The Toughest Job at the South Pole is Inside – in the Dish Pit

Posted June 21st, 2016 at 11:03 am (UTC-4)
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Like the sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole, a never ending stream of dirty pots, pans and plates is a fact of life in the Dish Pit.

Like the sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole, a never ending stream of dirty pots, pans and plates is a fact of life in the Dish Pit.

Every job at the South Pole has unique challenges. Utility technicians walk maintenance rounds through every outbuilding and the main facility each day—7 miles (11 kilometers) on foot, most of it outside or in unheated wings of the station. The fuel specialists spend 9 hours a day, in a subterranean minus 50 F (minus 45 C) fuel arch, cleaning out steel fuel tanks the size of small swimming pools with five gallon (18 liter) buckets and scrub brushes. Plumbers come face to face with overflowing sewage lift stations, satellite communications engineers have to listen to the incessant groans and whines of those wanting faster internet, and the cooks have to turn 10- year-old frozen peas, skirt steak and spinach into something edible and tasty.

While on paper, battling the cold while standing in ankle-deep ponds of diesel fuel or preparing a freezer-burned pork shoulder without poisoning the entire station may sound like the most challenging of tasks one could be assigned in Antarctica, they are not. In fact, compared to being the galley’s dishwasher, they are a walk in a park on a sunny afternoon in Seattle, with a sugar cube under your tongue and a vanilla milkshake in your right hand.

Like all the hardest jobs out there, the South Pole Steward tends to be a self-recruited position. Only the baddest of the bad, bare knuckle boxers, bounty hunters and Alaskan barmaids choose to apply. They have the right type of mental strength for the gig, and see a year at the South Pole as a way to take a vacation from an otherwise dangerous, violent, nicotine-fueled life, without losing “street cred” among their peers back home. To work as the dishwasher at the South Pole is to “give zero [expletive deleted]”, and any man, women or kid who can manage to become that unfettered in life can do anything—not the least of which is scraping burnt bacon grease off cookie pans for 40+ hours a week.

Jennah, the South Pole Steward, is no bounty hunter, but she can throw a mean right hook, (or so I’m told), a skill that she may or may not have used in the past while working as a bartender at a dive bar in rural Alaska. She is petite, tattooed and into indie-rock and classical music, which she blasts all day through a pair of black Logitech computer speakers that sit on a high shelf in the back of the dish-pit, her work center.

When the going gets tough, the tough decorate their work station with cats, safety posters in foreign languages and blast Black Lips LPs at level 10.

When the going gets tough, the tough decorate their work station with cats, safety posters in foreign languages and blast Black Lips LPs at level 10.

For five days a week, breakfast and lunch, from 5 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, she cleans the plates, cutlery and culinary mess of 48 people. It’s a gross, soulless, demanding job—but somehow she manages to get through her weeks without losing it. She is probably the only one on station with the psychological fortitude to do what she does.

During the evenings and weekends, dishes are done by the community. This gives Jennah a break—so she can attend to other janitorial needs around the station.

Stainless steel counters, an industrial sterilizer, and a ton of concentrated soup make cleaning the stations culinary catastrophes easy and efficient. Too bad they can't replace the florescent lights--it’s a harsh continent.

Stainless steel counters, an industrial sterilizer, and a ton of concentrated soap make cleaning the stations culinary catastrophes easy and efficient. Too bad they can’t replace the florescent lights–it’s a harsh continent.

Dish-pit duty is split evenly among all those working at “Pole” (including scientists), making it approximately five weeks between your turns in the pit. Since the start of winter, the rotation has cycled three times, and I have spent three long evenings cleaning plates, taking out trash and using a paint scraper to excise burnt cheese off of aluminum pans. By the time the floors are mopped, stainless steel sink sterilized, plates re-stacked and silverware sorted, I’m exhausted and disgusted by all things food. It’s in this moment – when all I want to do is sit down on an overstuffed leather couch, light a cigarette and drink a high gravity Trappist beer – that I realize working as a scientists has made me soft, and no number of sub-zero marathons, years at sea or back alley brawls will make me as tough as a South Pole Steward.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

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