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One year in very southern France

Adventurer Laurence de la Ferrière has spent the past year working as the 'prefect of the Antarctic'

20 November 2009

RECORD-breaking French adventurer Laurence de la Ferrière has conquered some of the tallest and deadliest mountains in the world without oxygen, crossed Antarctica with just a 140kg food sleigh – and is now a civil servant.

But this is no nine-to-five desk job in Paris. Ferrière is the chef de district for the Terre Adélie, the French-owned slice of Antarctica, about twice the size of the UK. Population: 26 researchers and technicians, living in complete isolation for nine months of the year and complete darkness for three on the Dumont d’Urville polar base just off the coast.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to reach her satellite phone, Laurence picks up. She sounds glad to be in contact with the outside world.

How did you come to find out about, and be offered, the job?
This is my third time in Antarctica. The first was in 1996 when I walked to the South Pole on my own. Then three years later I completed the crossing by walking 3,000km from the pole to Terre Adélie. The finishing point was the French research base at Dumont d’Urville where I am now stationed. I met the team working there and we started to build up a very important professional relationship. I was asked to come and direct the base but I said no at first. It takes a lot – there are a lot of sacrifices involved in moving out here. But last year I changed my mind and accepted.

What does the job of chef de district involve?
I am a bit like a préfet – I officially represent the French State here. My job is to direct all of the French activity that takes place in Terre Adélie. I have been here since December 2008 and, if all goes well, I will be heading back to France in November this year. I say “if all goes well” because you never know what to expect with the weather conditions here.

What has the weather been like?
It is winter here, although we are starting to come out of it. Winter is characterised by very regular blizzards and very strong winds. It is quite normal to get winds of up to 200kph. In the middle of winter, temperatures here on the coast are around -30°C at night and between
-10 and -15°C in the few hours of daylight you get. Further inland, as you head towards the South Pole, temperatures can typically range from -30 to -80°C.

How do you cope with it being so cold – both physically and mentally?
Your body naturally adapts to it, albeit very gradually. Coping with temperatures like this is much more of a psychological issue than a physical one. Little by little you learn not to be afraid of the cold – but the risk is always there. You are always conscious of the fact that what you are doing is incredibly dangerous.

Just how dangerous is it?
The biggest part of my job is ensuring the security of those I work with – making sure that all of the team’s movements outside are done in the right conditions. It is a very hazardous area – the main things to look out for are sudden storms and breaking ice.

How big is the team?
There are 26 of us here over the winter – split more or less equally into a group of scientists who carry out research and a group of technicians who make everything possible. We are completely isolated for a period of nine months. It has been seven months so far that we have been completely cut off from the rest of the world – no planes, no boats, no other human contact.

Is there a broad range of nationalities at the base?
We are all French, but the first boat of the summer (in November) will bring researchers from other countries. We do a lot of work with the Italians, with whom we share another research base on the mainland called Concordia. It is up on the Dôme C plateau, about 1,000km from here. There we have a weather station and a seismological base. For three months during the winter when it is dark all the time and the sky is clear, the base is also used for astronomy.

How do you get food and clean water?
We have a system that pumps water from the sea and filters out the salt so that we have fresh water. All of our food is frozen or tinned – the last delivery was in February, when the final boat of the season came. We have a couple of immense freezer buildings that hold two years’ worth of supplies, so there is no risk of running out. It might sound odd having an enormous freezer here in the Antarctic, but it is important that the food is kept at a constant temperature.

How did you come to discover mountain-climbing?
Around the time I took the baccalauréat at 18 I discovered mountain-climbing and it instantly became my passion. Studying medicine at university went out the window. I used to be a gymnast and did a lot of competitions, so mountain-climbing was something very natural for me. I have always felt at home in the mountains – I love the freedom that comes with them. It is a vast open area, an immense space for self-expression. Moving from basic climbing to the Alps in Chamonix to the Himalayan peaks was a completely logical chain of events for me.

Will you try to reach the top of Everest again?
Trying to reach a summit like Everest without oxygen is such an enormous risk that there is really only one moment in my life when it was possible. I made it to the south summit (8,700m) but I did not get to the top of the north summit (8,850m).

What prompted you to cross Antarctica on your own?
I told myself it would be better to try something new rather than try to climb Everest again – it would be better for me to go off somewhere on my own, learn more about myself and become stronger. So I decided to head in this direction. I think it is better than giving Everest another go.

How does crossing the world’s coldest continent differ from climbing mountains?
There is a very big link between the two. Antarctica is basically a huge glacier with valleys and chasms. You come across more or less the same problems – and they both require the same techniques. Everything I learned by climbing some of the biggest mountains in the world helped me a lot.

What do your two daughters make of your adventures?
They have not had a lot of choice. They have grown up through my experiences – they are now aged 16 and 20. What I do seems quite normal for them – but this year has been so incredibly long. I think they understand.

Do they want to take up mountain-climbing as well?
No, no – I hope not. I do not think that is likely for the time being. They both have their own very different objectives.

What are you missing most about life in France?
Obviously I miss my family. I live in Chamonix and I miss my mountains – I would really like to go back and find myself among the mountains again. I love the solitude that comes with that. Here you are always surrounded by other people – it is a very small place that we live in, surrounded by a vast expanse of nothing. You cannot just go out for a walk whenever you want. I miss basic things like being able to head into town for a bit.

What are your plans for when you return?
I will go back to speaking at conferences on some of the themes linked to my experience in polar exploration and looking after groups of people in extreme situations. My experience of working in a very small team in a confined space for long periods of time has given me a lot of insight into subjects like how to manage a team, keep people motivated and manage risk.

Will you carry on climbing mountains as well?
Absolutely. My passion for mountains will never go away – it will always be a part of me.

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