Life in the Freezer

The Antarctic night sky is the brightest and clearest you will ever see – with little light or pollution to block your view it is stunning. Antarctica is a continent of extremes – the harshest, driest and coldest place on Earth and also my home for a night on the ice as part of my expedition to Antarctica.

We land on the shore on the Antarctic Peninsula and, as we stumble across the slippery rocks, past the feeding penguins, are asked for one final time whether we want to go back to the ship. We all decline and soon the rubber Zodiacs zoom away back through the icebergs. The ship sails out of sight and suddenly the reality of the situation dawns on us: we are completely alone in the most remote area on Earth, with only a sleeping bag and a mat each for warmth.

The first task when sleeping on the ice is to create a windbreak to stop the harsh wind from hitting you face-on during the night. With only our hands and feet as tools, everyone in the group starts pushing and kicking the snow into a makeshift wall. It is quite an effort: snow and ice is a lot harder and heavier than it looks and, after much debate, we finally finalise the layout and strategy of our icehouse. The sun is setting as we finish.

Sitting on the black pebble and ice-strewn beach with the nearby gentoo penguin colony for company, the view is breathtaking – all shades of white, blue and grey. Somehow, the limited colour palette makes it one of the most stunning things I have ever seen.

Dinner has already been eaten on the ship – in keeping with the Antarctic Tourism Charter, it is not permitted to take food on to the Antarctic continent. It is so cold and dry, nothing ever biodegrades, which is why the old polar explorers’ cabins were found in an identical state to the way they were left 100 years ago.

Therefore, we are left to entertain ourselves until stars come out in the night sky.

One thing you notice in Antarctica is the silence. Once everyone is quietly tucked up in his or her sleeping bag, there is not a single other sound, just complete and utter deafening silence.

With a combination of the biting cold and the desire to try to stay awake to keep staring at the night sky, I do not sleep very well and the night seems to never end. I have never felt cold like it, seeping into your bones. I develop a thorough understanding of the phrase, “chilled to the bone”.

As the sun comes up, we are up and about packing up our sleeping mats and trying to dismantle the ice walls we so carefully constructed the previous night. It turns out that ice, once packed together and frozen, is extremely hard to tear down and it takes all six of us a good half an hour of kicking, digging, pulling and jumping to finally pull down the wall. We all race to the shoreline and jump into a waiting Zodiac to get back to the ship as fast as possible to shower and warm up.

We have a Zodiac cruise after breakfast and, as the rubber vessel cuts through the barely formed ice on the water’s surface, I struggle to warm up, the Antarctic chill seeming to be still in my bones. Whales, seals, sea lions and penguins are all out and about, swimming past our Zodiac and I cannot imagine swimming alongside them, through the icy water to see the Antarctic life underneath the surface.

Yet there is another surprise waiting for us when we board the ship after our outing: a hand-written sign hung over the daily schedule that reads: polar plunge, five minutes.

Instantly, the ship is turned upside down as most of the group scramble back to their cabins to put on a strange assortment of bathers, sports clothing, penguin costumes and national flags. Those not wanting to throw themselves off the side of the ship into the freezing waters stand on deck to cheer on the daredevils.

Still feeling frozen to my bones from the night spent sleeping on the ice, I have little desire to immerse myself in ice-cold water, so I stand on deck and watch the first few people jump into the water. The reactions are priceless as people resurface. Screams, yelps and non-repeatable sentences can be heard as people swim quickly back to the ship.

As more and more people jump, I start to get curious. My adventurous side overcomes me and suddenly I’m racing back to my cabin to get changed to partake in the polar plunge. En route, I run into Lillian from Botswana, who has also changed her mind, and we make a pact to jump together.

Slipping and sliding, we make our way onto deck in dressing gowns. As we stand waiting our turn, cheering the others on, I look down and take a good look at the water for the first time. The waters of Antarctica are ice-blue with ice and bergs floating around. Then it starts to snow.

After what seems like forever, it is our time to take the plunge. Together we bravely step forward onto the edge of the ship, tied to a rope each. Holding hands, we look up at our fellow expedition members cheering us on from above-deck. And then, on the count of three, we throw ourselves overboard.

The cold envelopes me from the moment my body enters the water and all of my instincts are screaming to get out as quickly as possible. I reach the ship first and help to push Lillian back on to the ship before jumping out and racing up on to deck five, where some of the other daredevils are congratulating each other as the snow falls around us.

Sleeping on the ice and immersing yourself in Antarctic waters are not for the faint-hearted.

But if you are given the chance they are must-do, extreme experiences in the most remote and untouched wilderness on Earth.

Morgan Pettersson is one of 30 young people chosen from around the world to attend the annual Antarctic Youth Ambassador Program expedition to Antarctica. The trip aims to educate and equip its attendees to be future sustainability leaders. Run by the 2041 Foundation, AYAP expeditions form part of a global campaign to ensure the continued protection of Antarctica from mining and drilling under the Antarctic Treaty. Participants get the skills, knowledge, confidence and motivation to bring change in their communities, championing renewable energy.

 

*This article was originally published both in print and online for The West Australian newspapers travel section. The original can be read online here*

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