Sunday, 13 November 2011

Last night of the winterover, we think.

The frustration here has been getting pretty palpable. It?s causing
lots of minor, needless aggravation between the crew. It?s now a week
since the winterover was scheduled to end, but there is no relief yet.
With our planes still stuck at Rothera, the Australians were ready to
lend us one of their twin otters. In fact Bob, our first visitor, was
going to fly back to us on Saturday to refuel and then go down to MZS
to pick up our people and bring them up today. Bad weather at Casey
scuppered that plan, and in fact the plan was abandoned. But earlier
today we got confirmation that our planes have crossed the continent
and are at McMurdo, ready to go to MZS and come up to us tomorrow.
The meteo looks good. So, we think this time it really should work.
However, there is a fair amount of scepticism amongst everyone and
there is no feeling of celebration amongst the crew. We had our ?last
winterover dinner? a few days ago, accepting the fact that, that
actual night would certainly not be the end, but we were unlikely to
get enough notice to put on a proper ?last dinner? when they did
eventually come.
So we?ll believe it when we see the plane pull up on the taxiway, and
not before.So now that it probably is the end of hte winterover, it all feels
very anticlimactic and not knowing what else to do, I wandered
outside. I thought I might try sitting outside for once to write a
blog entry (pencil and paper, of course) in the sunshine.
Polystyrene, I'd like to say, is great stuff. It?s minus 40, and I
pulled a couple of sheets out of a frozen scientific container, one
to sit on and one to prop against the leg of the base so I could lean
against it and shelter from the breeze. And it?s keeping me really
warm. It?s so nice to be able to sit in the sun for a while, even if
I do have goggles and a face mask on. The humidity is a very pleasant
60 percent out here (inside the base it?s around 7 percent and I live
with a perpetually dry mouth). It?s quiet, and comfortable.
Looking round the disc-like, sea-like horizon I can see lots
of scientific shelters from here ? Fisica, Caro, Glacio 600m away in
front of me, to the left the horizon broken by the snowdrifts that
have completely submerged the Seismo and Magnetic shelters. From this
angle they look much like a wave rolling in from the south and about
to break. To my right and about 250m away the spiderlike
Astroconcordia platforms, and then further to the right and just
behind centrale the sixteen containers adapted to be diesel fuel tanks
that have supplied our engines all year. The life blood of the
station. And us, I guess. There?s enough left to keep us going all
the way into early February, but our next delivery is due in a couple
of weeks.
The strange thing is that the base and its surroundings seem
so different in the light, and with the snow around it having been
flattened by machines, that in some ways it seems like the winterover
must have happened in a different place entirely.I wanted to sit here and reflect a bit on the winterover, but as I sit
and think I realise it?ll take a bit longer to sort it all out. One
thing is for sure, it?s been pretty straightforward when all said and
done. No mechanical problems, we?ve been safe as houses. And only
minor interpersonal problems, looking back. I think we?ve had a
particularly professionally-minded crew. And I?ve liked this kind of
work, being part of a small, very interdependent team where you have
much more varied responsibilities than one would in any normal job,
and where there?s no-one else that can do your work for you.
We?ve done our jobs, and we?ve got base ready for a busy
summer campaign. And the guys are all ready to go home; everyone has a
travel plan now. In fact the first of the crew to leave is due to be
going in a couple of days, most will be gone in three weeks.I think about the fact that in the last eleven months I?ve never
walked further than 1km away from home. In the last nine months I?ve
spoken to just  twenty-three different people.And I?m struck by a stark memory,
maybe because I?m looking at the
Astro platforms. One night, just after midwinter I think. We had
been in hard darkness for at least five weeks. Domenico needed help to
fit some heavyish equipment on a telescope mount up on one of the
Astro platforms. So Eric, Djamel and I came to help. It was about
10pm, it was a still night, the temperature somewhere between -70 and
-75 degrees C. There was a high, full moon and his device was
designed to use the moonlight to measure humidity in the atmosphere.
It was the first time in weeks I could see my footing. I dragged a
sledge with all the equipment out there, then because I was too
breathless to do more, Djamel carried the instrument up a ladder and
we got it up on the mount. There was a simple little power cable
tangle but it took three of us five or six minutes to undo it because
of the dark, the restricted vision in our masks, clumsy gloves, and
the frozen cable unwilling to unbend from its coils.Then the other three went to the shelter to install a computer and
wire up the electronics, and I wasn't needed any more so I made my way
back to the base. No longer intent on the work, it occurred to me
that this was the strongest light we?d see until the sun came back in
several weeks. So I took a walk, all the way up to the far end of the
summer camp, enjoying negotiating the deep snowdrifts I found up
there. Walking between lifeless, dark abandoned huts and tents, it
seemed so like a different world ? the almost agonisingly long
darkness, the odd surface at once crisp and soft, coloured a uniform
deep dark grey and sparkling in the moonlight, even the thin
atmosphere I breathed seeming alien.I tried to make my routine, half-hourly, radio call to the base but I
found my radio's battery had been depleted by the cold, and because I
hadn?t planned the walk I had not brought a spare. I realised I was
totally alone. Out of contact and without company, I was alone in a
way I had not been since perhaps November the year before. I was aware
it was a risk being out here without a working radio but I was
surprised to find I felt a deep, contented, sense of freedom because
of it. Of the whole winterover, it was the only time I felt really,
truly relaxed.Total silence and stillness. Even the snow wasn't making any of its
booming or cracking noises. The only sounds were my loud footsteps.
The dark snow, stretching in frozen waves as far as the eye could see,
the sky black and featureless. All starlight swamped by the light of
the moon.
And the sight, unique and fantastic, as I looked back over
the camp?s snowdrifted domes and buildings, antennae and equipment,
and over haphazard striped vehicle tracks in the snow, at bright,
white, distant Concordia. Hi-tech and robustly safe in this fierce
environment. It?s lights warm, white and orange, shining out and down
making a bright halo on the snow all around the base.I was deeply conscious I needed to be careful out here. But at the
same time one of the very few times in a lifetime I was completely
contented to be where I was. Soon, though, the cold started to spread
into my arms and legs, seeping into my suit as if it were a living
thing invading through its weak points. The escapable but fatal
threat forced me back, reluctantly, to the lights. But that was a
magical time.
It genuinely seemed like I was on another world. And I loved it.Back to now, sitting out on the foot of the base in the sun. I?ll
have to go in; my hands are starting to chill because I?m holding the
paper and pencil. My project?s finished, the winterover is finished.
Of the ninety day summer campaign, I?ll be here for seventy days of
it, waiting for my successor to arrive. I?ve got a plan to try to get
another ESA project working. But honestly, I don?t know what?ll
happen next. I?m looking forward to it, though.
The one thing I can be sure of, it?s going to be really sunny. And
I'm so looking forward to that.

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8
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