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

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