How Kiwis are surviving an Antarctic winter

Shivering through temperatures frequently as low as -40degC and battling through blizzards so bad, you can't even open the door - it's not exactly a standard New Zealand workplace but for 12 Kiwis, it's been home for the last six months.

New Zealanders have braved that ordeal at Scott Base, Antarctica for 61 years. This year the team included a man who marked his 1000th day on the ice, a base leader whose job it was to keep everything ticking over despite the isolation, and a medic who was the only woman on base.

Waikato-born Jonny Harrison was the winter leader at Scott Base this season - his second time on the ice, but the first time he's spent winter down there.

"I am reminded everyday how lucky we all are to be down here but particularly for me this has been an amazing time with great people," he told Newshub.

Their last sunset was in late April. Since then, they've lived in a dark and often stormy world. Even going outside means layering up in several jackets and packing an extra set just in case the weather deteriorates further. Just before heading outside, there's a friendly sign in the locker room reminding people to keep an eye on the weather - and what the temperature is at the moment, including windchill.

In the warmer summer, temperatures below -32degC weren't uncommon.
In the warmer summer, temperatures below -32degC weren't uncommon. Photo credit: Breanna Barraclough / Newshub.

But when they do step outside, there's little to no light pollution clouding the skies. In his spare time, Mr Harrison often photographed and filmed timelapses of the stars and aurora. It's a common way to spend time when you're wintering on the ice.

When things get a little too cramped at Scott Base, people head over the hill to the neighbouring McMurdo Station, run by Americans. There's a friendly cross-base rivalry, with weekly trivia and darts' nights, and the two countries frequently joined together for celebrations.

"The ANZAC service we held was pretty special. The sun had just set for the long winter night and a group from McMurdo joined with us to commemorate the occasion," Mr Harrison said.

Scott Base winter leader Jonny Harrison.
Scott Base winter leader Jonny Harrison. Photo credit: Greg Irvine / Supplied

Being the only woman over winter

For the base's medic, domestic and shopkeeper Alice Coombes, the extra group of people over the hill is even more important. She's the only woman to be wintering down at Scott Base this year - something she told Newshub didn't cross her mind when she first applied for the job.

"I am a paramedic in New Zealand, so I work with a lot of male colleagues so in that regard, I'm used to it," the Waikato native said.

"There are challenges, but it's not directly related to gender issues."

Scott Base medic, domestic and shopkeeper Alice Coombes.
Scott Base medic, domestic and shopkeeper Alice Coombes. Photo credit: Jonny Harrison / Supplied

Ms Coombes said if she needs to get away, getting outside and going for a walk "almost instantly always makes me feel better". There's even a sort-of Antarctic 'bach' a short drive or bike ride away from base, called the Square Frame, that people can head out to.

Closer to home, there's always the group of other women at McMurdo.

"Just recently we had a girl's night out at the Square Frame and 'ladies' brunch' is every Sunday morning at McMurdo They are a hoot," Ms Coombes said.

In the Antarctica summer, during which Ms Coombes also worked on base, there was a commemoration of Kiwi women who made a historical impact in Antarctica. One of them was Thelma Rogers, the first woman to winter over at Scott Base, as a science technician in 1979.

"It is special to be down here and to be the only woman, although it is a rare occurrence nowadays," Ms Coombes said.

"The last winter over that had one woman, I believe was 2002. I am incredibly lucky to be down here with these men, they are good fun."

A thousand days on the ice

This winter is Fielding native Stephen Denby's third time down, working as a water engineer. He makes sure water production, storage and wastewater processing continues without any issues; surrounded by the salt water of the Ross Sea, all fresh water for drinking or washing has to be pumped in and desalinated.

To keep busy during the quiet times, he brought down a couple of small projects - restoring military vehicles. When he's not doing that, or reading, he's taking in the environment.

"I admire the scenery that is Antarctica," he told Newshub.

This year he marked his 1000th day on the ice - which Mr Denby said was "quite a milestone".

"Everyone took part in the celebrations including some from Christchurch Office. The chef baked a cake for us to share too," he said.

"You feel like the veteran, seen it, done it, still enjoy doing it and proud of the achievement."

Now the veteran, that wasn't the case during Mr Denby's first trip down. "It was a steep learning cliff," he said, adding that he didn't think he'd be back so many times.

"But once you've been here you never say not again. Even if it is years later, there will be something drawing you back.

"First time, learn the ropes, enjoy the Fam trips [trips outside the base] and the environment, learn the job.

"Second time, enjoy the comradeship, the festivities and be amazed by the place you work in.

"Third time, relax and enjoy all aspects of the adventure."

Life's different in an Antarctic winter

While everyone works at their regular jobs six days a week, there's still a fair amount of down-time. For some people it means finding new ways to occupy yourselves.

"I have recently learnt how to sew and I've done a little bit of work in the carpenter shop making bread boards - this has occupied many hours!" Ms Coombes said.

"At home I would not be making bread boards or trying to sew, I would be going on road trips, bush walking and walking on the beach."

Aurora-chasing is another popular pastime. The stunning events light up the entire world with ribbons of colour.

An aurora pictured above Scott Base.
An aurora pictured above Scott Base. Photo credit: Jonny Harrison / Supplied

"Most of my spare time has been taken up taking photos and timelapses or hanging out with people down here and over the hill at McMurdo. Not too dissimilar from what I would be doing back home." Mr Harrison said.

Even things that you'd think would be similar - like going for a walk - are incredibly different.

"In New Zealand you don't have to take a radio with you and have spare warm clothing in a backpack all the time," Ms Coombes said.

The dark side of winter

But things aren't always easy-going down at Scott Base. When tensions fray, issues need to be sorted quickly - although thankfully, Mr Harrison said the only issues this winter have been minor and sorted quickly. All three people Newshub spoke to admitted the isolation was a challenge.

"If I'm having a bad day, I absolutely miss them," Ms Coombes said, referring to friends and family back home.

It's not something that you can get used to.

"I really missed my family this time around, which surprised me a bit," Mr Denby said, while Mr Harrison said he knew before he came down that he would find it tough.

"It is expected so mentally [you] can prepare for it," he said. Frequent emails and phone calls back home is the fix, with mail arriving only sporadically.

Another Antarctic challenge is known as Polar T3 syndrome. It's when you have a decreased level of a particular thyroid hormone and has some bizarre results.

Scott Base medic Alice Coombes pictured on the ice in front of Scott Base.
Scott Base medic Alice Coombes pictured on the ice in front of Scott Base. Photo credit: Jonny Harrison / Supplied

"It felt like what I would imagine would be someone having a stroke. My brain wasn't connecting," Ms Coombes said.

"The most memorable moment was when I was trying to explain to someone what blood pressure measures. I was trying to explain what the top (systolic) number and bottom number (diastolic) was however every time I tried to say 'bottom number' I would say 'button.' I tried multiple times to say bottom and for some reason I couldn't stop saying the word 'button.'"

"It seems like everything is the same just slower," Mr Harrison added.

For Mr Denby, he would forget what someone said moments after they said it - or walk to one end of the base and realise he'd left his tools at the other end.

"It's painless and easily overcome by carrying a notebook and pencil (if you remember)."

The return of the sun

It's gradually been getting brighter over the last few weeks and on Sunday, the sun will rise over the horizon for the first time since April. It'll only be a brief glimpse before it dips down again, but it's a sign of the upcoming summer.

Next week will be the first flight in five weeks, bringing fresh fruit and veges and letters from friends and families. Eventually there will be new workers coming in, ready to be trained up so this group of 12 can go home.

For some, they have a rough idea of when they can go home - but if there's one thing to be learned from living in Antarctica, there's never a fixed timetable.

When asked when he was going home, Mr Harrison had a simple response: "When the plane arrives to take me home."