I had the longest bath of my life last night: eight hours in a steaming hot
tub, to make up for all the baths I haven’t had in the past six months and won’t
have in the next year. It was glorious. The hot, hot water, thirty degrees on
my skin. The frozen hair, the beer, the wine, the rum and coke slushies. Outside,
the temperature dropped steadily from about minus twentysomething to minus thirtysomething
with windchill. It was cold.
We figured we’d last minutes out there on our own, wearing not very much, soaking
wet. I managed to get outside, go for a pee and jump back in again within one
minute and my toes were colder than I can possibly describe. My feet are raw
today, a combination of the long, long soak and the freezer burn from occasional
necessary jaunts onto the icy, sticky snow.
The party started around 5:30pm with a women’s hour for the two of us. Oh,
the luxury! Floating around in the melt-tank, we haven’t felt water like that
on our skin since. October? It ended around half one in the morning, a blurry
memory: a mixture of steam from the tub, ice in the air, the sharp wake-up call
of an antarctic blow and the hazy feeling you get after drinking all afternoon
on christmas day. At its busiest, we packed twelve people into this five foot
cube of warmth.
Photo by Frank Swinton
Why the celebration? It’s the end of the summer, the base is being winterised,
the summer residence in particular is being shut down, emptied, drained… and
as a final reminder of the chaos that it was, the space it now is, our ownership
of this corner of the ice shelf, we make a jacuzzi in their melt-tank, bubbles
and all. Because we can. A final celebration of warmth: crank up the heat and
This evening we had a party to welcome the winter. I may be the only person
here to see these as rituals, spontaneous as they both were, but the analogies
are obvious once you start thinking about it. It’s dark, it’s cold, we’re tired
from the last night’s festivities.
Where do we go? To the igloo that’s just been finished of course! The opening
night: the final block was placed but hours ago. There is a beautiful, pale
blue glow, seemingly from nowhere, as you approach in the poor vis. It even
looks like an igloo! Round, with a tunnel entrance. It’s huge inside! We built
Photo by Jeff Cohen
It started as an afternoon jolly last Saturday ("I know", said Simon,
"why don’t we build an igloo tomorrow afternoon if the weather’s good?")
and turned into a week-long epic. Watching the technique developing as the week
progressed, learning from mistakes. What began as a chaotic expression of creativity
with snow turned into an art and science of igloo building. The pit from which
the snow blocks were carved, the shaping of them with a saw, their placement,
spiralling around the circle, the snow mortar that stuck them together. Hold
the blocks in place, however precarious the angle, toss snowballs at them, gently,
hold them for a couple of minutes, and watch them freeze. A couple of hours
later they are set like concrete,- what amazing building material snow is! And
now, this evening, we have had ten people in there reading poetry by the light
of a tilly lamp. Let the winter begin!
Night and day. I’ve been feeling lately that this is a fairly ordinary place
to be after all. I’ve been struggling with the predictability of night and day.
Of sun in the day and the moon and stars at night. So strange, after so long.
I hadn’t expected it. Gradually, of course, the days get shorter and the nights
get longer, the sun drops below the horizon for progressively longer stretches.
Of course – that’s what happens everywhere else in the world, isn’t it
obvious that it would happen here as well? I had expected something different.
I expected to move from 24 hours of sunlight to 24 hours of darkness via 24
hours of dusk I guess, gradually deepening in colour. I had abstracted myself
completely from the rest of the Earth system, this thing I’m meant to be studying.
I go to work, manhauling my solutions, bottles, boxes, clothes, lunch, on a
pulk sledge. I work in a lab fixing, plumbing, fitting, hammering, building,
tightening, checking, tuning, optimising, troubleshooting. I go home. Yesterday
I came home by kite – well, by hanging onto Stephane who was hanging onto
a kite. Both on skis. We all eat dinner together. I sit in the lounge and read
for a while. We have a few drinks in the bar. Last week, the chef was away so
we took it in turns to cook. It was a highlight, at the time as exciting and
memorable as igloo building. This is my life: if you do anything for long enough
it begins to feel normal. I guess ‘normal’ is just a reference to your usual
I’m writing like I’m beginning to go a little mad. I’m not (going mad) –
I’m just writing as the things come out. It’s all a mess, a jumble, it’s all
so obvious and easy until you realise that it’s actually very different from
everyone else’s experience at home. When you’re sat in a hot tub with lots of
people you don’t actually know that well, surrounded by a very cold place where
you can die very quickly, having a laugh… and then you realise that the only
thing that is holding this place together is a massive social restraint. And
what would happen should you dare to suggest that that restraint was loosened
a little? We all came here to live, to experience, to do something different
– but we all must conform as well to make sure we don’t go mad.
We won’t go to the South Pole en masse although we’ll talk about it for the
rest of the year, there won’t be mass orgies, although you out there will keep
asking and falsely assuming, there will always be food and heat and electricity
and people will go to work and there will become a routine that feels normal
and right because this isn’t an intentional community designed to explore the
boundaries of human interaction, it’s a scientific research base peopled by
those whose job skills suited.
The next day, after hot-tubs and igloos, we were practicing survival skills
outside in preparation for winter trips. Wrap up warm, real warm, find a harness
and your gear, and meet us outside, I was told. So I did. The last pair had
just finished as I arrived so I was led to the rope, given various jingly janglies
and told to go: up the rope with a jumar and then abseil down, just to check
you remember what you’re doing. I didn’t think I could remember a thing. We
were trained on this during three days in Derbyshire last September, tied to
lots of safety ropes and thoroughly supervised. But it came back surprisingly
quickly. Up and down. Next time I do this will be in a crevasse, on my winter
trip, in a week’s time. So I guess it’s not that normal after all, being here.
I like it, I like it a lot, even if there’s nothing to reference ourselves against.