Igloos, hot-tubs and jingly janglies

I had the longest bath of my life last night: eight hours in a steaming hot

tub, to make up for all the baths I haven’t had in the past six months and won’t

have in the next year. It was glorious. The hot, hot water, thirty degrees on

my skin. The frozen hair, the beer, the wine, the rum and coke slushies. Outside,

the temperature dropped steadily from about minus twentysomething to minus thirtysomething

with windchill. It was cold.

We figured we’d last minutes out there on our own, wearing not very much, soaking

wet. I managed to get outside, go for a pee and jump back in again within one

minute and my toes were colder than I can possibly describe. My feet are raw

today, a combination of the long, long soak and the freezer burn from occasional

necessary jaunts onto the icy, sticky snow.

The party started around 5:30pm with a women’s hour for the two of us. Oh,

the luxury! Floating around in the melt-tank, we haven’t felt water like that

on our skin since. October? It ended around half one in the morning, a blurry

memory: a mixture of steam from the tub, ice in the air, the sharp wake-up call

of an antarctic blow and the hazy feeling you get after drinking all afternoon

on christmas day. At its busiest, we packed twelve people into this five foot

cube of warmth.

Photo by Frank Swinton

Why the celebration? It’s the end of the summer, the base is being winterised,

the summer residence in particular is being shut down, emptied, drained… and

as a final reminder of the chaos that it was, the space it now is, our ownership

of this corner of the ice shelf, we make a jacuzzi in their melt-tank, bubbles

and all. Because we can. A final celebration of warmth: crank up the heat and

jump in!

This evening we had a party to welcome the winter. I may be the only person

here to see these as rituals, spontaneous as they both were, but the analogies

are obvious once you start thinking about it. It’s dark, it’s cold, we’re tired

from the last night’s festivities.

Where do we go? To the igloo that’s just been finished of course! The opening

night: the final block was placed but hours ago. There is a beautiful, pale

blue glow, seemingly from nowhere, as you approach in the poor vis. It even

looks like an igloo! Round, with a tunnel entrance. It’s huge inside! We built


Photo by Jeff Cohen

It started as an afternoon jolly last Saturday ("I know", said Simon,

"why don’t we build an igloo tomorrow afternoon if the weather’s good?")

and turned into a week-long epic. Watching the technique developing as the week

progressed, learning from mistakes. What began as a chaotic expression of creativity

with snow turned into an art and science of igloo building. The pit from which

the snow blocks were carved, the shaping of them with a saw, their placement,

spiralling around the circle, the snow mortar that stuck them together. Hold

the blocks in place, however precarious the angle, toss snowballs at them, gently,

hold them for a couple of minutes, and watch them freeze. A couple of hours

later they are set like concrete,- what amazing building material snow is! And

now, this evening, we have had ten people in there reading poetry by the light

of a tilly lamp. Let the winter begin!

Night and day. I’ve been feeling lately that this is a fairly ordinary place

to be after all. I’ve been struggling with the predictability of night and day.

Of sun in the day and the moon and stars at night. So strange, after so long.

I hadn’t expected it. Gradually, of course, the days get shorter and the nights

get longer, the sun drops below the horizon for progressively longer stretches.

Of course – that’s what happens everywhere else in the world, isn’t it

obvious that it would happen here as well? I had expected something different.

I expected to move from 24 hours of sunlight to 24 hours of darkness via 24

hours of dusk I guess, gradually deepening in colour. I had abstracted myself

completely from the rest of the Earth system, this thing I’m meant to be studying.

I go to work, manhauling my solutions, bottles, boxes, clothes, lunch, on a

pulk sledge. I work in a lab fixing, plumbing, fitting, hammering, building,

tightening, checking, tuning, optimising, troubleshooting. I go home. Yesterday

I came home by kite – well, by hanging onto Stephane who was hanging onto

a kite. Both on skis. We all eat dinner together. I sit in the lounge and read

for a while. We have a few drinks in the bar. Last week, the chef was away so

we took it in turns to cook. It was a highlight, at the time as exciting and

memorable as igloo building. This is my life: if you do anything for long enough

it begins to feel normal. I guess ‘normal’ is just a reference to your usual


I’m writing like I’m beginning to go a little mad. I’m not (going mad) –

I’m just writing as the things come out. It’s all a mess, a jumble, it’s all

so obvious and easy until you realise that it’s actually very different from

everyone else’s experience at home. When you’re sat in a hot tub with lots of

people you don’t actually know that well, surrounded by a very cold place where

you can die very quickly, having a laugh… and then you realise that the only

thing that is holding this place together is a massive social restraint. And

what would happen should you dare to suggest that that restraint was loosened

a little? We all came here to live, to experience, to do something different

– but we all must conform as well to make sure we don’t go mad.

We won’t go to the South Pole en masse although we’ll talk about it for the

rest of the year, there won’t be mass orgies, although you out there will keep

asking and falsely assuming, there will always be food and heat and electricity

and people will go to work and there will become a routine that feels normal

and right because this isn’t an intentional community designed to explore the

boundaries of human interaction, it’s a scientific research base peopled by

those whose job skills suited.

The next day, after hot-tubs and igloos, we were practicing survival skills

outside in preparation for winter trips. Wrap up warm, real warm, find a harness

and your gear, and meet us outside, I was told. So I did. The last pair had

just finished as I arrived so I was led to the rope, given various jingly janglies

and told to go: up the rope with a jumar and then abseil down, just to check

you remember what you’re doing. I didn’t think I could remember a thing. We

were trained on this during three days in Derbyshire last September, tied to

lots of safety ropes and thoroughly supervised. But it came back surprisingly

quickly. Up and down. Next time I do this will be in a crevasse, on my winter

trip, in a week’s time. So I guess it’s not that normal after all, being here.

I like it, I like it a lot, even if there’s nothing to reference ourselves against.

4 thoughts on “Igloos, hot-tubs and jingly janglies

  1. ” and then you realise that the only thing that is holding this place together is a massive social restraint…” which the British are very good at. Is this perhaps why Brits are legendary polar explorers? What are things like on Argentine Antarctic bases?

  2. I love the idea of a hot tub in Halley, the mind boggles. The igloo is more understandable and even with that I am amazed at the size.

    How reassuring to see that you have got a nice layer of hair again. Enough to keep the worst chill off, I hope.

    About “normality”, too true. Luckily you can get used to almost everything otherwise you would go crazy. Keep on writing these blogs. Our gobsmacked responses will remind you that you are in a very special envioronment!

    Be careful out there on the winter trip.

    Love you, mum

  3. Limerick fuer Rhian

    Hier sieht man die Rhian beim Baden,

    Sie zeigt aber nicht mal die Waden.

    Zu zehnt wird es heiss,

    Doch draussen liegt Eis.

    Drum nehmen sie keinen Schaden.

    Thanks for keeping us informed!

    Liebe Gruesse, Ulla und Ruedeger

  4. Where are your beach sandals when you need them?

    You must be becoming part penquin, running around on the snow with your bare feet!

    Wonderful fun and experience, thanks for the tale.

    Enjoy the winter!

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