Filming at the Vostok Base
By Jonathan Renouf, Producer 'The Lost World of Lake Vostok'
Stepping out of an American Hercules
I was enveloped in a hurricane of blown snow whipped up by the plane’s
propellers. Multiple layers of thermal wear couldn’t stop the thin,
cold, air grabbing my throat like a knife as I took laboured steps
away from the plane. Behind me the Herc’s engines would stay running
for the one and a half hours it was on the ground to prevent them
freezing. I jumped on the back of a battered Russian skidoo and
bumped the short journey over a small rise to a collection of dilapidated
huts, three quarters buried in snow. "Welcome to Vostok!" my anonymous
driver shouted from behind his balaclava. It was high summer, and
the temperature was minus 35 degrees.
Antarctica is the Earth’s final frontier, no outpost on this frontier
is more final than Russia’s legendary Vostok base. It resembles
less an earthly settlement than how I imagine our first colony in
space might be. More than a thousand kilometres from the coast in
one direction, and another thousand kilometres to the South Pole
in the other, it is as remote and hostile a spot as earth has to
offer. In 1983 the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth -
minus 89.3 degrees - was recorded here. Just 3 flights come into
Vostok each year. Its only other connection with the outside world
is an epic two month overland tractor traverse from the Russian’s
coastal base at Mirny which brings in fuel. And yet Vostok has been
more or less continuously occupied since it was established in 1957.
my cameraman David Baillie I had been invited by Valery Lukin -
head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition - to film at Vostok for
a Horizon documentary about the lake beneath the base. It was a
unique opportunity. Despite the renewed interest in Vostok, very
few people have actually been there.
Mention Vostok at the American’s huge McMurdo base on the relatively
warm Antarctic coast (summer population 3000+), and there’s much
bemused head shaking. Vostok is regarded with a mixture of awe,
fear and sometimes a little condescension. The dozen or so inhabitants
brave arguably the toughest conditions in Antarctica, with none
of the creature comforts the Americans get at their South Pole station.
"They’re complete head cases", one American confided in me. Another
told me a story of how a rowdy Russian who’d celebrated his flight
back to civilisation after a year at Vostok with just a little too
much vodka had resisted conventional attempts to calm him down.
The crew responded by donning oxygen masks and de-pressurising the
back of the plane. Soon the recalcitrant Russian had collapsed into
a semi-conscious state. Gradually the cabin was repressurised, leaving
the Russian snoozing quietly.
Vostok’s legendary reputation was again in evidence when I tried
to interview an American scientist who arrived at the base with
David and I. He was only staying for 1 ½ hours whilst the plane
unloaded, and whilst we were doing the interview the back of the
Hercules began to close. It looked like the plane might be about
to leave. My interviewee began to panic, and the tape ends with
the sight of a terrified scientist turning and stumbling off through
the snow, petrified at the thought of being marooned at Vostok.
Filming at Vostok was exceptionally arduous. As well as the extreme
cold the effects of altitude are marked. Although the base is at
3500m, the atmosphere is thinner at the poles, and so the equivalent
altitude in temperate latitudes is closer to 5000m. The combination
of the altitude and thick snow meant we could only take a few steps
at a time. The thin air made it impossible to record the Antarctic
wind whistling around the base - the only audible sound on our tapes
is the sound of producer and cameraman gasping for air.
David conditions were particularly gruelling. Camera controls are
not made to be operated with two pairs of gloves on, and cameras
themselves are not designed to cope with temperatures down to minus
55 degrees. We took a special covering for the camera with pockets
to fit chemical hand warmers in, but even this was not enough. At
various points camera lubicrants froze so that focussing and zooming
was impossible; the camera’s rubber on/off button froze rigid; and
the insulating cover on an electric cable snapped like a piece of
brittle glass - fortunately the power was switched off at the time.
Operating camera controls sometimes required removing gloves, and
several times David had to abandon filming because his fingers had
Just going outside required a major dressing routine; pulling on
thermals, salopettes, fleece jacket, 2 pairs of gloves with handwarmers,
heavy parka overjacket, at least one balaclava, hat, sunglasses,
and special "moon boots". So tedious did this routine become that
I soon joined the Russians in walking between buildings without
any cold weather gear at all. For 30 seconds or a minute it was
quite possible to stroll in a T shirt before the cold began to bite.
Meanwhile the air around danced with dazzling silver glitter as
my breath froze on contact with the air.
But getting into the cold weather gear was worth it. Vostok in summer
is a strange, almost surreal sight - but also a staggeringly beautiful
one. The sun never sets of course - it just spins around in a circle,
never that high above the horizon. Old drilling towers cast long
shadows across the base. Even the abandoned vehicles scattered across
the ice away from the central core of buildings have an atmospheric
feel to them - like an outdoor museum. Beyond the tangled forest
of aerials, cables and masts that sit on top of the base the snow
ripples away like an ocean frozen in time. The base is a tiny raised
island in this vast flat ocean. The horizon is a razor sharp line
circling the base beyond the snow.
On our last night I got up at 2.30 and went outside to prepare some
filming. No-one was about, although the sun was of course shining
brightly. Golden light slanted across the base and bounced off the
frozen ocean in front of me. For a short while I had Vostok to myself
- the vast space, the tiny settlement hunkered down in the frozen
wastes, the massive skies, the rich light. It was an extraordinary
A few hours later I flew out of Vostok with the team who had just
spent the last year in their run-down little base. Another small
team has now taken their place. The base’s hand to mouth existence
will continue until the world’s scientists decide whether to commit
resources to explore Lake Vostok. In the meantime, Vostok base endures
- a symbol of humanity’s commitment to explore every last corner
of this amazing planet.
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