Personal: End of season

It’s the end of the season at Halley. You can feel it in the air. The 14

people who are staying for the winter want us to leave. They want their

home back and the job to begin in earnest. They want the solitude

returned, the politics removed and these lightweight jokers to climb on

the ship and sail off, armed with plenty of photos and stories of

antarctic hardship to tell their loved ones back home. They don’t know

the half of it!

The summer crew are also ready to leave. It’s been a long season, a

busy season and, I think, a very productive one. The base has been

resupplied, a lab has been built, masts erected, buildings jacked, field

campaigns pulled off, ice cores drilled, rocks collected and thorough

maintenance been carried out in every building. Halley will be good for

another winter now. We’re tired and it’s time to go home.

The ship has left and returned. The Weddell Sea science cruise is over

and cargo has been loaded. They’re ready to take us back to the North,

anxious to leave the antarctic oceans and terrible seas.

But we are stranded. The weather is the most brutal I have ever seen in

my life. It is the stuff in movies about the poles. Fifty knot winds and

blowing snow, 10m visibility. Howling gale I would call it. I’ve been

banned from visiting my lab. I got knocked over a few times just trying

to walk to a nearby platform earlier. Coming home, I think I flew! I

got frostnip on my cheek yesterday,- most exciting, like a lump of ice

under your skin. And then you realise it is your skin. But recovers very

quickly once a warm hand is put on it. Even past winterers can’t

remember such unyielding winds for days. Frostnip in February! Imagine!

And it was only two days ago that the the sky was calm and beautiful.

No, you don’t understand, words can’t express it. Like a cheesy airbrush

poster from Athena. Pastel pinks and blues and purples in the sky, light

blowing snow on the ground so you can’t tell where snow meets air,

desert gusts. Better yet, the sun has started setting and rising again.

It is utterly magical. Lingers for so long on the horizon, moves around

a bit and then reappears. The whole sky dances with colour. With the

sunset, and reduced light, I saw the moon for the first time in months.

Still no stars but the moon, hanging in the red and orange sky, large

and round, rising upwards in synchronicity with the sun as it set. And

the sky so calm. So calm that Mandy and I slept in a tent on Thursday!

Imagine that now! I can see nothing out of the window next to me.

Nothing but white. Which way is up?

Oh yes, and mirages! I haven’t told you about them. When there is a

strong variation of temperatures with altitude, light is refracted and

reflected within the air layers and moves in mysterious ways. The result

is, and this is no optical illusion, you can see further. (I always

thought that mirages were false, like water in the desert.) You can see

the ocean surrounding this ice shelf that Halley sits on. You can see

huge ice bergs and cliffs. Sometimes, you can see the ship.

Now that I think about it, perhaps it is an illusion. But I guess that

depends your definition of reality. The mirages are real. I see icebergs

that do exist. I see the edge of the ice shelf. Sometimes these things

are upside down: reflections within layers in the air of what is below

them. Like a great big mirror in the sky. So I guess it is an illusion.

But it’s real too. Like the way a dream is real.

And more! I’ve been flying! I sat in the cockpit of a Twin Otter

airplane and flew above this Antarctic continent! Do you know how many

times in my life I have dreamt of doing that? We went on a jolly around

the base, everyone who hadn’t been flying had the chance at some point,

and put this place into some perspective. The weather was dingle as they

say here, perfect. We flew to the creek where the ship dropped us off,

and up the coast. Huge cliffs of ice being eroded away by the sea below.

Waves come flying out from under the cliffs,- exactly opposite to what

they do at home on rock. And so blue. Bright, light, crystal blue below

the water’s surface. And then we flew further up the coast to the

‘Rumples’ that I mentioned before. They’re so small!! The only

significant feature on the horizon of Halley, I thought they were huge

mountains! No. Just a small little rumpling of ice over ice over ice,

stretching and compressing around some fixed feature below. And we saw

the ship from above as well. “Hellooo Shackleton! We’ll be there soon!”

Then we flew inland, to the Hinge Zone: where the ice shelf meets the

mainland. Here we see mountains. Crevasses! Vertical structure! It’s

glorious. Between all these places streches ice and ice and ice, flat,

covered in little patterns of sastrugi. Immense. So expansive. So…so

BIG! Following the line of crevasses and mountains of ice, we make our

way back to the coast again. I have no idea how; my face is glued to the

window. Ice moves so slowly but you can SEE it moving. You can see it

flowing, opposing flows meeting and fighting or pulling away and

breaking, making crevasses. Huge jaws, openings, cracks in the ice.

Movement in three dimensions. This is ice we are living on. It’s huge.

It’s like a snapshot, a still, of wild water.

Back at the ocean, we’re above Precious Bay. This place has everything:

ocean, mountains, penguins..and so close to Halley, the place with none

of this. Flat, white …but we did have a couple of emperor penguins

visit. I wonder how they’re doing outside today. It’s amazing any living

things survive here at all!

And back to base. There it is. A little, odd, randomly placed

collection of structures on steel stilts in the middle of an ice shelf

that’s moving closer to the edge every day.

I don’t know how long I’ll be here. We’re meant to leave any day now.

Held captive by the weather. Helps to put some perspective on this thing

we call life.

4 thoughts on “Personal: End of season

  1. Got the postcard!! Thanks.

    Although I doubt you are still stranded waiting for the weather to retreat, Andrew’s up in Greenland waiting for a plane to be fixed… His one week trip has been extended to at least three. Ah the joys of Polar travel. Some things you just can control.

    Everything sounds amazing. Have a safe and fun trip back and I look forward to seeing some pics!



  2. Rhian, I just now took the time and sit and read all of your entries! Thank you. I now feel like I have a more vivid understanding of what you live, breathe, and see everyday. I recently watched a show with the kids about the wildlife in Antartica and while jumping up and down was screaming, “Look, that’s where Rhian is!” I dont think they were as excited as I was. But it was fun anyway.

    Stay warm. ( I am sure you are finding many different ways to. heehee)

    Bring back some snow for me (just kidding)

    Much love, Dorkus

  3. It’s March! Spring is springing, snowdrops, Daffodils on St.David’s day, crocus and even some sunshine. I am just recovering from a nasty bout of “February Flu” and am still totally deaf in one ear, it’s a very isolating experience, but it has given me a chance to catch up on your adventures. How eloquent you are, reminiscent of dear ol’ Peter Hoeg (your recommendation). I am so excited about hearing your tales in person and seeing a little of what it must be like. How wonderful life is sometimes! Thank you for the entertainment through a typically British winter. Safe journey home. Love as always xxx

  4. love, youre coming north. If you fancy meeting me for a sail in central america, give me an email. Im meeting a 42fter tomorrow in Belize and the plan is to sail along the coast Honduras-Nicaragua to Panama, maybe through the canal and to stop in Ecuador. i dont know how long Ill be on board (money etc) BUT if you were thinking of taking a trip (or land or sailboat) Ill definitly meet you somewhere. drop me an email, and although i can only check it sporatically. sorry ive been so useless lately….its not that I havent been thinking of you. But the damn thing is done now, and its -20 deg here. Time for some snorkelling, dont you think?

    love alex

    ps only just getting the hang of this new fangled thing

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