31 March, 2006 Halley
Winter is on its way. Halley feels almost empty as the summer crowd have escaped and left sixteen happy souls to make the place their own. March is a very busy month, packed with preparation for the winter, field trips and a little bit of fun to fill the evenings.
Over the summer Halley becomes a larger place. We grow a skiway a kilometre to the North of the base, we have two accommodation buildings and run a large fleet of vehicles to support the work of nearly seventy people. As winter begins the first task is to shrink the place back to a manageable size. The Drewry building, used to house the summer contingent, is emptied, cleaned up, serviced and turned off – a long list of little jobs for Brian, Bob, Liz and Mark to work through as boilers are drained, doors fixed and large piles of laundry cleaned. Anything delicate must be moved out as the building has no heating over the winter, so washing machines and radios turn up elsewhere, sheltering in unexpected places.
Anto, our vehicle mechanic, gave the fleet of vehicles a final going over then put them to bed high on giant mounds or crammed inside containers. Walking or skiing are now the way to get about on short journeys as it takes far too much effort to start the skidoos. The lines of drums that mark the boundary of the base are raised back above the rising snow. The skiway is dismantled and packed away, and suddenly the base is half the size it was when the ship sailed away. An acknowledgement that we’re on our own now, with the edges of our small world fixed by a circle of barrels and flags.
The most important part of having the place to ourselves is getting our own rooms. Since joining the ship in November we’ve not really had a little spot all of our own. Now we’ve walls for pictures, shelves for books and a bit of space to unpack the last of our clothes and kit. Finally a sort of peace and quiet descends over the emptiness as the routine of winter sets in.
Every now and then, though, something turns up to keep us on our toes. This month an electrical fault in the tunnels that supply the Piggott platform tripped power to a number of experiments and proved very tricky to troubleshoot. After getting a tiny bit bored of being woken in the middle of the night by the science alarm the problem was eventually traced to an aging heater and replaced by Mark, the intrepid electrician. Problems like this can strike at any time, usually when something fun is going on, but the team of people here have the skills to sort them out and keep the science going.
If Halley wasn’t empty enough with sixteen people, it felt almost deserted once groups started to set off on their field trips. Everyone looks forward to these as they retain the romance of the Antarctic, and form a major reason to come down for a winter. A chance for normal people doing normal jobs to go out and experience the Antarctic first hand – from a tent in the middle of a storm.
Three of the four trips managed to get away from the base and up to the Hinge Zone, an area of gulleys, valleys and towering bergs that’s perfect for learning the art of Antarctic travel. On each trip three mere mortals and Simon, our field assistant and resident gnarly Antarctic hero, set off into the unknown, pitching tents at the head of the largest valley, cooking on Primus stoves, reading by the light of a Tilly lamp and, if the weather lets them, heading out to dangle in ice caves, skirt crevasses and practice what to do if someone really fell into one.
The first trip, Sledge Alpha, featuring Julius, Kirsty and Liz, got away easily and enjoyed very good weather. They travelled far and wide, and even found and named a new gully: LiKi JuSy (Licky Juicy). They adjusted well to life in tents and got the hang of things quickly, burning only one glove as part of the learning process. The second trip, Sledge Beta (AKA Buttercup) was delayed by high winds but eventually the weather broke and Frances, Anto and Nicola made it off into the distance. Once away the weather took another dip and they were confined to their tents for day long games of bridge. As time was running out a brilliant day dawned and they were able to get in a spot of abseiling and jumaring (going down, then coming back up a rope with mechanical devices). Buttercup returned through glittering diamond dust beneath a halo filling the sky in the hinge zone and at Halley.
The third sledge, Charlie (Chocolate), had less luck. Another bout of high winds was followed by fairly still but dull days without good contrast. Vicki, Andy and Dave amused themselves at home by practising rescue techniques in the bar and abseiling under the garage crane. On holiday, if not away, they filled the lounge with games and racing cars. Finally the weather improved but too late for them to get out and camp. Instead they had a few days off base at Windy Caboose where they invented purple custard and played every one of the seven magnetic games available.
Sledge Delta (AKA Deliverance) had a run of good, but very cold weather. Delayed by only one day they set off in clear skies at thirty below. A couple of good days out near the tents and some exploration led to the discovery of an ice rink, probably good enough for skating on. John, Brian and Chris returned refreshed and full of stories, ready for a warm shower and a real bed. The final sledge, Echo, is due to leave on the first of April with Alex, Bob and Mark. Everyone is hoping for good conditions and itching to get away from Halley, if only for a little while.
It isn’t all work at Halley. We’ve had a few occasions to celebrate this month. Starting with a super delicious Mexican spread for our first meal together. The traditional melt tank party before the cleanup of the Drewry popped up soon after, with thirteen of us choosing to squeeze into 5′ x 6′ x 7′ box half filled with hot water – getting from the building to the tank in a swimming costume was a tad nippy but once inside our last bath was very welcome and quite the giggle.
Two birthdays cropped up. Frances had a Children’s Party theme, complete with a baby, a fairy, a clown and a magician. The table was laid with balloons, jelly and gingerbread men. After eating we noticed that we were about to run out of water, so went out for a spot of surreal melt tank digging, then retired inside for the rest of the evening. Frances provided a seal shaped pinata packed with sweeties that soon shattered under blows from a baseball bat. We played musical chairs then skipped and juggled through the night. Nicola’s birthday coincided with St. Patrick’s day so we celebrated with a night of singing and dancing, with Dave bringing out his fiddle, John and Vicki giving a world premier of a penny whistle duet, and everyone else shouting loudly if not exactly tunefully along with “Whiskey in the Jar” and other classics.
On a more intellectual level, Simon hosted a quiz in which we discovered that Sastrugi – the ripples that form on the snow in the wind – is a Russian word for the patterns on planed wood, and that the engine capacity of an Alpine III Ski-Doo is somewhere in the region of 500cc. Finally we’ve been amusing ourselves by playing with the hair cutting kit, with Mohawks sprouting slowly around the base.
As you may have gathered from the winter trips above, we’re very interested in the weather here. Day to day what we can do is affected by the wind and the sun. Too windy and a ten minute walk to work might take half an hour, too cold and cables become brittle and will snap if moved around. Just windy enough and we can launch our kites for a dash over the snow. Too much snow and we spend more time digging things out. Too warm and everything gets slippery and icy, and normally frozen ceilings spring new leaks.
Frances, Andy and Kirsty, the team on the Simpson platform, home of the weather at Halley, have trawled through the archives and found that this month had the highest maximum March temperature since records began at Halley. For a couple of days we touched +0.8 degrees, which was warmer than many places in the UK at the time. Things are back to normal now: between ten and twenty below.
Hello to everyone back home, keep in touch, we all love getting the emails…
Web Diary by Alex Gough