Isolation, darkness and science – the first winter at Vanda Station

20 September 2022

Temperatures dropping to -57C, 16 weeks of darkness, isolation stretching to eight months and logistical challenges – this is what five men faced during the first winter-over at New Zealand’s Vanda Station, Antarctica.

  • The Vanda Station party after winter

    [group party] The Vanda Station party after winter, 1969: Bill Lucy, Simon Cutfield, Al Riordan, Warren Johns and Ron Craig. (Photo courtesy Allan Guard)

Now the subject of a new book published by Canterbury University Press and being launched on 5 October as part of the Days of Ice festival, the account of that winter in 1969 is historically and scientifically important, but equally delivers an adventure story of battling against the elements and the uncertainty of limited electricity, fuel, heat and water.

The setting is a strangely snowless land next to the East Antarctic ice sheet. Stranger still, the bottom of the nearby lake is a balmy 25°C while the surface is covered in up to four metres of permanent ice.

Al Riordan, a US Exchange Scientist, and science master’s graduate Simon Cutfield relate the events of that winter. Cutfield, inspired by meeting Sir Edmund Hillary, was there to take measurements to understand the strange lake, to record earthquakes and probe the upper atmosphere. Riordan was there to help build a comprehensive weather record and learn why the valley was snow free. A station leader, a meteorologist and a skilled technician, all experienced expeditioners from Aotearoa New Zealand, completed the team of five. All were transformed by the experience.

“While other authors have summarised the history of Vanda Station, this is the only complete record of station life during the first year of its occupation. As such, it provides an important missing chapter in the history of New Zealand’s Antarctic achievements,” Riordan says. “This account also gives science a personal touch and describes its progress through international efforts over the last 50 years.”   

The co-authors attended the 50th reunion for personnel who spent the winter of 1969 at Vanda Station and Scott Base. They were already working on the manuscript of the book, drawing on diaries, photos, data records and letters to create a unique first-person account of daily life in the most challenging of environments.

“The time was right. We still had our memory and sense of humour and finally had fast internet,” Cutfield says.

The title, Keep in a Cool Place, refers to instructions for storing the team’s photographic chemicals. This was one aspect of Vanda Station that didn’t present a problem; everything was constantly cool and often encased in ice. 

Join the Keep in a Cool Place book launch on 5 October, 5.30pm to 7pm at the University Bookshop University Drive, Ilam. Please rsvp to: universitypress@canterbury.ac.nz

Keep in a Cool Place: The First Winter at Vanda Station, Antarctica is published by Canterbury University Press, RRP $49.99, Softback, 229 x 152mm, 272pp text + 24pp colour insert. ISBN: 978-1-98-850330-1, available in bookstores and through Canterbury University Press.

About the authors:

Allen Riordan retired from his position as associate professor at North Carolina State University where he had taught meteorology and conducted research not only at his desktop computer, but also in wind tunnels, at sea in winter storms, and with forecasters at the National Weather Service. Al and his wife live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Simon Cutfield was inspired for adventure by meeting Sir Edmund Hillary during his student days in Auckland. On his return from Vanda, Simon ventured to Australia in early 1970 to ride the mining boom. He married there and became a metallurgist and process engineer in major mining projects across Australia. He now lives in Southeast Queensland.

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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