Halley Diary — June 2007

30 June, 2007 Halley

Midwinter Mischief

June here was all about Midwinter, the biggest event in the Antarctic calendar. Most people (myself included), spent every spare moment in the run up to Midwinter’s Day frantically putting the finishing touches to winter presents and plotting for the festivities to come. As the eagerly awaited day approached, we took a week off work to eat, drink and be merry. But first, there was work to be done…

At the start of June, the last of Halley’s large fleet of vehicles were put to rest for the winter. The skidoos had to be dug out of snowdrifts, driven onto a big sledge so that hopefully they won’t get buried again, and tucked away under tarpaulins.

Whilst most of them sleep, there is one machine that we rely upon throughout the winter months. Once a week, a trusty bulldozer piles up a big mound of snow ready to be shovelled into the melt tank that makes all our water.

June was the month of the great melt tank wars. With darkness and extreme cold keeping us all indoors more than we’d like, the daily ritual of digging snow to fill the melt tank took on new value to some base members. Ant, our hyperactive chef, was rarely seen without a spade in hand. The full tank lights became a familiar beacon in the night (and day) sky. Whilst most of us applauded Ant’s efforts, a few equally keen souls started a rebellion. Tom, Jim and Sune were fiercely protective of their turn on the melt tank roster, and took to hiding away the spades, leaving Ant with a teaspoon as his only tool.

Whilst Vehicle Mech Mat was on night shift, Field Assistant Sune turned the garage into a jungle of ropes and tents. All the kit we use for trips off base (and there’s a lot of it) has to be serviced during the dark winter months, lucky Sune!

Pete, Base Commander and ex-Field Assistant, had a big birthday on the 10th:

For the outdoor themed party, the Met team decided to spend the night all ‘roped up’, ready to climb a mountain. As we quickly discovered, all being tied to the same rope had its disadvantages:

Free once more, Kirsty and I headed out to the CASLab (Halley’s Clean Air Sector Laboratory) to take some snow samples. Every three months, we dig a big hole in an untouched patch of snow and fill pots with snow from each layer; one pot for every two centimetres below the surface, down to at least a metre. To minimise any contamination of the samples, we wear sterile boiler suits, plastic gloves up to our shoulders and face masks, over all our usual Antarctic gear, leaving us looking more like creatures out of ‘The Thing’. Alex, Halley data manager and base poet, summed up the procedure:

Put on a clean suit, with a generous fit
Find a clean shovel and shape out a pit
Hide all your hair in a pixie shaped hood
Pick a warm day when the weather is good

Climb in the hole and cut into the side
You’ll need room to work, so make the hole wide
Measure the height from the lip of the wall
To find each icy layer of last years snow fall

You must wear a mask, and long plastic gloves
And that is the part that we’ve all grown to love
Now take each little pot and fill it with snow
One after another, to form a neat row

Pack up the samples, sealed in clean plastic bags
Record their position, so each one has a tag
Then remember again on some warm sleepy night
How you shivered for science under southern star light

The samples are sent back to the UK and analysed to help improve our knowledge of the chemistry going on near the snow surface (important in the interpretation of ice cores, for example).

We weren’t the only ones working out in the darkness this month. Jim, our resident chippy come steel erector, along with Richard, SuperDoc, spent a couple of long afternoons jacking the legs of the platform we live in, mainly to ensure that there would be no wonky table excuses at the Midwinter pool tournament.

Although he seemed happy enough to put his life in Jim’s hands as the two of them clambered up ladders to hang from the bottom of the platform, when it was time for the Midwinter dental check-ups Richard was less keen to let the carpenter take charge.

Not content with just doctor, dentist and steel erector to his name, Richard also has the privilege of being the Halley Bin Man.

One of my favourite things about the way of life down here is our self sufficiency. It means that as well as Dentists and Bin Men, we’re our own emergency services. This month, Fire Chief Mark drilled us in the use of breathing apparatus.

As midnight approached in the longest night of my life, the festivities began in force. We kicked off with something to remind us of home, an office Christmas party. We don’t really get to celebrate Christmas down here as we’re usually too busy making the most of the 24-hour daylight at that time of year. Those who attended the Simpson office party however, found out you can’t escape the horrors of Christmas music and tacky decorations just by travelling 12,000 miles to the most isolated corner of the earth. Needless to say, the photocopier survived the night (just).

The next day saw a change of tone, with a near Olympic standard biathlon. After completing the cross-country skiing stage, the ten or so participants lined up to throw snowballs at tin cans (we don’t have guns down here, and yes, that leaves us defenceless against the impending threat of a Polar bear attack). It was a closely fought fight to the finish line and with only six months to practice their cross-country skiing skills prior to the event, one participant even managed to finish with both skis still attached to his feet – truly inspirational.

A night filled with intrigue, suspense and very tenuous Italian accents was next on the agenda, as we all became detectives in a murder mystery story. Somehow, although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by now, all the women’s parts were taken by the men on base before I even had a chance to put my name down.

My own personal favourite event was the transformation that took place on Midwinter’s Eve, from Antarctic Research Station to crazy golf course, in the click of a finger (and the tear of a large quantity of sticky tape). There was a prize for the most creative club and here you see the deserved winner:

Then it was time, and it was worth the wait; Midwinter’s Day was special. For me it began with breakfast in bed: tea and a veggie sausage sandwich delivered by the Base Commander. That was followed by the traditional naked run around the building (the weather was kind, it was a balmy –35 with hardly any wind), to work up an appetite for the feast that awaited.

For anyone back home who’s worried we don’t eat properly down here, just take a look at the ten courses we enjoyed on June 21st:

  • Canapés and champagne
  • Honey roasted butternut squash shot with pan-fried porcini mushrooms
  • Cappuccino of white beans with charred smoked bacon
  • Duo of trout & monkfish fillets with béarnaise emulsion & an asparagus, green bean & shallot salad
  • Marinated barbecue noisettes of lamb, canon of beef on a bed of onion purée served with griddled vegetables, fondant potatoes & a raspberry balsamic port jus
    Risotto verde with olive oil pesto & parmesan crisps
  • Quenelle of melon sorbet
  • Caramelised compote of pineapple with coconut tuile biscuit
  • Strawberry tart tatin
  • Selection of the finest “frozen” cheeses
  • Fresh filter coffee and chocolates

After the banquet came the winter presents. At last the weird and wonderful creations everyone had been keeping hidden for so long were unveiled.

Midwinter’s week ended with the fiercely competitive pool tournamen and surprise, surprise, a second year winterer was crowned champion- free pool is incredibly addictive.

I leave you with our Midwinter greetings, as sung out across the snow on a Midwinter’s Eve:

We wish you a merry Midwinter
We wish you a merry Midwinter
We wish you a merry Midwinter and a happy new sun

Thanks to Tom, Richard, Sune, Dave, Mark, Jules and Ant for photos.

Lots of love to everyone back up north

Halley MetBabe