Sunday, 29 April 2012


Feb 25th Return flight

I remember sitting on my hotel window sill one evening, looking out, five days after I had landed in Tasmania. The rooms large corner windows looked out over Hobart's marina, and back over the city and the steep forested slopes of Mount Wellington right above. The sky looked dramatic, crowded with towering, low cumulus clouds starkly coloured orange, grey and black in the last light. The clouds hid the mountains and seemed to press on the town. Looking the other way, out to sea, the sky and the waters were peaceful and clear blue. The fishing boats in the harbour below me looked very familiar, the same sort of small trawlers and creel boats that worked the east coast towns I grew up in. Stretching away from the marina I could see bigger quays with a couple of icebreaker ships tied up. I could see lots of people in summer clothes strolling along the tidy waterfront past restaurants, cabins, piers, and the preserved equipment of a once-busy working harbour.   I felt a deep contentment to be here, but at the same time I didn't know what to do. I had had a strange few days in Hobart. Restless, unsettled.

The Astrolabe had arrived on Friday, February 17th. After five days sailing across the southern ocean in progressively calmer seas we spent a very happy afternoon enjoying the view of the nearing Tasmanian coast. The first grey shadow of land on the horizon gradually resolved into tall cliffs, sloping forests, and green and yellow fields over the course of the afternoon. There was no swell at all anymore, and I was very contentedly standing in the lookouts at the bridge, enjoying the view, the warmth, the calmness, the ordinariness of it all, so much. Particularly to see wildlife. Pods of dolphins occasionally swam past or underneath the boat. Birds, everywhere. Against a backdrop of those cliffs we saw a distinctly circular patch of water several metres across, become white as a frenzy of birds - petrels or shearwaters - dived over and over into the sea, their cries and the splashing audible over the ship's engines. I realised I was seeing them fishing a baitball. Some underwater predators had rounded up a shoal of prey fish, forcing them to swim in a tight ball and trapping them up against the surface. I wondered if it was the dolphins, but it could equally have been a group of predatory fish, or sharks, or seals. The birds, taking advantage of the trapped fish, dived into the shoal to catch a meal for themselves. All of a sudden the commotion melted away and the boiling white patch vanished as the ball of prey escaped their predators. The birds settled to rest on the water. Then moments later it erupted again a hundred metres away, and then again, and again as the unseen action between the circling predators and their shoal of prey went on. A fine diversion for a short while.

The Astrolabe crawled slowly into the long estuary of the Derwent river, lined for miles by gentle green hills. Rural roads sined through the farmlands and occasional houses to either side, and as the land closed in I could see buses and tractors driving along. The normality was such a novelty.  Further up, leafy Hobart spread out on all the hills that surround the water, and above them thick forests cover mountain ridges that crowd over the city and the river. We passed the city centre and and the harbour, and went on further up into the mouth of the river to a refuelling jetty. And this is where we disembarked. The sky by now was dusky and thickly clouded over. A fine, quiet rain obscured all the hills and most of the town. We could have stayed on the ship for the night if we wished, but very few actually did. Some went straight to the airport for a plane that night, some just vanished. The goodbyes were very quick and perfunctory. For most, they were essentially 'see you in Antarctica next November.' Others returned to their bunks, having decided to stay on the ship. Within fifteen minutes, the ship seemed empty. An hour later and it was dark. I disembarked with Yves-Marie, DDU's winterover doctor. We crossed the pontoon and found ourselves at a crossroads in empty, unlit industrial yards, waiting for a taxi. We sheltered from the rain under a makeshift corrugated-sheeting shelter in the dark with a few other guys from the ship. Apart from the quiet drizzling rain it was silent. Dark towering fuel tanks, sheds and warehouses all around.

Hobart's pretty fully booked out and it took a lot of help from the cab driver to find us a room for the night. Then I and a crowd of French guys, most I knew but some I didn't, had ourselves one big night out on the town. Since then, with hotels a problem, we got spread out more and more. Our email accounts were variably deactivated or inaccessible, phones defunct, broken or out of contract. Trying to arrange meeting points with variable success, it was hard to keep in touch. To my amazement, my French was sufficient to hold conversations and even have a laugh with the guys I could keep in touch with. But it was still very simple stuff and I didn't really fit well with the crowd. After struggling with communication for so long, the English speaking world here in Hobart was much more inviting. I found myself each day walking and walking around the town, really quite aimlessly, but I guess I explored it pretty thoroughly.  The best was sitting outside at the restaurants on the piers.  Amongst  the boats, in the warmth, I could sit happily for hours.   The others, mostly summer campaigners back in town after only a couple of months in Antarctica, were making plans to get out and do some sightseeing but I found I had no wish to go out of Hobart. After a year in the wilderness of Antarctica what I really wanted was to stay in the town, rest in coffeeshops, read newspapers, get some new clothes. We didn't quite realise that Hobart would be so booked out and trying to get accommodation was very difficult. I think I stayed in four different places in the eight nights I spent in Hobart. One place was a terrible hotel, deep in suburbs, whose reception was a large betting shop. The next was the five star 'Grand Chancellor' hotel on the seafront. The next was a bed and breakfast in North Hobart which I enjoyed the most. I spent the late evenings sitting out on thier veranda, looking out in the dusk across a valley at the city lights on the hill on the other side. It was warm and humid, and so comfortable to sit outside. I can't describe the complete contentment I felt there. Even the muted, distant noises of city traffic seemed reassuring and pleasant. I was glad to stay within civilisation and just be.

Whilst the warmth was certainly nice, what I found myself delighting in over and over was water – in the seaside air, the steam in a shower, swimming pools. Even the drinking water because it had minerals, rather than the essentially distilled water I had been drinking in Antarctica. Being able to breathe so easily again because in the normal, humid air the lining of my nose healed and the constant blood and dried mucus in my nose was gone. So I slept normally at last. Physically, I found that my leg muscles had weakened a fair bit. I could get thigh and hip joint pains after a morning walking around town. When I went to a swimming pool, I found that I had a much larger oxygen carrying capacity as you would expect from living at altitude for so long – I could swim far longer doing breath-holding strokes - but that the stamina of my arms and legs was much reduced and I had to stop very soon.

But, funnily enough, being in Tasmania made me so homesick. The culture, Tasmania's cool climate, the buildings, even the roadsigns are so similar to Britain that it felt like home was just a few miles down the road. I had a week booked in Sydney but sitting on that hotel windowsill, looking out I realised that really, I had spent the week pacing round Hobart waiting for my flight out, just exactly like the guys who had paced Concordia, waiting for the weather to lift and their plane to go. I didn't want a holiday, I just wanted home. I decided to cancel it and go straight home.

And now I'm on my way, writing this on the dark, softly roaring plane from Hong Kong to Paris. It's mostly empty, and essentially I'm alone with just my thoughts. M has just moved to Cambridge to start a new job, and she has temporarily taken a room at our old College, Wolfson. It's where she and I first met, where I lived for four years as I studied medicine. It's funny to think I'm heading back to the College. It's a good place and I'm looking forward to it. Much more so than I felt it in Hobart, I suddenly feel how good it is to be back in the normal world.

Feb 29th Wolfson College, Cambridge


Radio, Radio, from Eoin, over
- Go ahead, Eoin
Back at base, over
- Copy that.


Wolfson College's reading room. It's a very pleasant place, lit by soft lamps and a long wall of tall windows looking out onto the gardens of the college. The room's other walls are lined with bookshelves and photographs of past students celebrating rowing successes. People come here to chat, or read, or write in a quiet comfortable atmosphere. It's where, in a way, my adventure really began. Years ago I sat on one of these leather sofas waiting nervously to be called for an interview for a place on my medical course. And I found out much later that the house the interview took place in used to belong to Sir Vivian Fuchs, the expedition leader of Antarctica's first land crossing. After, I lived in the College for four years while I trained to be a doctor. So I remembered with wry appreciation the routine call I would make as soon as I returned to the station from a walk outside. I would be standing, still with suit and boots on, in the dark metal corridor between the towers and I would radio up to the radio room to say I was inside. If the radio's button had frozen I would use a nearby telephone. Then replace the radio battery with a fresh one, check it then turn it off, stow it back in my suit. Ready to go, in case of emergency.
I make myself more comfortable on the sofa. It feels particularly cosy today, with a classic Cambridge fog chilling everything outside. The trees take on an uncharacteristic, stricken appearance, the gardens mostly invisible, and people hurry outside, head down against the cold, pale figures in the fog. Inside, only the rustle of a college fellow turning the pages of a newspaper disturbs the quiet. I sip a coffee contentedly and wonder whether this, or the Epica workshop with its puttering oil stove and wood smell, is a better place to relax in. The epica workshop, I think. Perhaps it's just about the contrast within and without, perhaps its the warm smell of wood and grease or maybe I just prefer that kind of rough, easy company you find in such workshops everywhere.

It's been interesting to sit here and read over my blog. Through the winterover I wasn't able to see it at all. Once in a while Paolo would be allowed to use the satellite link to download a newspaper pdf, and when the link was active we could get online to look at a website or two. I would use it to upload photos but the satellite link was so slow and unreliable – the connection would drop again and again - that I never wasted time to look over previous posts. So when the Italians established a permanent internet link two weeks before I left the base it was the first time I got to see my blog. I can see there have been some formatting problems, and I see I occasionally posted something badly edited, and once or twice just plain rubbish. I put most of that down to hypoxia. I never stopped making errors of inattention at DC and even to the end everything I did I had to double check on another day.

There's so much more to that year than I could ever put into words but now that I read it, I'm a bit sad that I couldn't or didn't write more.
There were many many things I couldn't write at the time, to avoid causing worry. Like how exceptionally badly I was affected by altitude sickness when I arrived first. Two days after I arrived at Concordia I was vomiting so badly I couldn't keep down water. But Ales had to leave so there really was no choice but to keep working. I remember that we went to the grey water unit to learn the sampling process and I stayed on my feet for as long as I could, a bit dizzy and disorientated, then we went to the hospital where I got 2 litres of fluid infused intravenously and then I got straight back on my feet and we returned to finish the training. Ales and I were both a bit concerned about the possibility of progressive cerebral oedema, because nobody had ever reacted like this to the altitude before. But there wasn't much to do except wait and see how badly it developed. For about four days after I was so lethargic I could hardly move from my bunk. I wasn't keen to worry my family at the time with that.
And likewise I could say little about other's difficulties. I could not say any more about the emergency evacuations we had to do. Partly, I certainly didn't want anyone at home dwelling on what could go wrong up there, but mostly because of my obligation to keep individuals' medical confidentiality – being such a small group of people secrecy is not an easy matter. But that first medical evacuation in December 2010 was a salutary experience. I had not prepared for the medical problems of the station as I expected to defer on all that to our station doctor, and preparing for my own job was a busy enough task. But our station doctor, a surgeon, was not prepared for a challenge of pure internal medicine like HAPE, nor the challenges of remote medicine. I walked into the tiny  hospital room and could see literally from the end of the bed the patient's bounding carotid pulses and cyanosed lips. He was in a desperate state and needed evacuation at once. But for all that I demanded the doctor go and discuss evacuation with ENEA's Italian office, I didn't have the diagnosis right straight away. I made the very classic mistake of thinking his fever, neutrophilia, cough and chest and peripheral signs indicated a right lower pneumonia and impending septic shock. It took a four hour rush to get the evacuation organised, and it was only when the rush was over and the plane was in fact taxiing away that realisation hit. Thank goodness we got him down, and he recovered well. But the fall-out that evolved between myself and the station doctor, from having to get involved in the case, would severely sour our relationship for the whole winter.

Then, there were all the times that were indescribable because they were so simple, so unimportant taken alone, but now I look back they were the moments, the laughs and the fall-outs, the challenges, the successes and the mistakes, the minor disasters, the conflict, the reconciliations and the co-operation that make a single crew out of fourteen very different people. How the relationships between us as individuals appeared so, so important through the time, but looking back seem less so now. So, some of the guys did fall out. Some people didn't like other people. So what? We held it together well through the winterover. Everyone did their job. The base at the end of the winterover was in good shape and so were we - individually and as a functional crew. The experiments were done, the data and the samples ready to go back for analysis. When I look back, these are exactly the challenges that I'm proud of, that makes it mean something forever, to me, that I was one of the crew of DC7.

Too, I'm a bit sad that I never did write much about my departure from Concordia. My last week on the station last week was utterly chaotic. My replacement had arrived but was distracted by the need to attend to Monsieur Rochard, and then by the DC8 station doctor's decision not to do the winterover. He was unable to find time to come up to the lab to learn the job. I was writing guides for him, photographing and filming everything and anything relevant, helping Vera (the ESA representative that came to the station for a few days to set up the DC8 experiments) prepare the equipment, both new stuff and the equipment I had been using last year. Too, I was getting involved in medical provision, and also advising Alex on how to prepare for being the station doctor. And I had to pack up my room into my cases to send back to Europe, and train and prepare for working on the raid. I had a pretty fraught week. The day I left, much to my disappointment I was busy right up to midnight and I missed the opportunity to say goodbye to my many friends. I remember that the base was asleep by the time I finished up. I rushed out of the lab at midnight and down to my room, swept everything left on my shelves into a bag and walked out of the base without looking back or giving any thought at all to the fact I was leaving this station. I had to be ready to start on the raid early the next morning and that was all. I forgot to download photos other people had taken of the winterover – I'm no good at photos of people really, and I wanted copies of photos that the others took of some of the good times. So sadly I just don't have those kinds of photos to put up here on the blog and I really wish I did.

In part, I do miss Antarctica. Not for the land –it's beautiful but I certainly have had enough of that. What makes Antarctica a special place, as far as I'm concerned, is the people that you find there. That's how I would sum up the place: a bitterly hostile landscape, full of wonders, populated with really good people. Friendly, good fun, and very capable. One of the things that stands out most in my memory was the email greetings that all the bases exchanged at midwinter. More so than our own midwinter celebrations, It took the edge off the loneliness, and for me it lifted my eyes off the particular difficulties I was working through in the depths of the darkness made me appreciate again that a winterover is indeed a tough thing to do, and that it was reasonable to find it so. It was very nice to be reminded that others shared the same challenges, and it was fascinating to see for the first time that pretty much every base that stays lit and occupied through the night does so in their own unique environment – no two are at all the same. And it was wonderful too, to get greetings from people around the world who thought of us, people like the staff at IPEV and ENEA, others who had done a winterover before and thought of us. No-one back home made anything of it, which just tells me that you really do have to have experienced a winterover to understand what it means to do a winterover.
On reflection, I am so very glad that I went to Concordia.  It was an indescribably superb adventure, albeit tremendously tough.  But, I have to say, it's good to be home, too.

Coming back has been easier than I expected it would be. I got good advice from the astronomers who had done winterovers before – Karim, Eric and Djamal -that, if I wasn't going back to the same job I had before, it would be wise to stay away from work for a couple of months at least. And that's what I am doing! IPEV pays us a basic holiday rate right through to June to cover all the annual leave and weekend days off I missed by being on the station. It does give me time to recover and also some kind of target date to aim to get a job by. Having a year's worth of salary in the bank does take the pressure off a bit. So I'm not in a hurry and I'm enjoying that, but I'm concious that its important to make sure I don't become aimless.

M's move to Cambridge, where she started a new job the week before I arrived, is a good thing for us. It means that, as we try to re-establish our relationship, we can look at making a new life together here, rather than I try to fit into her established life in Glasgow. Our relationship only barely survived my year away.
While I was at the station, our once weekly phone conversations were difficult and rarely an enjoyable thing. We both found them to be really stressful. I think that M was struggling with the fact I was away in a place she could not really imagine, and with some degree of danger, so she found it difficult to sustain a conversation about it. I was not keen to dwell on all the things I was missing by being so isolated, so it was hard to talk to her about her life.  One week was not much different to the next at the base, so I really didn't have very much to talk about. She had thrown herself into her work seven days a week and so neither did she. So our talk was stilted, frequently unhappy and almost always disappointing for both of us. The time zone separation could not have been worse so usually we were both tired, and aggravated by the transmission getting dropped every few minutes. I was physically uncomfortable, sat in a small hard plastic chair in a cramped metal room under the quiet tower's aluminium steps. Week after week the frustration built up to the point I think we both found the phone call unbearably difficult, and we started to seek excuses to avoid it. Emails got less and less frequent. And for me, each time I struggled to write or speak to M I felt so guilty that I had ever come to Concordia. It felt our relationship was, bit by bit, slipping away even though we were both doing what we could to preserve it. It got sharply worse as I got closer to my return to Europe, and I had to start thinking about actually meeting her again. I wondered if it was going to be just impossible. For sure I still wanted our relationship to survive but, after a whole year of such difficulty I think I had just about given up on it. Particularly as my departure got put back and put back - it was so frustrating that I had to stay. The station simply would not have been adequately covered if I left and of course, it's friends and colleagues I had been working with a long time asking me, face to face, to stay. It was a tough situation. My temper deteriorated on the station and led, directly and indirectly, to a couple of confrontations with the station leader.  By the time I left Concordia, I really needed to leave.

It was M that saved our relationship. Just when I thought a reunion seemed too difficult and that to be honest, I was feeling that I didn't deserve another shot at it, M wrote a couple of really positive, optimistic emails when I was on the astrolabe. So in the last days, against all my expectations, the difficulty of facing her really turned to a feeling of fragile optimism. But when I stepped off the train at Cambridge and found her, her eyes were so, so full of uncertainty and reservation. I think my emailed replies had more communicated the anxiety and the uncertainty I had felt than the optimism, and she really didn't know what was going to happen. Standing looking at her in the busy station I felt wracked with regret and guilt more than anything, at how hard I could see she was finding it. And I thought - how do you start a conversation after fifteen months apart? Thankfully, I didn't have to. I was late arriving and we had to go straight to see a house she was thinking of renting. Instead of a conversation, we had something we needed to do. And actually, that worked out well. I guess the fundamental thing was that we both wanted to make it work. From there, we've started to build new foundations together. I think that all the long distance living we had to do before I went to Antarctica, thanks to the structure of medical training in the UK, stood us in good stead too, like pre-stress on a heart about to suffer a heart attack. Within just a few hours, being together felt right.

Anyway, today is good. I still get weary surprisingly easily, and after a short time walking in Cambridge I'm glad to come back to the college and take it easy here in the reading room. We haven't found a place to live yet but sharing the purpose is really helping us. And being in a comfortable, familiar place helps a lot adjusting back to normal life.

April 16th Little Shelford, Cambridge.

We found a place to rent in a beautiful little village just south of Cambridge, called Little Shelford. It's a quintessential, colourful English village, much friendlier and quieter than the city - I found the crowding in Cambridge extremely stressful, although that is easing now. It's a sunny morning today so I took a walk through the village. I didn't feel like going far though, so I thought I could go and pick up a few things from the co-op. On my way back, I walk down quiet roads lined by tall trees, past very old garden walls and thick hedges, churches, timber-beamed and brick houses, thatched roofs, green gardens, friendly strangers saying hello.   A little stream flows between Little Shelford and Great Shelford, the next village just a fifteen minute walk from our house, where there are a few shops and a couple of pubs. It's a very good place, and it's close enough to Addenbrookes for M to cycle to work when she wants to. 

There are so many songbirds here. And the trees rustle in the breeze all the time. Children, music flowing from windows, church bells - the world seems incredibly rich in sound. I realise that, of all my senses, my hearing was by far the most deprived in Antarctica.

Legs are back to normal, the tendinitis in my shoulders and elbows much improved. My stamina is almost back up to normal. I've been eating unbelievably a lot - I guess my body really needed repair. My old drive to get out climbing, mountaineering, walking, sailing, whatever, is just about completely absent. M and I spent the last couple of weekends tidying up our garden together. Happy as I am, I do hope some spirit for adventure comes back soon, though.

I have some meetings in London tomorrow to start locum work, hopefully in emergency departments in the area. I've spent my days recently reading emergency medicine and doing some exam revision to polish up my slightly rusty knowledge. And, we're starting to organise a reunion for the crew in Cologne, at the European Astronaut Centre in June.

At the door of our house I stop to watch some little birds swooping and stalling as they shoot right past me and round the side of the house, on their way to the bird feeder we have at the back. I notice that there are new green shoots growing up by the garden wall, I wonder what they will become. I go into the kitchen, put the bag of shopping on the table, and go to the window to see if the birds are still there. 

I'm home.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Raid photographs

Photos below:

The logistic raid approaching us – nine challengers, ten crew,
supplies for concordia
The two raids stop to exchange personnel. Patrice Godon, Head of
polar logistics at IPEV
Encamped for the night, the first darkness I've seen in months
The scientific raid – three challengers, five crew
Me and the tractor we drove, pulling a train weighing I think 24 tonnes

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A warm breeze

A warm breeze

The Astrolabe, IPEV's workhorse ship that shuttles between Hobart and DDU, is relatively small for these waters -
65metres long by about 13 - and when moored up in Hobart alongside the big ex-soviet icebreakers that also lie up
there, she is absolutely dwarfed. It was originally designed as a supply vessel for the oil industry and its sister
ship operates in the north sea. It is flat bottomed, and that's why IPEV use it as the sea around DDU is shallow and
difficult to manoeuvre. A lot of the open deck has had accommodation built onto it, but it has kept the heli-pad. She
carries about ten crew, and forty passengers. Having seen and heard of this ship for so long, it seemed very familiar
when I saw it moored at DDU the day we visited. The pack ice had been broken back just enough at the quayside, and
the ship's bow was only a couple of metres away from the ice. There was a steady procession of Adelie penguins
walking past her bow as they toiled between sea and nests. They didn't take much notice of her but eight emperor
penguins in a tight huddle at the water's edge stared and stared at the ship, clearly fascinated by it.

After two more very pleasant days at Prud'homme we got taken by the helicopter to board the ship, just a couple of
hours before her departure. Myself and three others from the Prudhomme station. The pilot knew the others well so he
pulled a couple of fun moves as he flew up, I had my heart in my mouth for a moment.

The ship was ready to depart a couple of hours early so the decision was made to use it to break the pack towards a
meteo station on one of the small islands between DDU and Cap Prud'homme. With all cargo and passengers embarked – at
least half of the passengers worked at Concordia this summer, so I know them very well - it sailed round into the bay
and as close to the station as possible. It took runs at the ice, the nose riding up onto the pack and then sinking
down, breaking the ice underneath it. It only made about 30 metres each time as the metre thick ice was about the
ship's limit. But this time it got the job done. Then, turning its nose out of the bay, we left Antarctica.

That evening sailing away from DDU the whole sea, as far as I could see, was completely white covered, white with
fragments of pack ice from very small up to tens of metres across. And the horizon was completely hidden from view in
all directions by icebergs, some near, some very distant, some relatively small but formed into fantastical shapes,
the really large ones - tabular and regular shaped - further off usually. We did pass close to one that was 10km long
and therefore as long as my home town and the next village, and the 5 km of road between them all taken together.
I stood on the heli-pad at the back of the boat, but I found I couldn't stay there. The boat was rolling and pitching
quite hard, not because of ocean swell. The sea was flat calm, there was no breeze at all. The boat's strong lurches
movements were because she was making frequent hard turns as she negotiated the ice. The ship can bash lumps of pack
ice out of the way but we get slowed down by the impact, often from her cruising speed to almost a standstill. So to
keep speed up it's better to steer a weaving course through the broken pack and keep the impacts to a minimum. But
impacts are frequent, and on that first evening I got several bruises from bumping into cabins' forward walls when the
ship got slowed by heavy pieces of pack. Deep rumbling impacts would vibrate through the ship's hull.

The continent disappeared from view too quickly, hidden by this towering icy seascape of bergs. But Antarctica still
had one last little surprise for me, which I'm quite sure I'll never forget. As the sky greyed over and the wind
rose, it started to snow, just as I was thinking about getting inside. And each snowflake landing on my jacket was a
perfectly sharp, unique, six pointed symmetrical shape. Just like I've heard described all my life, but I've never,
ever seen before. Farewell to you too, Antarctica.

The sea was calm, as usual, until the ship cleared the ice and there we ran into a pretty large swell. The twenty
four hours after that almost all the passengers were confined to their bunks by sea sickness and even three of the
ship's crew were incapacitated. Both Yves-Marie, the official ship's doctor and I have been given bunks in the ship's
medical room. Boxes and bags of hospital material were throwing themselves around and several times one or other of us
got up in the night to put it all back again and resecure the restraints. I took a look out the door leading to the
rear deck just to see waves which I knew would be enormous. It was quite something to see the stern of the boat
pitched far back down, squirming in the trough of a very big wave then rising on the face of a cross-wave, rolling
heavily to one side. I shut the door, don't want to watch too much of that, that's for sure. They flung our not-
so-light boat around with such ease. Over the following days the weather and the sea state gradually settled but me,
I was hardly able to get off my bunk for two days.

Finally, today, I have my sea legs, the nystagmus is gone, and I've been able to see, eat and drink normally. I can
sit quite comfortably in the hospital writing as the ship continues to roll around. As I type this my chair
periodically slides two feet backwards leaving my fingers momentarily typing thin air. Then a moment later it slides
considerately back to where I started. Our hospital door is two metres away from the exit out to the rear deck. It's
kept open all day to get some fresh air in, and today there is a warm breeze flowing in from outside. I went outside
to take a look and some water poured off the deck above and over my legs and shoes. It was warm. Warm, flowing
water. The swell has eased off quite a bit. The sea is blue, reflecting a clear sky and our progress toward
Australia. We should make it to Hobart tomorrow night. There are three or four albatrosses following us.

It's warm, at last. At long last.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica.

Arrived at the coast Feb 7th
The long round coast at the grid south to south-east of Antarctica is
broken in many places by tongues of glacial ice protruding from the coast
out to sea, where areas of the vast sheets of ice sweeping down from the
domes get corralled and accelerated by subglacial fjords and forced to out
into the water. The astrolabe glacier, in Terre Adelie, is one such
place, the valley forming it 1500m below the level of the sea. The
coastline here is formed by rolling hills of ice sloping down to the sea.
They end as far as I can see in both directions in vertical cliffs of ten
to twenty metres which join, seamlessly at their base, the flat shelf of
sea-formed ice that gets called the pack. The Astrolabe glacier gets
forced out to sea beyond the coastline, and in doing so creates a bay on
either side of it. It disintegrates into icebergs the size of villages as
fast as it is renewed by the flow of ice behind it. So, it retains it's
size, while at the same time casting a dense flow of bergs into the
westward current flowing round the coast. This side of the glacier,
amongst the confusion of cliffs, pack, icebergs and sea are a few little
rocky outcrops. Some are on the coast, left uncovered by deflected areas
of ice sheet, and others are out beyond the cliffs, small islands in the
sea. This year, thanks to the unusually calm coastal weather, the pack
ice has never been broken up and so it is still possible to walk out to
them. Today in the space of four or five hours, however, we saw the pack
fracture and half of the entire shelf, several square kilometres of ice,
drift out into the melee of floating ice and effectively vanish.
In this bay is the French base of DDU – Dumond D'Urville, named after the
French explorer. Actually it is in two parts. The main base is made of
quite a few buildings built in a loose ring around the top of the largest
of the islands close to the edge of the glacier, with a dock for the
Astrolabe ship on an adjacent island.
Five kilometers across the other side of the bay, on what surely must be
the smallest piece of bare rock ever to be called a cap, is Cap
Prud'homme. This small building is the base for the mainland operations.
The raid has its headquarters here and the airstrip is here. All material
and people arriving on the boat, to be taken up to Dome C, have to be
ferried by helicopter over to Prud'homme. Or, wait until the summer is
over and the pack ice returns, and when it is thick enough heavy material
can be transported over the ice and stored ready for the next summer.

To Anthony, Patrice and Alex there was no excitement to have arrived here
– this is what the job is, this is their base, returning simply means
different work for the next few days. For Michele, He'd seen DDU before,
it was nice to be back, nothing more. So I kept the sheer, overwhelming
relief to be somewhere else, somewhere more normal, to myself. More
normal, I thought it over again, as I looked at a yellow moon rising over
a bay full of icebergs the size of towns, coloured red by the setting sun.
We drove in a fifteen tonne tractor down a glistening ice slope to a
French station we would call home for the next five days. A helicopter
buzzed past, skimming the ice, certainly no more than thirty metres behind
us. The VHF radio crackling with the voices of strangers kilometres away.

Cap Prud'Homme Feb 9th
I was offered me the choice of staying at Prud'homme or at DDU for the few
days we wait here for astrolabe to depart. Without hesitation I chose to
stay here, it's a very nice place to be while I wait for the ship. The
base at Cap Prud'homme is very small, right now there are only about
fifteen guys working here. Plus another ten or so usually here but who are
right now driving back toward the base on the last logistic raid of the
year, having departed Concordia about two days ago. They are mechanics
mostly, working on the raid and the airstrip and ready to offload any
boats bringing material across. That won't be happening this year,
however, judging by how much pack ice lies between the base and open sea.
The base is small, warm, comfortable and airy. It's only around minus
five degrees here, so the doors can be opened and air let in. The
furnishings are wooden and homely. At it's centre is a large room where
the crew cook and eat. The single long dining table runs almost the
whole length of the room. At one end is the small kitchenette, and at the
other four wide and tall glass doors doors let us look out onto the bay of
sea and ice and across to DDU, about five kilometres away. It's painted
and furnished in a very homely way. There are a few bedrooms, some
workshops, some stores, some yards for tractor maintenance. That's it.
The guys are very friendly and welcoming despite mostly depending on my
still extremely limited spoken French for communication. But we still
manage to have a joke frequently and I am really enjoying the easy
company. A couple of days after I arrived Yves-Marie, the doctor here
took the opportunity of the extra cover to go back to DDU to tie up some
work left from the winterover. So I have a role as the station doctor by
default, albeit with nothing actually to do. The hospital room is tiny,
with a small desk for consulting and the doctor's bed less than a metre
away. Simple DIY cupboards contain a small but pretty comprehensive stock
of equipment. The window also looks over the bay and I find it's a very
warm, comfortable place to sit, enjoy the view and write my winterover
report. Jean-Louis will get here from Dome C tomorrow and he is widely
recognised as the best chef in Antarctica. This is a fabulous place to
be, in fact.

There is a team of glaciologists here who has been coming each summer for
seven years, observing the movements of the ice with solar powered GPS
sensors fixed at certain points on the glacier. They invited me to go
along with them one day, and I found myself in DDU's little squirrel
helicopter flying daringly close to the ice to stay out of the katabatic
winds, up to check on their stations. From the first station we hiked to
the second and third, roped together as we were crossing crevassed ice.
It's a long time since I did any improvised roped rescue practice and as I
walked I thought about the gear they had given me, I had to think a bit to
remember which way round you clip a ropeman when rigging a z-pull, how to
release ascenders to pay out rope, the way to get down on the axe to
arrest a leader's fall into a crevasse, the best knots to tie into the
rope with, and all the complications that can come up to catch the
unpractised rescuer. It's a natural extension of my climbing safety skills
and I quite liked thinking around the problems again. But of course no
such eventuality occurred. Mostly, it was just great to walk for so long,
on solid footing as we crossed the glacier past, and occasionally stepping
over gaping open crevasses.

Then yesterday we walked to DDU for a visit, five km across the pack ice
filling the bay. The rule is you go in threes at least carrying a radio.
Whilst one of the guys did some GPS work, his pHD student Cyril and I
wandered around the base, meeting lots at Dome C people who had flown down
that day. It was strange to find good friends, who I only knew as working
very hard, to be wandering around with nothing to do. Tourists just like
me. We'd been there an hour or so when we got approached by a stranger
who said, 'You are the Scottish doctor.' Just like that. Like the Highland
villages I grew up in, everyone knows who you are, how you got here. And
I like that. He is the district Mayor. Whereas Concordia is an
expeditionary base, DDU is treated as a French territory and you are
essentially in France here. After a brief chat the mayor put his shades
back on and went back to directing the helicopter by handheld radio, as he
watched it carry supplies on a wire from the docked ship to the storehouse
door he stood in front of. DDU is sixty years old now, established I've
been told when an older base round the coast burned one summer and the
crew retreated to a scientific hut that had been built here. It is very
close to the glacier and huge icebergs drift close by. Apparently there
are around a hundred people on the base at the moment. It is an
accumulation of low, large huts of various ages in a ring around the top
of the largest outcrop in the area. There is a post office hut, a hospital
building, a seventy five metre tall VHF radio mast, various scientific
buildings, amongst others. We had our dinner there – eating out, I joked.
Again, a friendly place, you just have to speak what French you can for a
few minutes and you always find people ready to chat and have a laugh in

The base is built on a rock that is home to thousands of Adelie penguins.
They nest right around the buildings and, much more densely, down the
sides of the outcrop. Their chicks are full grown now, fully adult height
and some look bigger than their parents, less than six weeks after
hatching. But they still have their brown downy feathers and are unable
to swim, so they depend on their parents for food. It's quite comical,
and common, to see chicks chasing their parents around the rocks demanding
food, and the parent quite determinedly running away. There are
penguin-made paths on the ice all round DDU as parents leave their nests
to walk across the pack to the sea for more food. There are so many of
them that there is a more or less continuous procession of them going
out, and coming back. They are less than a meter tall yet they walk
kilometers to get to the sea. I have missed most of the emperors, they
have already passed through on their way to the sea and I will leave
before their return. The colony will face the long, long winter, with
winds as high as 300km/hour and absolute temperatures of minus 35, just
half a kilometre from the base. There are a few around the base, however,
slow moving and somehow seeming mournful compared to the boisterous,
clumsy, busy Adelies.
On our return across the ice we climbed a small iceberg that was frozen
into the pack ice, 10m high cliffs at either end and sloping flanks in
between, perhaps a kilometre or so from the ice sheet, several more to the
sea. Weddell seals were lazing around at the foot of it, having found or
made a hole in the ice to climb up through. They don't bother much when
humans pass close by. To them I guess danger is Orca-sized, we don't look
so scary. At the top of the iceberg there was glassy ice, flat and
smooth enough to skate on, and it was almost cobalt-blue coloured, even
under a darkening grey sky. It was a very strange discovery.
Occasionally a solitary Adelie would cross our paths, several kilometres
out of the way of their nests or the sea. Just wandering, apparently.

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica. Feb 11th
So the Astrolabe will depart tomorrow. We'll go by helicopter in the
morning to join her and she'll cast off at midday. This time there
should not be any postponements.
My time, although I am in the semi-designated position of medical
responsible for the Prud'homme base, has really been a vacation. In the
six days I've been here I've prescribed a bottle of Maalox. That's it.
This afternoon I took a walk down to the edge of the pack ice today, to
explore the curling crests of the ice cliffs, like breaking waves. Blue,
white, or red where mixed with the earth. I thought it would be time to
pause and reflect on the raid and on departing Concordia, write a little
about it.

But really, I find I don't have much to say really. Job done, now looking
ahead to the next step. But at the same time I find I can't see at all
more than the next step ahead. At Dome C, in the last few days I could
only see ahead to the raid, on the raid, ahead to some rest at Prud'homme,
now tonight, only as far as the helicopter ride to the astrolabe tomorrow.
That really is as far as I can see. Hobart? Holiday? UK? Work?
Haven't a clue, can't even imagine these things. Besides, it really
doesn't feel like goodybye, more like au revoir. Patrice has asked me if
I would like to come back to be the doctor for raids in the future, and I
would. I think I might find myself back here sometime.

Sounds like the guys have got out the guitars and beers, and have started
playing tunes in the workshop. I think I'm just going to go join them,
worry about all that later. See you.

By the way, the wind is getting up, shaking the base tonight. And this
afternoon I noticed that there was a swell in the bay for the first time.
Looks like the weather is not going to be kind for us.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Raid day 9 - On arrive

Arrived at DDU

Tired, aching shoulders and arms, and now quite happily drunk.
Bonne nuit

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Raid day 8

Position 67 degrees 32.780 South 138 degrees 00.750 East
Distance to DDU 120km

We have finished another straightforward day, pitching and rolling down
the snow track.
And now as I type I'm looking out on a beautifully coloured sunset. It's
lovely to see twilight again, after three months.
The wind is high, the caravan, already leaned a little to one side as the
snow we're parked on is uneven, rocking a little in a strong wind.
Trails of snow are snaking over the deep blue snow, like sand does on a
windy beach. All the colours of the rainbow light the sky just above the
horizon. Otherwise our little disc of white world is just the same as
it has been every night of our journey.

Tomorrow we'll get to the coast, although not quite to DDU. The last few
kilometers are quite steep and so the train will need re-arranging, and
that takes a bit of extra time.

As long as we have good weather, we'll see the sea tomorrow. I can't
begin to express how much I'm looking forward to it.

And, the day after we arrive, the last planes of the year leaving
Concordia should land at DDU as the next winterover, DC8, begins.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Raid day 7

Position 68 degrees 17.740 south 135 degrees 40.321 east
Distance travelled today 120km

Today felt long, after last night's repairs. Still, we put in a full day
and we're now just about two days drive away from DDU. Maybe two days and
a couple of hours, frustratingly.
The ski repair has been good and we've had no more problems today.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Raid day 6

Position 69 degrees 34.964 south, 134 degrees 20.039 east
distance travelled today 120km

We travelled slowly this afternoon, and when we stopped we discovered why.
One of the skis had broken off the generator trailer - one of of the
4-trailer caravan at the rear of the raid - and was wedged underneath.

In 2 hours we dug out under the ski to get it out, replaced the
axle-mount, craned up the several tonne trailer and refitted it. Patrice,
Anthony and Alex are seriously, seriously good at what they do. It's
going to be a later start tomorrow as we finished at almost midnight, so
we've left the routine maintenance until tomorrow.

We estimate we have three days left to go.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Raid day 5

Position 70 degrees 25.486 south, 134 degrees 08.660 east
Distance from DC 630 km
Distance from DDU 478 km

I realised yesterday I put down the wrong distance. The position was
correct but someone had been messing with the GPS waypoints and so the
distance showing was actually the drive left to do to DDU. But now we are
definitely more than half way there.

Tonight we have arrived at D85 and have descended to an altitude of around
2,600. My oxygen saturations - my own personal altimeter - are up at 93
percent, the highest in a year.
And another special treat - we have caught up with night-time. The sun
set just a half hour ago, which was a complete surprise. Right now there
is a fabulous red sky over the snow plain.

Tomorrow will be just like today - another 11 hours of driving. Our
little crew of five is great. When we passed the logistic raid we swapped
David, who is now with them en route back to DC, for Patrice Godon, the
antarctic adventurer who developed the whole French traverse from nothing
more than an idea, and first ventured into the interior looking for Dome C
fifteen years ago with a single challenger, a pisten bully and a hand held
GPS. He's a great guy and very interesting to talk to.

Four days more to go and we should be at Cap Prudomme, on the coast, next
to DDU.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Raid day 4

Position 71 degrees 20.04 South, 132 degrees 12.89 East
Distance travelled 614 km from DC, descent 200 metres

We passed a logistic raid heading for DC today. I found out only the day
after departure that this is in fact the first scientific traverse IPEV
has made into the interior of Antarctica. So it's a bit of a historic
year for them to have two raids on the road at one time. On the way to DC
this raid passed a northbound logistic raid, and today we passed one as we
go north. It was an exciting time for us.

Tomorrow we arrive at d85, the refuelling stop between DDU and DC, where
we will use the machines to do maintenance on the airstrip. We're already
a little more than half way to the coast.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Raid day 3

Location 72 degrees 22.243 south? 130 degrees 21.133 east

Another day trucking across Antarctica
Another stop in this uniform wilderness

Sunday, 29 January 2012


Location 73 degrees 13.525 South, 128 degrees 23.127 East

2 days done, 256 km covered, averaging roughly 13 km/hour

The routine for our little crew of five is becoming clear.
the mechanics David and Alex start the Challengers at around 0745, and
disconnect the umbilical power cords that supply power to the engine heaters
that keep them from freezing overnight, and straight away we get in our machine
and just drive in low gear around our stop for fifteen minutes or so to warm up
the engines.

At 0800 we each pull up in front of the loads we will tow and with each others'
help back onto the towing pin and get hitched up. Then, with the Pisten Bully
out in front trying to smooth the bumps we drive, all three trains roped one to
the one behind so we even out the power, for five hours. Michele and I take
turns to drive the longest train, the one at the back. We stop for an hour for
lunch at 1330 and then get back behind the wheel for another six hours driving.

It takes a lot of concentration to follow the twists and turns and steep dips
in the road. I had the feeling today as my tractor's nose pitched steeply up
and down and swayed to either side through the tight turns that I was making
the same steering actions as I do at the wheel of a sailing boat.

At 2030 we stop, with a bit of careful co-ordination, and unhitch from our
loads and leave them standing where they are on the track. We steer the
Challengers round and to the back of the train to face the generator car where
umbilical power lines are led out to heaters inside each engine. Then we get
out and, leaving the motors running, Alex and David do some daily maintenance
work, while Michele fuels the vehicles, I get dinner on and Anthony fills the
snow melter so we have water. We eat at 2200, and crash out shortly after.

We think that we'll be in DDU in more six days, if everything continues to go

Saturday, 28 January 2012

On the raid

I write this sitting in the Raid's caravan, 110km away from Concordia station. We have
paused our journey through this empty white plain for the night. The snow road to DDU,
ravaged by our machines behind, drifted over but still clearly visible ahead, splits the
disc in half from horizon ahead to horizon behind. There is absolutely nothing here but us.
It is midnight, sunny, -37 degrees centigrade and incredibly still.

The raid I have joined is a very small one of a team of only four French guys plus myself,
driving three massive Challenger tractors and a pisten bully. Together we tow a fuel tank,
a cargo trailer and a caravan of three standard shipping containers, fitted out to be very
comfortable accomodation, another with a generator, snow melter, hot water supply, shower,
and spaces for scientific analyses, and a third which is a food store.

I drove the last challenger in the convoy of three all day today, and behind my machine I
towed a train of three container 'trailers' on skis. They are too heavy for one challenger
alone, so my tractor is attached by a ship's mooring line to another one ahead of me and
with radio communication we co-ordinate our driving.

Although you might expect the road to be a straight and even line all the way to the coast,
the years of passage have turned it into a tightly twisting, uneven, bumpy road. The
containers and tractors sway and lurch as we negotiate the track. I've driven 11 hours
today and as I sit here the room is swaying as if I had stepped off a sailing boat.

It will take us another nine days to cover the remaining 1000km to the coast. The guys are
great, the change is wonderful. But the days are going to be long. There simply hasn't
been any time to reflect on leaving Concordia, that is sadly going to have to wait.
Actually, one of the raid team is David, one of my fellow DC7 winterover crew. It's really
nice to be working with an old friend again.
Short post, sorry, up early tomorrow,

Friday, 27 January 2012

What a difference a week makes

So I?m not on the Astrolabe, where I should be. I?m still up at Dome
C. Sitting in the EPICA workshop, warm, comfortable, the kettle
I had forgotten about this place. But having rediscovered it a few
days ago ? Alex and I had to come out here to pick something up ? I
thought I?d come back and spend the evening here.

It?s a beautiful clear, calm day today. Bone dry and still. The
temperature and humidity are back to what they should be, low. The
sun, too is lower although even at midnight is still quite high above
the horizon. It?s the first time in ages I?ve seen the exhaust from
the summer camp rise straight up in the air. As I walked out to the
summer camp I was reflecting on how much further away it seemed in the
dark of the winter - it was a noteworthy expedition for anyone to make
their way out here. In the light, it?s only a 700m stroll, easy and

The EPICA workshop tent ? white, 10 metres long with a 5 metres high
arched roof is large, but dwarfed by the drilling tent next to it. As
you go in the vaulted ceiling is very high above the crowded machines,
workbenches and suspended brimming shelves and cabling, and light
diffusing through the white fabric gives the place a very pleasant,
airy feeling. The floor is made of thick wooden beams, the grain
stained black by the years. At the other end a loft has been built,
perhaps the last 2 metres of the tent?s length, and up there are a
couple of workbenches and a couple of trestle beds. Under this low
wooden ceiling is the oil burner that heats the place very well. It?s
really warm in here.

I pull off my down suit and sit near the burner. I?m really warm in
just jeans and the standard expeditioner?s dark grey knitted pullover.
It?s more or less the first time since last year I?ve been off the
base without the suit on. It?s really a nice novelty.

The burner is a blackened cast cylinder, about a metre tall and half
that wide, with a flat square plate top. A brass coloured chimney
pipe comes out at right angles and makes a couple of haphazard doglegs
before disappearing into the loft. It makes a gentle, unhurried
puttering sound. People have built makeshift wooden seats all round
it. A little old wooden cable drum makes a littletable. It has a
blacked right angle burned into it?s edge, where it was left too close
to the burner once. One of the seats lifts up, underneath is a few
bottles. But it?s too early for that and today I?m here on my own. I
find the white, disposable plastic cup I penned my name on some time
ago and I get the kettle boiling. I sit with my boots off, feet up on
one of the tables. It?s a little too close to the burner and
eventually I?ll have to move away but hey, now it?s nice.

I like the smell of this place. The wood, the oil from the tools, the
faint warm oil smell from the burner. It makes a strong contrast from
the harsh station smells.

This madcap week started on the 18th. We had a party arrive, with M.
Rochard, ex Prime Minster of France and now France?s Ambassador for
the Polar regions. Which is quite a different role from most
diplomats I guess, as he explained his work is primarily negotiating
on environmental issues. He?s eighty-one, and very brave I would say
to test himself in this high altitude, remote environment. He came
accompanied by the Director of IPEV, Yves Frenot, and also Alex, my
replacement, who had been appointed to be his medical accompaniment
the whole journey they made from Australia. I have to say I was a
bit worried to have him on the base, the HAPE risk was huge, and it
was a relief when 48 hours later they flew off to Mario Zucchelli
Station at sea level. Still in good energy and wondering what our
fuss was about.

There was a plane to DDU the day after the party got here but, I had
waited so long to hand over the job I didn?t want to just walk off
before showing Alex how to do it. So I missed that plane, but that
was OK, there was another scheduled for the 21st, and the Astrolabe
was due to depart the 23-24th, so I had little worries. Two days of
training, and then I?m out of here.
We got a brief flutter of worry when we heard the news that our Twin
Otter, KBO, had broken a ski making a landing in soft snow at MZS.
But it turned out to be a temporary worry ? eight hours later we heard
a repair was en route and there would not be any more delays to the

And then another quiet little problem blew up. The station doctor for
the winterover decided he would not be able to do it, for quite
reasonable reasons back home, and would have to leave at the end of
the summer campaign. Alex is facing being the only medic on the
station. But, of course, he?s made lots of preparation for doing the
ESA work, but none for preparing for being the station doctor. Even
though there had been inklings along the way as rumour got down to DDU
of the doctor?s uncertainty, I think it still came as a bit of a
shock. Inevitably, being so late in the season, the heads of IPEV and
ENEA asked him if he would consider agreeing to take on the

I advised him that, if he was going to do it, to get in touch with
McMurdo to see if he could get any appropriate training, and to get in
touch with the head of the British Antarctic Unit in Plymouth to see
if he could ask them for advice. Both of which worked out. To
compound matters, we dug up a medical matter the following day, which
seemed to need specialist (?outpatient?) attention in McMurdo, too.
So a plane was arranged for both of them and they were due to fly down
on the 22nd. I was due to fly to DDU on the 21st. I picked up a bit
of chatter from several people expressing concern that for probably a
week, there would only be one doctor here. Concordia, being so
remote, likes to have two in the summer, just like in the winter. When
Erick, the station leader for the coming winter came into my lab to
discuss things, I told him through gritted teeth that if the crew had
concerns, I would stay. I desperately didn?t want to, but these guys
are my friends, I listen to them, they helped me with my experiments.
If they were uncomfortable, I didn?t want to feel I was letting them
down. Stupid as that might sound,it mattered. Erick said he?d discuss
with the other seniors, and let me know. Later that night, the 20th,
I got an email from the radio room, to confirm my flight.

?Tomorrow a flight for DDU is planned. The departure will be at 9.00
In attachment you will find a note with the list of things to do
before leaving.
You will have to pass in Radio room tonight before 9.30 PM.
Kind Regards

Such relief. Offer made, out of conscience, and declined. Everyone
was happy. I was certainly not going to ask any more questions. I
could go. I returned my radio and my phone card, signed off on my
phone bill. I packed my cases and sorted the Colisage ? the
addressing system to return my cases to the UK. I was ready. Ready to
leave Dome C. In a last minute flap, the way I came, I thought and
that really brought a smile. At midnight, I dug up a bottle of
champagne I?d been given a while back, and I brought it up to the
radio room, as really all my best friends on the station tend to be in
and around there. Nine hours to go.
The station leader came through and, had a drink with us as I
celebrated. And then asked me to stay. Seems the seniors had had a
change of mind. Medical cover, one week, until Alex gets back. Take
the next rotation of the Astrolabe. My. Third. Delay.

So I?m still at Dome C. Risk? Nothing I thought about at all was a
factor, in the end. Many mixed feelings but hey, no problems really.
I?ll get off this snowball sooner or later, once I?m not needed any
more, I guess. M?s not talking to me. Oh dear.

The day after I should have left, one of the project?s investigators
arrived to help set up the experiments for DC8 so I have found really
a large amount of work helping her out, and seen two or three patients
for minor things, so I?m glad to see that it wasn?t for nothing, really.

Another Email, on the 25th, ?le raid scientifique revient à DC en
théorie le 25 au soir et repart vers DDU le 28 matin. Il sera à DDU
pour le départ du bateau R3 sans problem. Si parmi vous, il y a des
gens qui veulent rentrer à DDU en raid scientifique, faites le moi
savoir demain. En gros il y a 4 places maxi?
In a nutshell - The scientific raid will depart for DDU on the 28th,
it?ll arrive in DDU for the departure of the Astrolabe on R3 for sure.
I jumped at it. Something new, and pretty adventurous too. We
leave the day after tomorrow.

I heard tonight that the Astrolabe is in for a rough ride, according
to the weather forecast. The decks are off limits, the hatches and
windows are literally being battened and barred by the crew.
Horizontal, high speed flying ice can be a dangerous thing, I guess.
I?m delighted not to be on it.

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

This message was sent using IMP, the Internet Messaging Program.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I didn't figure this in...

KBO got broken yesterday making a landing in soft snow at Terra Nova Bay. That's our only plane, and my only way out of here. Hope those boys can fix it quick!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


Decided to stay and risk it. 

A bit of a dilemma

So here it is: My successor is right now on the Astrolabe, travelling towards DDU and the ship will put in on around the 12th or 13th. That’s about a week late, due largely to her sojourn trapped in the ice earlier in the season.

So he’ll get up here on a plane that’s scheduled for the 14th or 15th.

The Astrolabe is due to depart again on the 23rd, and can only stay one day later maximum. There is the possibility to get people on board a few hours after her departure if she leaves the helicopter behind on the quay to ferry them straight out. So, probably midday on the 24th is the last time to get to DDU in time to catch her.

After getting back from the Seismo cave I found out that due to the web of commitments that stations and programmes make to each other in the spirit of co-operativity, our Twin Otter is only able to make two flights from Concordia to DDU before the Astrolabe leaves. One on the 14th to go and get the people due to come up to Dome C, and another flight down on the 21st. Two days before the ship departs.

Last year, that would have been no cause for concern at all. But the weather is playing havoc, much more than usual, this year. We’ve had more cancelled flights than successful ones. For example, Patrice Godon, one of IPEVs long serving seniors, came up to the base from DDU for a three day visit and was stuck here -I don’t exaggerate - for 24 days. One of our crew went to MZS as he needs to see the dentist in McMurdo, and he’s been waiting there four or five days for a break in the weather just to fly 30 minutes round the coast.

So a margin of two to three days really is very little. And the clouds do not show any sign of getting better. 

So do I ask to go on the 14th, to be sure of getting the boat, or do I wait until the 21st, make the handover as it should be done, and risk misisng the Astrolabe’s departure?

I’ve already stayed out here about a month longer than originally intended waiting forhim to get here, because it is good to get a personal handover for many aspects of the job. Of course I like to do and to complete a job properly, and half of me want s to stay up here and wait. But the other half –a bit more than half admittedly - just really wants to go home too. It’s been such a challenging year, I need a rest. The rumour is that all the flights off Antarctica are already booked. So if I missed the Astrolabe’s departure, potentially I might have to wait here until her next rotation departing Feb the 12th. . It might not sound like much, but right now to me it looks to be the longest three weeks I could ever imagine. It could as well be months away.

Or, to looking at it another way – IPEV has been paying for me to stay out here, specifically to teach Alex the job, and if I leave now then they paid a month’s salary for nothing. Or on the other hand, I have already stayed as long as they asked me to, and I really don’t want to say longer.

I just don’t know.


The temperature today is a very pleasant minus 23. And we’ve got continuous, thick cloud cover, which is nice for me as as it puts up the humidity and the chronic dry inflamation in my nose settles. No blood in my nose, sleep stops being restless and disturbed, I swear even food tastes better! And as we walked in poor visibility alongside the power line suspended on wooden posts out to the Seismology shelter, it was quite like being in the hills behind Kingussie in the wintertime, on a flat top following a fence. 

We - Summer campaigners Sergio, Roberta, Alessia and I were being taken to visit the seismo cave by the seisomology investigator for the coming winterover, Eric.

The theory behind the seismo cave is that, if you want to measure tremors in the earth – ie earthquakes occurring thousands of kilometers away - you need a really solid substance to put your sensor into that will transmit vibrations very well. And snow of course is not a particularly good substance for that. What’s better is to dig down fifteen metres or so to where the snow has been pressured and aged into ice, the top layer of a single sheet of ice 3.2km thick that makes almost perfect contact with bedrock below. A sensor placed at this depth gets much better coupling and therefore is much more sensitive.

The cave is, for me, one of the last fascinating things to see around here. It is is a kilometer from the station and rarely visited. From a hatch in the floor of the shelter you climb down a series of ladders, platforms and a tunnel until you get down to where the sensor is placed and the temperature is a fairly constant, minus 54. The sensor itself is the same as the ones I helped Pascal and Maxim dig out last year. It’s been a while since I’ve felt cold like this and I had to cover my mouth again, and my gloves made the sharp crackling noises they only make below minus fifty. The walls of the final descent have been made by three containers stacked one on top of the other buried below the surface. The top two are oriented normally with the floor and roof cut off respectively to make a single space, and the one below them placed on end and the doors, now at the top, cut off. So we stood at the bottom of a metal lined shaft that disappeared into darkness above us. The grey metal walls around us seemed solid but distinctly unwelcoming, functional.

The most interesting thing about the Seismo cave, though, is back up near the top, in the long horizontal tunnel cut perhaps four metres below the surface. It has no lining, and so it’s walls are just the snow. Eric shut the hatch and turned off the lights, and we could see the walls and ceiling gowing blue as sunlight filtered down through the snow to us. People before us had written their names in the snow of the tunnel walls and, although practically invisible with the lights on, they stood out clearly a different shade inthe blue glow. Beautiful.

And another surprise for me, as we walked back to the base, it did something I thought it would never do here. It snowed! It’s rare and remarkable, but it’s warm enough and cloudy enough that it could actually snow. A little summer treat.

Happy New Year!

 (typed 9th January)

Apparently the guys who have been flying here for 11-12 years say that you get several good blue-sky years in a row, and then one where it is constantly cloudy and visibility is very frequently too bad to fly in. It turns out this is that year. We’ve had half and half blue skies and white skies all summer. It’s been averaging a balmy minus thirty. I couldn't believe my eyes when I stepped out of the base a week ago and there were fluffy cumulus clouds brushing the top of the american tower, against a thick white blanket covering the while sky higher up. And when the surprise wore off it was quite nice to see something different and at the same time very familiar.
For others though, it’s not nearly so welcome. The wind is messing up the OPALE group’s measurements of movements of gasses near the snow surface. The reflectance group need strong sunlight for their optical sensors, the astronomers can’t see a thing of course, and even the hygrometer of the BRAIN group is reading a non-value because the detector needs to be able to see the sunlight to measure the water vapour in the air! And the planes have been largely grounded, because no-one wants to try flying through white stuff trying to avoid hitting white stuff. We had the twin otter here for a week, stranded by the poor visibility either here, or at the Midpoint refueling stops, or at the destinations DDU and MZS. Every day the pilots pored over satellite images of the clouds over our sector identifying low clouds that would make landing risky.
Everyone agrees it’s unusual. I was standing with Igor, a Russian atmospheric physicist, today in the Caro shelter as he studied his instruments‘ measurements of ozone concentrations and temperature fluctuations. the ozone seems to have starting fluctuating it's atmospheric concentration rapidly and widely several hours before the recorded temperature started doing exactly the same thing. 'Such strange things happen at Dome C ' he says, shaking his head.
The festive season was a bit of a low key affair this year as the holiday days fell on Sundays, and we didn't have any extra time off. The chefs were the principal festival-makers and made a nice, very civilised time for us again. Did I mention this before? There is a Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica, I believe written by the pilots that visit so many bases. It rates Concordia as having the best food on the Continent. But the base has definitely been quieter this year than last year. For some reason there seems to be fewer people moving around outside, there are fewer parties- I don't think there has been a single one up at the summer camp free time tent. I guess when there is generally only sixty people around, individual personalities can really shape the group quite strongly. Christmas particularly was not much of an event for me. Vivien and Eric were due to fly out at 0300 on Christmas day so some of us waited up to say bye, and then the plane was delayed until 0600, and then cancelled. So I spent much of the rest of the day asleep! I did have present to open – a birthday present that had been stranded in DDU since the previous February, and had arrived a few days before Christmas.
New year brought an interesting little surprise - I was really pleased to discover a possible explanation for the green stars that I saw one evening in the winterover. I thought at the time it was due to eye adjustments because I lived under orange-ish tungsten lighting, but I could never explain why the greenishness didn't persist. I was chatting to a couple of the meteorologists over dinner one night and they asked me if I had seen any green clouds during the winterover. I hadn't mentioned the stars to anyone, I’d forgotten about it, really. They explained that nitric acid high in the atmosphere forms clouds that glow green. It seems that the green tint of the stars I saw was likely caused by just this phenomenon. It's fantastic to get such a bizarre explanation. 

For me, this last week has been very nice, as I get on top of readying everything for dispatch back to Europe. The LTMS gear has been working well, say about an 90% success rate but it’s starting to deteriorate again so I think it’s time to stop. I'm going to pack it up this week. IPEV’s logistics operation to transport everything back to the coast is a tightly controlled operation, and the technical office need quite a bit of detail about every box that I package, as it has to encompass space and temperature requirements for the raid, shipping information, environmental and customs information for landing the cases in Australia and something about planning their return to Europe, or wherever in the world the investigators await their precious samples.
It's now just fourteen days until I'm due to be leaving Antarctica on the Astrolabe from DDU, heading to Hobart. I've been here so long it's hard to imagine what it'll be like to be back in the normal world. There's going to be green, and lots of noise, fresh food, distances, and choice, variety, the prospect of getting home to family and friends. I'll be expected to pay for things and to not get involved in everything going on around me. Sounds weird, frankly. But I'm beginning to allow myself to look forward to it. There's always the logistic caveat that it could be hard to predict when I leave Concordia, as the need for good weather to be in alignment here, at the midway refueling stop d85, and DDU seems to be a tall order this year. Vivien was and Eric were due to be celebrating Christmas in Hobart, but sequential storms meant they actually celebrated New Year in a plane en route to the Antarctic coast, and finally made landfall in Australia on the third or so.
So, having a plan is great but I'm not holding my breath.