Have you ever been to Georgia? was the number one question on every Oceans Ambassador’s mind yesterday, as we called up the European Space Agency’s Dr Alexander Kumar at Concordia Research Station in Antarctica, one of the remotest places on earth (even more remote and harder to get to than the International Space Station). I wasn’t surprised by the popularity of this question. I’ve been in Georgia for 16 months – long enough to know how proud the children are of their country! And when they discovered that Alex has been to more than 60 countries in his 28 years of life, it was only natural that they wanted to know when he would come and visit them, along with their promise of lots of snakes (more about that in a minute!).
It took a while to get hold of Alex, ironically due to internet problems our end rather than problems with the satellite in Antarctica, but we were a bit taken aback when he answered to a backdrop of snow, blue sky and a setting sun. In just a few months, the sun will disappear from Antarctica and the base station will be in 24 hr darkness, hard to imagine given how bright it was when we called. We thought Alex would be sat in his office where it was warmer, so we were quite shocked and worried about him to discover that he was out of doors, because he wanted to show us around the station (thanks to his iphone – how amazing is that!). Rather tentatively, we asked him what the temperature was, and he calmly told us it was -72c. At first we thought we just misheard him, because the line was crackly, and he had sounded so matter of fact about it, like it was something very normal for him, which to be honest it pretty much was, and last week he reported that they had had some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded, even down to -83c!!!! Sat in t-shirts in our warm classroom, in +25c or so, it was almost impossible for us to get our heads around the kinds of temperatures he was stood in, especially when he told us it was hard to talk because his mouth was starting to freeze. And it was something quite amazing to watch as his beard froze up and quickly became covered in icicles as he talked to us. Alex pointed out his bedroom and a few other features, which really brought home exactly where he was, and it was great to see him dressed up in all his layers:
Yes, he ACTUALLY lives inside one of those cylindrical ‘buildings’! Can you imagine it! Alex didn’t mention it at the time, but I later discovered that he had accidentally brushed his arm against the metal on his camera tripod and got a nasty cold burn, a stark reminder of just how careful one must be when living in such extremes of temperature. Even a metal zip would stick to your fingers if you tried to do up your coat, and you should be very careful with everything you touch or put into your mouth even, hard to do if you are used to licking a fork or whatever, and I know lots of polar explorers who have done this whilst on auto pilot, with the resulting loss of a layer of skin as it gets ripped off when you try to remove said metal from said body part.
Antarctica is actually the closest we can get to what life would be like on Mars, and in preparation for future space missions, Alex’s job is to study the psychological and physiology of his colleagues, mainly from France and Italy, as a way of helping astronauts prepare for Mars expeditions. That includes how people adapt to life at the station, sleep patterns, individual and team performance, exercise, and also testing software tools which could help crews on future space missions. So you probably won’t be so surprised now, when I tell you that Alex has been swimming in a special ice cave at -72degress as well as doing exercise out of doors in his shorts!
When I first came to Georgia in October 2010, I was in my shorts and t-shirt because to me it was like an English summer (minus the rain) and my host grandma was worried sick that I would catch pneumonia or something (at about 24degrees), so to know about Alex’s being outside at such temperatures would be sure to send her to an early grave. In fact, I think she probably wouldn’t even believe it and if she did she would be devastated and be certain that Alex would now be infertile or about to have stomach problems or something!!
So Many Questions
I know we were all much happier when we left Alex to change out of his things and head back indoors, as we were all worried about him catching a chill. As we waited for him to call back, our heads will spinning at the possibility of such temperatures! The coldest I have experienced was around -50c, and in that your nostril hairs freeze and stick together when you breath. In fact I think Moscow temperatures in winter regularly drop to around -10c, so can you conceive the idea of -70 or colder still?
Once back indoors, we had so many more questions for Alex, on a vast array of topics. We had already talked about how Alex’s partner was a surgeon in London, and that they had got a puppy together, a Siberian Husky named Mishi-bear, just before he had left, and we were wondering which he would miss the most. The children thought he would miss his partner most of all, and I thought he would miss his dog, being that is what I will miss the most when I row across the Pacific Ocean. And in fact I was right, though I know he also really misses his partner too, but I think Mishi-bear being a puppy and at such a crucial stage is what makes missing his dog worse.
We asked Alex about what food he was eating and what foods he missed the most, and rather surprisingly, none of our guys mentioned khinkali to him, probably because they know he hasn’t been to Georgia (‘have you tried khinkali’ was always the important question whenever I met new kids for the first time, along with the ‘are you married’ questions!). Alex said that he really misses McDonalds right now, but that they have a really great chef at the station, who has worked in some of the top restaurants and hotels, and that the food is pretty good. He also told us that they have run out of fresh fruit and veg, and now they have frozen foods and tinned foods that they eat, which is something I thought was hard enough in Georgia, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like to know that you have another 7 or so months until you get to eat fresh food again. But having also spent time in the Arctic with an Inuit community I know that they have a really tough and ‘interesting’ diet of fermented delicacies, so I’m sure that after that, living on a more ‘typical’ or ‘western’ diet, even minus the fresh foods, won’t be so bad at all, plus Alex has travelled to some pretty amazing places and tried lots of local foods.
We asked Alex about his daily routine, which I think our guys were quite surprised about, and which was very interesting. Most of his routine is fairly typical of a westerner, and its almost surprising how ‘normal’ his routine actually is, and how ‘British’ too (in fact I quite envy him on that front, especially the going to the gym part!). He has a breakfast of cereal with carton milk and a cup of coffee around 8am, then goes to his office or lab where he works on his physiology research all morning, and attends to any patients on base (he’s always on call for that). Then he has lunch, and after lunch he meets with a French guy and they discuss and catch up with current news events over coffee. Then its back to the office/lab, before dinner, and in the evening he plays pool, and later goes to the gym where he runs on a running machine. What I hadn’t accounted for, was actually how immense that is, not just to run for 20km (I think he said), but the fact that Alex is living at altitude, some 3200m above sea level, so he is taking in 1/3rd less oxygen than most of us in Georgia, which means he will be super fit when he gets back to Britain as his body will have become highly efficient at transporting and using the available oxygen. The highest permanent settlement in Georgia (and I think within Europe) is Ushguli at 2120m above sea level, just to put that into context, and Tbilisi is at 380-770m above sea level. Here is a map of where he is:
We asked about Alex’s journey to Antarctica, and he told us about taking a ship from Tasmania in Australia (on the 7th January 2012) and we asked whether he had seen any Penguins. He said that he saw 60,000 Adelie Penguins, and that the smell was terrible (this made us laugh a lot!), but that it was a pretty amazing experience! And I think one of the things he enjoyed most about the journey was seeing so much wildlife. One of the things about being in Concordia, is that it is very remote, and Alex said that you can walk for kilometres without seeing a single person, and that its very isolated, which can be hard sometimes. But he made a really good point, which I think brought home the team work ethos that we have been trying to instil into our Oceans Ambassadors in preparation for their own expeditions. Alex told them that you have to work as a team, because without being a team you wouldn’t be able to survive in Antarctica. That means that every single person is absolutely vital to the success of the mission. Without the plumber there would be no water, without the chef there would be no food, and without the doctor, people would get sick very quickly, because at altitude and with such extreme cold, a cough or cold can quickly turn into pneumonia and being as they are stuck there with no form of transport until the end of the year, you can’t just go to the hospital or whatever. If there was a fire, then they would all have to evacuate the building and live in tents in conditions similar to what Captain Robert Scott experienced 100 years ago, and so on, so every person is important, no one is better than anyone else.
Prior to Oceans Project, our Oceans Ambassadors had not heard about Captain Scott or his amazing adventures, and this being the centenary of his death, I was personally very proud to share his story and his journal entries with them (you can find links to these on my blog, or just click here: http://iscejournals.wordpress.com/about-2/), and Paul Rose our OPG Patron, a few weeks ago, attended a special remembrance ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral in memory of Scott. So that was great to talk about with Alex, though we didn’t get chance to ask him about his own Scott centenary celebrations, where he stayed overnight in a tent.
One of our Oceans Ambassadors is a keen biologist and we hope to raise the funds to send him on an Earthwatch expedition to the Peruvian Amazon to study biodiversity from a riverboat, so he was particularly excited to hear about Alex’s work in the Amazon Jungle. Lots of our Ambassadors are working at the zoo as well, for their International Awards, and some of them are really passionate about snakes, so I think they were more excited about that than his Antarctica work! One of Alex’s passions is venomous snakes and working as a doctor with those who have been bitten, and he told us the story of a boy who was bitten by a snake and lost his leg, and how it had really had an impact upon him as a doctor. So our guys had lots of snake questions for him, in particular about his ‘favourite’ snake, and what to do if bitten, and they also wanted to know whether Alex had ever been bitten. Ironically, Alex doesn’t really like snakes per se, but he is fascinated by their venoms and the effects these have on the human body, and having seen these in patients, that drives his curiosity to know more about how to treat them.
Some of our more medical focused Ambassadors wanted to know about Alex’s life as a doctor, why he chose to become a doctor, and also some of the worst things he had ever seen. Some of our guys are working at the hospital for their International Award where they are volunteering and shadowing doctors, so that was very interesting and they had some really nice questions I thought.
Next for a few more Antarctica based questions, and some of our guys wanted to know why he had wanted to go to Antarctica rather than chosing somewhere warmer or ‘nicer’ like the Bahamas. I also managed to sneak in a question, and I wanted to know more about Alex’s European Space Agency training (my passion as a medic was aviation, space, diving, and altitude medicine) and whether or not he had been on the vomit comet (one of my goals of things to do before I die!). Alex said that he hasn’t been on it yet, but he will be going on it as a reward for his year in Antarctica. If you haven’t seen the so called vomit comet, this is what it is about, and I am super jealous of Alex on that one:
Being able to talk to Alex was just brilliant, very informative, and it was great to see that most of our guys are much more confident and improved in speaking English than they were back in September. They were so well behaved and enthusiastic, and I was really proud of how they were and by the quality of their questions, and I know they really enjoyed the experience of talking to Alex. I’m hoping we can invite Alex to our OPG chat room now, as I know that they still had a lot more questions for him, and I think he enjoyed talking to them as well. Originally, Alex thought he wouldn’t have internet connection, so its been great to see his messages every day, and to photos of what he is up to. He actually took a picture of us from Antarctica and I’m sure he won’t mind me stealing it and showing you here:
We took some photos too, so I’ll maybe upload them when I have them from one of our Project Leaders.
I guess it was all the more poignant for me, as I just finished reading Ben Fogle and James Cracknell’s book about their South Pole race (the book is called: Race to the Pole: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Race-Pole-James-Cracknell/dp/023073944X), and what it was like to finally reach the Pole completely spent of everything. Its rather an interesting read if you are looking for a new book, and I have to say, that my copy of the book is all the more special to me, because I got it from Ben and it is signed by both him and his father (a very famous vet). Ben’s wife’s family live in Henley-On-Thames and Ben and James are often out and about, or at least they were during their ocean row training. The end of the book is very moving, and I’m very happy to say that, even though Ben’s wife had a miscarriage right before the race, they now have a beautiful son called Ludo, which really makes things all the more special.
The book is all the more important to me personally, because they both talk about their experiences on their Atlantic Ocean row, and the team dynamics and personal growth, mistakes, and training and sponsorship, etc is all stuff that I can really appreciate right now and which I hope will help me to go into our own Pacific row more prepared and wiser, having benefitted from them sharing such personal things, especially when you read each others points of views about the same situation.
James has since had a nasty head injury after being knocked off his bike by a juggernaut whilst he was cycling in America, and his personality has changed quite a bit as a result. James spent a long time in intensive care and in follow up therapy, something that also changed the way I read their book about the Pole race, which was prior to this injury. But its great that today he is running the London Marathon (along with my Coxless Rowers team mate Laura), and that he is raising money for The Children’s Trust charity (http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserPage.action?userUrl=CracknellrunsLondon&faId=194946&isTeam=false). One of the things which motivated James during his South Pole race was his sister’s baby dying and the effects that had had on the whole family.
Hard to believe that there are 37,500 people running through London today, and I heard rumour that Prince Harry will be greeting some of them at the finish line too!
Quite fitting that Ben and James took part in the marathon prior to their South Pole race, and James ran it last year after his brain injury, and again today.
But, in short, we had a great time talking with Alex, and I highly recommend that you follow both his website and his blog, and he has lots of fascinating things on there, including stories for children: http://www.alexanderkumar.com/ and as I say, I plan to invite him to our chat room shortly, and you can also talk to Atlantic Ocean rower Sally Kettle on there too: http://www.oceansproject.com/chat.html
Concordia research station
Concordia Research Station, which opened in 2005, is a research facility that was built 3,233 m above sea level at a location called Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau, Antarctica. It is located 1,100 km inland from the French research station at Dumont D’Urville, 1,100 kilometres inland from Australia’s Casey Station and 1,200 kilometres inland from the Italian Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay. Russia’s Vostok Station is 560 kilometres away. The Geographic South Pole is 1670 kilometres away. The facility is also located within Australia’s claim on Antarctica, the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Concordia Station is the third permanent, all-year research station on the Antarctic Plateau besides Vostok Station (Russian) and the Amundsen-Scott Station (U.S.) at the Geographic South Pole. It is jointly operated by scientists from France and Italy (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concordia_Station).