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Living down south

New London man spends year at the South Pole

Jais Gossman, of New London, landed in the South Pole in November 2013. He spent about a year at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. Contributed photo

Jais Gossman, of New London, landed in the South Pole in November 2013. He spent about a year at the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. Contributed photo

“It was like landing on a different planet. I likened it to Hoth, the planet in the movie Star Wars – the piercing blue sky, elevation of 10,000 feet and very dry.”

Jais Gossman, of New London, had just landed at the South Pole. It was November 6, 2013. The white landscape blinded him ,and it was minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We were lucky. There was no whiteout,” he added. “A whiteout would mean that Hercules, the C-130 Air Force cargo plane, would be boomeranging back to McMurdo.”

Gossman was on his way to the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station to work for its three summer months. For this adventure and employment he credits his sister, Siri, who had worked there the year before – and does today. Later, while working there, he learned the winter crew was short-handed. Winter’s isolation requires potential employees be interviewed by a psychologist; he stayed a full year.

Extensive physical and dental exams declared Gossman in excellent health — mandatory for Pole employment. With his appendix already out and his wisdom teeth nonproblematic, he was fit.

Aware the station had a computer lab, his luggage included a hard drive for photos and a few clothes that mostly proved unnecessary – except for long underwear. Proper clothing was provided, such as the parka, Big Red.

He and his sister flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, to Australia, and then to Christchurch, New Zealand, for a week of preparation. Finally, they arrived at the Antarctica coastal McMurdo Base, known as the “Gateway to the Continent.”

Gossman did not have a costume to wear for McMurdo’s Halloween party, but he met someone who became a good friend. After another flight of six to eight hours, they reached their destination, the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station, a United States science research station.

Not too long after his arrival at Amundson-Scott, Gossman endured the initiation awaiting all newcomers. Wearing sneakers only, he ran a distance of about 200 yards. “There might have more initiation rites for first timers, but I hung out with my sister, so I avoided them.”

“I don’t know if I ever did [acclimate] completely. It’s not a homey place. People would do their job then go to their room. They valued their privacy. People dressed up their rooms to be comfortable there. It was a place for escape.”

He hung up lights in his room, and since most were vacant in the winter, used a second room for writing space, an office. Although all rooms have windows, the windows are usually blocked with cardboard. Half the year the sun never set; the other half, they “couldn’t let light contaminate certain experiments outside the station.” Cardboard blocked all the lights throughout. “It felt a bit like living in a cardboard space station.”

Housing consisted of a single room of about 6 feet by 10 feet in one of the three pods, each with the capacity of 50 people. The pods had a long hallway, two floors and thick walls made of structurally insulated panels (SIP); one pod had rooms 20 feet long, but those rooms were reserved for those with tenure at the station and VIP visitors, “which did not include Prince Harry.”

On his way to his dish washing job one day, Gossman opened a door and British Prince Harry and his Wounded Warriors group walked by. They were touring the station. Prince Harry’s charity expedition had arrived at the Amundson-Scott Station on the anniversary eve of Norwegian Roald Amundson’s arrival on Dec. 14, 1911. Prince Harry and his group had to camp outside the station. Said Gossman, “That is probably the only time in my life I’ll have more cushy quarters than a prince.”

Jais Gossman pictured today at his New London home. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Jais Gossman pictured today at his New London home. Photo by Arlene Quam

His day as steward began at 5:30 a.m. with doing breakfast dishes, cleaning the galley, and sanitizing surfaces. “Sanitizing was necessary as people’s immunity system drops off.” He also dusted, vacuumed and mopped all the recreation room, and gym. He laundered everyone’s bed linen after they left and prepared rooms for arrivals. Summer co-workers enabled shift work; winter differed. “Do it well and do it fast” was the motto. Gossman took one sick day that year. He was also a fireman with weekly training for disasters—none occurred.

But two months before his stint ended, an unnerving situation arose. “The rod well froze up, so we were without the typical supply of water. We could still melt it and had plenty of fuel, but I think it was a stark realization of our isolation.”

Always rationed, water usage was then more strictly rationed. For instance, the two weekly showers of two-minute duration was cut to one per week; the only exception was in food preparation – if it was absolutely necessary – a second shower was allowed. Less water complicated Gossman’s dishwashing job.

A rod well is a source of water. A very simple, minimal description: A rod well is a cavity deep in the ice where the ice is melted for potable water through a complex process of tunnels, hoses, pumps, heaters and filters. When a rod well goes over 500 feet deep it’s no longer economical to pump and recirculate the water. It’s closed and later becomes a sewer.

Another unnerving realization while at the Pole was “really encountering myself. We learn a lot in isolation, but I think the scariest thing about being so solitary was learning how little of myself I knew.”

However, life at the Pole wasn’t all solitude and work. For eight hours a day, satellites enabled communication with the outside world. In addition to a three-quarter sized gym, which housed concerts, movies, soccer and volley ball, other recreation rooms were available– including a sauna.

Besides learning new dart games, Gossman improved his pool playing and was a semi-finalist in the winter pool tournament; which he quickly down played with “There were about 15 in the tournament.”

Two rooms were available for films and video games. The music room furnished a guitar, tuba, bass guitar, drums and piano – here he and a friend practiced the other’s music, and ended up singing and playing to an audience in the gym.

And there were parties. He described the feeling after a party held inside a work space with disco lights and all, “It was disorienting to be in a dark space for three, four hours and walk out at midnight, and the sun would be out.”

During the three summer months, 50 flights brought supplies, food and fuel. Every plane that lands brings JP-8, the surplus jet fuel, for the generators running the station.

A huge underground hanger stores food; although built above ground, it is now buried in snow. Food could possibly be up to 20 years old; extreme cold preserves it well – no freezer burn. For instance Reagan-era bacon was served. An interesting tidbit: After a summer’s end shipment of eggs arrived, Gossman assisted in dipping them in some type of oil. Refrigeration would then preserve them.

The crew enjoyed fruit in the summer and in winter appreciated hydroponically grown vegetables in the small greenhouse. No longer funded as a university project, Pole volunteers replaced the greenhouse technician and raised lettuce, kale, cherry tomatoes and such for the base. “It was 70 degrees and the only humid place except the sauna.”

A head chef with six or seven prep chefs and line cooks were required for the summer capacity of 150. With the winter capacity of 50, a head chef and two assistants are needed. Forty-one served on the winter crew when Gossman did. “The chef got the brunt of complaints. People need something to complain about. The food was great. The cook was good.”

In addition to the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, there were Sundown, Mid-winter, and Sunrise feasts. Because summer is one long day and winter one long night, that’s understandable. “It was the best part,” said Gossman. “It makes you appreciate the daylight.” (Of all the world’s land area, the South Pole is the only place where there is six months of constant daylight and six months of constant night. At the North Pole, it occurs somewhere in the Arctic Ocean.

Describing the week-long sunset, he says it includes every color imaginable in a sunset. But he doesn’t remember seeing the green flash, which occurs immediately after the sun drops below the horizon. He thinks the green flash lasts for about an hour. “But when you’re staring at the sun, your eyes do funny things anyway.”

Another celebration was a big Octoberfest with the pertinent regalia and thirst quencher. The main organizer was a nonimbibing Bavarian crew member. Jolly and festive, he got everyone to join in the fun and sing the traditional songs.

Gossman did not participate in any scientific research, but one experiment in particular intrigued him. Using the telescope at the Pole, “they were looking deep, deep into space to study the cosmic microwave background.”

Grossman while driving a spryte at the South Pole. Contributed photo

Grossman while driving a spryte at the South Pole. Contributed photo

He left Amundson-Scott on Nov. 8, 2014. He described his year at the Pole, “The whole thing was funny and strange, really.”

But Gossman wasn’t ready to go home. He saved almost all of his 60 hours per week earnings at $11 per hour, which enabled him to treat his father to a round-trip ticket to South Africa, where the two met after he had checked out parts of Asia.

For a few months Gossman spent time in New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea; circled the island of Taiwan; and waited in Hong Kong for a visa for China, where he toured big cities and the western part, and learned about the Uyghur people. He also visited Kazakhstan. Via Dubai and Egypt. He reached South Africa and met his father. After two weeks of visiting places the elder had been while living there years ago, they went home.

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