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.