Cities in the Snow

It seems to me that we create cities wherever we live, however much we try

to escape them. And when we hate them, we go further remote just to repeat the

same mistakes. At the risk of sounding overly deep and philosophical in an entry

that has expectations of pure light-hearted escapism, why is this?

I had an amazing day recently. The hassle of Halley had been wearing me down

a bit and I needed a break. We all need a break, we’re working hard and have

long hours, but it’s more than that. It’s impossible to be autonomous, independent.

To move things, you need the vehicle mech, to build things, a chippie, to wire

things up, a sparkie, and to seal things, a plumber. In addition, the steelies

are jacking buildings, the field assistants providing safety guidance for all

off-base activites as well as a lot of on-base ones, the genny mechs keep the

place warm and comms managers work shifts to keep us in contact with the world

and run radio scheds with planes and field parties. Met babes are also on shiftwork,

taking air observations and launching balloons to add to the Met Office weather

forecasting, electronic engineers are probing the crazy currents in the sky

and data managers trying to look after all of our numbers. Plus, handovers are

happening between last year’s winterers and this, people are flying in and out

so there are pilots and plane mechanics requiring support, and the various summer-only

scientists are trying to get their tasks completed before the ship takes them

out in February.

But that’s not it either. I like hubub, I like buzz. It’s the politics, the

interdependencies, the rules and regulations, that’s wearing me down. Every

little thing every person does has an impact or demand on someone else. Usually

it’s a demand for time, expertise or advice. Even if it’s a job I’m intending

on carrying out alone, I need to ask advice on relevant safety procedures and

standard protocol. There are forms and procedures and politics surrounding everything

plus the necessity of keeping people in the loop so they know what’s going on

but not boring them with inessentials about your work that they don’t need to

know. Sometimes I even forget, for a moment or three, that it’s great to be

here, it’s an honour, it’s a dream come true. It doesn’t feel like a dream come

true, it feels like a job I don’t particularly like. At times. It’s exhausting.

For everyone.

So then you have to be extra careful and extra considerate and extra nice because

you know that everyone is as equally knackered as you are. Plus, you live with

these people, and are due to live with them and only them for the next year

or two, so you don’t really want to piss anyone off, or talk behind anyone’s

back, or just VENT because they know the person or situation you’re venting

about and that then will influence their impression of that subject which is

the last thing you want because really, really, it’s not a personal thing, it’s

not even a big or important thing, you just want to go and talk to a stranger,

or a friend, who knows none of these people, and talk shit all night in the


So there you have it: it’s not all roses. But then, I never said it would

be. I just don’t generally talk about that stuff on the internet! Anyway, it

was time to get out of the big smoke and remind myself of where I was for a

while. I’d been on standby for five days for a co-pilot jolly to Berkner Island

where there’s a deep core drilling project occurring that is very, very cool

indeed. Every morning, 7am. And every morning, no, not today… or maybe, we’ll

check the weather again in 2 hours. And eventually the weather would get worse

or they’d decide to go elsewhere and I’d get on with whatever it was I was meant

to be doing that day. Or trying to get on with it until some other divergence

came along that required more immediate attention. A day of divergences is,

I guess, as productive as a linear path although the final arrival point often

feels much closer to home, where you began, than the intention might have been.

Anyway, I got up at 6:30. 7am sched? Nope, we’re going elsewhere. And so finally,

finally, I made it out to my lab in the bondoo to start unpacking my final machine.

Or penultimate machine. Well, one of the big ones anyway. And finally, finally,

was on a roll, colleagues away at lunch, music turned up loud… and the phone

rings. “The plane’s leaving for Berkner, you’re on it if you want it, how quickly

can you get here?!” Never have I skiied so fast!!

And there I was, 40 minutes later, in a twin otter, flying high, flying away

from Halley, away from the chaos, out over the ice, over the ocean, the waves,

the icebergs, the reflections of the sun through clouds and onto the water below.

It’s ironic really: this is the driest place in the world but yet we’re surrounded

by water molecules, and only water molecules! I live in a giant frozen ocean!

I love it! The clouds are water, the snow is water, the ice and its hundreds

of forms, the ocean – it’s all water, beautiful, wonderful, flowing, moving,

dynamic, water.

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink. But that’s a further beauty:

you melt it, and you can drink it! Immediate water supply wherever you care

to pitch your tent. How amazing is that?! How convenient! I love it so much.

And my whole scenery, the sphere in which I am flying, it is all composed of

light from the sun interacting with water in various beautiful forms. That’s

it: fire and water. So simple, so incredible. So vast. Shimmerings on ice, crevasses,

glaciers, ice cliffs, ocean waves, clouds, clouds, clouds. I was flying over

Antarctica! Wow!

The flight takes two and a half hours along the coastline, across some frozen

ocean and then onto the south dome of Berkner Island. Berkner is much larger

than I expected; I don’t know what I expected, but I’m sure there are countries

in the world smaller than this island. When we arrive there, I see a few orange

pyramid tents, some flags, skidoo tracks and some people. There’s not much here

at all. I breathe a deep, deep sigh of fresh, unpolluted air. I am here, in

the middle of nowhere, far, far, far away from the politics of bases. This here

is a field camp. It’s great.

Genevieve, a friend from Cambridge, greets me. It’s not at all odd to see

a familiar face in the middle of nowhere although I know it should be. “Welcome

to the city!” she says, and I laugh. And then I realise that she’s only half

joking. There are certainly people in the party who feel it is too luxurious

for a field party. It’s more comfortable than I was expecting, yes, but then,

why not, they’re here for three months every year for three years. And by luxury,

what do I mean? There are a few pyramid tents dotted around, a couple of weatherhavens

and a large drilling tent. That’s it.

Two people share a pyramind tent so your personal space is essentially limited

to the size of your sleeping bag. (In a tent with a relative stranger, that

could get very claustrophobic.) The dome shaped weatherhavens provide a space

to escape to. One has an eating and drinking area, a kettle, some chairs and,

sacrilige for the field, a stereo! The other is an office space. There is also

a toilet tent and a shower tent, again, luxuries of the modern era. The toilet

is an oil drum covered by a sheet of foam with a hole in the top. The shower

is one of those camping bags hanging on a hook holding melted snow. Chilly.

The drilling tent is incredibly impressive. The entrance is at the bottom of

a long deep tunnel and there, inside, in the middle of nowhere, is state-of-the-art

engineering equipment, retrieving ice that was first deposited 5000 years ago!

The floor of the room is about 4m under the snow surface with walls of blue

ice covered by a large dome tent that reaches maybe 3m above the surface. Spacious,

blue, cold. And here they sit and work shifts, drilling, drilling, pulling,

coring, cleaning, processing this precious ice. I saw a core being pulled out

of the ice, carefully, lovingly handled by the ice chemists. This is a true

jewel. It’s so dense, so cold, so brittle, so old. The air bubbles inside are

tiny, compressed under the weight of the ice above. As the ice relaxes to atmospheric

pressure, it hisses and bubbles, you might hear a quiet fizzing and sometimes

shards bounce. Amazing and beautiful to see.

We fly home along the coast and listen to the radio. The antarctic equivalent

of driving home on the motorway tuning in to the stereo. Halley to us, Halley

to field parties, Rothera to field parties, us to Rothera… when you get bored

of one channel, tune into another! All the gossip on these airwaves! You can

even get the world service up here!

And so we fly home and I stare at the ice, at the sea, at the waves and the

clouds. I look around and see no human habitation, no human impact, no wildlife

at all except a couple of birds above the sea. We are far away, this is a special

place. Approaching Halley, I see a few boxes on matchsticks, a couple of masts,

some flags, vehicle tracks and some people. That’s it. There’s not much here

at all. It’s miles from anywhere.

Very soon, only eighteen people will be here, living in these blocks on twigs.

The scenery is huge and vast and dismissive of the human presence. There is

no reason for us to be here. It’s the furthest place in the world from civilisation.

It’s tiny. I breathe a deep, deep sigh of fresh, unpolluted air. I am here,

in the middle of nowhere, far, far, far away from the politics of the world.

This here is an antarctic base. It’s great.

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7 Responses to Cities in the Snow

  1. erika says:

    Simply wonderful and fantastic news! I am so happy that you got this trip. And also great for me to remember Genevieve visiting here at the house. Makes it all feel so much closer.

    Love to all of you out there making your scientific and personal discoveries.


  2. Alice Coggins says:

    Hi Rhian,

    You don’t know me, but my brother, Simon, is one of the Halley winterers. He pointed me to your diary and I really enjoy reading your entries – it’s good to see things from a different perspective. I thought I’d leave a comment because if you need somebody to vent to, I can wholeheartedly recommend my brother. He’s totally trustworthy (and I’ve told him some good secrets in my time!) and a good listener with it. It’s probably the thing I miss most about him so you might as well take advantage of it while he’s there!

    All the best,


  3. Stefan Geens says:

    Hey Rhian,

    When I read your posts, in my mind’s eye we’re having a conversation and you are explaining something very enthusiastically. You definitely write like you talk, and it’s evocative stuff, some of my favorite reading on the web. And I want more.

    PS What is your hair situation like nowadays?

  4. Jim says:

    Hi Rhian!

    Great pic of the ice stairs in the snow.

    If it wasn’t so white, I would think you were in Egypt.

    Another great word picture of your experiences and feelings down there.

    I felt like I was looking over your shoulder during your visit to the island.

    Keep up the postings, you can vent to us anytime!

  5. Kirsten says:

    Hey Beautiful hair free ice-nature-sprite cous,

    when it snowed for a couple of days in cambridge it felt like we’d been transported to a beautiful bright new land… I cant begin to imagine how bright it is where you are…

    Glad to hear you are in the wars, cutting yourself and living a normal life with poltics and crap – it might bring you back to earth at times but its good for us to know you are still on our planet!

    Squishes and hugs and kisses and venting outlets when needed..


  6. Span says:

    oh how I love reading your brain – brings my day to life in new ways and reminds me of the wonderfully intricate simplicities of life in sydney, toronto, london, cambs, leeds, antarctica, NY NY, dorset, wherever.

    drink up some crazy space for me



  7. Saheli says:

    I happened upon your blog because of your brother’s sociopolitical writings, and it was a treat to stumble onto some Antarctic science. What a very beautiful photograph at the top. . .Thank you! Best of luck with your expedition. –Saheli

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