Midwinter’s day is the highlight in our busy social calendar, a day when we can celebrate having the same number of buildings on the base as when winter began and (hopefully) not having lost all of our marbles. Our short, gloomy days stop getting shorter and the countdown begins for the glorious moment when the sun first peeks over the horizon again.
We are given the whole week off work and, with holidays being something of a novelty down here, we were looking forward to making the most of our free days and praying that there were no problems to deal with. Unfortunately, hours after our freedom began, the main generator failed, requiring half of the team to run around frantically for a couple of hours to repair the fault and sort out delicate comms equipment and science instruments. By 3am we had nearly everything back up and running and headed to bed, exhausted.
With this brief hiccup out of the way, the celebrations began in earnest. Here is a write-up of the main events, which took place throughout the week.
The midwinter presents
One of the BAS winter traditions is for each member of the team to manufacture a gift for someone else whose name is drawn out of a hat, and then present it to them on midwinter’s day. Traditionally, the quality of craftsmanship that goes into the presents is very high, so there is a lot of pressure to meet the standard set by previous teams.
In the week prior to the big day, finished and wrapped presents steadily arrived on the allotted table in a variety of shapes and sizes. The last hastily-wrapped present only appeared about half an hour before the opening ceremony began, accompanied by the exhausted Doc. It was a relief to see that he was still alive – having been slightly over-ambitious with his gift idea, he’d been working in the chippy shed day and night for the previous month, only occasionally allowing himself the luxury of food and toilet breaks.
And so the grand opening began. The originality and skill that had gone into the gifts was startling – whatever else you say about my colleagues, they’re a talented bunch when they put their minds to it. It was a pleasure to watch the delight on the faces of people opening their presents – out came framed photos, a chessboard complete with matching pieces, a model Twin Otter sculpted out of solid brass and many more.
Two presents caught the eye above all else – Dale, the plumber, had manufactured beautiful scale models of all of the various vehicles on base, and mounted them in a display case for Jack, the vehicle mechanic. Rosey the meteorologist had spent hours stitching away at a patchwork quilt for me, with each patch made from clearly recognisable and meaningful scraps of fabric from around the base – bits of tent, T-shirts, tea-towels and many others had been absorbed into the design, which was capped off with a little fabric manhauler in the middle.
The midwinter feast
Justin the chef has already achieved something of a hero status amongst us, for his services to food. However, the midwinter feast is the occasion for an Antarctic chef to really shine. There were eight courses (I think, though I lost track after the fourth or fifth), starting with champagne and king prawns tempura, peaking somewhere around the fillet steak wellington and progressing through a delicate sorbet palate cleanser to homemade petits fours and a magnificent cheeseboard with port.
Fortunately, there was no particular hurry to ingest the vast amount of food, and the meal was briefly paused halfway through when all of us trooped up to the Ops Tower to tune into the BBC World Service’s annual midwinter broadcast, coming direct from the BBC’s shortwave transmitter at Skelton, Cumbria. This is a unique programme, dedicated to the 44 BAS winterers at the various stations, in which friends and families of the winterers record short messages for their loved ones down South. It’s a lovely occasion, guaranteed to raise a smile or a tear as you watch each face light up in turn on hearing the voices of parents, siblings or friends.
After the feast, Trixybell the delivery girl turned up to deliver us all presents from home, packaged and sent out almost before we left the UK. The parallels with Christmas are clear, the only obvious difference being that Santa is replaced with a well-muscled and tattooed tranvestite.
All of the food and drink takes its toll after a while, so it was a relief to get outside a couple of days later for the annual Rothera Winter Olympics. We were allocated into three teams, and the fierce competition began.
First off was the downhill slalom event. Individual competitors had the choice of skis or snowboard, and teams had to make it down the course as quickly as possible. Happily, all of my team managed to stay upright along the course, and the quality skiers amongst them (i.e. not me) put in some great times.
This was followed by some competitive box-lugging, made more interesting by the deep snow. Fortunately, four of my team of five had already practised legging it through thigh-deep snow in the Rothera naked run a day or two previously, so were fit and well-prepared for the event. Remarkably, it was actually much pleasanter running fully clothed, particularly when you fell over.
With the athletic events over, we turned to a marksmanship challenge – firing out-of-date flares at a target 20 metres away. Surprisingly, accuracy was not high on the flare manufacturer’s design criteria, so of all of us, only Tom and Justin managed to hit the target at all. Tom was on my team, so we were now cruising at the top of the league as we went into the last event – competitive box-stacking in the hangar.
The idea is to stack crates on top of each other, with one team-member balancing on top of the pile throughout (safely belayed from the roof of the hangar, of course). The tech-services team went first, with Tim teetering at a commendable height of 11 crates before they all came crashing down (not far off the Rothera record of 13 crates). We followed on, having learnt from their mistakes, but unfortunately our lightweight, rock-climbing, ex-ballet dancer team member (who shall remain nameless) fell off at a disastrous height of 2 crates (to be fair, she did later recover some dignity by managing a non-competitive height of 12 crates).
We had to wait until dinner that night to find out which team had won. Fortunately, our poor showing in the last event had not been enough to knock us off the top of the leaderboard, and we proudly took the gold medal.
Back to work
So that is midwinter’s week over, and my stint in the Antarctic is now ticking down past the halfway point. It has been a great week, with lots of happy moments to look back on. However, the thing that really stands out is the quality of the team – they’re all legends, be it working together to restore the power to base, or partying until the early hours. Good stuff. winter team 2012!