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Polar opposite: The Irishman who spent 18 months living in Antarctica

100 years after Tom Crean’s voyage, Donegal man Danny McFadden returns from a year-and-a-half living on Rothera research station and visiting the South Pole

Returning to base having deployed a water-based drone to take multiple scientific measurements
Travelling by snowmobile through a heavily-crevassed area
The Aurora Australis – the crystal clean environment adds to the stellar spectacle.

Arriving in South Georgia, I can only imagine what Tom Crean and the rest of the crew of the James Caird felt when they made landfall on this bleak and harsh island. As it was for them, this is a stopping point on my exit from Antarctica after spending 18 months on the frozen continent. Almost 100 years to the day after Crean’s voyage – he reached South Georgia on May 10th, 1916 – I find myself retracing the steps of the great men.

Two weeks ago we cast the lines off and departed Rothera Research Station in Antarctica, on board the RRS Ernest Shackleton, a fitting name for the vessel that would see us safely to South Georgia and eventually to the Falklands, from where I will fly home.

I have spent the past year-and-a-half living and working on a research station in Antarctica. It’s a long way from my home in the Rosses, in west Co Donegal – some 9,000 miles (16,000km) in fact, surely making me one of the farthest away of the Irish diaspora.

Before I got to Antarctica I had completed some volunteer work at home with the Lough Swilly RNLI, which saw me respond as crew to emergency incidents at sea. This, combined with a background in computing and communications helped me to get the job of communications manager on Rothera Station, on Adelaide Island.

We provide a gateway to Antarctica for several countries and with numerous aircraft passing or landing, we can be busier than most regional Irish airports.

I was heading up a team of five, providing an air traffic control service to five of our aircraft based in Antarctica, as well as transiting aircraft heading onwards to the South Pole. We provided flight information to aircraft for thousands of miles, from southern Chile to the South Pole.

I was also in charge of the IT for the residents on the base, as well as visiting scientists. This is a crucial role as communication links are important when you live in Antarctica for 18 months at at time. There are no visits from loved ones, no breaks to south America or back to Ireland.

We lived and worked on the coldest, driest desert in the world.

Day-to-day life here becomes “normal”, but this normality is only so with the regularity of which we do it. Nothing about the place is normal, such as landing aircraft “deep field” – including as far as the South Pole. Mostly landing aircraft involves using skis to land on snow skiways, or occasionally on “blue ice” runways, which are naturally forming and comprised entirely of smooth ice, some up to 3km long. Rothera is a rarity in Antarctica as it has one of the only crushed gravel runways.

The year is broken into two parts, winter and summer. As it is in the southern hemisphere, it is the opposite of home, with winter lasting from April until October, and summer from November to March.

During the summer months, the base population can swell to 130, comprised mostly of scientists and tradespeople. Scientific projects can last weeks or months. Some scientists stay only long enough to conduct experiments on base or to venture farther into Antarctica via our aircraft.

For some of the longer projects, scientists and their guides live in pyramid tents, travelling by ski or skidoo (snowmobiles), and installing scientific instruments ranging from highly accurate GPS sites to seismometers to ground-penetrating radar.

There are two dormitory buildings at the base. My building, called Admirals House, had 44 rooms, with two people per room during the busy summer months.

In winter you get a room to yourself, which helps you to relax and have some peace and quiet. Getting off base during the winter is difficult, due to the near darkness that falls for most of the season, and for a short time, the total darkness. So being able to retreat to your own space is quite nice, even just to read a book.

In our downtime, and if conditions allow during winter, I used to go out for an hour-long walk around the peninsula as often as possible. Opposite the base is a sloping ski area called “the ramp” where I taught myself how to ski.

Days off can also be spent assisting others with their jobs, helping on boats and science projects is a great way to break up your job while learning from others. We also sometimes travelled as a pilot’s assistant. We are not aviators, but our aircraft fly with one pilot, so someone always accompanies them to assist with refuelling or cargo handling, for example.

During the summer, I was generally still busy in the evenings. As manager of the ATC tower, I was lucky to get one day off a week. This is in stark contrast to the winter months when the base is snowed in and all the aircraft and scientists are gone.

During winter we work a reduced workload, however the base upkeep, shovelling snow from door entrances, moving food stores are all increased as there are only 19 people to run the base.

All our recreation and food needs are carried out in a building called New Bransfield House. It has a large canteen-type kitchen with three professional chefs employed during the summer to cook and one during winter. However, to cover the chef’s days off during the winter everybody took turns to cook, and there was a lovely Irish stew on more than one occasion.

Everyone on the base assists with the cleaning schedule, which is comprised of daily and weekly tasks. Lunches and dinners are prepared by the cook on the day. Breakfast is toast or cereal – but with powdered milk – which really makes you long for real milk from Donegal Creameries. There are also some tinned fruits and yogurt if you can’t face the powered milk.

Normally a large pot of soup is available throughout the day for those working outside and feeling the cold and all bread is freshly made.

The only shop on the base is a small one selling souvenirs. In December and March, however, you can have things bought and delivered to the Falklands and delivered by ship. Toiletries, food, and work clothing are all provided on the base. So by the time I left, the concept of money was almost alien to me after not carrying a wallet or cash.

Also in New Bransfield House, there are recreation rooms: a library, a small TV room for watching DVDs or playing games, a main recreation room with a small bar, pool table and darts board; we also played board games and table tennis here.

In winter, the empty aircraft hangars are used to play badminton, which is great way to stay warm inside the unheated hangar, when the temperature is at -20 degrees outside before windchill.

As each March approaches, the numbers on the base dwindle, with most flown out by aircraft. The final group departs by ship, as I have just done, on board one of two specifically ice-strengthened vessels in the fleet.

It is during these ship visits to Rothera – called “relief visits” – that the base receives food, fuel and any ancillary supplies. Only two reliefs are carried out each year, one in January and again in March. These are the only opportunities to have large quantities of supplies delivered.

Last month it was my turn to embark with colleges and scientists, and to watch the ship crew casts her lines and set sail.

We slipped away from the wharf on a snowy, windy morning, leaving 19 souls to maintain the remote base. As we sailed out past Jenny Island into Marguerite Bay and disappeared from sight of Rothera, they surely had the realisation that they, like our group last year, were in for an interesting and isolated winter season.

The winter in Antarctica brings with it temperatures plummeting to -33C with solid sea ice forming around the base almost immediately after the ship departed leaving us there.

Most wildlife – orca whales, Adélie and emperor penguins, the elephant and fur seals – all disappeared out to stay with open water. Even the snow petrels disappeared and they were shortly followed by the sun, which for a number of weeks was not seen at Rothera.

The stars in the southern hemisphere were no longer a comfort, being entirely different from those I knew at home in rural Donegal. The sky did seem a little alien and matched the environment and terrain in reminding us that we were somewhere very different. However, one of the delights was the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights.

It’s at times like that that I realise what Crean and Ernest Shackleton were faced with 100 years ago. My employer on Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey, owes its creation to the initial expeditions of these brave men – and the fact that I was here a century after they were is a privilege not lost on me.

Their ill-fated expedition was a relatively short distance away from where I was based and, like them, I have overwintered in Antarctica, though I did not have to endure the level of hardship they did.

A strong, small community spirit is maintained to keep morale up over the dark lonely winter, and keep the base in a good repair for the start of a busy summer.

After being cut off and isolated from the outside world, it was a strange feeling when the first aircraft arrived in late October with fresh food and familiar faces signifying the end of winter.

The base population starts to grow rapidly with field parties being sent to Pine Island Glacier in west Antarctica, Larsen and Ronne ice shelves, Halley research station and indeed to the South Pole.

During this South Pole project an exceptionally rare opportunity arose where I got the chance to travel with an aircraft deep field to support an airborne survey. Our trip involved relocating a four-person camp comprising aircraft engineers, scientists and field guides, and part of the relocation saw us travel to the South Pole with a team to allow them to continue their experiments.

When I arrived in Antarctica, I never expected to visit the South Pole. Even from my air traffic control tower in Rothera Research station, the South Pole seemed a world away. The experience of flying from Rothera for more than 14 hours to South Pole station – which is operated by the National Science Foundation, the United States agency responsible for promoting science through research programmes – was one of the highlights of my career thus far.

A few weeks have now passed and the South Pole trip is still very much on my mind. However my departure from my frozen home is under way. I write this on board the RRS Ernest Shackleton, several days into a 20-day journey home, including traversing the notorious Drake passage crossing, the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.

I am now starting to think about home, about summers on Carrickfinn beach and seeing family, friends and my hugely supportive girlfriend, Maggie.

Communication while I’ve been away has been difficult. All communications are via a satellite, so there is always a delay. The high cost of this type of connection, (which was only 0.3Mb when I first arrived) means science data gets priority. Other traffic like internet and Skype for up to 130 people (or even the 19 in winter) comes second, and is painfully slow. I communicated with home by email, and there was limited telephone access.

So it turned out Twitter was the best way to get a short and quick message out, to where many could access it and I could also share a little of my life (@dantarctic).

Every day I tried to send a picture of something – aircraft, penguins, seals, orca whales, even the dinners I cooked on my cooking day, or the views from the sink I was helping wash dishes in.

A small daily paper arrived by email but most world events and local news items never make it down south. On rare occasions someone buys a newspaper from the UK during the summer months and its arrival brings much interest to see what is happening in the wider world.

Having been away for such a long time, I’ve missed a lot of events, birthday parties, barbecues and, sadly, funerals. These all weigh heavily on you in Antarctica, on hearing that they happened and making a short satellite phone call to hear the news from home, but now I am excited to get back, and to see and catch up with all of those I have missed so much.

The thought of driving home, passing Mount Errigal and Glenveigh National Park, back to the Rosses, is now very much on my mind. It will be similarly interesting to see how the frozen continent of Antarctica has changed me. I know a warm holiday is in order. I also hope to visit the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, to pay tribute to that quiet Irish hero, Tom Crean.

Today at King Edward’s Point I will visit another great Irish man, his counterpart Ernest Shackleton, who is buried on South Georgia. They will serve to remind me of the scale of my adventure that is now drawing to an end.