A (somewhat) practical guide to becoming the McMurdo Foursquare Mayor

Having just completed, winter setting over the always icy shores of McMurdo Station in Antarctica, my second trip to the final accessible civilian outpost on the southernmost continent of the planet, I am often asked how the heck does someone get to go to McMurdo. Here’s a quick and dirty guide:

To keep it with a popular meme: one does not simply walk into McMurdo. As one of the last harsh outposts in the world, only slightly less so than Sahel and – while noticeably easier to get to – competing in desirability with a trip to the ISS, McMurdo has its choice of picks among qualified candidates. Going there “for fun” is almost impossible, the only real ways to make the cut are science, work, or the arts.

The arts seem the most random yet also somewhat easiest. The American part of the station is maintained and financed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which awards infrequent grants to writers and artists with a legitimate interest in the continent and a reason to be there. From children’s books to thrillers and photo journalists, the “Antarctic Writers & Artists” program will get you there if someone with grant writing capabilities makes you look good enough to go.

Like all the ways to get to the station this isn’t just a matter of qualifying technically. McMurdo has only limited medical and other support facilities so being in good physical and mental shape is somewhat a must. All applicants are checked by medical staff stateside, run against a number of databases against being at least not a murderous lunatic, and interviewed by men and women in suits who never smile.

Writing isn’t the only craft to get you to Antarctica. Cooks, plumbers, mechanics, builders, riggers, and other physical labours are also in demand. Guess you’re not so sure your CS degree can get you anywhere anymore, eh? Competition is fierce and unlike oil rig or war zone work, snow duty (as it is unofficially called) pays a meager wage and doesn’t come with great benefits. As a cook at McMurdo I spent more time trying to figure out how to pay my rent and recurring costs at home than hiking or surveying the landscape. The former, by the way, is severely limited. In 2006 scientists found hundreds of dead penguins which had fallen into the knee-deep holes made by scientists and hikers into the not yet firmed up summer snow and were caught without a means to get out. Since then all trail walking is strictly controlled and almost impossible solo outside of the snow-free areas in high summer.

Be prepared to be stuck in a town the size of three football fields for the duration of your stay.

Speaking of crafts – not all crafts are needed at the station itself. Aside from a small core staff, many of which live at the station and aren’t about to leave to make room for the dozens or so of interested newcomers, anything that can be done remotely is done so. IT, CS, comms, even medical and education departments work from Washington, LA, Hawaii (now, there is a place to work, warm, water, sun, drinks, and about the same number of penguins to see, zoo and all).

Scientists are the exception to the “should be able to use their hands for something” rule. If it wasn’t so cold, no trees, and no planet destroying lasers, McMurdo could be TV’s Eureka. Rule is, more or less, that if the person doesn’t wear a uniform or has calloused hands they’re likely smarter than you. Atmospheric research, biology, chemistry, and astronomy are the most likely disciplines to get NSF grants or be hired by one of the US companies sending scientists to the station.

Joining the military is the least likely but still viable path. Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force operate presences on the shelf, each with their own agenda and differing requirements. In fact, stateside, the only other McMurdo Stamp holders I have met are current or former Coast Guard on loan to the Navy’s missile and surveillance program.

Finally, there’s money and influence. Being a senator or congressperson comes with perks including access to remote locations such as this one. Being an aide to such a person might work as well, depending on one’s powers of persuasion. If your name happens to be Branson, Page, Brin, or Gates there’s a pretty high likelihood someone will fly or let you fly into the station, too. Could be helpful to have a few number one hits as well or to have been on the receiving end of an Oscar. Bottom line is that if you can pay your fare, civilian offerings start somewhere in the mid-$20k range and are rare unless you also own a plane, there’s a way to get there. Just be prepared not to leave for a few days over your stay (and pay for it) as you wait out inclement weather.

In all those, there’s still the question “why”. Going through all this to be locked into a small town and watch snow flakes? If that’s what you want, go to Laramie, WY, bigger, and better coffee to boot. Plus there’s a chance you’ll be able to drive to Colorado in the summer months. Though, I admit it, having been the Foursquare Mayor of McMurdo Station is somewhat a claim to fame for me and it is, there’s no doubt about it, a great conversation piece.

If you seriously want to hit McMurdo station ping me on Twitter, G+, or email me. I know little about the grants or NSF jobs but I know cooking and how to do it in -24 degrees Celsius.

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