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The dome at the South Pole was built in 1957. By 1999, they needed to replace it because it was getting buried in snow and ice, so the National Science Foundation assembled a construction crew — 18 people in total — to spend a whole year there. They needed someone to do the plumbing and mechanical work. They took one person out of 1,500 applicants. That was me.
I started my work in plumbing right out of high school. Since then, I’ve earned three state contractor licenses and worked in 26 states and 56 cities. I was working on a job in Las Vegas, and some friends from Bechtel told me about this Antarctica project, so I applied. I went through a medical test, flew to Denver to take various other tests, then went back to Oklahoma to visit my parents. Four months later, I got the call.
They flew us to Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-January, then gave us all our parkas and all our gear and told us they’d come get us when the weather cleared. Because of how cold it is down there — the coldest being 100 below zero and about 170 below with the wind chill — nobody can fly in because the hydraulics on the plane freeze up. So, after about a week in Christchurch, we had our window. They flew us down to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica in an LC-130 cargo plane with snow skis on it.
Antarctica is the size of the U.S. and Mexico put together. It’s huge. McMurdo is on volcanic rock on the coast, and the ice slowly climbs as you go inland on the continent. At the South Pole dome, the ice was two miles thick, and the building moves 33 feet a year. There’s one sunset a year, then a sunrise six months later. There were some of the best scientists from India, China, Russia and the U.S., all around the world, living at 9,800 feet with us. It’s even too cold for animals — penguins are only on the coast. When we were leaving McMurdo to go to the South Pole, there were about 50 penguins in the way, and you're not allowed to go out and yell at them or anything. So, we almost lost our window. We were waiting for two and half hours for penguins.
My plumbing materials were stored outside the dome, which is where we were staying with all the scientists. To get to the supplies, I had to climb out with all my gear into 30-foot snow drifts, tie an old 8-foot banana sled to my back, then hike the quarter mile to the storage area and back. If there was a big wind chill, I had to walk backward because I could hardly get oxygen. It’s dark all the time and all the telescopes are really powerful and light sensitive, so I had to use a special mini flashlight to find all my fittings. If there was a whiteout, we had line ropes to follow. You’re all by yourself and radios don’t work because of the cold. There were lots of times that I got halfway back and I dropped the sled because I couldn’t breathe. I’d walk back to the dome, rest up and go back and get it the next morning.
It was quite an adventure down there.
While I was there, Jerri Nielsen, the only doctor at the dome, discovered a lump in her breast in March. No one could fly in because of the season, so she taught my welder how to do a biopsy on her. They sent it to an Indiana State University cancer doctor for the National Science Foundation and found out it was an aggressive type of cancer. To get her the chemotherapy drugs she needed, a U.S. plane flew over the continent in the dead of winter for the first time ever and dropped three parachutes for her. The carpenter gave her chemotherapy every week. They got her out in September, which was the earliest the weather would allow.
It was quite an adventure down there. But it worked, because I’m kind of an outdoors person — I really am an adventurer. It’s why I did a lot of plumbing and mechanical projects in the early days that maybe I shouldn’t have, but that was because I wanted to learn. I’ve been able to experience most types of projects over the years.
When Dennis arrived in New Zealand after his year in Antarctica, his wife and daughter were there to greet him. He’s traded in his parka for warmer climates and now works as an MEP superintendent based in our Estero office.
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