31 December, 2004 Halley
December is always a hectic month at Halley as it signals the end of the months of isolation and the beginning of the busy summer season. This year was no exception – we had ships, helicopters and planes arriving from all directions!
Early in December saw a little bit of history made at Halley with the arrival of the first ever tourist ship. Normally Antarctic cruises are limited to the Peninsula region north-west of Halley but this year unusually good sea ice conditions created a lead of open water that stretched for several hundred miles along the coast. The Kapitan Khlebnikov took advantage of the gap to become the first cruise ship ever to reach Halley. Aside from a quick visit from our German neighbours at the end of November this was the first new faces we’d seen in 9 months so it came as a bit of a shock when 110 visitors past through the base in a single day!
They arrived at our skiway by helicopter, where we met them with a sno-cat and sledge and gave them a lift to the main platforms. Because of the numbers each group only got around an hour on base, but in that time we managed to squeeze in a tour of the science and accommodation platforms, plus a chance to send letters and postcards from the UK’s most southerly Post Office. It was very strange having so many unknown faces in our quiet little world but everyone seemed to enjoy showing them our home and got a kick out of their excitement at being here. It’s easy to start to take this place for granted after a year or two so it was nice to be reminded quite how lucky we are to live here!
By coincidence, the first of the summer staff arrived by plane the same day we were showing the tourists around. Ordinarily the arrival of the first plane signifies the end of the winter and most of the base go out to the skiway to see the new faces and get hold of mail and fresh fruit. This year we were all so busy with our guests that we barely noticed they arrived! It must have been rather disorientating for them to arrive in the middle of such chaos, given that they had just finished a long journey themselves. Instead of being flown in using BAS planes from Rothera they trialled an alternative route. They flew via South Africa, arriving in Antarctica at the Russian Novolazarlvskaya station and continuing from there via Neumayer (a German base). The journey took four days and involved four different types of planes including a slightly scary sounding bi-plane!
Around a week later the first BAS Twin Otter arrived with Ben and Crispin, who we needed to help prepare for relief and Pat (our Station Commander). Soon after that we lost the first member of our wintering team when Ed, our intrepid field assistant flew off to take part in a geological survey of the nearby Theron mountains.
One of the big jobs to do before the ship arrived was to move the Garage and the Drewery to new positions. Since Halley receives around 1.5 metres of snow accumulation every year anything that is left on the surface quickly gets buried. The main platforms are on jackable legs which are raised each year. The Drewery (the summer accommodation building) and the Garage use a different approach – they are mounted on skis and each year they are pulled out and moved to a new position. This year we needed to move them around 45 metres, up a 15 degree slope. Considering each building weighs around 60 tons this was no small feat!
Once all the power cables and other services were disconnected, the first step was to use large inflatable bags to slightly raise one side of the building. This breaks the skis free from the ice and makes them easier to get moving. Towing the buildings required two Nodwell cranes to act as anchors and two bulldozers which provided the winches. Large steel cables were used in a pulley system to double the pulling force. Finally, to get things moving a third bulldozer nudged the back of the building while the winches were pulling in. This process had to be repeated several times for each building as the pulleys needed to be reset periodically.
It was a big operation, but by the end of a long day both buildings were moved to their new positions and plugged back in ready for another winter. Other pre-relief tasks included laying out the N9 drum line (which runs to an alternative relief site in case the conditions aren’t suitable at closer sites), laying out the summer depot line, and generally trying to clear enough space on base to accommodate the summer masses.
Although things were getting rather busy we still managed to find the time for one final visit to Windy to visit the penguins. We’ve headed down there every couple of months since it started getting light again so it was nice to check on their progress and see how much the chicks had grown. There were a lot less left this time so obviously the majority had shed their down feathers and headed north.
The ice-free seas allowed our resupply ship (the RRS Ernest Shackleton) to reach Halley slightly ahead of schedule so there was plenty of activity in the days running up to its arrival. Relief is the one time a year when the bulk of new supplies arrive on station. Halley is on an ice shelf that sits around 30 metres above sea level so in order to get cargo from the ship onto the shelf we make use of natural ramps called creeks. There are several creeks in the vicinity of Halley so each year we assess which one would make the best relief site. This year we were lucky that one of the nearest, creek two, had a nice shallow ramp running up from the sea ice. There was also around 500 metres of smooth, thick ‘fast’ ice which the ship could moor up to and offload cargo.
During relief it’s all hands on deck to get all the supplies for the following year off the ship, across the sea ice, up on to the ice shelf and back to base. Cargo includes enough fuel and food to keep the base running, maintenance and science equipment not to mention mail and fresh fruit! Once all that cargo has arrived at the station, the whole process runs in reverse for a while so that our waste can be shipped out. Often it can be a long process but this year good sea ice conditions and great weather helped to make it one of the smoothest for a number of years. We were pretty much finished by Boxing Day which meant we could all enjoy a slightly belated Christmas on base. Our chef Kev once again excelled himself, producing a superb seven-course meal with all the trimmings.
By the 28th of December the ship had departed for the Falklands leaving us until February when it would return to collect all those not staying for the winter. Meanwhile the season got into full swing with everyone working long days to prepare the base for the coming winter.
Halley International Airport was once again open for business at the end of the month, for a brief visit by a Basler DC-3. They just stopped to refuel on their way to Novolazarlvskaya. It is rare to get such a large aircraft visiting Halley so quite a few of us headed down to take a look and watch them take off.
That’s about all for this month, and indeed another year at Halley. On a personal note I’ve had a fantastic time down here and am very much looking forward to my second winter. Lots of love to my friends and family – see you all in a year!