Halley Diary — June 2013
30 June, 2013 Halley
- Sun above the horizon – 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds
- Max Wind Speed – 81 knots
- Min Temp – −48°C (-62°C
- Midwinter’s Week Fun – lots
- Midwinter’s Gift Quality – phenomenal
- Casualties – surprisingly few
June. Lovely summery sunny June, with long days spent dreaming about the warm evenings filled with barbeques and pub gardens, festivals, summer holidays… well, for some anyway…
I really do miss a good pub garden!
Anyway, I digress.
June here at Halley marks the winter solstice, the mid-point of our 103 sunless days and the biggest party in Antarctica…Midwinter! The collective feeling of celebration is palpable as all the bases send each other midwinter’s greetings in the weeks building up to it. We also receive letters from the British PM, the US president and other world leaders.
The beginning of June was marked by some wonderfully still and crisp days and dark starry nights. Although the sun is well below the horizon we still see the vestiges of sunlight as a midday sunset of oranges and pinks.
The colours we get in the sky here must be amongst the most varied of anywhere on Earth and with a spectacular aurora brightening our skies in early June we had the full gamut of colours. The aurora is surely one of the most wonderful things I shall ever see…green and purple waves of light swirl around the sky, appearing almost solid enough to reach out and touch.
For the scientifically curious out there…auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth’s upper atmosphere from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron and oxygen and nitrogen atoms returning from an excited state to ground state. Oxygen emissions result in green or reddish/brown aurora and nitrogen produce blue or red aurora.
The still days bring with it the ability to enjoy the strange wilderness that is the flat Antarctic ice shelf on which I know live. Despite the overwhelming, white plain that now surrounds us, it is a land of almost indefinable contrasts… at once both featureless and so full of detail, eternally constant yet resculpted with each katabatic ‘blow’ that comes through… and bloody freezing of course! There is no experience quite like laying on your back looking up at the starriest of star-filled skies listening to nothing but your breath crackle and freeze with every exhalation. Supposedly true silence only exists in death… but I know now that is far from the truth, you simply need to come and winter in Antarctica!
In the weeks leading up to midwinter the folks on base are both excitable and clandestine as they burrow themselves away working on their various winter gifts. Anything spare and not tied down, be it wood, metal, light fittings or clock mechanisms gets squirreled away into rooms and workshops to be later transformed into the glittering array of gifts to be presented on midwinter’s day. I, and everyone else found ourselves doing a lot of this:
The week was kicked off with a party in the main ‘Big Red’ Robert Falcon Scott module, seeing it turned into a cross between a neon-lovers dream and a set from an 80’s children’s TV programme.
Top name DJs kept our arms waving ears bleeding until the small hours:
Midwinter’s day itself started with the tradition of the Base Commander making us all breakfast (in bed if requested… though none in the end went for this exclusive option).
After a lavishly lazy morning, lunch kicked off one of the main themes for the day, an avalanche of delicious food amazingly prepared by Andy our chef.
Delicious throughout. And a mile away from the seal and penguin that was ‘enjoyed’ at the early days of Halley and before…maybe not that appetising, but if you fancy giving one of them a try, have a look at the recipe below:
Eating aside the rest of the day was filled with gifts and treats, both from our winterers and from family back home, as well as the traditional, and somewhat disturbing, midwinter’s viewing of ‘The Thing’.
The midwinters gifts to and from each other were just amazing. The ingenuity and skill that went into making them was just staggering and the hard, secretive work of the previous weeks was well worth it. We had picture frames, painstakingly carved outlines of Antarctica, intricate models of the base hiding more treasures within, knives, clocks, lights, a Stirling engine, an aurora detector and more besides.
We then all bundled into the comms office to listen to the BBC’s midwinter broadcast on the World Service. Messages from home played over our choice of song…which was, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Nine Inch Nails’ “Every Day Is Exactly The Same”!
A long, very special and very filling day was finished off with a few glasses of “The Enduring Spirit” whisky…recreated meticulously from the original bottles found in Shackleton’s hut…a fitting end to a wonderful day.
The next week was a blur of events for which all the stops had been well pulled out. Bars were created in the most unlikely of places…from the physical exertions of Ian’s (field assistant) workshop bar and torture chamber…
…we then came back over to the comfort of the base in some pretty harsh conditions…
…to ‘pop-up’ bars throughout the base, before rounding off the evening with some ‘sports’ courtesy of the Xbox in the bar. Watching people ‘bowl’ at this point in the evening is about the funniest thing any of us will see for a long time!
The hotly contested doubles pool tournament was won by Hamish (zEng) and Paul (zComms) and then after hurricane strength winds and blowing snow kept us locked firmly inside for a few days the week was finished off with a skidoo course and barbeque hosted by Curly our vehicle mechanic, followed by the inaugural night in our snow cave…at 76 South surely the world’s coolest ice bar!
If all this seems a bit cushy and frivolous for a bunch of hardy Antarctic types, celebrating midwinter’s day is not a new tradition. Whether the first midwinter celebration was by 1898’s Belgica Antarctic Expedition or Shackleton’s crew, every expedition from the great and heroic age of Antarctic exploration understood the importance of the rest and change in routine afforded by the midwinter’s week. An excerpt from various sources from Shackleton’s ill-fated ‘Endurance’ expedition illustrates just how much of a big deal even they made of it:
‘They held a special celebration on Midwinter’s Day, June 22. The Ritz was decked out with bunting and flags and Hurley built a stage of sorts that was lighted by a row of acetylene gas footlights. After the best dinner the cook could provide, all hands gathered in the Ritz, where the men staged a four hour “smoking concert” during which they all dressed in outlandish costumes and recited silly songs and verses. McIlroy, dressed up as a Spanish girl and a very wicked looking one at that, with a very low evening dress and slit skirt showing a bare leg above her stocking tops, gave the Danse Espagnol. After supper at midnight they sang ‘God Save the King’ and wished each other all success in the days of sunshine and effort that lay ahead.’
I haven’t written much here about day-to-day life here, but there’s plenty of that in the other month’s entries… life of course went on as usual, with fuel tanks being filled up, snow pushed into the melt tanks for water, science data being collected… and in amongst the routine of work down here, particularly in the cold dark days of winter when the challenges of living and working here can become all too apparent, our midwinter’s ‘holiday’ was a perfect injection or fun, rest and celebration for the 13 of us and marks a significant milestone as we move into the second half of the year. The days will become lighter and the sun will return in just over six weeks!
Thanks to all my family and friends for the continued love and support from the warm, green North… and of course to all my fellow Halley winterers — who (though it may change as the gin runs out!) have been making this a truly wonderful experience.