I was in Cambridge for three weeks already and I was still a tad confused. Not so much with what I was going to do in Antarctica. That was just a matter of time and it was pointless to get myself worked out over it.
As for the rest, it was still very unclear. How and when exactly was going to be the trip over there? Would I need a special passport for that? Could I bring a bag with dirt from my home town and create a special portuguese embassy over there? Could I use penguin eggs to make pancakes? Anyway, loads of questions and barely any answers. But eventually there was a answer that become quite common around the corridors of BAS headquarters: all will become clear in Girton.
What is Girton after all? Well, Girton by itself is just a small part of Northwest Cambridge, but the Girton that everybody was talking about was BAS annual conference for new antarctic employees that goes for a whole week at Girton College…which is in Girton from all places (no one saw that coming!). Basically, anyone that goes South next season with BAS, for just two days or two years, has to attend this conference, specially who is going to Antarctica for the first time.
The conference by itself is composed mainly by presentations…loads of them – anyone that has been through it refers to it as “death by PowerPoint” for some reason – and by some practical sessions when due.
It was in Girton that I realized the importance of my Wintering status for the first time, and all the privileges, perks and responsibilities that came with it. What is then a Winterer, according with the British Antarctic Survey Thesaurus? Is simply one of the chosen fools to take care of its assigned base during the Antarctic Winter, which I refer here with a capital “W” since it is an entity that commands the utmost respect. Wintering in Antarctica is one of those experiences that one can brag about it the rest of his or her life, like swimming with sharks, jump off the Eiffel tower secured with just shoelaces or punching Donald Trump. Its 8 or 9 months of complete physical isolation from all humanity apart from a select few that share the premisses with you, where 3 or 4 of these months are in complete darkness, temperatures of around -50 ºC and with the whole continent surrounded by a thick layer of sea ice that makes any evacuation or physical contact (even with other antarctic bases) virtually impossible. Extreme Big Brother.
I got to Girton on a Sunday afternoon with the first day on a new school kinda feeling. I wasn’t the last one there but also not the first one. The College campus was already full of people. Some already knew themselves and others were working already in it. As a Winterer I was entitled to spend the night in the college, in one of the student dorms. We were in the second week of September, which was also the last one before school started again. Those rooms would be occupied by students by weeks’s end. The first thing that I did around there, after dealing with all the initial bureaucracies and checking in my room, was… a blood test. Its one of the Winterer’s duties. Just in case, all Winter team has their blood types analysed and mapped, in case someone needs a blood transfusion in the middle of Winter. After having my arm pricked for people juice, I took my badge and went join the general confusion.
This badge, along with my name had also my position and assigned base (also each base had the same badge color, which made it easier to get who I was going to work with down there without having to look lasciviously to people’s chests) and the Winterers also had a big “W” on it. There were about 60 or 70 people going to Halley next season, 13 of which for a full 15 months.
The first time that I remember getting most of my wintering team in one place was on a base meeting, right on the first Monday. We were still missing the Electrician and Plumber at that time. It was curious because we barely knew each other but we already knew that we were going to be stuck together for more than a year in a couple of fiber glass living modules. There was no reason to keep any reservations or weirdness since we all knew that it was a matter of time until we start making improper jokes, stealing each others toast and come up with new ways of rolling down on the snow.
Being a winterer means that you belong to the cool kids from the neighborhood. During the conference I met several people that, upon seeing the “W” on my badge, professed admiration and small dose of jealously, which made me realize the importance of the wintering status. I tried to remain composed as much as possible but the truth is I was oozing coolness around these days and I was loving it! I had to make the most of it before I ruined it by coming to a morning meeting with no pants or drop my food tray on top of some poor BAS manager.
The first three days of the conference went by quickly. Champion breakfast at 7:00 AM, lunch at 1:00 PM and a proper retired folk dinner at 6:30 PM. Just with presentations all day and event with tea and cookies every hour and half, by dinner time I was already starving my eyes out.
The last days of the conference was reserved to the medical training. As Winterer, even before setting a foot on a ship, I will be quite ready to take care of light medical emergencies. Its hard to describe how important fist aid is when you are wintering in the middle of one of Earth’s most aggressive environments. Its important enough for BAS to create a subdivision entirely dedicated to medical support: BASMU – British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit. Dying in Antarctica is pretty easy so there’s a lot of emphasis in training everything that moves around the base with basic medical care at least. The base doctor is also part of the Wintering team and among the rest of the team there’s also a sub team of four or five Winterers that also receive advanced medical training from the doctor, mostly to help him if there’s an emergency on base or, if that’s the case, provide him/her with medical care. It is sort of a luxury to have a doctor available almost all the time on base. I feel almost tempted to try soldering metal while blindfolded or play catch with darts… almost. Anyway, during those last days I learned loads of useful stuff, such as operating a defibrillator, CPR, measure blood pressure with a stethoscope, apply splinters and inject salt water into oranges.
After a whole week I met more than 80 people and so it was time to move to the next one. As a Winterer I still had an extra four days of training ahead of me, exclusively to all the weirdos that are about to spend a Winter on the only continent were humans have yet to civilize.