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.

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