Friday, 21 December 2018

Night shift. Eternal light shift.

Part of the job role as a Station Support Assistant is to do two weeks of night shifts. Two weeks of nights, followed by three weeks of days. A night shift starts at 10pm and finishes at 7am. It involves three rounds of checks – making sure that nothing is flooded, nothing is on fire, that the generators are running, and that certain science stuff is going to plan (including checking the temperature of the freezers containing thousand year old ice cores, & waking up the sparky if there’s a problem). There’s also a 15 minute listening watch in the Ops tower at 12pm, 3am, and 6am – these are the designated times for field parties to contact the station should they need. In between those checks there is cleaning to do, some random jobs, and usually a bit of fun. Describing it as a night shift at this time of year is slightly misleading though; in an Antarctic summer it never gets dark. I’d often go out for a run, sometimes around 2am and it would still be perfectly light. In many ways it’s the best shift to see the changing colours of the sky, and because there are only ever two others working it can feel like you’ve got the place entirely to yourself. The stillness, the storms, the thinning of that layer which often makes us feel detached from the natural world. These are some of the moments I’ll never forget, but they are also the moments that are the most difficult to define. A wordless beauty; not just concerned with how things appear, but how they actually are, and how they make you feel.

You do begin to crave a little more human interaction though, a little more conversation. I remember sitting around at breakfast at the end of one particular night shift listening enthralled to Ernie telling me the exact dates and times of his last seven dental appointments. Felt like the best thing I’d heard in a long while, and I was having none of it when he said, “how do you know I haven’t just made all of that up?!” I think that working nights might temporarily do something a little bit odd to your mind – either that, or it’s your normal mind but with less restrictions. I’ll often leave notes in peoples offices, and always leave one up in the tower for the Ops team. I’m kind of hoping that these might get archived; classified as Antarctic heritage. One of these notes includes my theory that everything in the world (going right down to neutrinos) is made up from elephant seals and onions. Another documents a dream I’d had after eating some stilton. Vivid dreams are reportedly a thing down here. I’m not sure if there’s a scientific explanation for it – I reckon that we are just more attuned to them as we are not constantly bombarded by the internet and mobile phone stuff. I was up in the Ops tower, and for some reason there were a few other people there as well. They told me about this night watch check that I should be doing, that no one had told me about yet. All I had to do was to open a door and look through it, and when I looked through it I would see the world for the very first time. That pretty much blew my mind – just about the coolest dream I’ve ever had. There’s actually some truth to it though I think; that each time we see the world it is for the first time (because it has changed since last we looked). And in that sense you could argue that it’s getting newer rather than older. Which is all very well for most things, but when it comes to the Dairy Milk recipe and climate change I wish we could go back a bit.

Speaking of vintage Dairy Milk; I did come across a stash of it one night in Fuchs (the Field Guides building), best before 2006. I spent a good few moments just looking at it in awe, and then started to wonder what I could possibly offer in return for a bar. Like for like I suggested a Toblerone, but then I branched out to slightly different ideas. I had the beginnings of a conspiracy theory about elephant seal poo and crop circles which I thought might be of interest, but failing that I added to the bottom of the note that I still have 2 kidneys. The following night there were three blocks of Dairy Milk left out with a message attached; ‘Leave a kidney in the Nido jar.’ I took the chocolate but recognised that I now had a bit of a problem if I was to honour my deal with the field guides. I wondered briefly if there were similarities here to people who sell their soul to the devil, and then realise that they don’t really want to fulfil their end of the bargain. Anyway, I came up with a genius plan and left a return message. ‘Thanks so much! I’m sorry, I might have deceived you about the state of one of my kidneys – but here it is!’ Next to it I sellotaped a cashew nut. There has been no retribution. Yet. Other fun night watch activities included a delayed game of noughts and crosses with Blair on the whiteboard in Fuchs. At least, I thought I was playing against Blair but after a conversation about it, it turns out I was mostly playing against myself. That whiteboard was also used to exchange quotes with Tom L about magic, and to write a suggestion list of words that might help you fall asleep in 20 seconds. There is a guy on station who has apparently trained himself to fall asleep in 20 seconds; I’ve not watched (that would be weird), but I do believe him. You need to block everything out by focusing on just one word. I gave it a good go, but could never decide which word I was using which I suppose defeats the object.

The way the rota pans out means that you work the first week of nights with one person, and the second with another. For me that meant being on shift with Lynsay, and then with Jules. We’d also find ourselves declaring a few folk as honouree night watchers; those who’d often be around for a bit after 10pm and help us out with a few odd jobs. It’s as much the chat and the company that’s the lovely thing; you get a bit of a catch up about what has happened in the day, and it’s always good to start your shift on a positive. Bav is one of the best for this, and also Tom L, both of whom have a late night habit of eating epic sandwiches. Bav is also great at helping out with the kitchen laundry, even if he does steal the oddly satisfying job of untangling all the apron strings. Most night shifts are fairly standard, but every now and then you’d find yourself doing something that definitely wouldn’t be classed as ordinary back home! These things tended to happen when I was on shift with Lynsay; no real reason for that other than perhaps that she’s a little bit mental (in the best of ways). There was the night we tried to move what seemed like a ton of chocolate from one building to another using a plastic sledge. We then had to mount a retrieval operation for all the boxes of Snickers that had fallen off into the snow. On another occasion we were tasked by the Station Leader with a top secret mission – the details of which cannot be disclosed other than to say that it definitely falls into the category of ‘things I didn’t imagine I’d be doing whilst in Antarctica!’

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Life on Station

It’s amazing how normal things become, how quickly you adapt. That’s not to say you lose the wonder of a place, but elements of day to day life do become routine. It’s certainly a strange mix of the surreal and the relatively mundane – standing at the washing up sink battling piles of baked on lasagne dishes whilst watching icebergs, penguins, and elephant seals out of the window. This mix can actually bring about a degree of internal confusion, especially when you throw in the perception of outsiders, their reactions to photos posted online etc. These pictures can in some ways be deceiving – not deceiving of its beauty, but deceptive when it comes to other realities. Even in such an incredibly stunning place a person is still subject to the usual human emotions, the highs and the lows, the bad days and the good. In many ways the extreme nature of Antarctica brings these things more sharply into focus. On the whole my experience here so far has been overwhelmingly positive; BAS are a fantastic organisation to work for, and I’ve met so many incredible, lovely people. Life here is not without its challenges though, and without a doubt (for me at least) the greatest of these is the highly concentrated social living. Interestingly though, this is also one of the best things about it – community and people are integral to the entire experience. Nothing could exist without it, and this extends much further than the confines of the station. You rely much more on others, but you also come to rely much more upon yourself. Living in this kind of environment requires a great deal of self-awareness – it’s really not easy at times and it can seem quite a struggle not to lose yourself a bit. But these are the moments, if you can hold onto what you deem to be important - those things are strengthened more than might be possible elsewhere. The people you work with are also the people you live with, and there’s nowhere else to go but here. There’s not a lot that goes unnoticed, and everything you say and do will inevitably have quite an impact. It’s so important to try and constantly be aware of this, to be mindful of others, but also not to fall into the easy trap of overthinking everything too much. Despite, and possibly because of all of this it’s an absolutely fascinating place to spend some time.

You might find yourself sat around at breakfast chatting to Canadian pilots of Chinese planes – stopping off at Rothera for a night on the way to the pole. I later asked some of our pilots if they’d ever been there, what it’s like, is it difficult to land, etc. They described it as the Heathrow of Antarctica, or probably JFK as it’s run by the Americans. These folk are great to chat to, the little things, the big things – there are even a few who were here in the last days of the dog teams. This is just a three month spell for me, but for many it has been their life. These stories are everything – it’s pretty much the entirety of the culture and human history of this place. I’m not even sure it can claim a culture of its own; the only continent on earth not able to support permanent human inhabitants. It does have plenty of its own peculiarities though, and plenty of different characters.

There is certainly not a shortage of reminders that life down here is a little different. Next to one of the phones is a telephone doodle book, and on the inside front cover is scribbled the mobile number of Elvis Presley’s eldest son. There is also a poster on the wall kindly reminding people not to chew the telephone cable because replacements are hard to come by in Antarctica. In one of the accommodation block there is the ‘Sledge of Dreams’. This is a big old fashioned sledge where people can leave things they no longer require, and it’s free for anyone else to help themselves. Some of the more random objects I’ve seen on there are a framed photograph of Dermot O’Leary, and a cuddly Cornish Pasty. I guess we all must miss slightly different things when in Antarctica. I can’t say that this was near the top of my list, but one of my friends sent me out a Lake District bus timetable in case I was feeling a bit homesick. It did cause a fair bit of mild amusement though, and Ernie even asked me to check if there was still a bus running from Glenridding to Keswick. He then proceeded to tell me the story of how he’d taken that bus once, that the route was on very windy roads, and that by the end of it he felt quite sick. Ernie is definitely one of those folk about whom it would be easy to fill an entire blog post – someone that brightens many a day. There are people from all different walks of life here; chefs, mechanics, sparkies, plumbers, scientists, plant operators (some who back home are farmers – and very passionate about what they do). I’ve been told that at Sky Blu (one of our field stations), pictures of bikini clad women have actually been replaced by photos of favourite tractors. There’s also a number of different nationalities represented here; French, Dutch, Canadian, American, New Zealand (or Australian, depending on how much you want to wind Cameron up). Cam is down here as a vehicle mech, and never fails to entertain with his stories and turn of phrase. He even has his own weather measuring system – as he walked into the dining room one morning he declared, “It’s blowing 40 bastards out there!” He was also conducting an interesting survey the other day, asking people if they prefer to do it with or without their socks on.

All the accommodation here is shared; either 2 bedded or 4 bedded rooms. There are not many people in the world who are aware of the use of Crocs as a ‘vacuum cleaner’ (particularly efficient at shuffling up hair). So when Rachel and I were sat in our room (within the first week) enthusiastically discussing this shared knowledge, our relationship was only ever going to go one way. We often go on ‘dates’ around the point, and the Station Leader (Jess) was asking what the female equivalent of a bromance is. It’s hard not to love someone who leaves random notes, makes you a cotton mouse out of a tampon, and mixes up your Rubik Cube so that you can solve it again. Rachel also gave me my Rothera nickname – Nails. It stems from my love of running in slightly ‘interesting’ conditions, mostly on the runway when it’s a little breezy out. I’m not really sure what I bring to the relationship, but I did show Rachel the gravel rash near my bum from falling over when playing football. No one else got to see that, although Hannah did say that she’d like to – in exchange for some peppermint teabags. It’s amazing what passes as currency in a place without any money!

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Running the flag line

I’ve been here a week now, although in some respects it seems quite a bit longer. It’s not an easy place to get your head around, near impossible to ever figure out I’d say. The scenery is utterly breath taking, but like anything beautiful there’s no way of holding onto it; no possible sense of ownership. You have to keep looking again and again because it’s changing every minute, sometimes in the subtlest of ways. The remaining winter sea ice is starting to recede, and towering icebergs that were once attached are beginning to move. There’s a noticeable increase in bird sounds, and the first Weddell Seals and pup have been seen. You can also hear the movement of the water now, as the wind blows the Southern Ocean onto the rocks. The temperature isn’t that cold, and even a sub-zero day seems a lot warmer than its equivalent in the damp UK. You never go out unprepared though, even around the station. The weather can change quite dramatically, and when the wind picks up you don’t want to be without layers.

Perhaps the strangest thing, and it’s difficult to really explain (even to myself), is the contrast between environment and people. There’s the isolation on the one hand and then then highly concentrated communal living on the other. I suppose part of it is the expectation, a sort of sense that being in Antarctica will make you feel something entirely different than you ever have before. And in many ways that is of course true, and by the nature of the landscape here it means that you have a very different interaction with it (and the people you’re living with) than perhaps you might elsewhere. There is a definite challenge to our concept and ideals of freedom; the freedom that such a vast ‘empty’ space should bring. But it is actually this vastness, the wildness of this environment which reduces the amount of it we can safely access. After all, the freedom to wander into a crevasse is not much of a freedom at all. And so the restrictions put in place are not to limit but to liberate. My job here is almost completely station based; my outside recreation boundaries are the 2km route around the ‘Point’, the 900m long runway (depending on flights), and what’s known as the ramp and flag line. After one attempt at running on the treadmill – a 5k that seemed to last an unpleasant eternity, I’m now running exclusively outside. Whilst I’ve always highly valued the escapism and headspace that running (and other outdoor activities) can bring, it has taken on an even greater significance here. And the things we often given significance to (in terms of running) back in the UK almost utterly fade away. I don’t time how long I’m out for, and I don’t measure how far I go. The only time considerations are to do with the tagging out board, and the only distances that matter are the ones inside your mind.

Flags are the signposts here – a coloured square of fabric tied to a long wooden/bamboo cane. The flag lines mark the safe routes, and crossed flags means it’s a no go. As the summer progresses much (if not all) of the snow around station will disappear, but it will remain up the ramp and along the traverse to the local recreation areas. The field guides use radar to check for crevasses, and then designate the safe/unsafe routes. And so on an evening, an evening that might be as late as 10.30pm, it’s an incredible feeling, an incredible privilege, to put on my trail shoes and go for a run along the flag line. The ramp is steep and long, and extra hard work in the snow; but the rewards are quite extraordinary as you leave the station far below. Time and space seem to have their own rules here; expanding or contracting more rapidly than is possible elsewhere. Nothing remains the same; neither the landscape nor yourself. The mountains that you once thought to be at the limit of your vision now appear in the foreground revealing new worlds beyond.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Antarctica - First Impressions

It’s hard to say what strikes you first; the beauty or the silence. A silence which is not the absence of sound, but those indescribable moments where there is no discernible noise. And a beauty which, if you try to speak about it, brings you to the brink of tears time and time again. This place is beyond anything I could have possibly imagined; the wildest of dreams in the wildest of places. There is nothing in the world I have had to question half so much as to whether it’s all real.

The flight from Punta Arenas to Rothera was very much a part of the whole experience. Flying on a Dash 7 is nothing much at all like your usual commercial flight. There were 14 of us on the plane, and in front of the passenger seats were all our bags strapped down by cargo nets. Once we’d taken off we had pretty much free reign to wander around the cabin. I think Lyndsay might have regretted taking the seat next to me as I was either incessantly talking or getting up to find a better window to look at the view. Perhaps she didn’t mind too much though as she didn’t stop offering me the unnaturally coloured sweets that she’d picked up at the airport! I went up to the cockpit to chat to the pilots – they said you could go an entire year, an entire lifetime, and you’d never see Patagonia looking so clear. It was utterly breath taking, and it completely dwarfed any representation of the Andes mountain range seen on a map or in photographs.

The flight lasted in the region of 4 and a half to 5 hours, and the cloud cover started to steadily increase as we neared Rothera and the Antarctic Peninsula. It was getting a bit bumpy at this stage so I closed my eyes and remembered to breathe – the second part of which is always useful. A few minutes later though Lyndsay gave me a nudge and told me to look out the window. My first glimpse of Antarctica – and I wasn’t able to utter anything more comprehensible than ‘oh wow!’ Snow covered peaks rising straight out of the ocean, clouds drifting to reveal mountainous icebergs, and then, tiny amongst it all, the scattered buildings of Rothera Research Station.

Considering that the runway was covered in snow & ice, and that it’s a mere 900m long, the landing was incredibly smooth. I was making a conscious effort to take it all in – this was my moon landing, and I’d never be able to do it again for the first time. For obvious reasons – mostly with it being an international airstrip – we didn’t hang about long on the runway. Before we could set foot on the continent though we had to walk our boots through a disinfected mat. Issues of bio security are taken extremely seriously – this is the most pristine environment on earth, and we want to do everything possible to reduce our impact here.

We were met by Jess (Station Leader), welcomed to Rothera, and taken inside for a cup of tea. It soon became apparent that the structure of each day seemed to pretty much resolve around having a brew – “we are British after all!” There was then a few briefings – information to supplement what we had learned in pre deployment back in Cambridge. And before we could begin our work it was necessary to have two days of specific onsite training. This would include everything from how to access the computer system, to using gators and a skidoo!

Friday, 19 October 2018

Setting Forth

In the grand scheme of things three months isn’t long at all. But, all of a sudden, when your factor in where you’re going it becomes a different proposition entirely. Antarctica is about as remote as it comes. There’s no need for money, no shops, no mobile phones. It’s governed (so to speak) by the Antarctic Treaty - a continent dedicated to science and peace. There are no claims, no military presence, although I can imagine there’s a fair amount of friendly rivalry when it comes to ‘international’ football matches. I’ve been told that there’s an actual Rothera football kit, and there are matches against the Americans when their ship comes in. The football pitch is on the runway apron, and play can begin when all the flying is done for the day. Occasionally penguins will wander onto the pitch sometimes, & the match is temporarily suspended until they realise the humans are not other penguins & wander off again. I learnt all this while waiting at Heathrow departures, chatting to one of the GAs (General Assistants). I think I must have arrived at the airport a good few hours earlier than I needed to be, but I’d always rather it be that way. My friend Kirsten had kindly given me a lift to the airport, & not having seen her for a year or so she picked me up early and we went for some food. I wasn’t paying too much attention at this point, was happy to let Kirsten make all the decisions. She just said we’d go somewhere nearer the airport, somewhere about 15 minutes drive from the terminal. Sounded good to me. We parked up, & started walking through the streets. Kirsten has google up on her phone, and was listing various options for brunch. Again, I left the choice up to her...”we don’t have any of these places in Eskdale, so you’ll have more of an idea what’s good.” I did see somewhere that was clearly serving breakfasts, & not fussy, I pointed it out. Kirsten however was not impressed, “I’m not letting you eat at Weatherspoons for your last meal in the UK for a while!” As we walked on a bit further I noticed how touristy this place was, saw all the shops were selling  British souvenirs, & one even had face masks of Donald Trump next to ones of Johnny English. I started to say to Kirsten, “I didn’t realise that.....wait, where are we?!” She just burst out laughing, and asked if I’d not noticed that we were standing right next to Windsor Castle?! I had noticed the castle (of course) but my brain clearly wasn’t at its usual level of sharpness. “I hadn’t realised that Windsor was so touristy!” I’d probably only seen a similar thing in London, or Cambridge & Oxford. Not that I go to many cities anyway. I was also surprised and saddened by the number of homeless folk about. One gentleman told us a special code to put in the parking ticket machine to reduce the cost by £4. Kirsten didn’t have any change, and I only had American dollars to use if needed in Chile. Think we both left wishing we could have done something to help. We just thanked him and said take care. 

There was a group of BAS staff taking the same flight, so I waited for them before I checked my bags in. My friend Dee had been messaging me the few days before, asking how heavy my bag was, and was I taking this thing or that. I hadn’t actually weighed my bag, just guessed it was about 12kg judging by how easy it was to pick up. Dee however was struggling to get hers under the 23kg limit - something to do with a seven month supply of daily contact lenses (she is working a longer contract). I offered her the free space & weight in my bag. 

The first leg of the journey was a short hop from Heathrow to Madrid where we set up camp in Starbucks until our flight to Santiago later that evening. It was on this flight, the longest flight I’ve been on, & first time to the Southern Hemisphere, that it really started to sink in. It was also the reminder that there is an unglamorous side to any adventure. It’s not the picture we ever post on social media, the long waits, the queues at passport control. Nor the slight travel sickness, sleepless nights, and trying to get comfy on airplanes without pissing off the stranger sat next to you for 13 and a half hours. My first taste of South American air was more relief than excitement, and this was dampened by an overwhelming desire for a shower & some sleep. We had about an 8 hour wait at Santiago before the flight on to Punta Arenas....and then we learnt that this flight had a stop off point en route. 40 minutes on the ground at Puerto Montt while some passengers got off & then a load got on. I’m sure everything was perfectly organised, but it was slightly amusing when those not getting off were asked to sit down so they could count the exact number left onboard. 

It was an incredible feeling to finally reach Punta Arenas, to get off the plane, & take in a bit of Chile on the way to our hotel. Upon arrival we had a safety briefing about the Dash 7 flight, met the pilots, that sort of thing. We were told then that the flight was unlikely to leave tomorrow, but there would be another briefing at 8.30 the following morning. That turned out to be the case - a low pressure system had developed over Rothera so there would be a high chance it would be too risky to land. In many ways, although obviously keen to get to Antarctica, it’s an amazing opportunity to spend a day here in Punta & get a bit more rest as well. It’s also a chance to get in touch with home, to let friends and family know I arrived safely, that sort of thing. This came as an unexpected bonus because I had assumed any communication to be limited at best after leaving Heathrow. It always makes any journey extra special to share it with people, both the people you’re with, and the folk back home. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

One summer after another

The Lake District summer passed in a daze. Seems like that looking back now, anyway. At the time there were moments when it felt fairly enduring, mostly because of the heat which was relentless for weeks. Afternoons would be spent in Blea Tarn....Rachel & I would head down the valley, sometimes bundling Ben into the back of the van, too. On my days off I’d mostly drive over to Borrowdale, stay in my van, & play football for Keswick Ladies. That in itself is a highlight of the summer - it’s the 2nd season I’ve played for them, 9 aside on a Wednesday night. I love the friendships you make through team sport, feels almost like family in many ways. I guess there’s always going to be bonds formed when you turn up to a ground that has no facilities, and have no other choice than to have a team pre-match wee behind a wall. These are friendships that go beyond football, & I’m remembering now going for a run around Buttermere with Rach in the most horrendous weather. I’d got out of the van first, and still sat in the drivers seat Rach had a look on her face that made me think, “oh shit, she’s going to lock the doors, drive off, & leave me to it!” Turns out she actually ended up joining me for swim in the Lake half way round. I think she reckoned we couldn’t get any wetter, and at least the water gave some shelter from the wind! Then there was the camping trip with Laura up the Langstrath valley. The weather was stunning, & we set up camp near a beautiful pool in the river. That evening we headed up Stake Pass for a bit of a walk, light fading over the valley. Laura suddenly starts saying....”Do you ever come across a place and think, this would be a good spot to bury a body? No one would ever find it, & even if they did, they’d never know that I’d done it.” I kindly pointed out to her that this probably wasn’t the best thing to ask someone when they’re about to spend a night in a tent with you nearly 10km away from civilisation. 
As with any team sport there is always a fair amount of banter and piss taking. I seemed to be on the end of quite a lot of it for some reason. During the warm up before one of our home games I was telling them that I’d been stood outside the hostel at Eskdale on Sunday cheering on the riders in the Fred Whitton. I must have clapped about 872 cyclists, and 3 of them commented on the speed of my clapping. One of them said, “why are you clapping so slowly, is it because I’m doing so badly?” I felt a bit put out and assured him that this was my regular, best clapping. Of course the girls then asked me to give a demonstration of my clapping, at which point they all burst out laughing & said that it did sound pretty sarcastic. For the rest of the season I had to endure their slow clapping every time I scored a goal. 
I don’t know how it came about, it must have been after watching a Portugal game in the World Cup. I think I lost some sort of bet, and Laura said that if we got a free kick in the match I had to take it in the style of Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course we did get a free kick, and I managed to keep a straight face even when Laura was bent over laughing in the penalty area. After the match I apologised to the rest of the girls, “sorry for looking like such a d**k when I took that free kick.” Seemed though that no one had really noticed, & surprised I asked, “what, not even when I pulled my shorts right up?!” Ange just replied, “I thought you must have had an itch!” 

I loved the weekly football matches, also loved catching up with friends at the Borrowdale hostel. Turned up one Tuesday afternoon, saw Kate, & said I’d got a present for her. “Oh my god, is it stale?!” I laughed, and replied that it wasn’t quite there yet. Something you should know about Kate, she’s got a thing for stale rice cakes. Has a stash of nearly empty packets under her bed, getting progressively more inedible...saved up for a special treat. I was explaining about this to Chris once, and he looked at me aghast, & said, “What kind of people do I have working here?!” I wondered if I should tell him about the time I nearly trapped Kate in her room...I tried pushing a packet of strawberry Angel Delight under the door, but it got stuck. So did the door, temporarily. 
There was also the 2am chatting sessions with Helen, & no matter how often we said we needed an early night, it always seemed to be 2am when we said goodnight. She seemed quite relieved when I got a job elsewhere for winter, “at least I might get some bloody sleep while you’re away!” 
That might have been the case had I not nominated Helen to take over nighttime Honister runs/antics with Charlotte from me. Charlotte took up running a little while ago, and in a really short space of time she’s become pretty damn good. We’d go out on a nighttime once a week, running up to the Honister Pass grit bin, & then a little bit further each time. We’d get back and if Ellie was still around she’d asked how far we went - and we’d answer knowingly, “ah we got to THAT tree this time.” I would rate these outings as rather tame though when compared to the day we decided to go up Barf. Charlotte is in the process of ‘Hooping the Wainwrights’ which basically involves summiting each of the 214 peaks and then doing some hula hooping at the top. These are all being recorded on video, and this particular afternoon I agreed to go along as camerawoman. It was only when we were halfway up the mountain, scrabbling in the dirt on hands and knees for bits of tree root and heather to hang onto, that I remembered where I’d read about Barf. “Hey Charlotte! I’m pretty sure that this route is a Mountain Rescue blackspot!” But we were absolutely fine, and even met a guy in jeans who seemed utterly unconcerned. He reached the top in time to witness the Hooping, & even made a sneaky appearance in the video. We mentioned that it would be put on twitter, and did he mind? He said it was cool, said that no one was looking for him, that he wasn’t hiding from the authorities or anything. He said that if anyone had anything to worry about from the hula hoop video it was us! 

As summer in the Lake District was coming to an end, another was appearing on the horizon for me. Way back in January I’d applied for the position of Station Support Assistant with the British Antarctic Survey - a job based at Rothera Research Station, Antarctica. More of a story for another time perhaps, but I was successful with both application & then interview. 
I was pretty excited when I told Rachel, “This means I can take the music of Chris de Burgh to the most remote continent on Earth!” No part of this planet shall remain untouched by his genius. Rachel, while not exactly disputing this, replied...”but surely he’d have to be known as Chris de ice Burgh over there?!” I’d also mentioned something about Chris de Burgh to my friend Clare who was visiting with her daughter, Naimh. They thoughtfully came up with a comprehensive list of ‘10 ways to die in Antarctica’, the most realistic of which was probably: You play Lady in Red too many times and everyone turns into blood-crazed zombies and eats each other. Including you. They also had this theory that Antarctica is actually heavily populated by sheep, it’s just that no one can see them because they are white. Anyway. Tomorrow I start the journey to Antarctica. Flying out from Heathrow, via Madrid, via Santiago, and via Punta Arenas. All being well with the weather & such, I should land on the 900m runway at Rothera Research Station on Friday. Even with it being so close now, there are certain realities that can only be realised upon arriving. Ever since it became a possibility, even when I was just considering applying, I’ve been imagining what it might be like (but never truly believing it might happen - because there are some things in this life that struggle to make it into our dreams). On occasions we can have a tendency to think that things like this only happen to other people, people who are more exciting, more inspiring. I’m experiencing a mix of emotions at the moment, mostly excitement, but also a healthy amount of nervous anticipation. I want to be able to take it all in, savour every second of this incredible opportunity. I also don’t want to lose sight of the significance of it all, not for me, but of the work being done. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Giant Calculators & a Camelback full of Irn Bru

Once again I find myself in a position where I haven’t written for so long that it feels incredibly difficult to even make a start. This hasn’t been for any specific reason, other than perhaps busyness and (moreover) a lack of discipline. It’s easy to get distracted. I’m over in Borrowdale for my days off, & I was chatting to Helen about this earlier. She’s experiencing a similar thing, and her advice was to just write something - it doesn’t matter how crap, just get some words down. 

Time, as it is want to do, seems to be passing so quickly. I’ve got little over a month left of this 3rd season in Eskdale. I know it’s not just me who is experiencing this - towards the end of July, Mick shared an insight with me: “I’m really enjoying August. I know that it’s only early on, I know that’s it’s actually still July, but I’m enjoying it so far. Think it’s going to be good.” One thing is for sure, there is absolutely no doubting Mick’s optimism and enthusiasm for life. I’ll never forget the Health & Safety talk he delivered earlier in the year for the YHA Lakes World Earth Day beach clean. Stood on the back of a tractor at Selker Bay (West Cumbrian coast) he cheerfully announced that unexploded MOD ordinances very occasionally wash up on the beach, & if we were in any doubt then best not to touch them and everything would be ok. He asked me afterwards what I thought of his speech...”I thought I better say something to make it all official, especially as Paul (Mick’s boss) was there.” I reassured him that it was the finest health & safety speech I’d heard in a long, long time. While Mick’s positive outlook is not in question, some of his knowledge about certain things might be described as sketchy. One particular example of this is calculators. I think Mick must own in the region of 6 calculators, all of varying size. He has the unfortunate habit of misplacing calculators, so each time he buys a new one it has to be a bit bigger than the one before (as he believes a bigger calculator will be impossible to lose). The other benefit (in Mick’s mind) of having a giant calculator is that the bigger the calculator the bigger its brain - therefore making his accounts easier to do. Another example - on a completely different topic - is when one morning we were discussing musicals, in particular Joseph and his Technicolor Dream Coat. I was singing bits of it, but replacing the word ‘Joseph’ with ‘Rachel’. Perhaps to stop me from singing, Mick started saying....”Having gone to church as a boy, I think I know my bible stories pretty well...Joseph, Noah, Moses, etc. But what I can never remember is which book of the bible James and the Giant Peach comes from.” 

We might be far from the bright lights in Eskdale, might be without phone signal, & without WiFi for most of the time, but life here is certainly never dull. We have some lovely, & quite interesting neighbours...perhaps no more so than Struan, who works at the Woolpack Inn. I’ll never forget that time he told me, in all seriousness, that Mick used to be the 2nd nicest person in the world. At least until the King of Thailand died - then he became number one. Struan is not much of a walker, but one afternoon he wandered down the road to the hostel with a backpack on. He found Mick & Rachel and proudly told them that he was going to walk around the nature trail (about 1km long). “I’m fully prepared. I’ve got some water in my bag, plus 4 bottles of cider, and 2 cheese sandwiches. I think that should do the trick.” 

It’s not just the locals of course, we also get our fair share of interesting guests coming through. Occasionally you can’t help but overhear bits of conversation going on in the self-catering kitchen or dining room. I was particularly interested in one such discussion about electrolyte drinks to combat dehydration when walking. One woman commented, “I can’t stand them...I just use water. Tried one once when I was walking up in Scotland, but it was so disgusting that as soon as I got to Ullapool I tipped it all away and filled my Camelback with Irn Bru instead.” Pretty sure it was the best thing I’d heard all day. 

Earlier in the season we had a parcel delivered to us in error - it was meant for the manager of YHA Ennerdale. After getting in touch with Kirsty, we found out that it was some bath bombs, wasn’t urgent, & could wait until the next team brief, or something. Turns out they sat around at Eskdale for quite a while, until I struck upon the idea of giving them to a couple of guests who were walking from us over to Black Sail. They accepted the mission with great enthusiasm, although they did ask why Ennerdale needed an express delivery of bath bombs, & said they were quite glad they weren’t actually staying there as everyone probably smelled. Just before they set off, I suddenly thought it might be a good idea to give them a plastic bag to wrap the parcel in. “Here, take may well rain today or you could fall in a stream, & I don’t suppose you’ll want your rucksacks to be filled with foamy bubbles!” 

It’s not uncommon that we will see the same guests year after year, or in my case I’ll see the same folk that have stayed in Borrowdale at some point over the winter & are now visiting Eskdale. One such guest is perhaps more memorable than others. I was on reception when he came to check in, “Oh, hello! You’re from Borrowdale, the wild swimmer!” We exchanged the usual sort of chat, & I didn’t think any more about it until the following afternoon. I was going into days off, & had headed up to Stony Tarn for a swim. Deserted at the best of times, & today I was fairly certain I wouldn’t see another soul - the cloud was down, and the rain persistent. But who should appear while I was swimming. We had a brief chat, he inquired about the water temperature, & asked the quickest way back down to the hostel. At some point in the conversation I think he must have realised that I was skinny dipping, & he respectfully said goodbye and went on his way. The next time I bumped into this gentleman was when I was visiting my friend Dave who works at Patterdale YHA. I was brushing my teeth in one of the wash rooms when he walked in. I tried to say hello (through a mouthful of toothpaste), but he just looked slightly confused. He glanced back at the outside of the door, & it was then I realised my mistake. At all the other hostels I’ve been to the toilet and shower facilities are unisex. This, is was now apparent, was not the case at Patterdale! Still with a mouthful of toothpaste I said, “oh god, I’m so sorry...I just assumed they were all unisex!” He told me not to worry, and kindly pointed out that the Ladies’ was just a bit further down the corridor. Sometimes we might think that others consider us a little bit crazy. Other times we don’t think, we just know. 

In early June we had a visit quite like any other that had gone before. Nick was undertaking a truly remarkable expedition - the 3 Peaks by Kayak. This involved covering approximately 855km paddling & on foot. I think the closest he got to luxury transport was a cycle ride from the Cumbrian coast to Eskdale YHA. A lift to the pub for food afterwards was even declined. The journey was entirely self propelled. 
I’d been following Nick on Twitter for quite a while; inspired by his posts of life on a boat just off the Isle of Mull. What struck me most of all, not just the beautiful photos he would share, but his humanity, & new and ongoing battles with depression/mental health. It takes a lot of strength, a lot of courage to speak so openly & honestly. 
Nick had previously worked for Outward Bound (in Eskdale), & because of this he wanted to walk Scafell Pike from Eskdale. His Expedition Patron, Alan Hinkes, is a YHA ambassador, so it made sense for them to use YHA Eskdale as their ‘base camp’. It was so lovely to meet Nick in person - he’s exactly as he comes across on Twitter, humble & kind. His visit created a real buzz around the hostel, and it was an utter privilege to play even the smallest part in his incredible journey. What was absolutely amazing was that, on his return from the summit of Scafell Pike, I had just checked in 2 guests who knew Nick of old (and it was complete coincidence that they were here). There was much hugging and tea drinking! It really is a small world. 
Nick’s visit and his achievements had quite a profound affect on me. Not all inspiration has to shout, there is a calm, quiet strength - found so often in nature, recognised so rarely in our lives.