Life during midwinter

We live in a world of unrelenting ice, rock and snow, May 2003.
We live in a world of unrelenting ice, rock and snow, May 2003. (Photo: J Smith)
Outdoor activities may be curtailed by the shortness of the day, but they are not prevented, May 2003.Chad, Sharon, Nanette, Neil and Paula in a yoga class, May 2003.

12 June 2003

It's midwinter in Antarctica: cold, dark, isolated and confined, traditionally a time of potential crisis. Beyond midwinter, they say it's downhill all the way.

Davis, the southernmost of the Australian Antarctic stations, nevertheless lies only a few degrees beyond the Antarctic Circle so the midday sun is only a few degrees below the horizon. We do not endure the total darkness of the South Pole. Although there is no sunrise for about six weeks, the northern sky still brightens to give a few hours of usable light.

Nor do we suffer the intense cold of the icy plateau to our south. Winter temperatures here are commonly around −20°C, even milder when wind mixes the layers of the atmosphere.

The dark and cold don't trouble us too much. Outdoor activities may be curtailed by the shortness of the day, but they are not prevented. Of course frostbite is always a hazard, but a little attention to sartorial details like covering chins and wrists ensures good protection.

Some people assert that shortening day length leads to psychological and social crisis. Others aver that the period following midwinter poses greatest difficulty, as people face the fact that there is still the other half of the year to get through, with the early excitement of being in Antarctica beginning to wane.

The belief that short day length causes sleep disorders, depression and conflict seems overstated. Where anecdotal evidence is produced, more convincing explanations can usually be found in self-fulfilling expectations, or a rationalisation of events that would have occurred anyway.

Midwinter is certainly a potentially difficult time, but the cause lies not in climate but in the confinement and isolation of a small community. For nearly eight months we are physically alone, despite good electronic contact with the rest of the world.

Our community is unbalanced as well as small. There are no children or adolescents here. Six of us are over fifty, and the youngest is nearly thirty. Even more distorting is the fact that of the 24 of us, all but four are men.

We live in a world of unrelenting ice, rock and snow. All the animals and birds of the short summer have gone. Outside, the only movement and sounds are from the wind, and the tide lifting the ice on the shore.

Our attention is increasingly focused indoors, and on each other. We enjoy a full recreational program, with something on every evening: a film screening, sports event, formal dinner, or theme party. Birthdays and other events are celebrated with gusto; yoga, gym, music and hobbies fill the gaps. There is much fun and laughter.

Yet eventually as the weeks and months pass and midwinter draws near, the weekly round of activities starts to emphasise rather than eliminate the lack of variety in our lives. That's when plans for spring projects become important, outdoor projects promising adventure and achievement, requiring group planning and long anticipation. Spring is the best time for local travel. The days are increasingly long and bright, and the sea ice on which most journeys depend is at its thickest and safest.

And of course, more immediately, there is midwinter itself: the shortest day, mid-point of the year-long expedition, and the occasion of the biggest Antarctic celebration of all.

It's a public holiday here, the only one of the year. Almost no work is done beyond working on the celebrations themselves, unless an emergency should arise. We shall enjoy a feast the like of which we may never see again unless we come back another year. As a matter of intrepid tradition there will be the midwinter swim: a hole will be cut in the metre-thick ice and we will ritually submerge ourselves, very briefly, before retreating to a heated hut. There will be the traditional pantomime, this year Jack and the Beanstalk with Antarctic allusions, and other entertainments are planned.

After that, and a Sunday of rest, it will be back to the normal routine, and those spring projects. Eventually, after another five months, the first ship of next season will arrive. Until then, it's all downhill – whatever that ambiguous phrase might mean!