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Master Plumber Tom Soltis on a sunny day at the South Pole

A plumber’s life in the South Pole

June 17, 2016
Below is a story about plumbing in Antarctica told via e-mails from my master plumber friend Tom Soltis We worked together in 2008 and 2009 at the much warmer McMurdo Station And we had the (ah-hum) pleasure of being in the same group for survival camping, known as Happy Camper

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a plumber at South Pole, Antarctica? Now you can find out! Below is a story about plumbing in Antarctica told via e-mails from my master plumber friend Tom Soltis, who just finished a four-month season there. Tom worked as a plumber at the Amundsen-Scott Station, one of three United States Antarctica Program research stations managed by the National Science Program.

You may be wondering how Tom and I met in the first place. We worked together in 2008 and 2009 at the much warmer McMurdo Station. And we had the (ah-hum) pleasure of being in the same group for survival camping, known as Happy Camper. That’s when they take a group to a remote place out on the ice, dump you off with a pile of nylon tents, sleeping bags, shovels, tiny camp stoves, and packets of dried food, and say, “Have a good night, see you in the morning.”

I hope you enjoy reading Tom’s document experience (thanks to him for staying in touch with me throughout his stay in Antarctica)! His e-mails will not only give you a good idea about life in the South Pole, but you will know what it’s like to be a plumber in the South Pole! 

Saturday, Oct 17, 2015 

Good Morning Carol:

I hope you remember me, the plumber/foreman at McMurdo Station during the 2008-2009 season and from Happy Camper. I will be going back for another season — South Pole this time — and please do not think that I am crazy. I was wondering if you have made it back to the ice since I left. I just wanted some insight on how things are there these days.

I plan on retiring from the union Local 367 this spring. Antarctic employment is one of the jobs that I can do and still draw my retirement. I will keep you up to date on how things are going down there. They really kept asking me if I was interested in coming back into the program. I have had many conversations with them over the phone since January. Take care and best wishes to you.

Tom

Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015

I will be deploying to the South Pole in nine days to be exact. I leave Homer, Alaska, on the morning of October 29. I am getting pretty excited. I will keep you informed on what is happening on the "ice," if anything.

Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015

Just wanted to give you an update of things at the Pole.  Finally starting to get over my altitude sickness. South Pole is at 10,000-ft. elevation. The weather has been bad, cold, cloudy and windy. When I took my first walk outside, the temps were around -47°F with a -70°F windchill. When I go out walking, I wear my Antarctic down coat with hood, extreme cold weather boots, heavy mittens with hand warmers, insulated coveralls, balaclava, tinted goggles, face mask, neck gaiter, and of course long underwear. Getting dressed to go outside is a chore in itself. Lots of flights have been canceled lately. Even so, the station has shrunk from 200 people to 120. That is because they have eliminated the helper position that shovels snow and things like that.  This season we’ll have to do it all ourselves.

Everybody is now being housed inside the Station. All the outside canvas-walled Jamesway housing is finally going away. There are two of us plumbers. Our workload has been steady with preventive maintenance and projects. The two big projects this season are a new heating system in the cryogenics lab, and changing out some water mains the ice tunnel. I am not looking forward to that one. Very cold work!

We plumbers have merged in with fuels department. Every morning I have to walk the fuel line and take measurements on the fuel tanks. I don't mind that. It burns up an hour in the morning and gets me away from everyone for awhile.  

It's early in the season so nothing out of the ordinary has happened yet. Today is Sunday, so no work. Last night some of the "kids" stayed up rather late, so the station is still quiet. If the weather breaks, I might go out for a walk and take pictures. If not I will catch up on some sleep. That's all the news I have for now. Will keep you posted.

Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015

Still plugging away down here at the Pole. Things haven't changed too much. We are concentrating our efforts in the Cryo Lab. The roof has to be raised to make room for larger weather balloons. Our piping for the heating system and the electrical system has to be re-routed. We are very short of materials. I spent a good afternoon with a snow shovel searching for 2-in. copper tubing. I found 60 feet of it buried in the snow. There are a few other projects that need attention, mainly glycol leaks in the boiler room. Once these are taken care of, we can start the water main project in the ice tunnel.

Hard to believe that Thanksgiving is next week! I hope that we can finish everything this season. When you think about it, summer at the Pole isn't very long. Management has asked me if I am interested in staying for the winter. I think you can guess what my answer was. As always, take care and I will keep you posted. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015

I was cut short because the Internet was fading fast. Just wanted to add a few things about life at the Pole. Sunday is not only our day off, but shower day! We are allowed two two-minute showers a week, and Sunday happens to be one of them. You don't know how much I look forward to that. Surprising how you take the little things for granted, like water.

Sunday is not only our day off, but shower day! We are allowed two two-minute showers a week, and Sunday happens to be one of them.

In the morning I washed dishes in the dish pit for a while. Somebody has to clean up after the "kids." Then most of the afternoon I spent hiking around the station. It was a nice bright sunshiney day. Temps were only -30°F with no wind. Summer! First day I didn't have to really bundle up to go outside. I wore sun glasses instead of goggles and didn't use my face mask or balaclava.

This week we are expecting tourists to arrive here. Yes, there some people that spend a lot of money to fly down here to see the South Pole and sleep in the snow. There is a special area outside where they have to pitch their tents since they are not allowed in the Station.  

I will be losing the Internet here soon, so I better wrap it up for now. Will keep you up to date on events as they happen. Take care and be safe.

Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015

The weather has improved over the last couple days. The station population went from 116 to 143, and you can tell the difference.

We have finished our project in the Cryo Lab. Now it looks like we will be starting in the Ice Tunnel. I see that the snow melter is parked outside the arches. The snow melter will be the station’s temporary water source. Once that is up and running, we can shut the main water source down and start replacing the water main. It sounds simple, but it's not. I think it will turn into a big cluster! Some of the carpenters are widening out the ice tunnel already.

We had three accidents this week — one burn, one fall and one cut. The cut involved a mechanic. He was working underneath a piece of machinery and hit his head. Eighteen stitches. Ouch! He seems fine though. Also, one of the cooks snapped. Personal problems back home, from what I hear.

Yesterday the station celebrated Thanksgiving. We got an extra day off. I spent about three hours volunteering washing dishes in the pit. Seems like a lot of the station partied most of the night. There is one fellow still sleeping on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. Other than that, I spent the day walking outside and sleeping. The Station is still quiet. Good! That's the way I like it.

Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015

It’s December. Things are starting to pick up. Had my bi-weekly shower last night, so I feel pretty good. The weather was pretty crappy this week. Very cold with high winds, which is kind of unusual. Didn't leave the station for two days. Today it is a lot warmer. With the wind chill it is only -35°F.  

Last week we had a horrible task. One of the sewage pumps in the lift station malfunctioned, and there was a sewage spill. We had to pull the pump and clean it off. It was plugged with rags and paper towels. This is the first time the grinder pump was pulled since the station was built. You can only imagine what it was like — Tyvek suits, rubber gloves and face shields. It was awful! But got it cleaned out and back in operation. We were kind of heroes for a day.

Will be starting in the ice tunnel this week. I had to get familiar with the snow melter operation. I hope that everything goes O.K. Shutting down the station’s water supply is a bit scarey, but the engineer seems comfortable with it.  

Due to the bad weather, a lot of flights were cancelled. We are still waiting on a few materials. We will be using PEX piping and pro-press fittings for the water main. I hope it works in the extreme cold. I guess we will find out!

One other thing — a utility technician got sent home this week. I guess he couldn't get adjusted to the altitude. That's all for now. Will keep you posted as always.

Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015

Sunday morning, day off. Last week was spent down in the ice tunnels. All we were doing was adjusting pipe hangers and straightening out the water and sewer lines. Yesterday we got the snow melter up and running. They are going to haul water from the well and dump it into the snow melter for temporary water. It is more efficient to do it that way than to melt snow.

All the pipe and fittings are in, so we are all set there. Monday we will start pumping water from the snow melter into the station for a new water supply. If that goes well, the well water will be shut down and we can start draining the system. Then we can cut into the water main and replace the 200 feet of damaged pipe. The entire shut-down should take about three weeks, I hope.

I am doing my one load a week of laundry. I snuck two loads in this week, don't tell! The weather looks nice outside. Bright sun with a little breeze. Good day for a long walk. With the wind chill it is only -35°F. Talk about a nice summer day. I just pretend all the snow is white sand. That's it for this week. As always, I will keep you up to date on the exciting lifestyle at the South Pole.

Saturday, Dec. 18, 2015

It's been somewhat warm here. Temps are -20°F with a -40°F wind chill. This week we were all ready to start replacing the water main. The snow melter is up and running. The snow melter is a box parked outside the station that is hooked up to the waste supply and return heat to melt snow in case of emergencies. We were able to haul enough water to keep up with all of the demands of the station. The normal water supply was turned off and we were ready to begin.

Then things started to happen. The engines in the power plant started to overheat. The excess heat from the power plant normally is dumped into the Rod well to melt the ice into water. It’s called a Rod well because a guy named Rodriquez came up with the idea of melting ice in a “well” to make water. The system bores through the ice with the use boilers and heat from the power plant. Since we shut the well down, now the power plant is overheating. The engines almost shut down completely. Then the Rod well started to freeze shut! Denver headquarters called and said to put the Rod well back on line. Now they are going to try something else. They are going to turn up the boilers up in the Rod well building to pump hotter water back into the well. I hope it works.

We are still hauling water though. Now besides being a plumber and a fuel technician, I am an equipment operator. I had to be checked out on a 950C track loader. I take turns pulling the water sled. It gets pretty tricky, hauling five tons on a downhill grade, but I am doing o.k. Looks like that I will be working on Sundays and Christmas day though.

Another guy was sent home this week. Stupidity and booze were involved. Too bad he was our only fire tech!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas.

Saturday Dec. 26, 2015

We started ripping out the water main out in the ice tunnel. When working in the ice tunnel I wear long underwear, insulated Carhart coveralls and jacket with hood. I also wear the extreme cold weather boots that they issue with wool socks. I wear heavy mittens with hand warmers. 

Covering my mouth and nose is a balaclava with face mask and a neck gaiter. I also had to have clear goggles to keep my eyes from freezing. There was a little warm-up shack with a small electric heater built down in the ice tunnel. Every half hour I used it to warm up and defog my goggles. I did freeze the tip of one of my toes though. It was nothing really serious, just a little painful.

We are now on temporary water. We are hauling water from the water well with a 1,000-gallon tank on skis and the track loader.

On Christmas Day my partner, and I worked from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. hauling water. The rest of the station had the day off. Had one quick break all day. Was very sore and tired at night from climbing in and out of the loader and pulling on hoses. At the end of the long shift, management had the guts to ask me if I wanted to stay for the winter.  I have two words for these people and it is NOT Merry Christmas! I think that this will be my last season. Hope that I make it out in one piece.

Saturday Jan. 2, 2016

Happy New Year Carol! Hope that everything is well with you. We have finished hooking up the water main down in the ice tunnel. It was a battle, and far from over. It is under air test, and is not holding air pressure. It seems that the PEX piping that was ordered is not suitable for pro-press fittings. It is the heat fusion, butt-weld type. I think that it would be hard to install in the -60°F temperature. Nobody asked my opinion, so I just did what I was told.

We are still hauling water with the track loader. Management offered to help with that this weekend so we could have some time off. I was very grateful for that. I needed to catch up on some rest. I have been getting pretty worn down. Lost a lot of weight this season. Haven't weighed this little since high school.  It's a wonder that I haven't been sick yet.  

Monday the water will be shut off completely. They are going to change out the pump in the well. Then we will have to rely on snow melt for water. This should be interesting. I have been asked to stay for the winter three times now. The answer is still no… As time slips away like sand through an hourglass, so do the days of our lives here at the South Pole. Will keep you informed weekly on this soap opera.

Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016

Well believe it or not, the water line in the ice tunnel is up and running. Saturday, I emptied out the water tank and parked my track loader. Now we have a few maintenance projects to complete, then end of season! Got my re-deployment date. I leave on February 9. I will be in Christchurch, New Zealand, on the 10th. Planning on spending 10 to 14 days on vacation in warm New Zealand.

It has been a long, hard season here. The ice tunnel beat me up pretty bad. Really looking forward to leaving.  

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

Now that the water main project is over, things have slowed down a bit. People are starting to leave, and a few winter-overs are starting to arrive.

I have been working by myself this week. Had two backflow preventers (RP's) to test. Since I am the only one that is ASSE certified to test these, I made a big deal of it. In reality it only takes about a 1/2 hour to test them, but I spent most of the day. Then I spent the rest of the week hanging and piping a small heating unit in the Cryo Lab, now that the roof is on. I have one more unit to hang and pipe in the large weather balloon facility of the Lab. That should take me all of this week to do. It's nice being assigned "the projects plumber."

On a sad note, an Australian died this week. I guess when his helicopter landed in a remote area, he stepped off and fell into a crevasse.

I applied to work at McMurdo Station for the next summer season. I can do one more season there as long as I am healthy enough. This my last season at the Pole. Today (Sunday) looks nice outside. Sunny and warm, only -31°F with the wind chill. Good day for a long walk after brunch. Doing laundry right now. Slept good last night after my bi-weekly shower.

On a sad note, an Australian died this week. I guess when his helicopter landed in a remote area, he stepped off and fell into a crevasse. He was never recovered.

That's all the news for now.  Will keep in touch.

Cheers, Tom

Friday, Jan. 22, 2016

Sunday brunches are not as good as the ones at McMurdo. The small galley is way too crowded on Sunday mornings. The Australian man that died was a scientist doing research in some remote area. I haven't heard much more.

This week the station was packed full of people. A C-130 plane brought a bunch of winter-overs in, and was supposed to take a bunch of people out. They left, started having mechanical problems, and head to turn back and land. The plane is still sitting on the runway. People were sleeping in the gym and all the lounges. Last night a plane did come in and a slug of people left. Thank God! Things were getting a little too crowded here.

Management is still looking for two winter plumbers. Time has run out and they will have to do without this season. We got an email from Denver headquarters asking us if we knew anyone that would be interested. No one in their right mind would come down here.

I was asked yet again to come to Pole for another season. I stood my ground and said McMurdo Only! The temperature is starting to drop. Summer is ending. Wind chills have been around -50°F. Glad the season is starting to wind down. Can't wait to leave here.

Around the clock daylight is finished, and we have night again. As I was walking and standing out in the nothing, looking at the Station from a distance, the only noise I heard was the wind blowing through my hood. That's when I got a grim reminder of how life would be with no other life around. You don't know what you miss until it's gone. You don't know what I would give to see or even hear a bird, or any wild life for that matter.

I did see something last night that I haven't seen in a while — the moon.

Friday, Jan. 29, 2016

Yes, the season is winding down. Ten days and counting! I can hardly wait. The weather is starting to get cold and clear. I would like to sum up my Antarctic experience in saying: I have been glad to be a part of this program. It has been an honor and privilege to work down here. You have all these nations that are part of the Antarctic Contract, working together for a purpose other than War. 

I have applied to come down for another season, this time at McMurdo. Also I received an e-mail from headquarters asking if I was interested in going to Moscow or China to work at the embassy. Who knows what the future will bring.

Cheers, Tom

About the Author

Carol Fey

Carol Fey is a technical trainer and writer, specializing in easy electricity, hydronics and troubleshooting books.  She also writes about HVAC work in Antarctica. 

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