What is the 300 club?
The 300 club is a rite of passage for those of us who have spent a winter at the South Pole research station in Antarctica. The name comes from the degrees in Fahrenheit of difference between the ambient temperature of the air outside (-100F, -73C) and the temperature of the sauna inside when heated to 200 degrees F. Gaining membership in the club is a simple, but brutal process. Simply run, naked, from the sauna to the geographic south pole and back. Just surviving the challenge means you’re a member of the club, but extra points are awarded for style. You’re allowed to have boots on to protect your feet, and a neck gaiter to protect your lungs, but everything else has to stay uncovered.
What is it like to join the 300 club?
I’ve become a member of the 300 club twice; once during my first winter in 2002 and again in 2004. The first time I joined, the anticipation was the worst. Other winter-overs who had been through this previously definitely enjoyed telling us newbies about how bad it is. The temperature dropped below -100 several times that year, for a few moments, but we finally had a day that it stayed there for more than just a few minutes. It’s also the first time that it dipped below the magic number at a decent time of the afternoon.
12 of us gathered together in the old dome sauna, but with that many bodies it took forever to get up to 200 degrees. After an hour the heat was finally enough, and we crammed in and sweated awkwardly together wearing nothing but a towel. Finally the heat got too much too much to stand and we all dropped our towels and headed out. Now, I knew the trick to this is to not run because the -100 air will just damage your lungs, but unfortunately the excitement of the moment caught up with me, and I headed out at full throttle. About halfway to the pole, I realized I was pointing the wrong direction, and finally spotted the guy who was out there marking the spot with a flashlight. I decided to slow down, and did a fast walk the rest of the way, but the damage was done. By the time I got back, I was already coughing and hacking…enough people had done the same thing that the sauna sounded like a TB ward while we all tried to warm up. After about 90 minutes I started breathing normally again, but it took a couple of days to be back to 100%.
How far do you have to run?
The distance that you have to run has gotten shorter each year. Due to a quirk in the way the ice sheet that the south pole sits on flows, the geographic south pole actually gets about 10 feet closer to the station each year. Back in 2002 we ran from the old domed station to the pole which was a distance of about 100 yards each way. In 2004 and every year since, the run goes from the new elevated station cutting off about 30 yards each way..and still getting easier each year! Below you can see a night shot of the elevated station, and the geographic pole is at the right edge of the frame.