[I N D E X]
June has been eventful for us at Halley. It is now six months since first time winterers arrived at the Brunt Ice Shelf on the ship yet it doesn't seem that long ago that we were celebrating the millennium. There have been some very dark days, with black bands of cloud on the ice. Other days have been clear, with brilliant red skies on the horizon. The temperatures have generally been in the minus 30s and minus 40s and the wind has risen to around 40 knots, with higher gusts. Paradoxically, higher wind conditions often increase the temperatures to seemingly tropical climes as high as minus 15 degrees Celsius. This is not an accurate reflection of how cold it feels as the windchill factor makes it cold outside and we keep our skin well covered. We are well and truly acclimatised to the cold now and used to walking outside in the darkness, although it is easy to trip over mounds of sastrugi, an environmental hazard.
The Laws Building on a clear winter's day in late June
Looking towards the melt tank and the Simpson Platform
Catriona Gillies, Structural Engineer, writes about her ongoing task of maintaining the steel legs of the Laws Building. Cat surveys the platform each month and decides which legs need to be adjusted to account for the moving ice shelf on which we are based. In the summer this is done by means of automatic jacking but in the winter this has to been done manually. I assisted Cat one fine and dark afternoon in minus 37 degrees. We climbed a ladder five metres on either side of an ice-covered steel leg, wearing safety harnesses and carrying large ratchets and podgers (large spanner-like apparatus). We unscrewed bolts and realigned steel plates weighing 30 kg. It took careful handling of the tools to raise legs by a sum of just seventeen millimetres.
The meteorologists have had some extra after-hours work as early in the month the Mawson Automatic Weather Station (MAWS) broke down. This measures temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind velocity and wind direction. The team were out at midnight attempting to fix the problem and were successful in this task. In winter months the meteorologists continue to observe the weather at regular intervals and launch weather balloons to sample the atmosphere. They also collect snow and air samples.
Pat Fielder, Vehicle Mechanic, has had quite a time starting up the bulldozer in minus 40 degree temperatures. At this temperature the battery is only 18% efficient and the engine requires 246% of its energy to turn over. Andy Cope, Electrician, has been busy testing all of the small appliances on the platforms. This is no easy task as everything electrical, from toasters to computer connections, requires testing. Richard Borthwick, Heating and Ventilation Engineer, has been changing the mechanical seal on the grifter, which contains a voluminous quantity of frozen sewage. He has also been foraging in the depths of the tunnels, defrosting frozen water lines as part of the maintenance to the water system on the Simpson Platform. Steve White, the Field General Assistant, has been maintaining sledges and field boxes, preparing them for post-winter trips.
Antarctic stations celebrate this event as it marks the shortest day of the year, the half-way point in the dark winter months. As a cheerful interlude in the winter, winterers spent a week celebrating. Work was still conducted but daily events had been organised for midwinter's week. These included games of mental and practical agility, pool and table tennis competitions, a ceilidh, a cabaret and a casino evening. The Halley band made its debut performance to a small but appreciative audience. The band intends to continue practising, not by popular demand, but because we enjoy making the noise.
Festive decorations were placed around the base and the Christmas tree was resurrected and dusted off. Midwinter greetings arrived by fax and e-mail from all over Antarctica. We received greetings from the Prime Minister of India and invitations to dine at Australia's Macquarie Station and South Africa's SANAE Station. Many ex-winterers also offered their greetings.
Midwinter's day dawned bright and clear, minus 32 degrees Celsius with a breath of wind. In keeping with tradition, Simon Prasad, our winter base commander, had made us a cooked breakfast. In honour of the occasion a magazine had been produced, aptly named The Smite, with some witty and humorous contributions from base members.
You may be wondering what on earth possesses sixteen people to run around their house naked in freezing temperatures. I have since wondered myself. The midwinter streak is a tradition at Halley and it is just as well there are no neighbours to complain. Wearing nothing but mukluks, a hat and gloves, we all conducted this bizarre ritual. To answer some questions you may have, girls ran separately from boys, some did more than one lap, one person ran to the Simpson Building and there were no casualties.
Richard Turner, Halley's supreme chef, worked tirelessly for days preceding midwinter to create a ten-course menu, a veritable feast. It is easily the most memorable meal I have ever eaten. It is even more remarkable that such a meal was made in view of the fact that all ingredients were frozen, tinned or dried. We made numerous toasts that evening as we sat around our table, with the flags of many nations around us, particularly to our chef for his expertise.
Shackleton's expedition celebrated midwinter's day in 1915 and a picture of this event hangs on the wall at Halley. Many years later we were celebrating the same day, in much different circumstances, in the same cold Antarctic. Earlier in the day, we recounted some history as we viewed The Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957 on projector reel. Sir Vivian Fuchs' and Sir Edmund Hillary's teams had started from different sides of the continent and met at the South Pole, a remarkable achievement.
Frank Hurley's picture of Midwinter Dinner 1915
Eagerly awaited was the BBC broadcast, an opportunity for our next-of-kin contacts to leave a message for each of us. It was a reminder of how remote we are from our families and friends and it meant a great deal to hear their messages over the radio. About two months ago, each member of base picked a name out of a hat to make a gift for someone else. This had been constructed in secret behind closed doors as the sound of power drills and electric saws reverberated through the building after working hours. After the broadcast, secrets were revealed as we gave each other these gifts. It was evident that much thought and effort had gone into making these presents, not a simple task when last minute shopping is not an option.
Midnight aurora over the SHARE antennae
I have written about the southern lights in previous months but at the end of June we were treated to the most spectacular Aurora Australis I have yet seen. It filled much of the dome of stars above us such that it was difficult to know where to look. Suddenly it seemed as the sky was on fire as yellow and red flames raced quickly across the sky.
I could write much about the challenges of living and working here as some days present more difficulties than others. In the routine of work, particularly in these dark winter months, midwinter served as an infusion of fun and celebration for the sixteen of us. It seems a significant milestone to be moving into the second half of the year. The days will become lighter and the sun will return in just over six weeks. I look forward to getting out on my skis and not falling over dark shadows of lumpy ice.Best wishes,
Midwinter greetings from Halley winterers