The first winter-over at Concordia

Part 5 — A transition period

"There's one box of corn-flakes a day. I thought there was going to be a lot of youngsters on this winterover, but we are all old farts who have dry sausage and a bottle of wine for breakfast."    — Jean-Louis while sorting the stocks of food.
Dome C pages:

The 13th

Near the end of January, on the 27th a Twin Otter arrives with the last winteroverer, Jean. As Tatiania was quick to notice, the 13th wintereoverer... Nobody else seems to care, so the team is now complete and we're good to go. In the same plane was Patrice Godon, the man who led the first Traverses between DdU and Dome C, and launched and oversaw the Concordia construction project. He now looks like a respectable VIP but he's had his hand in this project since the idea of building a permanent station at Dome C first surfaced in 1980. The idea was from the noted glaciologist Claude Lorius who had just spent a summer campaign on this site in 1977 so Patrice, Jean-Louis (our cook) and the doctor of the 30th french winter-over decided they would build a station at Dome C and come to winter-over in it. Patrice built it, but Jean-Louis is the only one who will winter-over as Patrice is now believed to be more efficient at getting budgets from the government. As I've never met him, I'm not sure of whatever happened to the doctor, but I've heard it involves lots of silicone in a most interesting form. A dream for a winteroverer if there ever was one.

A fairly uniform wardrobe...

Right: A fairly uniform wardrobe...

So on the 28th we have our first winter-over meeting, with the current summer camp manager, Camillo, and Patrice as observers. They confirm a few rumors: we will move in on Sunday... but only our stuff, not ourselves ! There's no water yet so we'll still sleep in the tents. The Traverse will arrive on the 1st or 2nd with our fuel, our food and 99% of the medical equipment. They'll stay as long as they are needed. Hah! The last Twin Otter will leave on the 8th but the Traverse will possibly stay longer. The fire alarms and other kinds of securities haven't been installed yet, so at the beginning of the winter we'll have to do night watches over the power plant and other equipment. Then there will also be cleaning and dishwashing service turns, and possibly basic cooking if you happen to be of service on the rest day of the cook. Work hours for non-scientists are 8:00 to 11:45 and 13:30 to 17:30, monday to saturday morning. Saturday afternoon is common housekeeping. And sunday is free-time. Or that's the theory as we'll have to refine many details as things get started.

Moving in

Sunday 30th January, we officially move into Concordia but that changes very little in practice since there's no water in the buildings yet, so we still can't sleep there. We just did a few trips with the pickup truck and some snowmachines to carry all our extra personal stuff, scientific equipment and medical supplies to the foot of the quiet building where we used the crane to raise it to the 3rd floor. In about one hour it was done. In the process we chose our rooms. Not too much fighting for that: there are 16 rooms occupying 16 of the sides of the 18-sided building (there is also a double-sized storage room). The doctor and the power plant engineer sleep near their workplace on the 1st floor so that leaves 16 rooms for 11 people. Karim had already chosen his room 2 years ago with view on his experiments outside. Jean-Louis chose the room closest to the stairs so he wouldn't wake people as he got up in the morning, but then quickly regretted it as he heard the noise in the stairs. I chose room 6, oriented between north (so as to get some sun in autumn and spring) and the summer camp (so that I can actually see something from the window). We just dropped our bags inside and left. At least that's what I did, while the others were having a drink to celebrate the opening of Concordia.

Intrepid Antarctic Hero (Pascal) and his high-tech cold-weather slippers.

Left: Intrepid Antarctic Hero (Pascal) and his high-tech cold-weather slippers.

On monday they shift many of the power lines from the summer camp generator to the Concordia generator. I shut down all my acquisition equipment in the meanwhile and start waiting in the container. After 20 minutes the temperature has dropped by a sizable amount and I start closing the seams with aluminum tape. When the power comes back on, it's a disaster: it takes two reboots to get the meteoflux back online, same for the Radiometer. Of course the Lidar won't work unless I kick it into submission about 10 times. More bothering is the fact that the acquisition PC of the sodar stops halfway through the boot process, both in Win98 and Windows2000. After trying many things and 4 hours of work on it I finally reinstall the BIOS and get this worthless piece of silicon to boot. But in the afternoon an unplanned power outage leads to the same demise. Then again the next day... and again the next !

Antarctic Seasons Some say there are 4 seasons in Antarctica: summer with permanent sunlight, winter with permanent darkness, spring and autumn with lengthening or shortening days. The duration of each season depends on your latitude: 6 months of winter and then summer at South Pole, 6 months of autumn and then spring at DdU and as for Dome C the seasons are about even, 3 months each.
But the true Antarctic people know that there are only two seasons down here: summer, when you can leave; and winter, when you are stuck and can't leave even if you try to beg your way out.

Tuesday 2nd — In the meanwhile there's a strong smell of departure. The summer people are all talking about their return plans (sometimes instead of working) while we are trying to sort out the urgent, the essential and the necessary. The traverse is right on time, scheduled to arrive this evening. Activity inside Concordia has shifted, they have finished the outside passageways and are getting ready to move the tanks in position underneath, except that the fuel tanks will arrive on the Traverse and the water tanks are still empty because there's still too much people using too much water. The tanks will be heated during the winter, so as to avoid freezing the water or having the fuel turn to slush. Inside Concordia one of the most important activity right now is the installation of the radio room: 4 people are taking turns installing antennas on the roof, passing cables through the double ceiling, adding computers, replacing firmware on satellite equipment, moving server authority from the summer camp, testing communications, resetting phone cards, breaking down the local network and much more... Some people already sleep in Concordia, even missing the water and pissing out the window. I have several computers already installed at Concordia and I access them via VNC to work remotely from the summer camp lab. I've just been asked to move before saturday though.

A challenger tractor and the chain of the crane.

Left: A challenger tractor and the chain of the crane.

The final Traverse

In the evening the 3rd and final Traverse of the summer arrives, just as I'm fighting with several types of satellite communications to try to update my site directly (the lines you've been reading up to now). I missed their arrival by 2 minutes ! So they just parked and came for dinner and a good night's sleep as they'd been driving 2 extra hours every day to make it here early, pressed by the imminence of the end of the summer campaign and also by two journalists who were on board driving and who wanted to spend as much time here as possible. I go out at night to take some pictures and it's just too damn cold: a haze is forming downwind from any building, my fingers get numb within a few seconds in the hardening gloves and my already frozen nose feels like it has ice needles on it. In the morning I check my temperature sensors and they are showing that the temperature has reached -50°C last night, which is my record cold from 1997 and 2000. But since the temperature has been dropping by 3°C every night since I started operation of the weather station, that record is not going to last much longer.

Some serious rope laying on the snow in the middle of the Traverse maneuvers field. Used to pull the sleds, lift the containers...

Right: Some serious rope laying on the snow in the middle of the Traverse maneuvers field. Used to pull the sleds, lift the containers...

February 3rd, in the morning I go remove an instrument, the high-speed hygrometer, which is not meant to work at winter temperatures here. With the help of Emanuele we grab a snowmachine while it's available: of the 5 we have here, only two work anymore. After 200 meters the engine coughs and dies. I check the fuel and I can see it's very low. I manage to get it started by pumping the choke button like crazy and ride back pumping continuously with one hand. Then we start pumping gas in it but nothing comes out: the drum's empty too. With the help of Antonio, the summer mechanics, we go get a new drum, mix it with oil and replace the empty one before we can finally ride out to work. It takes only a few minutes to remove and pack the instrument, longer to prepare the official return documents.

Preparing to unload the frozen food off the just delivered container.

Left: Preparing to unload the frozen food off the just delivered container.

Right after lunch all the winter people go unload the frozen food container, just arrived with the Traverse. A Challenger parks the container next to Concordia and we make two lines to transfer and sort the boxes of solid food to two other containers. I stand inside the container where we put meat, fish and sweets. Lots of fish, duck, turkey, rabbit, sausages and ham, but not a single steak. No pork chops either. Then someone says that the Traverse was too heavy so they simply left a container of food at the start !!! I don't know how's the stock of beef leftover from the summer campaign, but still... I don't have time to pay too much attention to what they sort in the other container but I see lots of cheese and 300+ kg of butter ! About 100 grams per person per day... I think I'd rather have a steak. Then a few hours later they find the beef inside a container of construction equipment. And the boxes of Panetone with the kerosene drums ! We haven't looked yet inside the 4°C container that contains the fresh food but the word is that the beer has arrived. We're saved, there'll be a winterover.


The unofficial inauguration of Concordia, just a simple cocktail party with Patrice Godon giving a speech.

Right: The unofficial inauguration of Concordia, just a simple cocktail party with Patrice Godon giving a speech.

At 19:00 there's a cocktail party in the restaurant of Concordia, the first official anything at Concordia and, I guess, the unofficial inauguration. The official inauguration will be next december, with several VIPs coming, but the sad thing is that many of the people who have been working on the project for 10 years won't be coming because the construction is (almost) finished, and even us winteroverers won't be invited: they'll put us in the first rounds of planes to send us back to civilization before we can scare off the VIPs ! Patrice Godon makes a short speech in which he admit to lying a lot to get this project financed, if he'd said at the time it would take 12 years to build they would never have gotten the money.

Jean-Louis, the Chef, and Claire, the winter technical manager at the cocktail party (Photo Tatiana).

Left: Jean-Louis, the Chef, and Claire, the winter technical manager at the cocktail party (Photo Tatiana).

On thursday evening the power plant technicians give me some bad news: there was a power drain on the station, so they drove around turning off all heating in the remote shelters. The next morning I go to my container ready for a disaster. Two TV journalists are with me, they want to learn about the science being done in Dome C and they also interview all the winteroverers. When we get in the container, it's cold but everything is still working fine. They plug me with a microphone and we do a short interview, me not knowing really what to say but showing some of the instruments. Then I prepare a DVD with all the data I've accumulated during the summer and send it to my lab, along with a 50kg case of equipment that either wouldn't survive the winter, is broken or not needed anymore. I've officially ended my summer campaign. Not having taken a single day off since the arrival in early december I plan on relaxing a bit now, but looking at the other people around I think I'd rather give a hand until it's just between us 13.

Transferring frozen goods from one container to the next. The empty one will ride back to DdU.

Right: Transferring frozen goods from one container to the next. The empty one will ride back to DdU.

Saturday february 6th — People are running around like penguins with their heads cut off. Some are already packing for the plane departure scheduled for 6am on sunday. Others are trying to finish construction with limited means; at lunchtime there's even a row over the use of the crane which is needed by multiple people at the same time. Those who want to install the chimneys for the bathroom burners get to use it this time. In the meanwhile the doctor is striving to setup the hospital. He's not particularly happy at having received everything on the last Traverse only, so it's all still sitting in containers outside. There are 53 boxes of drugs that must be kept out of freezing but he has no place to put them since the construction of the hospital is not even finished yet and all the tables and storage shelves are still outside in crates. With the crane we bring the big boxes inside one after the other, tear them open, get the shelves out and throw the boxes out the door of the 1st floor, trying to go fast. At the same time than we do this, the two journalists are filming and want to do an interview with Roberto, our doctor, who manage to quiet down for long enough. I provide translations. He's dressed like a construction worker for his interview, which is exactly the job he's doing right now ! We poke fun at him after he says that frostbites are not a big problem at Dome C, as the tip of his own nose is black with frostbite ! So the boxes are transfered into one corner while we move shelves and tables into position one after another, all the while they are testing the first lavatory, just installed, with other two lavatories still missing, an X-ray machine half taken apart on the floor, torn cardboard boxes all around and paper on the ground to try not to dirty up the floor too much.

Roberto sorting out the garbage left from unpacking the hospital equipment.

Left: Roberto sorting out the garbage left from unpacking the hospital equipment.

Late arrivals

The Twin Otter flight in the morning brings me more equipment and replacement parts. I get a 400Gb hard drive to replace my dying Maxtor. Dying or already dead ? After the reboot I can't get it started anymore, in a deluge of "click! click!". I get the disk out of the PC, but still powered on and start spinning it by hand until the torque is enough to get the disk spun up and started. Copy /MIR E: M: and that makes it to the end with only 5 damaged files while I sweat for my data. In the middle of the hour long copy, two technicians tell me to cover my equipment as they are spraying insulating foam in the corners of the double ceilings and they warn me that it might fall on the computers below. I cringe at the news and cover my laboring PCs with trash bags but they do a clean job. In the middle of all this flurry of activity I put aside 30 minutes to write my final postcards and finish the stack quickly.

In all the equipment I received there's a little problem: it was all ordered in Australia at the last minute, and now I have 2 network switches, one USB hub, 4 optical fiber couplers... that I can't plug into anything since the transformers all have australian plugs. And it's not easy to fix the problem, I would need to break open the transformers to weld some plugs onto them. Pascal gives me the idea of using a screw to plug a wire onto it; it's an ugly hack but it works. Now that I work in Concordia, I'm hot for the first time in months and I have to drop most of my clothing to avoid sweating. It's nice to be just in pants, T-shirt and sandals again after getting used to always wear stacks of clothings, even in the dining hall of the summer camp where it's apparently warm but there's always some cold air blowing from some open door somewhere.

Walking between the summer camp and Concordia I make a strange discovery: a 5cm rock. Unfortunately it's not one of those famed meteorites that scientists come to find in Antarctica, just an ordinary piece of dark red granite. From the color I'm pretty sure it comes from DdU. A mark on it seems to suggest that it was wedged between some vehicle tracks. It rode a long way before coming loose and ending in my hand.

Midnight spaghetti party (Photo Sergio).

Left: Midnight spaghetti party (Photo Sergio).

In the evening people are beginning to say goodbye. There's no big party since everybody is either still desperately busy or very tired. I give my snail-mail to Laurent to ship in DdU. I hear a small drinking party at the workshop while I waste my time watching a stupid Star Trek movie. Later various clumps of people form in the dinning room with heated conversations around the few remaining drinks left from the summer campaign, but later the Italians arrive in force and start cooking pasta at midnight. It's become a kind of tradition on saturdays. Not that anyone's hungry but it's just one more opportunity to bond. The french act like they don't care about the pasta but they eat just as much as anyone else.

It's official

Sunday is supposed to be a rest day, but they take this excuse to have all the winter people working together. First there's a meeting where Patrice Godon announces officially that, yes, there'll be a winter-over, and then he proceeds by scaring us off with the list of works that should have been done before the winterover starts, but which we'll instead need to do on our own as soon as possible: melt as much snow as possible to go from 20m3 to 100m3 before it becomes too cold to use the bulldozer, make a big pile of snow next to the melter in case the recycling system doesn't work and we need to shovel it in, complete the water recycling plant, start (and finish !) the installation of the hospital, the fuel line for the emergency power generator, the heating of the emergency summer camp generator, the electrical line inversion to feed electricity to the summer camp from Concordia, and many other things all more important than each others. Jean-Louis has a silent frown (and everybody can hear the cringe) when the boss tells us that, since there was too much weight for the Traverse, he removed some food items but "don't fear, I removed only the bad stuff..." Fortunately the wine is here.

The Merlo crane bringing a crate of frozen food into the 2nd floor storage room.

Right: The Merlo crane bringing a crate of frozen food into the 2nd floor storage room.

After that meeting we all get some healthy exercise moving two containers of food into storage. The first container is a bunch of cages with frozen fish inside, we form a chain and transfer it inside one of the containers that we left half full last time. I'm getting so worked up that I need to remove my hat to cool down in the -35°C temperature. Barely finished with that we move to the other side where some other frozen food awaits to be transfered to the 2nd floor of Concordia; the maneuver is more complicated: we empty the container into a large metal box that's then raised with a crane to a door through the 2nd floor wall where others empty it and take the various items to the storage rooms. It's not food that's supposed to be frozen (like pasta and corn flakes), but since there isn't any simple way to transport it here at the proper temperature, everything is frozen. In the meanwhile others are taking care of a full Twin Otter of fresh food, just arrived, and carry it to the summer camp fridge before it freezes off. It was supposed to be a rest sunday, but I don't think we'll get any rest for at least a month yet. And after dinner we go with the journalists pose for a picture in front of Concordia with a stupendous sunset under low clouds, and I still have more work to do later to translate the interview of Emanuele. And after all this I come to the lab to tell you of the events of the day. Only thing remaining to do today: go to the now daily departure party at the workshop for a well earned drink.

The Merlo crane bringing a crate of frozen food into the 2nd floor storage room.

Left: The Merlo crane bringing a crate of frozen food into the 2nd floor storage room.


The next few days are similar: say goodbye to the people departing in the morning plane, then go to Concordia to transfer tons of food from the containers outside to a crate that is then taken by the Merlo, brought to the 2nd floor door, emptied onto small wheeled trays, rolled into the storage rooms, sorted onto the shelves, repeat ad nauseam. Then after the usual power outage of the afternoon go to the experiment container to restart and fix the crashed systems, come back for dinner together with fewer and fewer people, go to the lab to try to get some science work done, read some email, head back to the summer camp and crash into bed. I prepare my room and my bed at Concordia, but when heading back late to the summer camp to say goodbye, I manage to fall asleep and fall off while driving the snowmachine; so I sleep at the summer camp instead of walking back the 800 meters.

My bedroom in Concordia, with the top bed raised, before I have the time to settle in better and put pictures on the walls.

February 8th — This morning 2 Twin Otter landed a few minutes apart and took most of the remaining summer people. There will be only one last plane on the 10th. There's an eery moment when the winter doctor runs after a plane screaming "Wait! Wait!", we all think he wants to leave too, but apparently someone had forgotten something. The base looks empty, even though there's just as much work as before. We bring into Concordia more food, more medical items (if shelves and tables can be considered medical items !). My back hurts from carrying about one hundred 25kg bags of flour, along with tons of other boxes of food. There's the 5th power black-out in as many days. But in the evening I discover some beer in the kitchen, so I get determined enough to write this stuff even though I'd be better off in bed. The radio room is next door to my lab and the radio operators, racing to install the last equipment and do the last tests are so tired that they sound drunk. Tonight is my first night at Concordia.

Last night of the summer campaign. The technical managers: Claire as new technical manager, Carlo the departing one and Michel the new station leader.

Right: My bedroom in Concordia, with the top bed raised, before I have the time to settle in better and put pictures on the walls.

Left: Last night of the summer campaign. The technical managers: Claire as new technical manager, Carlo the departing one and Michel the new station leader.

Even though there's plenty of storage space in my bedroom, there's still a mess of bags in it. Not that it would surprise Jenny very much... I step over the mess and get into bed. During the night I wake up several times, too hot and thirsty. The tent I slept in at the summer camp was always cold and I'm not used to the comfort anymore. But it's quiet and mine. On the 9th there are only 6 or 7 summer people left, busy closing up the summer camp: all the tents are closed and sealed with aluminum tape, the water tanks are moved to Concordia, the shower container is removed and sealed, the Epica labs are sealed as well. There's only one toilet and one shower left at the summer camp which we'll have to use before Concordia is operational. In the evening we throw a nice dinner party even though the chef is very pissed after discovering that the container of fresh food has been disconnected since its arrival on the traverse a week ago. In other words everything is frozen inside: fruits, potatoes, vegetables, eggs... He's particularly upset since this kind of thing happens almost every year: in 93 the container of luxury goods from France destined to DdU didn't have the proper custom stamps and the australian blocked it and destroyed it; then another time the fridge engine broke down and everything arrived rotten... There's some late singing and drinking and as I walk back to Concordia at midnight I notice that the sun is cut in half on the horizon. The summer's over.

A very rare anthely circle behind the Dome C summer camp.

Right: A very rare anthely circle behind the Dome C summer camp.

February 10th — In the silence of Concordia I wait for the engine noise announcing the arrival of the last Twin-Otter. They are still working in the radio room next door to my lab but in less than an hour Pascal will be alone there. The airplanes still refuel at the summer camp so I'll walk there and take the opportunity to have a shower. The only things left open at the summer camp are: the power plant so we can melt as much water as possible fast, the kitchen and dinning room, a shower and bathroom, some bedrooms. All the action is now moving to Concordia where hopefully the bathroom burners will be completed today. The biggest hitch still being the lack of water. Yesterday Claire came back inside with a frozen solid mop which she'd been using to clean the inside of the snow melter before turning it on. They are completing the water tubing which need to be heavily insulated when outside.

Carlo Malagoli, the logistics manager and most ancient resident of Dome C, giving his last orders as the pilot is trying to push him inside the plane.

Left: Carlo Malagoli, the logistics manager and most ancient resident of Dome C, giving his last orders as the pilot is trying to push him inside the plane.

At 10:00 the Twin-Otter arrives from McMurdo, but they are still passing cables in the radio room. A warning comes that the plane won't wait more than an hour. We all start moving to the summer camp by whatever mean is available. As I'm walking there with Pascal, we notice the uncharacteristic fog above Dome C. I look to the south and there's a very rare anthely circle on the opposite side of the sun. I head for the shower thinking that there's plenty of time, but as I'm under it the phone ri... I mean the doctor rushes in saying that the plane is leaving. I end up outside within a minute with my dripping hair freezing solid on my shoulder. There's some flag waving: italian, french and european. The pilots are grumbling about the time it takes for a round of goodbye to go between just 20 people, and by how loaded the plane is. When Sandro arrives he's carrying an extra heavy case with Pascal and they're like "where are we gonna put it ?". Then, late as usual, Giacomo arrives with a large black bag and the pilots look dejected. We move towards Concordia while the plane takes off with more runway than usual and we group below the tower while the plane overfly us. The winter's started.

Flag bearers walking back to Concordia minutes after the departure of the last plane.

Right: Flag bearers walking back to Concordia minutes after the departure of the last plane. Image available as a free wallpaperPurchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation