Text and pictures © 2005-2018 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"— Do you practice Sumo ?
— No, there's no club in his hometown." — Claire answering a question addressed to Michel.
June 25th — After a week of wild partying for the midwinter, it's time to get back to work. On saturday afternoon, the few people who are awake do the usual saturday chores of cleaning the common parts of the station, only this time we also have to remove the midwinter decorations. It's quicker to remove than to install. The best pieces, like the shields, the fireplace and the paintings are stashed away in some secret place for our followers to discover and possibly use next year. On sunday everybody is taking a break, staying in bed late or taking naps after lunch. I feel quite alone trying to sweat the excesses of the week lifting weights in the gym room.
Left: Michel looking down the melter, with one trapdoor raised, under the light of a powerful projector.
June 27th — On monday the first sign of a return to serious activities is Stéphane on all fours in the corridor connecting the power plant to the two Concordia buildings. He's adding metal sheet flooring to the ground made up until now only of plywood. There are so many vertical beams and various water and heating tubes on the sides of the corridor that he needs to cut each sheet to the exact dimensions and spends about 2 weeks just to do that lengthy corridor. Another one who starts a new activity is Jeff, who's back at crawling inside the double ceilings, only this time it's to install running water inside the quiet building. No more going down stairs for a midnight 'job', there's a bathroom in the middle of the circle of rooms. Besides having to install all the pipes for normal water, drinkable water, gray (recyclable) water and black (non-recyclable) water, there's the problem of passing the tubes from the movable corridor to the building which can also be moved vertically on its hydraulic feet.
Right: Michel watching from the trapdoor while the other Michel and Claire are inside cleaning the melter.
July 5th — Another issue with water is discovered by Emanuele on Tuesday. Early in the morning he gets some drinkable water for his spectrometer and notices a thin film of grease floating on the surface. This water comes from the melter and is supposedly 'pure' water obtained by melting snow excavated 300 meters upwind from the station. What went wrong ? About every 3 days Jean goes with the Caterpillar to get about 3m3 of snow that he pours into the melter. We've had quite a bit of wind lately and several medium-size windrifts have formed around the station. He drove around to remove them, making a large pile of snow, and pouring some of that snow into the melter. The snow from the windrifts was assumed to be cleaned, but maybe he scrapped just a little too deep and got some of the oil of the Merlo. In March as we were striving to get all the food and equipment inside the barely finished station we used the Merlo crane extensively, having to make do with the fact that it was leaking oil all over the place. We are now paying the price with a melter full of oil... It's not a life-threatening situation: it's non-toxic biological oil and we also have enough water reserve to last till the end of the year. Like they say up north: "Don't eat the snow where the huskies go... the yellow snow..." which we should update here in "Don't eat the snow where the Merlo goes... the green snow..." if it wasn't for the lousy rhyme.
In the afternoon Claire and Michel purge the water off the melter and get inside to clean it the old-fashioned way: with sponges and soap. It was about time to clean it anyway as the snow always contains some minute amount of soot from the power plant and this soot accumulates at the bottom. The melter closes with 3 heavy trapdoors on its roof and they begin working inside in regular polar attire, but with the high humidity and heat inside there's a deep cloud of humidity forming near the open door. After a while they start stripping down, Claire ends up in overalls and Michel in shorts ! After a while the heat emanating from the now empty melter starts to melt the snow on top and it drips on them in a steady shower of cold water. Claire walks back to the inside of the station while her wet cotton suit is turning to solid ice, Terminator II style !
Left: The melter with Concordia in the background and smoke coming out of the power plant chimney on the right. Michel and Claire are inside.
In the evening the water is flowing again, and the taste of soap is not even noticeable. The next morning Jean decides to scrape off all the piles of snow around the station. Even the pyramid of emergency snow that we are supposed to shovel inside the melter in case the Caterpillar breaks down. We now have enough water reserve in the tanks to last to the end of the year anyway, even if this water kind of stinks due to the time it's been sitting inside the tanks.
Right: Pascal shoveling snow outside the door of the magnetic measurement shelter.
Left: Pascal very zen above the trapdoor leading to the magnetometer cave.
Right: Michel and Claire checking on the power distribution system during a test of the emergency generator.
Today is also one of those dreaded 'Emergency power generator test'. The two 2-seconds outages shouldn't amount to much for scientific equipment connected to UPS protections, but the truth is that each time there are various power problems and instruments break down as a consequence. In the afternoon I go with Pascal to the Magnetic shelters and the seismology shelters. Ever since his UPSes burnt out his equipment is not protected anymore and he needs to restart all of it manually. Even his electric heater has suffered, it froze once (isn't that an oxymoron for a heater) and now the thermostat fluctuates wildly. We have to shovel the snowdrift accumulated against the doors so we can get inside the various shelters. After he's done at the seismology shelter, a km south of Concordia, we cut across the bare snow to reach my container a km to the west, staggering on the sastrugi in the darkness. I have to perform some regular maintenance there. The sodar antennas have filled with snow during the past 10 windy days. One of the antennas doesn't work properly anymore and we spend some time trying to diagnose it. On the way back we notice that the optical fiber has fallen off its poles and is now covered by crusty snow. We walk the km kicking the snow off the fiber to get it out and back in place, trying not to break it in the process.
Right: That's me, stuck inside one of the Sodar antennas to remove the accumulated snow.
We don't get back from our troubleshooting tour until 17:30, a bit late for Pascal to resume his main current activity: installing an energy controlling system designed to monitor and control temperatures throughout the buildings, as well as airflows, electric consumption, generator output and many other parameters.
Left: Jean and Stef scrubbing the floor of the restaurant before applying a new layer of varnish.
July 6th — Another task for the technical team: redoing the flooring of the restaurant. The tiles all have mismatched colors, dark streaks that won't wash away and some are coming unglued. The flooring was laid down in a hurry on the very last days of the summer campaign and now it's basically useless. After lunch we move all the tables away from the main restaurant room. The next few days we'll eat in the library, just like during the midwinter. Still, the conditions of the tiles are better than in previous years where they would lay them during the summer campaign, then close the station for the winter, and upon coming back find them all shattered to pieces by the cold.
Right: That's me on the way to the container at sub -70 temperatures.
July 10th — Sunday is supposedly rest day, but yesterday I was of trash removal duty (with Jeff and Roberto) and we forgot a big stash of trash in the case of the freight elevator. No big deal, it's a 10 minutes job to gather it in 3 or 4 bags and bring it out, trying not to pour stinking juices on yourself before the temperature brings it to the safe state of smelly Popsicle. Down the outside stairs and into a drum in the line of containers it goes. Unfortunately the work day is not over. I lost communication with the Sodar PC and need to hike the km to the container, accompanied by Jeff. After 2 months of temperatures in the -50 to -65°C range, today we are near our record of early April, as we walk towards the container the temperature is a scary sounding -75°C (-103°F). We're all hoping to 'live through' a -80°C, which happen about every other year, but no luck so far as the temperature goes back to -65°C during the night. The walk is not bad, there's no wind and we are actually sweating under our stack of thermal wear, wool sweater, pile jacket and down suit.
Left: Changing electronic boards inside the acquisition system. The temperature inside the container is actually not that cold but I need to go out each time to check.
Once at the container I notice the PC has rebooted and Scandisk (yes, it's an old Win98 acquisition machine) is taking forever. 24 hours to scan a 200Gb hard drive, I guess the bus is not all that fat, heh ? I interrupt it and relaunch the acquisition, still trying to figure out another issue I've been working on for the last few days: one of the antennas is not receiving any kind of useful signal, just noise. I change several parts of the electronics doing the acquisition before giving up under the underwhelming improvement. I'll need help from the lab on that, provided they are not all on vacation back in Italy...
Right: Just about everybody inspecting the hinges of the main door.
There are 4 exits to Concordia: the door to the power plant (west of the station), the eastern entrance pointing towards the summer camp, and two stairs in the middle of the corridors joining the station buildings and the power plant. There should be more, in the form of 'socks' emergency exits, but they haven't been installed yet. Both the stairs and the corridors are mobile so they can be adjusted depending on the quantity of snow accumulating under the station. The central door has been difficult to close lately, maybe because of thermal dilatation, maybe because of deformation of the plastic with the weight, maybe because the tunnel has shifted slightly.
Left: A scary sight, an Alien egg growing... When will we be under attack...?
Much more worrying is the presence of Alien™ eggs growing on the chimneys of the power generators. After the defeat of the humans against 'The Thing' during the midwinter, now we are under attack by Sigourney's Aliens... Great !
Right: Claire testing the dentist chair with Michel, Jeff and Jean trying to decide the best location for it.
The dentist chair is almost operational. After some difficulty assembling it (the plans were missing), there were some now solved electrical problems. Now only the water intake is missing but soon to be added once the chair is fixed to the ground. Half the technical team is inside the hospital trying to find the best spot where to screw the chair in place. So far I've done 3 minor dentist interventions (yeah, I'm the dentist here !), using the surgery table. This'll be an improvement.
Left: My birthday cake: chocolate fondant, raspberry sorbet, mint sauce.
July 13th — A few days after the fact we celebrate my birthday today. Since tomorrow is a special rest day (Bastille Day) and we don't plan on raising any kind of flag, we'll have plenty of time to sleep after the party. Excellent dinner from Jean-Louis, as usual: pickled gizzard and smoked duck breast, farfalle with smoked salmon, génépi sorbet (a tasty herb from high up in the Alps), frog legs, orange duck, chocolate fondant in mint sauce with raspberry sorbet. I eat so much I can hardly sleep during the night.
Right: Jean outside with the caterpillar, cleaning all the snow accumulated by the wind in front of the garbage containers and drums.
During the week Jean spends a lot of time outside driving his Caterpillar to remove all the snow accumulated by the wind. For a few days there are piles of snow big enough to ski from, but then he spreads the snow on the outskirts of the platform on which Concordia is built. From inside we can hear regular 'beep! beep!' when he backs up and maneuvers his vehicle.
Left: Stef installing the showers in the women's bathroom on the bedroom floor.
Big stink inside the quiet building, Stef is gluing waterproof material on the walls of the women's shower on the bedroom floor. And indeed when I go see what the smell is about, he greets me with a gas mask !
Jeff is currently spending most if his time crawling inside the double ceilings. I go take a few pictures of him as he's installing the water system of the hospital. We crawl inside the space underneath the ground floor. There are plenty of beams barring the way where you have to squirm to get past. Even though he's gained quite a few kg, Jeff can still manage it easily, probably out of sheer spelunking experience. The ground is harsh as sandpaper and the tip of his shoes is already completely worn off. Although right below us there's only a few cm of composite material and then 3 meters of open air before the ground, we can't feel the cold through.
Right: Jeff inside the double ceiling below the 1st floor, installing the water system of the hospital.
Left: Karim, our official 'hairdresser', giving a close shave to a willing Emanuele
July 21th — We played a little joke on Roberto this afternoon. I was with him all afternoon doing tests and calibration of the X-ray machine. It's a small portable model but the user's manual is pretty limited, to say the least, so some time ago we've done tests with a frozen chicken to try to find a base exposure. Today we did put some people under the X-ray to fine-tune the calibration: the hands of Stef, a knee on Claire, chest on Pascal and belly on Michel. They all had to try at least twice so we could determine the proper exposure and distance. The first two films of Michel came out underexposed, so after lunch we did a final shot. The difference was that he had taped a nut and a bolt on his back, sure to be seen on the X-ray. As I was processing the film in the darkroom, Roberto was like: 'what are those two white spots doing here...? But it's a bolt !?!' I had a hard time keeping a straight face, specially when he was talking with his 'patient' trying to figure out how the bolt and nut had gotten there. Maybe that's why Michel hasn't been sleeping well lately...
Right: Stef spraying water out the window during the fire drill
Left: Water being sprayed out the window during the fire drill, in other words a very expensive way to add some snow to Antarctica... (this picture was taken 3 months later, after the return of the sun)
July 22nd — Right after lunch the fire alarm goes off as I'm reading some email. There's instantly a confused noise of footsteps running up and down the stairs. Within a minute I've grabbed my radio and I'm down in the ground floor corridor, grabbing a roll of hose and a set of wrenches as my assigned task. Although nobody told us so, from the calm resolution of the people running around I'm pretty sure it's only a fire drill. Pascal and Stef are putting on their fire gear in the corridor, right in the middle of the way. Jean-Louis comes up from the power plant workshop with the big rigid hose that will connect to mine. Outside Karim and Jean are extending another rigid hose from the water tank to the motopump laying on the ground of the power plant workshop. Roberto is on the radio, calling everyone in turn, expecting prompt answers. We extend two large hoses and then two small ones mounted on a divider, with sprayers at their ends ready just as the first fire team arrives in full gear. Well, not quite full as Pascal has kept his sleepers, complaining that his fire boots are not comfortable. Within a few minutes the motopump is started and the hoses slowly fill up with air and then water. 12 minutes after the start of the drill there's water flowing out the windows. The fire is out...
Left: Stef applying glue to the carpeting destined to go in the quiet building's bathroom.
Right: That's me cleaning up the ice deposited on the anemometer of the weather station, moon in the background.
July 23rd — In the morning I go with Emanuele to accompany him on his sampling tour. Even though there's now plenty of light to walk around at this time of day, the 'two people at least' rule still applies. Towards the north the glow is yellow on the horizon and purplish higher up. Towards the south the full moon shines and lights the way just as much as the indirect light from the sun. Even though the weather station was showing a very weak ground wind, as soon as we step out I can feel the bite of the windchill. I go farther than Emanuele's shelter while he verifies his pumps so I can go clean the anemometers. There's not all that much snow on them, but the little there is is enough to slow them down by a factor 3. Fortunately I also have an ultrasonic anemometer which provides confirmation values.
Left: Jean (or is it Michel ?) punting while playing pétanque at -72°C
Right: The two italians in red are watching anxiously as Jeff is punting.
July 24th — The traditional french game of 'Pétanque' is played even here on saturday afternoon. Two teams, with one italian in each. Soon the game turns into a Firenze vs. Milano competition, with the others having a good laugh at the screams coming for Emanuele and Roberto each time the other one scores... They play for two hours under the light of projector illuminating the main stairs.
Today there's also a special article in the New York Times about our winterover activity. I had received an email a couple days ago requesting some information, and Claire and myself talked on the phone with a journalist of the NYT for about an hour. The article was actually building on the impressive success of the movie March of the Penguins on american screens.
Left: Jean-Louis filling up his psychology tests right before embarking on his birthday dinner.
Right: Jean-Louis ready to blow his candles, with the singing cake in hand
July 29th — Not something that you see everyday, today our favorite chef is reaching half a century, nearly half of which he spent in Antarctica. We'd offered to cook for him for his birthday, which he accepted for the next day, so basically there are two big birthday dinners on friday and saturday night. Wanting to keep the menu a surprise he hasn't asked me to translate the menu in Italian, so we discover it while opening the champagne bottles for the appetizers. Here it goes: asparagus and smoked salmon toasts, crayfish donuts, pine tree liquor sorbet, frog legs pie, steak filled with foie gras and finally a meringue filled with raspbery or chocolate ice cream. Upon reaching the steak I'm ready to explode, fortunately there's a little more room in my stomach when the dessert arrives.
Right: Jean fascinated by the infamous singing birthday cake. It gets annoying quite quickly too...
Left: Jeff decorating a large loaf of bread.
Right: Michel controlling his kangaroo paté
July 30th — Next day, all the volunteers are in the kitchen to prepare something for the second round of celebration. We clearly told JL that we don't want to see him near the kitchen all day, even if we sometimes have to call him to know where some tools or food items are located. Before 9 in the morning there's already Jeff preparing several sorts of bread, including a large decorated bread. I join him soon after to start preparing the dessert, a rhubarb fluffy ice cream, also a set of small cheese and walnuts pies and a wine sorbet made. It's Pascal's turn to be doing the service and station cleaning, but he also finds some time to print a funny menu where we see JL in the middle of a group of grazing dinosaurs. There were still dinosaurs 50 years ago, right ? He's been around Antarctica for so long that it must be true. Later in the morning Claire comes to prepare foil wrapped pieces of red mullet soaked in Pastis. The only one who's sure to finish on time is Michel who prepared a Kangaroo paté two days ago.
Left: Pascal preparing a light lunch while Jeff and Michel are controlling, glass in hand.
For lunchtime we serve some of the leftovers from yesterday, in small quantities to the dismay of Jean-Louis wailing "But I'm hungry !" In the middle of the afternoon we resume the cooking session. I try to decorate the ice cream with some chocolate, but it clogs the pocket, I then try with a mix of chocolate and whipped cream and when I press hard the pocket explodes throwing whipped cream up to the ceiling. Fortunately the boss who's loitering around the kitchen is ready to give a hand to clean. Also when I cook my cheese and walnut pies they drip cheese all over the oven. Fortunately the others are a bit more efficient: Jean has prepared scallops dishes with the help of Jeff without making as much of a mess as me. I have to hurry to get the meat for the main dish ready before dinnertime: I have to pre-cut and clean a bunch lamb loins, then roll them in salt pastry. In the meanwhile Roberto and Emanuele are preparing appetizers on Jeff's bread.
Right: Claire preparing her foil-wrapped fish while my small cheese pies are only missing an additional slice of paté before serving.
At 19:00 everything is ready. There's another round of Champagne and appetizers and then we start with Michel's excellent kangaroo paté and my fairly heavy cheese and walnut pies. Then the similar looking but lighter scallops just out of the oven. Then a round of wine sorbet, made from 'vin de paille', a wine from where both Jean-Louis and myself originate. And then dinner resumes with Claire's refreshing foil wrapped mullet. At this point the meat's been in the oven for the correct amount of time but with the salt crust around it I have no way to check how cooked it is. Fortunately when we break the crust it's just fine. I only have a bit of trouble to cut the remaining of the bone with a huge chef's knife ! And then dessert with a raspberry sauce and we are still alive (barely), not having screwed up anything too badly (artichokes undercooked, too much nutmeg in the mashed green bean, but that's small frills).
Left: Roberto preparing the appetizers.
"— Have you digested well last night's dinner ?
— I still have to finish digesting the dinner of the night before." — Emanuele on sunday morning.
Right: Stef throwing darts on the door of the radio room, with Jean watching.
July 31th — Not too much people around in the morning, it's pretty quiet. No less than four people are missing from lunch... After lunch there's a social event, an interstation dart competition between Scott base, McMurdo, South Pole, Davis, Casey and ourselves. Stef and Jean are the best players on our side, Stef claims he's actually played on the national team but he seems to spend a lot more time talking than playing lately. We have the hardest time to understand what the radio operator of South Pole is saying but they seem to understand us all right. After some confusion on the rules we start playing and lose the first round to Scott base. After we announce the score of the 2nd game I'm not even sure who's the winner and the communication keeps degrading. By the 3rd game we can't understand a single word they say so we give up after barely more than an hour. The story goes that a couple years ago the tournament was won by and Australian station who later admitted to not even owning a dart board... The next morning we get the final results by email and Scott base won the tournament...
Left: Winter panorama of Concordia performed by unrolling a fisheye image taken vertically.
Left: Claire purging one of the tanks of the water recycling plant.
Right: Fine tuning the settings on this experimental system designed by the European Space Agency.
August 5th — As I go to the bathroom late at night I hear noise coming from the end of the corridor. I go to investigate and find Claire in the middle of the maze of tubes and pipes of the water recycling system. A cycle has just finished and she's up most of the night to purge and sterilize the system. I have not idea how she can find her way around this mess.
Right: The map of the system and the filtering membranes in the background. The membranes are rolled inside the big green tubes.
The way we sit at the lunch and dinner tables would interest any psychologist. First of all the way Jean-Louis decides on organizing the tables depends on the occasion. During the week we eat on 3 separate tables, two for four people, one for 5 people. Then on saturday night or birthday parties he puts all 3 tables lengthwise to form one single long table. He sits at the head of the table like a patriarch and the two italians sit at the other end. For sunday's lunch on the other hand we eat in a different corner of the large restaurant room, with 3 tables placed widthwise in a large square, thus with most seating position being equivalent. During the week the seating dynamics goes somewhat like this: Karim, Christophe and Jean-Louis sit on the first table; Michel and Pascal sit on the 2nd table; Michel and Jeff sit on the last table while the others sit wherever. Sure, there's no hard rule and a latecomer will sometimes find 'his' seat taken.
Left: Michel cleaning the fans of the Incinolet.
While Stef is busy laying down the tiles on the various unfinished floors of the buildings, and Jeff is crawling inside the double ceilings laying down pipes to bring water to the quiet building, Michel has his hands full with the incinolet system. This shit burning system has been working properly after the few weeks of 'tuning' we had at the beginning (installing fans inside, rappelling on the side of the building to put insulation around the exhaust pipes...). But now is time for a refit. He takes them completely apart, cleans the loaded fans, changes the electrical wiring which is beginning to burn out, cleans the filters. The filters are actually stacks of small dark balls which he cleans inside caustic soda and lets them dry in a cooking sieve. In the meanwhile Jean-Louis is going back and forth bringing food supplies from outside. When I walk in the corridor I just think that he's put blueberries to thaw in a sieve and I catch myself just before dipping my hand in them... When you think about what those things have been filtering...
Left: Stef on all fours, laying down Mondo tiles in the closet of the 2nd floor.
Right: Stef sharpening the space between the tiles, before pouring sealant along the holes. The bedroom floor is now almost done.
Left: Jeff and a bottle of good old Bordeaux he brought with him. One of the rare unfrozen bottles in Concordia...
Right: Jean-Louis gathering up the many different chocolate desserts into a plate.
August 13th — Lots of birthdays this month. As is fairly usual we celebrate on saturday evening the birthday of Jeff which was actually a few days earlier, during the week. This way nobody has to drag himself out of bed in the morning to get to work. Jean-Louis spends all day in the kitchen, kicking away at a curious Jeff a few times. When we open the appetizers he actually sneaks into the restaurant to read the menu ahead of time. On the menu: mould of scallops and smoked salmon, spaghetti with broccoli, pine nuts and anchovies, whiskey sorbet, snails, roast beef in herb crust with mushrooms and potatoes and finally a 'chocolate symphony'...
Left: Stef grabbing himself a piece of chocolate cake before the chef can notice and fight back.
Right: The smokers trying to breathe some fresh air, the problem being that the wind direction brings -60°C air right into the room, freezing everyone quickly.
Left: Emanuele opening the door of his shelter, as seen from inside.
Right: The sonic anemometer with Concordia and the moon in the background. I placed insulation material around the electronics at its base.
During one of the last winter outings where we still have to go out in pairs, I accompany Emanuele to his daily sampling session. From now on he won't need any help for the morning sampling... except that he now also wants to perform an evening sampling when it's still dark ! So a brave soul still needs to spend an hour with him outside as long as the sun is not out...