50 feet below the South Pole station begins a series of tunnels leading to Rod wells that house fresh drinking water. A 'Rod well' is created by hot water drilling into the ice until water is reached. As more hot water is added, the ice continues to melt, creating a bowl that contains freshly melted ice, or drinking water. This water is pumped back to the station through a series of pipes in the underground tunnel. As the Rod well gets too large and depletes the drinking water, it gets converted into a sewage dump and a new Rod well is drilled.
Sayer Houseal, a carpenter who has spent several seasons at Pole, is spending his summer down in the tunnels below the station. His job involves widening the narrow tunnels so that the pipes can be more easily serviced. He is also helping to create emergency exits throughout the tunnel in case of any unexpected caving.
Sayer took us down into the tunnels to give us a quick tour. We were accompanied by JD Harmon, a crane operator who has spent time at both the South Pole and McMurdo stations. The minute we stepped down the small ramp into the tunnel, it felt colder. The air is stil inside the tunnel and it is dark aside from small miner lamps hanging from the pipes. There is no need to wear goggles but this meant frozen icicles on our eyelashes. The temperature in the tunnel is a constant -60F but there is no windchill in the tunnels so it feels about the same as the air outside when there is a breeze.
About 3 meters inside the tunnel on the right is the first shrine. Over the years, South Pole tradition has allowed ridiculous shrines to be placed inside the tunnels dedicated to an inside joke from that season. The first shrine we came to was the tub containing the last of the vanilla ice cream in 2012. And this was not even the most absurd.
There were shrines to a sturgeon that was a gift from Russia in 1992, an ice sculpture of Amundsen's bust, and even a tribute to Buzz Aldren's visit last year – his water cup and a used tissue. The shrines are mostly found in the first 500 feet of the tunnel, but we walked to the end of the 2000 foot system to see where the farthest Rod wells are located in relation to the station.
There is a mysterious experiment set up at about 500 feet into the tunnels. A sign is hung outside of a wooden panel in the tunnels that says "South Pole Gravity Station – Do Not Enter". I've asked a number of Polies who have been here for multiple seasons and I can't seem to find an answer about what goes on behind that panel. Some people claim to see dark figures moving or hiding at the ends of the tunnels. Urban legends run rampant in Antarctica, so there is a good chance this has become an example of one of those stories.
At the end of the tunnel, we were greeted by Dennis Calhoun, the power plant manager and operator who keeps the station running. He showed us a quick tour of the engine room where we were asked to wear ear protection since the power plant was so loud! It was amazing to see all the working components of the underground station.