31 October, 2013 Halley
It’s October now and the length of daylight is increasing rapidly at this time of year. It only seems a few weeks since we were in total darkness yet we now have very distinct days and nights and in only another few weeks we will have perpetual 24 hour daylight.
People’s energy levels are increasing and it is easier to get outside and do jobs that could not be done in the dark of winter. As the field assistant on station I have had a particularly busy month running the second round of ‘winter training trips’. These happen twice a year. Firstly at the start of winter just after the ship leaves and then again at the end of winter, just before the first aircraft arrive. I take each of the other base members off station (usually 2 or 3 at a time) for a week of activities. With 13 of us on station that means we have 5 trips over October and November, each 7 days long with 3 days in-between for us to unpack, repack and for me to get a much needed shower before heading out again.
These trips serve many purposes:
Teaching people to look after themselves in harsh conditions and how to use essential field equipment. Primus stoves and tilley lamps that both run on kerosene fuel and pyramid tents very similar to the design used by Captain Scott. These skills make people more useful on station as they are essential before they are allowed to fly in the Twin Otter aircraft as co-pilots. Whenever the aircraft go out there is always a chance that the weather may intervene and it may be forced to land somewhere on the continent and wait for better weather. In such circumstances being able to pitch a tent, cook a hot meal and look after yourself in bad weather is important for survival.
Similarly during both my winters in Antarctica there have been instances when there has been a power-down and we have had a short period with no power on station. While the technical services team spring into action to fix the problem others gather stoves and tilley lamps to heat and light buildings and cook meals.
There is a recreational side to. For many folk these 2 trips are there only real opportunities to leave station. Depending on the weather and peoples interests these trips offer the opportunities of visits to the emperor penguin colony, abseiling into crevasses for exploration or ice climbing on the many ice cliffs. They give the individual a chance to have a break from everyone else on station and sometimes just as important (depending on the individual) they give everyone else on station a chance to have a week’s break from you!
On such a busy hectic station it is sometimes difficult to appreciate where you really are. The chance to go for a walk on a winter trip then stopping to sit on a piece of ice on a calm windless day is unforgettable. When you stop talking and moving you notice that with no wind there is no sound at all, nothing but total silence and as you look around 360 degrees there is no sign of life – no station, no tents, nothing, just snow and sky. It is then that you remember where you really are.
Not only is the daylight returning but the temperatures are increasing too. The first winter trip out had temperatures down as low as -40C and never warmer than −30C but by the last trip of the month some days were around -10C. Starting skidoos below −30C can be a real problem. Oil gets so thick it does not flow and lubricate, drive belts, and fan belts made of rubber set like concrete and can split and crack. At the coldest temperatures it is necessary to put a lit tilley lamp under the tarp covering the skidoo and leave it for up to an hour to bring the temperatures up, till it is possible to start them.
While I may have spent most of the month off station everyone else has been as busy as ever on station. Most of the fuel to run station is contained in large bulk storage tanks that contain 20,000 litres of fuel. The rest of the fuel comes in 205 litre drums. These are arranged in fuel dumps of 198 drums. We have now used all the bulk fuel so have to raise the drums to refuel station. The drums were laid down the previous summer so after months of snow and wind they are well buried. To raise 1 fuel dump takes most of a day. First the bulldozer clears 2 trenches in the snow to either side of the dump to expose the drums. Then a crane is used to lift the drums, 3 at a time, from the ground onto waiting sledges which are parked nearby. Its sounds easy but of course nothing in Antarctica is quite as easy as it sounds! Think Bamby-on-ice-meets-construction-worker! If station had a masseur the day after a drum raise would see a queue at their door.
Another activity that is a real sign that summer is not far away is putting the ski-way back out. The aircraft that land at Halley all land on skis. In theory they can land anywhere that is snow covered, but if the surface is too bumpy or uneven it can do serious damage to the aircraft. To avoid this, the ski-way is heavily prepared. Empty fuel drums are placed in a straight line as markers every 60m for 1000m . This line marks one side of the skiway. The John Deere tractor then tows a large snow grooming device up and down the ski-way taking out and sastrugi and lumps and making it all flat. Finally lots of GPS coordinates are taken (remember we are on a moving, floating ice shelf so our position changes each year) for the ends of the skiway, the apron area where the aircraft will park and the tie-downs (where the aircraft are tied to the ground to stop them blowing away). All this information is used to create a map of the ski-way and other buildings on station which the chief pilot gives to every pilot flying in to Halley.
And the list goes on and on… There was a complicated repair to the VLF antenna (used for one of the experiments) requiring lots of man-power, a tall crane and folk trained in mast climbing. The communications array needed repairing and many of the catenaries carrying cables out to the various science cabooses needed raising. Much of this work was due to damage done during severe storms at the end of winter and the volume of snow slowly burying everything.
But of course you can’t have an October without a Halloween night. So the fancy dress cupboard got raided by some while the more artistic got creative and made their own costumes. Even Darth Vader made an appearance though he did struggle with eating dinner through his mask.