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Lucky to be here: Dr Rebecca Priestley on the harsh reality of Antarctica

Frigid: looking south across the Friis Hills. Photo/Rebecca Priestley

Old Antarctica hands repeatedly say “it’s a harsh continent”, and as Dry Valleys visitor Rebecca Priestley found out, it can take some getting used to.

Our tent, it is pointed out to me, is a bit of luxury – especially in Antarctica. We’re “glamping in the Friis Hills”, someone says. In one corner, a diesel-fuelled heater keeps the air above freezing point.

But even here in the Polar Haven tent, at a steady 7°C or so and with everything perfect, I’m still uncomfortable and on edge. I can feel the cold seeping up from the ground and into my legs. I’m used to being a highly competent human. Here, I feel almost useless. I’m breathing badly. I’m cold. I’m slow. All day, people have been offering to help me with things, carry something, offer me a hand, and I’m not used to it.

We had a few days of sunny, settled weather at Scott Base. But here at our camp in the mountains, it’s getting colder and the barometric pressure is dropping. Outside, the wind is blowing and the snow is getting heavier.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“Friis Hills is about to bare its ugly teeth,” says Warren.

This tiny campsite has become my world. I love snow, but being cut off from Scott Base and McMurdo Station – what stands for civilisation around here – gives me a surge of claustrophobia. We really are stuck here.

Dinner is “Mexican pile”, made by Adam: a crumble of corn chips topped with a chilli, meat and bean mixture and cheese. We follow dinner with some Glenlivet whisky served with ice chips cut from a chunk of the ice Cliff brought up from the Taylor Glacier. There are satellite photographs of the Friis Hills on the table and everyone is talking about fieldwork logistics – the challenges of drilling in the permafrost and running seismic lines in the snow.

Every now and then there’s a break in the chatter and it’s quiet except for the gentle roar of the stove and the occasional flapping of the tent in the wind. Everyone’s a bit slow because of the cold. Sitting still, heads bent, eyes down. Then someone pipes up with the often-repeated, usually ironic, “She’s a harsh continent”, and conversation resumes. “Happy to be here, lucky to be here,” someone says.

The Friis Hills after overnight snow. Photo/Rebecca Priestley

The guys are still planning the next day’s fieldwork, but I need to be on my own so I say my goodnights and head for my tent through the bright white of the blowing snow.

The surface beneath the snow is dusty and brown, and every time I enter my tent, I track 14-million-year-old dirt mixed with fresh snow in with me. Getting in and out is a mission. I’m wearing extreme-cold-weather boots and need to take them off before crawling inside. It’s a one-person tent, and inside is my three-layer sleeping bag – a down bag inside a synthetic bag inside a canvas bag – on top of foam and sheepskin sleeping mats.

Beside the bed, my clothes and books are spilling out of a large stuff bag. My pee bottle is in one corner of the tent and my drink bottle is in another (note to self: do not mix them up). I’m a messy traveller, and my tendency to fling things from one end of the tent to another is not good here, as the mixture of dust from outside and moisture from melting snow is making things mucky. I wasn’t expecting dirt in Antarctica.

I strip off everything except my thermals, socks, hat and neck gaiter and get as deep into my bags as I can. Despite the time – it’s after nine o’clock – and the falling snow, it’s light. The sun won’t set here for another three months and there’s a gentle orange glow inside the tent. It’s cosy, and I usually cherish alone time, but I’m having trouble breathing and I’m starting to panic.

On my own in the tent, without any chatter around me, I acknowledge to myself that I really don’t feel good. My head is buzzing. My chest feels tight and my heart is palpitating. I can’t breathe.

The view east down the lower Taylor Glacier. Photo/Rebecca Priestley

I don’t know if there is something physically wrong with me or if it’s anxiety. My father is dying. My fixed-term contract at the university is about to come to an end. I’ve been on the go – all work, no play – for two years solid and I think my body has forgotten how to relax. To make it worse, my kids didn’t want me to leave home. I’ve been away a lot during the past two years – to academic conferences, and back and forth to see my father in the United States, where he was having treatment, and once he moved back to New Zealand, to Christchurch – and at some level I feel selfish and bad for being away again.

What the f--- am I doing here?

I take stock. I’m alone in a small tent on an ice-free plateau in the Dry Valleys region of Antarctica. It’s -20°C and there’s light snow falling. The geologists are my friends – I trust them and like them – but I’m too ashamed to reveal how on edge I feel. I’m privileged to be here. But I’m feeling trapped. There’s no warm “inside” I can escape to. If I’m sick, there’s no chance of a medevac as the helicopters can’t fly in a blizzard.

Some people do lose it up here in the Dry Valleys; it’s the cold-climate version of going troppo. The other night, Tim told a story about a team camped in a nearby valley radioing in with a “send more Valium” request. Instead of sending more Valium, they sent a helicopter to remove the afflicted young scientist.

I have a small vial of Diazepam, a benzodiazepine similar to Valium, but in this unfamiliar situation I’m too anxious to take it. If my symptoms are not anxiety, if they’re something else, I worry that taking Diazepam in this cold, at this altitude, might have unintended consequences. It might be contraindicated, so I continue without it, in case it masks physical symptoms that will be needed to diagnose me. I’m aware that I’m being overdramatic but it doesn’t help how I feel.

I try some mindfulness techniques and try to focus on my breathing. I try to think about how I’m going to get warm, whether my water is going to stay unfrozen, and whether I need to use my pee bottle before I go to sleep.

There’s nothing more I can do. If I die tonight, then I die tonight. I think about the absurdity of this thought and the unlikeliness of it and I sleep.

The next day, I let on to Tim that I’ve been feeling a bit breathless. “It could just be the excitement,” I suggest, and trail off, avoiding the word “anxiety”. These guys are so great for inviting me. I don’t want to be negative.

Filming for a Victoria University of Wellington science in society course. Photo/Rebecca Priestley

Tim is attentive but unfazed and suggests it’s “cold asthma”. “I get it sometimes,” he says. The shock of the cold, dry air, combined with high altitude, can irritate the lungs and constrict the breathing passages, causing a form of asthma that can hit people who otherwise do not suffer from the condition. It’s not that high here – 1300m at our camp, 1700m at the highest point of the hills – but at this high latitude the air pressure is even lower.

I feel grateful to have a possible physical explanation for my breathlessness and reassured to know there is treatment if I need it. Tim has an asthma inhaler in the medicine chest, along with Valium, morphine, antibiotics and more. I’m relieved. I feel I can get on with my day, now, but it does get me thinking about my father. I hope the doctors have fixed his medication so that he’s free of pain and clearer in his head.

It’s stopped snowing now, so while four of the geologists are setting up the seismic line, Adam takes the rest of us for a walk, telling us about the geology and his past trips here. I’m happily distracted from my symptoms, whether they’re physical or psychosomatic. From a high point, the view of the layered brown cliffs, distant mountain peaks, and the flat white glacier is stupendous, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, cliché-inducing.

Walking the landscape, just looking and thinking, is a big part of what Adam does as a geomorphologist. I envy his focus on the terrain, on the here and now, his ability to be where he is. All the geologists seem to have this. They are intimately connected to the environment around them, the instruments they’re using, rather than being caught up in their own heads as I usually am. Maybe it’s my constant need to translate what I’m experiencing into words, to find or create a narrative, that stops me fully engaging with my surroundings.

While we’ve been walking, the rest of the team have been setting up a seismic line. The aim is to use this remote geophysical method to find the depth of the basement rocks that lie beneath the lake and glacial sediments. Results from the seismic line will be used to determine the best places to drill to get cores that contain many millions of years of deposits.

As we get close to camp, we can see Andrew the geophysicist huddling over his computer screen. Tim, Richard, Nick and Christoph have laid out a set of black and yellow cables extending from his seismometer across the valley floor, with a geophone placed every 5m. When a noise is made on the surface, some of the sound waves travel through the sediments and bounce back off any harder layer underneath. The geophones pick up the returning sound waves and relay the signal back to the seismometer and into Andrew’s laptop. While some seismic surveys use explosions to create the sound, this is ahammer seismic” survey and makes use of a sledgehammer, a metal plate and some muscle.

Rebecca Priestley. Photo/Cliff Atkins

We walk down the line to where Richard and Nick are waiting for Andrew to tell them to start. “Fire when ready,” says Andrew, and Nick swings the sledgehammer onto a metal plate five times – tink! – while Richard counts “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand” to time each swing.

Tim and Christoph are laying out the next section of seismic line. I keep offering to help. I should at least be able to carry something from one place to another. I can’t really be any worse than a geology student, but I am. I feel kind of useless. I hope I’m not getting in people’s way. I’m actually starting to feel sorry for myself.

It’s too cold for me. I feel miserable. Cliff and I do some more filming and I get even colder just standing behind the camera. Eventually, Cliff notices that I’m not okay and sends me back to the Polar Haven to warm up. Once he’s finished his to-camera, he joins me. The problem, he thinks, is that I’m not eating enough to keep warm. It turns out my plan to starve out an imagined stomach bug was deranged. My stomach wasn’t upset; I was just nervous. Cliff passes me a cup of hot Raro and a handful of biscuits and tells me to get it down me. Some frozen lollies, and some cheese and salami later – fats and sugars – and I start feeling a bit better.

While dinner is cooking, I finally work up the courage – necessity is a key part of it – to go to the open-air loo. The side of the loo facing the tents is a chest-high stack of dolerite slabs – if someone is sitting down, all you can see is the top of their head. The loo itself is a yellow plastic bucket filled with a large plastic bag and topped with a foam seat and a bucket lid.

On top of the lid is a slab of rock, to ensure that nothing blows away. Next to the loo, a roll of paper and a bottle of hand sanitiser are wedged between two rocks. Next to all this are the white plastic pee barrels. Lots of them. The one in active use has a funnel on top. For the guys, it’s a simple matter of aiming into the funnel. If I was game at using the Shee-wee – the “female urination device” I was issued with in Christchurch – I could stand and attempt the same, but I prefer to use a pee bottle in the privacy of my tent and tip it in here when it’s full.

Anyway, I raise the black flag on a bamboo pole to indicate the loo is in use, take the rock off the seat, and pull down my over-trousers and thermals. I’m sitting there, pants down, looking at a pretty spectacular view but hoping that this will all be over quickly – it’s -20°C for f---’s sake – when I hear footsteps and Tim’s voice. “Oh, shit, sorry!” He sounds mortified.

Granite and dolorite boulders. Photo/Rebecca Priestley

“Didn’t you see the black flag?” I yell back at him. We had a system!

He walks back to camp. I hear him burst into the Polar Haven with a “Jesus f---ing Christ, I just walked in on Rebecca.”

When I get back to the tent, I’ve got to a place somewhere beyond embarrassment, a place where I have no ego. There are no barriers. One of the worst things I could imagine has happened, and I feel relaxed. Whatever.

“Tim f---in’ Naish,” I say as I enter the Polar Haven, newly confident now that I’ve dealt to my hunger. It goes without saying that I own him now, and he shuffles around the table and hands me a beer.

Tim and I are now the butt of a series of jokes. I don’t mind. These guys are fun and funny and I’m happy. I’ve spent the day walking in an Antarctic snowscape, in full sunshine, and talking about geology. There have been no emergency calls – my children seem to be surviving without me and my father hasn’t died. Perhaps I could relax just a little bit, let go and try to enjoy things while I am relatively free from my usual responsibilities. I help make dinner of stir-fried chicken and vegetables with rice. Warren makes margaritas in an aluminium cooking pot.

After dinner, Cliff holds up a hinged wooden box – the words “Mackinlay’s Shackleton’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky” are painted on the side and “British Antarctic Expedition 1907” on one end – and asks everyone to pay attention. “If you don’t know the story,” he says, “they found some whisky under Shackleton’s hut a few years ago and a few of the bottles were still in good condition. So they took them back to New Zealand, then they got a distillery in Scotland to recreate the whisky.”

Inside the box, the bottle rests on a bed of straw. “Apparently it’s not that great a whisky,” he says, “but the story is good.” This is Cliff’s second $200 bottle of Shackleton whisky. I first tried the whisky, with my sister, Rachel, at an Antarctic Heritage Trust tasting in Wellington in 2011. We bought a bottle for Dad, but I think it’s still sitting in his cabinet.

It’s not as nice as the Glenlivet we were drinking the night before. “It’s pretty cool, though,” says Richard, “that we’re drinking the same thing that old Shackleton drank.” “I know! And out of the same mugs,” adds someone. The foolish banter continues, and with the mixture of relief at no longer feeling so cold, my newfound loss of ego and the drinks, I find myself laughing until I cry.

Cold comfort. Photo/Cliff Atkins

I slip out of the Polar Haven while I’m still feeling good and crawl into my little orange tent. The sun is shining. I’m settled into my sleeping bag. I can hear the guys talking; they’re up on the ridge now, drinking whisky, looking at the mountains across the glacier. I’m kind of wishing I was up there with them but it was time for me to go to bed. The tension between not wanting to miss out on anything and knowing that I need time alone, time downloading my thoughts and impressions and feelings, is always there, on every trip I’m on.

I’m happy and sad at the same time. As soon as I’ve warmed up and started to feel comfortable here, I’m going to have to leave. I wake the next morning happy and warm. I have no idea what time it is. The sun has been shining all night and my iPhone – my only means of telling the time – gave up in the cold. It went from 100% power to shutting off. I’m beginning to like it here.

The air inside the tent feels mild, but it’s deceptive – the water in my drink bottle is frozen, so “warm” has become a relative thing. Planning is important here. It’s crucial to hold on to the warmth that you start the day with. If you go outside and get cold it’s very hard to get back that heat. I don’t think about how I feel – warm – but what I know – my water bottle is frozen – and I plan to conserve every bit of heat.

Soon after breakfast, some TV people arrive by helicopter wearing goggles and neck gaiters, with their fur-lined hoods pulled tight. Perhaps I have acclimatised. There are three of them, all lively and important. A producer, a camera operator, and a glamorous presenter whom I escort to my little orange tent – she’ll be sleeping here for the next few nights. She’s slimmer than me and vegetarian, and I wonder how she’ll cope in the cold. I find myself slightly envious that I’m leaving and she’s staying.

The helicopter is our ride back to Scott Base, but not just yet. Tim is playing host, showing the TV people around the camp and making them a cuppa. While we’re all sitting inside the Polar Haven, there’s a call on the VHF radio – Nick, who’s on the seismic line, needs the GPS receiver to plot their location. The one Tim has in his pocket. I offer to run it down to the line. It’s close in the tent, and despite my newly attained sense of well-being, it is a fragile wellness and I don’t feel like being around bubbly TV people and Antarctic newbies.

I deliver the GPS to Nick and head towards camp along a trail of footsteps in the snow. I don’t want to go back to camp just now so I stop, sit on a lump of dolerite deposited there by a glacier millions of years ago and cry. I feel as if I’ve barely engaged with the fact that I’m here, camping in the mountains of Antarctica. I’m so happy to be here – lucky to be here – but when I get home my father will still be dying, I’ll have to re-apply for the job I’ve been doing for two years, I’ll have to compensate at home for being away for two weeks and I won’t have time to sit on a rock and look at the world around me.

It feels right to be crying. It feels like the only way I can respond to this landscape and how I’m feeling inside and what I’m heading home to. I take a deep breath and manage, for the first time on this trip, to be fully here, alone. I’m looking out on a landscape that could almost be Mars.

There’s a distant crack of the sledgehammer on the metal plate. Then I hear the chopper coming back. It’s time to leave.

Edited extract from Lucky to be here, by Rebecca Priestley, found in Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, edited by Naomi Arnold (Victoria University Press, $30)

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.