While writing my weekly letter to my Granny yesterday, I found myself stumped
for words. Stumped for material more like. What to say? Nothing has changed
since last week, there is no news to report. It’s still cold, it’s still dark,
I still go to the lab to work and I still live with the same 17 people who I
have lived with for the last four months. We have had no visitors, no mail,
no dramatic new events unfolding. Don’t get me wrong – we’re happy here,
laugh a lot, party, play games, watch videos, read books, have a million bizarre
conversations and a few serious ones too. But there’s not much to report.
I feel like I’ve already told you anything worth telling but that you somehow
expect more. You want drama and excitement, courageous battles with the weather,
brilliant diversions from near-miss incidents, comrades going mad with winter
depression and skin shrivelling up through lack of fresh fruit. But it’s not
like that. When you’re here, it just makes sense. But then maybe that means
I’m taking it all for granted. So this morning I thought I’d pay a bit more
attention to my daily routine and see what might be there out of the ordinary.
The sunshine lamp flooded my room with squintingly bright light around 7am
this morning thanks to an old fridge defrost-timer that the wintering electrician
rewired for me. Unimpressed, I crawled back under my duvet and hid my head.
At about 7:45, my alarm clock went off, jolting me back out of dreamland for
just long enough to hit the red button on the top. I was parched. At 8:45, I
finally pulled myself out of bed, downed the glass of water I had left there
the night before, climbed off the top bunk and into my issued clothing of thick
thermal socks, green moleskin trousers and a thermal top. Yum. O god, you’re
thinking, is this the kind of detail she’s going to go through the entire
day in? No. Well, maybe, we’ll see.
The point is, it’s really hard to get out of bed in the morning (and the driest
place on Earth). I’ve never found it easy, I know (past friends and housemates
are already laughing that I bothered mentioning it), but it’s really, really
hard. One guy here even asked if gravity was stronger at the poles due to some
effect of the rotation of the Earth! There is definitely a winter lethargy about
the place. It’s not that we don’t get stuff done. We just get it done at our
own pace, in our own time. There are plenty of theories about why this is; the
most widely accepted is that daylight acts as a reset switch in your bodyclock,
helping us to remain in approximate 24 hour synchronicity with each other. It’s
well documented that antarctic winterers can rapidly lose synchronicity from
each other ultimately resulting, in extreme situations, in social breakdown.
Which is precisely why I insist on dragging myself out to work for 9am and try
to finish before dinner – something I have never done at home when I have
had the freedom to work whatever hours I choose. Ironically, I have never lived
such a disciplined life as here, where the only social constructs are those
respected by the wintering contingent.
I digress. I get up, have breakfast, chat over a cup of tea, peg out, tog
up and go out to the lab. Need that expanded too?
Get up but don’t have a shower as water is limited and I like to have
a shower after I’ve hauled myself indoors, sweaty and tired, for the last time
of the day.
Breakfast is toast or cereal. Bread varies according to the person
on night-shift, apples and oranges are still around but the quality is a lottery,
and I often make yoghurt so that might go in a bowl as well.
Tea is obvious, chat usually is related to articles in the
newspaper that arrives in the middle of the night and has a scarily biased perspective
on everything. I am now an expert on the comings and goings on reality TV, Big
Brother, David Beckham’s sex life and where the Royal Princes will be holidaying
Peg out – well, there’s a peg out board where you put your name
to the place you’re going to and write it in a book along with the time you
expect to be back. The daily gash person keeps an eye on the book throughout
the day and tries to find you if you’re out beyond your self-provided curfew.
It’s a little Big Brother-ish but could save your life.
Togging up, now I could write a whole book on antarctic clothing but
in short here’s what I add to my clothing in the boot room: ‘mucklucks’ on my
feet (big moon-boots, almost knee high, hard toe-capped), a thin fleece top,
all-in-one orange padded overalls, a balaclava, a neck-warmer, a dead-rabbit
mad bomber hat, a thick ‘windy’ cotton smock which blocks out the wind like
no other material I have ever experienced, goggles, thin glove liners and large
mitts. Plus an emergency back-pack with more clothing if I’m going to the CASLab
and a radio worn like vest under the outer layer to keep batteries warm. Ok,
so I’m togged up and ready to leave the building. It’s probably 09:30.
As I was leaving, I realised that I needed to go via the Simpson platform to
pick up some solutions I had mixed on Friday and some more deionised water for
various machines at the lab. Last summer a wet chemistry facility was built
on the Simpson platform since three of our instruments use liquid methods but,
for space, safety and practicality reasons, there is nowhere to prepare liquids
at the CASLab. The CASLab is about 1.3km from the Laws platform (where we live)
but if you go via the Simpson, the journey is a bit longer. In any bad weather
or reduced visibility conditions, we have to walk via the Simpson anyway as
this is the way the handlines are routed.
Leaving the Laws I remember that I bust the binding on my skis last week so
will have to walk. Since I’ll be taking lots of liquids with me, I take the
orange pulk sledge and harness, dump the emergency bag inside it and pull the
lot to the Simpleton. It’s not a long stop there – I pick up 5L of dilute
sulphuric acid in a glass bottle, 3L of sulphanilamide solution, a few pots
of pre-weighed powder, 3L of de-ionised water, 50ml of acetone and some crunchy
granola bars. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something but it’ll have to wait. It’s
cold outside so before leaving I make sure there are no bits of skin peeking
through my various headgear. I got a reasonable sized patch of frost-nip last
week on my left cheek and eye, now healing nicely, and I don’t want to re-expose
it. I load everything into the sledge and start the slog to the lab.
But what’s 24-hour darkness like?, you’re asking. Well, at this time of day,
it’s dark still, always dark. Today was quite cloudy so there wasn’t even the
joy of stars to carry me along the commute. The moon is waning but still shedding
quite a lot of light and the lights from the lab are bright enough that I can
follow them without needing a head torch. We had another brief storm last week
that dumped a lot of soft snow unevenly in lumps and bumps across the ice so
the walk is quite hard going. I fall over a couple of times and struggle when
the sledge catches on sastrugi (the hard bumpy bits on the snow). I’m pulling
less than 15kgs on the sledge but it feels like a lot more when we’re going
in opposite directions.
It seems to take an age to get to the lab, in reality it was probably about
20 or 25 minutes but I’m sweating loads when I do finally get there and relieved
to get indoors. There are a bunch of outdoor checks I usually do upon arrival
but today I’m too tired, and will cool off rapidly, so decide to do them when
there’s a bit more light outside. I get to the lab at 10:30.
Thankfully, everything seems fine once I get unwrapped and my breath back.
First I check the telescope room but it’s too cloudy to see any return signal
from the mirror bouncing light back at us from 4km away. On a clear day, this
is one of the most satisfying experiments as the return beam looks like a star
on the horizon and is easy to optimise and focus onto the optical fibre. We’re
looking for absorbance of light by a range of atmospheric species: mainly halogen
oxides and the nitrate radical. We don’t expect to see much chemical activity
during the winter months but it’s important to measure this so we know how it
compares to the increased signals when the sun returns. Year-round studies of
this nature in Antarctica are still pretty special.
The next instrument I check measures formaldehyde in the air. It seems to be
ticking away nicely but one of the reservoirs is running low: hence the sulphuric
acid I brought with me. That should last another week or two now although the
other liquid it uses is also running out and I’ll have to make a new batch this
week, maybe tomorrow afternoon. The HONO instrument is next – I refill
the Helium bag and feed the empty reservoir next to it with 3L of deionised
water. Sometimes it feels a bit like watering plants!
Next to this instrument is a gas chromatograph (GC) that measures Peroxy Acetyl
Nitrate, or PAN, and I notice that its water reservoir, used for circulating
coolant, is also low. This instrument stands in a rack. On the bench next to
it is a GC that monitors non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) that is working well
at the moment. It needs a blank run though so I set up a Nitrogen cylinder and
change the programme accordingly.
The last of my instruments to come on-line is around the corner next to the
formaldehyde monitor; this measures peroxides and will hopefully be running
soon. While checking these five machines, I have barely had to move my feet
at all as they are crammed together around one human-sized patch of floor. Like
the conductor of an orchestra!
I make a note of the various solutions I need to prepare next. Ok, so everything’s
moderately happy, fed and watered. I spend the rest of the morning paying them
a bit more attention – running calibrations and blanks, troubleshooting
things I don’t understand, feeling a bit like a teacher in a room full of restless
children, all wanting a bit more attention than I have the time to provide.
It was a nice morning all-in-all: not too hectic and I made some good progress.
The lab is cramped and noisy though, so I was hoping to make it back in time
for lunch at 1pm. Around midday I venture outside for the outdoor work, hoping
it might have warmed up a bit. I go outside onto the platform and collect a
small plastic jar for sampling snow. It’s a dark day today so I need a torch
to find the pole where we sample from, about 100m from the lab. Once back on
the platform, I check the pressure in various gas cylinders, look at the air
inlets on the roof to check they’re not blocked, and pick up some freezer blocks
to keep solutions indoors cool.
By the time I get back inside, less than 10 minutes, the end of my nose and
tips of my fingers have gone white and are screamingly cold. The pain doesn’t
get better as I warm them up with the palm of my hand. Damn – I must have
not covered up properly, I’ve been nipped again. It’s time to leave, I want
to leave, I’m hungry and not looking forward to the journey back. I get dressed
again, this time with another balaclava and even bigger mitts from the emergency
bag, grab the bag, empty bottles and a 20L jerrican full of waste chemicals
that needs disposing back on base (to be eventally shipped back to the UK).
The air is dark, I can’t see any definition in the snow, the sledge is heavy
and difficult to pull on this lumpy surface. I’m being obstinate: I should really
dump the sledge and pick it up tomorrow but some days you just don’t want to
let the weather beat you. So I keep going. Within a few minutes my goggles are
steamed up and frozen – I put them on in a different order this time that
obviously doesn’t work. I can’t see squat. Without them I can see lights of
the Laws but risk getting more frostnip.
I realise that I’m not in a good mood and that it’s unfortunate that today
of all days is the day I decided to document in writing. Some days, when it’s
clear, the walk home is a joy. I chat to the stars, dance with the snow, sing
to myself. But today, it’s a slog. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s 1pm for crying
out loud, I can’t see a thing and am having to direct myself through a tiny
slot between my furry hat, balaclava and windy hood. I tried wearing the goggles
and hanging onto the handline but that was even more ludicrous. I know I’ll
be ok, I have no doubt about my safety or ability to get home, I just wish that
I could be there now.
Forty minutes and a couple of stumbles later, I crawl indoors and collapse
for a couple of minutes. Melodramatic drama queen! The gash dude did call me
on the radio just after my last stumble which was kind of comforting –
knowing that if I hadn’t replied they would have come out looking for me. Nice
to know that the system works, anyway.
A bowl of tomato soup and a bacon roll later, I’m laughing about it. I’ve checked
the weather data and it’s not as bad as it felt: only -31C with 15 knot winds.
It felt a lot colder, I guess the subjective was -42C though. Still, at this
time of year it usually has to reach -40C or windspeeds above 30 knots to get
much of an oo and an aah around the table. What a wuss!
I’ve warmed up but my nose is sore, my cheek raw and I don’t fancy returning
to the lab. All is fine there and I have plenty I can be getting on with on
the Simpson platform for the afternoon. But no, damn, I realise I might have
left the gas store open when my fingers got frostnipped with the intention of
closing it later. Damn. It would probably be ok for the night but if the wind
picks up, not good – the bottles would get cold and the store fill with
snow. It’s my colleague’s day off today (we alternate weekends and Mondays)
but bless him, he offers to go out and check for me in the afternoon. I am so
grateful! None of my face fancies more of that journey again today.
Truth be told, I’m a bit bored of this blow – it’s not big enough to
be exciting but is too big for any good outside activity. Like how you get bored
of grey days and dull rain in Britain. Last week was much nicer: I was on melt-tank
duty and often sat on the snow mound after the tank was full, looking at the
night sky in the morning or enjoying the red glow if it was an afternoon dig.
I even went for a walk on Saturday, the weather was so calm.
I spend the afternoon replying to work-related emails, fixing a pipette and
analytical balance in the wet chem lab, and preparing some more chemicals. That
winter lethargy seems to have crept back in again. Dinner’s at 6pm, after that
our usual banter and then I pick up a new book. My last books were ‘Love in
The Time of Cholera’ followed by ‘Touching the Void’ (Joe Simpson) and am now
starting ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’.
At 8pm we have our Monday night double bill of ’24’ and then, after my heart-rate
calmed down, I plugged in my laptop and started writing this. It was a fairly
typical day I guess, if a bit colder than usual. Somedays the weather is better
but the lab is much worse. I’d rather have the former by far. I thought it was
nothing to report but I guess it only feels normal if you do it every day.