It’s no secret that Alaskan winters are cold. This year, the “polar vortex” has brought frigid temperatures into the Lower 48 as well.
There’s one group of people who can freely scoff at everyone who bundles up for a mere 30-below, however. One of them lives in Talkeetna.
Alaskans are no strangers to testing themselves against the cold. From frigid runs in bunny boots from a sauna to large events like the Polar Plunge, residents of the 49th state often test their bodies against major temperature swings.
As it turns out, there is an elite group that takes the prize when it comes to enduring massive changes in temperature, however, Antarctica’s 300 Club. Talkeetna resident Kris Perry explains how it works.
“Basically, every time it would get below -100, we would fire up the sauna,” Perry said. “You had to get the sauna up to 200 degrees, then sit in the sauna and get good and hot – which isn’t hard in a 200 degree sauna – and then you would go out and go to the geographic Pole and come back.”
There’s one other catch, too.
“You’re typically doing it naked, too,” Perry said. “Shoes are OK, because you don’t want to frostbite your feet.”
Kris Perry recently told The Atlantic about the 300 Club, and says that he did not know the full history of the exclusive group until he read the article himself. He says that the tradition started as early as the 1950s, when those staying in Antarctica were largely members of the military. They supposedly built a hot box in order to warm up as much as possible before making the trek to the ceremonial South Pole. As research stations with saunas were built, it allowed members of the unofficial club to reach higher and higher temperatures before trekking out into the 100-below chill.
Kris Perry says that he first joined the 300 Club in the Antarctic winter of 2002. He says his motivation for wanting to subject his body to a 300 degree temperature difference was fairly simple.
“There’s the history. You hear about it when you’re wintering,” Perry said. “Not every winter-over wants to do it, but there’s definitely enough of us who are like, “Oh yeah, you’ve gotta do the 300 Club,” because how many people on this planet can say they’ve ever done that?”
That first night, Kris Perry was not content to make the trek just once, however. Since he worked in the weather station, he knew exactly what the outside temperature was, and it simply got too warm on his first two attempts. Finally, on the third attempt, Kris thinks the temperature took a dive all the way down to 101-below.
“So I went out, got back, ran in the office, and everything was all good. Every time when I was coming in I was looking, and every body hair was just totally frosted over. Think how the hoarfrost looks on the trees. Every hair on my body was like that, and I’m like, “Man, that is so cool. I’ve got to get someone to take a picture of this!”
So, he rounded up someone from the bar and made the walk for a fourth time, then posed next to a snowman. That was still not Kris Perry’s last 300 Club walk of the night, however.
“Then it got to be about five in the morning, when the earlier risers were getting up,” Perry said. “Some couple wanted to go out, and the temperature was good again. I’m just one of those crazy people like, ‘I’ll go do it with you!'”
One-hundred degrees below zero is seriously cold. It doesn’t take exposed skin long to succumb to frostbite, and the cold can literally freeze your lungs after awhile. The walk totals a few hundred yards, and is done at 9,300 feet elevation. The time it takes to make the frosty trek varies, but is generally just a few minutes. Even so, Kris Perry says proper technique is important to avoid injury to…sensitive areas.
“Some people were always in a hurry. They were trying to run the thing, which is crazy, because you would start sucking in that air. You’d hear them for the next day or two coughing, then they’d get over it,” Perry said. “I just always walked fast. I didn’t run. I walked, where I didn’t have to breathe heavy. I’d keep one hand over my mouth and one hand over ‘the boys,’ and I’d be fine.”
Kris Perry says that his spot in the 300 Club is special to him. Not everyone who stays the winter at the bottom of the world is willing to undertake the challenge, and some years it simply does not get cold enough for those who do want to make the attempt.
While he freely admits that its, “a little crazy,” he also says it’s an important rite of passage for the complete Antarctic experience.