Monday, 4 February 2019

Muggle flying & Quidditch in Antarctica


One of the perks of the job, and for many a highlight down here, is the opportunity to go on a Twin Otter co-pilot flight. I got the shout the evening before that I was next in line; that in the morning I was down to be the co-pilot for the flight to Fossil Bluff. Naturally I was pretty excited about this, the only downside being that my friend Blair was leaving for the UK on the Dash-7 that very same morning. It was a slightly rushed goodbye, and I was actually sat in the cockpit of a Twin Otter as I watched his plane take off. Rothera is a place of comings and goings, and it wasn’t really something I’d anticipated of been prepared for. You meet a lot of people, form friendships quickly, and before you know it they are out into the field for weeks or heading home. Listening to others who have been down before you do get more accustomed to it, but initially I found it quite difficult. The flight to Fossil Bluff takes about 1 hour 40, and it was a straight there and back run this time – only stopping to drop off a few fuel drums and provisions. Once we were airborne and levelled off, Andy’s voice came over the headset, “It’s your turn to take control of the plane, I’ve got some paperwork to fill in.” And pretty much just like that I found myself flying a Twin otter across Antarctica. To be honest, all I had to do was hold the controls level, but it was still one of those moments where you think, ‘wow, this is flippin’ cool!’ The weather might have been crapping out a bit at Rothera, but further south there were blue skies and amazing views. We were probably only on the ground at Fossil Bluff for 20-30 minutes – enough time to unload and have a chat to Jake and Rich. I also went to visit the pee flag, but soon realised as I got my flight overalls half way down that it was going to be a bit of a faff. I’d either have to take them off entirely, or get them covered in pee. With neither being a particularly attractive option, I decided that I’d just have to exercise good bladder control on the way back. Perhaps the strangest thing about flying the plane was that once airborne you got next to no sensation of the speed you’re travelling at. This changed slightly though when Andy took the plane down to approximately 100 metres above the ‘ground’, and flew close enough to see seals and a mass of blocks which were locked in icebergs. I was soon landed back at station, off the plane, and pretty much straight into the late shift. Certainly not your average morning off before work!

As Christmas approached I was keen to organise what would be Antarctica’s first ever Quidditch match. It was something of a tradition I’d started at the hostel in Borrowdale, and now I wanted to take it to the world’s most remote continent. I didn’t think I’d have a problem getting enough players; Rothera is about a captive an audience as you can get! I also had the lure of history on my side; a chance for people to add their names alongside the likes of Amundsen, Shackleton, & Scott – Antarctic firsts and pioneers. Jess, as Station Leader, wrote a full and comprehensive risk assessment for the match, and it had to be the best document of its kind I’ve ever read. Favourite bits include, “Brooms must not be used as weapons.” & “Curses are restricted to muggle swear-words only. Spells and hexes are disallowed.” I thought the most difficult part might be convincing someone to be the Golden Snitch. I had initially tried to talk Cam into doing it, but then discovered he would be out in the field. I then approached Alex (aka blonde Jesus), & without too much resistance he agreed. However, when I spoke to him later on he seemed slightly concerned….“K, I’ve been doing a bit of research into golden snitching, and it looks like they get kneed in the balls quite a lot?” I assured him that I would specifically mention that in the category of foul play when I delivered the rule briefing. After a few postponements due to the weather and muggle flying, we finally took to the runway to play the match on Sunday 23rd December. We had enough players for there to be subs, enough mop handles for broomsticks, and a Big Bird costume (essential polar clothing) for Alex to wear as the Golden Snitch. We learnt two things pretty quickly; just how knackering Rothera Rules Quidditch is, and that Kate Stanton is probably unrivalled anywhere in the universe when it comes to competitiveness! She later confided that she had to stop playing board games as even that got too far out of hand. Unfortunately for my team (Gryffindor), Kate was playing at the Slytherin Seeker when the Golden Snitch was released onto the pitch. Callum put up a good battle to be fair, and for a long time it seemed like Alex might elude them both for the rest of the afternoon. But eventually Kate was able to capture the sock (containing a tennis ball) from the back of Alex’s pants, which gave Slytherin the overall victory. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it, and miraculously the only injuries were to a couple of the broomsticks.

Christmas in Antarctica was, for me, memorable and special. I hadn’t thought too much about how I might feel about it; I wanted to enjoy it, and not dwell on the fact that I was a long way from home. I went for a Christmas Day run with Tom L, three laps of the runway before heading out on a recreational boat trip. It was possibly the perfect day for being out on the water – it was flat calm, still. The grey skies meant that there was no glare, so the towering icebergs were reflected clearly in the water. In fact, at times, I wondered if the reflection had more form than the real thing. The Chefs had cooked up an amazing Christmas dinner, and it was so lovely to share it with friends. A little later in the evening I went up to the Ops tower for scheds. Kate Doc had set up the keyboard, and a small group of us assembled to sing Christmas carols over the radio to the field parties. I’m not sure if it was interference over the radio, or the fact that they’d been living in the middle of Antarctica in tents for so long, but apparently we sounded pretty good! Boxing Day was back to work as normal, or as normal as life gets down here.

“Once in a while you remember exactly where the hell you are.” In this instance I was stood with Bav on the deck of the Laurence M Gould, an American research ship, just off the West Antarctic Peninsula. It was windy, snowing, and we’d been chatting, belting out the American national anthem, and trying to figure out our place in all of this. I certainly didn’t have any answers, but was yet again filled with a sense of awe, and a gratitude for everyone and everything that had led me here. We were part of a group from Rothera (including scientists doing CTD water sampling) who had the opportunity to go aboard the ship in a PAX exchange – the American scientists went ashore for tours of the station. Dee was on a lower deck photographing tanks of krill, while Scott, Sarah, and the others were enjoying the Americans’ hospitality (especially the stash of real, chocolate milk we found). When we all got back together I asked Bav & Dee about recreating that scene from Titanic. Contrary to the numerous suggestions, I didn’t mean the iceberg bit, nor the being drawn like a French girl, and certainly not the car scene. We went outside to the front of the ship, and yelled to the vast expanse of ocean that I was the king of the world. If you ever get to try that in the Southern Ocean, you’ll find out just how far from the truth those words feel; how laughable a sentiment in a land that humbles. It was not the first time here that I have been brought to a standstill – a sudden and overwhelming halt, both mentally and physically. For a second there is no movement at all, and then the thoughts begin to creep back in amongst the silent wonder. If I’ve dreamed of anything, I’ve dreamed of this. The beauty of the wild places, the mystery of life so complete it becomes the answer.

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.