“You are a polar explorer and there is no way back, the icebreaker is gone”: an interview with a sysadmin of the station in Antarctica

There is a myth that “penguin flippers” work at the polar stations: if a penguin has fallen, it is difficult for it to rise by itself, these kind people flip the penguins back, so they can stay on their feet. When a resident of Lviv, Yevhen Krashtan, joined the Antarctic expedition as a system administrator, he joked during an interview with one of the TV channels that he is going to the South Pole to flip the penguins. Journalists did not get the joke, so Yevhen was presented like that during his interview. In fact, he was responsible for all communications and computer equipment at the Ukrainian station Akademik Vernadskyi in 2007–2008, and when he returned, he wrote a book about it. The editor of AIN.UA talked to Eugene about how it is to work as a sysadmin in the Antarctic.

How did you get on the expedition?

I have long been trying to go to such places, it was boring for me to sit in one place all the time. When a vacancy appeared on the site of the Antarctic Center, someone sent it to me by mail, so I immediately submitted my resume, got an interview, and underwent a medical examination.

Was an interview difficult? In the same vacancy of this year, the sysadmin must be a jack of all trades: programming, and knowing radio engineering, and even joinery.

When I came to the Antarctic Center, it turned out that many people were interviewed at the same time with me. I somehow immediately thought that there was little chance. We were asked questions from various fields: starting from how geostationary satellites work and how to rewind electric motors, ending with how to cut threads. I directly answered to some questions: “I do not know, I have to look it up on the Internet.” I was already mentally ready that I failed everything, and they would not take me on an expedition. But they called me back and said that I was accepted.

What about the broad variety of the questions: this is the essence of such an interview. After all, you will find yourself, roughly speaking, as on a submarine, with a minimum stock of parts. In one of Jules Verne’s novels, the heroes hit a deserted island and used all the means at hand to survive, like a piece of glass from a clock to kindle a fire. As I read such books in my childhood, I imagined: if I were on the island, could I survive? You find yourself in a very similar situation at the station. Plus, now there is at least the Internet there, and when I was at the station, there was no Internet, you could not just google the problem or watch the training video on YouTube.

What was your first impression when you have just arrived at the station?

I did not drive alone, there was a team with me. Some of the people from the team were already there. I mean, at first, you don’t feel lost. Secondly, there was some very “train station” feeling of changing shifts: you grab a suitcase, unload crates, drag things, accept work from the previous admin, grab the notebook, and then you start frantically writing everything down. At that moment you understand that in a minute the admin will leave and there will be no one else to ask. The head was spinning around from the abundance of information, there was no time to stop and engage in self-digging: what do I feel now? Then, when the icebreaker with the team left, the feeling was as if the noisy party was over, and you were left alone in an empty apartment. When I spent a week at the station, I started feeling it: yes, I am a polar explorer and there is no way back, the icebreaker is gone.

“Today we said goodbye to the previous shift, waved our hand after the departing ship, and our wintering began. The truth is, it was very hard to say goodbye in a usual way – I, as the most English-speaking one, made a station tour for the tourists, showed and told them everything, while the guys sank into boats and sailed away at that time. The real farewell was yesterday, when there was a gala dinner with speeches, congratulations. The most sentimental moment was when the previous wintering team sang Vakarchuk’s song “I’m going home,” and we sang in response, “We stay to winter” and “The last caravan leaves for the continent,” from the book by Yevgeny Krashtan, “The Notebook of the Penguin Flipper.”

What was your working day like at the polar station?

Now all of this could have changed, but at that time many orders remained in our country like those of the British (the Faraday station was transferred to Ukraine by the British Antarctic Service in 1996). Breakfast is your own business, but the obligatory meeting time of the team is lunch and dinner. You work on a free schedule, as long as everything is done. The division into early risers and night persons begins to change very quickly under the influence of the polar night. You see sun fewer and fewer, and the body somehow rebuilds itself into a nightlife mode, so you turn out to be sleepy all the time. Before my trip to the polar station, I had no idea that a person is able to sleep so much 🙂

What were your responsibilities?

At the station, I was responsible for everything related to computer technology. There is an electrician in charge of everything that works from 220V, and a signalman who is responsible for everything that works below 220V. At that time there was a lot of equipment from the English, it had to be maintained in working condition. There was little funding back then, there was nothing to replace the old computers with, we had to dodge.

Here is an example of my work task. At the station, readings of magnetic field measurements were carried out in the “magnet” house, built at a distance from the station, without any metal objects at all, in order to prevent distortion when measuring. So, the scientist had to go there with a diskette, measure readings of sensors, no matter how bad a snow blizzard raged outside. It was clear that this process needed to be transferred to remote control, to do so I had to pull an ethernet cable there and configure the network until the winter began. It didn’t go without overlays, but in the end the network worked, and as far as I understand, it still works.

“The path there is called the “path of the magnetic.” Sometimes an unexpected danger lurks on it, like a fur seal may get out to warm up on the beach near the dam, and this is a terribly harmful and nasty animal. He is huge, nimble and aggressive, and if you come closer than 5 meters, it rushes at you, and tries to bite you. In such cases, the person on the radio calls someone from the base, so that one would tease the fur seal and distract it, and at that time the second one will have time to run across the dam,” from the book “The Notebook of the Penguin Flipper.”

I rewrote software for scientific work for Windows XP (software there still worked on DOS) and when I returned from Antarctica, they called me 5 years later after that, asked questions about my programs.

What task was the most difficult or the most technically interesting, non-standard one?

There were lots of such situations. I remember being very surprised when I first climbed into the station’s attic. It was a place where they demolished all non-working, out of order and written off stuff. I found many wonderful parts from the old machinery there, from which I collected a robotic milling machine in the woodworker and cut out souvenirs for tourists in my free time. Often when I found useful details in the attic, I wrote letters to my friends back home, telling them that I found such a detail, and asking them to send me a pinout or specification to it.

I remember the moment when they brought us a set of radio extenders, two transceivers with an antenna that could set communication over long distances. We installed one of the transmitters on the mast at our station, and with the second I went to the American Palmer station. They had a huge tower, I was handed a mounting belt, and I had to climb to the top to install this transmitter. The height of the tower can be judged by the fact that our station is located 75 km away from Palmer and it was visible from the tower top. It was difficult, but we managed to do it, and the connection worked.

Were there any crisis situations, for example, with a connection? After all, if somewhere in the office the network falls by 10 minutes, it is unpleasant, but not scary, and if the connection disappears at the South Pole, in fact, the station will be completely cut off from the world…

It actually happened during my wintering: our main communication channel through the satellite, created by the Englishmen, disappeared (all these years the satellite dish worked perfectly fine). One day I came to the workplace, and the indicator was flashing showing that there is no connection. When I checked the equipment, trying to figure out what happened I saw there is no connection with the satellite, we got cut off. As a result, we contacted the center via the Iridium phone, it turned out that the center had received a notification that the satellite had stopped working, they simply forgot to warn us. It happens. I had to catch another satellite on the move, I was able to get in touch with the technical support of the first satellite through it (they were shocked that such old transmitter was still in a working condition). Somehow in an emergency mode the old transmitter was still working out, and later we received a new antenna.

How did you relax? Did you have time for entertainment, movies, computer games?

Of course. It even became a tradition: after dinner we cleared the table, everyone sat around, and we decided which film to watch today. There was a large film library, thousands of CDs, plus disks with novelties were transferred to us from ships.

I am a fan of snowboarding, and I had the longest snowboarding season in my life at the station. I smuggled the snowboard and boots into the station (for which I was punished later by the authorities). There was a rather high mountain at the station, and local craftsmen built a ropeway from an old decommissioned fire engine moto pump and a rope. It was possible to take some gasoline with me in the canister, pour it into the engine and ride.

Before our wintering, a sauna was also built at the station, there was an opportunity to take a steam bath from the sauna – right into the Pacific Ocean.

How does the equipment work at extreme temperatures? Did you take a mobile phone with you, or is it basically useless there?

Basically, all the equipment is located in the heated houses there. Sometimes poles or wires broke, antennas flooded with sea water. The only problem is that the radios that you carry with you quickly recharge in the cold, and you have to charge them very often.

I took my phone, but just used it as a book.

Did you get into extreme situations?

If we are talking about “extremely extreme” ones, then no. Once while I was riding a snowboard, a blizzard started, and I had to get to the station almost by touch, using familiar landmarks. There was another situation when the ice near the coast began to melt, and I had to ski from the station to bring sandwiches and a thermos with tea to a team of biologists who were observing the seals. On the way back near the coast I fell through the ice and I had to run very fast in fast-freezing clothes to the station that was a kilometer away. I literally flew into the room, tearing off my frozen clothes on the way and immediately jumped into the shower. However, nothing happened to me, I didn’t even get cold.

Tell us about the weather, about living conditions, about nature. In the book you wrote that when the ice was moving, the roar was similar to a running train…

I has a chance to touch the penguin 🙂 They, of course, are not particularly friendly with people, and they can bite, defending their territory.

It was possible to observe how icebergs break away from the coastline, how they float by, this is a very magnificent sight.

As for the weather, it is not as cold there as it may seem. Ukrainian station is located on the island of Galindez, near the Antarctic Peninsula. It should be borne in mind that the ocean works like a huge hot water bottle, so the climate was rather mild, from -40-30 degrees Celsius. But the Drake Strait is the stormiest area on the planet, it was not for nothing that the sailors who passed it were allowed to wear a silver earring in their ear. Hurricanes that happen there are terrible, the wind speed reached 200 km/h during our winter. And despite the weather conditions, you still need to make rounds, go outside, even with such strong wind.

Was this experience useful for you as an IT specialist? How valuable is a line about wintering at the polar station in your CV?

Naturally, this leaves its mark, the ability to manage with a minimum is very useful in work.

Would you like to come back?

Of course, I would. However, my wife won’t let go 🙂