Eating to Stay Warm

One of the most important aspects of surviving in Antarctica is eating enough calories. But how they are delivered makes all the difference. Let us for a moment take a look at the good old times of the expeditions of the early 20th century. What the early adventurers took with them on the ice was the following (for a six-week journey of three people around Ross Island to Cape Crozier during the Winter Journey in 1911):

  • “Antarctic” biscuit - 135 lbs.
  • Pemmican - 110 lbs.
  • Butter - 21 lbs.
  • Salt - 3 lbs.
  • Tea - 4 lbs.
  • Oil - 21 lbs.

To me, that this list sounds a little scary. If I understand it correctly, pemmican is the equivalent of crushed jerky (dried meat) with oil, maybe with some berries added. Antarctic biscuits are essentially butter cookies. The two together, with a bit of melted snow, makes a stew known as hoosh. Yummy!

I am sure that we could survive on this hoosh for a while, but I am also very happy that we do not have to try. The food we eat at McMurdo is surprisingly varied. Any food group is represented, even salad, tomatoes, and the almighty avocado, which is worth its weight in gold when it is offered. We descend on it not unlike a swarm of Skuas, but maybe a bit more civilized. When “freshies” are available (because flights have made it past their weather delays), we get mangos, bananas, apples, and oranges. The hot food varies from stews, pastas, potatoes (fries), burgers, tacos, and burritos to house-made pizza.

It is easy to imagine that we would gain as much fat as the juvenile Weddell seals and that we would end up with a substantial blubber layer. Instead, after a long day in the field, a very big meal simply disappears in our stomachs as if nothing has happened! Simply being outside in the cold all day tires you out and just about doubles the calories you need to burn. Thank goodness, because the C-17 military transporter planes would struggle to carry 120 adult Weddell seals back to New Zealand.

Being in the cold for so long and burning so many calories, I can finally relate to the stories of my almost eighty-year-old mother, who often told us how she used to eat fifteen dumplings at once when they were available (when any food was available) during the bitter cold winters of the war and the years following, in the 1940s in eastern Europe. One can hardly imagine these conditions when in the comfortable position of a life in California or today’s Europe. But the hunger was real and painful, especially during those very cold winters. My grandmother worked outside during those conditions and used to come home with her coat frozen solid. It is fascinating to learn that what I find adventurous today, was simply part of surviving the winters for my parents’ generation.

We take the dangers of Antarctica very seriously. Whenever we venture onto the sea ice, we bring our extreme cold weather (ECW) clothes bag with us and a serious sixty-pound survival bag (one for two people), which includes a tent, cooker, sleeping bags, and food for three days. This is in case a vehicle breaks down, we can’t be reached quickly, and we need to survive under freezing cold conditions. Most days, we just venture out, with some hot water for drinks and provisions from the “grab-and-go section” of the cafeteria, and come home for dinner. However, on one of our 14-hour long work days, I was so hungry when we came home that I could not manage to serve myself the soup into a bowl and I spilled it. Only after I had three pieces of pizza I was able to function again. During these moments, we are getting a little closer to the experience of the early adventurers in Antarctica…but we are nowhere near close to their hardship, and that is okay!

Written by: Lars Tomanek

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Heather Liwanag