30 June, 2006 Halley
June is a month which seems to be largely compressed into a week, the week around our winter solstice. Midwinter is a big issue down here, signifying the point at which we stop descending into darkness and begin ascending back up to summer sunshine. But to describe June as a dark month is actually quite unfair. The nights are of course long but even on midwinter’s day we were able to enjoy an hour and more of coruscating light.
It is the sort of ephemeral glow which most people at most latitudes can savour if they are early enough and quick enough. Our main advantage is that the sunrise/sunset glimmer barely changes so we can stare at it until our sense of wonder is exhausted. We all try taking pictures of the light but you need that critical blend of skill and luck to do it properly. Anto put in some sterling service organising a photo competition for midwinter, the winner of which was this next shot by Nicola. Many pictures paint a thousand words but this one is a book’s worth. If you’ve never really understood the attractions of an Antarctic winter, this should help.
What the picture can’t convey is the sheer pleasure of cross country skiing (at a very sedate pace) in air so cold that eyebrows, lashes and beards grow tiny monuments of ice. It is a privileged view here at the best of times but there are moments when you simply can’t avoid realising that wintering in Antarctica is a never-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people. These are points when you have to pinch yourself and make a real effort to commit the scene to memory. Mind you, a photo like this can certainly help. I should also point out that digging snow which has the consistency of reasonable quality house bricks is something else you can’t help remembering, regardless of how hard you try. Oddly, none of us has any photographs of that.
The rest of the midwinter week was a demure riot of celebration and frivolity. In comparison to the other bases at which I’ve been stationed there’s less to do recreationally at Halley. As a result the organised activities are extremely well patronised and the 2006 team pulled together to make the week easygoing and hugely enjoyable. June’s temperatures started at -30°C but rocketed up to -5°C for a while and then back down to the mid minus forties on midwinter’s day. This tiny detail was scoffed at by the hardy majority for the midwinter streak around the main platform. Running in nothing but hat, gloves and boots served as the perfect preparation for a tremendous day underpinned by Nic’s fantastic dinner.
Even the epicurean diners amongst us are well satisfied with the normal Halley fare but the midwinter dinner took us to another level altogether. All this after the exchange of midwinter presents, the atmospheric, crackly reception of the World Service broadcast and a pre-prandial gin and tonic. With internet connections even to our remote outpost this may be the last of the midwinter broadcasts; if so it will mean the end of a long era. Regular e-mail contact with friends and family certainly represents an improvement but many people still wore huge grins at hearing their names mentioned over the radio.
Sport was a central strut to our week. The pool tournament organised by Fran was amazingly hard fought — it is hard to avoid pressure and the spirit of competition even over three frames on a table that would be more suited to a crazy golf course. But, good humour and some high calibre potting prevailed and the winner was . . . erm, Fran. Cry foul at your peril. We also built up to the festivities by taking on our fellow winterers at Rothera for a crunch darts match over a webcam. Roars of suppressed tension flew more readily than the arrows from the oche as Halley recovered from a seemingly insuperable 0-1 deficit to scoop the match 2-1. Much merriment ensued after Kirsty, Brian and Dave steered the unfancied Halley crew to victory. (We were admittedly thumped by King Edward Point, but prefer not to mention that.)
Lest anyone out there thinks that the wintering Antarctican is primarily a physical beast, let them be corrected: one evening was devoted to a tough and taxing quiz and a whole day given over to viewing five films chosen by popular poll. If I tell you that three of the films were ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ you can probably deduce just how this holiday affects us down here. Christmas in December’s twenty four hour sunshine is hard to take seriously (and anyway we were heavily engaged with the Halley re-supply and its associated 50km drive). It may be June but there is no denying the influence of mince pies and about two hundredweight of sparkly decorations. The team also produced a Midwinter Magazine to shake the foundations of all but the very biggest publishing houses. This year we decided to style it on a 1970’s Panini football sticker album, an homage to the engrossing World Cup in Germany. The midwinter magazine is normally an opportunity to write embarrassing things about our fellow winterers anonymously. Scurrilous humour abounds. For 2006 the editor decided to eschew the tired template of previous years and flood the magazine with articles of culture, wisdom and pertinent commentary. Needless to say, despite everything scurrilous humour abounded and the whole magazine is, funnily enough, a collection of embarrassing vignettes written anonymously (and usually not by me whatever the suspicious may think). The football theme persisted for a few pages but was overtaken by a curious fixation with bits of an Alpine 2 skidoo.
Aside from midwinter there has been a steady pace of work and training. In July there is a plan to build a couple of Nansen sledges, BAS’s staple equipment carrier in the field. They are made almost entirely of wood and held together largely — unlikely though it may sound — by string. Building them involves arcane knots and splices. In readiness for the sledge production line, we spent an afternoon learning to splice 20mm nylon ropes. Once we all get back, many corners of Britain will become recognisable for the towropes, swings and light fittings which will be made of old bits of hawser spliced into the most unlikely of shapes.
And so we move on towards July (mid July marking the true middle of our nine-month winter) and the summer. The long-term stress of the midwinter present manufacture no longer drives anyone to early morning carpentry and it is tempting to believe that we can indeed see a little more sunlight each day. By August we will be aiming to visit the emperor penguin colony nearby and the following months will see the second round of winter trips, insanely long days and bright, bright sun. It all seems a long way off now but no doubt it will be upon us before we know it. Me, I’m looking forward to seeing everyone back in Britain next April (after thirty months!) but in the meantime hello to Barton, Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Don Logan and everyone else out there — it’s been a lot easier with you on my side.
Oh, and I mentioned the World Cup once but I think I got away with it.
Field GA and Splicer-in-Chief