Tales Of Solitude And Snow From Antarctica

Have you ever wondered what it would be like working in the South Pole, isolated from humanity? Well now you don't have to...
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Have you ever wondered what it would be like working in the South Pole, isolated from humanity? Well now you don't have to...

In one hour it will be time to switch on the high frequency radio and report back to base, let them know we’re safe & well, our location, our intentions for tomorrow and never forgetting to report the status of our Carbon Monoxide monitor, but, that is in one hour’s time.

Right now I lie here with my legs stretched out, my back propped up with a mass of jumpers, jackets and a rolled up sleeping bag. There is a steaming hot cup of tea beside me and the reassuring hiss of the paraffin lamp burning, warming up our tent to 28 degrees and filling it with white light. From the outside the orange fabric glows like a warm ember, it is the only shelter, containing the only people for miles around.

Why am I here, camping in Antarctica, in winter no less? There are many reasons but the simplest one right now is that it is my job. Today I skied to a point around 20km away from a British scientific research station with the communications manager. We towed everything we need to live comfortably in Pulks (imagine a small bath tub) behind us to try and attempt to climb a mountain.

Three days ago I wasn’t far away from this same location with the vehicle mechanic after a week of climbing and after a week of preparation and maintenance I could well be here again with the Marine Biologist. I love my job. It is as varied as the people I work with and as challenging and rewarding as the Mountains we get to climb.

My job is to take the staff who are entrusted with the upkeep and running of the research station out on field trips to train them in field craft. For the majority of the eighteen strong team it will be the longest time away from the ten major buildings that make up the base in the past six months.  It is considered a privilege and the British Antarctic Survey are one of the only Antarctic organisations that allow these sort of activities to take place, which makes people from all sectors well-versed in a unique ’lightweight’ style of polar living which allow BAS to carry out science and support in otherwise potentially unfeasible areas.

The winter months began with the departure of the RRS Shackleton, one of the two ships owned and operated by BAS, in the first week of April.  Last Call as it is known, involves the loading of cargo, samples and specimens, waste and recycling, vehicles, ISO containers and finally the remainder of the summer only staff onto the Shack before it sets sail northbound for the Falkland Islands then onto the UK. On a busy research station, after a busy science programme there is a lot to go on board. Loading takes nearly three days. It is a slick operation and the ships’ crew are well rehearsed in the proceedings. As the ship gently rolled next to the wharf with blue skies above and 2000m glacier covered mountains protruding straight out from the sea as a backdrop and a flock of Blue-eyed Shags swooping overhead, the base became alive with the movement of cranes, JCB’s, telehandlers, Caterpillar’s and mini pick-up trucks (Gators) as people moved and loaded cargo, rolled out refuelling lines and checked off every single item on the bill of laden, everything has to be accounted for. In the thick of it all, simply helping to hook on the cargo lines to the two cranes I felt proud and inspired to be there and be a part of the team working so efficiently and effectively overcoming such a mammoth task. By early afternoon on the third day, the job was complete. Now there was only a farewell meal on board the ship before the following day’s departure.

Early, on the morning of April 6th, two lines of people stood facing each other. One line on board the port side of The Shack, made up of the remaining summer staff yet to leave and the previous winterers on their way home for the first time in one and a half years. The other line of people stood on the wharf, eighteen of us (along with a solitary penguin). The atmosphere was thick with emotion; people excited to be going home but also fondly thinking back to the past eighteen months to the place which had been their home, veterans of The Survey remembering their past winters and friends they’ve made, how it was for them when they saw the ship leave, the only people to know what it was like for us, stood on the shore experiencing a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

The Shack sounded her bellowing foghorn, I gave way to a shallow gasp and my heart felt light as it signified the winter and our 100% commitment to it.  The Shack rotated and presented her bow square on to us as a salute, whoops and cheers seemed faded and distant to me as she continued to rotate hypnotically to the correct bearing. The boatmen, a former navigator for the RNLI initiated a series of flare shots and rockets to wish the ship farewell as the first mate on board did the same. The loud cracks and pops snapped my mind back to the moment as I let off my own cheers and applauded.

Right now, it is almost time for our radioSched, but, before that I need to cut some more snow blocks then prime and light the stove so we can melt water for our freeze-dried food rations.  There’s a 40 knot wind outside, it’s pitch black and the snow is blowing up to and over our heads, so, I’ll wear  what was formerly my backrest and head outside. Remember us when you next switch on the kettle!

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