After we passed the landmark of our first sunrise nothing really
changed much, and there seemed to be nothing much to look forward to
anywhere in the near future. We?re tired and the adventure certainly
had lost its gloss temporarily. You could see fatigue heavily creasing
most of the crew's faces. The sun rose yes, but for the first couple
of weeks not really enough to make a difference and, looking back, I
was disappointed and frustrated at how slowly the light came back.
You would look out the window at around twelve o'clock and see a
sliver of the sun above the horizon getting slightly larger day by
day, but it was still only about two weeks ago that for the first time
we could leave the lights off at midday and still be able to see
Everyone kept working hard, but for sure enthusiasm was low, for
everyone I would say. For me, I put off a lot of organisational
matters, and for things like writing to this blog, I tried many times
to start writing something but could never finish it. Still, really,
even now that things are much better I?m still struggling a bit. I?m
tired, really tired right now.
So, rather than try to rewrite all those bits and pieces into one huge
meandering essay, what I?ve done is cut out and collate some of the
things I tried to write over the last month. In reverse order, like
the rest of the blog.
Loss of the sublime 16th September
The sun is getting higher and higher and when it sets, it sinks less
and less below the horizon. It will go from being totally absent, to
present 24 hours a day in just twelve weeks. And it's now five weeks
since its first sunrise. Already there's now a faint glow of
residual light in the south almost all the night, and only about an
hour of total darkness, and returning a couple of hours later. In
ten days time at it?s lowest the sun will be less than twelve degrees
below the horizon all through the night and it will send light round
to us all through the night, obscuring the starlight.
So, what all this means is that in a few days time there will be so
much light in the night sky that we will no longer have such a clear
and crisp view of the centre of the milky way, and it will rapidly
fade altogether as the sun becomes ascendant.
It's been an awesome sight. Never before have I appreciated depth, in
the sense of distance, in the night sky. Here, you can see a 'middle
ground' of bands of black interstellar clouds, and behind them the hub
of the milky way they partly obscure, and all on the 'background' of
stars that are in fact other galaxies. I have spent hours and hours
outside at night to admire this sight. I could never have imagined
seeing such a thing and even aside from everything else that has made
coming to Concordia an amazing year, being able to see our galaxy so
clearly and have a totally unexpected perspective on our place in the
universe has been easily worth spending a year here. I'm so sad it
will begin to fade now.
I had the good fortune to be on nights with the astronomers again ,
when last night Pascal radioed in to say he was outside and was seeing
an aurora. We got outside to see it. It was small and indistinct,
and faded quickly, and I doubt we?ll see another.
It was a fairly warm night and the sky was very clear, so I thought
I?d take some pictures. I went to get my camera, only to meet Vivien
and David, who were heading out to the swimming pool.
The fondoir is the big heated tank that snow is dumped into to melt
into water for our consumption. It's been built out of a container,
and is a few metres long by about a meter and a quarter deep, with a
liftable roof. Every month or two it gets emptied and cleaned, and
that means we can use it as a 'swimming pool' for a couple of days
before. Fred announced he?d be opening it this weekend. So these
guys went out to use it, and of course switched on the strong
exterior base lights. So that was it for my night sky photography.
Nothing else to do but put my camera away and go join them in the
pool. It was midnight, -50C and the water was about +25 C. After a
short while all our hair was white from frozen steam. All very
civilised, until you have to get out. Our shoes, left at the side of
the pool were frozen solid, so we soaked them in the water for a
minute to soften them. And then you get out, and leg it pronto to the
heated tent beside the tank.
Toast 15th September
I'm on nights with Eric, Djamel and Domenico again. And I work out
that today we're 80% of the way through the winterover. Domenico and
I have toasted each of these milestones with a glass of grappa, and
it?s the same tonight. We?re getting there. Cheers folks!
Not Such Fun Run 12th September
I ran outside for the first time in a long time today. 250 metres, to
a point I fixed by GPS, and back. And I only just made it.
I had heard that Linda Norgrove's foundation is organising a fun run
in October and I thought we could try something here in support. I?m
hoping to persuade most of the crew to do it, and I?ve got some takers
already. I've been waiting for a warming event to get out and try,
to see how feasible it is. And when I got up today and found there
were clouds across the horizon, today was definitely the day. So, to
see just how far we can run at 3200 metres above sea level with an
atmospheric pressure of 650 millibars in soft snow at -55C, I and
Andrea Ballarini tried to run 500 metres. And we made it, just.
Absolutely fighting for breath at the end of it. I think that was
pretty much my limit.
But, it was great to exercise outside, and I felt pretty euphoric for
a couple of hours afterwards. Probably just hypoxia but hey, it still
Our days are long, sunny and about ten degrees warmer generally. And
it feels great. Today I had a lateish breakfast and sunlight blazed
in the window. We opened a window and let a little fresh air in,
even. In addition to the warmer air, if you get outside and the
sunlight does add a bit of warmth. In the suits that we have here, it
feels very comfortable, now And the effect that has on your feeling
of health is remarkable.
Just one month after the first sunrise, the length of the days now
feel like springtime. As the day goes from fully night to fully
circumpolar sun in just twelve weeks, it means that the dawn is about
eight minutes earlier every day and the sunset about eight minutes
later. In another three weeks time it will be getting warm enough
that if we needed one, it should be possible to land a plane, and it
will be quite comforting to have that back-up back again.
But as the feeling of springtime is really strong, thanks to the
lengthening days, now the stillness and lifelessness of Dome C seems
more striking. The only movement you can see outside is the steam
from the engines, and its shadow on the snow. And whilst that seemed
normal in the wintertime, now I really miss seeing and hearing living
things out and about, particularly birds.
Elsewhere in Antarctica, McMurdo station has already had its first
planes of the year arrive, and in contrast Amundsen-Scott base at the
South Pole has yet to see the sun. I suppose it will be at the
equinox it makes its first appearance. Mario Zuchelli will open up in
The last month has been long and slow, and I think everyone felt it.
It?s now seven months we?ve been isolated, we?ve seen and done
everything there is to see and do, the work and company doesn?t
change. Only the amount of light in the sky is the only thing changing
and at last boredom is beginning to set in. I brought a John Muir
Trust diary with me, with photographs mostly of Scotland. Turning the
page to a new week and new picture is becoming something of an
important event for me now, which struck me today as a bit of sign...
Life with the crew is slightly strange in that, one the one hand, I
think people are feeling good that the sun is up and we are marching
quickly toward the summer campaign, which will bring a change of pace
and duties. It?s easier to get outside as it?s warm in our suits now
and work is easier as you can see. Radio batteries last longer, hands
don?t freeze so badly or so quickly when you handle things. Sleep is
back to normal for everyone. So on the whole everyone is more
relaxed, also too as we speak each others? languages better. The mood
is definitely brighter. But on the other hand I think that
everyone?s nerves ? without exception ? are a little worn, by the
isolation and close proximity, and the prolongued tiredness. Minor
issues seem to be able to flare into arguments more easily than
perhaps they did at the beginning of the winterover. But, still not a
single major conflict, DC7 has been a good crew it seems.
The politics of the vaiselle are a little telling. When it?s your
turn to wash up the day?s dishes, people come and help. But, recently
when it?s a French guy on the rota, other French will come to help,
and when it?s an Italian, it?s Italians who help. Subtle, but
noticeable separations seem to be evident in other situations too,
like at the dinner table, and on a Saturday night the French and the
Italians are in differenct places. Inevitable I suppose, and it
doesn?t imply that they?re not getting along. It?s just that it does
get tiring speaking other language, and it?s preferable to stick with
your own people. Fortunately I still get help from everyone when it?s
my turn to wash up, and in general I definitely get made to feel an
honorary member of both nationalities.
Frozen ocean September 5th
This afternoon Fred started up the emergency engine and switched over
the power to check that our emergency generator and its lines are all
working properly. He does it a few times in the year, switching over
just for a few hours. He does the same with the summer camp engines as
it is our safe retreat should disaster strike and we lose the base.
The emergency generator is housed in the noisy building rather than in
the separate centrale building, and walking past it, roaring away, on
my way to the grey water treatment unit there is the faintly sweet
smell of a well kept marine engine and it prompts memories of various
boats and ships I?ve been on, from little sailing yachts that were
little more than caravans with a mast, to the engine room of HMS
Invincible. And again I?m struck by how much our base is essentially
a ship on legs. Totally self suffient, alone, insulated against a
hostile environment. I could go on.
I?ve been thinking about that before today, because when you look out
the window at the snow, it often looks like the sea. The sun at
midday now casts strong shadows from sastrugi on the snow, long thin
and parallel to the horizon, and they really look like waves. And
adding to the appearance, the precipitous temeprature inversions we
get at the level of the snow causes very strong, rippling air
turbulence, like you get over a road on a hot day. It seems to give
movement to the snow surface and some days it really, really looks
like a calm, glistening ocean.
The memory thing is interesting. Throughout the winterover I?ve been
remembering the most random things, without any apparent precipitant.
It?s obvious it occurs because there is a kind of sensory deprivation
here, as nothing changes and nothing new arrives. So it?s not a
derangement of memory, just the natural outcome of understimulation.
It?s not distressing but it can be very distracting. They are very
specific, and utterly random. One day, for example, whilst clipping
solid ECG electrodes to a t shirt I get suddenly hit by a memory of a
quiet high street of a village, that I don?t even know, just off the
A9 when I once pulled off looking for fuel and took a wrong turn.
Other times memories have popped up of walking out of the entrance to
the anatomy department practical labs in Cambridge, the road to
Braehead shopping centre Glasgow, going down the steps into Waverly
station, waiting on a deserted platform at Perth station one night,
cycling through Bury St Edmunds. Standing in Kirkcaldy Hospital's
lift. It?s odd, occurring daily and inexplicable. And why the
association with making journeys?
The appearance of the sea is probably a similar phenomenon, occurring
at the visual perceptual level. Memory in our perceptual processes is
creeping where it shouldn?t be and altering the way we perceive
things. It happens all the time. Doors squeaking are heard as birds
calling, hearing a rustling outside can evoke a neighbour gardening,
the chugging of the ventilation system sounding like a ship passing by
?this isn?t me specifically, all these examples are things that other
crew have described to me. It's OK, nobody's going mad. I do wonder
how much more severe it would get in a capsule taking 9 months to get
to Mars, though, where you couldn't get outside, you couldn't exercise
properly, and there's nothing to see even out the window. I wonder if
you really could be driven mad by your own memory.
End of cycle5 of the research project I?m doing. And now I'm going to
bed for a week. Later, folks...
Random thought; I've never lived anywhere with no snowfall before.
Even Cambridge gets some snow per year, but here, at Dome C in
Antarctica's interior, there is absolutely none. I've seen misty days
with lots of frost forming in the air and on the snow, and we get snow
drifting, for sure. But in my 13 months here I will not see a single
snow shower. Because it's just too cold for it to snow. Just one
more oddity about this place. (We do get around 20-30cm of
precipitation per year, forming frost. That?s less precipitation than
the Sahara desert)
25th August Peeling apples
Every few weeks I cook. The chef gets Sunday off too and so everyone
in the crew takes a turn to cook. Now the current cycle of data
collection ends and I get to be master of my own time for a couple of
weeks. I always cook in these hiatuses, every six weeks, largely so I
keep a bit ahead of the minimum required.
At the beginning of the winterover in February we had two tonnes of
fresh food sent up to us. They came from Australia and were pretty
much the same as we have in the UK.
Some fresh food ? apples, potatoes, onions, carrots and the like, have
lasted very well thanks to the dessicating atmosphere, and the total
lack of microbial life ? the only bacteria and fungi on the base
really come from our skin, I suppose. Not the best adapted to live on
apples! But the fresh food is finally getting a bit ropey now. I peel
the skins of the apples these days ? otherwise you can?t be sure what
you?re biting into.
Reading the book of Roald Amundsen, and descriptions of the British
expeditions, you realise that scurvy was a huge worry to the explorers
and careful planning went into making sure food was kept well. To us,
scurvy is really just a historical thing. We have practically half a
container stacked with fruit juice cartons and no worries whatsoever.
Last time I cooked Fred, the chief engineer offered to help. Three
months ago I would have seriously worried that this would be a
communication challenge too far, but his English and my French have
improved so much that it was fine, his English is still way better
than my French of course. He?s a good guy with a good sense of humour
so even though the communication was still pretty deficient and
involved lots of arm waving, charades and shouting, we survived the
day with friendship still firmly intact. Actually it was a pretty good
laugh. The only casualty were the fishcakes that got no salt.
Making british recipes here can be a little challenging, but my
cooking has on the whole been received very well. With the occasional
exception. Once I decided to make a lamb broth, and discovered too
late the only cabbage we have was red. Purple. Dark, dark purple, and
so the soup was purple too. But on the other hand the cullen skink
(AKA at Concordia ?Scottish fish soup?) I made in Paris for the crew
has been in demand. It's a bit of a project as we don't have smoked
fish here. Andrea our chef has a way to smoke fish if we get him some
woodchips, so I have to ask Ale to do any woodworking he has planned
so we can have the sawdust. I think on the whole the French
appreciate my cooking more than the Italians. As much as it would
pain them to admit it, French and modern British cooking have quite a
lot in common, really. The Italians tend to like having only one thing
on their plate at a time, whereas the French tend to like a big
plateful with a variety of things on it, like we do.
Anyway, now that the fresh food is running out I have a big problem,
because all our food is tinned or otherwise preserved food from Italy
and France. And I have no idea what any of it is! And even the things
you can recognise, like mushrooms are continental species that taste
completely different. So it?s a beef stew and Scottish fish soup. And
I?ve no idea what I?m going to do next time.
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8
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