Zen Ice

I’m not sure if Emperor Penguins are right at the top, or the very bottom,

of the karmic evolutionary scale. "Who would be an emperor penguin?"

has not been uttered infrequently around here lately. Abandoned to the loneliest,

coldest and most desolate ice sheet on Earth, destined to sit on an egg for

four months during the coldest part of the year, starving, only to be relieved,

you hope, by a fattened mate who brings up the chick whereupon you have to trek

for days, weeks maybe, to find open water and seek food, which you then bring

back to your mate – and reinitiate thecycle. By any beasts’ standards

it has been cold around here lately and it boggles the mind to think that any

penguins survive at all, let alone chicks. It’s a hard life.

To me, however, they are the epitome of Zen (about which I know very little).

Patient, curious, animated, interested but apparently never hassled, never in

a rush, strong, calm, self-aware while also totally dependant on the community

for survival. I like them. They don’t, it must be said, strike me as being particularly

intelligent – but that really doesn’t matter, they don’t seem unhappy,

either. The Adelies last summer were forever squawking and chirruping, placing

themselves right at the foot of the lab steps and then getting in a fluster

if you came anywhere near them. The Emperors seem more aloof. Upon seeing a

gaggle of humans dangling down the ice cliff, a greeting party wanders towards

us, curious about visitors. Walking in single file, looking in front and behind

as though to check that they haven’t been mislead and are suddenly on their

own, they will walk right up to you. Once their curiosity is satiated, or you

start walking towards the colony, they turn around and wander back.

There is a lot of anthropomorphising going on here I know, but it’s difficult

not to. They walk on two feet, look you straight in the eye if you kneel (when

they are about chest or chin height), they chat and coo, a cross between a rattle

and an eerie echo – and their cry is returned by companions. These curious

ones seem to be a year or two old: fully grown but still too young to breed,

adolescents to us. They walk around in groups, fight with each other and then

snuggle up for warmth, show their chests off and rattle their heads and then,

for no apparent reason, wander off somewhere else. They show no fear and as

a spectator I did not feel that I was interfering with nature. I am undoubtedly

wrong. I had no desire to get overly close or touch them, if for no other reason

than that I was wearing such huge mitts that there would be no point and there

was no way I was going to reveal bare skin to the elements even for the touch

of penguin feathers, but also, because if you wait a short while, they come

up to you. As curious as us. They, too, are living on a fairly monotonous ice

shelf and are happy to see something new for a change. These are our closest


Now the huddle, that’s something else entirely. As you probably know, Emperors

huddle to stay warm in winter. I had imagined a huge circular group with some

kind of re-shuffle order so the ones in the middle eventually move to the edges

and no-one gets too cold for too long on the outside. I don’t know why, but

I had imagined order. By now, I should know that nature exhibits order using

chaos. Through a chaotic system, the most perfect solution to any problem will

emerge. The penguin huddle was entropy embodied. No circle, no order, a number

of large clumps. The ones in the middle roasty toasty, the ones on the outside

burying their heads deep into the penguins in front, using that beautiful rounded

back as a shield against the wind. Layer upon layer of buried-headed penguins

like the centre of a sunflower.

At some point, the penguins on the outside get cold, or bored, or, I don’t

know, it doesn’t matter, the point is, they decide to leave. So they wander

off. And, I guess, that means the next layer gets cold. Heads pop up, necks

stretch, lots of hustling and bustling, the odd peck, and before you know it

the one-time calm huddle of heat generation has become a squawking, shrieking

flurry of bristling heads shaking and pushing, confusion, ripples of movement

in every which direction. I tried to watch for long enough to see what happened

next but it wasn’t entirely obvious. I thought the ones on the outside would

start forming their own huddle with them at the core but more often than not

they just walked off, single file, to apparently nowhere. A clown-like walk

too since most were shuffling on their heels with their toes in the air, making

sure the egg on their feet didn’t touch the ice. Sometimes one would bend down

and rotate the egg. A couple of them could be seen regurgitating food and stretching

to their toes whereupon a tiny chick would appear from under the belly flap

and stick it’s head in the parent’s mouth. Chirrup chirrup chirrup, you could

hear them cheeping. It was beautiful. Thousands of them probably, clustered

in groups of a few hundred, steam coming off the middle, heads buried on the

outside. All calling, all doing their thing.

I’ve had an incredible week. Incredibly full, by my winter hibernation standards.

I had forgotten what it was to be truly busy, at different times rushed, excited,

stressed, exhausted, responsible, cold, high, low, confused and rejuvenated.

I had forgotten what it was to multi-task. I am not looking forward to returning

to ‘normal life’, whatever that is, I’m not looking forward to the summer season

even. I’m not excited by the prospect of mental stimulation and the buzz of

activity that I thrived on previously. It will come though, as I acclimatise

to progressively more sun and more activity, when I drink my last bottle of

wine, eat my last good quality chocolate bar, realise the prospect of fresh

fruit is only a few weeks, rather than months away. Remind myself that with

the first plane comes first post. With all of these things will my enthusiasm

return. And probably my energy as well. I think this week was just a shock to

the system.

It is well documented that August is often the hardest month here and I, who

thought I was breezing through this whole Antarctic wintering thing, am starting

to understand why. We are running out of things, I ate the last real apple on

my birthday a month ago. Tinned potatoes, carrots and beans are, to my palate,

fresh veg. All my clothes are tattered and holey, my hair has been dyed and

re-dyed and now looks like it has a washed out blue rinse – it looks a

bit how I feel. For some people, August is hard because the excitement of mid-winter

is over but it is still months before the first new people arrive. For me, August

has been hard because I’m sad to see the darkness go. I’m already forgetting

what it looked like. It was never this dark in the middle of the day was it?,

I found myself asking Frank yesterday. Even for me, it’s difficult to conceive

how little we could see. And I miss those beautiful, beautiful red stripes on

the horizon at 2pm. Now at two the sun is well above the horizon, the world

is light and white, I can see all the way to the lab and far beyond. On a good

day. On a bad day I can’t see beyond my feet but it’s still white-mauve-cotton-wool-not-seeing

as opposed to pitch dark not seeing. I couldn’t see a thing today, I don’t know

why, but I was glad to still be falling over my feet and into unexpected valleys

in the sastrugi. At night time Orion appears only to the night watchman but

Scorpio still twirls his pincers around my head. The occasional aurora mists

the sky with green. I love my darkness.

Anyway, I think the light has been a shock to the system. It’s colder than

we have ever yet experienced (approaching -50C at times) but the light misleads

you into spending much more time outside, doing all those long-awaited jobs,

taking your [outer] mitts off to take a photo for longer than you ever would

have in June. Without question work outside is a lot easier if you can see what

you’re doing, even if it’s cold – so we’ve been doing these things, and

probably over-doing these things, not realising that we’ve just been jolted

out of hibernation. In addition, where we used, during autumn, to stop activity

after dark, we now see this as no hindrance, we know where the torches are kept

and which clothes to wear in a gale. Everyone perhaps has been doing just that

little bit more.

For me, the return of the sun means the start of spring-time chemistry. This

is when it all kicks off. This is, if I’m brutally honest, the reason why I

am, or my job is, here. The loss of a few weeks’ data in mid-winter wouldn’t

be heart-breaking. A similar loss during spring-time would be quite upsetting

for many. When the sun rises, all those chemicals that have been pooling in

the snow and at the surface are activated, photolysed, react with photolysis

products, come out of the snow, go into the snow, blow in from the coast, fly

in from the plateau… different molecules in different air masses that all

react and interact differently once they are zapped by the sun. This is what

has not been studied before and why we are here.

When ozone drops and air comes in from the coast, we fly a blimp, we take height

profiles, we align the telescope and try to measure halogens in the air. On

calm days, we dig a pit and take samples of snow from different depths. On days

when the air comes in from the east, we ensure the inlets are clear and compare

chemistry in the snow with that in the air. My tank of helium ran low a few

days ago and I haven’t been able to change it since the temperature in the gas

store has been below safety limits. Today the temperature warmed up but I found

I wasn’t strong enough to do this job on my own and will have to take a companion

with me to help tomorrow. All this time, I feel the loss of data keenly.

On Tuesday morning at 3am I was woken by Steph, who was on night-shift, because

the chemical and meteorological conditions we had been looking for were ideal

for a blimp flight. It was 3am and our probe wasn’t yet tested to perfection

so we decided to wait until the morning. Still, I got up for a few hours to

make some preparations in case we decided to fly. At 9am conditions were still

looking good. At 10am I was told that a penguin trip, which I was meant to be

on, was going ahead. We’ve been waiting for these for weeks but until now been

prohibited by either temperatures that are too low for driving the vehicles

or winds too high to abseil down the ice cliffs. What a conundrum!

I went on the trip, I had an amazing time. The minute we crossed the perimeter

drum line I felt the burden of base life dissolve, evaporate, off my shoulders.

It was so good to get out! Only then did I realise how captive we have been

here, kept within a circular perimeter defined by empty oil drums and flags,

5km round and 2km wide. We were off to the coast! It felt great. An hour later

we were there. On the cliffs! A different view, the ice, a sea-lead in the distance,

sun, clouds, beautiful beautiful coast. This was enough for me, I didn’t even

need to see the penguins! But there they were, a seemingly small huddle on the

ice below. Jingly janglies, harnesses, crampons, ice axes, hats, balaclavas,

cameras, hot ribena, backpacks and sausages later and I’m abseiling down the

cliff. I love abseiling, I love dangling off ropes! Look at me, this is great!!!

Once everyone was down, we spent a couple of hours on the ice, hanging out

with the penguins, getting cold but never bored, taking photos, just sitting

with them, walking around, flapping our arms as they flap their wings, calling

back at them. When the time came to leave, people harnessed and clipped again,

climbed up the ice wall, chose to either pull themselves up a rope mechanically

or use a ladder for the last bit. I was going for the ladder. At the last minute,

I ended up on the alternative route. I don’t know why but I suspect my pride

and big gob had something to do with it. It was a stupid decision. Everyone

else had gone, it was -37C, I was cold and clueless. I had two crampons on my

feet, two ice axes in my hands, two jumars on the rope (for pulling myself up),

hard helmet, various caribeners and jangly things on my belt and a great big

backpack pulling me backwards. I have never, except in practices, had to use

jumars, ice axes or crampons. (You will recall that for my pre-winter field

training trip I spent 9 days in a tent due to bad weather.) I knew, and the

people with me knew I knew, how all these thing worked. But my brain failed

me, my fingers cried with pain of cold, my pride held back tears and my legs

started to feel a little less comfortable hanging off a rope, dangling in mid-air.

In retrospect it was a good experience, it is always important to know your

limits and appreciate the skill levels of people around you. At the time, I

felt like I was being pushed to a limit I hadn’t ever yet experienced, meeting

a part of myself that was so true, so deep, so cutting to my soul, I met a person

who was at one moment angry and proud and arrogant and livid while a second

later she was swinging upside down, laughing with the sun and penguins, giggling

at her fate and her situation, being hauled over the overhang by her ever-reliant

buddies upstairs.

And then the angry one kicked in again: "STOP IT, STOP IT, STO—–P,

YOU BASTARDS!!! I can do it on my own damn you!" I was screaming but they

couldn’t hear me and they were getting cold too. It was like being utterly alive

and learning who you are at the core. I know I could have got out on my own

but it might have taken a while. I had figured the system out just before they

haulked me over the edge. But I also know that they made the right call because

they didn’t know my situation and they themselves were getting cold. And that

had been the deal from the start: "Don’t worry, Rhian, give it a go, and

if you can’t do it, we’ll Z-pulley you out." There was never any danger

I wouldn’t make it: had that been the case, I would have gone the ladder route.

I am determined to return, and next time, I’ll get out on my own.

Trundle, trundle. The cosy journey home. Tired and happy people. All these

new experiences. See what the sunshine brings us?! When we get home, it all

floods back. The chemistry, the met, the blimp – o god, conditions

were ideal… o no, I shouldn’t have gone… no, I went, enjoy it, remember

it. But conditions were still holding and there was no reason we couldn’t do

a flight that night.

That night I realised for the first time how truly committed people here are.

We worked from 6:30 pm to 2:30 am inflating the blimp, working on the probes,

winching it up, winching it down, downloading data. It was seriously, dangerously,

cold and everyone was already tired when we began. Plus, the nature of the task

meant that the helpers were outside in the cold for many more hours than I was.

Some people helped out to help their friends, others were interested in the

blimp in and of itself, but many I discovered later were doing this for the

science. This is why we’re here, I was told, and if you tell us this is cutting

edge stuff and important science, then we’ll pull out all the stops to help

you do it. It was incredibly humbling. I often feel like our work here is an

excuse to have an Antarctic presence, but this week I have realised that science

is still a purpose for those of us living here. It is a great honour to have

this opportunity and we should make the absolute most of it. All aspects of

being here.

Life is very simple here, it is remarkably free of conflict. It is rare that

I have to make a decision of the type you make hundreds of during a normal day

at home. Sometimes conflicts of interest arise: penguins or molecules, melt-tank

or machines, scrub-out or pit-digging, dinner or the lab – but the right

choice usually becomes clear pretty quickly. We are all here to do our jobs

but it is also in our jobs’ best interest for us to remain sane and happy. Plus,

ultimately, we are all on call 24-7. Try as we might to differentiate between

communal duties, work and recreation, they are all just different sides of the

same round fruit. Last week the plumber had a virtually sleepless week because

the sewage pipes kept bursting in the cold. And since he couldn’t fix the problem

alone, most of the technical staff dropped everything to help him as well. Friday

night I stayed in the caboose with Frank. Saturday night I was woken by the

night watchman because a science alarm was going off – that was rare,

usually it’s the plumber, electrician, Piggott engineer or generator mechanic

who gets woken. Ultimately everything we do here is one and the same thing,

there is no differentiation. It is all part of wintering at Halley.

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2 Responses to Zen Ice

  1. Roger says:

    wonderful imagery.

    how does a male penguin regurgitate food eaten four months ealier? does he keep it frozen and undigested, digesting it as the new-hatched chick needs it? or does he produce some kind of male milk-equivlaent from his own body?

  2. Russ says:

    Wonderful to read Rhian. Had me all emotional. You made the right decision – Penguins (almost) every time!

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