midwinter

Midwinter celebrations by Jerry Gillham

And so it was time for the annual Antarctican celebration of midwinter, the shortest day of the year, celebrated since the very first days of polar exploration as we look forward to the days getting longer and the sun returning to shine on the station.

This is a dedicated week off work, although daily checks continue and we were on standby to carry out any boating work should any of the fishing ships have arrived for inspections.

The first big event of the week was the midwinter olympics, with competitors showing off their talents in the track and field. Paddy (boating officer) won the welly wanging, subsequent drugs tests revealing significantly higher than the acceptable trace levels of Guinness. Neil (field guide, newly arrived Halley refugee) took home the gold for the caber toss before Fraser (doctor) won the javelin with an entirely new throwing technique that he has quickly patented.

Dave (electrician) giving it some with the welly-wang.

Moving into the track events the three-legged race ended in dispute as both Paddy-Jerry and Fraser-Kieran claimed victory. The lack of a clearly defined finish-line was, in retrospect, an oversight. The was further controversy in the pulk-pulling as team Jerry-Paddy was the victim of subterfuge, with others holding onto the back of the sledge. Although the final was close Bob (mechanic) raced home dragging Fraser on his sledge despite the best efforts of Kieran (zoologist) trying to haul him down whilst dragging Vicki (fisheries scientist).

Later that evening I put on a pub quiz, with cocktails to be claimed for niche station knowledge like how many doors in certain buildings and guessing the total weight of cheese on station. I rounded it off with a totally self-indulgent guess the song intro round, all badly played on the banjolele, kazoo or stylophone.

A quiet strumming start and then giving it my all on the kazoo for the Baker Street sax solo was much more fun for me than anyone else.

I was on earlies on midwinter day itself so had done the building checks, made a big cooked breakfast and laid out the stockpile of presents I'd accumulated before the others awoke. Through the year we've been left various crisps, chocolates and drinks by visitors, well wishers and non-wintering staff, some of whom had been very generous indeed (Robbie and Adrian can't go without mention) so what could have been an expensive night was actually exceedingly well supported.

At mid-day we had our traditional mid-winter dip, a dash into the sea followed by an even quicker dash up to the sauna. No heroics for anyone, it's alarming how quickly freezing limbs stop working. Thankfully we were able to properly warm up, helped by Emma and Steve (government officer and partner) providing a mug of mulled wine each.

A little close for comfort but a grand way to warm up.

Early evening, with everyone dressed very smartly, we started our gift exchanges. The midwinter present-giving is a very old tradition; we draw names at random and just make a gift for one person. As always, the dedication, imagination and talent was jaw-dropping.

Midwinter gift collection.

Vicki made me an awesome lamp with copper pipes and sea-glass that looks like tree bark or, because it's so long since I've seen a tree, fronds of a kelp forest. I did a big painting of the local peninsulas for Neil who, with only two days since his arrival, created a lovely wooden ski pole for Fraser, who had made another lamp, this one based around an albatross x-ray. There were photo books, models of the boats (one making use of the broken blender parts to give it a working propellor), beautiful carved shot glasses and a life-sized metallic king penguin with toilet roll holder attachment.

Admiring the penguin Bob made for Kieran.

We'd all chipped in making a big roast dinner. I'd done the cauliflower cheese, yorkshire puddings, parsnips and sprouts (ie. stuff I'm quite particular about how I like it and don't trust other people).

Fraser suturing bacon onto a reindeer leg.

Sitting down to midwinter dinner.

Stuffed full of food we retired to the lounge to listen to the BBC's midwinter broadcast, exceptionally produced by Cerys Matthews with a heart-warming range of good wishes from, amongst others, David Attenborough, Michael Palin, John Carpenter (director of The Thing, traditional midwinter viewing) and Bill Bailey, who'd written a song specially for the occasion.

Dave testing his new shot glasses with their creator Paddy.

The week was wrapped up with the bar crawl, with people making their own place around station. From the upside-down bungee challenge in the boatshed to the frankly disgusting Deja Pu, the creepily decorated laboratory to Paddy's tiny Irish bar, Dave's frankly mental drawing challenges and finishing off with my erotic book club - because there's no better way to round off an evening than getting people to read out badly-written sex scenes from a collection of smutty books inexplicably filling our library.

Challenge 1. Climb up the rope, attach to the bungee cord, pull yourself along as far as you can and place the sponge on the velcro strip.

Sample bags, toilet roll and bog brushes dangling from the basement pipes, drinks served from a toilet... it was difficult to enjoy this bar.

Kieran getting angry that no one could get his perfectly clear illustrations.

Pep for erotic book club

Midwinter part 2 by Jerry

The second half of midwinter week has been full of games, fun and relaxation.

The blood-red sky one morning over base and La Roche.

 With a week off and a big snow drift in front of base what was the most obvious thing to do? Cian and Jess were half way through building a snowman, or snowmaiden, when I went out to help them. She was meant to be a female companion for Jess, although Cian seemed to be making early moves on her. I was shovelling more snow for them when I realised it was coming out in large, compact blocks... would it be possible to build an igloo?

Cian and his Ice Bride

 Starting out with low expectations, I was half way through before putting some real thought and effort into it, hence the with problems with the final result. I managed to get a roof on it but it was very cramped – every time I moved I risked dropping more snow on myself. The other problem was the low entrance that meant crawling in dragged in more snow.

The interior roof of my igloo - pretty and more secure than it looks.

Despite these problems I decided to try and sleep there that night. I stayed up late reading indoors and taking photos in the dark until feeling tired enough I crawled in, trying not to drop snow into my sleeping bag.

Sitting outside my igloo, waiting for bedtime. A carefree sleep wasn't helped by the presence of the weeping angel just outside.

Lying there I was comfortable (so long as I didn't move) and warm enough but the problem was I just wasn't tired. It took over an hour of listening to the sea, the occasional distant seal and the worryingly close scavenging sheathbills but I did eventually drift off. All too soon after that I rolled over and woke up with a face-full of snow. By this point I needed to get up and do a wee. After the rigmarole of getting out my bag and crawling through the icy entrance I was once again wide awake. I'm afraid the temptation of going indoors for a hot drink and a comfy duvet was too much and I slept the rest of the night in my own bed.

The illuminated igloo.

One of the big traditions of Bird Island midwinter is the highland games. All suitably dressed we gathered outside where Cian and I had set up a few events; caber tossing, welly wanging, throwing the ball in the snow-hole, triple jump, obstacle frisbee and the free-for-all that was the potato and spoon slalom.

Rob holding his caber.

Cian having a good toss.

Jess giving a welly a good wanging.

We finished off the Highland Games with a ceremonial smashing of the snow-maiden and the igloo.

We rounded off the week with a long day out exploring. Over the hill to Johnson Beach then around to Burton Cove to investigate the cave there. Some of these are spots we can't go in the summer, either because of too much work or because the density of Fur Seals puts the shore out of bounds. Although there are seals about at the moment they are easily bypassed.

Johnson Beach, once pristine white snow, now a Jackson Pollock mess in a limited colour scheme depending on what the Gentoos have been eating.

The big but not deep cave at Burton Cove.

Before returning to base we did a quick check on one of the Wandering Albatross areas, making sure the chicks are doing okay. They are really big and fluffy at the moment, as they need to be what with sitting here all through the winter. Happily they have survived their most vulnerable stage – when they are first left alone by the parents – and through these months there are very few failures.

Wandering Albatross chick in front of Tonk and the cloud rolling in.

Greeting a friendly Wandering Albatross chick. We go past this one every time we walk up the hill and it has got quite used to me sitting beside it and chatting. It is yet to respond though, which I find a bit rude. Jess's photo.

The final part of a great day was a slow walk back along the beaches. While keeping an eye out for Leopard Seals I was held up by a group of Gentoo Penguins who consistently come out of the water at the gentle, sandy slope at one end of the beach then walk all the way along past the rocks to their congregation areas at the far end. The sharp claws on the end of their feet are good for walking up frozen streams, but not so good for cutting across or going down the thin sheets of ice now stretching across parts of the shore and seeing them regularly slip and slide makes me feel better about my own stability inadequacies.
  
Gentoo Penguins heading home across a frozen stream.



Midwinter part 1 by Jerry

The past weekend saw us through midwinter, the biggest celebration in Antarctica. For the bases further south than us it marks the middle of the long months of darkness and they can start looking forward to the return of the sun. For those of us in sub-Antarctica it means the days will start getting longer - it will begin getting light before 11 and we'll be able to stay out after 6.


Dressing up for the photos we sent out to the other bases. These go out, not only to the other 40 BAS over-winter staff but to all the other bases on the continent and sub-Antarctic islands.

The day started with me, as winter base commander, making breakfast for the others. A big fry-up is a rarity but it was worth using up some of our limited supply of eggs and mushrooms along with the almost limitless beans and sausages. I didn't go as far as serving them in bed as no one wanted their room smelling of burnt bacon.

A healthy start to a long day of excess (the glass of orange juice is the healthy bit).

Despite it being a holiday there's some jobs that just needed doing. Rob had his checks or the generators and boilers to ensure the base is still running smoothly while Cian had the daily round in search of Leopard Seals. I headed out to help him with that while Rob and Jess made a start with the preparations for dinner. I say made a start but for a few days previously Jess had been making cakes and enough meringue to build an igloo out of.

Midwinter cake cooked by Jess. The Leopard Seal decoration was by Cian.

Warming up we settled down to watch the The Thing. A chance to compare my facial hair to that of Kurt Russell and, predictably, be disappointed at the lack of similarity between us.

At the start of winter we'd drawn names, like a secret santa, to see who would be making gifts for who. This is a tradition that goes back to Scott and Shackleton's times, when they had to improvise with what resources and tools they had available. Our materials may be less limited but the creativity is still there and the results are always amazing. The amount of effort that goes in is incredible as people find skills they never knew they had.

Proudly displaying our gifts.

The clock that Jess made me using retrieved bird rings and seal tags, with an illustrated history of each one.

The model I made her of a Wandering Albatross family.

Following a long, drawn-out dinner we collapsed into the comfy chairs and listened to the midwinter broadcast put together by BAS and the BBC. We were delighted to hear greetings from, amongst others, comedians Adam Buxton and Bill Bailey, spaceman Tim Peake and explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Sitting down for an excellent dinner.

Games, snacks and drinks took us into the small hours.

The next day was supposed to be one of nothing but relaxation, slobbing out in front of a few movies. Yet the presence of two leopards and one Weddell Seal meant we were running around excitedly outside for far more of it than planned.

Weddell Seal. One of the few occasions it acknowledged our presence before collapsing back down to sleep.
The week continues to be both fun and relaxing. Coming up we've a few plans for days out and the traditional midwinter games, but yesterday we created a 12 hole crazy golf course around the base which was great fun.

Par 1 across the masking-tape bridge.

A couple of holes down the corridor.

A beautifully decorated generator room course.