Rothera Diary — March 2009

30 March, 2009 Rothera

Preparing for Winter

I am Dr Matt A Edwards, medical officer for the British Antarctic Survey research facility on the Antarctic Peninsula known as Rothera. It is an honour to restart the web diaries with my own view on the last month’s activities and on starting our Antarctic Winter. It is a shame the web diaries had dried up over the summer season, but now that we have just entered winter it seems an opportune moment to restart them. I am on night watch at the moment so have a little more time on my hands than most. To summarise the whole summer season at Rothera is very tricky as there was so much going on. In fact I’m not even going to try.

So I will pick up from the time the aircraft left us. All the field parties had been successfully pulled off glaciers, lakes and crags, all the automatic weather stations had been either erected or dismantled, and Sky Blu and Fossil Bluff had been closed and made safe for winter. So with their missions completed, one by one, the little workhorses, the Twin Otter planes set off up the peninsula to spend their winter in Canada. Each saluted those left on base with a low-level flyby and suddenly everything changed. After months with the majority of the focus on base directed towards the daily flights of these aircraft, there was now only one left — Daisy, the much larger Dash 7. Much to Ian and Andy’s, the exhausted Communication Officers, relief, the radio chatter diminished to far more reasonable levels. Clem (an Antarctic institution all of his own) could finally pause for a cup of tea and start thinking about getting the badminton nets out in the hangar.

As other more southerly bases closed down, such as the private enterprise at Patriot Hills (approximately 80 degrees south, in the foothills of the Ellsworth Mountains), the last remaining aircraft on this side of the continent started to filter through Rothera on their route north. There was a definite feeling that the continent was shutting up shop and battening down the hatches. Daisy’s final duty was to simply return people to normal civilisation. And with a few flights back and forth to Punta Arenas and the Falkland islands, we were reduced to a team of about 40 to wait for ‘last call’.

Recently my most time-consuming job has been running the Post Office, a traditional role for the BAS doctors, but not one for which we are specifically trained. Either that or I was asleep for that particular lecture at medical school. In the final days before the RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived for ‘last-call’, there was a rush on the Post Office to try to get all the messages and packages ‘tagged and bagged’ for transportation with the ship. It would be the Winterers’ last chance. There was also pressure for me to get all the philatelic post cancelled, cached and signed. Having little actual prior knowledge and more than my own fair share of preconceived prejudices surrounding the world of philately, I disdainfully considered this aspect of my role here to being like the controller of a train station, but one who has to spend most of his time catering for legions of demanding, yet painfully polite, foreign train spotters. When it came to stamp collecting I suppose, like many others, I simply couldn’t quite see the appeal of hoarding hundreds of small pieces of sticky paper. Should we not have grown out of putting together albums of stickers and exchanging them in the school playground? I’ve got a radical idea. Why don’t we all try licking the back of them, slapping them onto envelopes, and putting them in a post box? I thought that is what they are for. Honestly, stamp-collecting.

Also on an annual rolling rota, it had fallen to Rothera to cancel about 3000 collectors’ first day covers and stamps. ‘Cancelling’ for any of you who don’t know, is the action of applying a postmark to indicate the stamp has been used. See all the wonderful things I am learning? You see, philately people want to see that a piece of postage has been used at a certain place at a certain time. Alan, our summer chef, would often watch me gradually develop a repetitive strain wrist injury, as I ‘ka-chunked’ my way through postmarking several boxes of glossy envelopes (which, interestingly, seem to have been helpfully treated to be completely resistant to postmark ink) and he would supportively comment, “Philately will get you nowhere’. Ha ha.

Of course, the burden for the postmaster has lessened as alternative forms of communication have been developed on base. We are very well catered for with telecommunication facilities considering where we are. Looming over the base, a few mysterious white domes hum with the strong radio signals being projected up to the satellites. I am told that, if you stand at the right point in front of one of these domes, the condensed point of the invisible beams has the capacity to burn into your internal organs. So I’ve made a carefully considered decision not to go up there. Instead I look up at the domes with the complete lack of understanding and curious apprehension that you might expect of an Amazonian tribesman confronted with an iPod. So even though I do not fully understand how, we have come a long way from the monthly 300 word telegrams previous FIDS were rationed with to communicate back to the real world. Notwithstanding the infrequent power-downs and WAN failures, it is relatively easy to keep people back home up to date. For many this comes as a double-edged sword. While it is comforting to be able to speak or write to your loved ones at the touch of a button, one of the traditional challenges associated with time served in Antarctica was the isolation from the world you know. We are searching for a feeling that we are walking on another planet. There is a romantic ideal of sailing over the horizon into the unknown, with the radio contact fading away, lost to the eyes of civilisation until your triumphant return, and it still pervades in many of us. Standing in the all too recent footsteps of the polar heroes, staring out of the triple-glazed window in the centrally heated dining room with a freshly brewed cup of coffee in your hand, the thought often comes over me that ‘this is all just a little too easy’.

Writing letters, for many of us, becomes an important reclamation of some of that lost romance of the Antarctic experience. A letter may contain less information, and it may get to its destination weeks later, but that tangible message — complete with its ambiguous handwriting, bad grammar, smudges and spelling mistakes — it was once held in the hand of the writer and then transported across thousands of miles to be held in the hand of the reader. It means so much more than the clinical spell-checked paragraphs pushing out of a computer screen. So I also had dutifully prepared many letters to send home and I wrote one to my family as the Shackleton crawled closer. To finish this diary I will include its contents to give a better contemporaneous account of my feelings as D-Day approached:

“Dear Mum and Dad,

Winter is nearly upon us. The R.R.S. Shackleton will soon be here and we will all be embroiled in the ‘last call’. My main duties while it is moored will be to join Penny, the BAS Dentist, and assist her with the Winterers dental checks. It will be good revision for me, and a chance to get more familiar with the mouths of my wintering colleagues.

There is a prickly sense of anticipation on base. Those leaving are juggling their frantic packing with simply standing and taking in the view. For many, it is likely they will never see this view ever again. It must be especially difficult to say goodbye for the ex-winterers, who have called the base their home for a very long time. Two years in some cases. But they are focusing on their travels ahead through the real world, being reunited with loved ones and recounting their tales of Antarctic adventure. However I doubt they are relishing returning to the world of mobile phones, supermarkets, motorway traffic, ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’ and that rotting carcass of an economy we keep hearing about.

Those of us who are staying (the Winterers) have watched the temperature drop, the darkness creep in earlier and earlier like oil over rocks, and have started to contemplate the owners of the faces staring back at us across the dining tables. For these will be the only faces we will see for the next six months. This time next week the Shackleton will have sailed and we will be left with a skeleton crew of only 21 souls. I think we are very fortunate to have a very strong team with a wealth of collective skills and experience this year. We are privileged to even have Mr Dave Routledge, Antarctic hero and possessor of a Polar medal, serving his seventh winter with us. Five others, including our winter base commander, have also wintered at Rothera before. And speaking from the viewpoint of an ‘Indian’, it is reassuring to have so many ‘Chiefs’ around.

After over ten years immersed in the ‘medical world’ most doctors naturally find that their non-medical friends start to whittle away, so it is a refreshing change to be regularly socialising with normal people (well, normal for Antarctica, I should add) who have such varied backgrounds and occupations. Considering all our differences we all seem to gel very well. They tell me no winter is the same, and that the people make it. Not solid sea ice, or a fleet of operational skidoos, or fleeting visits from emperor penguins. No, it’s the faces around this dining table that will make this winter. And I hope I don’t jinx it all by saying I already know it will be a great winter. And who knows what challenges will come for us? All I know is that, once that ship sails over the horizon, whatever those challenges may be, we face them alone. I know that and I am not worried. It is a privilege to be here and it is an honour to winter with these wonderful men and women. It is also an honour to add my name to the list of distinguished polar medics brave or stupid enough to take this job on. Wish us all luck.

All my love. See you in Spring 2010.