Storms have rattled the station for the last week. A belt of low pressure centers circle the continent, driving warm moist air southwards from the oceans, falling snow mixes with flakes blown on the wind and closes the world away behind a white wall. The sun no longer sets, but recently we've been lucky to see more than a slightly brighter half of the sky.
The wind did break for a couple of days as the month turned over, and the clouds thinned enough that we could just about make out the horizon, as long as we knew where to look for it. We'd been waiting for a window in the weather for a while, as each bad day delayed the arrival of our first visitors since the end of February.
Eventually they came. Leaving Marsh (on the tip of the peninsula) late at night and scheduled to touch down at Halley at 0600. A strong tail wind gained them an hour and they began their final approach at 0430. I woke up when they were 90 kms away and raced them to the landing strip on a pair of skis. I managed the 2km faster than I needed, the fresh snow made for easy gliding, although occasionally a drift would eat my ankles and I'd have to wade back up to the surface.
So I sat on a pair of barrels and waited, scanning the sky and following the chatter on the radio as they approached. Then my ears picked up the shrill whine of an engine piercing the peace of our solitude. Soon a speck of shadow grew against the flat grey clouds and gained the familliar form of an aircraft. We had to keep well out of their way so it was very unreal watching them gently sail in to land, throwing a cloud of snow behind them as they slowed, then taxied slowly over to the Sno-Cat that passes for an arrival terminal at Halley.
And then people climb out. Real people with voices beyond the small group I've known for so many months. It was awkward at first, a group of us, a group of them, like tribes of boys and girls at a school disco no one quite knew how to start. We decided to get down to business, following a brief welcome with a desperate demand: "where's the fruit?" Four precious boxes of eggs and greenery were unloaded then stowed safely on a sledge. The ice broken by the gifts we got talking. We remembered that we could still talk to real people, and they realised that one winter hasn't drained us of our social capacities.
The plane, a basler, is a modified DC3 and is run by ALCI, a Canadian charter company who support the Antarctic programmes of the Russians, South Africans, Germans and assorted other countries. They fly with two pilots so they can maximise their airtime and pass through Halley at the start of their season to reach their operating area. On this trip they were transporting themselves and their spares, along with three Russian scientists and technicians. Usually they can manage 19 passengers or many tonnes of equipment. Somewhat more than the twin otters that BAS operates.
As they had to wait a while before departing we took them up to the base for breakfast and gave their Russian passengers a tour of the facility. It's possible that they understood something of what we were saying, but every description or question went through careful translation. Still, we were glad of someone new to talk to for an hour or so. Then, after filling up with fuel, they returned to the skies and left us with ourselves again. They won't return until the end of the summer season, and we'll have to wait another month or so before the next lot of visitors pass through.
We had the fruit though, which was enough. We gathered in the kitchen for Secret Fruit Club and unpacked each box carefully, excited like children at Christmas, unwrapping an anticipated present yet still full of joy when we see what's inside. For a while we just looked at our haul, drinking in the bright yellow of the lemons in their little yellow bag, tracing the dark green veins of a lettuce leaf, the almost white tracks along the stalks of the celery. Then we looked at each other, eyes flashing from face to face and grin to grin until we broke as one, fetching plates and knives to share half an orange. Sucking slices of orange with juicy centers and bits that stick in my teeth, apples that cracked and crunched, celery that snaps and crisp peppery lettuce. I used to think I quite liked fruit, but never has it tasted so sweet, so fresh and so, well, wet, as that first bite.
Since then it's been constantly windy, 25 to 35 knots, not spectacularly gnarly but bad enough to be unpleasant, and strong enough to lift a mist of snow from the surface. I'm technically on holiday now, but cannot leave the base because the visibility is not good enough, and putting up a 2m high tent is hard enough work without it working as a sail. The forecast improves later in the week, so hopefully I'll be out in the field on Tuesday or Wednesday. For now I'm filling the time preparing tasty snacks to keep my energy levels up during our grueling excursions. The ever present "They" say we consume 4,000 calories a day when out in the field, so I've made sure to include large quantities of Mars bars and butter in everything.
But like everything the wind has its good side. The warm air has kept the place between -10 and -5 and made the snow suspended in the air fairly sticky. As the wind cascades off our buildings it blows backwards in a turbulent mess and slams microscopic particles of ice against the windows. Once one of these has stuck it gains more and forms clumpy patches like bacteria colonising an agar plate. On darker objects the incoming ice melts and slowly descends as thin icicles dragged downwind like the withered branches of trees on a lonely moor.
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