It is all too easy for gnarly Antarticans emerging from a dark and cold winter
to become dissmissive and patronising about the soft summer with all its light
and relative warmth. "You think this is cold?", I was regularly asked
by t-shirt beclad locals upon first arriving while I was bundled up in multiple
thermal layers. "This is nothing!".
Well, I have a new theory. I think we have a limit of coldness beyond which
we’re not happy to pass whether it’s minus forty-five or four outside. And last
night was a clear example. A windy, blowy night but only -5C, Vanessa and I
decided to sleep in the igloo. "Why, you won’t even need sleeping bags
in this weather!" people laughed, and it was true, I was looking forward
to being toasty warm in my sleeping bag that night. The entrance to the igloo
has become quite narrow during the year and involves a bit of climbing to get
in so we thinned down our usually massive "p-bag" to its core components
and each took one foam mat, one sheepskin and one four-season down sleeping
bag. The same as usual therefore, minus the thermarest and fleece sleeping bag
liner but after all, it was at least twenty degrees warmer than we usually slept
The igloo was as magical as I remembered. There is now a fairly steep chute
down into the entrance tunnel and a bit of a crawl before you climb into the
large circular cave that used to be above ground level and is now almost buried.
The blue light shning through most bricks has been replaced by opaque white
and soot from past visitors (I’m afraid Kev and I are responsble for the majority
of the soot after our adventures lighting the tilly lamp at midwinter in -43C!)
Outside the igloo, snow has covered the bricks so it now just looks like a
little hill, useful for jumping off on a snowboard. Inside, ice crystals have
grown all over the surface covering the walls, the soot, the shelf at the entrance
– from little strings of crystals to great big pentagon spirals. I guess
there is growth and evolution even in barren Antartctica!
Once we bundled in, we set up for the night. There wasn’t any obvious need
for a stove or lamp since it was warm and light already and we’d eaten dinner
before leaving but we lit a couple of candles for ambience and chatted away
through the evening. I did notice it was colder than comfortable though but
then, unlike usual we hadn’t brought great big coats with us or rabbit skin
hats,- it just hadn’t seemed necessary. Fairly quickly we were snug inside our
sleeping bags and I was confident warmth would be upon me soon. And so it went
on. You’re cold because you’re wearing too many clothes and the sleeping bag
can’t work its wonders, I thought around midnight. You’re cold because the air
is leaking in, I thought around two am. Why are you cold you big girly wuss,
I asked at four am and put a single thermal layer on as a compromise. It must
be because I’m not wearing a hat.. so I pulled my neckie over my head. And so
on and so forth. I was never ridiculously uncontrollably stupidly unbearably
shiveringly cold, just uncomfortable and certainly not snuggly warm and that
was not right. Not at minus 4 or 10 or whatever it was.
Ness and I had talked about this in the evening,- there’s this limit within
which you work and allow yourself to work and beyond which you avoid. For instance,
I handled the metal thermoses we brought with bare hands. In winter, I would
have been wearing glove liners and massive mitts to do the same job. I let my
face lie open to the air as I went to sleep where in winter I would have devised
a complete coccoon for myself. I let myself, and this was my downfall I believe,
roll off the sheepskin and onto the snow. At this point there could have only
been a few feathers of squashed down between my naked skin and 50m of ice shelf.
Even a tent has a groundsheet and, I now remmber, a wooden board under the p-bag!
Today for the first time in over a year I have a chill. I am cold, I am warm,
I am not quite right. There aren’t any viruses down here, we don’t catch any
illnesses, we are incredibly healthy considering the weather we face every day.
It’s an unusual feeling, not feeling 100%, but it’s just a chill and I’ll be
right as rain (what a funny phrase that is!) by tomorrow I’m sure. A valuable
lesson though and quite refreshing: it’s still Antarctica outside and it’s still
cold. I’m quite glad actually,- life was getting a bit too easy these last couple