Dark winter

Finally, the much dreaded winter psychology post. Having slowly accumulated ideas on what to write about during the past three months, I’ve put it off long enough. Indeed I am running out of time, as the sun will be back in less than a week.

Aurora Australis before my 7am obs, 21 May

Aurora Australis before my 7am obs, 21 May

This is the first time I’ve wintered in Antarctica, but as I read over the Polar Manual as prepared by the US Naval Medical school over fifty years ago, I see that many things haven’t changed, at least on a psychology level. Certainly we do have it a lot easier in many respects but the physical isolation is the same. Although it seems attitudes or at least political correctness has changed! As such this grandfather of references is a little more humorous than the comparatively dull documents of today, and I shall use it to guide me through this post.

United States Naval Medical school Polar manual, circa 1960

United States Naval Medical school Polar manual, circa 1960

We all like to complain about the never ending selection process the AAD uses to filter candidates. But admittedly the importance of having an appropriate amount of sanity amongst the group is paramount. Over summer I was chatting to a past winterer, and he was saying these days it seems even more importance is given to social skills than technical competence. Apparently in his day there was that guy who was an alcoholic / hermit / eccentric – but damn good on the tools – some kind of special talent that necessitates deficiency in other areas. I have to say that I get along with all the crew here, I don’t particularly have any favourites, and it is a great mix of people.

I had to have a laugh at the reference to homosexuality. Along with the other AAD stations, this has been the first year since 1986 that we have had an all male crew. As it happens there has been an impromptu volunteer for the brunt of all the gay jokes, ever since his Starship Troopers reference he has happily cemented his position any time the topic of conversation comes up. Of course it is all in good humour, “Metro” is for sure the most socially outgoing guy on station, and it is pretty evident that as a group our stance on this issue is at a minimum, far more advanced in a liberal sense than that of most western governments! 

One thing about an all male crew is the two sided coin of life being less interesting without women. Things can and do happen with relationships and I’ve heard some horror stories in the past, so this is something we don’t have to worry about on station. But poor old Metro is fighting an endless battle to get us to participate in social activities above and beyond the staple beers at the bar, darts, and blokey story telling. In the summer several of the wintering tradies frocked up on a saturday night, as is the Antarctic tradition, but in the absence of women there definitely is a reduced motivation to flourish the feathers, so to speak. Medieval night produced one fine exception, let us just say that (s)he was a very popular (wo)man indeed!

Medieval night: a beer tasting, mead, and a feast

Medieval night: a beer tasting, mead, and a feast

While before I left Australia Jes insisted that the work program was a farce and she knew we would just be building pillow forts, unfortunately it appears we have let her down in this regard. Perhaps the closest we have got has been the peculiar yet rather athletic and very watchable sock wrestling.

Praying not to end up like Blue Koala

Praying not to end up like Blue Koala

Game on! (photo Rich)

Game on! (photo Rich)

This caused quite a ruckus and even took one of our favourite expeditioners (known as the blue koala) out of action with a crook knee for a week or so. Fairly non contact in the event but we still give full blame to his opponent, non other than the doctor, obviously trying to drum up business.

Which brings me up to my next point.


Yes time to blow my own horn (even louder than usual), while I was beaten once or twice I am proud to say that I did quite well in the sock wrestling, since I “used to wrestle with my brothers and sisters”. Quite a weak reference but I just had to quote that part of the Polar Manual, as in a station full of Aussies, despite my long lost accent I’m often keen to remind others that I’m differentSomething Jes has possibly tried to beat out of me but I’ll have to go back to quoting the Polar Manual I think…

rough it

My point here is that while you might expect to find hardened expeditioners in such a place, while they are certainly a great bunch of guys, they often seem to be disappointingly normal. Yes, far from struggling against the odds in the harsh elements, you will find the typical expeditioner watching movies and TV series and the popularity of the daily crossword here has to be seen to be believed. Not only that, in this day and age we have comfortable heated lodgings, flush toilets, and satellite internet. As such the following point is not as relevant as it once was.

self entertainment

As far as self entertainment goes, I’ve had a few winter projects on the go, mostly creative writing, photography, and video editing. Back to the counter mainstream theme… I most definitely enjoyed the Breaking Bad series on a Monday night, once I desensitised myself to the odd murder of innocents and got with the program. However I’ve neglected most other cinema based entertainment and I’ve instead pushed the station into attending my presentations on travelling in South America, paragliding, weather, and lighthouses. Interacting with the folks on station is always great fun, as for getting a good healthy argument up and going I’ve told them I’m not stirring – it’s the pot that’s turning and I’m just holding the spoon. “We’ve been nicked”, they say.

If you want to avoid being nicked you could avoid shaving:


There are some beards sprouting up on station and looking back at old (beardless) photographs of some people certainly does leave you scratching your head. Myself I go for the laziness approach (not much different to usual really) I just cut it back a bit when I can’t stand it anymore. Thankfully it has never grown very aggressively, although the colour is a fearsome red.

Simon hasn't shaved this year (Bandits hut)

Simon hasn’t shaved this year (Bandits hut)

Another tradition we have here is the mid winter swim. The station agreed to hold it the day before winter solstice, as I noted that the water will be just as cold. We cut through a metre of ice with chainsaws to prepare the Davis baths. During the night it refroze to ten centimetres thickness, except for a small hole that a Weddell seal (they stay year round) had kept open. When we swam I thought I might have stayed in long enough (both times), but the seal didn’t care to join me – we saw the last of it as we re-broke the surface with the digger.

The weather was a bit iffy so we didn’t wait for the brightest part of the day. Even so the peak gust of the day, 32 knots, was right when we (about two thirds of the station, in turn) were bathing.

What Bill Tilman might refer to as a "memorable bathe"

What Bill Tilman might refer to as a “memorable bathe”
(photo: Gav)

Around the time I was reading “Two Mountains and a River”, Tilman’s account of his post-war travels through Pakistan. He liked to wash himself au naturel in rivers and so on, sometimes inadvertently being seen: “I added one more to my list of memorable bathes and afforded them fresh matter for conversation”.


Davis has traditionally had severe water supply issues, but these days things are nothing like the Polar Manual alludes to, although I do like that tip about wiping the feet clean!

Having said that, I do shower less frequently than I would back in Australia. You don’t sweat as much and with dry air here the fewer showers you have the better it is for your skin. Don’t worry, I made up for it with all the sweating and showers I had in the last few weeks before coming down – ah, memories, I digress…

Ahoy! Where's that? The Southern Ocean!

Ahoy! Where’s that? The Southern Ocean!

The day following the mid winter swim was winter solstice, a much celebrated occasion throughout Antarctica. Another Antarctic tradition is for all the stations to send out mid-winter greetings to one another. It is quite an important milestone for us to get past the darkest day of winter.

Blue Koala - a cocktail invented in his honour

Blue Koala – a cocktail invented in his honour

Our chef is simply the most popular man on station. It makes a huge difference to our morale to have restaurant quality food prepared for us, and meal breaks are always social times. For mid-winter we had another memorable feed that simply had us shaking our heads in wonder.

Mid winter seven course meal, alongside our ice axes that we'd been working on

Mid winter seven course meal, alongside our ice axes that we’d been working on

Speaking of which, I shall now pause mid blog to grab dinner, not something I ever want to miss…!


Lamb back strap and salmon! How to choose? Both, of course!


Rocket, our ever modest chef, apologised following mid-winters for a couple of spelling mistakes on the menu (champignon has spores not bubbles!). Time to fill out an incident report?

That is something that has most definitely changed in the last decades, and continues to change. Rules and more rules, we are becoming quite institutionalised. Last month half the crew were galvanised into action with a morale boosting preparation for a mid winter traverse. Approximately 100km away, as the crow flies, the Chinese, Indian’s, and Russians have a base. This is outside of the station operational area and to make the traverse there is an involved route backtracking up onto the ice plateau to avoid crevasses and make it around 40 hours of travel each way in a Hagglund tracked vehicle. For such a trip we need permission from Kingston, and unfortunately this year it was knocked back. Every time an incident occurs or an issue is raised it inevitably leads to tighter controls and reduced freedom for the people on the front line.

Navigating quad bikes through icebergs in the snow

Navigating quad bikes through icebergs in the snow

At present the Australian bases are quite unique in that we can do limited recreational trips into the surrounding area. While as an outdoors enthusiast my views are biased, I think everyone will agree that these trips are invaluable for group morale and motivation as well as maintaining operational capability. Quad bikes are a brilliant means of travel that is now under threat from the Australian public service bureaucracy. It will be sad to see our stations become more like the US McMurdo base as described in Big Dead Place, where there is very little freedom to interact with the environment.

Having said that, doing this traverse in mid winter did have an element of madness to it, the key motivation or challenge as I saw it was to return with ones fingers! A few times whilst taking photos on the colder nights my fingers have gotten so cold that I’ve felt nauseous. Yes I think I can authoritatively say that bare hands in -24 degrees Celcius is a bad idea.

morale - work

Our station leader is always on our case to ensure that we are keeping our side of the bargain, as work is “our ticket down here”. This reminds me of reading Gates of Fire, and the spartans keeping the troops busy before battle by sending orders to polish their armour. While a lot of the reason we are here is to respond to service outages and to keep the place ticking over, there is in fact a lot to do. I’m quite happy that all my gear at the meteorological centre is (touch wood) fairly reliable, as I don’t really feel I have a lot of spare time.

Taking weekly sea ice thickness measurements

Taking weekly sea ice thickness measurements

Photographing icebergs in the winter light

Photographing icebergs in the winter light

During training one of the Antarctic veterans, a really talkative and likeable old chap, told us about the Antarctic stare. While I haven’t seen much evidence of it at our base, the idea amuses me enough to include another quote from the Polar Manual:

big eye

Now I think of it, there probably is some level of insomnia amongst the crew at times. Notably wise old Col, who can always be counted on for a good conversation about native stingless bees or the gold price. Col has been down a few times, so we asked him what we were supposed to do when planning our mid winter celebrations. Col said we didn’t really need to do anything, just be ourselves, as our station has a really good vibe to it. “Don’t make me cry Col!”

personality traits

Aside from the personality and psychological assessments, we had to pass the polar medical exam. Generally I am very healthy. I was proud to note that I seem to use the least air with breathing apparatus for fire training, and when I volunteered as a patient for lay medical I raised a few eyebrows with my 100% blood oxygen level. However, I had some slight doubts that my past knee (ACL) injury may present issues. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about, especially after talking to Aaron who seems to have had his body shattered and reassembled at least once, in addition to his own ACL operation.

We haven’t had any major incidents but the doctor does keep busy enough with minor issues – I had a chipped tooth repaired after a glass of water incident the other month, there have been a few people limping around after a field trip walk or a big night, and despite the much touted extreme Antarctic environment, the kitchen is apparently the most dangerous place on operational limits. Luckily we have a rule about stacking the dishwasher sharps down, as I pointed out to Jes…

Even without injuries we have a comprehensive medical facility with an impressive range of equipment to maintain. But our doctors chief driving passion seems to be the ongoing battle with the chef, as measured with our combined station weight each month. Every kilo we gain being a point to the chef. Apparently it is normal for the station to put on a combined weight equal to another expeditioner. I’ve even heard of an Indian bloke approximately doubling his weight and not being recognised by his wife on his return! However this year so far the score is only +13kg.
eat seal

Unfortunately due to that pesky Madrid protocol we don’t get to sample the local delicacies and see how they affect our doctor vs chef duel. Mmmmm, seal brain.

Just tonight everyone was nominating Aaron as saturday night chef while Rocket takes the weekend off. While I think it was more to do with teasing his distaste for slushy duties, I did remind the guys that he did make a good beef jerky some months back. It was interesting to read about the development of pemmican in the Polar Manual:

pemmican 1

It goes on to review them one by one: pemmican 2

then another product from the Americans, pemmican 3

and finally the kiwis take the cake, of course,

pemmican 4

That energy per weight is the clincher, even higher than chocolate.

Back to safety, safety safety safety, I have to say that most of the rules down here make good sense. There are a few which bewilder me but in general there are good systems in place and it is all fairly logical. Although occasionally I ask about something and I get the “toughen up, you’re in Antarctica” response, so who knows…

polar do's and don't's fade

The same general idea applies. Many rules are common sense, others mightn’t be immediately obvious:

pee on metalAh, awkward.

Yes, as the months go by we are acquiring good old winter know-how. For example as a summerer I got a few chuckles when I put crates of beer bottles in the basement goods lift, collected them from the kitchen, and walked them up the stairs – forgetting that the goods lift in fact stops off up there as well! Things you learn…

Meteorological centre and aurora, before the 7am obs, 14 June

Meteorological centre and aurora, before the 7am obs, 14 June

I was pleased to get a good rap from todays performance appraisal. Things are all going well now – given I didn’t feel very well adapted when I first arrived. Now we’ve settled in we await the next batch of crew:

newcomers vs oldtimers

One rule I didn’t see in the Polar Manual is pre-departure advice. Don’t fall in love, break any bones, or get venereal disease. I didn’t quite follow this one to the book as it happens, silly me, although I knew what I was getting myself into and I definitely wasn’t turning that one down. Which leads me to my photo of the moon, oh the lovely moon.

Setting moon shimmers in (reverse) heat haze, 25 June

Setting moon shimmers in (reverse) heat haze, 25 June

RIGHT! Now I’ve got all that wishy washy touchy feely stuff out of the way, onto the main topic of this blog. Sky. Physics. Nature. Real stuff.

Most people have a vague idea that it is dark in the Antarctic winter and sunny in the summer. At Davis we are the most southerly of the Australian stations, lying just inside the polar circle. So we do have a period of over a month where we see no sunshine. But, that does not mean that it is dark all the time. Even at mid winter, there is several hours of “daylight” each day. To give you an idea, when I do the 10am weather obs, it is definitely starting to brighten up, but you can still see the brighter stars in the overhead sky. When I do the 4pm obs, it is becoming darker again, but it is still too bright to see any stars.

In fact the midday sun is getting close to the horizon and is skimming along underneath. So it is an extended sunrise / sunset, without seeing the sun. This makes it ideal for spotting Polar Stratospheric cloud. PSC’s form occasionally (I’ve spotted them on June 3th, 4th, and 18th so far) and are due to pollutants high in the atmosphere. Much higher, in fact, than any other cloud, even cirrus. This means that they will be illuminated by the sun for much longer than these lower normal clouds. Associated with ozone destroying pollution these “bad” clouds nevertheless do present yet another photographic opportunity…

Polar Stratospheric cloud (illuminated, ribbon appearance) from Davis, 4 June

Polar Stratospheric cloud (illuminated, ribbon appearance) from Davis, 4 June


6 thoughts on “Dark winter

  1. A.K.

    Antarctica has fascinated me for a long time, even though I’m sure I’ll never get down there – no relevant skills. Didn’t know McMurdo and some other bases were so restrictive.

    Very interesting post, thanks!

      1. Greg and Paola

        Hey Nick, on the movie we saw they showed the effect after a big storm of ice/snow filling machine cabs and some cabins. Tell me, what do they do to get rid of this stuff? I imagine with the controls they would have to be careful and not chip away too heartily and yet I can’t imagine they would just let it melt either as it would leave a large puddle. Puzzled Paola

        1. sharemyjoys Post author

          Gday Paola,
          Yep the snow can get into tiny gaps. If there’s no wind it will be a light fluffy powder though, you can just shovel it out. The wind packed stuff can be very solid. You have to be careful of snow jamming moving parts (fans, etc) under the engine.
          Snow often falls inside doors and melts and the floors can get wet in a blizzard if the doors are used. The air is very dry though (warmed air becomes drier) so it evaporates.


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