Chill out

21st January 2000 at 00:00
When Yvonne Claypole went to live at the South Pole for a year, her website was often her only contact with the rest of the world. Chris Johnston finds out what life is like when it's so cold that freezing point seems warm.

Many children have an interest, such as stamp collecting or model trains, that they continue to pursue as adults. Yvonne Claypole's childhood obsession was Antarctica, and while most people would resign themselves to never seeing the desolate landscapes and amazing fauna at the bottom of the world, she has followed her dream and turned it into reality.

On January 6 last year, Yvonne, a teacher from Balnarring primary school in Victoria, Australia, and her husband Jim, set sail for Cape Denison - the windiest place on earth - on the edge of the icy continent many hundreds of kilometres south of Australia.

After they had devised a plan with the Victoria education department and a number of sponsors, a "frozen shoebox" - the Gadget Hut - measuring 2.4 by 3.6 metres and just 2.4 metres high, became their home for 12 months.

The closest neighbours are 2,000 kilometres away, and for much of their stay the couple have been cut off because in winter helicopters cannot land in what Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson called "the home of the blizzards". They expect to land in Melbourne before the end of January. Although the expedition was planned to last 12 months, they had to take enough supplies for two years in case the pick-up yacht was unable to get through the ice.

Despite their isolation, Yvonne and Jim have stayed in touch with the world using their satellite telephone and computer. An extensive website with a weekly online diary, video footage and still images has allowed pupils in Australia and around the world to follow their adventure.

Yvonne says being able to communicate with people at home has been one of the best parts of their stay. The telephone has allowed them to talk to students at schools around the world, some of which they will visit as they spend this year on a speaking tour of Australia.

Getting the computer to work has been just one of the unexpected hurdles they have faced in their 12 months in Antarctica. "We thought we had a fair idea of what to expect with the weather, but we vastly underestimated its severity," Yvonne explains. "We have had a lot of equipment failure due to the cold. If we want to use the computer we have to run the heater to warm the battery and we get only a small amount of power from it. The simplest chores can become very drawn-out."

Life for them is not that far removed from the way Mawson survived in 1912. Snow has to be collected and melted for water (after surviving on 10 litres a day and bathing in a bucket for a year, hot showers will be a luxury back home), lanterns are the main source of light and a fuel stove is used for heating and cooking.

That almost seems tolerable compared with being stuck inside the hut for 21 days in the height of winter, which is summer in the northern hemisphere - the door could not be opened because the snow and ice outside were too high. Yvonne says they did not expect the 24-hour darkness in winter to affect their mood as much as it did either. "We haven't gone crazy although there were times when we thought we were going to," Jim says.

Asked whether she would do it again, Yvonne is adamant: "No! Not the way we did it this time. The conditions have been tough - we are totally isolated, we haven't seen anybody for 12 months, we have been unable to be rescued, the hut is very basic, we have no plumbing, no power. The heater barely coped in winter - we could hardly keep the temperatures in the hut above zero and at night it droppedto minus 18. I wouldn't put myself through that again."

As well as writing a diary for the website, Yvonne has contributed a series of articles to the Australian women's magazine New Idea. During winter in July, she wrote about Jerri Nielsen, the 47-year-old American doctor at the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole, who discovered a lump in her breast. Yvonne understands Ms Nielsen's anxiety, as she herself underwent a mammogram in October 1998 that revealed a problem. Within a week, cancer had been diagnosed and her right breast was removed. Yvonne's two doctors did not try to stop her from proceeding with her Antarctic plans after the mastectomy, but they have remained available by telephone in case she needs advice or reassurance.

Medically, they have been fortunate, with only a couple of minor cases of frostbite to deal with. One advantage of the remote location is the absence of bugs that cause colds and flu. Vitamin supplements and a balanced diet have ensured they remained healthy, although Yvonne says the lack of sunlight has given their skin a yellow tinge.

After so long in the Antarctic, they have acclimatised to some extent, and found the December temperatures of zero or one degree Celsius quite warm. "We were out sunbathing on the rocks; it was one degree but it was the warmest we'd felt for a long time," Jim says. "The heat from the sun was amazing - we don't know how we'll cope when we get back to Melbourne (where summer temperatures often rise above 30 degrees)."

After taking unpaid leave to complete the round of speaking engagements this year, Yvonne says she cannot wait to get back in the classroom: "I love teaching," she says.

Closer to home, students at St Aidan's C of E school in Harrogate, Yorkshire, can hear at first hand what it is like to live in the ice from Sean Crane, a newly qualified physics teacher who started there in September.

He spent 30 months at a British Antarctic Survey base in the mid-1980s shortly after graduating from Birmingham University with an astrophysics degree.

While staff now fly to the stations, back then ships were still used to get people in and out. He set sail from Grimsby in October 1986 and had to work as a crew member until he reached the base four months later.

Five other scientists lived at the station, which was considerably larger than the Claypoles' hut but hardly spacious. Sean's job involved monitoring the upper atmosphere and some magnetics and seismology work as well as routine weather observations.

He found the first winter the most difficult, particularly the month or so when there is no light at all. It was then that the lack of communication with friends and family and the inability to escape from his colleagues really hit home. But Sean says he enjoyed a "unique living experience" where life was self-contained and everyone knew what had to be done. Teaching has come as a stark contrast, he says.

Unlike Yvonne, Sean would jump at the chance to do it again, but points out that satellite communications would make it a different experience. While previously only single men under 35 were permitted to staff the bases, women can now apply as well.

His most enduring memory is of the wildlife and environment. One of his favourite pastimes was watching the whales, penguins, seals and birds, and ice features such as glaciers. If that got tiring, the base had a library and an extensive record collection with albums dating back to the 1950s. He insists boredom was never a problem: "If you got bored you weren't opening your eyes and looking around."

Claypoles' website: British Antarctic Survey:

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