First week of March, a hand full of days after my birthday. You could sense something different in the air from the last couple of days to this point. The Sun already hangs too low in the distant horizonte and the tropical days with -5 ºC are increasingly rare. The Summer is almost over. Though the season officially goes all the way up to 21 of March, it isn’t a good idea to wait until then to bring the Ernest Shackleton ashore to its last visit. Work around here is officially finished and we are going through mixed reactions. For those that spend the last 15 months in the station, there’s a certain melancholy set in. Its a lot of time to just turn their back around and go back to the rest of the humans like nothing had transpired. But for those who went for the last Summer months working almost 12 hour shifts or those who suffered around the planning of the Summer tasks, these last days are a relief over the intense schedule since we can count this last Summer as a successful one. And then there’s us, the 13 that are going stay behind to look after the place, isolated and in charge of 8 colorful modules over a piece of ice of questionable structural integrity. I felt nervous and intrigued at the same time. Life from now on is going to be considerable different.
Early in the season, I promised myself that I would try and drive the very last batch of humans back to the ship, before we officially start Winter around here. Luck and a bit of clever planning from my part allowed that to happen. I was able to secure my place as the driver of one of the last 2 sno-cats.
In total we needed 4 trips to the shore to load every non-Winterer to the ship. The Shackleton docked in the exact same spot that brought me here for another couple of days, to unload the last of our Winter food, a few more pieces of equipment that for some reason wasn’t already in the station and, most importantly, to take the rest of the Summer crew back into the civilization. The first half left on the 5th and the second was hand delivered by myself and another sno-cat in the morning of the 6th. A few minutes after delivering our cargo, we were gently expelled from the ship, where we were busy handing hearty farewells to everyone. It was one of those rare moments were I was on the other side of the crowd. Only myself and another 3 would be standing outside of the ship. The remaining 50 would spend the next 10 days on board until another dock in the Falkland Islands. From there they would take a military flight straight to the UK.
When just 4 of us were standing outside in the ice, the gang planck was brought in and the Shackleton, along with the last humans that we would see for the next 8 months, finally sailed North.
We hang around the shore until the ship went beyond the horizon, which took a good half hour, while we took and posed for hundreds of pictures and videos, with loads of people waving in the deck and a few goodbye honks from the bridge. I wanted to be present in the official start of Winter and I did it.
The trip back to the station was simple and even a bit boring. Sno-cats are not famous for their speed and the 50 kilometers to Halley took me almost 3 hours. When I got back to the modules, the difference was palpable. It was the middle of a lazy Sunday afternoon, which in the middle of Summer meant loads of people going around the place, mainly inside of the red module, where we keep the food and most of our entertainment. Today there were just half a dozen people there, some playing table tennis and others lazying around, trying to absorb the significance of the moment.
One of my most memorable moments was the dinner that same day. It was Sunday and our chef was in her day off (she was one of the four that went to the shore with me) and dinner was prepared by one of the other winterers this time, something that would soon be happening at least twice a week from that point on. Its one of the things that bring the winterers closer: cooking for everyone, something that we didn’t had a chance to go through during Summer.
The dinning room organization was different too. During my absence, the remaining winterers stored most of the tables and chairs away, leaving only 6 tables arranged as a single big one and 13 chairs. We didn’t expect visitors so soon. In Summer meals were done in groups of 6, as many you can seat per table, which meant that I would have different people around me at all times. I winter we have only one big table where we work as any other family.
Ironically it is easier to “disappear” in Summer than in Winter. With just 13 people spread around 8 modules and, taken into consideration that we cannot leave the perimeter alone and without warning, it is very easy to know where everyone is at any time.
The schedule has also changed. After a Summer working from 8h30 to 18h00, in Winter we went back to the 9h00 to 17h00, as any regular drone back in civilization. Keeping a steady schedule is quite important since its very easy to loose track of time when you loose 20 minutes of daylight every day until Midwinter.
The first day of Winter was also marked by a real estate discussion. When all of us got here in the beginning of Summer, we had no choice in which room we were sleeping. But now we are in charge of the place and we can barter and move to better rooms. Well, all rooms are exactly alike so there’s no advantage in going for the interior. But you have quieter rooms in the end of the modules but farther from the toilets and louder rooms by the B1 module but with a shower and a toilet literally outside of them, rooms facing sundown and others facing the sunrise, etc.. Being a night and somewhat lazy guy, I sacrificed peace for a sundown facing room right by the entrance of the accommodation modules just to avoid taking more than 4 steps to get to a porcelain throne.
Another advantage of Winter is that everyone gets a room for itself now. 13 people and 16 rooms. One of them was even transformed into a sewing room, with a small sewing machine and all we might need to mend our battered socks and trousers. Another plus is that we were finally finished with the toilet queues. We still have more people than toilets in the station, but the probability of one of them being free increased significantly now.
Life is simpler now that Winter has started. All its left to do now is wait and see how it would end.