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LiuGong Polar Mechanic Has Three Rules to Work in Arctic

Extreme environment tests equipment.

Wed February 12, 2014 - National Edition
Mao Pengfei

LiuGong photo
Based on long-term cooperation with the PRIC and Yan Wei’s first-hand information, LiuGong sent its modified excavator and loading machine to Antarctica.
LiuGong photo Based on long-term cooperation with the PRIC and Yan Wei’s first-hand information, LiuGong sent its modified excavator and loading machine to Antarctica.

Yan Wei has three hard and fast rules when he’s driving at work: don’t lock the doors, keep the skylight open and always drive alone.

“It’s important to get out quickly if the snowmobile slips into the sea — and if anything bad happens, being alone will keep the lives lost to a minimum,” he said.

A senior mechanic at LiuGong, a major Chinese construction equipment manufacture, Yan has worked in China’s expeditions both in the Antarctic and Arctic, maintaining and operating the heavy machines that transport people and vital materials across the ice.

In the Antarctic, where safety is always the priority, unloading cargo on the sea ice is an extremely dangerous operation.

“The snowmobile is [5.5 tons] and the cargo on the sleds usually weighs 5.5 or 6.6 tons]. This makes driving on the ice dangerous, especially during summer, when the sea ice begins to melt and becomes thinner,” he said.

Yan clearly remembers his first visit to the Antarctic at the end of 2008, when he saw a new snowmobile fall into a crack while unloading the vessel Snow Dragon for China’s 26th Antarctic expedition.

“The whole snowmobile sank into the icy sea in just a few seconds. Everyone was yelling frantically at the driver, Xu Xiaxing,” Yan recalled. “Luckily, Xu scrambled out of the skylight and climbed out of the crack in the ice.”

Five years later, the voices in his intercom when unloading the Snow Dragon is still vibrating in his ears. “Snow vehicle 170, take your time! We will escort you!”

As he backed the snow vehicle towards the Snow Dragon and attached the sleds, team members in three other ice motorbikes had been waiting to guide him back, he recalls.

“It’s definitely team work. We watch each other’s backs on every mission,” said Yan.

“I drive almost every day in the Antarctic. The locations and even the width of the cracks are all in my mind, but every time when we unload the Snow Dragon, we prepare well in advance.”

He usually visits the site many times to find the best route through the ice crevasses.

The teams work up to 16 hours a day unloading the cargo, as only about 40 days a year are suitable for construction in the Antarctic. If they work faster, it allows more time for the construction.

Yan was drawn to the work by the frozen beauty of the polar regions, and has spent a total of 17 months in Antarctica, working at China’s Zhongshan Station and on the construction of China’s first in-land base, Kunlun station.

“I learned of the polar exploration 20 years ago on the news. I was just amazed by the purity of the scenery and the wildlife like penguins. I dreamed about traveling there if one day I became very rich, but it was just a dream and definitely I never thought of working there.”

His dream merged with his work when LiuGong started working with the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) in 2008.

“To a mechanic, operating machines in extreme environments is very challenging. Extreme low temperatures, high altitudes, strong winds and the intense ultraviolet light make the Antarctic a perfect extreme environment. To me, such a challenge is really alluring, so I applied and worked very hard for the chance to join China polar exploration team,” he said.

The extreme environment also is a test of the construction equipment and its manufacturers.

“His experience is very important in developing construction equipment for extreme environments. The Antarctic is a very good test environment,” said Ethan Yu, vice president of Guangxi Liugong Machinery Co. Ltd.

Yan said working in the Antarctic has changed his life.

“It brings me close to the most advanced scientific research as well as the most primitive face of the planet. If you never go to the Antarctic, it’s hard to believe how clean this world can be without the pollution caused by human,” he said.

The Antarctic also inspired his love of photography. On QQ, a popular Chinese social network, he has posted pictures of the moon hanging in the clear sky, sunshine spreading through transparent air, penguins strolling around the station and the melting ice.

“I was driven to capture on film the primitive strength and haunting simplicity of the last pure land on the planet. I have learned a lot from the scientists of our expedition team. The most important lesson in building on and exploring this land is that we must better protect the world we have. ”

This story is republished with permission from Read China (e-magazine from Xinhua News Agency).

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