Happy Midwinter: hypoxic arabic hippos playing the music of Shackleton to tennis in the dark in -70 Celsius

Midwinter has been and gone in a flash.

First, happy midwinter.  Or midsummer depending on where you are… Some of my family are currently out in Spitsbergen (Svalbard) now, living in 24 hour sunlight for a few weeks… strange… which contrasts to my 24 hour darkness here.

The World’s Shortest Day and Longest Night

Due to the axial tilt of the Earth and gyroscopic effects of the planet’s rotation, in the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice also confusingly known as the ‘Northern Solstice’, represents the time at which the Sun appears at noon at its lowest altitude below the horizon and the time at which the Sun is at its northernmost point in the sky.  With 2012 being a leap year, the timings have changed slightly, but to us, hours and days have lost their meaning… becoming much the same concept.

International Holiday

Midwinter could be the world’s ‘most international of holidays’, since it is celebrated equally by people of all nationalities, religions and races.  Concordia Station is one of only 3 inland Antarctic stations (alongside South Pole and Vostok), but uniquely continues on the international tradition set by the Norweigan-British-Swedish expedition of 1949-52 (being the first truly ‘international’ expedition to overwinter in Antarctica), having 5 nationalities represented on base here – French, Italian, British-Indian and Russian – making it even more special – bringing in flavours and traditions from all over the world.

I managed to get through by satellite phone to the South Pole and shared well wishes with my friend Dr Dale Mole.  We have shared season’s celebrations and received midwinter well wishes sent to us by email from all the other bases in Antarctica and even received a letter from Barack Obama, images from the International Space Station and from around the world.  Its seems we and Vostok have been gifted the coldest weather of any base in Antarctica this winter, bringing our crew even closer together.

I made our station’s midwinter wishes greeting card (LINK) which was sent out to all the other bases by our station leader.

Mid Winter Greetings from Concordia PDF

 

A short history of Midwinter

Regardless of the fact that the first midwinter celebration was celebrated by 1898′s Belgica Antarctic Expedition’s overwintering or Shackleton’s crew, the tradition and importance to overwintering

It marks the most important of many milestones in the Antarctic calendar- the departure of last flight in the summer, the last sunset, total darkness, return of the first light and sunrise and of course arrival of the first flight - that can only be truly understood by those who suffer the desperation felt in the months of darkness, whilst overwintering down here.

Time out of mind

For one week it was an opportunity for us all to step away from our science and jobs, and forget where we were, whilst paying homage to the railway track of the last century of Antarctic history that lay behind us.

Lincolnshire Sausages & Football on Cleethorpes Beach, 

That Christmas Feeling… during midwinter week, I awoke most mornings (or afternoons) with the feeling of christmas morning.  Back home every Christmas I travelled to a family home in Market Rasen (UK) where I always enjoyed the lazy paced homely ritualistic breakfast of Lincolnshire Sausages, Christmas morning Family Football on Cleethorpes Beach and later the (Horse) Races, Indian Boxing Day Dinner, old shows of Have I Got News for You accompanied by Quality Streets.

This week of celebrations on the ice, I will never forget.  Having that feeling was pretty special.  According to those in the group who have overwintered in Antarctica before, our celebrations surpassed those of previous years.  It didn’t surprise me – everyone put in a lot of effort – so much so that none of us came through the week without feeling exhausted and hungover from fun.  For just 13 people, whilst celebrating, we had kept the base engines running, water supply on tap, toilets flushing and remained alive and well.

Themed evenings

We had various themed evenings – in the same spirit of times gone – costumes, theatrical ‘sets’ where decorations were used to convert existing rooms into faraway places… even rigging new electrical connections, lights and decor.  We had an ‘arabic’ themed evening inside a berber tent (indoors) – which was my favourite – and a Shackleton themed gourmet dinner and evening on midwinter’s eve – followed by an ‘Asterix’ themed evening – and to finish on Saturday night we had a Swiss with a roaring (electric fire).  The food to accompany each evening was incredible.

Activities

We had various activities some outside.  I set up the World’s Coldest Game of Tennis and also set up a round of Mini (Crazy) Golf.  It was ‘Crazy’ because you had to be crazy to play in these temperatures.

Our technical team had rigged our meltwater tank where we usually swim, with a pressurised air supply – turning it into a Jacuzzi!  I won’t ever forget going out in my undies in -70C with 10 metres per second wind in an hypoxic euphoria, having to swap my hand holding my iced Bailey’s every 30 seconds to prevent frostbite.  I can only liken the experience to Hippos bathing in African pools, dipping under every so often, but where they do so to avoid the sun, we do so here to avoid frostbite and a painful loss of limbs.  I’ll leave the midwinter run outside in such temperatures afterwards, to your imagination.

By default I won the longest ‘beard competition’ – my nearest competitor Stephane (Frenchie I – La Originale) had lost his confidence and in realising defeat had in a samurai act of shame, shaved all his beard off… conceding defeat.

I came in at 10.5cm beard length and my Moustache weighed in at 21cm width… though its not over yet… with 5-6 months of isolation still to go…  Seb has 6cm and 17cm measurements… but I think its in the bag.

To me now its just curiosity, how long a beard can grow in 1 year…?  Answers on a postcard.  My Indian genes have done me proud on this one.  Though the family history of triple heart bypasses is yet to come… but I duly note Ran Fiennes has had one, so it must be an explorer’s vogue.

My honest advice to anyone thinking of wintering over… don’t forget your shaving kit as I did.

Sunday… my life in a balance

Thinking about a long lie-in on Sunday, I was abruptly awoken by a fellow crew member’s call for help for a non-serious injury.  After which I fell back asleep.  In the afternoon I played tennis and then spent sometime setting up research for tomorrow, before watching, as always, an episode of Man vs. Wild whilst exercising in the gym for 45 minutes before dinner.  My Sunday evening was briefly interrupted at midnight by a voice call into my bedroom from a research PI back in Europe.   I was so busy I wouldn’t even have had time to pray even if I was religious…I collapsed into my usual Stuffy Hypoxic Haze (known in other parts of the world as ‘sleep’)… courtesy of my joint duties on the base as Medical doctor and ESA Research MD.

Stuffy hypoxic haze

Oh well, here it is again, that Monday morning feeling… chin up chest out for the long months ahead.  I try to unravel the normal monday morning puzzle of tangled research wires, inability to concentrate, research software issues whilst juggling this week’s research ‘competition winners’, struggling for breath, trying to stay afloat in the previous week’s usual torrential downpour of emails I receive each and every day.  Too bad, this was never going to be easy, but I am still smiling laughing and smiling.  Its a bit like an understaffed shift in the Emergency Department that never ends… with the orchestra playing as Titanic sinks.

I caught up with Giorgio, our chef, in one of the corridors in passing and asked him if he wanted another week ‘off’ – of course his answer was “No! thanks “.  He had put more effort this week than ever before, in cooking a whirlwind, world whiteout tour of miracle culinary creations … just wait for my next blog on MidWinter’s food!

Shackleton’s Whiskey and more 

I would like to welcome onboard new sponsors of our team’s ‘well-being’, Mackinley Whiskey – who having excavated, dug up, analysed and recreated Shackleton’s Whiskey – Mackinley’s Rare Old Highland Malt - from his 1907-09 Nimrod Antarctic Expedition, have kindly put aside a bottle or two… Shackleton’s Whiskey is coming back to Antarctica 100 years on.  And tea supplier, Fortnum and Mason who unknowingly provided tea for our record breaking Jubilee celebrations on the ice.

That sinking feeling

Its incredible, but like any Englishman stuck in hard times, feeling like I am wading through quicksand in my darkest hour, unlike my European colleagues here, I have turned to the power of tea.  My tea consumption has hit an all new high… cheers and happy midwinter… Here is to being ‘half-way somewhere’ – though in the darkness its hard to see where we are, where we have come from, and which way is home.

I leave you with one of our dreams… except this one is real for others.

An excerpt from another station’s midwinter log documenting a Hercules AirDrop delivered to Macquarie Island – one of the Australian Division’s SubAntarctic Island outcrop bases…

“Station Log, June 20th, 1980 : Hercules overhead just after 1300, several bizzy lizzies, 5 parachutes and nil lost although the first one went into the sea and 4 of the team got rather wet fetching it out. Very fast efficient drop. Pineapples dropped – lovely.”

They even have sunlight!  It just reminds us how deep, far and alone we are into this very real Antarctic winter… living here at Planet Concordia.  There are no such luxuries living here on the surface of another planet and no-one can hear you scream… whether it be for joy or desperation.

And finally… some photos taken of our ‘extreme’ celebrations during the midwinter week at Concordia Station…

Song of the day:

Ain’t no sunshine by Bill Withers

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