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Keep in a Cool Place: The first winter at Vanda Station, Antarctica

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Keep in a Cool Place is a riveting account of how five scientists (four Kiwis and one American), survived nearly a year in Antarctica in 1969 at NZ’s Vanda station in the Wright Valley.

The valley had been ice-free for millions of years even though the permanent ice sheet of East Antarctica was in close sight. Stranger still, Lake Vanda, near the Western end of the valley, was permanently covered in 3 metres of ice, yet the temperature of the water near the bottom was above 25 degrees. Their mission: to conduct a scientific investigation to unravel these mysteries.

Authors Al Riordan, a US Exchange scientist, and Science Master’s graduate Simon Cutfield were members of the team. Inside is a detailed record of the team’s scientific endeavors, and scientific appendices are included at the end of the book.

There have been other scientific papers about Lake Vanda but what makes this book unique, is the firsthand account of the team’s day to day lives.

Station life was extremely challenging: 8 months of total isolation, including 4 months of continual darkness, freezing temperatures, and living at very close quarters in their spartan hut. Even inside the hut the temperatures could be freezing.

The hut stove was by then again struggling to make the demands of heating the living quarters. One calm cold night while seated at the kitchen table, I could see my breath. Strips of ice 5-10 cm long were growing from the walls to the ceiling, and hoar frost was forming along the floor by the edges of our living space.

Despite careful planning beforehand there were many glitches. When instruments they had brought with them proved unsuitable or broke down, the team had to be inventive and came up with some ingenious solutions.

To alleviate the fuel shortage baths had to be rationed to only one per fortnight. It was a complicated procedure!

This Spartan rule stemmed from our limited petrol supply and the resulting chain of consequences: the bath needed water that needed ice that needed the Ferguson that needed petrol. Not only that: to start the tractor we needed the Herman Nelson, which needed lots and lots more petrol.

And while there was plenty of tins and packets and frozen food there were no cookbooks. They had to rely on recipes they found on food packets and in old magazines. Fortunately, Warren was a great cook and kept them well fed until some of the others also became proficient at putting a meal together from what was on hand.

To build their team spirit and to keep themselves amused they played darts, draughts, kicked footballs and frisbees around, sang funny songs, and listened to music from a Sony cassette recorder. Allen had planned to while away some of the hours on self-improvement but the freezing temperature put paid to that! Not that he minded:

One benefit of the cold was the wonderful excuse to abandon my ambitious project of self-improvement. By now the non-fiction library - including Learning German, Listening with the Third Ear and Your God is Too Small - were firmly fastened to the shelf just above my bunk. All three books were frozen to the wall, their pages swollen to twice their original thickness by repeated dampness. Now, without a hint of guilt, I could look forward to reading Tales of the South Pacific, which Simon had almost finished. The book was ice-free and was circulating in the lab.

Keep in a Cool Place is richly illustrated with photographs of themselves at work and the spectacular Antarctic scenery which added to the pleasure of reading this great adventure story.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Canterbury University Press


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