability, and diminished cognitive performance."

But, he added, "The positive changes people experience is probably the most noteworthy aspect of my research down on the Ice. I think there are probably more people who get something positive from it than something negative."

Indeed, Calhoun said he's used to far gloomier winters in his home state of Michigan. "Being in the power plant requires a lot of concentration, too, so I think it keeps other things, like the dark, off my mind," he added.

Even in the dead of winter, there's still technically about three hours of sunlight at Palmer, which is roughly the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, according to Kimball. There may be about five weeks when the sun is completely hidden behind the mountains and glacier, but it's not too bad. "Lots of gray, overcast days," he said. "It's more of a maritime environment here - more of a Pacific Northwest kind of thing."

Life in the Air Force kept meteorologist Don Jeter on the move for 24 years, taking him to places all over the world. Shortly after retiring from the military, he took a job as a meteorologist at Pole for the 2003-04 summer and winter. He's back at Pole for another full year. The military life forced him to adapt to isolated assignments, he said.

"They didn't give me a choice in the matter so I learned how to deal with these kinds of situations early in life," said Jeter via e-mail from the Pole. "The South Pole is a piece of cake compared to some of the other places I have been."

Despite winter-over studies that date back to the 1950s, researchers say there's no single archetype that can define a winter-over. "Our analyses of the human experience in Antarctica suggest that there are few, if any, traits that serve as useful predictors of performance during the austral winter," Palinkas wrote in a paper called "The Psychology of Antarctic Research."

However, "research has consistently demonstrated that interpersonal conflict and tension is the greatest source of stress in the Antarctic," Palinkas wrote. While winter-overs seem to agree there can be an inordinate amount of drama, they're also steadfast in their belief that the community is one of the best things about living down south.

"Bad news always gets better press," Vida said, referring to the tendency toward the kind of gossip that exists in any small community. But she's quick to add, "I come back for the people."

Winter is also a self-test, she said, a way to see if she "can hack it."

Indeed, despite the stresses of isolation, Palinkas reported that some individuals do well and even thrive in this kind of environment, saying that these pressures "could actually be beneficial and health-promoting."

The legacy

Today's winter personnel are part of a lineage that stretches back to the end of the 19th century. In 1898, the three-masted Belgica was icebound in the Bellinghausen Sea for over a year while on a mission to explore the continent. The 19-member crew unwillingly became the first "winter-over" party in the Antarctic.

The expedition's physician, the great polar explorer Frederick Cook, may have been the first person to recommend light therapy to fend off depression when he told his men to sit in front of large, blazing fires.

While fires aren't allowed these days, the concept hasn't changed much. Wilt said he believes his three winters working at the McMurdo growth chamber definitely kept him energized thanks to the full spectrum lighting inside. "I never had problems with sleeping or with depression," he said. "I never really felt I did a winter down here because I never experienced [the] dark all day because I was in the greenhouse."

The modern winter season began 50 years ago when 93 U.S. Navy men remained behind at what would become McMurdo Station. The following year the first crew wintered at the South Pole. And this winter will mark the 42nd time people have remained at Palmer Station.

The National Science Foundation tracks winter-over records for the U.S. Antarctic Program for those who receive the Antarctic Service Medal, reportedly the only military medal awarded to civilians. The database is not comprehensive, according to Nadene Kennedy, NSF Polar coordination specialist. The statistics don't include the military, just science and support staff. It's also unclear when the database was first started, she said.

Of the 3,320 winter-overs who have been logged by the NSF, 988 of them have done at least two winters. As of the 2004-05 season, 26 people have wintered seven or more years. The all-time record is 15 winters by Gerald Ness, who last wintered in 2003-04 at Palmer.

Last winter, 241 people wintered at McMurdo, 86 at Pole and just 19 at Palmer. For those receiving a medal after the long night, a "Wintered Over" clasp accompanies the award. A bronze clasp signifies one winter, gold two and silver three winters.

Bill Spindler, the unofficial historian for the South Pole, writes on his Web site (www.southpolestation.com) that 1,110 people have wintered at 90 degrees south since 1957. The record for most winters at Pole is five, and only one person, Jake Speed, has done them all consecutively. In all, only 135 people have ever repeated a winter at Pole, according to Spindler's numbers.

The winter-overs for this story said family and friends are usually supportive of their decision to live abroad for what can turn out to be years at a time with only a brief return stateside. "My kids think it's great that the old man is in Antarctica," Calhoun said. "I think my grandkids miss me, but I'll spoil them on the way home. We keep in touch through e-mail and the phone."

At least one of Vida's family members can relate to her Antarctic passion. Her father, Dave Ackley, also works at McMurdo. He's the one who convinced her to exchange the big-city life in Portland for a pair of Carhartts in Antarctica. In fact, they did a 14-month stint together on her first trip to the Ice.

Other winter-overs say their families puzzled over their decision to come to Antarctica, let alone spend so much time here. Jeter said his wife knew he had always wanted to travel to the Pole. She told him to go for it.

It's a decision Jeter is glad he made.

"During my Air Force career, I found out that the strongest and best friendships are found in places that are remote, secluded, destitute and just plain fun," he said.


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