Winter life

Rothera base

The base, on a gloomy winter morning.

The ship left us alone in this snowy wilderness nearly two months ago. Since then we have had plenty of fun, problems to solve, time to play and time to work. The first big milestone of winter was a week ago, when the sun finally left us to hide below the horizon. The next milestone is 3 weeks away when we celebrate midwinter, the shortest day of the year. This is a significant moment for us, for obvious reasons, and the occasion is accompanied by a fair bit of ceremony and BAS tradition. Before we reach this hurdle, however, it seems like an appropriate time to describe what the winter has been like for us so far.

Rothera base on a dreary day

The base on a dreary winter’s day.

Getting up in the morning is increasingly difficult, as it is pitch black, with stars glinting in the sky on a clear night. Sometimes the short walk across to the dining room can be a testing experience for someone newly-awoken – the icy cold that hits you as you step outside is often accentuated by a bitter wind and gusting spindrift. If snow has fallen during the night then there may also be snowdrifts a few feet high to negotiate in the dark – something of a challenge before you’ve even had the first meal of the day.

Breakfast can be a solitary experience, and if I still haven’t seen anybody by the time I walk over to my office then it might be a couple more hours before I say my first ‘good morning’. Once installed in the office I’ll do a quick email check and then get down to business. The winter comms work is great – relaxing and right up my street. I spend my days checking all of the comms equipment, tinkering with broken radios and making repairs and improvements for the forthcoming summer season. With so few of us on the base, music while you work is essential, so there are now a few songs that will forever take me back to my little workshop in Antarctica.

Comms workshop

Me, testing a radio in the comms workshop. All of the radios used in the field during the summer have to be carefully checked and repaired, ready for the next season.

Workwise, the principal difference from the summer is that we have a lot more free time – the hours are shorter, we no longer routinely work on Saturdays and there is a lot more flexibility – if it’s one of the rare dingle days then we can get outside and make the most of it, catching up the time on one of the plentiful selection of dreary days. The shortening daylight hours make our sunny free time even more valuable – if you don’t seize every chance to get out, then you may miss out on the light altogether.

We usually congregate for coffee mid-morning, while it is still dark outside. This is the first chance to catch up with the news for the day and Justin the chef often supplies us with cake or some other goodies to help the morning slide past. It is only as we get back to work and lunchtime is approaching that the darkness lifts a little, and the skies turn grey, then red, yellow and purple. Although the sun now hides permanently behind the mountains that surround the base, its rays can still peek through to illuminate the highest peaks, and sometimes the under-side of the clouds to create beautiful herring-bone patterns across the sky.

Winter clouds

Clouds lit up from underneath by the sun, currently hiding below the horizon.

By the end of the working day, darkness has fallen again. This used to signal the start of some pre-dinner relaxation time, but at the moment we are in the midst of the BAS ‘Race across Antarctica’ competition, so many of us now head for the gym instead. The idea is for teams of six to clock up kilometres on rowing machine, bike and running machine – these all represent kilometres travelled across Antarctica, with the first team to complete the 6000km crossing declared the winner. The competition is fierce, with teams competing from all of the other bases and the Cambridge HQ. Losing to the other Rothera team would be bad enough, but losing to Halley would be devastating. This is what drives us to the gym hour after hour, day after day.

Saturday night dinner

Saturday night dinner. I think that this was ‘farmyard’ fancy dress night, judging by the flat caps.

With appetites now finely honed by the exercise, dinner is a joyous occasion. With only eighteen people to cook for, Justin really pulls out the stops and works his magic in the kitchen every single meal. The mealtime conversation usually revolves around puddings, with a core group of us insisting that the rigours of the harsh environment and physical daily work mean that we’re entitled to a dessert every night. Justin’s counter argument is that we will all get fat, and anyway he can’t be bothered to cook a dessert every night… The evening meal is also a chance to catch up with whichever member of the team is on weekly night-watch – this is usually the person rubbing their bleary eyes and looking confused about which meal they’re eating.

The evenings are surprisingly full of activity. A decent film will go on a couple of nights a week, or in long-standing tradition dating back to Scott’s days, someone might give a short lecture on a topic of their choice. At this time of year, people may sneak off to the carpenter’s workshop to work on their winter present – a handmade midwinter’s day gift for another person, whose name was picked out of a hat earlier in the season. The musical folk inevitably drift towards the green room for a jamming session, or a scheduled practice of the newly-formed winter band. However, at least one or two nights a week, the scattered team reunite in the bar for an evening beer before heading off to bed. The company is good – we know each other well enough now that for the banter and teasing can kick off in earnest, and the sessions can last late into the night.

Farmyard fancy dress

More farmyard fancy dress. Tim plays pool in the bar.

Saturday evening is still an important occasion when we all put on smart shirts and have an extra-special meal (and one that always includes the obligatory dessert!). If there is something to celebrate then we may demand that themed fancy dress is worn – this results in weird and wonderful outfits being dragged from people’s wardrobes, or the fancy dress cupboard. Some of the outfits are innocent enough, but some come with warnings – no photos of them can ever see the light of day back in the UK. Last weekend we even had a barbeque – two hardy souls stood outside on the balcony for a couple of hours flipping burgers and sausages in the dark, so that the rest of us could imagine that we were back in the UK on a summer evening.

Snowy fur seal

It’s not all fun and games for the animals. This fur seal has got a good covering of snow.

Our weekend activities remain closely tied to the weather – if it is blowing 50 knots outside, then people disappear off to all corners of the base to fill their spare time by reading, watching films or writing blog entries! However, when the sun comes we jump at the chance to go skiing, or take a walk round the point to see the wildlife. The base is still overrun with fur seals and penguins, so it is easy to spend an hour or two sitting on a rock watching them twist and turn in the water.

We’re very happy team down here and there really isn’t much that we wish for. However, as the fresh fruit and veg have nearly run out, this may start to change rapidly! My biggest fears for the winter were the darkness and potential boredom. The darkness is surprisingly not an issue at all, with enough twilight during the middle of the day to satisfy any cravings for a proper daytime. Boredom could not be further from my mind – there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything I want, and I’m having to postpone various winter projects. The days are flying by faster than we’d all like – before we know it, the sun will be back, the Dash-7 will be landing and our base will once again be overrun with the summer hordes.

Snowy weddell seal

Weddell seal covered in snow.

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One Response to Winter life

  1. David Stroud says:

    Thanks for this – fantastic account!

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