Text and pictures © 2005-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"I drink to the last week-end we spend at the summer camp... Just like last week." — Jean-Paul.
Right: Last lunch at the summer camp: Emanuele, Pascal and Karim choosing their slices of fresh pizza.
Left: Lifting cases of food and equipment with the very inconvenient elevator cable.
On the 28th of February, 18 days into the winterover, we finally move into Concordia. Those 1500 square meters will be our home form the next 9 months or so. For the last few days both power plants have been running independently. The water production, using both melters simultaneously has now reached a comfortable 80m3 and, well, we are a bit fed up of walking the 600 meters between the camps several times a day. So on monday all hands are called to move the camp. We pack up everything we can find: shelves, TVs, screen, projector, tapes, books, every accessory from the kitchen, food by entire crates, especially the fresh stuff remaining from the summer campaign. The few bags of potatoes I see will be the only ones of the winter. We also move the remainder of the summer camp hospital.
Right: Jean-Louis inspecting and sorting through the mess of the new kitchen.
Left: Michel fixing the oven of the new kitchen.
The lunch is the last one we eat at the summer camp. I also take this opportunity to take a shower since we don't know when the Concordia showers will be operational. I spend the afternoon inside Concordia receiving mostly foodstuff through the floor doors. Since the Merlo is now dead from lack of hydraulic oil, we have to haul the crates inside the 1st floor with the caterpillar, empty it there and then use the 'elevator' to bring smaller boxes to the 3rd floor kitchen. The elevator is nothing more than a hook on a chain with an tiny engine at the top. To make matters worse the shaft has many wide horizontal beams crossing it so that everything we try to ferry between floors catches on them. We end up using small plastic containers and doing hundreds of trips while Stéphane builds a specially customized 'elevator' wooden box. Between the arrivals of the Caterpillar I spend the time on the 3rd floor receiving the equipment and food; but not having any idea where Jean-Paul will want them we end up strewing things all around the restaurant and the kitchen in a total mess.
Right: Our first dinner at Concordia.
At 17:30 I have to leave the kitchen to join Roberto and Emanuele for a phone interview with RAI International. The interview proceeds smoothly, I basically repeat what I told France-Info the week before, but the interviewers ask only one question to each of us and are like: "Okay, enough, thanks". They don't seem particularly interested in going into details and nobody I know in Italy manages to catch the program.
Left: With a new station we also get new silverware, here's a reflection of Jeff in a shiny new spoon.
When we go back to the kitchen later, it's still a total mess, with everybody wandering around. Apparently the kitchen has suddenly become the social gathering point of the station. Jean-Louis cannot find most of his stuff but is doing is best to put some order into the mess of pots, pans and foodstuff so he can feed us for the night. More annoying is the fact that neither the oven nor the electric burners work. Will we starve to death ?!? Michel spends half an hour on the floor taking them apart before finding a reset button hidden on the side (I didn't know even kitchen ovens could BSOD !) Same deal for the new dishwasher which cycles once and then stops. A convent of people gather in front of it, each with his own theory: "you pressed the wrong button", "the card is busted", "there must be a stuck security", "open the valve", "kick it", "let's go get the old one at the summer camp"... The dishwashing is eventually done by hand after we eat quite a bit later than usual. The view from the restaurant is stupendous, from the 3rd floor we have a nice perspective on the sunset, which now happens around 20:30, and a lot earlier every new day.
Right: Everybody gathered around the new dishwasher to try to fix it: Michel, Pascal and Emanuele (standing), Karim and Christophe (kneeling).
Left: Jean trying to mop the floor of the summer camp, but it freezes faster than he can cleanup.
Tuesday March 1st — We finish the cleanup of the summer camp. Some people still slept there last night, in order to keep a watch on the power generator. In the morning we move the last few forgotten items, close and purge the water, try to cleanup (have you ever try to mop a floor that is well below freezing ? The result ain't pretty). In the afternoon while we bring in yet more stuff inside Concordia (frozen boxes of wine, chocolate and food for the first few months), technicians are busy at the summer camp shutting down its generator and purging it. The plan was first to shutdown all power at the summer camp, but they'll leave a bit of heating in the mechanics workshop and also to route power to the VHF antennas so we can talk with Dumont d'Urville via radio. The wiring of the VHF shelters is such that electricity has to go thought the summer camp, so Michel and Claire spend the afternoon there rewiring things up. Since Concordia was build years later than the summer camp, the electricity to all the remote shelters and antennas start from the summer camp. It's a problem that they tried to correct in a hurry this last summer by adding new lines from Concordia, but some remote corners were either forgotten or done too late. They also have to purge the snow melter of all water, but the valve is stuck by mud-looking deposits, and since Michel can't fit, it is Claire who gets inside the melter to bucket the water out. In other words, the first person to take a bath this year.
Right: Jean and Michel entering the south door of the quiet building of Concordia in the evening.
Left: Cotton-like snowflake, about 5cm across.
Tuesday March 3rd — This morning, as I go out to relieve myself (yeah, still no bathroom inside Concordia, but they swear there'll be one in a week), I'm fascinated my large snowflakes attached to the metal grates of the stairs. Some are as big as my fist and look like cotton balls. They are so light and airy that you cannot even feel them to the touch. They probably form from the ice deposit on the roof and then fall off and attach themselves to the metal of the grates. In addition to this unusual weather, in the afternoon there are some sudden temperature jumps, raising the temperature by about 8°C to a balmy -43°C several times for about 10 to 20 minutes. I spend some time pondering the problem, hoping that the weather station is not going bad. I understand upon watching the webcam filming Concordia from the container: the wind was shifting and brought the smoke of the power plant right above the weather station. Although it's a good 500 meters away, it's enough. Another unpleasant consequence of this, albeit rare, shift of wind is that the smoke of the incinolets go back inside the buildings. One toilet was like a smoker's lung and this evil dark cloud was attacking us up to the third floor.
Right: Stéphane sealing the door of the 3rd floor. This room contains duplicate satellite antennas, kept indoors so they won't freeze. The antennas work just the same through the composite walls. And on the windowsill I have a little garden of (hardly) growing plants.
For the last two days I haven't gone out of the Concordia, except for a few seconds as explained in the former paragraph, and things are getting a little bit more organized: the kitchen looks more orderly and works properly (yesterday Jean-Louis made his first bread in the new oven); the restaurant still needs some cleanup but is usable; the TV room is still not connected; the sports room is operational even if not everything is assembled yet; the storage room is being slowly organized; a urinal is setup in a corridor (!); the corridors are being emptied progressively of all the construction equipment; the hospital still looks mostly like piles of boxes; the bedrooms and labs are finished and I spend an afternoon cleaning mine of the slimy stuff running down the walls and attaching pictures; fire extinguishers are being distributed between the rooms; the outside doors of all the floors, useless now that the Merlo is in cold storage, are being shut down for good by Stéphane. It's gonna be quite a bit longer before everything is sorted out, with so much stuff that has been brought in the back of containers in last few years. For instance we still haven't found the bedroom lamps. And even once we are done sorting and storing, we will have to move the content of every room one at a time because we still need to finish the flooring !
Left: Jeff installing fire extinguishers at the bedroom floor of the quiet building.
The urinal is installed in the strangest of places: the passageway between the noisy building and the power plant, in full view. The reason it's that it's a temporary position, well temporary for at least a year or two until the 'black water' recycling is brought in and setup. The current recycling system cannot stand the ammonia found in urine which destroys its membranes, so the only solution is to keep urines separate from the rest. So it was decided to make it simple: a tube drains the unwanted 'liquid' into a large crate outside where it promptly freezes. And the easiest way to do this is in the passageway where you need to drill a simple hole, with a classic urinal on the wall, in full view. Even though the tube is insulated, after two days it's already stuck frozen and a resistance needs to be inserted along the tube to keep it warm.
Right: The fuel tanks in front of the two buildings of Concordia. The tent behind holds the Caterpillar, the snowmachines and our balloon launch equipment. In the background you can see the summer camp under a rising moon.
At least since yesterday I'm am back programming and working on my experiments which I barely had time to monitor in the last few weeks. There was some trouble after the power outage with the config of the new radiometer PC. The program saves its data using the standard Windows internationalization configuration. I still wonder why the default config of Windows versions has a comma as a decimal separator if you choose metric. What a inept thing to use in a comma separated file... Now where's the data again in the file "12,5, 34,8, 65,6..." ? This was a good opportunity to refresh my regular expression knowledge to turn the data to a more meaningful format.
Left: Stéphane fixing tubes in the water recycling plant.
"I have to clean my membranes." — Claire about the water recycler.
Now the big question is: will we have water ? First, about 10 days ago two of the three water pumps froze in the power plant. Those pumps move the water around between the snow melter, the temporary tanks inside, the main tanks outside, the users (kitchen, shower and sinks), the recycling plant and the dirty water tank. In the evening air intakes were opened to cool off an overheating generator. But the flow of air froze the pumps during the night. Michel and Michel took them apart and don't know yet if they are repairable.
Right: Jean filling the snow melter, something that needs to be done several times a day, otherwise the level drop down too much or the water heats up too much. The heating is provided directly by the power generator.
Then another important problem surfaced today in the recycling plant. The plant has been running on a closed cycle of clean water for a few days, but its control parameters aren't encouraging. Apparently the delicate filtering membranes froze either during the Traverse, during their 2 week stay in a container outside or when they were first waiting for assembly inside Concordia. They don't seem to filter very well and leak through. There were more tests all week while we were all getting dirtier by the day (the last shower at the summer camp was on monday). Then on friday they decided to test it with dirty water, and it worked better than expected. So on saturday at lunch Claire gave the go ahead for the shower... which wasn't even finished building ! The first customers took showers without curtains or anything in the room to attach or place clothing or towels. Stéphane worked on it later and completed the construction.
Left: Stéphane as a bat-man.
On saturday I also prepare the TV room. Nothing fancy: a multiple player (VCR/DVD/Divx) and a TV, that's it for now. We'll setup the projector and its screen later. I have to clean all the broken glass from a bookshelf that fell off the Merlo while we were bringing it inside. The wine bottles were removed a week ago but it still reeks of stale wine in there. In the evening Karim connects his laptop to the stereo of the bar-room and starts deejay-ing around. A few minutes later 4 batmen run inside the room wearing bat-wings and a cardboard telescope on their heads ! Some kind of inner joke about astronomers being night animals... The party's started but I don't stay very long: it was my service day and I had slept very poorly the previous night, so before 23:00 I'm off to bed. Too bad, apparently the pictures I saw the next day were 'interesting' to say the least...
Right: Concordia lost in a windstorm and whiteout.
On sunday Jean-Louis prepares a stupendous meal to celebrate the opening of Concordia, the end of our first week in it. I take the opportunity to open one of my bottles of Vin Jaune du Jura while he's serving course after course of smoked salmon, fish paté, oven-cooked oysters, tortellini, duck breasts in green-pepper sauce and a lemon-meringue pie. In the afternoon there's nobody around as everybody is digesting the meal away. What tomorrow will bring will be a surprise: it will be Jean-Louis's first rest day in about two months and Karim, who happen to be of service today, is in charge of the cooking. It keeps him busy all day, but for a first time it's not too complicated, he mostly heats up leftovers and food prepared in advance by Jean-Louis.
Left: A snowed up laboratory window during the windstorm. The stickers on the windows were not removed by the builders and now it's a bit late. One of my webcams is in the top-right corner.
Monday brings a change in weather. The wind picks up in the morning and increases until thursday morning where it reaches almost record speed: 16m/s. Well, that's record speed for Dome C, nowhere near the 100m/s of DdU. Hardly anybody goes out for 4 days, or just Jean-Louis to grab half a beef in the freezers. The temperature is not that cold, between -40 and -50, but with the wind it's unbearable: people keep asking me what the wind chill is so I implement a wind chill algorithm on the official weather station. In the process I draw the histogram of the wind chill using the last 20 years worth of AWS data and scare myself in the process: the wind chill goes down to -107°C, with a peak around -78°C !!! And thursday with all this wind we are only in the -75~-80°C range, so it looks like we have a lot of much colder days ahead. We postpone twice the cleaning of the station; on wednesday we were supposed to all go out, pick up the trash we've been tossing out the doors for weeks, sort all the construction equipment strewn all around and place everything in tight containers for the duration of the winter. Now the problem is that everything is covered with snow and many of the containers which weren't properly closed have filled up with snow.
Right: Roberto passing a swab on Pascal's hand to grab bacterias.
Left: A tiny sensor box left in the stairs as part of the biological analysis. It monitors temperature and humidity and then data are correlated with swabs taken of the ground and off people to see if there are some funky microbiological growths.
Also today, since the weather is bad, we do psychology tests and the MISTACOBA biology samples. It's an experiment for a belgian laboratory conducted by both Roberto and Claire. It has several aspects aimed at monitoring the changes in microbiological fauna. The doctor takes swabs off people's hands, nose and feces. He also takes samples off the floor of various parts of the station. In the meanwhile Claire installs little monitoring boxes throughout the station, aimed at monitoring the temperature and humidity. The idea behind this experiment is that usually in closed conditions like here, most germs die off, but sometimes there's one that takes over and that covers everything. I've never heard of it happening in an antarctic station, but it's happened in space (sounds like a 50's horror-fiction movie theme...). After Roberto takes the samples off the volunteers, he puts the box outside his window to freeze but the wind drops the box and scatters all the samples on the ice, which he spends half an hour recovering.
Right: Pascal sweeping the snow accumulated by the storm off a storage container.
On friday finally the wind has calmed down and it's a bright sunny day. There wasn't much damage during the storm: some snowdrifts inside the station and behind the shelters, a few experiments which had to be suspended for a while (like Karim's telescopes which were shaking too much) and the italian flag by the Aastino shelter which lost its red ! In the morning I go take a look at my container: there's a bit of snow inside the sodar antennas, removed by tilting the antennas and getting on all fours inside, the memory modules of the CR10 are all full, and there's a bit of snow deposit on the optical radiometer, otherwise everything survived the windstorm fine.
Left: The Boss cleaning trash off the top of a container below Concordia.
We are all outside the entire afternoon picking up trash and sorting things inside containers. Part of the time is spent loading a sled behind one of the two working snowmachines, part of the time driving it carefully to its destination (or reloading it in case its load fell off in a curve), part time storing the things in the containers: trash, rolls of insulation materials, floor tiles, canisters of hydraulic oils, tons of discarded boxes and crates, useless toilet brushes (which would just catch fire in the incinolets !), cleaning materials, cubic meters of toilet paper rolls, rolls of power cable, metal tubes, discarded odds and bits... So much for being an antarctic hero, I put heater packs inside my gloves and I'm glad I did as the entire afternoon outside at sub -50°C temperatures is a bit rough after a while. I take portraits of faces covered with ice, which you'll discover on the next page.