Olivier Delanoë, this year’s plumbing technician at Concordia recounts travelling and arriving at the base at the end of the world last year.
Before coming to Antarctica I had already spent six months on the Kerguelen islands at the South of the Indian ocean. The sea there is an icy 2 degrees, the winter is harsh and fauna find it hard to survive.
I am now heading for another winterover, but this time much more to the South passed the strong Westerly winds found in the Southern hemisphere. I had no trouble with seasickness as I took the plane to Antarctica, but I would love to return by boat if I have the chance. The cargo plane is filled with colleagues and arriving in Antarctica only took six hours after a five-day wait in New Zealand. Few destinations in the world take so long to travel to. We live in a society where speed dominates. Here speed depends on the weather.
We flew over a frozen sea and saw the white continent approach as an uniform surface. Its high mountains rose towards us with their glaciers descending to the coast like snake tongues. As we approach the base we descend to land on a temporary airfield prepared by the technicians on the base.
We strap ourselves in for landing and I look at the cables and cargo in the plane as the Hercules C130 roars continuously. Some of my fellow passengers will stay here at the Italian Mario Zucchelli station, others, like me, will pass through to our next destination.
The next morning I take a plane for the last leg of my journey: four hours to travel 1100 km and gain 3233 metres altitude. 360 degrees around Concordia nothing exists. It is already -25°C and my breathing is shallow, a migraine looms. It will only get worse as winter sets in.
I feel twice as tired at this altitude and the headaches start after just a couple of hours. I must hydrate often because the air is very dry. I spend the first few days acclimatising to this hostile environment. I am forced to rest to regain my breath for simple things like climbing stairs in the base. Oxygen is rare here, 30% less than at sea level.
After two days of resting I take up my duties as plumber aided by my predecessor who spent a year here already. He explains how to maintain and use the water processing unit for the showers and sinks as well as the toilets. Keeping the unit running takes up most of my Summer and the days are sometimes long. I have to clean membranes at different parts of the filtration process. The Summer is the busiest time at the base with over 80 people staying here.
When winter starts we do an inventory of the material outside and inside the base. Working outside is hard and as the weeks go by the cold becomes more intense. At the end of the inventory the temperatures outside drop to -65°C. I spend at most half an hour outside before needing to warm up my hands and feet. My mask quickly fogs up and I see very little with my head lamp. I end up wearing my mask above my eyes but then my eyelashes tend to freeze together. One night I went to bed with painful eyes, you need to be very careful.
In April and May the days start to be very short. I am constantly working on pipes and connections. If I take off my gloves the contact with metal on my hands immediately freeze-burns my skin. It is impossible to hold a pencil but have no alternative as using ball-point pens or markers does not work in the cold. Nearer the end of Summer I start taking the boxes back to base in a sled to count and mark the items inside where it is warm. The inventory drags on as it is impossible to spend more than two hours on this task at a time. I also continue maintaining the water treatment facility. I finish each container with a feeling of satisfaction. The end of this task will be most welcome!