At the height of summer the sun does not set at Union Glacier. In mid-November it’s bright ‘daylight’ throughout the night, but the sun does disappear for a couple of hours in the early morning (2-4 am) when it dips behind nearby Mt Rossman. This is when the mercury dips lowest – to minus 29 degrees Celsius on our first night.
Sleeping in an unheated tent at such low temperatures brings challenges that I had not given much thought to. The first was cold-induced diuresis. For those less medically inclined, this is when extreme cold hyper-stimulates the kidneys. Suffice to say that I regretted having only brought two pee bottles with me. [Yellow snow is an absolute no-no, and it was 200 metres from my tent to the toilet block.]
The next was how to prevent the contents of my drink bottle, sunblock, toothpaste and pee bottles from freezing solid overnight. I tried the keep-them-inside-your-sleeping-bag method the first night, which was a contributor to me getting very little sleep (though, fortunately, there was no leakage).
I had used an old-fashioned hot-water bottle to warm up my feet on first getting into my sleeping bag. On the second night I hatched the cunning plan of then moving the hot-water bottle to inside a down jacket and thereby creating a warm microhabitat for extra-bodily fluids – it worked a treat.
The third challenge was noisy snow. The atmosphere is so dry at Union Glacier that the snow particles retain their individual integrity, rather than melting together, so that every footfall is a loud ‘crunch’ due to friction between snow particles. The 60 staff tents were arranged in a regular 8 x 10 metre grid, and anyone passing within 20 metres as you tried to sleep sounded like they were approaching your front door.
Union Glacier uses only solar power, and so there was no diesel generator to disturb the silence when the wind dropped. The only infrastructure sound that I could hear from my tent in the middle of the night was a faint roar from an aviation-gas fuelled snow-melter beside the staff shower block about 30 metres away. There are no wildlife sounds at camp. In fact humans were the only living thing that I saw or heard while there. But Homo sapiens is a noisy species. I was fortunate that none of my near neighbours were snorers, though on quiet nights rhythmic snoring could be heard from more distant tents, and many occupants resorted to ear-plugs.
As mentioned, we did have toilets and showers, inside small pre-fabricated buildings. All human waste is captured and returned to Punta Arenas for disposal. This required separating liquids and solids and made going to the toilet quite a logistical challenge.
Water is a rare commodity at Union Glacier – not only is expensive fuel required to melt snow, but the snow-melters must be refilled by hand, and it takes many shovel loads of snow to make a litre of water. The only actual hand-washing in camp, aside from frequent squirts of hand-sanitiser, is if you volunteer for dish-washing duty.
Showers were rationed to roughly two per person per week. This involved filling a bucket of hot water from the snow-melter, and adding handfuls of snow until the temperature felt right. An electric pump takes water from the bucket into a shower cubicle.
Many staff (including myself) did their own laundry, rather than flying it out to Punta Arenas. This was done in a hand-driven washing machine fitted with an old-fashioned mangle. Once wrung out, the clean laundry was pegged to a line outside, and within minutes was board-stiff. It dried by sublimation (ice turning straight to water vapour in the cold, dry environment), and within 24 hrs could be shaken out and finished off on lines within our personal tents.
All these adjustment to living in a cold and dry environment added minutes or hours to our daily routine, but this was more than made up for by the time saved in having superb food prepared and delivered on schedule day after day by our great team of chefs.
Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly visited Antarctica during November-December 2014 as a guest lecturer for Adventure Network International (ANI). This is the second in a series of blogs based on his experiences in Antarctica, and particularly at the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony in the southern Weddell Sea.
Previous blog: Flying south
Subsequent blogs in this series: