From the Whites to “the Ice”
A Groundswell of OH Flock to Antarctica
By Peggy Dillon
WHEN parents deposit their teenagers at Pinkham Notch at the start of a hut career, they usually envision their sons and daughters working in the White Mountains for a few summers before settling down into mainstream jobs. As they head south down Route 16, few moms and dads realize that quite a few of their offspring will not only opt out of a staid post-hut existence but will also seek seasonal work in an even more exotic location: Antarctica.
That’s right. Since the late 1950s, some 70 former AMC North Country employees—collectively called OH for this article—have worked on the world’s coldest, iciest, and driest continent, half a world away from northern New England [see sidebar, “Who’s Been There?”]. Seeking adventure, scenery, money, or subsidized world travel, these intrepid OH have been willing to shovel snow, drive trucks, do carpentry, pack cargo, and even count widgets in sub-zero temperatures just to experience life on “the Ice.” But why?
“I think the people who are drawn to the AMC are the same kind of people who are drawn to work on the Ice,” said Ted Dettmar, who since working for the AMC in the ‘80s and ‘90s has spent nine seasons in Antarctica. OH willingly accept hard work for low pay and communal living in exchange for croo camaraderie and the fun of living in the White Mountains, he said; that same appeal holds in Antarctica, in addition to perks such as higher pay and the chance to travel since round-trip airfare is covered. Besides, the prospect of gallivanting through New Zealand for months afterwards is a potent lure for many OH to work in Antarctica. “If you want to get to New Zealand, you’ve got to get to the Ice,” said Ted. “And I think that’s what draws people down here.”
This OH presence over nearly half a century marks a small but noteworthy addition to the history of exploration and habitation in Antarctica, a continent larger that the United States and Mexico combined. Humans first laid eyes on the continent and landed there in the 1820s. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott arrived by ship in McMurdo Sound in 1902 and erected Discovery Hut, the first building in the region. In 1947, some 4,700 men arrived on the continent as part of the U.S. Navy’s Operation High Jump, the largest expedition to date. With the start of the International Geophysical Year in 1957, the U.S. and 11 other countries established 60 research stations on the continent. Two years later, in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed as a cooperative multinational agreement reserving the continent for peaceful purposes and international cooperation in scientific research. That same year, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) was established.
Over the years, USAP has been responsible for running four permanent stations: McMurdo, the logistics hub resembling a scruffy Arctic mining town located at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf; Amundsen-Scott South Pole, situated 9,300 feet above sea level at the continent’s center; Palmer, located on Anvers Island west of the Antarctic Peninsula in the “banana belt” just north of the Antarctic Circle; and Siple, located in the vast windblown expanse of West Antarctica and closed down in 1989. The entire American program is overseen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in conjunction with military and civilian contracting operations, the latter being—except for the early years—the draw for OH.
The first OH to go to the Ice was Bill Meserve, who worked on Madison’s 1958 croo during the last year that Joe Dodge was Huts Manager. The following year, Bill and fellow hutman Roger Hart were tapped to join a 1959-60 Antarctic geology expedition team led by Bob Nichols, Bill’s Tufts University geology professor and a veteran polar field researcher. After readying for the austral summer season—which in Antarctica spans from October through February, the length of time most people stay there at a single stretch—team members flew from the East Coast to California, Hawaii, Fiji, and New Zealand, before arriving at McMurdo in November. After organizing their gear, they flew in a Twin Otter across to Marble Point, on the other side of McMurdo Sound.
From there, the team sledged along the Sound’s western shore, studying raised beaches—areas of bare land that helped them approximate glacial thickness from an earlier time. They also headed into the continent’s Dry Valleys, a starkly beautiful region where they studied evidence of multiple glaciation. During their travels Bill and his colleagues found a leather strap thought to have come from Robert Falcon Scott’s Western Party, which half a century earlier took a different route from those on Scott’s doomed polar journey; and at the head of Granite Harbour they discovered a hut built by that same Western Party when they were trapped by an early freeze and forced to winter-over.
Bill’s group was also the first to extensively man-haul sleds since Ernest Shackleton and his men did after abandoning the Endurance. While that season was to be Bill’s only one on the ice, Roger returned during the 1960-61 season as part of another Tufts expedition, again led by Bob Nichols (an AMC member). Nichols subsequently got several hanging glaciers—including the adjacent Meserve and Hart Glaciers in the Wright Dry Valley—officially named after his field assistants; since then, the Meserve Glacier has become one of the world’s most widely studied glaciers for measuring glacial flow.
On the other side of the continent, Palmer Station was where several OH next found themselves. Hutman George Benton went in 1966 while serving on a Coast Guard cutter to help the Seabees build a second Palmer station, replacing the facility built years earlier several miles away. Joel Mumford, who from 1963 to 1969 worked at Madison and Greenleaf and on construction crew, did a year of service at Palmer in exchange for the Navy paying for his medical school training. In the fall of 1971, he flew from the states to Santiago, Chile, where he and 40 other scientists, grad students, and support staff traveled via icebreaker down the western coast of Chile and through the Straits of Magellan, the Drake Passage, and Deception Passage, until finally they arrived at Palmer Station December 1.
Over the next year, Joel juggled four roles by being the station’s medical officer, overseeing fuel supplies, coordinating ham radio functions, and heading search and rescue operations. Despite shouldering all those duties, Joel had plenty of unstructured time to wander around uncrevassed areas near the station, play pool and ping-pong, and watch movies (in pre-VCR and DVD days). He and his colleagues enjoyed excellent camaraderie, thanks to a commanding officer who knew the importance of keeping men in an isolated environment occupied with defined tasks.
A few more OH made the trip during the 1970s. In the last two months of 1976, former hutman Thom Davis worked as a field assistant in to George Denton, his University of Maine geology professor and an expert on glaciers, in the Dry Valleys. In 1979, Karl Wendelowski, who had run Pinkham during the mid- to late-1970s, left the AMC in June to be Palmer’s station manager (though he left midway through his year-long stay after the contractor changed hands). One of his jobs was to hire personnel for the Research Vessel Hero, the first vessel traveling from Argentina to the station that season, and when the ship’s cook contracted typhoid fever that October, Karl hired Joe Gill on short notice to fill in. Leaving his Tuckerman Ravine caretaker’s job, Joe quickly got his medical checkup and paperwork taken care of, then traveled to Buenos Aires and on to Tierra del Fuego, where he boarded the Hero. From there, until the ship went into drydock in January for repairs and Joe returned to New Hampshire, he prepared three meals a day, seven days a week for scientists and crew members, even as the boat tipped 50 degrees and was engulfed by 60-foot waves during the journey across the Drake Passage.
Pete Furtado, who between 1976 and 1984 worked at Cardigan Lodge and at Pinkham as storehouse manager and assistant manager, headed to the Ice in the fall of 1984 to winter- ` over as the South Pole’s Senior Materials Person. His job was to inventory a random assemblage of everything from tractor parts to office supplies, many stuffed in nooks and crannies and frostcovered from being stored at outside temperatures. “It was ridiculous,” he recalls. He also helped replace an old computer system operating with magnetic tape and paper tape reader with a newer disk-based system. It was also the station’s first season with satellite communications, which allowed Pete to have occasional phone conversations with his AMC girlfriend, Lori Dombek.
Pete Furtado gets ready to unload a cargo plane during his 1987-88 season at the South Pole.
After the summer crew left and the dark Antarctic winter enveloped Pete and other winter-overs, he noticed that workers who had to stay on a set schedule seemed edgier than the rest of the crew, who slid into a “freecycling” daily rhythm. By getting up and going to bed when they wanted after working, the freecyclers found that they woke up an hour or two later each day, which somehow made them less prone to flying off the handle. For the most part, the crew got along, though some drank too much; many of them—Pete included—went into a kind of slow, depressed mindset in which their own reality diverged from actual reality, with no outside forces to keep them in check. “I just slowed way, way down,” he said.
By the mid-1980s, the trickle of OH heading to the Ice was becoming a stream. Five AMCers went down for the 1985-86 summer season: Jon Martinson, Dennis Tupick, and Tim Axelson to McMurdo; Bob McCoy to Pole; and myself to the Beardmore Glacier field camp in the Transantarctic Mountains. Pete Furtado returned to the South Pole during the 1986-87 and 1987-88 summer seasons as the station’s materials specialist in charge of all cargo; when he decided not to return again he turned his job over to former hutwoman Nancy Brandt, who had just finished two seasons as a “cargoid” there. “She took over for me and I didn’t have to train anyone,” he recalled.
Peggy Dillon stands next to the Beardmore field camp sign on February 1986.
Jon Martinson spent the late 1980s on the ice after leaving his job as manager at Pinkham, where he’d worked for a decade. Having always been drawn to Siple’s modest size, remote location, and quietude—a small cluster of buildings covered with corrugated metal and 50 feet of snow—he had accepted a job there as a General Field Assistant for the 1985-86 season, but was then reassigned to work as a materials handler at McMurdo. The next summer, he worked in the Cargo Department on the Ice, helping streamline cargo operations at Pole and then Siple.
His third season on the ice, Jon finally got the job he wanted: Siple’s station manager. Besides running the station, he helped run field camps on Siple coast, and also helped plan the recovery of a crashed C-130 cargo plane in East Antarctica. At Siple, the main focus of research was a study of the ionosphere using Very Long Frequency (VLF) radio waves broadcast through four13-mile-long antennas. On his crew were Albie Pokrob, Mark Parent, and John Lingel, all of whom had worked at the Mount Washington Observatory. He returned the following season as station manager, but that year at the end of the season, the NSF ordered Siple shut down for good.
Joining the late-1980s groundswell heading for Antarctica was Mark Hitchcock, after he had worked AMC jobs since 1979 in the huts and storehouse and on construction crew. He headed to McMurdo in 1987 for what would be the first of 14 seasons there and at Pole in a variety of jobs, including carpenter, helicopter technician, tower rigger, and weather observer. An inveterate guitarist, he loved wintering over one particular season because he could immerse himself in his music; and every year down there he was in a band, once playing at a raucous winter-over Fourth of July party. There were downsides, too, such as working for difficult bosses, which led Mark to regard Antarctica as “summer camp for immature adults.”
By the early 1990s, OH were firmly entrenched in the culture of Antarctica; Mark and others said that around that time more than a dozen OH inhabited the continent during a given season, including Mark, Dennis Tupick, Randy Noring, Albie Pokrob, Kari Geick, Lee Ann Pipkin, Laura Capelle, John LaManna, Nancy Brandt, and Tom and Gloria Hutchings. A large percentage worked at South Pole, where the crew was growing at the same time a massive construction project was getting under way to replace the existing dome-covered station with a new elevated station.
Working on the Ice also attracted like-minded couples such as Albie Pokrob and Kacy Cuddy, Kara White and Jason Hunter, and Tom and Gloria Hutchings. Starting with caretaking the Garfield shelter in the mid-1980s, Tom and Gloria had also worked on construction crew, as shuttle drivers, and in the storehouse. After hearing OH buzz about going to the Ice, they decided to try it themselves. During the 1990-91 season, Gloria worked in the South Pole’s cargo department, transferring her knowledge of AMC logistics and trucking to the polar environment of unloading and distributing cargo from planes. Although civilian employees on the Ice are supposed to have one day off a week, Gloria and the two other loader drivers had almost no time off as they worked day and night to keep up with the 250-plus flights that summer season. Tom came down halfway through the season on a six-week contract as a General Field Assistant at McMurdo and Pole; when they finished work they embarked on what became a seasonal tradition: spending at least six weeks traveling, often in New Zealand.
Both worked at Pole the following season; the year after, Gloria, yearning for a change, worked in cargo at Palmer Station from May through August in what she recalls as her favorite season spent in Antarctica. Temperatures resembled those of New England, with four hours of daylight a day, spectacular colors, and animals everywhere. Her first night at the station, Gloria saw elephant seals, terns, and penguins, then went skiing on a nearby glacier. She worked two more seasons as logistics supervisor, then a season each at McMurdo and Palmer, before she and Tom started their family— although Tom still works some short seasons doing construction at Pole.
It was from Tom and Gloria that Rich Crowley found out about working on the Ice. He went down in October 1993 to be a radio operator with McMurdo; his wife, Melissa Sandifer, got a job working in the biology lab. In his three subsequent seasons at McMurdo, Rich worked at the computer help desk and as an e-mail administrator, followed by two years working on and off ships as a systems administrator. Job-wise, he recalls preferring working on ships, which traveled all over the continent, and he recalled an idyllic daily ritual of sipping a latte on shipdeck while looking out over the Pacific Ocean and watching albatrosses fly by. From a social perspective, though, he really liked the people and scenery. One memorable trip occurred two weeks into his first season, when he got to go on a boondoggle to the Dry Valleys; another time, he got to fly to Pole where, during a 75-minute pit stop, he visited the Hutchings.
Construction at the South Pole station had by the mid-1990s generated its own sub-universe of employees, including Jack Corbin, who recently finished his eighth consecutive austral summer season there. He worked for the AMC from 1974 to 1984 at Pinkham, Mizpah, and Madison, before collaborating with Joe Gill to do trail work for the Forest Service. Jack knew lots of AMCers who worked in Antarctica but was initially underwhelmed by the prospect of going himself, thinking to himself, “Why would anyone go down there to do construction?” He ultimately changed his mind after Randy Noring talked him into applying for a job, and in 1996-97 he went to Pole for his first austral summer season.
Jack’s trip, then and now, followed the modern-day trade route for Ice-bound civilians: Denver for orientation, then on to Los Angeles and then New Zealand, where at the airport’s Clothing Distribution Center he and others were outfitted with all necessary winter gear, including parkas, wind pants, long underwear, mouse boots, balaclavas, and mittens. The next leg of his trip was via cargo plane to McMurdo, where before pilots could bring him to Pole they had to wait for temperatures there to reach at least 60 degrees below zero, so planes could land without their fuel gumming up. Once workers arrive at the station, Jack said, they are advised to lie low their first day, because physically, going from sea level to the 9,300-foot elevation is “a real kick in the pants.”
People’s reactions to their arrival vary, Jack said, but for him it was immediately obvious “I think a lot of people, when they’re new to the South Pole, know right away whether they’re going to love it or hate it. And I knew right away that I was going to love it. It was really cold, really clean. The sky is so beautiful there. It’s such an intense blue, because of the elevation and the dryness— there’s no moisture in the air. I thought it was cool as hell.”
That first season, Jack worked on the early station upgrades and new construction that will culminate, around 2008, in a new elevated station that will include a new garage shop, balloon launch facility for weather balloons, cryogenics building for helium and nitrogen storage, and cargo facility. The improvements are intended to accommodate more people per season (now capped at 220, markedly up from 90 during Gloria Hutchings’ first season) and to modernize what is currently a sprawl of buildings clustered beneath the station’s dome, with mental arches spreading out from its sides.
After two seasons, Jack became a foreman before being promoted to his current job as construction coordinator for science construction at South Pole, which, he thinks, “is the coolest, sexiest job down there” because he gets to deal with scientists conducting research in astrophysics, atmospheric and ozone research, paleoclimatology, geophysical studies, snow and ice research, and meteorite collection. “We have over 30 science groups every year that come down to South Pole. Some of them are returning and some of them are new. And what they’re doing is fascinating and what they ask for is ridiculous a lot of times, so it’s a real challenge trying to figure out what their needs are and making them happy down there.”
With eight months of planning back at Denver headquarters and only 100 days of work during the austral summer, Jack said, “There’s no time to reminisce when you’re there; it’s just go-go-go.” A major counterbalance to work is traveling afterwards, which for him has included not just New Zealand but also southeast Asia. Life right at the station has its own fascinations, though. “It’s a real human drama,” he said. “It’s better than any soap opera or reality TV, because anything that can happen, will. Silly things happen; dumb things happen; very sad things happen,” such as someone finding out from his mandatory pre-travel physical that he has cancer. There’s also the paradox that “It’s the most remote place on earth, but you’re living elbow-to-elbow with all these stinky people.”
Another person who feels he had one of the continent’s great jobs is Ted Dettmar, who beginning in 1987 worked at Pinkham, Harvard Cabin, Tuckerman Ravine, shelters, and Camp Dodge as well as on trail crew. After seeing Tom and Gloria’s slides, he was initially tepid about the Ice, but figured he could put up with anything for four months in order to go to New Zealand. “But once I got down here, I just fell in love with the place,” he said of Antarctica during a phone call from McMurdo. Starting in 1994-95, he spent three seasons at McMurdo as a general assistant and working in waste management before landing his plum job in season four: field safety training and search and rescue, which he called “the best and worst of everything.”
Ted Dettmar mugs for the camera--with frost on his nose--while working at McMurdo Station.
On the one hand, there was glamour, excitement, and perks such as having access to all kinds of vehicles. “It’s said that the most powerful aphrodisiac on the continent is snowmobile keys,” Ted said. He and colleagues were station celebrities, constantly invited to parties. On the down side, being on call 24-and-7 meant that he always had to be ready to head anywhere on the continent and had to limit himself to one drink per party. “This is the one job where your reputation has a better time than you do,” he said. “Everyone knew we had lots of perks, and if it looked like we were abusing them it would look really bad for us, so we had to police ourselves.” Of course, these hardships were offset by awesome travel and adventure opportunities such as backpacking in the Dry Valleys, snowmobiling twice to the top of Mount Erebus, mingling with Emperor and Adelie penguins at Cape Royds, and climbing Mount Lister, which at 13,280 feet is the highest peak in the McMurdo area.
Some people, like Meghan Prentiss, found their life’s calling while on the Ice. After working at Carter, Madison, Galehead, and Zealand from 1993 to 1998, then spending a year at the Obs, Meghan was wondering what to do with her life when a former observer waxed enthusiastic about his time in Antarctica. She applied and was hired in the fall of 2000 as a winter-over meteorologist at South Pole. The summer was hectic as she contended with hourly weather observations, twice-daily weather balloon launchings, three crews a day, supervisors everywhere, and phones ringing constantly while she and colleagues transmitted their weather information around the world. Wintering over was much more leisurely, with six-hourly observations, once-a-day balloon launchings, and the chance to go off and watch a movie or relax once her work was done. Looking back, she compared the winter transition to “spending a summer at Lakes and then caretaking at Carter all winter,” hibernating through the dark months. During her winter-over, she also found time to fly the MMVSP flag, which she later gave to Brian Fowler at the 2002 OH reunion.
She recalls two especially memorable events during her year there. One was hearing about the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the eerie atmosphere that pervaded the station as President Bush’s address to the nation that same day was played on the public address system. The second was a medevac of a co-worker; the experience was one of those defining moments when she realized she wanted to go into medicine, and which led to her currently studying to become a physician’s assistant.
Meghan’s year left her with both a strong affinity for the continent and, at the same time, a definitive sense that she’s best off not trying to replicate the experience. She loved the relationships she forged there, and made life-long friends while wintering over. She also felt comforted by the predictable schedule—Wednesdays were always grilled cheese day—and she didn’t have to deal with mundane chores like paying bills and putting gas in the car. When Meghan got back to the states she felt inundated and overwhelmed by those same details. “I felt very comfortable and safe down there,” she said. Coming home caused reverse culture shock for her, because the American lifestyle seemed excessive after her year of wearing the same clothes over and over and savoring every morsel of non-frozen produce.
For the year Meghan was on the Ice, she had given up physical proximity to her family, and the isolation and dark contributed to short-term memory loss and a few gray hairs. A lot had changed while she was away, too; her grandfather had died and her niece was born. As much as she loved the Ice and the landscape and the people—she still misses it every day—she doesn’t know if she would want to commit herself to another whole year down there.
Everyone who went down to the Ice, though, remembers high points of the trip. One especially strong recollection for OH is of the continent’s natural beauty. Jon Martinson said one of the highlights for him was stepping off the plane at McMurdo for the first time and turning around to see the Royal Society Range. “I’ll never forget that and the exuberance that went through me because I finally got there,” he said. Pete Furtado was struck by both the flat whiteness of the polar plateau at 2 a.m. in the summer and auroras that stretched from horizon to horizon during the dark winter. Ted Dettmar said the best part was getting paid “for the privilege of being in an amazing place and seeing and doing amazing things.” And for Bill Meserve, it was “probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.”
Dennis Tupick, left, and Jon Martinson stand on a supply ship at McMurdo during the 1985-86 season.
Life on the Ice provided other highlights, too. Bob Gearheart, who worked at Tuckerman Ravine and in huts in the early 1970s, especially liked the 24-hour daylight when he worked at McMurdo in the early 1990s as an electrician’s helper. “It gave me boundless energy,” he said. Mark Hitchcock especially liked the sense of community he felt during his three seasons at the South Pole. He was also thrilled to travel to exotic locales such as the Allen Hills, or to fly across the polar plateau en route to the Robinson Glacier and to see mountains across the horizon and crevasses big enough to engulf a plane (though that particular trip did prompt him to observe that “If something went wrong, we would be so utterly hosed beyond belief. There would be no return.”). And for Tom and Gloria Hutchings, Antarctica got so deeply into their blood that in 1998, after they returned home to Jackson, New Hampshire, they started the Antarctic Connection, a web-based business, to stay in touch with the world they’d known on the Ice.
It makes sense that people would want to maintain some connection with the experience, because living and working in Antarctica isn’t like doing anything else. Sure, McMurdo offers a semblance of normality with swing dance, sign language, and yoga classes; and washing dishes and cooking at Beardmore was a lot like washing dishes and cooking in the huts. But then there are just moments people on the Ice don’t have anywhere else, like joining the South Pole’s 300 Club by sprinting naked around the geological South Pole in 100-below-zero weather after jumping into a 200-degree sauna. Or attending Icestock, McMurdo’s annual New Year’s Day live concert. Or watching Emperor and Adelie penguins waddle across the frozen ground. Or getting to your job by flying for eight hours between New Zealand and Antarctica in the cargo hold of a military plane. Even being issued dog tags—in case you’re in a plane crash and authorities have to identify your remains—has a certain exotic, albeit dark, mystique.
In the nearly 50 years that have passed between Bill Meserve’s season and that of the OH who just left the ice this past February, much has changed. The military presence that all but dominated the continent in the mid-20th century has given way to much more dominant civilian contractor participation. Women were nowhere to be seen as recently as the early 1970s; now they account for about a third of the continent’s population. The occasional telephone call via ham radio patch has been augmented by e-mail access for all employees—and even the ability at McMurdo to watch the Super Bowl in real time. What was once a truly isolated continent is today much more connected to the rest of the world, due not only to communications advances but also to the proliferation of polar tourism.
For OH who worked in Antarctica, however, what seems timeless for most of us is the same sense of connection and nostalgia that we feel when looking back on hut days. Joel Mumford said that going through his vast collection of photos he took at Palmer brings back a wave of fond memories. “It’s something I’ll always cherish,” he said, “and I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars.”
Peggy “Peggles” Dillon worked at PNC as summer kitchen and winter deskie croo, 1979-1980; Mizpah croo, summer 1980; floater caretaker, fall 1980; Galehead assistant hutmaster, summer 1981; took summer off 1982; Madison assistant hutmaster, summer 1983; trucker, fall 1983; and Galehead hutmaster, summer 1984. She was the first woman to spend the winter as a weather observer atop Mount Washington, fall 1984-spring 1985; and she was a cook at the Beardmore Glacier Field Camp in Antarctica, austral summer 1985-86. She has since worked as a newspaper and magazine writer, historian, speechwriter, and teacher. She lives in Mount Rainier, Maryland.
Who’s Been There?
Some 70 current and former Appalachian Mountain Club employees have worked in Antarctica, including hut croos, Pinkham weenies, storehouse folks, AMC managers, hut and shelter caretakers, construction and trail crews, and research staff. The term “OH” has been used here to apply to them all, as well as to Mount Washington Observatory weather observers, since Joe Dodge helped found the Obs. I aimed for accuracy in this article and listing, but if you find any errors or omissions, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. —“Peggles” Dillon