Swimming in Antarctica

Tonight I defied the laws of physiology and swam in minus 50 degrees Celcius ambient temperature, starved of Oxygen, at 3800 metres equivalent altitude, in the middle of Antarctica.

How is this possible? I am wondering the same.

The difficulty is getting into and out from the ‘swimming tank’, in just your swimming shorts, braving the windchill and private draft.

You are probably thinking … ‘a swimming pool … what lap of luxury is this?’

Well, actually its not. It’s a melt water tank that we dump fresh snow into each day to melt to use to bathe, shower and maybe cook as well.

For our drinking water – we use a different system, called Grey Water Recycling. In November I was sent to Montpellier, or near there, to train in its use and monitoring the system. It’s being tested by the European Space Agency for space missions. And it’s the same system as is used in the International Space Station. Its nice to think that if the International Space Station had a plumbing issue, I may be able to go up there and fix it. Any excuse hey!

Anyway, each month or so we have to clean the melt tank, and before doing so, take a quick dip before hand. Its madness really.

Its soooo cold, that when I took off my shoes (Crocs), you simply place them against the vertical side and they stick. You just ‘ hang up your shoes’ without the hanging part. There’s a photo showing this. It’s incredible. As if the wall and shoe are stuck with Velcro.

I took my £7.99 Casio watch (purchased from Argos and has travelled with me for 9 years) and did exactly the same as with the shoes- the watch stuck tight to the wall. Handy, easy storage I thought. IKEA should take notes.

You have to be careful not to touch any metal on your way in – otherwise there would be a scene of a man with his tongue stuck to a lamp-post in winter, someplace in outback USA perhaps (Fargo springs to mind).

As a joke, we try and get Frenchie I’s hands and place them both against the metal, to make him ‘stick’ and ‘stuck’, but the exertion was too much, oxygen deprivation won and he got away, like a Gazelle from the mouth of a tired Nile crocodile at river crossing time.

Bored, it seemed so tempting to try to see if my tongue would stick to the wall, but thankfully, I have more sense this time. Common sense triumphed over scientific intrigue. Only just, though.

We watched an incredible sunset. It reminded me of being in the Himalayas – in Pokhara in fact in Nepal – watching the sky and snow turn every shade from orange to pink to blue to dusk on the fish-tail. Snow crystals blew across the horizon, shimmering shards of light danced their last dance, like diamonds. Diamond dust.

The others collected some snow and littered me with it. It burnt and hissed on my skin immediately on contact – I quickly retreated under water, like a Hippopotamus, which bought about a further pain of its own. Revenge will be mine.

Getting out wasn’t much fun. Your body quickly vasoconstricts as all your veins and capillaries shrink to the ambient temperature change, which thankfully boosts your blood pressure enough to allow you to hop-scotch in Crocs the 100metres back to the door of the building. On such low Oxygen, you feel as if your steps are exaggerated, as if you are ‘boing-ing’ on the surface of the moon. It’s just hypoxia playing tricks on your mind, but it’s certainly unique.

If one of your colleagues fell or took a tumble, like in war, it’s risky to turn back and help them. Certainly, I’d already decided Frenchie I wasn’t worth the risk.

If you make it… you hope that someone is not on the other-side of the door, laughing, holding the door closed as your toes begin to drop off.

Practical jokes in Antarctica don’t just cost lives, they cost fingers and toes.

I made it. Phew. A little glass of Scottish Whiskey awaits me on the other side.

The best is yet to come.

Imagine, in a few months time in mid-winter… floating in the melt tank in the middle of Antarctica, in 24 hour pitch black darkness, with nothing around you for 1200km, in minus 80 degrees, with the world’s clearest sky above your head, where you can look with your naked eye into our galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy.

In my (hypoxic) mind, Antarctica is God’s Kitchen, and we are cooking in it.

Now that’s something to look forward to.

I shudder to think what it would be like to get outside in just your swimming shorts, in minus 80. Oh well, as they say, Ladies (or The French) first.

I’ll be sure to ‘guard’ the door – keeping a firm hold on preventing the poor unlucky soul from re-entering in case of a quick change of mind. There will be no turning back. Revenge comes in so many forms.

I look down under the sheets in bed, all warm and toasty and make a recount… yep… all ten toes and all ten fingers… still present and accounted for. No frostbite for me.

Bonne Nuit one and all.

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