Antarctica's Alcohol Problem
As a volunteer bartender at South Pole Station, I witnessed how drinking can bring people together—and tear them apart—amid two-mile-thick ice sheets.
June 21 is Midwinter Day in Antarctica, which at South Pole Station endures 24 hours of darkness for five months a year. It is one of the most important dates on the calendar because it means you’ve hit the halfway point of the Long Night, and every day thence is one closer to the sun coming back above the horizon.
You might think this would be cause for celebration. While it was certainly the reason for a feast and a party, the more common reaction was, “Fuck. It’s only halfway through winter. At least four months until the station re-opens. Pour me some more whiskey, dammit.”
Hi, my name is Phil Broughton, and I was a bartender on Antarctica.
I once gave a presentation to an AA meeting about alcoholism and enabling from the perspective of a safety professional serving people booze on “the Ice,” which is what everyone who works on Antarctica calls it. There are three US stations: South Pole, McMurdo and Palmer, and each has a “ship store” where you can buy whatever sinful products of comfort you wish: liquor, beer, wine, smokes, soda, Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies, etc.
Booze did cause a rift in the South Pole Station population of 58, between the teetotalers and the drunks, a roughly 40/60 split.
I’ve told a lot of people about the fun associated with being at the end of the earth, rivers of ions swimming in the sky over head, and a cocktail in your hand. This has generated a lot of questions about the drinking culture of the seventh continent—which, given that you are 14,000 miles from home, sometimes can go truly, horribly wrong.
There are times I still wish we’d had a chaplain at South Pole Station, like they did in the Navy days—but, alas, there was only me. At McMurdo, there is a weekly AA meeting held at the Chapel of the Snows, but none I was aware of at Pole or Palmer (although there were probably a half-dozen or so copies of AA’s “Big Book” in the library at Pole). I like to think I did right—or at least well enough—by people that were hurting. Yet, while I stand by what I’ve done, I can’t say they give me great comfort.
Some might ask, why are there even bars on Antarctica? One of the stereotypical flags that you might have a problem with alcohol is that you’re in your room drinking alone. The Navy knew this, which is why the bars were built. If you’re going to be consuming alcohol, it’s better if you are doing it in public.
Yet booze did cause a rift in the station population, between the teetotalers and the drunks, a roughly 40/60 split in a winter South Pole Station population of 58. I’m not going to lie and say that I envied the games and movie nights of the teetotalers, as I played with them now and again, but we had our own games and movies in the bar.
Phil Broughton, left, doing a trick with liquid nitrogen in Club 90 South.
For the most part, the teetotalers were drawn from the science and operations staff. I couldn’t tell you if those who abstained did so due to peer pressure from within their clique, but a few people were or had been AA members back home. Trying to stay sober on Antarctica is impressive, but what I respect even more was those same AA members’ willingness to come into the bar and engage socially with its denizens in a way that others wouldn’t. “I don’t like the taste of alcohol” combined with a poor attitude toward those who don’t doesn’t make for kindred spirits.
The largest station, McMurdo, is unique for having three bars that all charged for drinks. Barbaric! South Pole and Palmer operated on the “bring some, take some” honor system. You want to drink in Club 90 South, you better put a bottle up on the shelf or beer in the case now and then. I formalized the honor bar a bit by making broadcast announcements of what the bar was lacking, but this didn’t necessarily go over well with management, as it was seen as “encouragement.”
Club 90 South was open 24/7/365. At first, during the “summer,” I volunteered only on Saturday nights. But by the time winter rolled around I was up there most every night doing my thing. This is the joy of an honor bar: Come on in any time, no one’s gonna charge you, so help yourself. You are, of course, supposed to be working during the day—but if it’s just you in the bar, and no one’s keeping a tab, who’s to say you were even drinking? (This is a very Zen alcoholic justification.)
Antarctica’s problem is that you’ve run as far as a person possibly can to escape. I heard about every relationship shattered by distance, and all the ones that ended before you even came here. The strings of jobs and homes and towns abandoned as you tried to make a new start.
Once you get to Antarctica, there’s nowhere further to go. Then the station closes for the winter, with no more flights for nine months. And when things start going wrong again—because the common denominator in all the situations you’ve fled from is you—you’re trapped. So you’d better get acquainted with yourself ... or you can just drink yourself to oblivion and kill the days so that you aren’t even there.
I recall pouring glass after glass of Crown Royal for a person that, against all odds, was still managing to sit on a stool and semi-coherently ask for another drink. There were three people that individually pulled me aside and said, “Dude, stop serving him. He is so far gone it’s not even funny.” They probably still blame me for serving irresponsibly.
As the months wore on, the alcohol consumption not only increased in quantity, but in alcohol content per drink.
I had a different perspective. I try to control the most serious danger and deal with others as they come up. The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the lethal environment. I was far happier to serve this guy until I could guide him to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85F night. I was doubly happy to be serving him in the bar rather than have him get to this state—or worse—alone.
A note about popular brands of liquor: As any bartender will tell you, bars have peculiar booze consumption characters. For the South Pole 2002–2003 winterovers, the booze of choice was Crown Royal, maybe because of the lovely felt bags the bottles came in. Every time a new bottle was opened, the bag got suspended from the Christmas lights over the bar, slowly making a curtain.
People have asked me, “How did you get all that booze down there?” While bulk cargo can be brought to McMurdo and Palmer by boat, everything that comes to Pole does so by plane. And they hauled a lot of liquor via C-130 to South Pole Station. I would describe the variety of booze in the ship store as comparable to a middling supermarket. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see both sweet vermouth and Makers Mark on the shelf, because it meant that I didn’t bring the Angostura bitters in my luggage for nothing, and that there would be Manhattans to drink all through winter.
The fact that I was in no danger of running out of Makers Mark or sweet vermouth is an interesting point, given that the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) and the contractor running the station had made a commitment to reduce alcohol dependence.
Turning the stations dry was, frankly, out of the question, though it was threatened. During the offload of the cargo vessel in McMurdo by the NAVCHAPS (US Navy Cargo Handling And Port Services), all the bars and booze sales shut down lest there be trouble. Meanwhile, the research vessels constantly circumnavigating the continent are always dry—not that this stops homebrewing in the finest of prison-wine traditions.
Booze sales also were a decent moneymaker for the contractor because, really, how many T-shirts are you going to sell to each person? Whereas alcohol, tobacco and candy have the potential for repeat business that souvenirs lack. People generally got some percentage of their Ice paycheck in cash and promptly went to the store to buy booze with it.
The last flight out from South Pole, before the station closed for the season.
As bartender that year, I was paying attention to our consumption rates and what things ran out when. At the end of the year, we still had more hard liquor than you could shake a stick at, except for Crown Royal. As a responsible bartender, I made a point of trying to alternate people’s booze with non-alcoholic options—but I ran out of everything but water damn early, including all sodas by mid-May, aka more than a month before midwinter. We had quite a few varieties of New Zealand beers available but they dwindled away one by one. Therefore, as the months wore on, the alcohol consumption not only increased in quantity, but in alcohol content per drink. By the end, I was regularly tossing out four to seven empty liquor bottles a night for a six to 12 people. This doesn’t jibe with a desire to reduce alcohol dependence, and the letter I wrote to the USAP and the contractor stating this got no response.
I’ve been told that the bar became much more central in the life of the station my year than it normally was, and that might partially be my fault. It was a standing complaint from the teetotalers that any event that happened always drifted to Club 90 South, or that the event just didn’t work because everyone was at the bar. Stitching these two groups together is a task our station manager had that I didn’t envy.
The solution implemented the following year was an HR representative from contractor HQ who stayed for the whole winter to help with problems, by doing such things as sitting in the bar and monitoring drinking habits. When I heard of this plan, I predicted that the HR rep would become the Most Hated Person at Pole. The result was a lot of solitary drinking and little crew cohesion, which made for a very hard winter. Being at the bottom of the globe for a year, surrounded by two-mile-thick ice sheets, is hard enough without trying to do it alone.
So while I have misgivings about my bartending in Antarctica, I still think it’s preferable to the alternative.
Phil Broughton is a radiation safety professional at UC Berkeley and the proprietor of Funranium Labs. He lives in Oakland, Calif., and swears he doesn't glow in the dark, despite all the plutonium.