The Path to the Pole

First off, if the terms “PQ” and “USAP” don’t mean anything to you, STOP READING RIGHT NOW. Go over to my previous post and read it. That’s okay – I’ll wait. You can hit the “back” button when you’re done, and it’ll be like nothing ever happened.

Okay – you’re back? Hey, that was quick.

The actual legwork started about a year ago. Beth, the all-grown-up kid sister of Ellen-of-the-breathtaking-letters, was the only person I knew who’d been to the Pole. She used to work as a hiring manager down there, and had overwintered a few times. Years earlier, when we’d crossed paths in southern Colorado, we’d gotten to talking about life in the waaaaay down under. She used a phrase – “beautiful desolation” – the same one used by Buzz Aldrin to describe his first impressions of the moonscape. It was one I used to describe some of my most formative encounters with raw nature. I told her about those moments, and she told me about life at the Pole. After a bit, she nodded at me knowingly. Said something like “Yeah, I think you’d like it there.”

So how to get there? Everyone at the Pole is either an NSF grantee or working under contract to Raytheon. If you’re a scientist, you can apply for NSF permission to go down for a week or two of research. It can take a couple of years to get that slot. Once you get that slot, the weather owns you: if the clouds don’t lift and you get to base four days late? Well, you’ve got 10 days left – they need you out of there on schedule for the next team that’s been waiting since 2008 for their two-week window. You can try again next season. You’re in, you do your stuff, and you’re out.

(Or at least, that’s the way it’s been described to me. Remember that I’ve not actually been down there yet.)

So the NSF route is hard as hell to get, and brutally subject to the caprice of weather, logistics, and the foibles of military aviation. Not easy on the heart. The other way to go is Raytheon. They run everything. The cooks, the plumbers, the fuelies and antenna riggers, the helpdesk guy and janitors – they’re all Raytheon contractors. And that, Beth told me, was the way to go.

For summer positions, the process starts in February or so, when everyone but the hard-cores, the over-winter gang, comes home. They all take a few weeks to recuperate before starting to work out their requirements for the next year. Wannabes for the US Antarctic Program start scouring for positions. You see something that looks promising? You put your resume in.

If you know anyone who’s been through the program, you email them. You’re veeeery careful not to bug them, but in the most polite way possible, learn everything you can about what’s needed to make it in that position. Buy them coffee, buy them lunch. Listen to their stories – Polies will have better stories than you do. Trust me. They will be polite when you tell them of one of your grand adventures, but by and large, they’re being polite. That thing you described? They’ve done it too, but it was -100F, and the jet fuel was frozen solid at the time.

If you’re lucky, you may cross paths with an actual hiring manager. Groveling is awkward. Listen to their stories.

Okay… let me cut this short.  If they think you might be appropriate for a position, they’ll say so, and lob a pile of paperwork at you. References, grade point averages, convictions, military service and security clearances.  You’ll get a few phone calls. Your references will get a few phone calls.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll get a call conditionally offering you the position as a primary. If you’re only somewhat lucky (that’s me) you may get an offer as an alternate. That means you don’t go unless one of the primaries has a nasty papier mache accident. Either way, you’ve beat the odds. It’s not as tough as getting selected by NASA, and probably not quite as hard as fighter pilot school. But it’s a helluva narrower chance than hitting an Ivy League school, landing a faculty position or landing a successful startup. Longest odds I’ve beaten since I married Devon (“awwww, that’s so sweet!”).

Regardless. You sign the offer, send it back, and unleash the mountain of paperwork that’s supposed to launch you over that “conditional” part of the offer.

You see, to really get the job, you first have to PQ.  Remember, that’s “physically qualify” (you did read the previous post, didn’t you?) – Raytheon and the USAP don’t want you dying down there, or becoming a herniated liability that they have to burn precious jet fuel to drag home (and never mind leaving the station without a driver/janitor/antenna rigger). So they want to make sure you’re a good bet.

I lost track of the paperwork after the first week (146 pages). I lost count of the medical exams after the second week (23 health care professionals). Eventually, you get it all in order, though – the EKG sheets, the dental x-rays, the textual descriptions of various bodily functions. Index it with post-its, slip it all in the FedEx envelope, give it a kiss, and send it off to Centennial, Colorado, where Raytheon bases their USAP team.

Then you wait. And bite your nails. And wait. One of the cover sheets says, very explicitly: once you’ve mailed us your medical packet, don’t call us for a status update. Really. We’ll call you. The way it’s written, you get the idea that if you do call them, the conversation will go something like “Ah yes, Mr. Cohn – let me look up your records. Here it is, now what did you want to know? Oh that’s nothing – it’s the sound of me setting fire to your file… Sorry – looks like we’ll have to start all over. Could you please send it in again?”

No, I don’t think they’d do that, but you don’t want to push things. Remember? The goal is to get to Antarctica.

Anyhow. Last Monday, I got email from Centennial saying that yes, I’ve PQ’ed. I can’t explain why that’s such a relief. But it is. And it meant it was time to start telling folks that I might be headed off on a roadtrip. Or a where-we’re-going-there-are-no-roads trip, which is significantly more scary.

Remember – there’s still only a small chance I’ll get to go. My offer is as an alternate, for computer tech support/helpdesk. A massive pay cut, to do a menial job under harsh working conditions. Damn, do I want this position. It would be from late October until February. Again, I only get to go if one of the primaries flakes out. And they’re both returning from last year, so they know what they’re getting into, and aren’t nearly as likely to flake.


2 responses to “The Path to the Pole

  1. Oof you didn't say that the primaries are returning from last year. That does make it long odds, I'm afraid.What do you think being approved this year means for getting another shot next year? I suspect you have already thought about the "try again next year" phase of this problem…. which could be another blog post.


  2. Pingback: Dead Trees, Ice, and Other Reasons I’ve Been so Quiet | David Pablo Cohn·

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