Wednesday, 30 November 2011


I sit on a two metre high ridge of snow out by the `Brain? experiment.
It is a cosmology experiment, a strange looking solar powered
structure measuring cosmic background radiation, and it was built on a
platform of snow to protect it from snowdrifts. To me, though, it?s
just a handy windbreak. It?s been windy, for quite some time now and
I couldn?t put off going out with the datalogger of my new project any
more. I needed to check the battery can cope with the cold. I watch
little whirls of spindrift playing back and forth at my feet. They?re
tiny, tiny tornadoes that get stirred up by windshear along the edges
of ridges. They pick up snow, giving them a physical shape. You see
them several metres high in mountains, this little one is barely ten
centimetres, wider than it is tall, sucking up snow in the centre and
throwing it out in whirling little arms. It?s remarkably long-lived,
dancing backwards and forwards along the edge of the ridge for several
seconds before dissipating, to be replaced by another.

There?s a very strong halo in the sky, if you can look out against the
driving snow. No sundogs today ? the particularly intense bubbles of
rainbow colour that often appear at three o?clock, and nine o?clock on
halo?s ring, each with a white horizontal line radiating away form the
halo, and the arc of colour and whiteness below it at six o?clock. I
wonder what it is that makes sundogs appear. Sometimes halos have
them, sometimes they don?t. It doesn?t seem to be related to the
altitude of the sun, or the strength of the halo. It?s an interesting
little mystery.

I lean back into a cushion of very soft snow that?s fallen out of the
wind and been trapped here here by vortexes around the Brain
structure. It makes itself into a chair for me, just like snow that
had fallen from the sky back home. It?s unusual for Concordia. All I
have to do out here is just be out here, for an hour, and then I can
go back and check the datalogger continued to record. It?s a rare
opportunity to just relax outside, and reflect a little.

The Italians are leaving tomorrow, probably.

It's been a long week, failures with the new project equipment means
I've been pulling long days trying to figure out how to get it working
reliably and I?ve not had any time to spend with the guys, much to my
disappointment. Andrea Ballarini, our chef left a week ago, he was
the first to go. He really wanted off, his mind concentrated on an
upcoming busy period for his restaurants.

And now the rest of them are due to go. They were due to leave a week
ago, their work here finished, to spend a few days off at MZS before
boarding their plane back to CHC. But we've had bad weather every
morning, clearing every evening, then recurring the following day. So
every afternoon a plane is planned, every evening it's cancelled
again. They've moped around the base visibly boiling with
frustration. And as we inched closer to the 28th, and the date of
their departure from Antarctica by C-130, their frustration started to
become tinged with worry they might miss their transport off the ice
altogether. But this evening a twin otter made it up, the headwind
so hard they had to fly without passengers or cargo to make it with
enough fuel to land safely. They?re leaving tomorrow at 0530.

You?d think we?d be sad they?re going. But for one thing, the
wintercrew really drifted apart with the arrival of the summer
campaign. I?ve had my head down, working hard on thie LTMS3 project
for a couple of weeks and I?ve hardly spent any time with them. Plus,
with so many more French and Italians on the base, the wintercrew just
doesn?t spend any time together any more - each tends to stick with
their own, really just because of language barriers. And in terms of
work, The team has disintegrated and been subsumed into a larger
whole. In many ways the winterover is already forgotten, it takes an
effort to remember we were once such a tight team of colleagues,
friends, crew. It?s remarkable how fast that happened. And for
another thing, with all the visible disappointment and worry of the
last week, I suppose I?m mostly glad for them that they are going to
get off after all.

I had a chat with the pilots over dinner. They?re contracted by the
Australian program, and they were the first of our two planes that
came through on a touch-and-go refuelling on the first of November.
But the French at DDU asked the Australians for some help because of
our transport problems and I guess the Australians owe the French a
few favours because these pilots were told to `do everything you can
to help them.? And they really did a lot.

These boys have pretty much seen and done it all, I guess. One of them
had worked for sixteen years solid in the arctic, landing on floating
ice. The other was the first to make a midwinter landing in
Antarctica, in the cold and dark and with no other aircraft in
support, at the south pole in 2001 to make a medical evacuation

The Astrolabe is still 200km off the coast of Antarctica. She never
made it in to DDU. She?s been there for weeks, encased in pack ice
several metres thick and 30km all round, being pushed backwards and
forwards as the pack drifts with the wind and tides. There?s open
water all round the floe she?s stuck in. But she is completely stuck.
They first flew out to the ship to deliver the helicopter?s needed
electronic components, by flying past the ship and pushing a crate out
the side door. Getting the helicopter flying again meant that the
Astrolabe was able to offload people and cargo again. A few days later
Paolo, Augusto and I sat in the radio room listening on the HF radio
to communication between the Astrolabe and these guys about 1300km
away, as they flew out and landed on the ice beside the ship. They
took off the ship?s remaining passengers and cargo. The guys tell me
though, that if a storm doesn?t break the pack, the Astrolabe could be
stuck for another ten days, two weeks maybe. My heart sinks when I
hear that ? it?s so going to screw up my schedule, one way or another.

I got out of bed at 0430 the following day, as the plan was for the
plane to take off at 530. We waited for a weather update from another
twin otter making a trip to Midpoint It?s go. After all the waiting
and waiting, the guys were just glad to go, and we were just glad for

They are all smiles and jokes as they board the plane and get into the
eight or so seats fitted into place behind the cargo.
Domenico turns round in his seat and shouts `see you next winterover?
to me and Ilann, standing at the door. I give him the appropriate
torrent of abuse in reply.

Enjoy the sun, guys, and we?ll see you in June in Cologne, I hope.

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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