Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

Understanding what type of person would volunteer to work at the South Pole during the winter is something that has intrigued everyone from social scientists to NASA. The physical screening is rigorous – it's often said that everyone handed a winter contract has perfect wisdom teeth, and some bases won't even consider you if you have an appendix – but psychological screening is far less straightforward. Through a series of tests and interviews, the NSF tries to hire people with a rare and delicate balance of good social skills and an antisocial disposition – basically, loners with very long fuses.

Some of the first behavioral studies on the South Pole winterover were launched after the sudden onset of schizophrenia in a construction worker in 1957. He had to be sedated and quarantined for almost an entire winter. Lore has it he was put in an improvised mental ward – a specially built room padded with mattresses. Because incidents like these can spiral out of control quickly this far from civilization, putting entire crews at risk, NASA saw a South Pole winter deployment as an interesting analogue to long stays in space.

"We're social animals," says Lawrence Palinkas, professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California and the author of several behavioral studies on social dynamics in Antarctica on behalf of NASA. "The separation from friends and family is stressful. But the lack of stimulation – of new scenery, new faces – actually causes people to have difficulty with cognitive thought. Even in well-adjusted groups, we estimate between 3 percent and 5 percent will experience some form of psychological problem – sleep disorders, depression, alcohol addiction."

It's this ability, even willingness, to live in such extreme conditions for such an extended period of time that sets winter Polies apart. They have an odd sense of adventure and actually seem drawn to the isolation and risk. "These are people who thrive on being the last cog," says Harry Mahar, health and safety officer for the NSF's polar program from 1992 to 2004. The power plant technicians, for instance, "are the type of people who, in their off year, would run DEW line sites [for distant early warning of missiles] up in the Arctic or power plants in the middle of the Pacific, and they're damn good mechanics." That's a good thing: If the generators at the South Pole go down and can't be fixed, the crew probably won't survive.

Rodney Marks was a typical Polie in both his proficiency and his quiet confidence. "Brilliant" is a word colleagues often use to describe him. His aptitude for science was obvious at an early age when he landed a scholarship at a prestigious private school in his hometown of Geelong on Australia's southern coast. (He spent his free time as a youth surfing and rooting for his local Aussie rules football team.) He discovered astronomy at the University of Melbourne, and a Ph.D. in physics soon followed, as did a number of high-profile fellowships and research positions with Australian and American universities. Meanwhile, music had also become a big part of his life, and he eventually formed a band called the Changelings, with a nod to the guitar-driven prog rock of the early '90s. He practically lived in his green Sonic Youth T-shirt.

In 1993, at age 24, Marks approached one of his professors looking for an "interesting" Ph.D. project and learned of a South Pole study being conducted in collaboration with the University of Nice. A few months later he had become fluent in French, and a year and a half after that he stepped out onto the ice at the South Pole for the first time, for a two-week stint. Marks's specialty was radio astronomy, a highly accurate method of viewing the cosmos that relies on capturing the radio waves that objects in space transmit. Antarctic winters provide ideal conditions for the telescopes that are used, which operate best in the stability of a very cold atmosphere. In 1997, he reported for duty for his first winterover in Antarctica, an experience he enjoyed so much he signed up again just two years later.

Before the start of every winter, the NSF sponsors a staff training. It's a typical team-building retreat, with a ropes course, trust falls, and enthusiastic "facilitators," but it also serves as the first step in weeding out people who might not cope in such close quarters and so far away from home. It was at the 1999 retreat in the rocky hills above Boulder, Colorado, that Marks first met the other people with whom he'd be spending the 2000 winter. He was one of several returning winter crew, and he preferred dispensing advice to newbies during smoke breaks to sitting in a classroom talking about his hopes and fears for the season.

Six-foot-two with long, sometimes dreadlocked hair, Marks stood out from the other scientists physically, but also in the way he was able to mingle effortlessly between competing personalities. He was slightly self-conscious about his mild case of Tourette's syndrome, though it was hardly noticeable to others – some twitching, a sharp clearing of the sinuses from time to time.

This was the first year that the NSF handed all operational duties at the base to Raytheon Polar Services, a Colorado-based division of the defense contractor. For the training, Raytheon used a company whose staff was experienced in working with police and fire departments, specializing in high-stress group dynamics. They were used to dealing with people who had a healthy respect for authority; the winter Polies were different. During the two-day session, they questioned every nuance of every exercise and flat-out refused the trust falls, claiming they were sure their colleagues would not catch them.

On the last day of the retreat, one of the facilitators pulled aside Darryn Schneider, Marks's fellow Aussie physicist. "You know, you guys are one of the most screwed-up groups of people I've ever come across," he told Schneider. "We work with SWAT teams, and you guys just made them look touchy-feely and friendly. There's no way you'll ever function as a group."

"That's exactly why we will function," Schneider shot back. He too already had one winter on his résumé and knew that social survival at the South Pole went against all conventional wisdom: Problems are not swept under the rug; they are placed under it very deliberately. It's the art of containment, rather than resolution, that gets Polies through the eight-month-long night.

But Polies also have quite a bit of help in this department: alcohol. With not much else to do, social life at Amundsen-Scott, particularly during winter, revolves around drinking. Everything from beer to tequila is brought in alongside vital scientific resupplies at the start of the winter, and it's said that every year at least one belligerent alcoholic emerges on base. In 1996 a worker was thrown into detox three times before he was finally forced to live in the medical facility, isolated from the rest of the population. The next year, there was such a booze shortage that the staff wound up giving each other beer as Christmas presents. In 2000 one staffer was rumored to have racked up a $10,000 bar tab. The Dome even had its own moonshine still that got inherited from one crew to the next.

The beating heart of the base was the bar, 90 South. There, the staff drank and danced until all hours of the night, underneath the colored Christmas lights and disco ball. Graveyard crews would roll in at eight in the morning, post up on the bar stools, and do shots to wind down before going to bed. Over the years the bar had accumulated decades' worth of oddities – stuffed penguins, neon signs, dozens of cabin-fever escape paperbacks. It was the one place on the base where Polies could forget where they were.

When Marks and Schneider finally arrived at the Dome in November 1999, the start of what was supposed to be a yearlong stretch, they quickly claimed their stools at 90 South. Like most of the others, Marks was a drinker. He was always up for a night at the bar, and he wasn't afraid to sneak a bit of "toast juice," the high-octane ethanol-based concoction produced by the still. Sometimes he drank just to suppress his Tourette's.

When not in 90 South, Marks could usually be found in the attached galley, at one of the tables near the "dish pit." Or, during special occasions, on a small stage in the corner, playing his beat-up Gibson guitar, belting out a cover with his South Pole band, Fanny Pack and the Big Nancy Boys. His girlfriend, Sonja Wolter, 33 at the time, played bass. The two fell in love during the summer-winter transition, just as she was about to be shipped out at the end of her contract. They wanted to stay together so badly that she quickly applied for a winter position and was accepted just a week before the last plane out. For the start of the winter, he had dyed his hair purple, and she had dyed hers green. A few months later they were engaged. It was common for Polies to take an "ice wife" just for the winter, but this was different. By all accounts Rodney and Sonja were soul mates.

The base is normally a brutally cliquey place, and crews tend to segregate into three separate populations – scientists, operations (those responsible for the day-to-day running of the base), and skilled laborers. But the winter crew of 2000 was unusually tight-knit; migrating from one group to another didn't provoke the sort of contempt it had in years past. Marks, in particular, had a knack for making others feel at ease. "He had a Ph.D.," remembers Gene Davidson, a Kiwi responsible for telescope maintenance that winter, "and yet he would play poker, smoke cigarettes, and drink whiskey with the carpenters and plumbers."