As promised, in today’s blog entry I’d like to talk about our exciting and varied preparation phase together in more detail:
The deadline for online applications for overwinterers (ÜWIs) at the Neumayer Station is usually the end of February each year, and I received my – still tentative – acceptance phone call in April.
After a thorough medical examination to make sure we were fit enough to take part in the expedition, we were given our two-year contracts. The period between 1 April and 1 August flew by, and some of us used the time to quickly get rid of any superfluous wisdom teeth. In mid-June we received the first information on the preparation procedure by post. ‘Freight lists’, ‘hazardous materials’ and ‘polar clothing’; today when I read what was in that first letter, my pulse once again quickens. WE were the new overwintering team, and now, for the first time, we could learn the names of the others who were taking part.
“Final Antarctic countdown” was the name I gave our social media group, with the song by Europe in mind: “We’re leavin’ together…” The excitement mounted; the countdown had begun!
Our life as ‘flatmates’ begins …
In late July we met for the first time:
We met for the first time standing in a circle in front of a hotel in Bremerhaven, where we spent the night while waiting for the results of our corona tests. Only then could we move into the six fully furnished holiday flats provided by the AWI. Everyone had their own room, and we cooked and spent time together in Tanguy’s or Theresa’s kitchen. We counted as one household, so the social distancing rules didn’t apply to us. There were many happy evenings, which are still very much alive in our memories. We talked about ourselves, about the work-related things we were currently learning for the overwintering, about the ideas that we wanted to put into practice in the Antarctic, and about what we were going to pack in the large Zarges boxes.
After a joint induction week at the AWI, including a tour of the institute’s various sections, we got started.
In summary, the preparation period can be divided into two parts, since we learnt some things as a group and some (work-specific) things individually.
Between the fire safety course, mountaineering course and conflict management course, which we attended together, we went our own, sometimes very different, ways to individually prepare for our specific duties. This means that in the evenings, sometimes there were only three or four of us in our shared flat, because most of the group were at training sessions elsewhere. For instance, while I spent three weeks at a nearby hospital learning about anaesthesia during the day, others were taking courses in Southern Germany, in the Ruhr region or in Leipzig. There were also units that we all attended, like those on safety harnesses, preparations for the medical study at the Charité in Berlin, and on the topic of communication and the media.
Ascenders, Prusiks, figure eights and 60 bruises
For the mountaineering course, in mid-August we travelled to Mandarfen, Austria, in two hired buses. Our excellent equipment for the course, including crampon-compatible climbing shoes and rucksacks, was provided by the AWI, and was in the luggage. We were in a good mood, and on the journey we started designing our overwintering logo.
From the parking lot, together with our extremely knowledgeable and entertaining mountain guides, we set off for the Taschachhaus, at an altitude of 2434 metres, where we were going to spend the night. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both our great guides! The first few days helped us to become familiar with our equipment, like crampons, figure eight descenders, ropes, ascenders and the various carabiners. Not all of us had ever abseiled down a 30-meter rock face before. Here we also learnt how to transport an injured person using a rescue triangle (see video below).
The daytime schedules were strenuous enough, and in the evenings we received further instruction, e.g. on using GPS and radio devices, and how to set up a survival box. At night we quickly fell asleep in our cramped ‘mattress room’. We learnt, for the first time, what the term ‘lack of privacy’ (I talked about this in my previous entry on the summer campaign) really means. Thirteen days ago we’d never even met in person…
After we’d learnt to rescue ourselves from a crevasse while hanging from a rope, we set off in the rain with roughly 20 kilogrammes of gear each to spend the night in a tent on the glacier and learn additional rescue manoeuvres. The conditions worsened: with clammy fingers and kneeling on the solid ice, for the first time we used the petrol stoves that have now become part of the survival kits we take with us every day in case of emergencies here in the Antarctic.
In the rope team we practised crossing crevasses using crampons, and using an ice axe, a sling and an ice screw to create an Abalakov thread or ‘deadman anchor’.
The loud cry “climber down” from our guide Hans was the signal that we had to quickly form a rope team and coordinate the rescue of an injured team member from a four- to eight-metre-deep crevasse in a “race against the clock”.
Video: Abseiling an injured person (Peter Jonczyk)
Video: “Hurry up!” while setting an ice screw (Peter Jonczyk)
Back in Mandarfen at the end of the nine-day mountaineering course, there were ten determined individuals who now knew how e.g. to tie a Prusik knot, how to secure each other to a rope, and who had a total of 60 bruises.
Learning about communication and team building
Good communication can definitely make dealing with the extreme cold, lack of privacy and the remoteness of the location easier. Accordingly, the AWI offered us ÜWIs a series of workshops on communication training and conflict management. Here we learnt the ground rules of good communication and focused on team building with a professional coach.
The months of preparation virtually flew by: preparing our personal cargo in Zarges boxes, trying on the polar clothing, visiting the Klimahaus (Climate House) in Bremerhaven, where we got our first taste of what the Antarctic would be like, and much more.
Above all, in this blog entry I’d like to emphasise that the AWI’s 40 years of overwintering experience were consistently evident to me, particularly in our carefully structured preparation phase, personal equipment, and mentoring.
Now we’re profiting from everything we learnt during the preparation phase. And the first month of our overwintering is already over. Nevertheless, we’ve only just begun. We’re all becoming more and more surefooted, both in our duty areas and outdoors, at wind speeds up to 50 knots. And since some of us apparently didn’t get enough of camping in the ice and snow during the mountaineering course, for Easter, five stalwart members spent the night in a specially designed polar tent (Scott pyramid tent) at minus 26 degrees Celsius. My advice here: be sure to check your equipment first! ;-)
In our next blog entry, Theresa will tell you about the types of things we hear when we deploy our microphones below the ice shelf that the station was built on.
Warm wishes from the ice,
Your Peter Jonczyk