Name: Joe Kluberton
Role: Facilities Technician
1st ALE Season: 2014
What first brought you to work for ALE?
Some friends from Everest told me about ALE. Antarctica was always one of those places that I knew would be an amazing place to work, but never really thought that an opportunity to go would present itself. Fortunately I was wrong.
Can you explain in broad terms how ALE generates power in Antarctica?
The power at Union Glacier camp is over 90% solar. The solar panels convert the sun’s energy into power that our battery bank can absorb. From the battery bank, we have inverters that convert the power into energy that our laptops, cell phones, heaters and everything else can absorb.
We receive a lot of sun in Union Glacier during the season with 24 hours of daylight, so we typically run everything on solar power alone. We have enough battery storage to last through a few days of poor weather depending on how many people are in camp. If the poor weather lasts a number of days, we will run a generator to top up the batteries. This only takes a few hours and then we can run off the stored battery power for another few days by which time the sun has typically found its way back to us.
How does the water system work in Union Glacier Camp?
All of our water comes from melting snow. We have access to plenty of snow as we live on a glacier, but we do designate clean snow areas for harvesting drinking water. The snow is loaded into large tanks that can hold over 200 gallons (757 liters) of water. Heating elements in the bottom of the tank bring the water up to 158°F (70°C). The process uses a combination of solar power and jet fuel to power small heating units.
Snow is about 10 to 1 water content by density, so a 40L duffle bag worth of snow will make about one gallon of water. You can think of a full tank of water as the equivalent of two hundred duffle bags of loose snow. Shoveling all of that snow into the melters is one of the reasons our staff stay in such good shape. The entire melting process takes about 4 hours and the water is then pumped into the building, through filters, and delivered to the taps.
How does working in Antarctica compare to other remote camps you’ve worked at?
I’ve spent five seasons in Everest Base Camp, been to Denali Base Camp a number of times, and lived months in remote camps around Alaska. Like Antarctica, they are all amazing and beautiful, but we are a bit more remote at Union Glacier. As you leave the plane you are immediately aware of the pristine solitude that exists in Antarctica. There is virtually nothing but ice and mountains for thousands of miles in either direction and I can’t think of any place like it. And then there is the food! All of the camps I have worked in over the years have made an effort toward good food, but what ALE is able to do with the quality of food in Union Glacier and all of our remote camps is unparalleled.
What is the most difficult problem you’ve had to solve while on the job in Antarctica?
Hmm, I like to joke that we are all MacGyver’s at Union Glacier because we always end up needing to fix something and the parts to fix it are seven thousand miles away.
I had a glycol pump for one of our snow melters go out in my first year, but the only spare pump we had was an incompatible voltage. I had to set up a separate power system at the proper voltage to install the new pump. But then the melting unit would not recognize the new pump because it was on the separate power system. To trick the melter, I had to leave the old broken pump plugged into the system. It was just hanging in space and pumping air but the system thought that pump was still doing its job and everything worked great. I called it my ‘placebo’ pump.
Is there one tool you carry with you at all times?
An 11 in 1 screwdriver, a grip assisted pair of needle nose pliers, and an adjustable wrench….I guess that makes 3 tools. I wear them out enough each year that I end up buying new pairs before each season.
What do you love most about your job?
The creativity and problem solving. We have designed and built a number of things for water, heat, and power that were created specifically for our unique circumstances and location. Snow melters, power cubbies, portable charging units, power boxes, custom solar units…they all exist because our location demands a unique approach.
Do you have a favorite memory from the last few seasons?
I can think of so many that it’s hard to pick one:
- Sipping coffee early in the morning before camp wakes up.
- The first true winter storm that our new heaters survived.
- Any time our solar generation exceeds 2KW.
- The first day I didn’t need to work on a Webasto heater in some fashion.
- Flying back from Vinson after a day of work early in the season when the sun still gets low enough in the horizon to make the semblance of a sunset against the mountains.
- Getting our basketball hoop put up.
- Every backcountry ski trip I can find energy for after the workday.
- Finally winning a game of Settlers of Catan.
I suppose I enjoy the simple things, perhaps that’s what makes me adept at remote camp life. They truly are all great memories, I don’t think I could pick just one.
How do you spend your ‘off’ season?
Like many of us, my ‘off’ season is more time for work. I am the Alaska Operations Manager for Alpine Ascents International. At this point, that consists of launching Denali climbing expeditions and trekking with Yaks through the Talkeetna Mountains.
In the few weeks that I actually have off, I can typically be found enjoying multi-pitch traditional routes on the side of a mountain somewhere.
You are known as an avid hula hooper – where is your favorite place to practice your craft?
Haha, I am? Well, I guess lately it seems to be at the annual ‘no-talent’ show in Union Glacier. Salt Lake City actually has a park where people hula hoop every Sunday night. Someone had a fire hula hoop there one night that I got to play around with, certainly some of the most exciting hooping I’ve tried!
What tips do you have for our guests on how they can help conserve power and water while in Antarctica?
To conserve water, it is good not to let the tap run while brushing teeth and to use as little water as possible when washing hands. Guests and staff can use one of the bowls provided in the shower unit for washing their face if they just want to freshen up without taking a full shower. When people do shower, it helps if they turn the water off while lathering with soap and then turn it on again to rinse off.
To conserve power, it’s best to keep phones in ‘airplane’ mode as there’s no reception in Antarctica. Many phones also have a low power mode that will help conserve battery power. Turning your phone off at night and making sure the phone is warm before you turn it on again, also helps. If your phone is your alarm clock, then closing all of the apps, and keeping it near your body to stay warm will maintain the battery through the night. Cold lithium batteries will not work well, you might turn your phone on when it’s cold and see 40% battery, but it could rise to 75% after you warm it up.
The most important thing to remember for computers is to turn it off when you are not using it. You will also want to keep it warm, or warm it up before you use it.
Camera batteries also need to stay warm to work well. Another top tip is to cover your camera when you bring it in from the cold so that the lenses and other components do not condensate while the camera warms up.