Jan – Changing plans

31 January, 2006

I’m serving in the Royal Navy, I joined just over two years ago as a pilot and have been lent to BAS for a few months to work here at Rothera for the Antarctic summer. The Royal Navy has a very good relationship with BAS because we try and support them as much as we can with HMS Endurance, our Antarctic survey ship, which spends every summer season down here in Antarctic Waters. Well, enough background, onwards to the interesting stuff!

January has been rather a fantastic month here at Rothera – for me anyway! This web diary is, I hope, going to be a bit different because I only spent the first 11 days here. The rest I have spent away from base and I want to try and share some of the fantastic places I’ve managed to see over the previous weeks.

We have to begin at Rothera though – right at the beginning – One minute past midnight, New Years Day 2006. Everyone is still up and about after enjoying two bands that had put on a fantastic show for all of us here on base. Everyone is on a bit of a high and the party lasts until well into the morning as we celebrate.

Those who managed it woke up to a bright clear and sunny New Years morning. Sundays are my favourite day here because it’s the one day people tend to give themselves a little bit of a break and go out and enjoy themselves. My favourite place on base is Vals, our winter sports area that has a comfy caboose for making cups of tea and a reasonable ski and snowboarding slope so we can enjoy ourselves too. A small bunch of us head up right after lunch and we have a fantastic afternoon of sunbathing, snowboarding and eating sweets kindly brought by Matt ‘Dulux’ Brown and Olives brought by Kate Hendry.

The atmosphere around base is markedly different since the RRS James Clark Ross arrived. Quite a few people were waiting for equipment to arrive on the ship so that their work could start in earnest and almost everyone on base had something arrive that requires opening, unpacking and sorting out. The big item to arrive for the Communications and Operations team is our new High Frequency (HF) radio antennae – the Rotating Log Power Antennae (RLPA). This is going to allow us to talk to people much further away by radio as it produces much more power than our current HF radios and focuses it in a narrow beam. We’ve had to rely on Satellite phones this year to talk to some of our distant field parties and the hope is that this will make things much easier on both the field parties and Comms team.

Amazingly I managed to even remember to send my Mum flowers on her birthday on the 6th Jan (Happy Birthday Mum!) on the day most of the work above was going on.

Rothera supports two field stations south of us that we use as places to store lots of fuel and give a safe known landing place for the aircraft. Fossil Bluff is an old BAS built station from the 1960s and further south from there is Sky Blu which was located as a good site for a runway in 1993/94 and I do mean Runway. Sky Blu is on thick blue ice, which will quite happily support aircraft landing on wheels rather than skis. This lets BAS send its biggest aircraft directly there and get lots more fuel and supplies to somewhere they can be left to be used later by smaller aircraft. It’s a quite remarkable place and somewhere I had wanted to spend some time working at. Well guess what! I’d been on standby to go for quite a while and finally on January 11th I get the call that I’m flying down on the Dash-7 along with 15 drums of aviation fuel, my kit, food and mail for the guys already down there.

Landing the Dash-7 at Sky Blu is by no means a simple operation. This is a large aircraft and we’re talking about a very short runway that is very slippery and not very wide. Pilots Alan and Geoff make it look easy but the skill and concentration involved are evident as I sit behind them in the cockpit jump seat. It’s a unique experience.

The Dash doesn’t hang around. As soon as it pulls up to the apron the two left hand engines are shut down, the unloading ramps are put into place and barrels of fuel start rolling down the ramps. This far from home you don’t want to completely power down the aircraft, just in case, and it also makes getting away afterwards faster. 20 minutes from the wheels touching down I’m standing in -15 degrees C, beautiful sunshine and hardly a cloud in the sky watching as the Dash powers down the runway and lifts off heading north again. As the silence descends it sinks in that I’m finally here! There are four of us to man Sky Blu as I arrive. Bruce Maltman, Mr Sky Blu for this season because he will be spending so much time here, Jules Klepacki who is here to work on some met equipment and ‘Dangerous’ Brian Beck the vehicle mechanic here to maintain Sky Blu’s small but essential fleet of vehicles.

For today however we’re done and after adding the fuel from the Dash to one of the depots here we decamp to the Melon Hut for a cup of tea. It’s a fairly lazy afternoon after that, we have no further aircraft on the way and the weather isn’t really suitable for snow blowing on the runway. Thankfully I have a good book! It also gives me time to find somewhere to sleep and unpack a few things. Jules makes the most incredible pie in the evening from left over beef biryani.

Sky Blu is a funny place, either you are incredibly busy or you are just waiting for it to get busy. Sometimes those waits can be fairly long and it can give you an opportunity to get out and about. We had a chance like that a couple of days into my stay at Sky Blu. The Dash-7 was flying back from the Falkland Islands with more people to stay at Rothera and the other aircraft were occupied with tasks far away from us leaving us with something that happens quite rarely at Sky Blu – No aircraft and reasonably good weather. Sky Blu has a number of Nunataks surrounding it. We had picked Carrera around 6km to the west and around 1700ft to the summit as a good candidate for a bit of exercise. The climb was fairly hard with rocks just big enough to make walking on them difficult both with and without crampons attached but after two hours of good hard climbing we reached to summit and the view was definitely worth it. Sky Blu itself was under cloud, which made it hard to pick out, but the view of the distant Nunataks to the south was stunning. We sat up there for around an hour eating chocolate and taking pictures as a very light snow was falling. It really was very beautiful.

I hope Brian won’t mind me saying this but he’s not a great fan of heights. Now going up hadn’t been too bad because you’re always looking up at where your going and the ground is always behind you where you can’t see it – coming down though is a different matter! We had a fair bit of fairly steep ice walking to do on the way down and the drop is pretty steep and for those of us who are pretty new to all this, including myself, it can be a little interesting at times. It all adds to the satisfaction at the end of it though, these things wouldn’t be half as much fun if there were no challenge involved.

The light snow we’d had on the top of Carrera was a tell tale of what was to come over the next couple of days. The weather can make life fairly unpleasant down here so far away from everything. It also creates a lot of work for us. I spend the next couple of days in the ‘Popemobile’, a snowmobile with a big glass enclosed cab reminiscent of the vehicle the last Pope took to travelling around in, blowing snow away from the runway just to see it drift in almost as fast. It’s an endless job when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction but it has to be done to keep the runway open. I actually found it rather relaxing, especially as the cab of the pope gets quite warm and I was able to spend all day in shorts, T-shirt and take my boots off even though it was -18 outside!

After a week at Sky Blu we hear over the HF radio that I’m moving to Fossil Bluff later today, it’s the first I’ve heard of it! Completely out of the blue but that is what being here is all about. After initially being a little annoyed as I’m having a great time here and I don’t want to go I decide that maybe this is actually a great opportunity to see another new place while I can.

Well I’m actually immensely grateful for being sent to Fossil Bluff. It is without a doubt the best week I have spent in the Antarctic so far and I’d quite happily go back there and stay there thank you very much!

Fossil Bluff sits on the Eastern edge of Alexander Island with mountains to the west and King George Sound to the East. The view across the sound is pretty good to say the least and the scope for recreation is much greater than Sky Blu with the milder weather and a range of hills right on your doorstep. It also helps that the hut itself is very comfortable and warm thanks to bunk beds and an aviation fuel burning stove. When I arrive there are two people moving out leaving just the new Rothera Doctor, Lowrie and myself here. I actually enjoy cooking immensely and I’ve had very little chance to cook for myself or anyone else for quite a while so I get straight into the swing of things and knock up a sausage casserole and pasta and we open a bottle of red wine too. This is civilisation at its best – Antarctic style.

The Bluff gets quite a few aircraft flying through it and next morning there’s no time to relax. Matt ‘The Diver’ Brown is swapping out with Lowrie and she’s getting the chance to fly South acting as Ant Tuscon’s co-pilot. We have just enough time to make a double batch of scones (yes really) to send to Sky Blu with her. After making some bread with olives in it – making the hut smell fantastic in the process and refuelling another aircraft on its way to Halley we’re done for the day. The slope behind the hut looks tempting and the weather is good so Matt and I decide to head up to Snow Dome if we can. We later learn that this is the way people come DOWN not UP. It is incredibly hard going on a loose scree slope, two steps forward and one and a half back for two and a half hours with false summit after false summit. By the time I reach the top I am very, very tired. I make the most of it by taking lots and lots of pictures. It takes only 20 minutes to get back to the hut sliding down the slope is remarkably good fun and it lightens my mood considerably. I turn the radio on and learn we have yet another aircraft on the way! It’s Ant and Jules heading back from doing some work on the Ronne Ice Shelf. Sky Blu has gone downhill and the weather is too bad for flying so they’re coming here. No rest for the wicked I guess. On the way back to the hut after they land we point out where we’ve been today and get told we’re mad, there’s a much easier route up if you’d just gone round there!

Ant and Jules head south again the following morning. There isn’t really enough work in the hut for two people so we agree that Matt can head down to the skiway and do some depot maintenance (digging) and I’ll keep giving weather information to Rothera on the radio every hour and in between it lets me make more bread, some cookies and some shortbread before cracking on with Chicken Lasagne for tea. I confess I’d never made real bechamel sauce for a lasagne before but it turned out to be rather good if rather huge, certainly more than we can eat. This turns out to be a good thing because the weather at Rothera takes a serious turn for the worse and we have an aircraft inbound to us – guests again and they’re hungry! Put the leftovers back in the oven to keep warm and go and collect Ant and Lowrie who seem very grateful for the hot food after a long day.

21st Jan is Burns night for those of you who missed it. We had a pretty fantastic time at the Bluff but the real action was at Rothera!

Thanks to Damien Carson for writing this bit.

For the Scottish contingent on base, there is no better celebration (apart from new year) than Burns Night. This year it was celebrated in Antarctica in true Rothera style.

Burns Suppers have been part of Scottish culture for about 200 years as a means of commemorating our best loved bard. And when Burns immortalised haggis in verse he created a central link that is maintained to this day.

Close friends of Burns started the ritual a few years after his death in 1796 as a tribute to his memory. The basic format for the evening has remained unchanged since that time and begins when the chairman invites the company to receive the haggis.

Our head of PR Linda Capper, who recited the Selkirk grace, opened the night. The haggis was then presented to the head table, led by Jamie Fletcher sporting a set of convincing fake bagpipes. It was then the turn of Damien Carson (mad Scotsman beaker) to recite the famous poem ‘To a Haggis’, which he did with a slightly stronger Scottish accent than he would normally sport. When he reached the line ‘an cut you up wi’ ready slight’, normally he would open the haggis with a sharp knife. But instead, he decided to sport a saying from the film Crocodile Dundee; ‘that’s not a knife’. This is a knife! and he produced a rather large meat cleaver from under the head table and obliterated the haggis with a scary look in his eyes.

After the haggis recital, we sat down to a traditional Burns Supper meal;

  • Cock-a-leekie soup
  • Haggis warm reeking, rich wi’ Champit Tatties,Bashed Neeps
  • Tyspy Laird (sherry trifle)
  • A Tassie o’ coffee

After dinner, it was the turn of Mark ‘Soup’ Laidlaw to give a toast to the lassies, where he says how lovely they are, throwing a few jokes about things the current crop of Rothera lassies have been up to in the past few months. Then Kat Snell gave the reply from the lassies, making fun of the Rothera males – Cro-Magnon nature.

After dinner we had a traditional ceildh, where we spend hours hurling each other around the dance floor to some excellent live ceildh music. Thankfully there were few injuries to which the doctors thanked us for. All in all, this was an excellent Burns night and hopefully this tradition will continue at Rothera in the coming years as it has in the past.

The last few days at the Bluff are fairly relaxed. Rod Strachan arrives on one of the aircraft doing Rothera-Fossil Bluff runs, building up the stocks of fuel here. I even have time to send biscuits back to Rothera because I have that many I don’t know what to do with them! On a quiet day I have a walk round to Belamnite valley around a mile to the north of the hut. I spend an hour or so wandering around with the sound of running water from the melt water stream in the background. The valley is named after the fossilised creature that can be found in abundance there. Fossil Bluff is not named that by coincidence, you can’t walk anywhere very far without stumbling over the remains of something.

The 26th January is another of those crazy days. It all starts normally with two aircraft coming to us from Rothera early in the morning. After we have them both on the ground we find out that Gary Giles, a pilot in his first season with BAS who was on a training flight, is not feeling entirely well. The weather is also being a bit unpredictable. Everything is a little confused initially – I end up having to grab a skidoo and get back to the hut, pack a bag with essential clothes and get back to the aircraft because I’m getting the onward trip in the aircraft and Gary is heading back to base. First stop is Sky Blu again to refuel the aircraft then onto RABID the Rutford Area Base (Ice Drilling) on the edge of the Ellsworth Mountains to pick up Sledge Tango and Sledge Hotel. If you leave something lying on the ground in Antarctica one of two things will happen to it: The wind will blow it away or snow will bury it. This means that when BAS leaves things in the field over winter someone has to come back and dig them out and put them on the surface again. The four guys at RABID were there to do exactly this job and they were just finishing off the final few tarpaulins and breaking camp when we arrived mid afternoon. The Ellsworth Mountains in good weather have to be one of the most incredible sights on Earth. At RABID the view one way is entirely flat and featureless. Turn around and you are confronted by horizon to horizon peaks, some of which reach well over 15,000ft tall tinted blue by the snow and ice and the sky.

It takes a few hours to finally cram every single last bit of kit into the aircraft and squeeze the four guys into the seats at the front and then we’re off, back to Sky Blu for a very welcome hot meal and a beer or two.

After a very long deep sleep the next day brings a new plan, we’re off to Berkner Island (South Dome) to drop off Rob and Tom and start the uplift of Sledge Quebec. These guys have been drilling through 900m of ice to retrieve samples of the sand underneath. Amazingly, if they can get this sand to the surface without being exposed to sunlight they can then take it back to Cambridge and eventually tell you how long it has been in the dark which, the theory goes, also tells you how long this part of the Earth has been covered by ice sheet. Clever stuff.

Unloading the two sledges gear from the aircraft and then repacking it with just sledge hotels gear proves to be entertaining, it takes a while but we end up with the guys happy that they have all the essentials and then we’re off.

Berkner Island is – flat. There is no other way to put it; it isn’t exactly the most awe inspiring place if you want a good vista. We arrive in fairly marginal weather, low cloud with good visibility underneath. Pilot Geoff uses the weather radar and picks up the camp at around 10 miles away so we know where we’re going. Berkner is well visited and the skiway is marked which makes the landing fairly routine. It takes a staggering amount of kit to drill holes in ice, more than I’d expected to see and it isn’t small, easy-to-pack-into-aircraft stuff either. By now I was getting used to rapid changes of the plan. It’s a good job too because as we’re loading the aircraft there is a phone discussion going on about what exactly is going back to Sky Blu and I’m not on the list! There’s room for the pilot, co-pilot and a load of kit and Terry O’Donovan the Field Assistant is priority to get back because he has another project to oversee and this is a golden opportunity to get him on the way back to Rothera. Well I’m happy with that! It means I get to spend time in yet another new place, actually the furthest south and arguably the most remote I’ve yet been.

I probably didn’t see Berkner camp at its best. Pretty much everything had been packed or was in the process of being dismantled. Rob Mulvaney and Rob Smith did head out with the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) once to survey the surface beneath the ice of a particularly interesting area a way away from camp. Seeing the guys dressed in full travel gear with two skidoos and three sledges loaded with the radar as well as tents, food and emergency gear was impressive. We waved goodbye to them mid afternoon and were amazed to see them back the following mid morning having completed 80km of travel and a full days work in little over 12 hours, they’d worked straight through the night.

A few days of bad weather and aircraft unserviceability meant that packing up Berkner was a fairly relaxed process with time to finish off all the odd jobs. Digging up a remote weather station proved to be good exercise for a day, we ended up with a 12ft hole in the ground and sore backs but we did get all the important bits out.

Jack Triest the drilling engineer for the Berkner project has a thing about igloos. So – sitting around with a reasonably nice day and nothing too important to do it was fairly obvious what he’d end up doing. It may have taken over a day to build but once up it was pretty solid and Jack spent two nights sleeping in it.

Well that takes us to the end of January and the end of my bit. Sitting at Berkner waiting for aircraft and building igloos. I made it back to Rothera on the 3rd Feb after we’d pulled out everything from Berkner. It was truly an amazing trip, which I am very lucky to have experienced. I’ll leave you with a couple of pictures and another account on what they had been up to at Rothera.

The end of January back at Rothera they were having rather a lot of fun too. Thanks to Kate Hendry for the following account of the ship visit of the Lawrence M. Gould.

We all eagerly looked out on one Saturday morning in late January in anticipation of the arrival of the US research vessel, the Laurence M. Gould. Unfortunately, we could barely see the Bonner Lab from Bransfield House due to the thick fog around base. The ship was finally sighted about six feet off the wharf as its large, orange hull crept through the mist. In what was one of the worst deals ever pulled off, the Gould swapped 17 of their most talented crew members for 18 Rotherans who were lucky enough to be granted a day off for a cruise around Marguerite Bay. A few of the Rothera crew carried out some world class relaxing in an Antarctic context in the Gould’s lounge, including some important calibration work on the reclining sofas and cappuccino machines. The beakers on board busied themselves with three successful CTD casts and water sampling events. (CTD stands for Conductivity Temperature Depth, and comprises a box of sensors attached to a line which is then reeled out to the seafloor and pulled up again using a motorised winch. This allows oceanographers to monitor water masses with different physical properties. Water sampling bottles are also attached to the winch, and can be fired at a given depth to sample the seawater for chemical analysis. CTD casts are carried out at Rothera on a twice weekly basis during the summer but being a smaller operation, all the winching here is done by hand.) To the dismay of some folk, the beakers were so enthusiastic with their science that the annual Gould-Rothera football match had to be cancelled!

Later in the evening, the station staff and crew members embarked the sledge store in Fuchs House for an evening of entertainment – Rothera style. The first band, Bob, moved the crowd with their acoustic brilliance, with Ant (acoustic guitar), Kevin (lead guitar and rice), Geoff (bass), Riet (drums), Kat and Joel (vocals). Tepid Stan, the mostly-winterers-band, took control of the stage for the rest of the night with their raucous renditions of such eclectic classics as ‘Misunderstood’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and the Arctic Monkeys ‘You Look Good on the Dancefloor’. For one night only, Tepid even made a brief foray into the world of real music for their version of Hawaii 5-O (including a few key changes and everything). Everyone seemed to have a great time, and the night went on to thoroughly cement Anglo-American relations. Many thanks to the captain and crew of the Gould for their part in the proceedings.

The Gould disappeared once more into the foggy abyss that is Marguerite Bay early on Sunday morning. Few Rotherans were present to witness.

Mark Stant