Wo/men’s Work | Fuels Operator, Antarctica
In this series, we explore the lives of women who use their hands—to drive, break, crank, construct and create. Working in fields typically dominated by men, these jobs dictate a lifestyle as much as a workday.
Hannah Jane Valian, 30, has spent three seasons working as a fuels operator at McMurdo Station, the largest of the Antarctic research facilities managed by the National Science Foundation, whose site-based activities include observation and monitoring of that far away and unique terrain. During the southern hemisphere summer, October through February, Valian wakes up at 6:20 a.m. to prepare for her day bringing fuel to the station: the buildings and vehicles that support the scientists and government contractors that are the bulk of the population.
Her job is always changing. Sometimes she’s at the airfield or the heliport, and sometimes she’s driving fuel trucks. If she’s fueling a helicopter, or an aircraft like an LC-130, then she’s hauling a single point nozzle to Air National Guard members, communicating using a variety of hand signals and converting measurements; clenching deadman handles (whose quick-release function stops fuel flow, in the case of emergency), and radioing in to Fuels Control the amount added to an aircraft—the gallons per minute and the differential pressure. When we talked to her, Valian was working the airfield, which meant she had to be ready for a 5:00 a.m. shuttle. It was nearing the end of the season and the temperature was starting to drop—the climate fluctuates between -30 F to 30—so after the long underwear and T-shirt, Valian might add a second sweatshirt beneath insulated Carhartt overalls. Or an extra neck gaiter under the down vest and jacket, topped off with a hat and a headband. Then it’s just goggles or sunglasses, glove liners inside her mittens, and her Cabela’s boots. After breakfast in the galley, and a 20-minute briefing on current weather conditions and safety concerns in the Fuels Barn, Valian along with her team members do 15 minutes of stretching—working in extreme conditions makes recovering from an injury doubly difficult, so keeping limber is important—and exercises—planks and pushups. Finally, in a burrito of layers, they’re ready for work.
McMurdo Station, constructed on bare volcanic rock in 1955, is located on the Hut Point Peninsula, on Ross Island—“2,415 miles south of Christchurch, New Zealand, and 850 miles north of the South Pole,” according to the U.S. Antarctic Program. McMurdo’s population fluctuates greatly, reaching something like 1,000 in the summer and dropping to around 150 in winter (an increase over past years, when fewer flights were available during the colder months). A website managed by Bill Spindler, a field engineer, tracks “winterover” statistics for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (not McMurdo): How many people stay for an entire Antarctic winter at the station. In 2016—Spindler says—there were 48, nine women and 39 men. Unlike the Pole, whose population is static because of its isolation during the austral winter, flights still go to McMurdo once every month, and no winterover stats are tracked. That said, a general or typical gender divide at the U.S. Antarctic Program is about 60 to 65 percent men and 40 to 35 percent women.
McMurdo is the main and largest research base in the Antarctic, so it supplies others that are farther inland or harder to access with fuel. “Fuelies” like Valian are tasked with gassing up the stations’ myriad aircraft—helicopters, Bell 212 and A-Stars; airplanes, C-17, LC-130s, Baslers, Twin Otters—as well as machines, heavy equipment, and residential generators. “We help the town stay heated,” says Valian.
Valian and her teammates are trained to closely monitor the process, gauges, and meters that chart the fuel’s course. “We’re taught to be afraid of fuel. Before we do anything we try to assess how it can go wrong,” says Valian. “Our fuelie mantra is, ‘where is it coming from, where is it going, how is getting there, and where else can it go.’”
The hours are long, the weather is brutal and the work itself is physically taxing—“there are always hoses to drag, equipment to move, things to climb up or over. There are sticky valves to open, bolts to tighten”—and the pay is only decent. But Valian loves it. Three years in, and the extreme natural beauty of the location hasn’t gotten old. “Our last sunset was in October, the next will be February 20th—just a quick dip below the horizon. The sky in Antarctica is absolutely unreal.”
In 2014, Valian was working as a barista in Portland, Oregon. “I was unsure of where I wanted to be or what I wanted to be doing,” she says. Then she ran into a friend who had spent a couple seasons working as a janitor in Antarctica. “She couldn’t say enough about it, great things.”
Together they went to the premier for “Antarctica: A Year on Ice,” a documentary about living and working in Antarctica. “It wasn’t the movie itself that really captured my attention (although it did),” said Valian, “but the audience, which was largely made up of Antarcticans—other people who had worked and lived there. I could tell they were a part of something amazing that I couldn’t understand as an outsider. I wanted to know what it was like to live in a remote community at the bottom of the world.”
Valian applied for a steward position—part dining attendant, part janitor. She got the job and left for her first season in October of that year.
“I immediately fell in love with McMurdo,” she said. “The people who find themselves working in Antarctica are usually those attracted to an unconventional lifestyle. Most of us are travelers. The question ‘where are you from?’ is never easy for people to answer here. ‘Where is your stuff?’ is more appropriate.”
While she was a steward, Valian got a rare opportunity to fly 40 minutes to a fuel cache—“essentially a pile of drums with fuel inside”—that vehicles (and more often, aircrafts) can access if they’re between stations. “Our mission was to unload two drums from the plane. That was it. I was the only passenger. We flew through Antarctica and I could not believe how beautiful it was—big mountains, gaping crevasses. Glaciers, canyons. We unloaded our drums and the pilots told me to walk a hundred yards out and enjoy the silence. So I did. Pure silence. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced that. When we flew back, the pilots took me out over the edge of the ice, we flew up the channel that an Icebreaker had made several weeks before. We saw penguins and even two minke whales.”
Two years later, Valian returned to that same fuel cache she’d visited as a steward, now as a fuels operator. She’s learned the skills required of a fuelie mostly on the job: how to open the Williams Airfield (a skiway, as opposed to a runway, which can support wheeled aircraft); she’ll warm up pumps, open the active tank (one of twelve is active at a time), and sample fuel, or, depending on her day, she might be testing the sample sent to a lab in town, checking for water, sediment, conductivity, and temperature. She’ll haul lines to and from an aircraft, and recoil hoses near the pump house, ready for the following day.
Valian’s day ends around 5:30. After dinner, she takes advantage of McMurdo’s small but thriving social scene. “There’s a lot to fill your non-work time with,” says Valian. Yoga classes, volleyball, basketball, soccer; dance parties; “recreational trips that you can win via lottery, to Cape Evans, or a snowmobile trip to the base of Mount Erabus. You can sign up to go on a pressure ridge tour, where you can wander around giant ice formations created by the ice shelf crashing into Ross Island.” At night, after work, residents can go to one of two bars (or coffee houses that serves wine) to hang out, play bingo, or drop in for an open mic.
But many nights she goes right home to the dorm she shares with one other person. “Everybody works nine to ten hour days (six days a week), so it can be exhausting,” says Valian. Her home is “cozy” thanks to the Skua booty they’ve picked up. Skua boxes are full of the discarded goods residents have left behind— anything from clothes to fake plants and curtains—that are sorted by “wasties,” or trash collectors, and left for the next takers.
For Valian, the best part of the job is getting to be with her coworkers. “My coworkers are amazing. There are people here who love solitude and being alone. And there are people here who love to be around others, and thrive in social situations. Being far away from my own family back home it was important for me to build this new family, in Antarctica. I look forward to seeing them every day.”
On her one day off, Sunday, Valian goes for brunch. “There’s always good food on Sundays,” she says. “Generally the food is pretty basic because the cooks are feeding so many people. We have ‘freshies’ (fresh fruits and veggies) at the beginning and end of the season when the C-17 planes are flying, bringing a lot of people in and out. Otherwise it’s frozen vegetables for days. Frozen everything.”