November – Welcome to Rothera

30 November, 2005

Most people at home have a slightly false impression of Antarctica in the summer. As I’m saying final farewells some people think I’m mad and others think it’s a great idea. Several folks have the impression that you instantly get frostbite and hypothermia as soon as you step down from the aircraft. It is true that you need your warm clothing as you arrive here at Rothera, but to be greeted by a bacon sandwich is somewhat special. But more of that later.

My name is Pete Milner, I’ve returned to Rothera after three years and the place feels very familiar, even the smell of the corridors is the same. The temperature change from the Falkland Islands to Rothera is quite significant, but folks adapt pretty quickly. Normally on arrival you can tell the wintering team as they are all wandering around in T-shirts while the new summer staff have jackets on. To the winter team the current summer temperatures are warm.

What was my home has changed a little. I sat through the base familiarization talks gradually realising that things have moved on. The bar has been redecorated and the kitchen/dining room modified a little. We have new computers and procedures to get used to as well. The next stage for newcomers is the three-day survival course, which I was looking forward to. However I’m now considered experienced enough not to have to do this. My new role is to be one of the radio operators. Our job it is to track the aircraft operations, advise them of weather conditions reported from field parties, support the air unit, and communicate to science expeditions out in the wilds. Camping teams only have one contact with the station per day, so it’s important to pass on the news.

We are busy getting the science projects started and there is lots of activity in the Sledge Store as people get camping gear ready. I had a bit of luck when Rod Arnold, the Field Operations Manager, asked me to go out into the field to one of our fuel depots. It is great to be out flying in the Antarctic again, one thing I missed while working at Port Lockroy was the chance to fly in small aircraft around the Antarctic.

The flight down to Fossil Bluff on Alexander Island was routine with cloudy skies and so not much to see. I recognized the landscape around Fossil Bluff as we turned for the final approach to the skiway. Creating an airport in the Antarctic is easy; you just find a flat section of snow, free from crevasses, and mark it out north/south with black flags on bamboo poles. My first landing on snow in three years makes me realize how much I miss the fieldwork when I’m on other projects. The Antarctic is a surreal place, for the landscape, for the weather, for the wild life and for the people you meet. As I stepped out of the aircraft into a light wind and temperatures of -5C, I was greeted by Simon Herniman, wearing a windproof top and shorts!! Next he handed me a bacon sandwich, which had been kept warm on the exhaust manifold of his skidoo. Fantastic – Welcome to the Antarctic.

Very shortly we were refuelled from drums dug out of the snow and its time to be off further south. We are heading for the camp at Sky Blu, it’s marked on some maps, try looking down at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. The weather improves as we head south and the views of mountaintops rising out of the immense ice sheet are just stunning.

A couple of hours after leaving Fossil Bluff we turn and descend through thin cloud to line up on the runway at Sky Blu. We used the aircraft’s skis to land at Fossil Bluff but here they are raised as we are going to land on wheels. How is this possible when the whole landscape is nothing but snow? Sky Blu is unique; it is one of the rare blue ice runways that exist in Antarctica. If you can imagine a large, skating rink, naturally formed, surrounded by snow and with mountains to the north, that is what our aircraft is heading for. The lads have cleared most of the remaining snow from the strip and marked it with flags. Mark Beasley the pilot touches down gently as obviously the brakes don’t have much effect on ice. Stepping down from the aircraft this time I meet Bruce Maltman and Kirk Watson who are well wrapped up to deal with temperatures of -20C and 10 knot winds. It’s cold; it’s featureless, except for the nearby mountains, and its summer.

We unload our cargo of precious fuel drums and head up to the small fibreglass hut for a welcome brew. It is nice to be able to get out of the wind and sip some tea. However we are here to work, so straight after tea we walk back to the aircraft and get ready to fly back to Rothera. Starting up the engines Mark notices that we cannot get one of the generators running in the left hand engine. It eventually comes on line and we taxi out to the end of the ice strip. Apply power and we are rolling, seconds later the throttles come off and we abort the take off. Mark has spotted that some instruments are not reading correctly, ‘Rothera we have a problem’.

We taxi into an area designed to keep the aircraft tied down and secure. Anchors placed in the ice are used to strap the aircraft down by wings, nose and tail. Otherwise strong winds could blow the aircraft along the ice. Nothing else to do now except wander up to the hut, get a brew on and talk to Rothera. The plan is to send down one of the aircraft mechanics and the relevant spare part tomorrow. We are stuck at Sky Blu until the problem is fixed; now it is time to put up a tent. Looks like I’m going to get my survival course after all. I help to get all the drums of fuel secured in their depot and after that we sort out our orange pyramid tent. By now it is late evening and the temperature has dropped to -23C, so adding the wind chill we have an effective temperature of -30C. This is the sort of cold that makes your head hurt and if you take your gloves off to do a small task you rapidly start to loose sensation in your fingers. This is summer but even so you still have to be really aware of the dangerous conditions.

Bruce and I cook up a pasta and pesto dish with herb bacon, dried onions and tinned mushrooms for supper, food of the gods. Kirk donates a can of Guinness for the guests, thanks pal. The can suggests it should be served cold, no problem. It’s been a long and exciting day, so we wrap up and head out to the tent.

I actually slept quite well, admittedly fully clothed and wearing a hat. The felt inner layers of my boots were stuffed inside my sleeping bag to dry them out and keep them warm. In spite of my comment about being experienced these days, I forgot that my water bottle was inside my rucksack, this should have been in my sleeping bag too, because in the morning the litre bottle was frozen solid.

The weather conditions the following morning were still cold and breezy but with clear skies. As usual the first task in the morning is to pass a weather observation to the meteorological team at Rothera so that they can brief the pilots. On the next radio call we learn that the Dash 7 is heading south carrying fuel drums, Dave Kully the Canadian aircraft mechanic and our spare generator. We spent the morning helping Kirk and Bruce with their work and then broke for an early lunch of cheese, salami and biscuits, before the arrival of the Dash 7.

Landing the Dash-7 on the blue ice was recently described as rather like a one legged man wrestling a crocodile on a skating rink. Fifteen drums of fuel were soon unloaded from the cargo doors and the Dash 7 crew prepared to head north. Dave the aircraft mechanic would be traveling with the Twin Otter so in theory I could have hitched a ride home on the Dash. I decided against that idea, as it felt wrong to leave my traveling companions with a broken aircraft and head for home. Plus I knew that the weather at Rothera was getting worse and that we planned to visit Fossil Bluff again.

You have to give credit where credit is due, watching Dave sitting on the wing of the plane, exchanging parts of an aero engine, using small metal tools in a wind chill of -30C, looked to me to be a very tough job.

Fair play the lad got the job done so we piled our gear into the back of the aircraft and fired up the engines. All looked good and we taxied out to depart northbound. I sat in the back on this leg as Dave was monitoring instruments in the co-pilots seat. News from Rothera confirmed that the weather on the station was getting worse, so our plan was to tie the aircraft to the ground at Fossil Bluff and stay there for the night.

Personally I was pretty pleased about that, as again it’s been three years since I stayed a night a Bluebell Cottage. Simon and Andy Porter made us very welcome with sausage and beans for tea, followed by some of Andy’s excellent homemade chocolate cake. Make a point of visiting Fossil Bluff, if you can, it’s well worth it. There are only four bunks in the hut so I volunteered to sleep out in the emergency caboose. It was a good choice as the bunk is quite comfortable and the view out of the window photogenic.

The following morning we were up and about early for weather observations and a talk with Donald Campbell the forecaster at Rothera. Once that was done we headed north and home. I managed to get some good pictures of the northern part of Alexander Island during the flight and all too soon we were back on base. So a day out on Saturday turned out to be a top three-day adventure.

Jo, a friend of mine back home, was telling me that her garden pond has frozen; I can sympathize as the sea around Rothera has frozen too. When I arrived the sea ice was quite extensive, but now the warmer temperatures are slowly weakening the ice. Some melt pools on the surface have appeared and we no longer allow people to travel on the sea ice. In the northern cove where the ice will be solid for some considerable time, the divers are still using a hole cut into the ice to access the waters below. Diving below the frozen sea has got to be one of the maddest jobs in the world. Beautiful, spectacular and essential marine biology, but you would not get me in there for love or money. How Matt ‘the diver’ Brown, Dan Smale, Paul Mann and Simon Morley manage it is beyond me. Just recently we have had some strong winds and the ice is beginning to break off and float south. Soon Andy Wilson will be able to get his boats in the water and start the marine science program. Hopefully I may be able to help.

My previous job here was as field assistant, leading the scientists out on their expeditions. The other day managers were trying to organise a trip out for the biologists to a place called Ablation Valley. I led a field project there in the 2000/2001 season, so they sought my advice. Considering what they wanted to do it seemed sensible to land the aircraft on King George the Sixth Sound, which is adjacent to Alexander Island and technically a frozen sea. They wanted to access two valleys, Ablation and Moutonee so I proposed that we find a way through the pressure ridges and then split the team into two. This was accepted as a good idea and they sent me on the trip as well, fantastic back out into the field.

Obviously it would have been somewhat embarrassing if when we arrived the route proved impractical. I was pretty confident though. We flew for about an hour and a half heading due south from the station. Alan Meredith the chief pilot flew over the mountains and down the valley, so that we could have a quick look before landing. This is actually quite exciting, small aircraft at low level flying over the snow covered summits and valleys, while you try and spot a safe route. You are not flying straight and level here, you can lose your breakfast doing this and the cliffs look awfully close. Next we have to land the plane on a patch of snow, which has never been landed on before. It’s good to start worrying about crevasses at this point. What the pilot does is to trail skis first. This means that he flies over the proposed landing site and touches the skis on the ground, but technically remains flying. Once back in the air you can turn and view the trail you have created in the snow. This gives the pilot some point of reference in what is otherwise just a blank white surface and hopefully will have broken any snow bridges over hidden crevasses so we can see them. The trail looks good so we land.

Everyone ropes up and sorts out ice axes and mountaineering gear, and then we are off walking into the pressure ridges. These ridges can be anything from six feet to eighteen feet high and are formed when the sea ice of the sound is pushed up against the rock of Alexander Island. The result is chaos of ice ridges and gullies semi filled with snow. It’s a very alien landscape. With a bit of twisting and turning, some climbing up and down, we manage to mark a safe route through with flags.

The black flags are there to help us find our way back through the ice maze. Once on the other side Mark Laidlaw and Kevin Newsham head for Moutonee while Tom Spreyer and Cat Snell head for Ablation. At around half past seven in the evening everyone returned to the aircraft and we are ready for home.

As we fasten our seat belts, Alan does his pre flight checks and then fires up the engines. He eases the throttles forward, but nothing happens, next up to full throttle expecting the plane to move, but again nothing. Alan and I had previously dug around the aircraft skis to ensure that they were clear of snow. Quite often what happens is that the friction produced by the skis, as the plane lands, heats the snow and melts it. As soon as you come to a halt the water re-freezes and sticks the aircraft to the surface. We have done all the right things, dug out around the skis, applied full power and still no movement. We might be here for a while; certainly more digging could be required. Next we all huddle down in the tail to lighten the nose ski, which works, so back into our seats and strap in. Full power this time gets us into the air.

The flight home was awesome; we are passing icebergs locked into a frozen sea, which is only just beginning to break up. Seals are lying around on the ice, which is what they do mostly. I have my face stuck to the window during the flight, as big mountains and ice cliffs flash past, ice floes, icebergs, the Argentine station at San Martin, the old hut on Horseshoe Island, all pass below us. Then, as we say around here, it is ‘Home for tea and medals’.

While I have been out and about with fieldwork, everybody else has been working hard on base. Paul Best and Tom Vitner are keeping our vehicles going, between calls for advice from the lads in the field. Matt ‘Dulux’ Brown and Andy Elliott are busy with cargo handling, Glen Stewart on carpentry and Mike Tattersfield sorting the plumbing. However a big thank you must to go to our two chefs Isabelle Gerrard and Riet van de Velde plus the St Helena team, Gary Constantine, Justin Cranfield and Darren Francis for feeding us and keeping the station spick and span.

Enough of me rambling on, how does it feel to arrive at Rothera for the first time? I asked one of our scientists Claire Hughes to describe her journey to the Antarctic.

We start on the journey

My journey to the underside of the Earth started out in sunny Norwich on 23 November. I packed up my lab coat and headed out on a voyage that would see me held in a cage on the Ascension Island, dodging minefields on the Falklands and saving myself from plummeting down sheer drops using an ice-axe. This all might sound too fantastical to be true but I can assure you that I only deal in fact.

From Norwich we travelled to RAF Brize Norton then to RAF Fairford and from there started on an eight hour flight headed for the Ascension Island on a ‘well seasoned’ 747. After a very brief stop-over in Ascension which left just enough time to get a gratuitous stamp in the passport and fire off a few postcards we were back on the plane and bound for the Falkland Islands. Upon our arrival at Mount St Pleasant airport we were taken by bus to the BAS office in Stanley and given the keys to a house that would accommodate us for the next two nights.

Conversation and discovery

Our brief stay in the Falklands was filled with lots of wild-life watching, and much talk about this mystical place called Rothera with first-timers like myself and the many veteran explorers travelling to and from the Antarctic continent. It was here that I caught my first glimpse of a Jackass or Magellan penguin at a beautiful spot called Gypsy Cove. In addition to the wildlife, the main features of the Falklands that stood out to me were the stone pavements – intricately patterned accumulations of boulders referred to as ‘streams of stone’ by Darwin, stunning gorse that speckles the otherwise monotonous green landscape with yellow, the minefields left over from the 1982 conflict and (given that tarmac roads are rarity on the islands) the vast numbers of four wheel drives.

The real journey commences

On our scheduled departure date from the Falklands (25 November) we headed down to breakfast to see if the conditions were good enough for our flight to leave for Rothera. Unusually we didn’t have any delays but we were warned that this was a PNR flight – PNR meaning ‘point of no return’! Although this is a phrase that I’ve come to know very well down here at Rothera I was at first quite alarmed by it. However, I was relieved to hear that this merely means that the pilot will make a judgement about whether they commit to going to Rothera at a point in the flight when they have enough fuel left to land safely either back in the Falklands or at another safe destination.

Our carriage for the 5 hour journey to Rothera was a Dash 7 aircraft – a 24.5 m high wing, turbo prop plane. Inside the Dash is set up so that passengers, luggage and cargo travel in the same compartment, tea, coffee and sandwiches are all self-service, and you can take a nap on top of the baggage should you wish – if only all airlines were as relaxed as this. The weather remained favourable and as we flew to our PNR and beyond, the Antarctic started to open up in front of us. At first we could only see a few snowy peaks on the horizon but with time amazing scenes of sea-ice, ice-bergs, mountains and glaciers came in to view. I spent the final part of our flight sitting in the jump-seat in the cockpit where I was able to get a pilot’s view of our approach and landing at Rothera. As we were flying at only 2,000 ft we were able to clearly see many features of the scenery passing below us including a Chilean base and elephant seals on Leonie Island. Eventually the run-way at Rothera came in to view on Adelaide Island and I was able to see the collection of green buildings that were to be my home for the next three months. By the time I stepped off the plane I had firmly decided that a career in science wasn’t too bad after all.

We were greeted by Steve Hinde, the base commander, and escorted across the runway to the Rothera that I had heard so much about.

First lessons in climbing

The first week at Rothera was spent being trained in the ways of the base, learning that sun-screen and sunglasses are absolutely essential, getting to know the locals and gradually letting it sink in that I am actually in the Antarctic. In addition to safety, run-way crossing, vehicle (skidoo and gator) and boat training we were given lessons in an array of outdoor pursuits. We camped in pyramid tents, learned how to jumar and abseil, use an ice-axe to arrest a fall, walk in crampons and perform a crevasse rescue. Once this initiation period was over we are able to leave the vicinity of the base and go off in the Local and Technical Travel Area including various ridges and visit Vals the ski slope.

Although I had never skied before coming to Rothera there are plenty of people around here who are willing to lend you their equipment and train you up. Although I initially took ski lessons I have now decided that snow-boarding is my snow-sport of choice. After several trips up to Vals spent mainly performing dramatic tumbles I’ve eventually ‘got it’ and can now make my way down the slope without adding to my now rather large collection of bruises. Work and weather-permitting I’ll be trying to perfect my technique over the next few months.

Adventures upon adventures

My newly developed skills in climbing were put to good use during my first walk along Reptile Ridge. Whilst a safe traverse to Vals with no crevasses has been marked out by flags and can be travelled alone, places like Reptile offer something a little more dangerous and can only be attempted if you’re accompanied by a field assistant and roped-up. To illustrate the possible hazards, on our way along the ridge we came across an open, 60 ft deep crevasse. Although these can be dangerous if you inadvertently stumble across them, once open they can be abseiled in to for fun and apparently can be very stunning inside. Our walk along Reptile took us up and down some fairly steep snow-covered slopes, and allowed us to see the view from the other side of the island. As we descended from the ridge we came across a bergshund, a crevasse covered by a snow bridge that forms at the base of some peaks. Despite a few alarming stumbles and sinking almost up to my waist, there was thankfully no need to perform a crevasse rescue this time. What an amazing way to spend a Friday night!

We continue our descent…

I can see that there will be many more adventures ahead of me over the next few months. Although I finish this diary bruised and battered I’m definitely ready for more, and can honestly say that I’m having the time of my life.