As you probably observed during the throes of the pandemic last spring, hair doesn't stop growing just because there's nowhere to go to get it cut. And since there's nothing worse than pushing overgrown bangs out of your face as you, say, measure the depth of an ice cap, scientists and government workers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica built the world's southernmost salon.
Before you dial up your congressperson: Your tax dollars were not spent on gold-plated shampoo bowls. This salon is a modest, one-room, two-chair operation staffed by a single hairstylist. For five seasons (that's how staffers measure time at the station), that hairstylist has been Alicia Sutherland, who was working in Portland, Oregon, when a client at her salon mentioned that her wife was currently working in Antarctica.
"She explained that McMurdo is not just for scientists," says Sutherland. "They need people supporting the science to make the station work." One of those people is a hairstylist.
Sutherland applied online immediately. ("Who gets to go to Antarctica? I wanted in!") After completing an in-depth phone interview, Sutherland had to pass an evaluation to prove that she could withstand living "on the driest, coldest, harshest continent there is."
But the atmosphere inside the station is surprisingly warm. "I halfway thought it was going to be desolate and depressing, but it is quite the opposite," says Sutherland. "The relationships that get formed here are like no other. We're all in this peculiar place together and it [creates] a special comradery."
And before the pandemic — during which the station was reduced to essential personnel (that did not include a hairstylist) — Sutherland was in the unique position to spend one-on-one time with just about everyone: She worked six days a week, often filling 14 appointments a day. "Before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and redeployment it gets extremely busy. I will usually do upwards of 25 haircuts a day," she says.
No matter the style, each of those haircuts costs just $10, which goes back into the U.S. Antarctic Program. (Sutherland works for a salary.) The station's 800-ish residents (the count before the pandemic) are about 65 percent men, and Sutherland cites fades, layered cuts, and even "the fashion mullet" as popular styles.
To get the job done, Sutherland relies on the skills she learned while training at Gary Manuel Aveda Institute in Seattle. But cutting hair in Antarctica presents a unique set of challenges. "The [dry] air just sucks all moisture right up," she says. "A lot of times wet hair will dry super fast and I'll just have to keep spraying water." Also: static. "People's hair will stick straight up."
Using hydrating products helps; Sutherland likes the KMS Moist Repair line. "They get shipped down so they are not a part of my weight allotment," she says. (Each resident can travel to the station with only 150 pounds of goods — and parkas and boots really add up.) "Unfortunately, if I run out, then I run out. Sometimes you just have to wing it."
Speaking of winging it, Sutherland says one of the most unique experiences she's had in Antarctica is visiting a penguin rookery, where she saw hundreds upon hundreds of the birds. It's one of the memories she's holding dear until she can safely return to the station, hopefully in October 2021. "I 100 percent consider McMurdo home."
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