Surviving the worst winter in the world
- 14 August 2012
- From the section Science & Environment
Much of Antarctica has endured more than three months of complete darkness - but today, the Sun rose again for the first time over the horizon at French-Italian Concordia Station, an extreme and isolated outpost located in Antarctica.Antarctic-based doctor Alexander Kumar, originally from Derbyshire, UK, and now based at the station, describes living through "the worst winter in the world".
Having spent months dreaming about this moment, this morning I woke up early and climbed outside onto the roof, alone. Remnants of the flags placed on the roof last summer fluttered back and forth, having been chewed away by the biting Antarctic winds.
Over the Great White Silence, the most magnificent sunrise unfolded before me over the cold, white and desolate alien landscape. My eyes ached in response to readjusting to the natural bright light - we have just spent over three months living in the long dark eternal polar night.
My iPod died within minutes, part way through The Beatles' song Here Comes the Sun, which I had chosen to mark this new chapter in my life.
During the long dark cold and lonely winter, I have read my way through the last hundred years of polar history. One story resonated throughout these long months, especially when I am traversing outside at this extreme.
British polar explorer and survivor of Scott's 1910 expedition Apsley Cherry-Garrard introduces his own experiences in his account The Worst Journey in the World with the words: "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."
In his book, Cherry-Gerrard discusses the meaning of physical human suffering and resilience whilst enduring extreme conditions. Certainly, there have been few worse journeys documented in polar history than can be found in his account.
In July 1911, Doctor Edward Wilson led the expedition's zoological assistant, Cherry-Garrard and stout "Birdie" Bowers outside on a winter's journey. Setting out on foot, they headed for an Emperor Penguin's rookery located at Cape Crozier, crossing the Ross Ice Shelf in complete darkness in temperatures below -40C, to collect penguin eggs to test embryological theory.
Having had their tent blown away in a blizzard, they were without food for two days and two nights, sucking ice for rehydration. The three returned to Cape Evans base, barely alive but carrying three penguin eggs, having endured man's longest exposure to Antarctica's brutal nature.
"Overwintering" in Antarctica is a journey in itself, but nowadays challenges us in very different ways bringing a new type of psychological suffering than what is found in Cherry-Garrard's 1911 excursion.
Nowadays, overwintering has become more of a personal journey, and aside from the physical difficulties it remains the world's greatest psychological challenge - a mental marathon of sorts where there is no stopping or turning back.
I am the only British member of a European crew totalling 13 persons spending nine months in isolation at Concordia Station, a French-Italian research station in Antarctica and one of the world's most remote manned outposts. We have been alone living in complete isolation since February and had watched our last sunset at the very beginning of May.
High up on the Antarctic Plateau - the world's largest desert - we have endured hypoxia that comes from being located at 3800m equivalent altitude, the coldest temperatures on Earth falling below -80C (-100C with the wind-chill), and each other. Nothing survives outside in such harsh conditions - no fauna and no flora.
Whilst working as the station's only doctor I am also employed as the European Space Agency Research MD and I have been curiously studying myself alongside my fellow crew members as part of a scientific protocol looking at the effects of isolation and living at this extreme.
Alongside sleep difficulties and cognitive disturbances, the mental strain of overwintering in Antarctica is well-documented and has been a larger burden than any physical factor.
During the winter months in the darkness, after your head-torch's batteries have succumbed and failed in the cold, you are left to feel your way around your environment blindly, whilst being a prisoner of your own mind. Due to the darkness, isolation and sensory deprivation, life becomes black and white in all senses.
With the sunrise comes new colour, partly relieving the stress associated with our confinement.
As with any Antarctic winter crew, we have had our fair share of challenges - language difficulties, cultural misunderstandings, problems from home and accidents on the ice. Together we have made it through this far, by working as a team. In such extreme conditions, there is no other way - we share a feeling that we are battling in a war for survival against nature's extreme everyday.
Even with the insurgence of new hope from our first sunrise this morning, our journey and struggle is not over. A new chapter has begun. The Sun set just a few hours later, leaving us once again in the darkness. Running on our last reserves in fuel, food and in our mind and bodies, we will have to wait three more months before the first plane will arrive. Our minds fixed with anxiety figuring out how each of us will re-adapt to using money and standing in a comparatively crowded civilisation again.
But having seen the Sun again with my own eyes, it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel. This must be the worst winter in the world and when it comes to Antarctica, I agree with Cherry-Garrard's introduction to his own journey: "Take it all in all, I do not believe anybody on Earth has a worse time than an Emperor penguin."
Dr Alexander Kumar FRGS is the Concordia Station doctor (Institut Polaire Français) and European Space Agency-sponsored research MD, and a frequent blogger