What an experience. It was awful. 3 of us had slept outside through the night in a tent in minus 70. Camping holidays in France as a child had not prepared me for this.
Setting up a tent in such cold was not fun. It reminded me of a challenging team exercise to work out our team dynamics that we had been set by Loredana – who conducts the European Space Agency’s psychological training programme we had all undergone in Paris those many months ago. Here we were, in extreme conditions, fingers numb, moustaches frozen, trying to figure out the design, we gave up and resorted to a single layer with a loose ground sheet. Ice poked through the sides. Wind surged through gaps. We resorted to covering the sides with ice blocks, to pin them down and the wind out.
Before we left in the evening, one member of the crew had made identification tags for each of our jackets, so in the morning our remains would be more easily identifiable. This was the Antarctic sense of humour. It exists at every station. We had experienced it in McMurdo also, where such practical jokes soon became injuries.
Robbie, our IT expert who I sit next to at dinner turned to me and said in his Italian accent, ‘when you meet Scott’s spirit, ask him why he took the ponies.’ I laughed and sighed. The group were quite anxious that something bad was going to happen. A few of the group approached me sheepishly to ask for some of my personal items in the case of the unthinkable – the laptop, banjo, but the cleverest had asked me for the pin code to my bank card.
Flat, white horizon
I recall a lot of things from the time I interviewed for this job. One of which was being asked how I would deal with only having the flat white horizon to see…. it can drive people mad. For me though, there was a simple answer… You can stare at the horizon for hours, even days so long as you hold different thoughts. The only thing I am worried about it my mind becoming blunted by sensory deprivation to the Antarctic sound, taste and smell.
Instead though, I just deviate my eyes skywards – and you will never be bored – we have one of the most magnificent night skies available on Earth. The sky was as clear as ever that night, the Milky Way Galaxy was out in full glory and the sunset had been wonderful, like that on a another planet.
The tent team
It was an international team, represented by nationality at the station:
– Myself (British, Doctor) – Sebastien (French, Glaciologist) – Igor, Russian (Poet and Meteorologist)
And we had been joined by Mattia, (Italian, Glaciologist) for the beginning also.
Each of us took a personal belonging to the tent. Igor, from Russia, brought Vodka. Seb, from France, wisely bought his pillow (all of us forgot ours), and I brought a copy of Scott’s writings.
The cold seeps in like being submerged in water – every little space you leave open or unprotected becomes slowly and insidiously cooled until frozen, and then it freezes some more.
We had some hot tea I had brought put in a flask, which was now within 30 minutes luke warm, belgian chocolates and a short cup of Vodka – courtesy of Igor – and put our heads down for the night.
Frostbite was dangerous. In these temperatures, if you fell asleep leaving a portion of you exposed to any patch of cold, you would loose it – as the saying goes, ‘you snooze, you loose.’
Our faces were covered – if you left your nose out to the open air, it would freeze.
I had slept on a ground sheet and two further layers. I had my full Rab Expedition Down Suit on, two pairs of socks, my boot liners, thermal underwear, a balaclava, chinese real fur hat – I had bought from a stall in China when I led an expedition there in September – and two layers of gloves. Only then had I got inside my Rab 1200 Sleeping bag – fit for Mount Everest (I had bought this from a man who had been up K2). And after all these layers, I had still felt patches of cold.
You turn to lie on one side where upon that side will slowly cool becoming very uncomfortable. Soon you turn to the other side. Back and fourth, you turn and turn again every so often- it becomes instinctive. I imagined old cave men surviving the ice age doing similar. It must be a remnant of the past left within us- a gene passed down generation to generation, offering a survival instinct. The gene had just been switched on in me and kept me turning through the night.
The tent was cloudy inside from our breathing. It was so cold and dry that each time we breathed, it was like a dragon breath, but icy white.
I woke up once- I heard the wind sliding down the tent walls trying to get under the sides. Most things around my face had been wet with condensation perhaps, which now had become frozen. Anything touching your face – such as the balaclava and sleeping bag- had become frozen to it.
I looked over to Seb- his hair was frozen white- as if he had been back in the swimming pool.
I fell back to sleep.
Counting the fingers and toes
I woke up and my right arm was numb. Oh no I thought, i’ve lost it to the cold. It will be frostbitten. Its dead. I must have left it outside the sleeping bag.
Within a few seconds of giving up hope for my arm, I quickly realised I had slept on it and it was numb for that reason only. It must have been the extreme cold on top of the hypoxia, cooling my brain to the point that you couldn’t think straight. I checked my fingers and toes – counting and palpating each in turn, end to end – checking sensation, temperature and movement. All were accounted for and all were working normally. Success perhaps or just good luck.
It is incredible to think you are lying on over 3000 metres of the most ancient ice on the planet.
More than 3000 metres below me lay the true land of the continent of Antarctica – frozen pristine jungles and lakes. Among many explorers, Scott had dreamed about what lay at the South Pole- perhaps an Arthur Conan Doyle Lost World, a Lost Paradise. When he reached there, having lost ‘priority’ to Amundsen, he described the place, “Great God, this is an Awful Place.’ In fact the dream lay many kilometres beneath the ice- out of his reach and out of sight. A buried treasure. I went to sleep, uncomfortably, dreaming about the surface of this lost continent, engulfed in ice and the many discoveries that lay beneath me.
Waking up somewhere else
Waking up in the morning was quite strange – for the first time in months, I woke up not knowing where I was. Just like when you wake up in a foreign hotel room. It takes a few seconds to register the situation and your surroundings. It had been the first time in over two months that I hadn’t woken up in Concordia Station.
I laughed on leaving the tent in the morning – Igor, a published russian poet, had taken longer to come out than myself and Seb. I poked my head back in for him. He was stood holding the bottle of vodka he had slept besides through the night. It was frozen solid. He exclaimed this was the first time he had seen Vodka freeze. I thought, well, he’s Russian and knows what he is talking about. It had been the same temperature inside the tent as outside. He later joked how it wasn’t that he hadn’t seen cold temperatures and slept beside a bottle of vodka before, rather it was just unusual to see that the bottle had not been finished by the morning.
Upon reaching the station, the artificial warmth had never felt so good. No wonder nothing can naturally survive these conditions. Nothing lives outside the station – no wildlife, no flora, no fauna. Antarctica is the only continent not to have an indigenous human populations. We alongside the other 120 or so people overwintering on the continent itself, represent only tourists in the grander scale of time. I received an email from my dad, who had said that even dry ice was -60 below and when he used that for research they used gloves to touch handle it. I imagined how we had spent the night sleeping on a giant dry ice cube. It had been around the same temperature.
“Great God, that was an awful experience!”
So indeed as 3 men we had survived the night, camping in below minus 70 outside in a tent.
God only knows how Scott and his men did it, night after night. Scott was right – as an englishman, his story had stirred my heart and staying in the tent had chilled my soul to its very existence. The others had shared this experience and feeling.
I collapsed into my own bed inside my room back inside the station and pulled the duvet over my face. It stung as it touched my cheeks – indeed, my cheeks had been ‘stirred’ too.
We all agree, it had been a wonderful yet bloody awful experience – one that I will never forget.
But we did it, for Scott and his men, and that was the important thing