Janesville plumber keeps pipes open in frozen South Pole

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, June 15, 2014

SOUTH POLE—Forget the 24-hour darkness, the 87 degrees below zero temperatures or even the extreme isolation.

Janesville plumber Ryan Boggs is having the adventure of a lifetime.

“I may be at the bottom of the world, but thinking about how great this experience is makes me feel like I'm on top of it,” he said.

The 30-something adventurer is spending the winter at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in the middle of Antarctica.

Since mid-January, he is among critical support people who keep the systems running at the research station. Most of the 41 people are cooks, carpenters and mechanics, but eight scientists also work at the distant outpost.

“The main reason I came down was for the adventure,”  Boggs said. “I want to be able to say that I have been a plumber in the most extreme conditions on Earth.”

He works for a contractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program.

“We hire only the highest-caliber employee to work at the most remote location on Earth,” said Elaine Hood of the Antarctic Support Contract, which hires workers.

She compared the isolation to being an astronaut in space.

“We're very proud of the men and women who make the personal sacrifice to keep the lights on and the fires burning so that world-class science can be done,” Hood said.

The station is one of three in Antarctica operated by the National Science Foundation. The site supports research projects ranging from cosmic observations to atmospheric studies. Large telescopes provide information to scientists studying the origin of the universe.

Boggs is one of a rare breed.

“It takes a dedicated and hard-working personality to do this,” Hood said. “They have to have the right skills and the right can-do attitude.

Once the last cargo plane leaves in February, another one is not due until November because of extreme weather conditions. Isolating the station even more is limited Internet connections because of the expense and availability of communications satellites.

Patiently, Boggs provided The Gazette information by email over two weeks for this story.

He will experience eight months of winter before the austral summer begins in October and lasts through early February. During the brief window, temperatures rise to 4 degrees below zero and up to 150 people live at the station.”

Boggs calls himself a social guy, who feels like he left the rat race.

“Ultimately, all 41 souls down here have no one else to rely on but one another,” he said. “We have a tremendous sense of community. Everyone seems to mesh well.”

When he leaves in November, he said he will be the 1,390th person to have wintered at the pole.

“Due to the nature of us being so isolated, I went through quite a bit of medical testing and psychiatric evaluation,” Boggs said. “I guess they want to know if you are crazy enough to come down but not too crazy to cause a disruption.”

His main responsibility is to keep the drinking-water and waste-disposal systems running.  Boggs is thankful for stringent training in Wisconsin that allows him to excel at his job.

“I wear with pride that I am a plumber from Wisconsin,”  Boggs said.

Pole residents get drinking water by melting snow with steam about 150 feet below the surface. The water travels to treatment tanks through a system of underground ice tunnels. Some water is heated using airplane fuel and sent back down the pipe to make sure water in the well does not freeze.

“We are drinking melted snow and ice that formed sometime around the Medieval Era,”  Boggs said. “Snow and ice build up at a predictable rate, allowing us to date fairly accurately when it was at the surface.”

Once a well reaches a certain depth, the cost of pumping water is too expensive. Then the well is used to store liquid sanitary waste.

“This is where we dispose of some of the stinky parts of my job,” Boggs said.

A 6-inch insulated and heated line carries all waste from plumbing fixtures into the well through the same system of ice tunnels.

“This is the only waste that we do not fly out of the Pole,” Boggs said. “The National Science Foundation's goal is to keep the place as pristine as it was before we were here.”

Before arriving at the South Pole, Boggs was issued extreme cold weather gear, including two large down parkas, snow pants and a pair of what he calls insulated moon boots. He also got sunglasses but has no need for them in the 24-hour darkness of winter. Normally, he uses a headlamp outside but doesn't need it when the moon is out.

Most of the station's plumbing is in controlled environments. But Boggs has spent hours outside looking for parts, sometimes when it is 100 degrees below zero.

He feels small beneath the southern sky, awash with thousands of stars.

When Boggs is not working, he learns to play banjo.

“One of the luxuries we have is a well-equipped band room,” he said. “We also have a gymnasium and weight-lifting room.”

Other community activities include volleyball, blues dancing and fencing classes. One man who has wintered at the South Pole for a decade shares his knowledge in an astronomy class.

“A benefit of so many well-educated folks around here is that we always have stimulating conversation,”  Boggs said.

The 1999 graduate of Craig High School will remember his experience for a lifetime.

“I really encourage anyone who thinks this sounds like an adventure to try it,”  Boggs said. “Everything down here is just so new and exciting and different than anything else in the world.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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