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.