Life in Hibernation
A day in the life of Spencer Smirl
As the expedition objectives have been changed, so have our daily routines. One of the biggest changes is we get a lot more sleep. Rich and I no longer have to get up and begin the start-up of frozen vehicles and we also have a huge surplus of personal time as well.
It has almost been weeks now that we have been pinned down by severe weather. Temperatures well into the -40s and wind speeds of 50 knots have had us confined to the cabooses almost entirely. There are, however, a few daily tasks that need to be completed outside but we definitely don’t spend any more time than necessary in wind chills well into the -70s.
At the moment we have also been completing some additional science trials that have been added to our already extensive research program. To better understand the stress the ice sheet is under, how it moves and how it is being affected by global warming, we will attempt to conduct a thorough GPS survey of our surrounding ice here on the plateau. However, at the moment we are only conducting trial experiments to determine the accuracy of our GPS equipment. The devices we have with us are generally more for navigation so they might not have the accuracy needed for such research.
These trials are being conducted by our expedition leader, Brian Newham. Unfortunately for him this means that he has to get up a lot earlier than the rest of us and go outside to gather this data. As well as the GPS collections, Brian also conducts weather data collections for the MET office back in the UK. This role requires that twice a day, at 0800 and 2000 local time, Brian goes outside and collects various observations of current weather conditions. When horrific weather occurs, although the rest of us get to enjoy an extended lie in, our commitment to our research requires Brian to bundle up and collect this valuable data regardless.
When the weather improves our daily routine will adjust slightly as there is a bit of maintenance required on the vehicles and the sledges. Richmond and I will have to get out of bed much earlier. For the time being we get to enjoy a much lazier lifestyle. A day for me in these current conditions is as follows:
0800: Wake up briefly as Brian heads out side to conduct his weather ops.
0830: Briefly wake again as Brian re-enters the caboose and climbs back into his bunk
1030: Wake up for good this time. Either Ian or I will dress up and head out to fire up the generator. I usually spend up to an hour outside as I would also fire the backup generator to allow it to warm up to operating temperatures, this keeps it ready for any emergency backup demands that could arise. The 24V systems which provide power during the evenings need to be recharged as well. During the warm up of the backup generator we will supply full power to the Science Caboose from this unit which includes power to the 24v charging system. This also recovers most of the heat we lost during the night in the Science Caboose. By having the second generator running and providing the Science Caboose, there is more electricity available in the Living Caboose for cooking breakfast. After the backup generator has reached operating temp and the battery banks have been fully charged, the generator is taken off line. All but three heaters are shut down in the Science Caboose and the power is connected from the main generator to supply these three heaters. This means we have only enough power for a few heaters in the Living Caboose, just enough to keep the chill off. The melt tank immersion heater needs to run all day keeping our pluming defrosted and so any additional ice inserted will melt quickly. This takes a lot of electricity, as much as two interior heaters.
1130: Return indoors for a nice warm bowl of Horlicks porridge and a hot coffee. Breakfast
1200: Boil a fresh kettle and wash the morning dishes
1230: Personal time. Catch up on emails, write blogs or service reports, laundry if needed (once every 2 weeks). Mostly I spend this time lying in my bunk watching movies on my laptop and surfing the net on my phone.
1400: Lunch. A fresh loaf of bread will have finished cooling and we all enjoy a hot bowl of soup and a nice sandwich. My favourite is chicken and leek soup and a tuna, mayo and sweetcorn sandwich on onion bread. Because we have only eight different evening meals, after five months I have lost the appetite for a few. But hot soup and fresh homemade bread is hard to beat. I don’t think I would ever lose the appetite for our lunch selection.
1500: After the table is cleared and all the dishes have been cleaned and returned to their cupboards, it is free time again and back to the cosy confines of my coffin-like bunk for me. Between the five of us I would bet we have over seven terabytes of movies, TV series, documentaries, music and other forms of media entertainment. Between that and the internet, there is a lot to see and do from the comfort of your bed.
1600: Daily maintenance and inspection. Inspect the generator, chip ice away from sink drains (if it isn’t chipped out daily it can freeze and back up the plumbing, at which point it becomes a lot harder to clear), check the intake and exhaust of all the Webasto heating units for ice blockage and clear if necessary, and fill the melt tank with ice to recover our water usage from the previous 24hrs. This can take quite a bit of snow especially after a shower night. Every nine days we have to bring in our food rations from the storage caboose also. If needed, we will make use of this time outside to bring the food in as well.
1700: More free time and back to my cave. For the next hour, however, Ian completes his workout routine in the front porch. All his jumping around shakes the caboose like being caught in hurricane force winds. Sometime during the day I will also find the time for an hour or two of practice picking away on my guitar. Nobody has complained yet so I must be getting better.
1930: Supper time. I don’t cook very often, that’s why I try to do as much of the washing up as I can lately. If I do cook, it is usually the boil in the bag meals which prepare in less than 10 minutes. We try to have dinner ready for half seven, don’t want to eat too late. After dinner we have a bit of a team meeting. We discuss any news from London as well as any specific tasks or repairs that might need addressing the following day.
2100: After the kitchen has been cleaned and cleared from the dinner mess, guess what? More free time. I return to my tiny box and catch up on my movies. I usually fall asleep between midnight and one, depending on how hot it is. To dry everything out during the day it is kept quite warm in the caboose. I can’t sleep if I’m too hot. The beds are very comfy though; memory foam mattresses with sheepskin rugs and big fluffy comforters. In fact, it was new sheets day today. Always sleep better in nice fresh clean sheets. A luxury we enjoy only every six weeks.
This timeline only reflects “My” daily routine. Some of the other members of the team are much more active than me. After three months of non-stop travel, the second half of which was spent battling through crazy crevasse terrain and blue ice fields, I can enjoy being a little less active. When the weather pins us down as we are now, there isn’t much else to do anyways. Richmond and I spend most of our time lying in our bunks because 12hrs spent huddled around our little table isn’t my idea of comfort. We let Brian, Ian and Rob have their space out there and we enjoy ours in the bedroom. We do get teased a lot for being in our bunks all day, however, even though we are all doing the exact same things.
When the sun returns, our routine will change greatly and we will once again be able to go outside and enjoy our surroundings. I look forward to months spent at my new favourite hobby, kite-boarding. With the two Cats I’m sure we can build a massive board park to keep us busy. We might even go on some small excursions away from camp and try a few nights out in the tents.
For the time being the weather and the darkness have us confined to our cabooses. Like bears in hibernation, there is little more to do than sit around waiting for spring. For now, I am more than happy to laze around and wait for the sun.
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