An Interview with Didier Goetghebeur
Didier Goetghebeur is the director of a non-profit organisation (ICEDD) specialised in sustainable development and dedicated to promoting and realising projects that use energy, land and materials more sustainably. During BELARE 2007-08, Didier was in charge of the traverse teams, which over more than two months brought the components of the station from the offloading point at Crown Bay almost 200 km inland to Utsteinen.
How did you end up taking part in this expedition?
I've been with Alain on different expeditions to the Arctic. I proposed doing some of the traverses and he proposed putting me in charge of the traverses. Delegating this responsibility to me allowed Alain to worry about one less thing.
How many traverses did you participate in?
There were 16 traverses to bring the station's components from Crown Bay to Utsteinen. I didn't participate in the first and tenth traverses, and I only did half of the second traverse because that's when I arrived. There were also two more traverses done after I came back to Belgium to fetch remaining fuel containers.
Did you do the traverses with more or less the same team?
We had a team of drivers, which included Lt. Col René Wagemans and two army mechanics, Olivier Grasselli and Jesco Kaczynski, who usually took turns. In the rest of the team was Theirry Ronvaux, Philippe Sauret, and Vinvent Giard. In all we had at least six people for three tractors, two in each tractor. Other members of the expedition were invited to come along for the ride to give us company and give them a chance to do something different.
What was the typical schedule like for the traverse team?
We'd do two traverses a week, taking seven or eight containers with us each time (we'd need to use one sledge to haul fuel for the tractors and sometimes another one to bring fuel to the base camp). We'd do one run back and forth, including loading and unloading, in three days. We'd usually leave Monday morning at 8 o'clock and get back to Utsteinen around 2 or 3 in the morning on Wednesday. Then we'd do another run from Thursday to Saturday. On Sunday we'd rest a bit and give a hand to the construction crew working on the station, since for us resting meant doing something different.
I wanted to lend a hand to the people who were working on the station and had to put up with the harsh conditions on the ridge. I have to say hats off to the construction team, especially to those who worked on the foundation. They had the challenge of figuring out how to make the resin holding the main supports for the station set while putting up with cold and harsh winds. What they did was fundamental.
How did you keep from falling asleep during the long traverses?
We'd lower the temperature in the cabin by turning off the heat and opening the window. If it's cold, you're much less likely to fall asleep. One person would drive while the other rested. We switched drivers each time we needed to stop to refuel, which was every three or three and a half hours. No one drove two shifts in a row.
You also had several problems along the way to contend with.
During the fourth traverse we took a different route 15 km to the west. At first glance it seemed like this route wouldn't be that different from the other one. However we fell into a minefield of hundreds of crevasses. We realised that we could end up with a serious problem on our hands and that we had to pay attention. If a tractor falls into a crevasse it takes time to get it out. And on that particular traverse I remember it was colder than usual. It was a metallic kind of cold where you could almost smell the ice.
And then on another traverse we experienced a white-out. I don't know if you've ever experienced a white-out before - maybe in winter when you've been skiing - but during a white-out when you stop, it's difficult to even tell whether or not you've actually stopped. You don't know where you are. It's completely white all around you. We couldn't see the tracks of the previous traverse that we had been following. We had to rely solely on the GPS to guide us. It was like trying to land a plane in zero visibility. It felt strange driving into a white wall. Imagine driving along at 12-15 km/h, unable to see anything - not even the tracks on the ground from the previous traverse. It throws you off balance.
We also often had engine trouble. Actually it wasn't linked to the engine but to the silicone sealant around the fuel tank. The additive that we put in the diesel to keep it from freezing partially dissolved the silicone, allowing it to slip into the motor and keep it from turning correctly, which caused us to lose a lot of power. Eventually the army mechanics figured out what the problem was, but they had to dismantle the fuel tanks to find the problem.
Did you ever feel overwhelmed?
Hauling 115 containers at an average of 15 per week seemed like an insurmountable task at he beginning. At the beginning it seemed like there was a forest of containers on the ice at Crown Bay. However we eventually got the job done in spite of the difficulties we had. It reminded me of the tale of the tortoise and the hare. We took it "slow and steady" and eventually we succeeded.
You have to put the job we did into perspective, though. Moving the containers from the coast to Utsteinen was important for the expedition, but it wasn't strategic. I think there were two critical points in the expedition: setting up the station's foundation, which needed to be done exactly right in order for the rest of the construction work to continue without problems, and the offloading of the containers, since it's possible to lose a container at the edge of the sea ice. When I arrived on December 20th, these two issues had already been resolved, so the traverses became the next important task to accomplish.
Did you come home with any fond memories of your time in Antarctica?
The last traverse I did, when we brought the final components of the station to Usteinen was particularly memorable. Alain and his wife Gigi had come along to get some fuel that had been left at Breid Bay the previous year. We had all four Prinoth tractors with us. All of us came back together with a feeling of "mission accomplished" knowing that 15 hours later we would be delivering the last containers. I had fulfilled the job I was asked to do; it was a real pleasure.
Before leaving Antarctica, you were given the honour of being one of the first occupants of the Princess Elisabeth. What was that like?
They put the last piece of the structure in place on the last day I was there. Since I was leaving the next day and had to get up early, I asked Alain if I could sleep inside the station, which was practically finished at that point, and he said it would be no problem. So that night I was joined in the station by Paul Herman, and we had the opportunity to be the first occupants of the station. Having witnessed the station go from concept to being nearly completed and be one of the first people to sleep there was very intense.
Picture: Didier Goetghebuer - Copyright: Didier Goetghebuer - © International Polar Foundation