Halley Diary — January 2010

31 January, 2010 Halley

Dear Diary,

January, as a month, is usually looked forward to not a lot particularly in the UK where the usual rain and fog takes a break to be replaced by snow, ice, traffic jams and general misery. How much better, then, to be at Halley? True, there is snow and ice aplenty but there is also the glittering prospect of Relief.

Relief: a magical word, conjuring up many images here, but principally those of new clothes, new toys, and as an afterthought, new people to play with. Relief this year was split between two ships — the Igarka (a large ice-strengthened Russian cargo ship) and the RRS Ernest Shackleton (the BAS logistics ship). The Igarka arriving first got to unload first, with lots of lovely blue shells making their way up the ramp to the base. It was fairly interesting to sit comfortably on the Shackleton watching the impressive balancing acts undertaken to ensure these panels made it to the top of the ramp without being blown over by the wind or otherwise falling over.

Not to be outdone, the Shackleton had its own period of Relief, bringing in the stores and equipment needed to keep Halley Station operational through the coming winter.

The original schedule had allowed 5 days for the Shackleton to unload once it started but a combination of skill, dexterity, an instinct for self-preservation and an overwhelming desire to return to Cape Town to pick up some Norwegian scientists meant it was undertaken in considerably less time than that. This was despite all the (not inconsiderable) distractions of the sea ice as well as having to load a Prime Mover which was feeling under the weather.

Overall the statistics surrounding relief are somewhat staggering: over 300 sledge loads were shifted, in over 600 trips covering over 4000 sledge miles though since often more than one sledge was dragged by each vehicle this came to over 1500 vehicle miles. All completed without any major hiccups and in only a few days. Unloading and then loading complete, the Shackleton departed on its merry way not to be seen again for many months (or until March).

The excitement of relief completed, the base was then free to turn to sorting out all of the rapidly unloaded cargo and to turn it to good use.

The generator mechanics were most pleased to find they had a new engine to play with, and named it ‘Shrek’ on account of its colour (though hopefully not its habits). An evening of stripping back the unwanted parts and replacing these with our own custom-made brackets and fittings preceded the Big Move.

The Mechs had a number of helpers, all keen to get involved in the action. These, though enthusiastic, did require a little help and guidance with their efforts to ensure best results — some more than others (the Doc). Having readied Shrek for his new home, it was down to a combination of brute force, ignorance, vast quantities of porridge for breakfast and the careful directions of Matt and Ben to ensure this delicate retiring flower was placed correctly.

A further few hours of grunting and working round corners led to Shrek finally being joined to his new home and made ready for action. Breaths were held and fingers crossed as he was started the first time. Hurrah! Music to our ears — the first hesitant coughs soon turned to a chirping bubbling roar as Shrek came to life and took over powering the Laws platform. Amidst the celebration was a tinge of poignancy as the Faithful Old Girl replaced by Shrek is gently put out to retirement.

All work and no play makes Jack (or in this case Shifty/Colin) a dull boy and it is pleasing to see that whilst most of his time is spent working with large and heavy plant he still retains the lightness-of-touch and fingertip dexterity to work the small bolts and other assorted minute parts making up what would eventually become a model snowmobile.

Although entertaining to watch (particularly the frustration when things didn’t quite go to plan) a model snowmobile was never really going to capture the imagination of the entire base for very long. Instead, a pool competition was proposed; to be played as doubles over a number of weeks and hopefully completed before the first flights out. Co-incidentally, shortly after the pool competition notice was put up, it became necessary to re-cloth the pool table and in particular replace the old worn cushions with springy new ones. A crack team of craftsmen and artisans were assembled to do the job but they had forgotten to get on the ship so it was down to the people on base to do it instead.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. The skills were in evidence and things did go smoothly with an excellent finished product at the end of the day. Starting with the removal of the old cloth, there then came a short debate as to the colour for the new one. Swiftly settling on green, the team then moved on to strip the table clean before attempting to fix it. As can be seen, there was a lot of discussion, and similarly a lot of supervision involved in the enterprise. The crunch/excitement came when the scissors were due to be wielded. How much and where to cut? In what shape/design to ensure maximal pocket fit? All these questions and more were asked before finally the cloth was ready to be ironed and then cut. The cloth was fixed to the slate of the table bed with glue and had to be clamped tightly to prevent slipping and closely monitored to ensure it properly set. At least that was what I was told. Finally, the table was finished and ready to be tried out to make sure everything was in working order. Certainly the cloth and the cushions were much faster than the old ones and recent complaints about the state of the pockets preventing the match-winning ball dropping have been dismissed as so many sour grapes.

Two other notable entertainments happened the same excitement-filled weekend: there was an ice-climbing trip, and there was a ‘Burns Night’ held. There were in fact two ice climbing trips so more of them later.

The Burns Night was held on the 23nd of January rather than the 25th because of work/time commitments as well as the desire to allow people a lie-in the morning after their exertions. A fine dinner of Haggis Neeps and Tatties was served up by yon braw mannies in the kitchen, ye ken. Efter ’at wi hed a fine set o’ readin’ fae the good loons o’ the winterin’ team. Files they tried their haun’ at the accent, an’ files they didna but nae a ane o’ ’em made the hoose roar like yon Richard. A Sassenach i’faith an’ fae Cambridge nae less, he fair had the folk laughin’ wi’ his rendition o’ ‘Ode to the Toothache’ wi’ sich a braw sperit ye kent he’d a fair whack o’t in his puff.

Following this we had a bit of a singsong with merriment and good spirits lending enthusiasm and volume to what would otherwise have sounded like a troupe of broken refrigerators agonising their way through ‘The Jeely Piece Song’.

The indoor cultural extravaganza drawing to a close, the assembled multitude repaired outside to partake in the ‘Halley Highland Games’ including ‘Tossing the Caber’ ‘Chucking the Shackle’ and ‘Whanging the Wellie’. A number of interesting and novel techniques were tried in all of these events, with Antonie Roose proving his worth at the Caber Toss, Marlin Robertson astounding all with his Shackle-chucking prowess and our somewhat bemused night-shift operator Tim Gee showing there’s no-one who can whang a wellie like a lad from Leeds.

The ice-climbing days — a week apart — both dawned (or were noted on rising from slumber to be) fair and bright with only minimal wind to add freshness to the air. The victims, I mean intrepid heroes, were taken to the coast where they experienced walking as a roped Alpine team before watching the belays being put in and settling down to a quick chat on the techniques involved in the climb itself. It is beyond the scope of this humble journal to recount with full justice the intrepid tales of derring-do told and retold by these happy few. Such tales are much better heard first-hand with vivid description and expansive hand-gesturing to add to the sense of high drama.

In the background of all of this, and taking up by far the most time, is the build of the new base — Halley VI. Whilst I am sure there are many tales to be told on this count and while there are many fine photographs and films showing the ongoing progress despite the worst Mother Nature can throw down, it is better perhaps to wait and have ‘the whole shamoley’ set before you than to be drip-fed tantalising glimpses here and there merely whetting the appetite without providing satiety.

So we shall draw a veil upon the building side of life here at Halley (though from my window I have to confess it does look spectacular) and leave with a picture of a Sun Halo over the Halley signpost — the first I have seen though hopefully not the last.

And so to bed…