Interview: A Carpenter in Antarctica
Ilir, also known as Adriatik Berisha, has Albanese origins. A joiner at Cherbai (carpentry) for the past five years, and father of two, he tells us of his experience during the three seasons he spent at the Princess Elisabeth Station in Antarctica.
Can you explain your job at Cherbai?
I'm a joiner by trade, a job I learned on the spot while working at Cherbai. In fact, I can do anything related to wood, from interior design to the exterior: frames, verandahs, wooden structures, roofing, etc. It was there that I got to know Alain. When the station project got underway, Alain was looking for people who could help with the building. After the first step, we needed professional help. That is how a six-man team formed with Craig (Masson) and André (Diez), to build the garages.
What did you do at the station exactly?
The first year, we absolutely had to build the garages before the base arrived, which shed id two months afterwards. We met the building team for the base. The second year, we had to do all the inside furniture. Everything had been pre-assembled by Cherbai in Belgium, and was assembled inside the station with Jack from Quebec (Jacques Touchette). He's a joiner, carpenter, and a real handy man. He is now finishing the plinths of the station. We and the whole general construction team took care of all the inside furniture. We got some help during the evening or at night when they noticed we were doing nightshifts. David often helped me out, often to spend some time together.
Did you often work during the night?
Yes. Well, there wasn't exactly a night ... since there was a lot of people inside the station, working at night when there was nobody in was one of Jack's first ideas. His only problem was that he didn't sleep much at night. The next day, he was on the job early in the morning. I almost had to tie him by the feet to make him understand that he'd have to wait until after we had had a proper meal! He didn't sleep much.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face while in Antarctica?
Eventually, I never had to face really biog challenges since I mostly worked inside the station. Of course it was different from working in Belgium, but you don't feel tired right away, you only start to feel really tired after a while.
The first year, we had good weather for two months; we could work in T-shirt or even without! The second year, I often worked inside with Jack, so there was no issue there.
During the second year, we also built the side buildings while the weather was really bad.
Then it was tough because we had to start our days by clearing the snow that was accumulating every day. We were constantly facing bad weather! It was a race against the clock...
What is your favorite memory?
It was a big experience because I had never lived anything like that, far from everything in a group ... you need to get used to it, and in the end it goes very well. The best part, however, were the times we went for a walk or the days out, the landscape keeps changing. In fact, it changes every day.
So, tell me your nicest trip. What was the most impressive thing you've seen?
The most impressive thing was the former Japanese base. It was there some fifteen, twenty years ago. It was full of abandonned material. We left there for three to four days to clean up a little and bring back what we could still used to work.
The nicest ski-doo trip was with Bobby (François Tilmans), Benoît (Tyberghein) and David (Rigotti). There was fresh snow and a bright blue sky. That was also at the former Japanese base.
Then there are all the summits I climbed, the climbing, the walks on the ice ...
When was the worst whiteout you ever experienced?
It was last year. We couldn't see one meter away, and people did not dare to get out of their tents. Pierre (Dumont) found himself at the station by chance after trying to reach the mess tent. Then, there's the snow accumulation! Olivier's tent did look more like an igloo than anything else: you could only see a bit of the tip!
Did you have physical problems adapting?
The sleep in the beginning! You need some two weeks to get used to it. There's so much energy in Antarctica that you feel like you are on another planet. With all the light, even when you close your eyes, your body doesn't understand it's night since the sun shines outside. However, in the end you get so tired that you get used to sleeping despite the light.
What about the traverses to the coast?
A traverse lasts for some 20 hours. However, Offloading like last year lasts a full week; we slept only two hours per night, when we slept at all. For two nights, Léon (René Robert) and I did not get any sleep at all. And because of the light, you hardly notice! Luckily enough, we had time to rest a little when we got back to the station.
If you had to describe the experience in a few words, what would those be?
The work is well-organized (we work in teams) and it's as if we were living on another planet. Then, once you're there, you don't want to go back. The toughest part is to see all your friends leave after the intense moments you shared with them, you miss them! When the new ones arrive, you don't necessarily have the energy to start all over again. It sometimes gets a little depressing.
Picture: ilir_on_station_or - © International Polar Foundation/ René Robert