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Stitching together past and present

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

It’s pretty late and very dark outside, and from my quiet room I can hear the rush of the wind through the base supports.  It must be around 25-30 knots, because it is just beginning to hum a little, right on the edge of my hearing.  I can’t see the landscape outside in the darkness, but I know what it must look like: knee-high spindrift flowing over the rock and under the base,  ghostly in the starlight.  My focus, however, is much closer and more mundane than the world out there.  I’m sitting sewing.  My mother would be so proud.

I have more pairs of gloves here in Antarctica than I care to count.  We were issued with several pairs of leather work gloves, two pairs of thick leather fleece-lined behemoths of which no-one is quite sure of the intended use, two pairs of fleece liners, a pair of nylon mittens and a pair of glow-in-the-dark-orange plastic gloves that have no conceivable use other than directing aircraft on the apron at the nearest airport (made of thick plastic, they harden solid within minutes in the cold, have no insulation, and are too tight-fitting to wear  anything underneath).  The leather work gloves are useful inside but are too cold and harden beyond use outdoors, and the thick leather gloves allow dexterity suited to carrying boxes or picking up horses but nothing smaller.  The most useful are the mittens over a pair of fleece liners – this keeps hands warm under a good range of conditions, but, of course, with limited dexterity.  Faced with this selection, I made sure I purchased two pairs of high-quality outdoor gloves and several other sets of linings before coming down, and most of the team fortunately followed this lead.  I have a beautiful pair of Black Diamond climbing gloves that have kept me happy (with liners) down to -40°C in the wind, and a pair of First Ascent ski-gloves that are my everyday companions.  Therein, however, lies the rub – and lots of it – after 8 months of daily use they are now having their second major surgery… which is why I’m sitting sewing.

In fact, I’m not just sewing – I’m suturing.  My aforementioned (and hopefully proud) mother taught me to throw my first few stitches, and a childhood/adolescence as a Scout gave me fair opportunity for practice. (It’s just so not cricket to have your mother sew on your hard-earned badges if you are a true card-carrying, knot-tying, woggle-weaving, Prepared, DYBity-DOBing Scout).  Medicine and a penchant for the sharper end – where holes in humans need to be repaired – have blessed me with the chance to turn so-so sewing skill into satisfactory sutures.  On a Friday night after pay-day there was always plenty of fresh material on which to sharpen my ability waiting in Casualty, having already had their brandy-and-coke pre-medication prior to whatever incident precipitated precipitation of their blood and a ride in the local taxi-with-disco-lights.  Over time, some trauma and surgical skills courses, hours in the operating theatre watching, assisting and later doing I’ve picked up some tricks that my mother probably doesn’t know, but I never envisaged I’d be using them on gloves in Antarctica.

It may seem an abhorrent waste to be using suture material on gloves, but the truth is that I was forced to dispose of a fair quantity here at the base that was well beyond its expiry date, and rather than turf it I decided that it would be handy for practice.  I can hardly expect my compatriots here to lacerate themselves on a regular basis for the purpose of maintaining my manual dexterity, so from time to time I pull out some of the old sutures and practice various techniques on the nearest piece of fillet or sirloin.  When I saw how my first repairs to my gloves, using normal cotton thread, were deteriorating, I decided to try something different.  Now, sitting comfortably with the familiar surgical implements in my hands, I lay a continuous line of sutures along a burst seam, and then reverse direction, taking tiny double-bites, inverting and enveloping the suture-line as I would double-seal a bowel anastomosis.  A final careful pass of the needle buries the knot.  Voilà!  I’m suturing my gloves back to life.

If my occupational requirements do not satisfy you, dear reader, as enough reason for a man to be doing needlework, and you feel that my Boy Scout history detracts from any rugged manly impression I might have succeeded in creating in the past, let me remind you that there is most certainly a precedent for this activity.  The explorers of the Heroic age – the men of Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson and Scott – sat by flickering light in the winter night on this same continent a century ago egaged with needle and thread.  Most of the great expeditions – and certainly the attempts upon the South Pole – relied upon a schedule which required spending at least one winter in Antarctica.  Often, in those days, the clothing and equipment was purchased by the leader or his delegates and only issued to the men during the southward voyage.  They lacked the modern materials which make our existance comparitively easy – nylon, fleece, polypropylene – and the convenience of each item in standardised sizes.  Rather, the men would take to making their own alterations to fit, form and function.  A common winter activity amongst Scott’s men while preparing for the Pole was adding layers, baffles and insulation to the parkas they wore, and repairing gloves, traces and harnesses.  Although I have the pleasure of superior technology and an electric light to work by, the feeling of connection to those great explorers and the generations of Antarcticans who have followed them is inescapable as I sit surrounded by the same darkness listening to the same cold wind.

Mind in the past, fingers in the present.  I sit and suture so that I, like those who went before, am ready for exploration when summer comes again.

Musings, or finding the muse

Monday, August 11th, 2008

It’s 2AM.  I am slumped in a comfy chair in the Sastrugi bar, and I realise I have it.

I have it.  It’s not a “Eureka!” moment, not an epiphany, but rather a gradually strengthening realisation, like the slow Antarctic dawn, increasing in radiance until the sun inevitably appears.  It is undeniable; I have it.

I sit in the chair, head back, a glass of red wine idle in my hand, staring into space.  Like so many others in a bar at 2AM, my expression is vacant and my eyes dull.  This, however, is not the blissful stupor of those who have over-imbibed upon the sweet fruits of Bacchus.  This is not the Absence of ethanol-induced Oblivion.  This is the the Thousand-Mile Stare.

Every adventurer, journeyman and voyager who contemplates wintering over on the white continent has heard of the Thousand-Mile Stare.  It is a famous attribute of those who have paid the price of solitude and earned the prize of seeing the beauty of Antarctica in all her vestments.  Every expedition brings the stories of conversations which span days although speech is few and far between; all tell of the odd habits of the bearded men and changed women who are to be found as the summer light spreads slowly towards the Pole.  One relief-team member describe how he arrived at a base to find each man’s room like a den, where he had retreated “…to make a nest in the wreckage of his personality.”  Every account speaks of men who stare into nothingness for minutes at a time, as if seeing a distant vision, but without any emotion.  The physiology, the psychology of being in this environment could occupy hundreds of pages of study; isolation, sensory deprivation; the soul’s immolation in the face of endless emptiness.  For a while though, I sit, not scientist, but philospher.

Some questions are easy to answer.  Why am I in the bar at 2AM?  Have I turned to alcohol?  Not at all; it has been Monday for two hours, and Monday is the day for cleaning the base.  I can’t sleep, and so I might as well do my duty.  It is my turn to clean the bar and games area.  Hence, I am in the bar.  The red wine?  Well, there was a half-empty bottle, and I’m reading Hemingway.  “I remember times of no money and times of no wine.  The times of no wine were the hardest.”  No-one can deny the genius of Hemingway.  Hence, I am drinking the red wine.  Why am I slumped in the chair?  Well, I’m listening to Mozart, and I am overcome by his 20th piano concerto.  Safe in the knowledge that the bar is distant from the nearest sleeping quarters, I’m not playing it pianissimo, and I’m not embarrassed that I am overcome.

I have been listening to more classical music than usual recently.  My music tastes are very broad, but classical and choral music have always been very close to my heart.  Here in Antarctica, every view seems to warrant an exceptional soundtrack.  Even the mundane sight of spindrift blowing past the base is breathtaking in the low sunlight of an autumn day.  Vistas of hundreds of kilometres can contain nothing but ice and air.  Men fall in love with the sea, but even the sea lacks the beauty of Antarctica.  If white is the colour of purity, it is only to prove the purity of this place.  Infinite complexity of form and the individuality of a million snowflakes are reduced to blazing white under a pure blue sky by summer and pitch blackness in winter… and then the uncountable tones of the shifting light begin to play across the endless ice.  Every tone of blue glows from glaciers; pinks, purples, oranges glaze each feature when the sun dips low; the aurora paints the sky with each hue of green in the depth of the winter night.  Only the most beautiful and epic music is worthy of this landscape.  The vista rips out my soul and belittles my humanity with every passing day.  I must feed my psyche to survive the beauty of the onslaught, hence I have been listening to more and more classical music.

It’s 2AM and I can’t sleep, and so I’m cleaning the Sastrugi bar to the sound of Mozart.  Safe in the knowledge that other ears are sufficiently distant, the volume is at a level which allows me to hear the violinist draw breath and the cellist move his fingers.  Menial labour is always good for philosophy, and music doubly so.  The last job – polishing the table – is complete.  I sit slumped in the comfy chair and stare into space. My mind expands over the ice.  It drifts over Lorentzenpiggen and admires the spire of it’s summit.  It takes in Knotten’s twin peaks, admires Robertskollen’s elegant wind-scoops and the bulk of Mount Schumacher.  It chuckles over the emotive Norwegian names.  It sinks into the glory of the tone of the piano, marvels at Mozart’s genius, feels the riptide of emotion as the orchestra reaches it’s climax.  My mind and soul are spread over hundreds of miles of empty, gut-wrenching, beautiful and deadly landscape…

…and somewhere within, I realise I have it.

SANAE 47 = 47 … x2!

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Our time in Antarctica lasts more than a year – recent policy change regarding the timing of the annual summer expedition mean we will spend more than 16 months away from home and 15 of those in Antarctica – and so everyone on the team gets at least one chance to have a birthday.  It’s a big trade-off:  You either have your birthday in the summer months, and thus endure two traditional snowbaths, or you have it in the winter, which means only one snowbath but the temperature will be 20° colder!  No-one has tried both and told us what the difference is…

Particularly special to SANAE 47 is that two team-members – Richard and Gerhard – are celebrating their 47th birthdays on the expedition.  Richard’s has passed during takeover (and so he’ll be able to celebrate 48 with SANAE 48 when they arrive), but today we celebrate Gerhard’s 47th.  Here’s a picture of him in fine form infront of the base.  Gelukkige verjaarsdag, ou maat.