Skiing, Ice Cave

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Sun Apr 15 2007


Halley has one major feature, a flat and otherwise featureless ice shelf which is frequently dusted with fine falling snow. This cannot provide the high-speed thrills of a decent steep bit of mountain, but instead supports the sedate pursuit of skiing cross country. It's our replacement for long walks along sunny hedgerows and through shaded forests.

The technique is simple. Find a pair of boots that fit your feet and a pair of skis that fit the boots. Stand on snow, clip on the boots, then go. Graceful motion comes after a month of frequently falling over. Pushing a foot forwards, kneeling deep towards the snow then subtly shifting your weight from the still foot to balance on both skis. The foot ahead almost drags you forwards as you glide gently on. Still sliding you stand and roll your weight to the forward foot, letting the ski stick on the snow as you flick the trailing ski forwards into another long lunging push ahead. Then push and slide and pole and glide past kilometers of partly burried barrels. The only sounds are snow scratching and scraping, poles piercing the hard cast of the surface and the wind whispering thinly around my hat.

Even deep in the winter it can get warm. Wrapped in day to day clothes under padded overalls and a windproof ventile coat. Thick heavy mittens on the hands. Fur hats and fleece tubes block all but the area around my eyes from the stinging air. Breath is forced through a fitted face guard forming a flowing fog around my head. Cold air grows dusty crystals of ice that gather around my exposed eyes and collect on my eyelashes and eyebrows in heavy clumps. Blured white masses that bounce on the edge of my view after every blink.

Somedays it's colder, or I'm not so warm, and I feel the cold more. Cold hands feel less, feel only cooler, then colder then numb. Once cold there's no pain but no other feeling. Only of abscence, of a disconnect, of fingers that are there but aren't entirely mine, that sense nothing of the rough stitching inside my gloves. They move still, will wiggle, but won't transmit touch. That's the time to get them back. To stop skiing, skidooing, kiting or digging. To stand and swing both arms, back and forward fast. Driving warm red blood back into pale frigid fingers. Swinging each arm with a force that might fling your hands to the ground. Each hard sharp swing throws warmth down arms into hands. Fingers return, and burn with a penetrating fire. Deep, clean pain shoots through the fingers' flesh and the thick pads on the tips of thumbs, as though bones and knuckles are glowing with burning heat. Bringing back touch, sensation, the hard insides of heavy mittens. And still pain through every jointed part of every finger. It's a pain you learn to love, a pain that quickly passes and tells you you're warm once more.

Ice Cave

Even in the -40 C temperatures we've hit this week it's fine to be outside in the cold. Often the major trouble is working too hard and boiling inside the extra layers I'm wearing. Me and a couple of the other second year winterers spent a good few hours out digging a gigantic hole, carrying on working late into the night until the view through the top of our hole was filled with stars. We dug the hole to find another hole -- a few years back the winterers constructed an ice-bar a couple of meters below the ice. The entrance was lost after my first summer but we estimated its position from a couple of photographs. After shifting a few tonnes of snow and nearly giving up hope we hit the top of the signpost. A few hours later we were about two and a half meters below the present snow surface and back to where Halley was when I arrived. The trapdoor slid out of place and revealed the twisting tunnel down into the ice-bar.

Whooping with joy, or relief at no more digging, we turned on our torches and wriggled our way deeper under the snow. The ice bar itself, unvisisted for fourteen months, was unchanged. The roof has sunk and bowed a little, some bottles left on a makeshift table are now firmly embedded into the ceiling, but the candles left half burnt lit easily, and the beers we'd brought with us tasted as good as any drink that follows a shift of hard work. Once recovered we radioed up the Laws and called the party over who thankfully remembered to bring us extra drinks. All in all a very special night.

No photos yet - we need to tidy the place up a little first, make the roof a bit higher, and make it a little bit easier to get in and out before its ready to use for a proper party. For the time being we're just hoping it won't get too windy for the next few days, as otherwise we'll be digging the hole all over again...
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