It is, as the title suggests, blowing an absolute hoolie outside and I fear
I have been over-romanticising Antarctica in my latest scrawls. I have not seen
the sun for a week. I have been outside, for more than five minutes, three times
only. I have been lifted off my feet, fallen on my face, clung onto a handline
for fear of never seeing a building again and have turned all the instruments
in my lab off until the storm passes.
It is currently blowing 37 knots outside from the east. The average windspeed
dropped to 27 knots Saturday morning and went as high as 59 last week. Gusts
of 70 knots were not uncommon. To those of you unfamiliar with nautical miles,
think ordinary miles per hour. That’s a lot of air to go past your face. And
a lot of snow being carried in the air. The building rocks and sways as though
it were a ship, water gurgles in sinks and toilets, unidentified swinging things
swing against the legs throughout the night. In my windowless pitroom, I hear
the gale through the ventilation system and know there’s no point hurrying to
get out of bed.
This is a storm. This is the kind of storm you might have seen in films. It’s
all true. Handlines connect buildings to buildings, interspersed by poles roughly
10 metres apart. When you leave the building, you grab a handline. Within a
minute or two, turn around and you can see nothing of the place you just left
except perhaps, if you’re lucky, a foggy suggestion of light coming from the
normally piercingly bright search lights. Half way between buildings, look around
and there is nothing in all directions. It’s white but there’s no sun so it’s
not even white. It’s just opaque, in every direction. I wonder if this is at
all like being partially sighted. As you get closer to things, they come into
focus, but generally you survive according to your knowledge of the layout,
your memory of any route.
When people come inside, they are flushed and exhausted. Every speck of skin
must be covered to protect against the wind but it’s not that cold (only -10C
right now) so you’re sweating as well. The cold days are the clear ones. Last
Tuesday was a classic example. It was cold, it was beautiful, clear and bright.
I got minor frostnip and cold burns on my arms – and yes, I was suitably
dressed. Around 5pm, my colleague and I were trying to align a light beam emitted
from the lab, projected 4km across the ice-shelf to a mirror, reflected back,
focussed into a telescope and ultimately an optical fibre connected to a spectrometer
which gives us an image. The conditions were perfect and we saw a lovely spot
of light. Then it went. Completely. Within 15 minutes the clouds and snow had
arrived, wind picked up and pressure was plummetting. We packed our bags and
left the lab ASAP.
I wasn’t able to return until Saturday, and that was in a 28 knot blow, to
check on the state of the lab. It was fine but the walk out there was hard going.
Perfectly safe (accompanied) but a bit of a slog. Took a good half hour. The
return was quicker though as the wind was behind us!
I love this weather, it’s howling outside and shaking inside. People still go to work but you don’t go outside for fun. I’m not worried for anyone’s safety as the general base procedure is designed exactly for weather like this. We sign in and out, we wear radios, we check up on each other and take ropes anywhere where there isn’t a handline. We’re all fine, part of me is loving it. But you wouldn’t want to be down here with an idiot.