Winter brings isolation with it but also a series of events and celebrations that only make sense in a special place such as this.
Our first celebration as winterers was the last sunset of the season.
On last 1st of May, while half of the world was celebrating Worker’s Day, we were entertained with the last visit of the Sun before the real Winter. From that day and until mid August – 107 days to be exact – the Sun would remain bellow the horizon.
To most of us, it was the first time that we would be without Sun for more than 24 hours. This was a different animal. For all the all nighters that I’ve pulled during my student days (and not only…), I rarely spend more than a few days without seeing the big ball of fire somewhere in the sky. Even in those gray days in winter where clouds cover the sky for weeks on end, there’s the notion that it is there, somewhere, if not because its not completely dark.
But around here is different. It is weird to be around days and days of clear sky, where stars and Moon are easily visible, but the Sun never crosses the horizon line. One of those moments that spell Antarctic Winter is to get out of the station after lunch to work on one of the radars and walk over there under the light of a 3 o’clock “afternoon” Full Moon.
When I tell about this situation to the people in the other continent, the notion is that this place becomes completely dark right after the last sundown. In truth, even in the peak of Winter, we never get a full 24 hours of complete darkness. During the Winter solstice, during a few minutes, an hour even, during lunch time it is possible to detect a faint twilight at North in the days where the sky is clear.
In the weeks right after the last sundown and in the few hours before the first sunrise after Winter, we still count with a good 8 or 9 hours of working light, that is, enough twilight or dusk to go around with a skidoo or somewhere else without a head torch.
Things only get complicated in the end of May and up until the beginning of August, give or take a few days. During that time the twilight is not enough and the miner torch becomes a must have. Around here we are very keen of those small battery powered torches with an elastic band to strap them to the forehead, just like if we were about to dig coal so some random hole. But they are extremely useful: the beam of light always points to where we are looking and we have both hands free to do whatever is needed.
The last sundown ceremony is ancient but simple: the UK flag that’s in the middle of the station (on the roof of E1 module) is removed from its pole by the oldest element of the Winter team (I don’t know why exactly do we need to take out the flag but maybe its because a piece of cloth doesn’t stand much chance of survival over an antarctic winter…).During that we crack open a few bottles of very decent champagne, but even it is not fully enjoyed since all it takes is a few minutes until half gets frozen to the sides of the glasses.
The rest of the day is spent resting, just like any other official holiday. This year it landed in a Sunday that was also Worker’s Day. We lost three resting days all at once…
It is also around this time that the extremely low temperatures became noticeable. In May it still doable to go out and get a skidoo from the garage for whatever needed. But only if it is for using during the “afternoon” because otherwise it doesn’t pay off. First, we need to take about a ton of snow from its insides, first of all. In May, snow and windy days pay us a visit almost every week. A skidoo parked on the side of a building is an easy prey for shallow wind loaded with fresh snow.
Its so cold that, even if we can start it (something that it is not guaranteed to happen but, worst case scenario, you get a full workout in you bicep), we still have to wait about 15 minutes for it to get properly warm.
Something that also happens a lot is some of the snow gets left hidden between the smaller pieces around the engine and then melts, creating large pools of water in the bottom of the compartment. Its so cold around that time that this one doesn’t have enough time to flow out out of the inside of the skidoo and freezes covering the draining holes in the process. After a few days of it and we have a solid block of ice around half of the movable parts of the skidoo’s inside.
Its always pleasant to find myself halfway between the station and one of my radars, under a tropical -28 ºC, and discover that I can’t turn anywhere because I have the skidoo steering system encased in a solid block of ice.