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24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

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Filming at the Vostok Base
By Jonathan Renouf, Producer 'The Lost World of Lake Vostok'

Hercules arriving at 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.

Vostok BaseIf 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.

David Baillie - the cameramanWith 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.

Cameraman, David BaillieFor 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 frozen.

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 experience.

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.

Back to 'The Lost World of Lake Vostok' programme page

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