Rothera Diary - June 2002

written by Felicity Aston

I ran down the brightly lit corridor towards the doorway flashing with coloured lights and filled with jeering faces. Running as hard as the baggy and cumbersome doosuit would allow, I burst through the doorway, desperately reaching for the bottle sitting in the middle of the floor. Just as I could feel it within my clasp I was jerked backwards. Taken by surprise I stumbled but couldn't stop myself being pulled to the floor and sliding back towards the doorway. Lying in an undignified heap I laughed along with everyone else at my dramatic rebound.

This is the bungee bar, the annual sledge store madness where each of us try to pull against the force of a huge bungee cord attached to a harness at our waist and snatch a bottle of beer before being pulled back down the corridor. It was the second stop on our traditional marathon pub-crawl around base with every department setting up its own bar. We had already been to the 'Dive Inn' earlier that evening (where we'd been duped into drinking clove oil and seawater) and still had the doctors surgery, the meteorology department, the garage, an Indian restaurant and finally a 70's disco in the sparky shop to visit where we danced the night away.

The bungee bar - Click to enlarge The bungee bar - Click to enlarge

Above: The bungee bar. Click on the images for a larger version.

The "pub crawl" marked the first night of midwinter week. Midwinter is commonly referred to as 'our Christmas' and is a week long gorge of festivities to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day for those of us in the southern hemisphere. We have not lost daylight altogether. We get a reluctant dawn around 11 in the morning and are in darkness again by 3 in the afternoon. It has often been compared to a dreary winters day in Glasgow! Celebrating Midwinter is a tradition started by the first explorers to venture south. It continued throughout the 'heroic age' and is still celebrated on every station in Antarctica today. Antarctica has very little in the way of its own culture but this is one tradition that is shared by all the nationalities spending the winter here. We have received invitations and greetings from stations all over the continent including those manned by India, Australia, America, Ukraine, South Africa, Germany and Argentina.

Midwinter madness - Click to enlarge Midwinter madness - Click to enlarge
Midwinter madness - Click to enlarge Midwinter madness - Click to enlarge

Above: Some Midwinter madness. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Midwinters week is a week off work but for most people it was one of the busiest weeks of the winter so far. Everyone had a hand in organizing one event or the other and our days were packed with all sorts of ridiculous activities from treasure hunts to downhill slaloms. The emphasis was on eating and drinking too much but most of all celebrating the fact that we had reached the halfway point of our winter. This is Richard Flower's first Midwinter experience and it was a particularly cold one:

"Rothera is a few degrees below the Antarctic Circle so the sun is only below the horizon for 14 days a year. There are high mountains surrounding us, consequently we do not see the sun on base for about a month either side of mid winter, but if you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of it while out on a walk in the local hills. This is an important time for us here as it marks the turning point in the winter when the days start getting longer and the summer seems that little bit closer. I think for the people going home this summer, especially the ones that have already done a winter already, it is an especially important time and thoughts of home must be coming into their minds. For me it is harder to think of going home as I still have another winter to go, but it was a fantastic week and it is exciting to think of all things that lie ahead.

Despite it being midwinter week work continued for the met team (Felicity and I) doing 3 hourly met observations during the day and keeping atmospheric experiments running. It has been a month of things going wrong and although this gives us quite a bit of work to do, it is rewarding finding the problems and fixing them. Before the 21st of June it had been an especially cold month with temperatures not going above -12°C and we had a temperature of -29.9°C at one point which is the coldest it has been for at least a couple of years. On midwinter's day we awoke to find the eastern sky filled with nacreous cloud, this was an awesome sight and I think it will stick in my mind for a very long time. But it was a warning as two days later it was blowing at 60 knots, a temperature of plus one and torrential sleet.

As I write this it has calmed down outside and the temperature has dropped to a more respectable -10°C. I am tying to muster the will power to go for a run around the runway to burn of a few pounds that I have put on over the last few weeks but until it gets lighter and more hospitable outside I don't think it will happen!"

Richard Flower

Nacreous clouds - Click to enlarge
Nacreous clouds - Click to enlarge Nacreous clouds - Click to enlarge

Above: Nacreous Clouds. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Midwinters day is the 21st of June and fell on the Friday of our week this year. It was a fantastically still and clear winters day. The sky lit up in the morning to reveal surreal blobs floating above the mountain silhouettes. These huge nacreous clouds are formed high in the atmosphere and gently transform from one brilliant colour to the next as the sun moves below the horizon. They stayed with us throughout the morning before turning an iridescent white and fading into the twilight. It really was a fantastic start to the day. Several hours later I was sat around the long table in the dining room decorated with candles and tinsel, struggling to force down another forkful of food. Around me sat the other 19 winterers all of us in our smartest clothes for the occasion, including the odd dinner suit. I looked at Matt sitting next to me as he shook his head sadly at the food on his plate, 'I just can't eat any more.' Unfortunately we still had another 6 courses to go out of a total of 12. Our ever enthusiastic chef Mike Wallman had performed a miracle with the last stocks of shriveled carrots and slightly squidgy potatoes that are all we now have left of the stores delivered in March. Some of the courses looked so good that it was a crime to eat them.

Dessert! - Click to enlarge
Ready for the midwinter feast - Click to enlarge Our midwinter feast - Click to enlarge

Above: Our Midwinter feast. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Our overfilled stomachs were allowed a break after course 7 so that we could retire to the bar and listen to the midwinter broadcast provided by the BBC world service. Last year listening to the messages from my family on the radio had been a gut-wrenching experience. It had been so long since I'd seen them and it brought to mind how long it would be before I saw them again. The wonderful voice of my dad had brought images of everything else that had been so familiar and that was now so far away. This year things were different. It has been even longer since I last saw my family but this time I knew it is less than a year before I see them all again. Midwinter may be the shortest, darkest day but it is not actually the midway mark of our winter. We still have a long way to go before the planes return and we are reconnected with the outside world. However it is a definite landmark and now more than ever I feel like I am on the last leg of my Antarctic adventure.

Rothera Winterers 2002 - Click to enlarge

Above: Rothera Winterers 2002. Click the image to enlarge.

Mike Wallman our chef, Jim Olson our doctor and Simon Garrod our eternally abused Base Commander had a similarly memorable Midwinters day. For Jim and Mike this was a new experience but for Simon it is the third time around! They recount their experiences below.

"First light was at 11:30 with the sight of wonderful mother of pearl coloured clouds and a deep red glow along the horizon. Without a breath of wind we really couldn't have asked for a better day.

So I did an early lunch so that everybody could make the most of the good weather and limited twilight sun. Some people already had a good idea of what they wanted to do! Some went skiing and some others went off climbing and some others had bigger plans! We have a carpenter here called Gary, a very pleasant man with a quiet and sensible manner but he felt that he must warn us of a oath he swore on one of those dark nights at Halley. They call it streaking. Here it's not too bad, a mere minus 20 but at Halley on the 21 of June it would be around 40 below.

Well, streaking is running round a 500-meter course marked out round the base.... naked! Well, not totally naked, that would be daft(!) - you are allowed to keep your boots on. As you may of guessed there was not too many willing to follow in Gary's footsteps, so he only had one compatriot. Stewart our plumber who, as you would expect at this time of the year, has been fixing lots of burst pipes didn't let that stop him when the starting horn went off. He left Gary in a cloud of snow. Gary had a big part in this match and was determined to keep it up for the Halley traditions so he brushed himself down and was off. It was neck and neck past the generator shed then on up to the transit accommodation. Stewart was ahead by a nose. There was only the last 200 meters to go and by this point you could tell that the cold was starting to get to them!! First up to the finish line was Stewart, closely followed by Gary.

The rest of the twilight sun activities were of a similar nature, well more like getting back to nature really but personally I would have chosen a slightly less hostile environment to do it in. If you look out of the front door of Rothera there is what we call the ramp. It's where the 300 foot high glacier slopes off to the base and it is the fastest ski run we have. So Rayner, one of our scientists, and another Gary, one of our vehicle mechanics, decided to do the ramp before dinner. Yes you got it, naked! It's a good job they didn't catch the edge of their snowboards I wouldn't have liked to have to explain that to Jim the base doctor. Well, after every one had warmed up it was time for the party that only about 2 or 3 hundred get invited to each year. Even the Queen doesn't get a invite but I don't think she bears a grudge. By this time it was about 3:30 and the whole base was having sherry in the bar. I was offered a glass by Simon the winter base commander but I declined; not because I was working its just that I've discovered cleaning chemicals in the stores that leave less of an after taste in your mouth. Back to the point, dinner was 12 courses and lasted a staggering 7 hours (although we did stop for a hour to listen to the BBC world service at 6:30). It really was great to hear loved ones and family messages over the radio on such a special day.

After dinner, as you would expect, most people were at bursting point and ready to sit back and let it all go down. So the last chapter of the day was the exchanging of presents that some people had spent months making. There was some wonderful framed pictures and black and white photos, handmade mini sledges and lots more. It felt more like Christmas than Christmas did. And that's how we all spent our 21 of June."

Mike Wallman

"We had a fabulous day. In fact a fabulous week culminating on the 21st. It was better than all expectations.....rare, in events that have received such hype for so long. It was really nice to receive messages on the big day. Messages not only from other Antarctic bases, 10 Downing Street and the Whitehouse but from people who'd wintered previously at BAS bases - and remembered what it meant to receive a greeting on that day.

As it got light we were greeted by a fabulous display of nacreous clouds, huge pale shimmering mother of pearl shapes above a crimson cloud bank to the north...very spectacular. For most of us, this was the first time we'd seen such a thing - it seemed to mark the day as special.

This magical display was followed by a somewhat less magical one. In what is apparently something of a tradition, Gary W celebrated the pagan summer solstice by running round the outside of his building of residence naked. Stew joined him. All credit to them. The rest of us didn't feel the need to work up an appetite though perhaps we should preparation for all the eating that was to ensue....

Mick served us an astounding twelve courses. After about four we had an interlude and listened to the world service broadcast. A feeling I'm not sure I can describe adequately but one I am sure we will all remember. Hearing families was an emotional time. People were transported to their families by the experience. Hearing them on the radio then reading letters....a wonderful old fashioned Christmassy feel. Then we returned for more courses and finally left the table to open each other's gifts. Again another really nice experience. People had made the most fantastic things, a real selection of well made presents, the giving and receiving of which brought many smiles. We had a great feeling of unity. Individually each one far from his or her family and loved ones but together as an over wintering group."

Jim Olson

A selection of midwinter presents - Click to enlarge Jim and Felicity - Click to enlarge

Above: Left - a selection of midwinter presents. Right - Jim and Felicity enjoy the celebrations.

"For me the most memorable part of the week was midwinter's day. The weather on the day was stunning, cold, calm and clear. Days like this really drive it home just how special this place is and how privileged we are to be here. It was made even better by the best display of Nacreous clouds that we have seen this year. These are very high ghostlike clouds, which glow with colours of mother of pearl. They make this beautiful landscape even more spectacular.

After all the excesses of the week so far I thought it would be good to get out onto the sea ice for a ski. This would allow me to make the most of the light and also to work up an appetite for the midwinter's meal. Adam was my companion for what turned out to be one of the best days on the sea ice I have ever had down here. The mountains and the icebergs were bathed in the beautiful winter light and colours. Imagine one of the best sunsets you have seen lasting for several hours. Then imagine skiing around the world's best natural sculpture park on the frozen surface of the sea. This is what makes life so special here.

However the highlight of the ski was perhaps not what was happening above the surface, but what was happening below the surface. A Weddell seal came up to breath in one of the tide cracks next to the bergs, so we took our skis off, lay on the ice and cleared the hole so we could look into the other world below. It was just surreal, a real window into another dimension. The water was so clear that you could see the berg just disappearing into the depths. We never got to see the seal swim past but a few small fish and krill swam by. It really did seem like you were looking into a whole new world. When you see all the wildlife above surface at this time of year, you wonder how on earth it survives, but when you see how rich the sea is it starts to make sense. Maybe the wildlife thinks the same about us.

We were so absorbed by gazing into the depths we hadn't noticed how cold we had become lying on the snow. A brisk ski back to base was in order to warm up. Whilst skiing back we saw several more seals, snow petrels and a couple of shags. After a shower and change into smart clothes (well something other than moleskins) it was time for the pre prandial drinks with the Magistrate. Unfortunately this role doesn't allow me to jail or flog people, but it is an unusual position nonetheless. (Especially as my last contact with a magistrate was when I was up in front of one!!).

Then it was onto to the Bacchanalian feast prepared by Mick and ably assisted by Matt. I don't think I've ever had a meal with so many courses. We even had to break off for the midwinter broadcast and all the messages from our families and Rolf Harris. Yes, you haven't misread it, Rolf did some of the broadcast. I think disbelief would be the best way to describe our initial reaction. Then it was time for round two on the scoffing front. Mick once again did a superb job.

After the meal we dragged our bloated bodies into the bar for the final event of the day, the midwinter presents. In the run up to midwinter base members have been frantically sawing, polishing, painting, etc in order to make their midwinter presents. All these efforts were finally revealed when the wrapping paper came off. The hard work all becomes worthwhile with the appreciation given to these varied and beautifully made presents. It was a fitting end to a very special day."

Simon Garrod

By Felicity Aston