It was Christmas Eve 2002, at the height of midsummer, when I arrived to take up a year-long job as doctor at Halley base – the most remote research station operated by the British in Antarctica.
As we cruised up to the Caird Coast of Antarctica, a crowd of us stood out on the deck of the supply ship RRS Ernest Shackleton, singing Christmas carols in the 24-hour sunlight, wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers.
The sky was a depthless blue cupola, the ice threw off a lacquered white sheen. I was belting out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” when, looking over the gunwale, I saw my first emperor penguin. It stood just back from the sea ice edge, chin held aloft in a suitably regal pose. I was captivated, as if the emperor was welcoming me to Antarctica. After a two-month voyage I’d arrived, just as 8,700 miles away, my family and friends would be sitting down to their Christmas celebrations.
The captain and base commander had decided that Christmas Day would be a holiday — normally on reaching Halley, both ship and base swing into a frenetic period of unloading cargo. And there was a lot of cargo: 2,000 barrels of kerosene fuel, as well as enough food for a year. We’d stopped in Uruguay to fill up on hundreds of kilos of frozen meat, but from Britain the ship had also carried pallets of tins, sacks of dried food, and cases and cases of vegetables – most of which would only last the first couple of months before spoiling. For some, wintering in Antarctica can mean weeks of monotony with little variation in landscape, the weather, or the daily routine. Food takes on extraordinary importance, one of the most important morale-boosters on base.
Up on the ice shelf, Christmas morning, and the wind was literally freezing. Gusts of it blew in from the South Pole, and ice formed in my hair as I was given a snowmobile tour of base. It was my first trip up on the shelf and within minutes my cheek muscles locked solid, freezing my nervous smile to a rictus grin. I hoped everyone else felt like this when they first arrived in Antarctica.
When I reached the base we sat down to Christmas dinner under a signed photograph of the Queen. Carol music wafted through from the bar. There were about 30 of us in the dining hall. Halley is one of the smaller research stations in Antarctica; some were summer-only staff, some had just completed a year, and there were a few of us who had newly arrived. There would be just 14 of us for the 10-month winter, during which the base would be isolated.
The chef had prepared frozen turkey that had been brought from England, dressed with reconstituted cranberry jelly, and mountains of Christmas pudding – he was determined that despite our new and unsettling surroundings we enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner. On Antarctic stations the chef is not only one of the hardest-working base members, how good he or she is at his or her job just about defines what kind of winter you’re going to have. Some stations don’t have a professional chef – instead the base members take turns to cook. For the first time that year, I gave thanks that Halley wasn’t one of them.
It was a very British Christmas: We pulled crackers, groaned at the bad jokes that fell from them, drank brandy and donned our party hats. Everyone tried hard not to think about our loved ones back home.
Later, from the radio room, I called my girlfriend over the impossibly expensive satellite phone. The line kept dropping, and I could barely hear her over the crackle and whine of interference. ‘Describe it for me!’ she said, her voice bouncing tens of thousands of miles through a matrix of satellites. I stuttered and hesitated, the line fell, and I couldn’t make contact again. I was alone in the radio room with a hissing telephone handset, looking out of the window at the ice.
How to describe it? An empire of ice and of isolation, a limitless plain of brilliant white, a binary world of ice and sky. I could not yet fathom that it was a scene I would watch every day for a year. It was the Earth as in Genesis, at the moment of “Let there be light.”
Gavin Francis was the physician at Halley Research Station, Antarctica, for a year in 2003. This is a modified extract from Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins’ – named Scottish Book of the Year 2013 and shortlisted for the Banff Mountain Literature Prize (Counterpoint Press).
He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books. Adventures in Human Being, his book about medicine and the human body, is out next May.