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Living In Antarctica: A Conversation With Dave Barud

In recent decades, interest in Antarctica has grown in leaps and bounds. And, acting on their fascination, visitors—often taking ships from New Zealand or South America—are coming to this remote continent in ever-increasing numbers. In the early 1990s, for example, less than 5,000 travelers visited each year. Now, the annual estimates range between 35,000 and 40,000, and, by most expectations, this number will continue to grow steadily. And it certainly won’t hurt that, in December 2013,  Lonely Planet selected Antarctica one of the best travel destinations for 2014.

If you’ve ever considered visiting this truly unique destination, we thought you might enjoy hearing the reflections of someone who lived “on the ice” for 4 years. He is an American named Dave Barud. He began this adventure 8 years ago when he was 23 and, in the process, made history by becoming the youngest person to have consecutively wintered across all the U.S. Antarctic base camps.

What was life like for Dave on the world’s coldest, most isolated continent? Here are excerpts from an interview Chase Anderson from our staff had with him. Enjoy!

- Dan

Q. How did you end up in Antarctica, and what were you doing?

A. To make a long story short, I knew people who spend time down there. Contract work in Antarctica is considered science support. Scientists get grant money during the summer. But they need someone to cook their food, clean up after them, and build their buildings so they have somewhere to sleep. I found out about the program through some friends and went to a job fair.

I lowered my standards all the way down to washing dishes for 6 months, so I could have the opportunity to go down there. (He laughs.)

Q. How are the bases set up?

A. The United States Antarctic Program operates 3 year-round bases: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographic South Pole, and a third smaller base called Palmer Station just south of South America on the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s not always as rugged as you would think. The buildings are heated. We had TV, arcade games, pool tables, and parties. We put on our own concerts, just to keep ourselves entertained during the isolation. A lot of the equipment was already there because the Navy brought it when they operated the bases back in the 90s. A lot of it was collected from the recreational budget to keep people busy and keep morale high.

Beyond the 3 main bases there are a number of temporary field camps. They’re constructed during the summer season, and the scientists do science until the sun sets at the end of the summer, before it gets too cold to live out there. There are, of course, a number of other permanent bases operated by other countries, too.

Q. How hard was the adjustment to living in Antarctica?

A. (Dave laughs) It has been a more difficult transition coming back to life in modern society than it was initially going down there and getting used to the isolation. That was something I didn’t anticipate.

Q. What did you notice coming back?

A. I had really gotten used to living in small communities. I should say that these were by no means self-sufficient communities. When I’m talking about big screen TVs and arcade machines, I’m talking about all these things coming down in a very fuel-intensive process. These things are shipped from all around the world using boats and giant cargo planes. In no way was it a self-sufficient society, but it was a small group of like-minded individuals with the urge to get away from what they were used to and happened to find themselves together in Antarctica.

The adjustment going down to Antarctica was, I would say, more physiological than anything else. Getting used to the 24 hours of daylight in the summer and the 24 hours of darkness in the winter is difficult. The cold has a way of getting under your skin, both figuratively and literally. The time change from Mountain Standard Time to, depending on what base I was at, was either Australian time or East Coast Time or whatever was completely arbitrary. The time of day was just a matter of convention.

The workweek was something to get used to, too. I worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. Once I realized that this is it, this is my routine, the adjustment was rather simple and got easier with each deployment. But you get to know everyone down there. Everyone has a duty, everyone pitches in, everyone cleans up, everyone does dishes, everyone helps out. If anyone slacks off, everyone is affected. So we were all in it together.

Q. Speaking of the cold, how cold was it? Is it like the movies? Life-threatening cold? Were you ever in danger?

A. My first season, in the kitchen, was the most comfortable. After that I worked in logistics, basically a glorified home depot. I worked in warehousing, moving things around with forklifts and spending a lot of time outside. Regardless of the temperature, there was always work to be done outside, and we went outside to do it. The South Pole, as you might expect, was by far the coldest. The official low while I was there was -99 degrees Fahrenheit without wind-chill. With the wind-chill it was -113 and then some. I was outside for about 2½ hours and at that temperature absolutely it was life threatening. The best way I can describe it is you don’t get dressed to stay warm. You get bundled up to get cold as slowly as possible. We were on 5,000-6,000 calorie a day diets. I was eating handfuls of cookies with absolutely zero regret, and it was great. Cookies galore, non-stop cookies.

When you’re outside and your body comes into contact with any surface, the cold transfers to you so rapidly that you lose dexterity. I had to write with giant markers just to get work done. Just holding the marker I could feel the cold transferring through my layers into my fingers, into my thumbs. Every 10-15 minutes you just stop what you’re working on and start doing jumping jacks, doing push-ups, and running around or else the cold gets in really, really fast.

Q. Wow! That’s crazy.

A. I got frost nip multiple times. I believe my nose has suffered permanent damage. I have this red line on my nose that I believe is a permanent scar from when the wind got to it. It’s like being pinched. When you get frost nip it’s like early frostbite, but it’s only surface level stuff that doesn’t actually get in and destroy the tissue. It doesn’t require amputation. I still have all 10 fingers and 10 toes, but when I first got that frost nip it felt like someone was pinching me. My skin turned completely white, no color and afterwards over the next few days as it healed it dried up and started to peal like a sunburn. I got that over all my fingers, my toes, my forehead, cheeks, and my nose.

Q. And that’s because it killed the skin, right?

A. Yeah, just the surface level though like with a sunburn.

One of the most frustrating things about working in the cold was at Palmer Station. We worked there at a latitude that got rain, kind of a freezing rain, something completely different. The cool thing about that was we could make snowballs, but it was too dry at the South Pole and McMurdo for snowballs. The snow was quite dry, and you couldn’t make a snowball even if you tried. It was very frustrating being surrounded by all that snow and not being able to have a snowball fight.

But one of the frustrating things about it was it’s so cold and windy that you have to cover every inch of skin or else you get frostbite. That included wearing goggles, so as a person that has to wears glasses to see, and I don’t own contacts, within two minutes my glasses were completely fogged up. It was a constant challenge and very frustrating, but there was nothing I could do about it. I could either go without glasses and be blind or go without goggles and let my eyes freeze.

Q. Was your eyesight ever in danger?  

A. Occasionally what I would do was lift up my goggles and get my bearings real quick. You get familiar with the surroundings, artificial surroundings like buildings and berms. We used elevated piles of snow to store outdoor stuff that didn’t need to be kept warm. I would lift up my goggles for a couple of seconds and look around really quick, figure out where I was, and then put the goggles back on. I would do that every 30 seconds or so. I tried my best to make sure I wasn’t going to trip over anything.

There was a time I was walking, and the ground felt a little different all of a sudden. I realized I was having to exert myself a little more, so I took my goggles off, and it took me a couple seconds to realize this, but my legs were having to exert themselves because I was walking up one of those berms we used to store stuff on. All of sudden I’m 6 feet above the snow level, and, if I kept walking, I would have just completely fallen off and not known any better. (Dave laughs.)

Q. What kind of training did you have to go through to live in Antarctica?

There is a 2-day orientation in Denver, and we watched a video that showed ice, penguins, and people bundled up. That was about it. We went to New Zealand to a place called the Clothing Distribution Center and got bags of clothes. Then we watched another short video. If you can watch movies, zip your coat, and put on a pair of gloves you’re basically just as qualified as I was to go down there.

I’ll tell you the first time I went down to the South Pole, we flew in and the back hatch opened up. The cold filled the plane and we got our layers on. It wasn’t as cold as I described earlier, maybe -40 degrees, but everything you have on, no amount of training can prepare you for when you finally walk off that plane for the first time. I don’t remember what came first, but being hit with that wave of cold in my face as soon as I walked out and the wind was blowing. Or the site of absolutely nothing on the horizon in every direction. There really is no training in my opinion that can prepare you. It’s like instinct kicks in, and all you know is I have to stay warm, and this is the gear I have to accomplish that.

Q. It sounds exciting.

A. It is very exciting. I still remember walking off that plane and seeing South Pole Station there on stilts.

Q. Is there a red and white striped pole?

A. There is, yep, with a reflective ball on top.

Yep. It’s not at the actual geographic South Pole, it’s not even the ceremonial, but the pole itself sets the scene in front of the station. The actual South Pole moves. Well, the South Pole itself stays put. The base is moving because the ice is moving. Every year they have to move the official marker, and the reason they have to keep doing that is because the ice is shifting. But, yeah, right outside the main base is a big red and white pole with a big shiny ball on top, just like you see in the cartoons. (He laughs.)

Q. The first time you saw that did you just laugh?

A. I did, absolutely. I thought it was hilarious.

Q. What kind of interactions with wildlife did you have? Did you ever come across a polar bear or hundreds of penguins?

A. A common misconception is that polar bears live in Antarctica. They don’t. Polar bears only live in the Northern Hemisphere. If we think about this from an evolutionary perspective, we have penguins in the Southern Hemisphere. Penguins are flightless birds. The circumstances that enabled these birds, the ancestors of which were probably capable of flight but adapted to a sea-faring way of life, was the fact that there were no terrestrial predators like polar bears for them to run away from. Over so many millions of years these birds lost their ability to fly and favored their ability to swim.

So there is my long-winded answer, and I’m sorry that had nothing to do with your question but I can’t help myself. I am a student of biology.

But as far as wildlife went, McMurdo was fairly limited. I won’t attempt to describe where it was located, but it was about 78 degrees south latitude with a few penguins running around. I saw some whales and seals there, but mostly limited, from a distance, and no interactions. It’s pretty barren down there. The only “wildlife” was on Saturday nights when we didn’t have to work the next day. The wild life was quite extensive at Palmer Station, a fantastic experience. Multiple species of penguins year round, multiple species of seals to include the leopard seal, which is a beautiful creature.

We are governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which is a multi-national treaty that reserves Antarctica for peaceful purposes. Included in part of that is the protection of wildlife. So, we’re not allowed to interact with the critters that live there. But, if they come up to you and you’re standing still, that is allowed, and did happen. In certain places, it could feel like you were about to be trampled by penguins.

Q. Antarctica was quite the adventure for you. How did you say good-bye?

A. I’m still getting used to being back in the states. The toughest part about going down there was coming back. Even after 4 years back stateside, I’m still getting used to being back in the United States. I guess it would be odd to suggest that I’m not used to being back. I enjoy being back around friends, being back in Denver. I’m getting used to having a smart phone, which was a major transition, something new that happened when I was on the ice. I didn’t expect to have such a hard time getting used to being home again. I realize the extent to which I have changed on a regular basis. I would say it has been a long-term learning process.

I’m always trying to recruit people to go down there. My only complaint about being down there was being away from friends and family. It was a struggle. It is beautiful down there. I didn’t know what I expected the first time around, but I didn’t expect to go again and again. I could have continued to go down there year-after-year, and that’s why I decided to go back to school. I was on the verge of making it my career.

I was good at it. I was in my element when I was down there. When it would get really busy and a ship would come in, and we would have to get that time sensitive equipment to all the people that needed it. It was like conducting an orchestra. It was so much fun. I had my routine. I carried a pack of gum with me, and I swear I would chew that first piece of gum non-stop for 10 hours until the work was done.

It was great. It was interesting. It’s a 4-year part of my life with very little practical application to who I am now, or what I’m doing. My experience has no relevance to when I’m hanging out with people, unless they ask. It’s like being in prison. People just don’t come up and ask, “What was it like?” It’s just this 4-year gap that was a huge formative influence on me as an adult. I think about it every day. I yearn for it. I wouldn’t mind going back.

Q. Dave Barud, thank you for joining us!

A. Thank you for having me.