Text and pictures © 2005-2019 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"It is those who get lost, who find the new ways." — Nils Kjaer.
Interviews performed on March 22nd and 23rd.
The 13 members of the Concordia winterover can be counted different ways: 8 are part of the technical team, 5 have scientific activities, 6 are newcomers to this cold land, only 2 are bachelors, 11 are french but 3 are counted as italian. Go figure.
If you want to write to any of us, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Christophe: "I'm 34, married with an 8 year old daughter and a 6 year old son. I'm from Guadeloupe Island, in the Caribbeans, a tropical setting quite different from here. I came here for work and adventure, although I wasn't used to the cold at all, but it's something you get used to. The temperatures are so extreme anyway that even if you come from the mainland you won't feel all that much better. I'm a mechanical officer on merchant ships, where I worked for 7 years on cruise ships, but only in warm places ! The inside of machine rooms are usually excruciatingly hot, here I often have to work outside where it's excruciatingly cold, so the lack of comfort is similar. The activities I carry outside are mainly: checking the fuel levels in the tanks, performing the fuel transfers, starting the emergency engines once in a while, sorting things up. But my official activity here is power plant manager, and indoors I take care of the power generators, the various pumps, the compressors and fuel transfers.
"It's my first time in Antarctica and my first time in such a cold place. Like I said before I've got no cold weather experience and sometimes I have bad surprises, like when the antifreeze fuel freezes, or a few times where I held rivets in my mouth, or I grabbed metal pieces bare handed outside... I came here because it's something I wanted to do at least once in my life. As for living conditions there's no problem, the station is comfortable; work is no harder than most other places and I enjoy working with Michel and Claire. As for the hardest things to cope with here, it's more on a personal level, as interpersonal relationships are a little harder to deal with. With only a few days of bad weather since I started, the weather is always nice (but cold). Yesterday we could see the Milky Way perfectly, with fabulous stars. During the day it's an endless white that stretches forever, like on the sea with calm weather you get an impression of tiny waves, but all white instead of blue."
Claire: "I'm 30 with a boyfriend back home. I've been employed by IPEV (French Polar Institute) for the last year where I'm in charge of environment, security and new development. Here at Concordia I'm technical manager: I organize the work of the 8 people of the technical team. I'm also in charge of the water recycling unit. The technical team meets on monday morning to define what needs to be done during the week; for instance this week we tested the emergency restart of the summer camp in case of evacuation of Concordia; we continue the cabling of the fire and technical alarms; adding ladders the fuel tanks, additional insulation of pipe, installation of heating on the antennas and the sorting of the mess outside. Outside activities have priority before night comes. I also keep an eye on people.
"As part of my activity are two scientific experiments: the first is the water recycling prototype developed with the European Space Agency. I maintain it, send them daily logs, do water analysis at various steps of the processing, and there'll be more work in the next years as the system is expanded. I also share some work with Roberto on Mistacoba to study the bacterial fauna in this confined place. I take swab samples on the floor of the station, maintain dataloggers monitoring temperature and humidity, and sample the air with filters while Roberto take samples on people. This is for the Belgian Nuclear Laboratory (SCK/CEN).
"I'm often outside. I like it while the temperature is still warm. It's nice. I wintered over at DdU in 2003 as a glaciologist and last year I rode on the Traverse between DdU and Dome C. I was attracted by the high plateau and fascinated by the idea of doing the first winterover. Here I like the infinite space, the pure horizon. No problem so far, the cold is one of the parameters we learn to live with, but I suffer from the cold a lot less than in DdU where it's more humid and windy. True, I miss the animals, the icebergs, the sea ice but we trade it for snow. Lots of snow. The weather is always nice. The impression of infinity and silence we get when we walk away from the noise of the generators of the station is second to none; then I like to lay down in the snow, it's a great feeling."
Emanuele: "At 26 I'm the youngest of the winterover, but that's not an issue. My parents and brothers are in Italy. I'm doing a PhD in Italy and I came here as part of my PhD as an ice specialist. I take samples of snow and aerosols to study the chemical transfers between air and snow. It's important to be able to retrace the paleoclimatic history of the ice as obtained by the Epica ice core. I also take care of some dataloggers recording the temperature of the underground snow in order to see the increase in snow density over time as it turns to ice. I have to go out to perform those samplings quite often: the warmest and coldest moments of the day are the best. I also study the formation of 'hoar', ice crystals that form by reverse sublimation (solid state condensation); it's a superficial process that happens irregularly, for a month there wasn't any but since the windstorm of 2 weeks ago there's plenty of it, so it depends on the wind, the humidity, the sun intensity...
"It's my 1st time in Antarctica and I'm still thrilled about it, it's a good experience and everything is going well. The high Antarctic plateau is a fascinating place and a lot more varied than I expected: there's wind, great sunsets, night walks. It's never boring. There are some language difficulties as there's only one other italian to talk to here, but I can always keep busy. I try to understand french but I'm not doing any particular efforts toward it so it takes time. The main drag here is the incinolet, and also my aerosol pumping systems which sometimes fail. Going out at night to do the snow samplings is becoming increasingly difficult, there are problems with the failing lights and glasses icing up. During the day it's easier and even relaxing, but night trips have their compensations: last night when the lights failed we had the chance to see our first aurora..."
Guillaume: "Well, I'm 35 and married. It's my 2nd winterover and I've also done 3 summer campaigns in DdU and Dome C. I work here doing data acquisition for two italian atmosphere science laboratories. You can learn all you want from me by reading the rest of my site."
Jean: "I'm 34, married with 2 kids (age 3 and 6). In France I work on housing construction sites, driving construction vehicles and also as a truck driver. Here I'm mechanics/dieselist which means that I spend most of my time fixing the snowmachines that have a hard time coping with the cold, a typical problem is that their belts and transmissions harden and break up. Like everyone else I have some side activities, I drive the Cat to fill up the melter with snow necessary for the station. When the water recycler works it need to be done only once every 15 days, otherwise every 3 or 4 days. I put 9 to 10m3 of snow at a time which end up giving 4m3 of water.
"Coming to Antarctica is an old dream, and I've been trying to come here for the last 6 years. I was offered to come here after spending the summer campaign at DdU, and indeed I like it better here. DdU is like a small city compared to Concordia. And there's the fact the we are doing a first which adds spice to the adventure. I particularly like the fact that we are totally isolated from the rest of the world. I just thought upon coming that the station's construction would have been more complete; and the summer builders left leaving everything in piles everywhere; two months after their departure it's only just beginning to become livable.
"What I find hard is to repair engines outside, like today when a snowmachine broke down away from the station. After tightening 2 screws you already want to come back to the warmth of the station ! Also I spend a lot of time outside driving the Caterpillar, and people think I'm warm inside, but that's not the case: if I turn the heating on, the cold outside air cools down the engine too much so I cannot use it !"
Jean-Louis: "I'm the oldest on the station but it's not a problem, I feel in better shape than several of the youngsters. I'm the station's cook, which means I'm also the butcher, the baker, and other side activities like part of the medical team. I don't spend too much time outside (unless the incinolets are closed...) but often do quick trips to go get frozen food off the containers or to empty the trash. And indeed one of the annoying things here is the time wasted dressing up each time you go outside, even just for a minute.
"It's my 10th winterover and I've done many more summer campaigns, including one in Greenland. I've had the idea to come overwinter here ever since that 1980 DdU winterover when Patrice Godon first had the idea of founding a permanent research station up at Dome C. My work is the same here than at DdU, i.e. feed the expedition members twice a day. Only the setting is different: I love the view from the kitchen windows. Here it's the republic of silence, it's so quiet (at least when my stereo is off). There aren't any particular problems, but we haven't been here for very long yet; I have lots of room to work, and it will only get better when we receive more equipment next year. I'm glad I'm here."
Jeff: "I'm 33 year old. I work as an electrician in France, here as a polyvalent technician. It's my first time in Antarctica. What I like most here is the personal experience, the antarctic spirit, the teamwork, discovering new things and participating in the construction of a new scientific station. The cold is not such an issue even if one needs to be always careful. I'm used to often moving from one area of France to another, so being far from friends and family is not such an issue. On the negative side, I've gained 9kg and blown up my pants; it's all Jean-Louis's fault !"
Karim: "I'm 40 year old and married. I work as an instrumental astronomer at the university of Nice in southern France, and here as manager of the ConcordiAstro project. The main activities here are site testing to evaluate the quality of the sky, balloon launches, instrumental mast to study the boundary layer and sometimes I have to do technical interventions on the Aastino project. I had been expecting the arrival of the night eagerly and now I know: the sky here is simply the best. I have to go out to my telescopes several times a day but every trip is different, even at night, like yesterday when I saw my first aurora. On the negative side I don't sleep enough since I work mainly at night, but this allows me to live different things than the rest of the group, to feel truly alone while they are all asleep and I'm outside.
"I've done 4 summer campaigns at Dome C previously but this is my first winter. I like the whole Concordia project, I saw it grow from nothing to completion in 5 years and I'm very much attached to it. But above all I like the sky, so different from the rest of the world, so perfect, only limited by the horizon itself. The hardest thing here is that time flies."
Michel: "I'm 41, married with a 12yo daughter and a 6yo son. In France I work more like a gypsy king, always on the move doing interim work in foreign countries where I usually work as manager of electromechanical constructions, often in the crane industry. My official activity at Concordia is similar, I'm the electromechanics of the station. In practice I spend a lot of time redoing schematics of electrical equipment, which will take a total of 2 or 3 months of my time here. It's my first time in Antarctica but I've worked in Russia in winter. Here I like particularly the food, the drinks before the meals start, the mentality, the Toc [a board game]. And sometimes little surprises like this morning when Claire and I prepare a skidoo with all the equipment on the sled, and when we arrived at the summer camp the sled was gone...
"As for work I like the fact that there's less discipline here, work is cool and efficient, without too much pressure for deadlines (at least during the winterover). I like the fact that there's a woman in the team and she holds her ground technically. On the negative side I think there could be more preparation in the equipment that is brought here, and maybe we should have sorted and cleaned the station as first thing. We are doing this right now and we keep discovering equipment which would have come in handy before. And I don't have any space to place my equipment, it's kept outside in containers, with only room inside for the essentials. There where communications problems with the rest of the world for a few weeks but it now seems to have been solved. I don't have a problem with the cold, but I'm a little worried about the future, with the permanent darkness coming soon."
Michel: "I'm 36 and I'm an employee of the French Polar Institute where I work as assistant engineer. Here I have the double hat of station leader and plummer. But mostly plummer. There's lots to do: hot water pipes, cold water, fuel pipes, electro, watch the melter, the water production, fix all that when it breaks, install new systems. Against the cold we keep the water in constant circulation, we put insulation around the pipes and also insert resistor lines inside them. As station leader I decide on security issues, write reports and somehow organize the collective life.
"Up to now I've been outside every day, but I don't have a main activity outside: I take care of plenty of little details. I wintered over in DdU in '98 and also at Kergelen Island; I've done every summer campaign in Antarctica since '99. What I like most here is the work. Also the relation between people which are easier, probably because we are less numerous. There's no particular problem here, I came here voluntarily and with the experience of past winterovers, so I consider that any problem is part of the workload and can't complain. I like the station at night, with its little lights. We're not used to it as we've had nights only for the last few weeks. It seems we just got transported somewhere else."
Pascal: "I'm 28 with a boyfriend back home. When in France I'm usually on vacation because I normally work overseas, lately in Brazil on oil prospection ships where I'm ship electronician. The denomination of my official activity in Concordia is a bit long, but it encompasses telecommunications, radio operations, intercom, computers, network, electronics, as well as installing the fire alarms, the energy monitors (with Claire); and I also monitor the scientific magnetism and seismology experiments.
"For the science part it's not too busy: I spend 2 hours a week doing measurements of the absolute magnetic field of the Earth, but I don't do data analysis because of some software glitch: the instantaneous values measured have a one second delay which is enough to spoil the data from the proton magnetometer, so the data is sent back to Europe for post-processing. As for seismology, it works on its own and I'll only have to change a tape after 6 months. I don't go out very often, only once a week for those magnetic measurements. My domain is in the double ceilings where I spend a lot of time threading cables. I see the inside of the ceilings more than the rest of the station.
"I overwintered in DdU in 2001, and I was supposed to winterover again at DdU this year as a Geophysics manager, but they had budget restrictions and they offered me the position here instead, so I came. Even if you don't see all the strange weather changes of DdU, all the shades of blue of the ice or the crevasses in the glacier, there are many pastel colors in the sky. Also rare natural effects as sun's green-ray occur quite often here. Then is spite of this place being cold, empty and desolate there are still many facts that make the trip exalting and there's lots of work to keep your mind busy. It looks very much like a space expedition, the first visitors of Mars would probably be in the same situation except that it will be all red instead of white ;)"
Roberto: "I'm 47, married with a 7 year old daughter. I work as a hospital surgeon in Italy and here I'm the station's doctor. I'm also in charge of several research projects: Mistacoba (Microbiological Study at Concordia Base), LTMS (Long Term Medical Survey) and the psychological study on the behavioral adaptation. But really what takes most of my time is the construction and installation of the hospital which was totally bare when I arrived. There haven't been much medical problem, only some mild casualties, and taking care of them wasn't too stressful.
"In the past I've done a summer campaign at Terra Nova Bay and an oceanographic campaign on the ship Italica. I've wanted to come to Antarctica ever since my teens after my scuba instructor came as a member of the first (private) italian expedition to Antarctica in 1975; I was fascinated by his pictures and films. And also here we work for a better planet; an african saying states that we have the Earth on loan from our sons, and I like to think that I work to leave it better for my daughter.
"About Concordia itself, what interests me most is the opening of the station, the fact that everything still needs to be done. I like the natural setting, the spectacular sky and also on a professional level I'm interested in working on emergency medicine in extreme conditions, something that isn't very developed in Italy. I also hope that after this experience I'll be sent me to work in a hospital in the Maldives ! On the other hand the fact that there's still so much to be done is hard on everyone; and I wish the station was cleaner as it's currently like living in a construction site, but it's getting better.
"The cold itself is not a problem, we know how to dress to avoid it. But for instance yesterday night I was walking outside and I started feeling out of breath. It wasn't the altitude or the lack of exercise: my breathing mask had covered with so much ice that I couldn't breath through anymore..."
Stéphane: "I'm 28 and single. Back home I'm a metal worker and here I'm officially a solder. I do various construction work: plummer, locksmith and more. I'm currently working outside welding ladders to the fuel tanks, securing the grates that are too slippery and adding heating pipes to the satellite antennas. Later during the year my main activity will be to lay down the flooring in all the rooms which still need it (about 3/4 of the station).
"I did a winterover at DdU in 2003 and in comparison it's much colder here and it lacks animals and things to see. The good thing is that it's all new and nobody's ever been here before in winter. Among the problems, I'd say the altitude hinders the activity, we work slower. It took me forever this morning to drill 16 holes on a ladder outside."
Coming next: Antarctic Autumn.