30 April, 2012 Halley
What makes life in Antarctica different to life somewhere else? What drives someone down to the end of the world? What makes it worthwhile or interesting? What about April 2012?
It’s true that Antarctica is a pretty bleak isolated place. I am sure you have all read the facts. The brunt ice shelf gets pretty cold pretty fast. There aren’t many people knocking about in the depths of winter. Space and the stars becomes your backdrop to life. Time stretches out before you as an indivisible single block.
In fairness it’s just day-to-day living. Days start just the same: You wake up. Eat breakfast. Drink a cup of tea. Superficially discuss thoughts, the news or do the crossword. Head off to your desk. Look at the weather, the next vehicle to service or the next scheduled check of the building. Write an email or two to Cambridge to let them know what’s going on. Drink a cup of tea. Don the bearpaws, Ventile and neoprene mask and head out into the blowing snow to fix a radar that should be listening to the atoms whirling around the ionosphere but, who would have guessed, it’s frozen. Eat a rich dinner of meat and butter then maybe hang out and have a beer, watch a film or read a book. Day to day life becomes a matter of routine interspersed with interesting highlights. Is that any different to life anywhere? The only difference I see is in the details of the interesting highlights. What makes it interesting? What makes it a highlight?
The unknown fuels interest. A number of people conceive of Antarctica as the unknown — the last great wilderness. Honestly, a whole lot of it is known. How to live and survive on the ice is now tried and tested. No longer does one live in a hut on the brink of Halley Bay eating rations and nursing ropes. Now we have a station that is more like Google’s headquarters on ice with its own set of problems. Has the pressure dropped in the automatic Marioff fire suppression system and will the third generator automatically come on if necessary? We worry that the snow accumulation around the base is unsustainable yet we have a fleet of vehicles that can terraform the ice sheet around us within hours. Not much here is really unknown. It seems clear to me that true unknown is stepping out of your comfort zone. My comfort zone has now jumped up and enveloped these few square kilometers of the Brunt ice shelf. Where do I go then, to find my unknown?
Winter trips are the closest you can get to the wilderness itself. With an astonishing amount of gear you drive a skidoo off into nothing. A quick glance at the sea ice satellite (before it fell out of the sky) reveals your true isolation and how necessary this volume of gear is. Your only support if you get into trouble is a Sno-Cat on the vehicle line and trust in your fellow wintering team. There are no other forms of support at all. No ship can break through the ice to get to you. No plane can fly through the cold to get you. The beauty of the hinge zone is just that. Nothing. All the wintering team have finished their first round of winter trips now and are safely back on base. April is month to reflect on this and to remember the winter trips of the past that didn’t get safely home.
Every day is a school day and perhaps it’s just the teacher in me but I do really enjoy learning stuff. The number of opportunities here to learn new skills is quite impressive. There are not many places where you can learn how to take an engine apart, bake bagels, scrub up and put in a cannula all in the same day. In the dark evenings of April one or two of us will be knocking around some workshop or another practicing some of these newfound skills and pushing our limits to make our winter presents.
April leads us into over two months together as a wintering team. Idiosyncrasies and friendships have nurtured and started to develop bringing camaraderie, joviality and challenges to the group. There is so much we don’t know about each other.
Realizing that living closely together for months and being able to only scratch the surface of what it means to be someone else and secondly, reflecting on all my friends and family at home is the closest I have come to the unknown. This is truly at the heart of what is interesting. For people and what they mean to you will continue to change and remain elusive for as long as you live — in Antarctica or anywhere.
Crisp air, white and cold,
Blinking hard, eyes frozen shut
A green swell, ebbs and flows
The highest ethereal unknown light
Brighter still, the call goes out
From the winterer on the watch
Hats and gloves, always prepared
For it’s only real, when it’s shared.