Interview with Clair Von Handorf

ClairClair answers questions about her life in Antarctica

Where do you live?

I was raised in Kentucky, but haven’t had a normal home since 2005.

What did you do before coming to the ice?

For a few years I had a desk job as a career counselor (irony). But I couldn’t take all that excitement so changed tracks: river guiding in Idaho and backcountry trail maintenance in New Hampshire (including emptying composting outhouses—stay in school, kids).

Clair in the trash Radioactive! Waste Management
Clair in the trash can
Waste Management
What made you decide to come to Antarctica in the first place?

I hate being cold. But love a challenge.

Where is the coldest place in Antarctica that you have been to?

South Pole in the summer. I think my coldest temp was around -60*F (not counting wind)

What is the most exciting (legal) thing that you have done here?

Polar Plunging and ice climbing.

What is the most dangerous situation you have been in down here?

Some of the chemicals I “get to” work with could be scary. But I haven’t grown a third eye… yet.

Does your heart get gloomy after days and days without sunlight?

Sometimes. There are definitely days when it weighs you down. It’s like having a week of really bad storms—it gets old after a while. But when the storm breaks, everything feels twenty times better than it did before the storm. It’s like that at the end of the winter—it’s the best feeling in the world to see the sun come back after a few months of Winter. And the darkness is beautiful too.

How do you vote in a US Presidential Election while on the ice?

It’s not easy, but can be done. Snail Mail—gotta keep the post office workers employed.

How many seasons have you spent on the ice?

I started in 2007. Now that I’m on the winter seasons, I haven’t been back to the States for a summer since 2008. Shesh.

What is your favorite part of the day here?

If it’s a work day, it totally depends on the weather. I work outside a lot so that affects everything. If it’s a day off, every part of the day is my favorite. We only get one day off a week so we REALLY appreciate that free time.

Many people are led to believe that you must survive months on end by eating only penguin meat; is this true?

Many people are weird and misguided.

What do you miss most about home?

My family’s dog… Oh, and my family too I guess. Being away from them while their lives are going on is tough—when I come home it’s hard to catch up. I miss the smell of cut grass, and flowers. I miss fresh fruit and waking up to birds chirping. I miss temperatures above 60*s. I miss having a ridiculous farmer’s tan.

If you’ve been to multiple USAP sites could you briefly describe what you like and don’t like about them?

I’ve spent 1 ½ years at McMurdo (not all at once). It’s the biggest station and it feels like a small town. There are so many people there that you don’t have time to get to know many of them. But McMurdo has several opportunities to get off station and go hiking, which I loved. In the winter, I saw some Aurora Australis and lots of nacreous clouds—which are amazing. I also spent one summer season at the South Pole, which was much smaller, but I was so busy with my work that there was no time to relax. But the challenge of being at the Pole made it worth it. For the past two years, I’ve wintered at Palmer Station and love it. I love my job, the wildlife is fascinating, and it’s easy to make friends that will last. Palmer is by far my favorite.

What is your role on station?

I’m the glorified Garbage Lady—we’re called “Wasties”. I’ll never work with waste anywhere else—but down here there are no bugs or rats, and smelly things freeze. My job, essentially, is to make sure trash doesn’t accumulate on station and make a mess—all waste leaves the station and we keep the environment as pristine as we can. We sort things into different categories—like glass, cardboard, aluminum cans, metal, etc. and then I take care of packaging it all up to be shipped out. The other part of my job is that I take care of the hazardous waste chemicals that the scientists produce, and this is the part of my job I really like—I learn all about what chemicals are toxic, flammable, corrosive, etc. I wish I would have paid better attention in my High School Chemistry class. I am also the station’s Fire Marshal, and am a member of the Search and Rescue teams.

Have you developed any interesting skills while on the ice?

I’ve learned a lot about hazardous chemicals, and fire fighting. I get to destroy things, which is always fun—like big broken crates. I also get to drive heavy equipment and fork lifts all over station—which is a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Two years ago I learned how to knit and now half the people on station have Clair Hats.

If you could bring one famous person to Antarctica who would it be?

About a year ago, I overheard this guy talking in a store about how all the ice in Antarctica has melted away and it’s all dirt now. I’d like him to come down and see that that’s not quite true. Sure, this guy isn’t famous, but given his intelligence, he’s bound to be a hit on Reality TV someday soon.

Do you believe Antarctica is the safest place to be during zombie apocalypse? If so, why? Further, is the promise of survival one of your main reasons for working here?

I love this question. If only because it doesn’t say “if there is a zombie apocalypse”, it says “during”. Like it’s inevitable. I guess it would depend on if zombies can swim, and if they are affected by the cold—can they freeze to “death”? I mean, they’re still full of blood, right? So as long as we can keep them outside long enough, I don’t see the big deal with the zombies. But because we’re all about safety at Palmer, we do have a Zombie Alarm installed—just in case. For the record, if they CAN’T swim, I’d much rather be working on some isolated tropical island paradise WHEN the zombie apocalypse happens.

Anyway, I’ve never seen a zombie, not outside of the movies of course. I have, however, seen clowns. Clowns Exist. And they freak me out. I have yet to see a clown at Palmer Station (I’ve seen one at McMurdo which is why I’ll never go back there). I DO think this has had an impact on my decision to keep coming back to Palmer. Hmmm, we don’t have a clown alarm down here—someone should get right on that.

What’s next for you?

I’ll probably return here for another winter next year. But as soon as I stop coming down here, I’d like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Beyond that, I have no clue.