Text and pictures © 2005-2024 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"They don't eat nothing no more..." — Jean-Louis complaining that some people couldn't finish a 7 course meal...
Left: Slight thermal contrast between Christophe under lots of frozen clothing and Jean. OK, Jean spends most of his time warm inside his Caterpillar.
Right: Christophe and Jean squeezed inside the Caterpillar.
Now that the winterover is over, we can see what a year in Antarctica has made of us: better, faster... hmmm, no, that was the million dollar man ! But still, there is some improvement, for instance this afternoon we went on a tour of the summer camp with Emanuele and a newcomer. I was wearing only work gloves and he was wearing thin pile gloves while our charge was wearing two large pairs of mitts and overmitts with a set of chemical heat packs inside. After a while at -53°C she was frozen to the bones and had to take a break to warm up blue hands in the heated radio building. It doesn't quite compare to Jean who now spends his days in and out of his Caterpillar wearing simple pants and pile jacket, without even a hat or face mask, and hardly ever any gloves. While we were walking around, he was taking it easy, standing on the tracks of his vehicle, smoking a cigarette gloveless.
Left: Two people waiting on the platform for the arrival of the plane.
Left: All the winter people waiting for the arrival of the second Twin-Otter.
Right: Michel and Christophe waiting on a snowmachine. The plane is half an hour late.
Left: The plane pulling in the taxi area.
Right: Roberto apparently quite pleased to see Rita again. I'm sure it's only because she's italian...?
November 8th — The return to the summer rhythms is progressive. The first wave of summer people have now arrived in 3 flights of Twin-Otter and there's also a cargo flight. There's now 26 people on the station, half are winter people and half are summer. Well, it's not quite right, Eric Aristidi, the successor of Karim, has already arrived quite in advance of the start of his own winterover. The next wave won't arrive for another week in the next C-130 flight to BTN. On each of the flights all the winter people are outside waiting to see who's coming: old friends or surprises. Passengers are not always the scheduled ones: the pilots weight the people, their luggage and the cargo before taking off and if it goes over a ton they sometimes replace a fatty with a skinny top-model (or so we hope).
Left: Quite a crowd in the radio room, 3 people on the phone at the same time, tables being moved...
After the psychologists have rested a bit from the long travel and the effects of the altitude, we all undergo our psych-eval. During my first winterover there wasn't any evaluation at the end of the winterover, but they now regularly perform them and they are particularly interested in our brains after this first Concordia winterover.
Right: The two summer psychologist, Elizabeth and Antonio, surrounding the acting winter psychologist, Roberto, and offering us drinks to celebrate the fact that we made it more or less sane.
I can't say who's crazy and who's not as it's all under medical secret... But let's just say that I was the last one to talk with the french shrink and I was laughing out loud from some of the (supposedly anonymous) quotes she gave me from a small subset of the others. But apparently we are all deemed sane enough to reintegrate the 'real' world. I have a 2 hour long talk with the italian shrink, and then I meet the french one and we talk for a good 4 hours and she asks me how I liked my winterover, when were the ups and downs, how I got along with the others, how I would divide the group ("as 6 'couples' and 3 individuals"), who gets the prize for being the pain in the ass of the year and who deserves the praise, what I think are qualities to seek in a winterover candidate, etc... It's time for some settling of scores as everyone spills out their pet peeves: what's his name makes too much noise going down the stairs, another always drags his feet, another one is like a cat always complaining that the wrong doors are closed or open, yet another one is an arrogant prick, another one never comes for common chores... In other words nothing as bad as the hammer murder attempts of McMurdo !!!
We also discuss more general issues, like the fact that this research, besides helping find better candidates, is mainly for the European Space Agency, geared towards the search for astronauts for a future Mars mission. Unfortunately I'll probably be long retired by the time they get a budget. In other words, if you want to go to Mars, first come here for a winter ! Those space missions as scheduled will be either one year or 3 years: 6 months travel, 25 or 600 days on site (depending on launch window), and 6 months back.
Pascal has abandoned the radio room to the new team of radio operators, electronicians and network operators: Sergio and Giacomo are under the watchful eyes of 'Mamma' Rita, and there's usually an extra noisy crowd 18 hours a day in there. I manage to contact via radio my successor who's already working in Terra Nova before coming here shortly before my departure.
Right: Claire loading the melter with fresh snow, with more summer people, it's so much more consumed water, and with increased outside activity it's also more sweat and showers !
With the return to the summer activities there's also a return of the dreaded meetings. On wednesday there's a one-hour all-hands meeting consisting mostly of people presentations and general considerations. Then the next day there's a two hour meeting with only the science people where I barely utter 10 words, something like: "Same as usual, just need to remove some snow...".
Left: Luigi spraying wood chips on Michel while they work in the winter garage, now returned to its original activity of wood workshop.
The official inauguration of the station, which was scheduled for mid-november, is delayed to december or january. Maybe even indefinitely: the various VIPs couldn't agree on a date for their own trip. Jean-Louis is disappointed because he had already prepared an extraordinary menu. Personally, my main reason for leaving at the beginning of december was to enjoy the inauguration, reap some of the public reward for the year spent here, and then leave before the summer burnout. Well, we'll survive just as well with only the much more accurate praise from people like Carlo who's been coming to Dome C for 9 years, and who, for the first time, didn't find a shut down and dead cold station where everything needs to be painstakingly started upon arrival. I was with him during the first summer 1996-97 campaign, and now the work is done, the station is up, running and comfortable.
In previous years, a small team would arrive with the power plant people. The Twin-Otter would land at -50°C on the unprepared airstrip in the early days of november and they would set to work immediately, shoveling snow off the power plant building and first starting a tiny power generator, used to subsequently heat up and start the main one. After a few hours there would be electricity in a still lifeless summer camp, but at least they'd be able to use the microwave to heat up a cup of tea and some instant soup. Then the Twin-Otter would leave, knowing that the station is somewhat secure. They'd also start the fuel heaters in the sleeping tents and work on the vehicles to warm them up before starting them in order to prepare the airstrip and clear the snow accumulated between the various tents, containers and buildings. No such intense and delicate operations this year: they arrived, did a quick visit and went to sleep in a warm bed for one to two days.
Right: Jean removing snow from the access ramp leading to the underground garage.
November 16th — Today the Twin Otter brings us several famous and revered old timers. Among them Hubert whom I met 10 years ago here and who's been coming every summer season for construction jobs. He's the last leftover builder of Concordia as the others aren't coming back with the station as good as finished. And there's also Jean-Paul, the workmaster of Concordia, coming for the last final touches and also to evaluate what we've completed (or broken !) during the winter.
Left: Visit of the underground storage area, where walls and ceiling are covered with snow crystals.
With this arrival of people, some of them newcomers, I've noticed a certain interest in the 'touristic' attractions of Concordia. Before getting to work people often want to visit the area. It's wrong to say that apart from the snow and the sky there's nothing to see here, so I'm writing this little touristic guide of Concordia in the hope of attracting more
wompeople (and their research grants). First there's the visit of Concordia itself, a masterpiece of technology particularly if you think about all the difficulties involved in bringing the pieces here and assembling them with the cold. Then there's the visit of the remote labs were you might be able to surprise some rare subspecies or scientists, probably asleep from the isolation and the lack of stimulation (less than a power outage a month, some rare burning pumps...).
Right: Large ice crystal formed on the roof of the underground ice core storage room; this one is about 30 cm long.
Left: Come to Concordia park ! Ride the Camels !
Then there are a few oddities. You will ride the camels of the summer camp, original wood statues left from a couple years back. Enter the core storage area behind the underground garage and discover its amazing hanging snow crystals, some 50cm long and incredibly fragile to the touch. If you've had enough time to acclimatize to the altitude, climb the american tower one km west of the station, the highest point in a radius of 300km, and get a glimpse at infinity (or was that emptiness again ?). Wait a few minutes for your eyes to get used to the darkness of the seismology corridor and be surprised by the dark blue light coming through the several meters of snow piled above you, with, err..., surprising carvings left on the walls by the natives; the wavelength is at the limit of what the eye can see, almost in the UV band. And if you think you're tough, spend a night in a sleeping bag in the igloo next to the Camels just to see if you're still alive in the morning.
Inside the Twin-Otter, besides our colleagues, are 4 large bags of mail. It's nice to get handwritten letters, postcards from friends vacationing in tropical islands (even if sent 10 months ago), magazines with outdated news, gifts, packages with chocolate that made it through the strict Australian customs, wine bottles that made it unbroken unfrozen and still full, as well as other interesting tidbits like IRS letters ! Jean-Louis, Claire and some others help sort out the mail and then distribute it to the winterover people who stop work for a while to sift through the piles.
With the advent of email communications postal mail has lost a lot of its importance. Years back you could receive letters that, if read in the proper order, would turn out something like: "Dear husband, I love you, blah, blah, blah...", then "I really, really miss you..." and finally "I missed you so much, don't bother coming back !". Like I said, current instant email communication now brings this kind of surprises earlier in the winterover.
Right: Claire and Jean-Louis sorting the mail.
Left: Jean-Louis performing a phone interview for a local french TV, with Karim acting as the director.
Most of the mail is actually of no value to us: there are stacks of letters sent by stamp collectors, containing other letters to return with the new stamps of the year, our own rubber stamps, signatures and plenty of variations on that theme. The most annoying ones in my opinion being those who ask for the signature of everybody on the station. Several of us abide by those requests and spend hours running around the station to fish out people for their signatures; but when I receive a request like that I just leave it blank. Every year the french come out with a collection of about 10 stamps unique to Antarctica, and which can be used only from there. There's a whole subculture of stamp collectors who caters only to Antarctic stamps. Many of them are actually quite nice, the best of all (obviously!) being the new 50¢ Concordia stamp. Unfortunately the Italians don't have stamps on their own. This sale of Antarctic stamps may seem trivial, but the quantity of collectors is such that it's actually one of the main money intake for the French Expeditions, or rather the administration that controls the territories. In Dumont d'Urville there's actually a postman who spends the entire year just stamping and returning envelopes sent by collectors. Sometimes he receives cases with thousands of envelopes, and if he's lucky there's a wine bottle at the bottom ! All I get are a few foreign stamps (including from Iraq with Saddam on them !)
Right: A proud and happy Jean receiving the accomplishment medal from the hands of Marco Maggiore, our new station manager.
Left: Trying to close my boxes of equipment.
November 20th — Unlike the winter when they happened on tuesdays, meetings are now scheduled on sundays, although so much people complained that they need to interrupt their sunday nap that from next week on they'll be moved forward to saturdays. There's a good reason for the naps, it's because of the saturday evening, and last night was particularly dramatic on some people who miss breakfast, lunch, the meeting and almost dinner... During the meeting the italian summer station manager distributes medals to all the french winterover people for their accomplishment. I'm passed because I work for the italians, and I don't mind because I've already received this medal years back and it's currently gathering dust at the bottom of some drawer (no, I haven't sold it on eBay like I've heard some people do).
Right: Mamma Rita during my last saturday night party at Concordia.
In the afternoon I experiment with aerial photography before launching my daily weather probe. I first try by attaching my tiny Ricoh GR21 under the helium balloon, keeping it safely tethered to a fuel can on the ground. I set the self-timer and release the balloon, letting the cable feed between my gloves. The problem is that up there the camera points to random directions. I implement a simple device: a cardboard screwed under the camera and tied to the tether. It works better and hopefully I'll get a few shots when I process them next week upon my return to New-Zealand. After this I want to play it like the pros: I take my big Nikon F100 with the 8mm fisheye lens and attach it under the balloon, but the weight is above the lifting capabilities of the balloon so I add a 2nd one. I go back and forth raising and bringing back to the ground this balloon contraption so I can trigger the self-timer. Just as I finish the roll I notice that because of the cold or the motion, the knot holding the camera has just untied, the camera being only held by some tape ! Time to stop, my feet are frozen anyway. I put the 2nd balloon away until tomorrow in the wood workshop, go back to the lab to finish the preparation of the probe, come back outside and launch it. Come back in a few months after I've scanned the pictures if you wonder, like me, what they look like.
Left: Lucia and Alessandro preparing their first balloon launch.
November 24th — Very unlike my normal habits, I'm up at 6 in the morning. No, it's not an early incoming flight of swedish supermodels: today I want to try yet again to do a picture of the trajectory of the sun on 24 hours. Every hour from the same place I take a picture in the direction of the sun, which I will then scan and assemble in a panorama, with the sun reported 24 times. I've tried this image several times before. First time was in DdU 12 years ago, on my last day on the station. I was doing two things at once, also standing watch over the power plant during the night. It was also my last roll of film before getting on the ship in the morning. Skipping a night would be no big deal as I hardly ever leave my bed during the week long traverse on an insane ocean back to Tasmania anyway. So at about 5 in the morning I discover with horror that the roll on my camera, which I had left in plain sight near my reference point, was finished. End of the story, I couldn't go around waking people up begging for a roll just to finish the last 2 or 3 missing images. When I processed it weeks later, I understood the source of the problem: a pair of hairy butts so close to the lens that I had to sterilize it in pure alcohol... Ha, the risks in Antarctica are never what you expect...
I tried again several times to take this picture during my previous summer campaigns in Dome C, but each time I ran out of luck when clouds or whiteout covered the sky. This time I feel in luck: there's a record high pressure, nobody new in the station for a while, no drunken party planned and I'll keep the camera indoors anyway. I start at 6 in the morning and keep going into the next morning, always checking my watch maniacally. Results in a few months...
Between each shot I finish my data backups, send all the DVDs to the labs back in Europe and start packing up. I clear and clean my room. Normally I should share my bedroom with my successor until my departure, but since she is a woman I've been asked to move to an empty bedroom. Eh, that's discrimination ! I sort all my stuff: what stays here as gift or returns to the stocks (such as some of the provided clothing that I haven't used), what goes in the trash, what goes with me on vacation and what returns to Europe in boxes. Last year when I came I'd built a large and very heavy wooden box that proved very awkward and bulky to move around, as well as too heavy (170Kg). Karim has several unused boxes and he gives me two which I cram with all my stuff. I have to stand on top to be able to close them. It's still a good 80kg per box, and I'm not even bringing any souvenir back: some of us bring back plastic bottles filled with melted snow or even a cube of the australian wine we drink here !
Right: My successors: Lucia who will be the first italian woman to perform a winterover in Antarctica, and Alessandro who's here only during the summer. Good luck to them.
November 26th — Arrival of my two successors on two separate flights: Alessandro who will maintain the instruments during the summer campaign and dismantle most of them to return them to Italy in February, and also Lucia who will continue the remaining Atmospheric Science experiments along with the Geomagnetic observations throughout the next winter. She'll be the first italian woman to ever winterover. During the frantic 3 days until my departure I don't leave them a minute of rest in order to study all the instruments, the way the data is organized, stored, backed-up, verified, analyzed... By the time I leave there are already 3 members of the next winterover team present. They should be 11 total.
December 1st — The departure flight is first scheduled for 10:30, then postponed to 12:30. In the morning I'm wandering aimlessly, not working for the first time in a year. To the point that I almost avoid going into my old lab in fear of questions or problems so solve ! When the flight arrives, the pilots, tired of always eating sandwiches, want to take a lunch break at Concordia. So we enjoy our last lunch as well. At 13:30 there's a whole group of people already waiting by the time I walk out of the station. Jean-Louis is waving from the kitchen window. Several of my fellow winterovers have wet eyes and broken voices, a fact easy to hide here with the glasses and face masks. I'm a bit more surprised to see one of the new winterovers with really wet (actually frozen) eyes, probably all too happy to see us go ! Lucia is asking all kind of slanted questions: "Do you have your plane ticket ? Do you have your passport ?" and such, to which I reply: "Yeah, I put them in my carry-on two days ago". And just as I board the plane she waves my passport in my face !!! Thieve !
Well, last night we had one last round of drinks thanks to some bottles brought by Alessandro (thanks!) and stayed up late playing various tricks. Scotchman who had taped several doors during the winter strikes back by taping all the bedroom doors (twice on mine). Karim receives a large gift of hair under his pillow. And a few other tricks, like the disappearing passports...
The Twin-Otter does one last low-altitude fly-by of the cheering people and off we go to MidPoint. Among the 4 people leaving there's Emanuele and myself; we are the first two member of the DC01 winterover team to leave the station. After 2 hours and a half we land at Midpoint where we stay only a few minutes, just long enough to refuel the plane in a freezing wind. Then we take a side trip to Talos Dome, where a new drilling is being started by the Epica people, whom we know a few from past Dome C drillings. We do a running tour of the camp while the pilots unload a few boxes off the plane and a new passenger boards. The glaciologists and their logistics people have excavated a large trench last year and covered it with beams. Unfortunately the snow accumulation during the winter has been a lot more than expected and some of the beams are bent on the verge of collapse and need to be replaced with stronger aluminum ones. We are shown a core with a 10cm thick layer of volcanic soot dating back a couple thousands of years, strangely absent from the Dome C cores.
After 20 minutes we take off again, this time for Terra Nova. The flight is splendid, following the Transantarctic Range for more than an hour, with mountains, big walls, glaciers, crevasse fields, tiny blue lakes... When we first leave the high plateau, we are all excited: "Look, a rock ! A rock !". The airplane casts its shadow into the clouds below, forming a colorful Broken spectrum. During the flight I set my time to BTN time, the same as New Zealand, and I feel a pang thinking that I'm now in the same time zone as Jenny.
As usual the weather in Terra Nova is warm and sunny although it's midnight. It feels like vacation. We sum up our winterover several times to the people up late. In the morning we do the same for the others, recognizing many faces, including some from last year who had taken bets that we'd never make it ! Emanuele has been promised in Concordia that he would finally see penguins. Yes, he spent one year in Antarctica without ever meeting its most famous inhabitant ! So in the afternoon we board a chopper for a bit of sightseeing. Unfortunately the weather is poor, bordering on whiteout and the pilot turns around before we reach the rookery.
We have 2 days here, so maybe tomorrow. We get asked so much what the winterover was like that in the evening I do a slide show with the least serious pictures I can find. I.e., all the pictures I can't even place on this page !
Along with a large contingent of people from the italian station, we are supposed to fly on a C-130 on dec 3rd, but the sea-ice airstrip at Terra Nova is already breaking up due to warmer than usual temperatures, and there are discussions on whether to leave from McMurdo.
December 3rd — That's it, my feet leave the ice and after 7 hours of noisy flight walk on grass. Well, actually the concrete of the airport, but the grass is close enough that I can feel it.
This was my last update as after exactly 365 days in Antarctica, working every single day, now comes the time for a well deserved vacation. But fear not, there'll be more ! Come back around march 2006 after I've taken the time to process and scan my best slides. Thank you for the support I received in numerous emails during the winterover.
Wait, don't leave, this is not over yet !!! After coming back from my NZ and OZ vacation, I decided to add a few pages of epilogue with the best slides. And of crouse, there's the website of the 2nd winterover...
"There are many who divorce 6 months after coming back from a winterover, because their wife doesn't cook as well as Jean-Louis." — Michel.