Winter begins

If a mother’s love could be shown in presents, I think my mum has just succeeded!

The summer crew have left at last and it’s time now to settle in for the winter.

First we picked rooms out of a hat and, ironically enough, I landed the room

that I first had last summer and hated. The windowless cell, the tiny pit. Now,

it has been transformed. An oil burner, poems, photos, cards, shelves and beautiful

things like conkers and crystals – I’m discovering the girl in me who

I never knew existed! It’s my den, my escape, my very own space for me and my

stuff where no-one can come in without asking first.

Yes, it’s tiny, yes, it doesn’t have a window, but funnily enough, I don’t

mind so much this time around. The allocation was fair, the first community-spirited

activity.. and, after all, I do have to brave the elements every day to go to

work, unlike some of the folk here. The chef, the comms manager – if they

didn’t have windows they might never even have an inkling of what it’s like


And so it came to unpacking all the boxes I had stored away until now. How

much stuff did I bring for a year! All so unnecessary. More books than I might

ever normally read, a thousand photographs, creative supplies, food: chocolate,

dried fruit, chewy sweets, teabags and rusks. Games. As I sit here and write,

I can’t imagine ever needing any of these things. But it’s still light outside,

everyone is enthusiatic about being here, there’s loads to do and certainly

no such thing as boredom. Ask me again in five months!

What I didn’t bank on is the amount of time and effort my mum had put into

wrapping little presents, finding cards, thinking of things I might need here.

And it made me realise that a year away in the Antarctic sounds an awful lot

longer to people outside this environment than the reality feels down here.

As far as I can tell, it’s going to fly. If I had no emotional attachments outside

of here, and if my job were to exist, I think I would happily stay for a second

winter. Thirty-three months sounds so long, it did to me as well, but once you’re

here, it seems just about the right amount of time to fit it all in, to take

it all in.

It’s wonderfully simple here but there’s always something to be done. It’s

a pace of life that I like. The pace of the summer was too much: it smacked

of bringing the city to the desert. This space wasn’t designed for meetings

and deadlines. It is perfect space, space for breathing, looking around, smiling

and, of course, doing your work.

It is absolutely beautiful outside. I look out of the window next to me and

see a blue sky, bright evening, flat calm snow surface, slightly icy, covered

in shadows from sastrugi. It’s like the ocean, frozen. It is the ocean,

frozen! A snapshot in time. Endless white to the horizon. And on the horizon:

mirages of icebergs. In three of four directions the strange effects of layers

of stable atmosphere bounce light around and mean we can see far beyond the

expected, we see the reflection of icebergs in the mirror-like atmosphere above


In the fourth direction, I see in the sky the reflection of the antarctic plateau.

Out there, about 30km away, are four of our team members on their first winter

trip. Mine is in three weeks – I can’t wait. The Hinge Zone, where the

ice leaves the plateau and there are large crevasses to explore. To sleep in

a tent, to really take in the stage of the setting sun, to wake up to ice: that’s

something I came here for.

In the meantime, there are a hundred things I haven’t told you,. The visit

by the Argentinian helicopter, posh dinner on HMS Endurance, the return of the

beloved Shackleton, the penguins who have set up camp outside my lab (damn them

– this is supposed to be a Clean Air Area!), the sun setting and the increasing

blue of the night sky, the flares we set off as the ship sailed away, the first

dinner as a wintering crew, the normality of it all.

I know for sure that this is the right place for me to be right now. It’s a

special place and a shame it’s so inaccessible. To me right now, it’s not the

harsh barrenness that everyone describes, it’s actually quite friendly –

and when the winds howl, they’re only playing with you.

Ask me again in five months!

10 thoughts on “Winter begins

  1. i’m curious – in such a beautiful, enthralling environment I imagine its the small things, perhaps the most mundane, that cause periodic whoops of joy. So, what’s your favourite item in all those you retrieved during the great unpack?

  2. To Michelle —

    No dark time yet although rumour has it that a star was seen a couple of nights ago by the night watchman (we alternate for that job). The sun drops below the horizon for a few hours now but it’s always dusky at least. Last night was the first night yet where I’ve walked into the bar, at midnight, and realised the room was actually vaguely dark without lights on. Novel.

    To Span —

    That’s a tricky one. Sarongs, wall hangings, poems, an oil burner, herbal teabags, Farley’s rusks, a photo of my mum with chocolate all over her face, straw stars… I think the best ones were letters and photos of friends bringing back all those good memories of fun in the (warm) sun! And conkers.

    One thing that was very cool last night though, after rolling around in the snow doing somersaults while waiting for the Green Flash at sunset (that is, I am convinced, mythical), I came in to a crowd of people watching Playstation. Watching Playstation! That’s worse than playing on one! But no, I became enthralled as well,- he was driving like a lunatic around the streets of London. The Real streets of London,- the right turnings, the right shops and trees and roundabouts and scaffolding on things that have been forever under scaffolding. Left turns and right turns that take you to the right places, Marble Arch, Oxford Street, we even went south of the river for a while! It was so amazing,- I couldn’t understand why they looked at me oddly when I asked for the really tame setting where you don’t have to kill anyone or race anything or obey any directions and can just drive slowly around the roads trying to find the house I grew up in! Span, really, you would love this!! So I guess some wierd part of me misses driving around the streets of London!!

  3. Do Penguins taste like chicken? Could you let us know, perhaps soon after the ones outside your clean air laboratory mysteriously disappear…

  4. No,according to past midwinter magazines, penguins taste like fish. Which makes sense I guess as there aren’t many chickens in Antarctica. But then again, frogs don’t eat chickens either…

    And as for them mysteriously dissappearing,- they did: yestreday,- just on the first day I had remembered to take my camera to record the post-moulting mohok. Shame. I miss them,- they’ve been my companions every day for the last two or three weeks. “Good morning, Bob, good morning Gilbert” and then, a couple of days ago, they started getting restless again, and had started looking almost slick and penguin-like again, instead of scrappy and fluffy, and now they’re gone. And this time next year I’ll be gone so that’s it for penguins on my doorstep I guess. But it was great while it lasted.

  5. Riiiiight… They “mysteriously” disappear, and you are now in the possession of certain knowledge that they taste like fish. They sure pick out the enterprising ones for the Antarctic tour of duty…

    BTW, I don’t think it’s eating chicken that makes you taste like chicken. After all, chickens don’t eat chicken…

  6. in which case I guess penguins taste like penguin which is completely unhelpful. What do chickens taste like if you can’t use themselves as a reference?

  7. Do you think it’s the ‘inaccessibility’ that makes it so emotive.

    Not to mention the fact that if we could all get there we would have wrecked it by now !!

  8. I agree on point two, although there are lots of national parks around the world that retain their beauty so I have faith we might be able to look after this ‘world park’. Humanity isn’t all evil. As for point one, I’m not sure. It’s as beautiful as the ocean, the desert or an enormous night sky. In fact, it is the ocean, a desert and an enormous night sky. It’s remoteness is definitely a factor but not necessarily its inaccessibility,- I mean,- you’d love it here Tim, you truly would, even if you could get here in two hours you’d love it here. But yeah, maybe not as much as if it took you two months on a boat. So maybe I’ve changed my mind and am agreeing after all. I guess if I was in charge of the world I wouldn’t necessarily choose only the current catchment of people (scientists included) to be the only ones who get to be here. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion…..

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