It wasn’t my intention to begin my column about drinking in Antarctica while sitting at the bar at 8am on a Tuesday, but now that it’s happened, it seems like a very fitting start to these cold- and bourbon-fueled insights into alcohol enthusiasm at the end of the world. My name is Tessa and I’m a vagabond artist and voluntary canary down the coal mine currently working as a cook down at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. For the next fourish months, I’ll be working and drinking from my little home on the Ross Island Ice Shelf, and will be regaling you with tales of inebriation from the very, very deep South.
As you might imagine, there is a quite a bit of drinking that goes on down here. At the peak of summer season—which, this being the Southern hemisphere, is October through February—there are approximately 1,100 people on station, and all of us are working ten hours a day, six days a week. When we do get free time, there are a limited number of ways to spend it, and the weather often precludes doing anything outdoors.
Thankfully, there are three bars. One is technically the coffee house, but seeing as it serves wine and whiskey, it’s effectively just the bar that happens to have an espresso machine and an above average assortment of strange and antiquated board games. More on that later—there are some real gems that have accumulated here over the years, including one board game with the unfortunate name of “Probe.”
But that is a report for a later date. Today I found myself sitting at a bar called Southern Exposure. The bars here are remarkably normal. You walk in from the cold and take off your winter coat, and aside from the novelty of your winter coat being approximately the size of a small country, you enter into the same pool table and shuffle board and random football game on TV that you might encounter at any ramshackle dive bar back in the States.
Today was my first day off since arriving on the ice, and I wandered into the dining hall around 7 this morning with no idea of what to do with myself because it was negative four degrees and storming and the weather advisory curtailed all recreational outdoor travel. Thankfully, a friend who works Mid Rats (Mid Rats=midnight shift, which is 10pm-8am) was just getting off work, and she told me about a wonderful thing called Day Bar.
The majority of people here are on Town Schedule, which means working 7:30am-5:30pm, but there are about 200 people who work nights. And since it would be a travesty for them to have to spend their sojourn on the ice in painful sobriety, there is Day Bar: the bars open in the mornings between 6-11am.
I should take a moment to mention that the division between day and night is a little different down here. There is no actual night at this time of year; there is something that remotely approaches a sunset, in that the sun does sink a little lower, and the sparse expanse of white and subtle blues takes on a few washes of orange. But if you drunkenly walk out of a bar at midnight, the sun is still up, and you still need to wear you glacier glasses so your eyes don’t get sunburned. I imagine it will take some getting used to, and I doubt that four months down here will be enough for me to grow accustomed to this.
Anyways, I headed to the bar at a little before 8am with no intention of drinking, but then it was a friend’s birthday and one thing led to another… After a few whiskey gingers and a plan to start a figure drawing group in which the models wear Antarctica shaped pasties with the National Science Foundation’s logo on them so as to get around the National Antarctic Program’s issues with nudity, it suddenly dawned on me that the thing to do was to begin this series of columns. And so, dear reader, welcome to “Whiskey gingers at the end of the world.”
Want to read more of Tessa’s adventures at the end of the world? Check back here regularly, and visit her blog.