Prinoth in Storm - Copyright: Alain Hubert / International Polar Foundation - © International Polar Foundation

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Live from Antarctica: A Promise in Due Form

In our last update we made some rather naïve remarks: "The inside insulation having been integrated in the station's shell, almost 75 cm lie between our feet and the outside stainless steel layer. This is most reassuring given that, as I am writing these lines, a strong katabatic wind has risen and is flapping tents and flags, and lifting a tide of white waves from the ridge all the way to the horizon. As we sit inside the (relative) comfort of the station, we murmur a 'thank you' to the engineers."

These remarks proved to be indeed naïve. The other day as we were admiring the snow running across the plain, Alain warned, "That's one heck of a katabatic wind coming in." Indeed, the wind picked up quickly and became intense. With our eyes closed to protect them from the snow, we had to climb down from the station and get to the base camp, going around the sleeping tents and taking refuge inside the mess tent. The wind grew stronger, with gusts reaching 100 km/h. The tents buckled under the force of the wind and the big mess tent pitched from left to right in time to the wind's siren-like howling. It was a noisy night. In the morning, we found a few rips in some tents and large amounts of snow covering the installations. With a perfectly blue sky, the only thing reminding us of the night before was a slight wind.

The relative calm enabled us to clear up the camp and to repair the damage. However since the weather forecast didn't seem too wonderful (a possible worsening of the storm had been predicted), everyone made sure their tent was safe and that the corners were loaded with sufficient snow to hold it down. Someone suggested enclosing the tents inside a wall of ice. We first tried using a shovel, then an ice knife, then a chainsaw and, since none of those methods were fast enough, a bulldozer. The camp looked like a fort or even a zoo with an enclosed pen for animals. Nonetheless, work picked up again in the afternoon as if nothing had happened.

The traverse which had been planned for Sunday left on Monday February 18th, trusting that the weather would be indecisive. The purpose was no longer to bring back the equipment and material needed for building the station. We now needed to drive the empty containers to the coast and bring the numerous fuel barrels back to the base camp. While the weather was "windy but nice" at the base camp, we ended up having "windy and not nice at all" weather during the traverse. Visibility was reduced to zero, forcing the drivers to orientate themselves using only the GPS. The bad weather conditions inflicted serious damage to the fragile mechanical parts. We decided to stop, detach the convoys and line them up in parallel so as to protect the Prinoths, facing their backs to the wind. At a certain point, the traverse team hunkered down, waiting for the storm to pass. Everyone gathered in the cabin to eat something and get a bit of rest.

On Tuesday the 19th, while construction continued at Utsteinen, the traverse team remained immobile. The Prinoth tractors encountered various problems. The filters as well as the heating and demister circuits were suffering from exposure to the freezing temperatures, and the Prinoth's capabilities had been diminished. The great force of the katabatic winds made it difficult to make the necessary repairs. The leak in the hydraulic circuit turned out to be worse than expected. It thus became necessary to make a bold decision: We detached the sledges, leaving the battered Prinoth behind and returned to base camp.

On Wednesday the 20th, the wind kept blowing fast and strong while the finishing touches were being put on the floor insulation. The mechanics were repairing two of the Prinoth tractors for the next day's traverse (we had to temporarily sacrifice one of them). Part of the team cleaned the reserve and surplus equipment while others undertook daily maintenance and logistics. However the strong wind didn't stop Alain from bringing Gregory, Julien, Geoffrey and Manram on a short trip to investigate a certain zone that our Japanese visitors had pointed out. It did, however, prevent us from celebrating the thirtieth anniversary our friend Guido's career in the Army.

Author: IPF

Picture: Prinoth in Storm - Copyright: Alain Hubert / International Polar Foundation - © International Polar Foundation

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