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.