Halley Diary — March 2003

31 March, 2003

By Russ Locke (AIS Engineer)

Finding things to put into this months diary has been an easy job because we’ve been so busy here since the RRS Ernest Shackleton left Halley at the end of February. For first-time winterers like myself the first task was to get used to having so few people around. My whole experience of Halley up until that point had been as one of about 60 or so people. Now there were just fourteen of us. It was quite strange but once we had got used to the reduced numbers the main task of preparing the base for winter began.

Because of the accumulation of snow at Halley during the winter all of the empty fuel drums that form the perimeter of the base and mark the different routes to the coast must be raised. If this is not done they soon disappear under the snow. Other pre-winter jobs have included decommissioning the summer accommodation building, digging out full fuel drums that have been buried and general tidying up after the hectic summer season.

For some people the departure of the ship also marked the beginning of the pre-winter trips. We all took turns to leave the base in groups of four and were taken to an area called the Hinge Zone by the base Field Assistant Paul. There we spent a few days camping and exploring the area.

As part of the decommissioning of the summer accommodation building, the tank that melts all the snow to provide fresh water has to be cleaned and drained. Before this work was carried out it gave us the opportunity to carry on a long standing Halley tradition of turning up the melt tank thermostat and for one night only converting it into a hot tub.

Rob the heating and ventilation engineer had done the hard work of filling and heating the tank, all we had to do was to was turn up with a few refreshments and take the plunge. The tradition also includes a short dash outside in the cold in swimming trunks to get to the tank. This was the last hot bath we would be having for quite a while and so made the most of it. It took a lot of persuasion at the end of the evening to leave the warmth of the tub and make the short dash back indoors.

About 40km south of Halley is an area called the Hinge Zone. This is the region in which the floating ice shelf, on which Halley Station sits, joins the Antarctic plateau. Unlike Halley, which is very flat and featureless, the Hinge Zone is full of features such as small valleys, ice mounds and crevasses. It was the Hinge Zone that we all headed for our pre-winter trips. While we were there we stayed under canvas, which at minus 30 degrees Celsius or below was a bit on the cold side. Luckily our goose down sleeping bags ensured we still got a warm nights sleep. During the days, weather permitting, we went out exploring either by skidoo or on foot. The main danger when moving around in the Hinge Zone is of hidden crevasses. For this reason, while moving around outside, we were always joined to the end of a rope.

On one of the days while out on foot we came across a small flat-bottomed gorge that had sheer walled sides covered in with amazing ice formations. We also came across some small hidden crevasses of which I disappeared into up to my knee a couple of times.

On another day we abseiled into a large crevasse that had been found by a previous group. The entrance to the crevasse was through a small hole in the snow and once inside we were again surrounded by amazing ice formations that were a bright neon blue in colour. Like most of the things we’ve seen so far since arriving at Halley, it’s really difficult to take pictures that do the subject any justice but we keep on trying.

As I write this, the last of the groups is still out in the field. After they come back we will have to wait until the end of the winter and the return of the sun before we can get away again.

March also saw in “Noe-Rooz”, the Persian New Year. To mark the occasion here at Halley, Craig the base chef laid on an amazing spread of food. There are limits to what we have in stock here, and some of the more specifically Persian dishes we had trouble finding ingredients for, but Craig improvised and made a whole variety of dishes from all over the Middle East. The evening contained Persian customs such as bringing something to the meal that begins with the letter ‘S’.

On a more serious note, one question we keep getting asked is how isolated we are from the news and what is happening in the rest of the world. Ten or so years ago communication with friends and relatives from Halley was by a once a month, hand written fax, on an A4 sheet of paper. These days, with the advent of e-mail and cheaper satellite telephones, communications are much better. We also receive a newspaper that is e-mailed to us daily so that we can, if we want, stay in touch with the news back home. The H-F radio we use to communicate with field parties and with other Antarctic bases doubles as a short-wave radio receiver, with aerials set up outside which receive international news stations such as the BBC World Service and the Voice of America.

Obviously, at the moment our daily newspaper is full of stories of the war in Iraq. Hopefully it will end quickly and our thoughts go out to all the soldiers, their families and the Iraqi people.

This month also saw the construction of a new building at Halley. After several hours spent out in the cold and with the help of some cheap but enthusiastic manual labour, Gavin built himself an igloo. The snow blocks used in the construction were cut from the ground and painstakingly arranged into the shape of the igloo. To test the suitability as an Antarctic dwelling Gavin spent a night under the ice while the temperature outside a chilly minus 26 degrees Celsius.

Since arriving at Halley three months ago I’ve been constantly amazed by it’s rugged beauty. I just hope I don’t start to take it for granted and still find it just as amazing when I come to leave. This month we’ve been privileged enough to see atmospheric conditions that have caused a rainbow-like halo around the sun and also the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis.

Next months diary will be written by Paul Torode so I’ll now pass the baton over to him. Before I go I’d just like to say hello to all my friends and family, have a very happy birthday Holly and welcome home to all the summer staff who have just arrived back in the UK.

Russ Locke