Date: January 2012
My time spent working with the Antarctic Heritage Trust team at Ross Island Antarctica on the conservation of Shackleton’s Hut and Scott’s Hut at Cape Royds and Cape Evans respectively is drawing to an end. I am 21 and from New Zealand on a programme called the Sir Peter Blake Trust Youth Antarctic Ambassador. We were at Cape Royds for 3 weeks in November and spent the remainder of the Antarctic summer at Cape Evans. We are the New Zealand Antarctic Programme’s longest running field camp, spanning from the beginning of November to the end of January.
Antarctica is well known as being the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth. Each of these factors makes living in Antarctica challenging and demanding but when the correct procedures and equipment are used it is generally a pleasant and workable environment.
Keeping warm is obviously key. Antarctica New Zealand provides all the clothing which is similar to what would be worn on a ski field. Thermal under layers, microfleece and wool then a wind stopper outer. At the beginning of the season it was down to minus 20 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, all exposed skin must be covered. A balaclava and goggles are worn.
Wind is the Antarctic killer as this creates additional cold or wind-chill which draws substantially more heat from the body. In mid December, the temperature rarely got to -10 degrees Celsius and was often above zero. With no wind, it seems as though it is much warmer than it actually is. Activity level has a great deal to do with warmth and hence keeping cool is an issue when many clothes are worn during high activity levels and are shed – sweat becomes very cold when activity level reduces. So managing clothing is a learning curve.
We sleep in traditional Scott Polar tents. They are a proven design and can survive winds over 120 km/h when sufficiently guy roped. The sleeping bags are very warm, a down sleeping bag within another and a cotton sheet inner and outer. Normally this is too warm so one bag acts as a duvet. Liquid human waste is excreted in a tide crack (sea ice cracks due to the tide next to the land). When in the tent, we pee in a plastic “pee” bottle. Solid human waste is collected in a bucket and transported to be incinerated in New Zealand. The 24 hour day light takes a bit to get used to. The only time cue is the position of the sun or watch. The tent is always bright orange.
The environment is not dirty although there can be dust. We have no shower in the field but typically once a week I would have a flannel wash. This is more effective than you might think and uses minimal water. Luckily we were able to go back to Scott Base for a shower mid trip. A week per clothing set is standard during normal work. Socks are hung to air for a couple of days before being reused. Every few weeks, clothing is washed in a bucket. This level of cleanliness would be generally unacceptable elsewhere but we maintain a healthy level of cleanliness. It is an almost sterile environment and very dry. We have no animal contact, dirt/mud or warmth so the dirtiness and bacteria encountered with camping or tramping at home is not an issue here.
Due to the creativeness of the team, we eat well. The food is dehydrated and frozen with an occasional supply of fresh food called “freshies”. We are near a penguin colony so we do not eat poultry as this could introduce disease. Because of the cold and high energy requirements, we eat substantial amounts of salami, cheese and chocolate. Fresh bread is cooked daily and the occasional cake.
Social interaction is key to healthy wellbeing. We have a lot of fun together with varied intellectual and humored conversation. Being busy working means our minds are always occupied. Sunday afternoons are a rest time which is stimulating and we would generally sit and watch a movie together. We have little opportunity to interact with family and friends at home. Calls can be made on the satellite phone although this is very expensive and difficult to fully engage in conversation with such short calls. We have daily radio communication with Scott Base Com’s to catch up on the news and pass on any messages. I always remind myself that no news is good news. It is harder for the members of the team who have close family and are not used to this level of isolation. Personally I have enjoyed the opportunity to be isolated from the high levels of social stimulus in my normal life. We concentrate and thrive on the fundamentals; personal social interaction, good food, shelter and warmth.