Use Your Trade Working in Antarctica

Tradies in Antarctica

Casey station electrician, Steve Hankins, throwing boiling water into -25 degree air. Image: Stuart Griggs

Tradies in Antarctica work in temperatures as low as -30C, unfathomably cold for some, however a common occurrence for a select group who live and work at the end of the world.

The government-run Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) manages ongoing research projects at Antarctica’s three main stations – Mawson, Davis and Casey – with their maintenance requiring the technical skills of a range of different trades.

According to AAD’s acting HR manager, Andrew Groom, the technical skills are only part of someone’s ability to work in Antarctica, with the remote location, separation from family and friends and close living quarters all presenting challenges.

Plumber AAD

Davis station Building Services Supervisor, Paul Stringer, infront of Australia’s icebreaker. Image: Paul Stringer

Recruiting is conducted annually around the end of each year and interested parties are invited to apply online for skills and criteria assessment before being shortlisted, interviewed and shortlisted again.

Groom said that those who make it are then sent for medical and adaptability assessments “to determine their psychological suitability”.

He said it is a long process; 2400 applicants are whittled down to 160 over about 10 months and he conceded they sometimes get it wrong.

Ewan Denholme takes a an Antarctic swim

Ewan Denholme takes a an Antarctic swim. Image: Greg Stone

“We’ve had people who’ve been on the ship, got to the edge of the sea ice and have decided it’s not for them,” Groom said.

However, he added that of those who do go, 40 per cent return for another season at some stage during their careers.

To get the down-low, we talked to Ewan Denholm a plumber who spent 2014 at Antarctica’s Mawson Station.

Ewan Denholm, 50, Sanitary Plumber and Gas Fitter: 

After three months of training in Hobart, Denholm is spending 12 months working at Mawson station which he describes as one of the most remote places on earth.

He said that the challenges began before he even arrived.

“On the way down my second grandson was born and then admitted to hospital for emergency life-saving surgery nine days later. Stuff like that happens and you just have to deal with it.”

However he described the 16 people (two women) working at Mawson Station as being very supportive, adding that they are good for a laugh with many of them tradies.

The standard day is 8am – 4:30pm, with breaks thrown in. Tools and equipment are fairly standard apart from the “incredible” Hagglunds over-snow vehicles.

He said mostly they work inside but that he has worked outside in temperatures as low as -29C for short periods when there is no wind.

“It is bizarre stepping outside and having the hairs up your nose instantly freeze,” he said.

Denholm also described going out at night to repair criticial infrastructure experiencing “the full fury of 100km/hr plus winds, following rope and chain blizzard lines … unable to see your feet even with a powerful torch.”

Electrician Steve Hankins playing golf around Casey station. Image: Cary Collis

Electrician Steve Hankins playing golf around Casey station. Image: Cary Collis

He said all clothing is supplied by the AAD and that there is a lot of it.

After work there is plenty on offer to keep busy including an indoor climbing wall, gym with assorted ball sports gear, a home cinema, spa and sauna and a common area with pool table, darts, a bar and a library.

He added that they can also use the Hagglunds and a stocked field store for overnight trips to one of the six nearby field huts.

“From here we can explore our surroundings including climb an array of mountains and visit penguin colonies. This truly is one of the greatest environment and wildlife experiences on the planet.”

“In summer we expect to see various seals and penguins as well as whales, orcas, petrels and skuas.”

The wildlife doesn’t fill the void of home though and Denholm says he misses his family, his dog, trees, rain, the smell of the bush, his motorbike and the freedom to do what he wants when he wants.

However Denholm said he is also fulfilling his dream.

“Going to Antarctica has been a lifelong goal since I was about 14 years old,” he said.

“Oh yeah and I also heard the money and conditions were good!”

He earns $130,377/year including 15 per cent super. All meals, clothing, accommodation and travel are included.

The recruitment round for the 2018–19 season is open until 24 January 2018.

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