Off to Antarctica

I wanted to write you the story of an amazing cycling tour in the Swiss Alps that I made not long ago, but I really couldn’t focus on it after I received that mail from the British Antarctic Survey: “We would like to offer you the position of Electronics Engineer for a Halley Winter.” Okay, but who cares about me spending 18 months on that frozen continent apart from my family and girlfriend? Well, since I consider it the second best thing after going to space, it might be interesting for some others too, but I wouldn’t really write about myself, not even about Antarctica yet, there will be plenty of time. I would rather write about what lead to this. How the impossible might happen.

While I acknowledge the great things a man can be capable of, I don’t really believe one can really control its own life. There’s just too many outside factors out of control. So the simple looking plans like live happily ever after might just easily go bust somewhere. Because according to my experience life’s not like that. It might look like a railway between birth and death with the stations of study, work, marry, multiply, but in reality there are no rails only curvy roads, many of them. Some roads are easy, some are difficult and you can never know where exactly they lead. The illusion of control is just like in the wilderness: the more you insist to the route you imagine, the more lost you will get. So sometimes it is better to admit that you are lost and look around for opportunities while you still have the strength to take them. Some of these opportunities might look impossible at first glance, but if the opportunity is there it might worth giving a chance. So the fact that I am preparing for an Antarctic mission now is the result of as much failures as successes. If I would be where I imagined myself 5 years ago when I answered this typical career question, then I would be sitting with my wife and children in my suburban semi-detached house with a giant mortgage on it. It didn’t turn out that way, and I wouldn’t say I am glad or sorry about it, there would be no point to think about it. It is about making the most out of what you have despite the fact that plans don’t always work like expected.

For those who have not turned yet the desktop globe upside down to see what is on its bottom here are some facts about the 7th continent. Unlike its northern counterpart floating in the sea, the Antarctica has a solid rock base with significant landforms. Insomuch that its highest point, the Vinson Massif exceeds the height of the Mont Blanc and the south pole itself lies in a 2,835 metres (9,301 ft) altitude above sea level on the huge Antarctic Plateau, which has a diameter of about 1,000 kilometres (620 mi). It is also because the whole continent is covered with ice of an average thickness of 1.9 km (1.2 mi; 6,200 ft). It is the coldest and driest continent of the earth with a minimum temperature close to −90 °C (−130 °F) in the interior in winter and a maximum of and 15 °C (59 °F) near the coast in summer, the annual precipitation is less than 10 cm (4 in) on average. Given the latitude there is a long constant darkness during the southern winter (which is the summer in the northern hemisphere) and a constant sunlight during the summer, thus called the Antarctic night and day. The whole continent is governed by the parties of the Antarctic Treaty System that prohibits military activities, mineral mining, nuclear explosions and waste disposal, while supports scientific research and protects the continent’s ecozone. Consequently there are a number of research stations scattered around Antarctica operated by various governments. Despite its unfriendly conditions Antarctica has a large biodiversity starting with its iconic animal the penguin and including blue whales, orcas, squids, seals, icefish, albatrosses and many other birds and fish. Fungi are also found in the Antarctica in large variety, however the flora of the continent is limited to a few species of mosses and liverworts due to the poor soil quality, lack of moisture and lack of sunlight. So obviously Antarctica can be attractive for people who like adventures and exploration, and would like to avoid the morning rush hours. It is also a symbolic place politically as it is governed by the treaty of 29 nations and it is populated with researchers and supporting staff with the aim to find answers for one of the most important global issues, the climate change, which can be uplifting too. But how does one get there?

The first visitors of Antarctica were sailors and explorers, but already Scott and Amundsen knew that it is much easier to get support for an expedition when it is combined with scientific research. It hasn’t changed much since. Unless you are a top adventurer like Henry Worsley, who raised money and requested authorization to make an attempt on crossing the continent alone in his Shackleton Solo project (sadly he died trying it), or you are rich enough to join one of the tourist groups, who can spend some time in the designated tourist zone of the continent, the best way to go to the Antarctica is still to join the crews of one of the research ships or stations. These facilities need many types of staff, who have to be fair good in their trade and also capable of withstanding the extreme conditions. The researchers are obviously the ones who give a meaning for the expeditions: biologists, geologists, geographers, meteorologists with many kinds of specializations are working hard to collect new knowledge about our Earth and the space around it. Their research needs a lot of data and there come the engineers, who develop, install, operate and repair the sensors, take care about the power supply, the supporting structures, the communication and the data management. Bringing these people and equipment on the Antarctica is a logistic nightmare, which is handled by the stores and shipping team. Shipping needs vehicles including ships, airplanes and surface vehicles all specialized to the Antarctic conditions each having its crew and maintenance team. And last but not least living in the Antarctic is a challenging operation as well, the facilities need builders, mechanics, electricians, cooks and doctors as well. A total of 30 countries operate permanent or temporary research stations in the Antarctica, the population of people performing and supporting these research are around 4000 in the summer and around 1000 in the winter. So there is an actual chance to join one of these operations if you have some strong skills.


“Early preparations” on the Gran Paradiso (source: Borbála Győri)

So when I heard about the British Antarctic Survey looking for electronic engineers I didn’t hesitated much. I have the education and experience in electrical engineering, I am fit and ready for adventures, so why not give it a try. The application could be completed online, so it didn’t take more than a few days to collect all the documents, write the motivation letter, fill some forms and submit the thing. And then waiting. It took about a month or so and I received a mail inviting me to an interview to Cambridge on the next week. It was funny because it was worded as I would live in the UK as most applicants do. I had to make quite a lot of arrangement to get there on the day, but I didn’t hesitate for a moment. So I got on the early morning plane to London, then the bus to Cambridge, finally a walk to the BAS office and I was there at the given time. The interview took about an hour with an HR representative, a manager and a senior electronics engineer. I already learned that being myself is both the easiest and the most effective way in these situations, so I answered the questions honestly, which meant some honest “don’t know”-s for the tricky technical questions of the senior engineer. But the day didn’t end there as BAS wanted to introduce itself to me as much as wanted to know me, so one of their engineers walked me through the facility showing their workshops and offices, telling stories and answering all my questions. If I wouldn’t have been in love with BAS already I would have fallen surely to it then. Furthermore they invited me and the other applicants for a social dinner, where we could chat with the management and engineers of BAS like we would be colleagues and friends already. After I flew back to Budapest, I had to wait about two weeks for their decision. It was a torture. I tried not to think about it and not to expect too much, but I felt that I have a chance and I couldn’t look on my mailbox without expecting their mail. When it finally arrived it took me some time to realize what it is saying: “I regret to inform you that your application for employment with the Survey has been unsuccessful on this occasion.” Despite all my efforts to manage my expectations it was a devastating disappointment. But it didn’t occur to me not to apply again on the next occasion I have.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It has been founded on the heritage of great adventurers like Scott and Shackleton, the pioneers of the British polar explorations. Its mission is to be a centre for polar science and polar operations, addressing issues of global importance. Its roots are in Operation Tabarin, a secret World War Two mission with a dual scientific role and for the past 60 years BAS has been responsible for most of the UK’s scientific research in Antarctica. It has two offices – one in Cambridge, and the other on the Falkland Islands – five research stations in the Antarctica – Rothera, Halley, Bird Island, King Edward Point, Signy – and one in the Arctic as well. There are four Twin Otters and one Dash-7 in their airfleet and two research ships – the RRS James Clark Ross and the RRS Ernest Shackleton – in their sea fleet with a third on the way: the RRS Sir David Attenborough. The research programme of BAS called Polar Science for Planet Earth looks for answer for questions like the cause and impacts of global change and the impact of polar changes to the global system. One of their well known results were the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctica 30 years ago, but a recent shocking result was that the levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached the 400 ppm milestone at the Halley Research Station in Antarctica, which shows that no part of the planet is spared from the impacts of human activity.

About a month later I applied again for a wintering communication manager post. It went quickly as my first application was still in their database, so I had to modify the letter only. I submitted and waited for the answer, which arrive again about a month later and was telling that: “All the applicants have now been short-listed for interview and unfortunately on this occasion you have not been selected.” This time I wasn’t that much shocked, but I only had one more shot for this year, a wintering electronics engineer post. I submitted this application as well and in May I got invited for an interview again. By this time I already decided that I will move to Stockholm following my girlfriend who got admitted to the Karolinska Institutet’s Biomedicine master course, so a big adventure was already waiting for me, where the possibility to be accepted by BAS was more like a jolly joker case. This time the interview started with a questionnaire asking about what I knew about BAS, which wasn’t difficult as I already read almost everything that was accessible on the internet. It was followed by a throughout medical assessment with a lot of examinations and a lot of questions. Which is understandable considering that evacuation during the winter is nearly impossible. (This impossible has been realized twice already in 2001 and 2003 and it is attempted just now again as a worker of the research centre at the South Pole needs urgent medical treatment.) After the examination I had a lunch with some other applicants and an engineer who already wintered once in the Antarctica so we could ask all our questions. Finally I was interview by a similar panel then last time only there was one more engineer in the room. It went well, not better, not worse than the one before. I flew back the same day to Budapest and waited for the decision. This time I was much more successful in managing my expectations. I was occupied with the preparations to move to Stockholm and I didn’t made any plans for the case if I am accepted by BAS. So when I received that mail three weeks after the interview telling that “We would like to offer you the position of Electronics Engineer for a Halley Winter.” I didn’t really know what to think. It took me a few days to discuss it with my girlfriend and my family and process the thought that I have been offered a job in the Antarctica before I would officially accept it. But finally I did of course as I had a lot of support from the people around me and I knew that I have to take this once in a lifetime opportunity.


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