The Antarctic Sun is a newsletter/newspaper published weekly by Raytheon Polar Services Staff stationed at McMurdo station in the Austral Summer (early October to early February) every year. Versions of the newspaper in HTML or PDF format can be found at the RPSC website --> http://www.polar.org/antsun/ The paper is printed in black and white on a Xerox printer in the Sun offices in building 155 at McMurdo station and distributed by the editoral staff around the station. On publication day, if you're eating at the galley, a staffer is likely to hand you a copy of the Sun while you're eating your scrambled eggs and drinking reconstituted powdered milk.

Some background and comment:

The Antarctic Sun is an instrument of the National Science Foundation, and so its pages and editorial content are closely scrutinized by the NSF. Its articles tend toward the scientific, and any strong opinions tend to be neutralized by the effects of government funding. Political correctness is de rigueur. The purpose of the Sun is both to inform Antarctic program participants about events around the continent, but also to keep the public informed and interested.

This is an important point as most news of Antarctica is channeled through major networks--CNN, the BBC, and the Australian News Networks. These channels are closely monitored by the NSF for simple, understandable reasons. Human nature is what it is. A couple hundred people operating in close quarters under continual duress creates a nuclear-submarine-like atmosphere; without the structure of military command or an iconic leader like a sub captain they are liable to exhibit behavior not completely comprehensible by people living under normal society rules. (My belief is this is understood as a part of the program.)

The U.S. budget for Antarctic operations is miniscule in comparison with most government programs--only about $200 Million/yr. Antarctica is felt to be important for tactical (read: military) reasons as well as science, and the sum is a small amount to spend to keep a foothold at the bottom of the earth.

However, our society is "sound-bite driven". Were the American public to discover condoms are distributed by the bucketload per week at McMurdo, questions would be raised the NSF would be required to answer both in the press and in front of congress. (What kind of science requires hundreds of condoms per week, anyway?) Irrespective of the fact the program expects a side-effect of Antarctic exploration is behavior that necessitates the distribution of such a volume of birth-control, it's clear that some things are best left out of the press.

In 2000, almost 50 people scheduled to winter over at McMurdo were airlifted out in an unprecidented late-season run. Reasons were never officially given, though rumors abound the population divided spontaneously into groups who threatened violence against each other. When the plane came in to remove disciplined workers, many people rushed for the chance to get off the continent before winter set in. While the evacuation was widely publicized, no reasons were ever given.

In 1999, an astronomer wintering over at the Pole fell dead suddenly on a routine walk between two buildings. A post-mortem blood chemistry showed the presence of trace substances normally found as the result of a sloppy distillation process. This data never made it to the press, nor would the information have been of any use to the public. Do we really want to stop astronomers isolated for nine-months per year in near and total darkness at temperatures below -100F at 13,000 feet altitude from playing with amateur distilleries as a means of entertainment? Yet we know that would be the result of an inquiry should the data have been released.

And of course, it is well-known among ice people that during one winter-over season in the 1990's, a Pole staffer "went crazy" and sunk an ice adz into the station manager's skull. He was subdued by the rest of the team and locked up for the duration of his stay. (As there is no law in antarctica, it is not clear he was ever prosecuted criminally for the murder. He did wind up in an insane asylum.) This story never appeared in the press.

One more benign example is in an article the Sun published last year while I was on the ice. The story centered around the tunnel drilling operations at Pole station. The machine they use to gouge ice tunnels (large enough for humans and machinery to pass through) is a jury-rigged mechanism designed and built by Antarctic personnel affectionately known as "El Chingazo Grande" (sic). El Chingazo is a very tempermental device and spends more time under repair than in use. But it is the only piece of equipment that can be used to bore ice tunnels.

The Sun carried an amusing article about an "exorcism" held by Pole personnel to remove the demons of malfunction that plagued El Chingazo.

After the story circulated, the NSF requested the issue pulled. The Sun staff removed the files from their website and collected all paper copies distributed around the bases.

Not only did the NSF object to the religious connotation of an "exorcism", but apparently the term "El Chingazo Grande" can be translated from the colloquial Spanish to English mean something akin to "The Big Fuck". The NSF felt this was not family-hour reading, and should USA Today, or The New York Times pick up the article as they have been wont to do on occasion, negative repercussions were possible.

None of this legendary Antarctic folklore ever made it to the pages of any newspaper or any television screen. You should not expect "juicy bits" from Antarctica, ever.

The staff:

The editor-in-chief of the Antarctic Sun is Kristan Hutchenson-Sabatini, known to her ice friends as "Stan". She is joined on staff by her husband Mark, and several other staff writers and photographers who change yearly. All Antarctic Sun personnel have extensive backgrounds in journalism.

As with most ice people, Stan's story is imbued with tales of the effects of weird karma and her incredible determination.

People are "called" to Antarctica the way Roy Neary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was called to Devil's Tower in Wyoming. People with the calling will do everything legal, and most things illegal to get to their righteous place on the ice. (I've yet to meet one who can explain why.) It is said that in Antarctica there are successful trial lawyers cleaning toilets, Nobel prize winners chipping the ice off bulldozers, and brain surgeons bussing tables.

There is no hyperbole in that statement. Whatever force calls people to the seventh continent gives them no difficulty in setting aside pride and the trappings of real life for servitude in the earth's harshest environment. (Perhaps we all really seek hell.)

Stan got her first deployment on the ice by signing on as a janitor. For reasons inconceivable to her freshly-minted husband, she chose to abandon her secure job as an editor at the Juneau Empire and leave him in their first year of marriage to clean toilets and mop floors for six months in McMurdo station for the equivalent of minimum wage.

Tales and pictures of Stan's first season on the ice can be found at: http://www.ptialaska.net/~crayola/antarctica.html

I met Stan electronically while doing research for my novel. I had encountered her website, dutifully updated by her husband while he pined away for her in the harsh Alaskan winter. She answered many of my questions and gave me the sly Antarctic, "best of luck" when I suggested to her I was trying to find my own way down. Every year thousands of web surfers suggest they're going to find a way down to the ice. As far as any of us can tell, nobody succeeds.

She amazed me by describing how at any time she could walk to Hut Point and touch Scott's Hut. She could even get the key and go into the hut. To an Antarctic buff, this was the holy equivalent of suggesting she had found Noah's Ark intact and could sit in the stalls where the elephants were kept.

Ice people are very lucky people indeed. And as Stan's luck would have it, after several weeks scrubbing dirty urinals and keeping the condom bucket filled, a vacancy appeared on the Antarctic Sun for a staff reporter. Stan applied and got the job.

And the strange luck held: Stan spent quite a bit of time with a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal who was doing an extended report on life in Antarctica. The reporter was an avid astrophotographer and accomplished mountaineer. He made daily reports back to the paper (they can be found on the newspaper's web site) and focused on Wisconsiners on the ice.

Oddly enough, the reporter had the same rare and elongated Italian last name I have and looks like my brother. (I did strike up an electronic conversation with this guy, and we remain in contact to this date. I hope to see him on the ice in person this year.)

After her first year writing, Stan landed the position of editor for the 2001-2002 season. That year she was able to get a staff position for her husband, Mark, and the two of them worked side-by-side (literally) in the Antarctic Sun office on "Highway One" in building 155 on McMurdo station. (Highway One is not a road, but rather, the main corridor in building 155. Building 155 houses the galley, a barber shop, the station store, several computer rooms where personnel can access the internet, and a number of administrative offices. New York National Guard airlift schedules and manifests for those arriving/departing the ice are posted in the main hallway.)

Stan has a degree in journalism and is an experienced outdoors writer, having written for many major magazines and newspapers. She was featured in the December 2001 issue of National Geographic after helping that reporter gain access to several wildlife areas. She works regularly with all the major US media channels as well as European, Australian, and Asian news agencies.

I met Stan for the first time in person in the galley at breakfast. My ice-boss recognized her standing in line for a croissant and jam, and called out to her. She recognized him from his yearly trips to the ice. And then he introduced me.

She was much shorter, thinner, and more muscular than any of her pictures had indicated. Towering over her like a massive rock about to fall from an eroding cliff face, I offered her my hand and said something intelligent like, "Hi Stan, it's me."

When she realized who I was she took two steps backward, mouth agape. I could see her running backward through all the e-mail she'd ever sent me to determine if she'd ever said anything that could make meeting me in person a dangerous proposition.

"I can't believe you made it," was what she said instead of, "Hi."

She said, "Everybody says they're coming down, but they never do."

I said, "I guess I'm not everybody."

"Congratulations," she said. "Now you're going to find out what it's really all about."

And I did.

Later that season my ice boss got Stan a helicopter ride out to the Taylor Valley where we were doing our experimentation. I got to show Stan my electronic handiwork. By the time she showed up I had been in the Valley for a couple of weeks and so was an old hand. My ice boss took videos of Stan and I strolling around the glaciers, and Stan interviewed my boss about his work in generating green power. The article appeared in the Sun the week after I returned to the world.

Epilogue: I've stayed in touch with my ice friends during the off-season. Stan and Mark will return to their posts at the Antarctic Sun in early October. If all goes well I'll share Thanksgiving turkey dinner again with them this year at McMurdo. My reporter friend with whom I share a name is still working on returning to the ice this season. I hope to see him, too.

Strange and severe events will continue to occur in Antarctica. People will continue to respond to that etherial calling that makes us drop our real lives to travel to places nature clearly did not mean for us to be. People will ski off the flagged routes and fall into crevasses and die. Helicopters will crash. Daring rescues will be made. The Antarctic Sun will continue to publish stories about ice cores and penguin breeding. The condom buckets in the restrooms in 155 will be filled and refilled.

Because that's what people do.

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