A Bimonthly Bath, Penguin Porn, and Thou

Outside magazine, January 1996


A Bimonthly Bath, Penguin Porn, and Thou

New Year's greetings from Don and Margie McIntyre, wrapping up 365 long days of Antarctic togetherness
By Jack Barth


Last January, adventurers Don and Margie McIntyre left the warmth of Sydney, Australia, to set up housekeeping for a year on a rocky promontory above Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica. They arrived with four tons of food and equipment, low- and high-tech items ranging from a portable hut and the materials for Margie's souvenir teddy-bear project to satellite telephones and a fax machine. Yes, despite living in a human meat locker thousands of miles from the nearest AC outlet, Don, 41, and Margie, 35, are supremely wired. Their newsletters and telephone conferences have taken their saga to schools and news media all around the world.

The see-your-own-breath set has become fascinated with the McIntyres, who now conduct their interviews with the practiced bonhomie of veteran celebrities. When we spoke with them, austral spring had returned, and Don and Margie were searching for another couple to take over their honeymoon shack. After 12 months of living a claustrophobic white Christmas, they're now in the home stretch--they hope.

How's that ol' cabin fever going? Have you seen "The Shining"?
Don: As a rule, I try to stay away from the ax. Margie and I have been married 12 years, and we really don't get sick of each other. But when the weather's bad, which is most days, there's no place to go, and sometimes only being able to walk across one small room can be maddening. The worst thing is the wind. The screaming and howling is unbelievable.

Margie: When we first got here, we were busy setting up and didn't appreciate the 24 hours of sunlight. Then the sun disappeared, all the animals disappeared... That really got to me. I'd just burst into tears over anything.

How sweet is "Home, Sweet Home"?
Don: Our hut is eight feet by 12 feet and eight feet high. It's a little icebox made of Styrofoam, wood, fiberglass, and aluminum strips, with an escape hatch in the ceiling in case we get snowbound. Outside, we've got a plywood annex that holds our food in huge barrels. It's also our bathroom--well, where we keep the bucket.

Was it a fantasy before you went down there that you'd make animal friends--that penguins would bring you fish, stuff like that?
Don: Yeah. We've got a strict policy of not disturbing the penguins, but if you sit down, they'll come right up to you. They're friendly little critters.

Margie: After they left for the winter, I used to go out and pet the dead ones that were in the rookeries from last season. They were just perfect--freeze-dried and lying there. We put that into some of the school bulletins, and the kids thought I was turning into Morticia Addams or something.

Do you run your life on a timetable?
Don: Funnily enough, we do, because of all the phone schedules we make. At night, commercial radio signals from Australia and New Zealand reach us, so we ring up all the radio stations.

Do you always get through, or do the screeners sometimes say, "Whatta you wanna talk about?" and you say, "Well, I'm calling from Antarctica," and they say, "Yeah, so whatta you wanna talk about?"
Don: Oh, no, we always get the VIP treatment!

Do you have any shameless ideas for commercial tie-ins?
Don: We've had lots of ideas. We thought we should start a phone-sex service for penguins.

What else do you spend your time doing?
Don: Mostly basic chores around the hut--cooking, cleaning. It's pretty simple, but just surviving down here takes the whole day.

So what's the worst part of your daily routine? To me, it would have to be all those trips to the plywood annex.
Don: Yeah, it's basically the same temperature there as it is outside, so you try to get it over with as quick as you can. But what I really hate is the thaw: It's usually between ten and 14 degrees in the hut when we wake up. The walls and ceiling are completely frozen over with two inches of frost. Once we turn on the heater, everything melts. We can't take our boots off, and we have to cover the bed with a plastic sheet. At night, we turn off the heater, wait until the walls freeze up again, and then hop into bed.

Sounds cozy. What's the romance factor down there?
Don: Antarctica is one of the world's greatest places to make love. You can do it for an hour at a time--it takes 58 minutes to get your clothes off.

Ba-boom!
Margie: We're always in our clothes, always in smelly thermals.

Don: Margie has a bath every week, but I have one every two weeks.

You're not gaining a taste for that musky animal smell?
Margie: No! It's disgusting, like extract of bison or something. But it's just such an effort to get clean. Last week, while taking a bath, I leaned against the bars of the heater and ended up with three big stripes down my bottom. Luckily, there's plenty of ice to put on the burn.

Any unmiserable moments you can share?
Don: Margie is quite a good singer, and one evening she was outside singing "Ave Maria," hitting all the high notes. The sun was just going down, and hundreds of birds were flying around her. About five seconds after her big finale, there was a deafening roar. We ran over to the cliff, and sure enough, a two-mile-long iceberg had broken off and fallen into the ocean.

You've said you're prepared to stay another year if the ice doesn't break and your support boat is unable to fetch you.
Don: Yes, but...let's hope not.

You don't want to stay?
Don: No, no, not at all. When we got here we were so excited. I said to Margie, "This is fantastic. We could stay here for a couple of years." But in hindsight, a year's a long time.

Is it fair to say you'd do anything to get out?
Don: Well, yes, but we won't call for an air rescue or anything. We don't want any dramas. We've got enough food and supplies to live extremely well for another year and enough to survive for two years after that. If we really had to stretch it, we could eat seals and penguins and probably stay for five or ten years. The only jam is, we've run out of toilet paper. We miscalculated--forgot to factor in how much we used at work, not just at home.

You've said, "We're not explorers, we're not out to set any records, it's just something we personally wanted to do." Do you ever have moments when you have an icicle hanging from your nose, you're crouched over the bucket with no TP, and you think, "What are we doing? This is all just pointless"?
Don: Uh, yes, we do--but no, we don't. In any adventure, there are plenty of times when you wish you weren't there and you're thinking, "This is nuts. Why aren't we just living in our little house in the country and doing a bit of trout fishing?" But I know for a fact that there is this internal desire to go out and live life.

You've decided to help other couples "live life" there. Do you have anyone lined up?
Don: It's looking a bit shaggy at the moment. We'll transport everything, provide all the equipment. It'll only cost them about $77,000 plus food--which is a real deal. There's just one requirement: They have to get their appendixes taken out before they go, like Margie and I did.

Jack Barth wrote about being a Park Boy at Yosemite in the June 1995 issue.

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