Polar Privation:
Antarctic Life Proves
Hard Even for Those
Who Love Their Work

Boredom and Isolation Lead
Some to Alcohol, Drugs;
An Ideal Space Simulator

Seeing 'Cat Ballou' 87 Times
By Bryan Burrough

The Wall Street Journal, 12/10/85
(Copyright (c) 1985, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
{Second of two articles.}

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica -- It is Saturday night at one of the world's most remote outposts, and Navy steelworker Barton "Brillo" Prentiss is waving a bottle of high-octane Chilean liquor over his head. "I foresee adventure tonight," he shouts. The next day, after a sleepless night, he wanders glassy-eyed through the mess hall here, mumbling to himself.

Mr. Prentiss's drinking binge ends Monday morning as he stares with bloodshot eyes into a coffee cup. "I can't look myself in the mirror anymore," says Mr. Prentiss, who is 30 years old but appears to be 15 years older. "I drink too much."

Like many of the 1,000 U.S. sailors, scientists and others stationed here each year, Mr. Prentiss loves the unspoiled wilderness, the challenging work and the camaraderie, but he hates the boredom and isolation. "We work ourselves to death," he says, tears welling up in his eyes. "Then we drink ourselves to death."

Alcohol abuse is rampant in Antarctica. A University of Oklahoma study in 1970 estimated that the typical man here outdrinks his U.S. counterpart nine to one. And drug abuse is a nagging problem at the U.S. South Pole station, where, several Antarctic veterans say, marijuana has regularly been cultivated under lamps during past winters.

But alcohol and drugs are just two of the social and psychological problems of life on "the Ice," as it is known locally. The six-month-long Antarctic day can spark chronic insomnia known as the "big eye," while the six-month night can cause depression and mild paranoia or, in rare instances, can cause people to go berserk.

In contrast with Arctic stations, nothing moves in or out of Antarctica during the winter. The 100-below-zero temperatures rival those of Mars, and hurricane-force winds blow for days at a time. People who spend the winter here are so cut off from civilization that they have been known to fall to the ground and eat the first grass they see upon return to a U.S. base in New Zealand.

To the few psychologists who have braved these conditions, Antarctica is the world's best laboratory for studying the effects of prolonged isolation. Their findings have yielded valuable insights into how humans react under conditions of extreme stress and severe environments. "The Antarctic is the ideal simulator for space isolation and colonization," says Jay Shurley, a psychologist who pioneered behavioral studies here. "It's like living in a refrigerator."

The Soviets, who maintain seven scientific stations here, have already applied one lesson: According to NASA psychologists, cosmonauts have been forbidden to play chess in space ever since a Russian in the Antarctic murdered a colleague with an ax after losing a chess game.

Boredom and isolation-related troubles have plagued Antarctic expeditions since 1898, when the first group wintered here. Back then a sailor went insane aboard the icebound ship Belgica. The ship's doctor reported that psychological problems such as depression and insomnia caused by "the spell of the black Antarctic night" sparked more problems than scurvy and frostbite.

How boring is life in the Antarctic? People in one group wintering at the South Pole in the 1960s watched the film "Cat Ballou" 87 times. People in another, after tiring of the westerns, Disney features and pornographic films on hand, spliced the movies together into their own production and adopted a vocabulary based on their creation that was so strange that relief crews arriving in the spring could barely understand them.

At the McMurdo mess hall, Peter J. Crank, a Navy truck dispatcher, is a victim of what some psychologists have dubbed "the long eye" or "the Antarctic stare." He frequently finds himself gaping open-mouthed at the walls, sometimes with a forkful of meat or potatoes suspended halfway to his mouth. "If you stare at this wallpaper long enough, it starts to move," he says.

The living conditions here only make things worse. Showers are limited to twice a week to conserve water. And the dry air makes fire a constant worry. McMurdo's chief fire inspector calls the base a "fire trap."

Antarctica can be a claustrophobic person's nightmare. Buildings at the U.S. airfield here have airtight meat-locker doors. Blood-red letters flanking the door to a McMurdo dormitory nicknamed Hotel California repeat a line from the rock song of that name: "You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave." And when meteorologist Frank Gilpatrick took evening walks at the South Pole last winter, he had to use a survival rope linked to the station. "You held on or you didn't come back," he says.

Even in the summer, when temperatures may rise above freezing, the minutiae of daily life here loom large. McMurdo's naval commander, Capt. David A. Srite, recently appeared on the base's television station to settle a dispute over whether McMurdo's chili would be served with beans. "This is the kind of place where people get really excited about the lettuce," says Fred Glogower, a Navy psychologist. Televised public-service messages deal with such pressing matters as not flushing the toilet when the shower is occupied.

But the long Antarctic night stretches nerves especially taut. James Herpolsheimer, the assistant manager of McMurdo's biological labs, recalls feeling so emotionally drained by the monotony that he snarled repeatedly at a lazy colleague. "I didn't have to do it," he says. "But it felt so wonderful just to feel an emotion."

Dianne Grim, a 25-year-old clerk at McMurdo, feels plenty of emotion toward her husband, David, a Navy flier, but with no quarters for married Navy people here she gets to spend about 15 hours with him in a 36-day period. She ends up spending most of her free time in a dorm room with four square feet of floor space. "This place is like living in a submarine," she says.

Antarctica offers recreation that is suitable for neither the modest nor the faint of heart. Many trek to a tiny scientific base in the mysterious ice-free valleys region near McMurdo to immerse themselves naked in the icy waters of Lake Vanda. Several U.S. generals and a congressman have achieved membership in the Royal Vanda Swimming Club, which is restricted to the lake's skinny-dippers.

At the South Pole station, membership in the 300 Club is earned by leaping from a 200-degree sauna into 100-below air, again, naked. "Hug a Husky" day at New Zealand's Scott Base was quickly abandoned when a diplomat from New Zealand was bitten in the worst imaginable place after shedding his clothes and embracing one of the base's dogs.

Resisting the urge to drink is a constant struggle for many inhabitants here because alcohol is such a part of the culture. A recent visitor to the South Pole station heard scientific briefings interrupted by MASH-like intercom announcements paging drinking partners and ballyhooing an incoming cargo plane bearing a new brand of rum. "I'm already fighting it, and I've only been here a week," says Kevin Tighe, a 24-year-old telephone repairman at McMurdo. "I'm determined not to let it do to me what it's done to some others I know."

Several years ago, an alcoholic scientist became so belligerent at the South Pole that officials were forced to lock the liquor cabinet. When the scientist subsequently went berserk, it took the station's 16-man complement to restrain him.

Lawyers for some families of the 257 people who died in a New Zealand airliner crash here in 1979 contend that alcohol was involved in that disaster, Antarctica's worst. They charge that a senior U.S. military air-traffic controller was absent from his post, recovering from a drinking bout. A novice controller, they claim, led the plane on a path into a mountain. The Justice Department denies that alcohol was in any way related.

Drug use in Antarctica seems largely confined to the South Pole station, but it has apparently flourished there over several winters. Connie Deday, a cook at the pole two years ago, recalls watching members of her wintering group distribute home-grown marijuana free to new arrivals at winter's end. "They grow so much of it down at the South Pole it's unbelievable," says Kevin C. McDevitt, a Navy security guard who wintered at McMurdo last year. "Those guys were high all the time."

Diplomatic incidents have been touched off by drug use. At a delicate time in relations between the U.S. and New Zealand, New Zealand policemen boarded an Antarctica-bound U.S. military transport plane at the Christchurch airport to search for drugs. New Zealand, which claims the territory around McMurdo, has also been searching all Antarctica-bound U.S. mail for drugs, over U.S. objections, since 1981, when it discovered a dozen parcels containing marijuana or hashish. Today in Christchurch, a drug-sniffing black Labrador named Joe noses through luggage bound for U.S. bases.

Antarctica doesn't have any laws against drug use -- or much else. But the U.S. and other governments do their best to control it. The U.S. even staged a "bust" at the South Pole a few years ago during which seven pounds of marijuana seeds were hauled out, says John Ingram, a naval medical officer here. In any case, the Navy says, drug use in Antarctica is almost certainly less than at stateside bases, where drugs are more accessible.

The Navy conducts psychological testing among all of the people assigned to winter duty here, mainly to screen out potential alcoholics. And Steve Walton, a naval officer who conducts alcohol counseling at McMurdo, says drinking isn't any worse here than at U.S. bases. "It's part of the pioneer spirit," he says.

But skepticism about the Navy's methods abounds. "It's a joke," says Henry Koch, a communications technician at the South Pole, of the psychological exam. He recalls a 536-question test in which he was asked about everything from harassing animals to supernatural forces. Summer workers aren't screened at all, which enabled Mr. Prentiss, the steelworker, to return after undergoing an alcohol-rehabilitation program.

Despite the isolation and stress here, though, many people come back summer after summer, or remain for several winters. Most Navy people are assigned for three summers; civilians can stay as long as they have work and pass the Navy test. Some pursue hobbies or teach themselves foreign languages. Others find that the absence of distractions allows time for introspection. Michael Helms, a Navy helicopter pilot, spent hours here evaluating his life and eventually became a born-again Christian; he now hands out pamphlets he wrote proclaiming, "I was born again in Antarctica."

But for everyone, especially the winter residents, leaving Antarctica has the feel of being rescued from a desert island. Several describe wandering aimlessly, long-haired and pale-faced, through Christchurch's lush botanical gardens, gazing vacantly at schoolchildren and roses. Mr. Herpolsheimer, who smelled nothing more appealing than diesel fumes while wintering at McMurdo two years ago, recalls nearly fainting at his first whiff of a honeysuckle. He also startled passers-by on a Christchurch street when he gave chase to an alley cat, the first animal he had seen in months other than penguins and gulls.