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Stephen and Linda Sivley at Observation Hill. The cross marks the place where explorer Robert F. Scott and his men died in 1912.
Photo by Dale Rivers
Stephen and Linda Sivley at Observation Hill. The cross marks the place where explorer Robert F. Scott and his men died in 1912.

Antarctica Or Bust
Hartselle couple spend 10 months living, working in below-freezing conditions

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com· 340-2469

HARTSELLE — So tell me what you would do if you had the opportunity to work either in sunny California or for 10 months where the temperature is below freezing.

You’d probably say California.

Now let’s say you’re adventurous and you want to visit parts of the world you’ve never seen.

Does Antarctica sound like a place you’d want to work?

Before you answer, let me tell you a little about the place. It’s the southernmost continent and includes the South Pole. On average, it’s the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth and has the highest elevation in the world.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s the cold side of purgatory.

Stephen and Linda Sivley of Hartselle didn’t see it that way.

When Raytheon Polar Services made the call for pipe insulators, the Sivleys answered, in part, because they had never been to Antarctica.

“I said let’s try it,” Stephen recalled.

“I was willing to go,” his wife said.

So for 10 months between November 2004 and September 2005, the couple worked in conditions that by any standards were bone-chilling.

Every time they went outside for one second, they had to carry survival gear and wear a suit that weighed 32 pounds.

“If you step outside without your equipment on, your bones start to hurt immediately,” Linda said. “It’s a pain like you’ve never had before.”

During Antarctica’s summer months between October and February, the temperature range was between minus 10 and 30 degrees.

In winter, the temperature ranged between minus 20 and minus 84 degrees.

“There was one day that the wind chill was minus 112 degrees,” Stephen said.

The Sivleys’ journey to what they called the “harshest” place on earth started in May 2004 when they applied online to go there and work for Raytheon.

The company has a contract with the National Science Foundation to provide science, operations, logistics, information technology, construction and maintenance support at America’s three Antarctic locations.

The Sivleys, who are members of a Birmingham union, had worked in several U.S. nuclear and fossil fuel chemical plants as contractors.

Primarily, they put insulation around pipes. American companies, they explain, post available work online. Their jobs in Antarctica involved town maintenance, constructing a water plant addition and insulating four buildings that house long-duration balloons.

They lived at McMurdo Station, a science research center the U.S. operates about 2,200 miles south of New Zealand. McMurdo, which is built on a bare volcanic rock, is Antarctica’s largest community, with a population of about 250 in winter and 1,100 in summer.

After passing in-depth physical and psychological examinations and signing 10-month contracts, the Sivleys left Hartselle the day after Thanksgiving 2004 for Antarctica. They flew from Huntsville to Denver, Los Angeles and New Zealand before they boarded a C-130 military airplane for the more than 2,000-mile ride to McMurdo Station.

Ice landing

The plane landed on a 20-foot-thick ocean of ice on Dec. 3, 2004.

The Sivleys lived in military-style barracks “with a room the size of a small hotel room,” Stephen said.

They shared bathrooms and worked six nine-hour days. During about four months of their stay, the couple had daylight around the clock. But most of the time it was darkness all day.

They were able to communicate with family, mostly by e-mail. The saddest part of the trip, the Sivleys said, was that they missed the birth of a grandson.

Despite living 10 months in below-freezing temperatures, all wasn’t bad. Antarctica has coffeehouses, bars, a basketball court, a bingo hall, a pool tournament and the oldest continuously used bowling alley in the world, where people still set up the pins.

There was karaoke, trivia night and a radio station that allowed anyone to be a disc jockey.

The Sivleys said Raytheon encouraged workers to be involved with the community.

“It reflected in your bonus,” Linda Sivley said.

At one point during their stay, the Sivleys climbed to Observation Hill, which allowed them to view the continent.

They stood at the spot where explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his party died in 1912 while returning from the South Pole.

Outdated food, flat Coke

As for food, the couple said they had items like eggs, chicken and canned vegetables. Stephen said a cargo ship delivers supplies to the continent once per year.

“You eat a lot of outdated food, and there’s generally never any fizzle in the Cokes,” he said.

A greenhouse on the continent provides fresh vegetables once a month.

“It’s a treat,” Linda Sivley said. “You have to be careful and not take too much so that everybody can get some.”

You would think the Sivleys said goodbye to Antarctica in misery when they left in September 2005.

Wrong.

The couple signed contracts to go back in October, but Stephen Sivley was diagnosed with cancer in June.

“You have to be cancer-free for two years,” he said. “But after that, we plan to go back.”

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