During Alumni Reunion Weekend 2017, Alexander “Sasha” Bulazel (S’85) posed a challenge to his fellow Williams-Mystic alumni: Take a picture with the Williams-Mystic burgee at one of our planet’s extremes,* and Bulazel would donate $25,000 to Williams-Mystic.
Not two months later, Jaime Hensel (S’03), arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station with the Williams-Mystic burgee in hand.
For Hensel, a nurse practitioner who is half of South Pole Station’s medical team this austral summer, this moment had been years in the making.
It began during her Williams-Mystic semester, when her experience offshore — she spent her twentieth birthday sleeping on the deck of the Corwith Cramer — inspired her to pursue tall ship sailing after graduation.
Throughout her five years in the tall ship world, Hensel met shipmates who’d been to Antarctica. As on the Cramer, an idea took root.
That idea persisted, even as Hensel found herself in other places she never expected to.
Aboard the schooner Adventuress, for instance, Hensel read a book by the vessel’s captain about his experiences walking the Camino de Santiago.
As she puts it: “Like many things in my life, [the idea] took hold and I thought, ‘I should do this one day.’”
Not long after, she found herself on the Camino. It was there her life took another turn, when a new friend she met there helped her decide to pursue nursing.
Throughout her years at the Yale School of Nursing, Hensel continued to consider going to the South Pole. She applied three times after graduating in 2013 before, in the spring of 2016, she was granted an interview.
“They said, ‘How about the summer season of 2017/18?’ I … wasn’t totally certain [until a few months later] I had been hired.”
Hensel reached the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on November 1, 2017. The station, her home until February, sits at 9,306 feet above sea level, perched atop a 9,000-foot thick ice sheet that drifts as many as 33 feet each year.
For Hensel, this world of extremes felt familiar.
“It’s an awful lot like living on a boat here,” she explains over the phone five weeks after her arrival at the South Pole. Resources are scarce. The station’s inhabitants, numbering up to 150 most austral summers and 40 most winters, relate to each other as shipmates.
Like sailors, they communicate using their own argot. Their uniform comprises government-issued red overcoats (“big red”) and white boots (“bunny boots”). Inhabitants even refer to their kitchen as a galley.
They work hard too. Everyone takes turns cleaning shared spaces. Hensel and the station’s doctor spend sixty hours a week in the clinic and alternate being on call during off hours.
“We run a hospital, basically,” Hensel reflects. “We’re our own pharmacists. We’re our own lab … We want to take care of [people] because they’re our community.”
The entire station is that way: a self-contained unit. All its supplies have to be flown or hauled in over three summer months. Though the station is moored atop more than a mile of ice, residents are limited to two two-minute showers each week because even extracting water demands scarce fuel. Inhabitants manufacture their own fun, too; Hensel’s learning to unicycle, cross-country ski, and even drive snowmobiles.
Who thrives here? For Hensel, “the short answer is a sailor: Someone who is used to living in close quarters. You also have to be willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort. To quote Glenn, ‘if you’re cold, you’re dumb.’ ” Since limited satellite coverage means you can only access the internet three hours most days, you also have to be “willing to connect with human beings around you.”
When Hensel sailed aboard the schooner Adventuress, she learned to view the “boat as a metaphor for a small planet”: a world of finite resources, resources that must be managed by the people reliant on them.
For Hensel, this “small dot in the middle of a large, frozen sea” felt like home for precisely this reason.
“[South Pole Station] is definitely station as metaphor for small planet,” she reflects. “It’s also one of those crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experiences… I love it here.”
* These extremes include: the North and South Poles; the Marianas Trench and/or another significant point on the ocean floor; or, the top of one of the world’s tallest mountains (e.g., Everest or K2). Bulazel has pledged up to $100,000; i.e., he will donate $25,000 for each of the first four alumni (including Hensel) who takes a picture with our burgee at one of these places. Contact us at [email protected] if you are going somewhere that might qualify!
Notes and Further Reading
We’re profoundly grateful to Alex Bulazel for his generosity and to Jaime Hensel for her adventurous spirit (and for taking the time to talk about her experiences during a rare moment of satellite coverage).
If you want to hear more about Hensel’s experience — or simply learn more about life at the South Pole — I highly recommend her blog: https://henselbelowzero.wordpress.com/. If you want to embark on a South Pole journey of your own, Hensel says she would be happy to hear from you; you can reach her at [email protected].
Some additional resources I drew on in writing this piece include: