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When Hawera Telecom technician Anthony Powell stepped off the plane on to Antarctica he was struck by the unbounded emptiness.
"It's similar to when you walk up to the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time. It takes a minute for your mind to wrap around what you're looking at. It's just completely different to anything you've ever seen before."
But when he stepped back on to the tarmac in Christchurch 12 months later it wasn't the comfort of familiarity that enveloped him. A year on the ice had so changed his perspective that the world he'd inhabited for more than 30 years seemed suddenly foreign.
"The smell of chlorophyll in the air is quite intense because down there, there is really no smell at all. You step off the plane and the diesel fumes and the humidity and the smell of plants and growing things is quite overpowering. There's movement everywhere: Movement of leaves, movement of birds, cars, trees, people. It takes a couple of days just to be able to relax because you're so used to seeing stillness around you.
"It is actually quite overwhelming. You tend to want to hide a little bit. But at the same time everything becomes quite fascinating – just seeing children again, getting to play with a cat or a dog."
It's what happens in the year between those two life-changing flights that 49-year-old Powell, now based in Christchurch, seeks to explain in his documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice, which screens at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.
The film is also a vehicle for Powell's stunning time-lapse photography – a visual diary of his nine Antarctic winters. That's nine winters spent fumbling around in fat gloves with rebellious equipment at -40 degrees Celsius; pioneering what works and what doesn't in a previously untried field; fashioning makeshift camera insulation rigs from a chilly bin, a plastic dome and a car battery; and weathering storms so brutal the bunkroom of an isolated communications station became half-choked with snow wind-rammed through tiny cracks.
And the movie comes with a warning: Cameras were harmed in the making of this film – an average of one death a year.
A keen tramper and amateur photographer, Powell was attracted to the ice by a sense of adventure. He signed on in 1999 for a 12-month "monastic existence" as communications technician at New Zealand's Scott Base.
The summer was so hectic he barely had time to consider the daunting prospect of a six-month winter, much of it in complete darkness, in the company of just nine other people. But when the last plane to civilisation left in February reality dawned and with it mixed emotions – trepidation but also anticipation.
With time to think, Powell actually enjoyed his first winter more than the summer. He bonded with his fellow winter-overs (recruiters have become pretty adept at predicting and avoiding personality clashes) and adjusted quickly to the perpetual darkness. He even got used to the cold.
Powell's guide to Antarctic cold goes something like this:
0C – a warm summer's day.
-20C – nose hairs freeze over at your first breath.
-40C – tyres freeze solid with flat spots that "clonk over" for the first few minutes. Still comfortable, so long as there's no wind, and you're wearing long underwear, two fleece layers, insulated leggings, boots, a merino/possum/silk jersey and two down jackets.
-60C – power steering fluid freezes solid so you can't turn the steering wheel; oil turns to toffee.
Trips to isolated field stations necessitate survival bags, 10 days of food and countless communications back-ups in case of weather stranding.
Risk becomes the new normal. Which is slightly disturbing given another phenomenon that Powell explores in his film – the bizarre T3 polar syndrome that all winter-overs suffer to some degree. It's thought that the combination of sunlight starvation, lack of the thyroid hormone T3 and institutionalised routine are to blame for a brain fog and short-term memory loss so extreme that you forget after-dinner dates hours after they're arranged.
Throughout that first year, Powell indulged his photographic passion when he could – after 11-hour shifts; in 10-minute snatches before helicopter pick-ups; on clear nights when auroras danced in the dark spots between Scott Base and America's McMurdo station.
"There are times when they get so big you're completely blown away. It looks like the skies are opening up and this big vortex is coming down to swallow you up. It's quite dizzying."
But at that stage he was shooting slide film, which brought its own unanticipated complications. The film could become so cold it would snap during winding. And the air is so dry winding creates static electricity, sending lightning bolts across negatives – a fact he didn't discover until he developed the film a year later.
Powell had been interested in time-lapse photography since seeing it in the 1960 version of The Time Machine. But with film the sheer number of photographs required put it way outside the amateur budget.
So when he found himself back on the ice for his third winter, in 2003, with his first digital camera, he built a timer out of spare parts work the camera shutter at regular intervals, and began experimenting. Time-lapse, Powell believes, animates the still Antarctic environment as people experience it, in a way video cannot.
Four years later he'd perfected the technique enough to compile a clip that won him a National Science Foundation grant to spend a year just photographing. He's now spent nine winters on the ice, including seven on the trot, with just a couple of months flaking out in Christchurch in between. In that time he's taken more than 2 million individual photographs, from which A Year on Ice is constructed.
Though he's had to forgo his winter fix over the past four years to work on the film, Powell still hopes to return.
"It's just extremely fulfilling in a lot of ways. Life feels a lot less superficial. You feel like you're actually there achieving something and you're having a great time ... surrounded by what I think are probably the most magnificent vistas on the planet."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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