Rothera Diary — February 2010

28 February, 2010

As I sit here sipping Earl Grey in the comparative comfort of the surgery it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago I was sipping tea in a pyramid tent at 80° South, with the range of the Ellsworth Mountains lying as a backdrop to the scene. To be the medical officer for Rothera Research Station certainly comes with unusual perks and I, Dr Claire Lehman, am the lucky individual whom assumes the role this year.

I felt February would be a good month to write the diary since it personally was a monumental month for me, there are few people who have turned thirty in Antarctica and I am fortunate enough to be one of them. At the time of volunteering I was unaware of how eventful February was to be! Not only did I spend a fortnight in the deep field (Antarctic vernacular for adventures away from base), but on my return dealt with an all singing all dancing search and rescue exercise, stepped into a new decade and also witnessed the first ever tsunami warning issued to Antarctica!

Deep field

Rothera serves as a research station and also as a logistical base for supporting science far deeper into Antarctica. In order to facilitate such research Rothera maintains a couple of stations deep field which serve to provide distant meteorological observations and fuelling facilities for transiting aircraft. Staff from Rothera are rotated through these outposts of the British Antarctic Survey and in February I too joined the deep field support team.

Fossil Bluff

In order to reach my initial destination I flew by Twin Otter with pilot Doug Pearson out across Marguerite bay, due south to Fossil Bluff, which lies on the East Coast of Alexander Island at 71° south. Fossil Bluff was originally a wintering base however with the increasing air operations it is now feasible to operate this as a summer only centre.

The location is so named due to the abundance of fossils in the surrounding environs and the bluff that dominates the skyline. The main place of residence is Bluebell Cottage, rather confusingly painted bright red, the only hint of blue being from the sky. I have rectified this somewhat by adorning the cottage with some appropriate signage.

I would describe fossil bluff as a cross between an alpine refuge and a beach hut, for the interior is redolent of bygone days whilst the bunk beds reminded me of a chalet in Heidi!

I had been desperately keen to visit Fossil Bluff for a couple of reasons. A dear friend had spent several months there conducting research for their PhD a while ago and had raved not only of the natural beauty abounding there with outdoor opportunities aplenty, but also of a rayburner in the cottage. I knew this would be my ultimate dream in Antarctica, to be a Domestic Goddess with a Rayburner.

Unfortunately for reasons of safety the Rayburner had been removed from the hut and lay outside on the terrace under a tarpaulin, a lamentable sight, however one that I sincerely hope is remediable.

Whilst on base we are catered for by the chefs, in the deep field the opportunity to cook presents itself and although the ingredients are somewhat limited, either tinned or desiccated, it is remarkable how creative one can be or the opportunity to be an Antarctic Domestic Goddess was readily taken.

Whilst at Fossil Bluff Alan Hill, one of our wintering mountaineers, and me took the opportunity to explore the local area. Scree slope ascents summited we were then able to enjoy views stretching for over a hundred kilometres, looking West across George VI Sound and into the peninsula. Alan and I both enjoyed taking yoga to new heights as demonstrated here.

During my stay at Fossil Bluff Dave Wattam, from BAS Cambridge, stayed for a few days. Interestingly his father had been stationed at Fossil Bluff a few years ago. Quite unique that two generations of the same family have both worked in Antarctica, and at the same base too. Dave, Alan and I took a trip to Belemnite valley to look for this specific sort of fossil, however my magpie eye was distracted by a shiny object in the distance and we discovered instead a sizeable piece of quartz.

Glyn Henry, from St Helena originally and working at Rothera as a station assistant, arrived at Fossil Bluff and our stays overlapped for a few days. We took a visit to the local ice sculpture park. Along the glacial moraine the differential rates of ice melting had resulted in sculptures of ice, some two metres tall, all of different shapes and sizes. Quite remarkable how nature had created such an artistic outdoor gallery!

Lest you think the purpose of Fossil Bluff is as a bakery and hiking refuge I shall reassure you it actually serves as a service station for transiting aircraft. We dig out large fuel drums, and refuel the planes, as demonstrated in the photograph below.

Sky Blu

After ten days at Fossil Bluff I flew further South to Sky Blu, at 75° South, a logistical depot far more remote and hardcore, the main purpose of which was to refuel, dig out fuel depots, unload sledge loads from incoming flights and continue to provide meteorological observations.

We were expecting an early incoming flight from South Pole and so Al Homer, an outgoing wintering mechanic and I awoke to give met obs. We tried radioing them from 4am; however after an hour and a half we were still unable to raise them, so we radioed South Pole. To say “South pole, South pole, Sky Blu Sky Blu” over VHF was certainly quite unusual.

I was quite glad for our early rise as actually I had hardly slept at all in the tent; it was so cold at −18° C. To experience such cold was great though, as on Rothera we have become used to such mild temperatures. To wake up in proper Antarctica with crunchy snow underfoot and an endless horizon of snow was actually splendid!

The purpose of Ian Potten and Steve King’s flights to Sky Blu were to pick up Sledge November, situated at 80° South by the Ellsworths mountains where they had been conducting seismic glaciology.

Weather changes rapidly and markedly in Antarctica and so despite a glorious sunrise the advent of blowing snow and fog was unfortunate although not a surprise. With a slight improvement in conditions Ian Potten decided to return from the Ellsworth Mountains to Sky Blu. We repeated the process of digging out fuel in heavy snow, quite labour intensive. Ian wanted to return to the Ellsworths immediately following unloading and was seeking a new co-pilot, so having ascertained that nobody else wanted to go out, I ran off to roll up my P bag, which is the sleeping system consisting of a camping mat, thermarest, sheepskin rug, down bag inside a flame retardant bag, within which lies a liner, and we then headed South.

Sledge November

It was rather a scary landing since the visibility and contrast were nil, fortunately Ian made a splendid job and we arrived safely! It was lovely to see the chaps of Sledge November — Ian Rudkin (a chemist but working as a mountaineer here and with whom I’ll be wintering), Andy Smith, Sam Doyle and Roger Stilwell. They were all in good spirits and looked quite healthy and clean considering they had been living in a tiny tent for 3 months.

The chaps prepared an absolute feast in their pyramid tent, concluding with Butterscotch Angel Delight! I then produced a Dorset Apple Cake that I had baked whilst at Fossil Bluff, containing an apple that Dave Wattam had procured from the American Research Ship the L.M. Gould.

We retired to bed and so I realised my dream to sleep as far South as I could, and what a location in which to do it. Although Antarctic landscapes for the majority constitute flat windswept expanses of white, I delight in the mountains of the continent and so to be sleeping with Mount Vincent, the highest mountain in Antarctica, in a beautiful light as my backdrop was heaven.

Sam told me as we flew back North, how delightful it had been to see me smile when I arrived, that it was really heartening to see someone so ecstatic to be there. So despite lacking any real skills for deep field work, and being rather useless with a spade, I have redeemed my role for deep field visits on the basis of my smile and conversation! I do feel rather like Vera Lynn rallying the troops!

The following morning we returned to Rothera, flying with a remarkably full Twin Otter returning just in time to base to cheer on the folk running the Rothera Half Marathon.

Search & Rescue

At Rothera we are our own emergency services and it is imperative that we perform exercises in order for each incoming Wintering team to become familiar with the procedures and equipment.

Antarctica is a dangerous place and falling into a crevasse is a real hazard, for this to occur in the deep field would be even more serious.

Our Search and Rescue (SAR) exercise comprised a two man party who had befallen accident in the Pensacola Mountains, some 1000 miles from Rothera. For the sake of the exercise we simulated this within our local travel area although we still ran through the same procedure as if it were 1000 miles away.

And so we had the first air-mediated search and rescue exercise ever performed at Rothera. This was a base wide exercise involving Field Operations, the Air Unit, Communications, Meteorology, and Medical teams.

Loading all the required kit into a Twin Otter is akin to completing a jigsaw without a picture of the final product, fortunately the Twin Otter appears to have the capacity of a Mary Poppins Holdall and all the required kit fitted.

Unloading the plane at the destination is even more difficult since you only the manpower of the pilot, the mountaineer and the doctor is quite different to that during loading where manpower and machinery are in far greater supply.

The equipment unloaded from the plane is then assembled into a skidoo train with equipment-laden sledges between. Ian and I then travelled by linked skidoo travel across the potentially crevassed area to where our casualty lay.

Meanwhile the mountaineer, Alan, who had been with our casualty, Riet, had erected a temporary tent and started providing advanced first aid within. Our casualty had suffered a fall into a crevasse and had sustained a femoral fracture and frostbite to one of his hands.

Upon arrival of Ian and myself we were able to fully examine the patient, instigate treatment and stabilise him ready for evacuation.

Meanwhile Alan liaised with base via VHF radio and satellite communications and also prepare the skidoos and sledges for returning to the plane. We then set out in our skidoo caravan to the plane.

Back at the plane with another pair of hands from Steve we manoeuvred the stretcher into position and I prepared our patient for flight back to Rothera.

Steve flew us back to Rothera from where we unloaded our patient, and conveyed them to the surgery by the base ambulance, a tractor and trailer. From where Fid power was used to carry the patient into the surgery.

Ordinarily within a hospital resuscitation room one would find at least a couple of nurses and doctors. At Rothera in addition to the doctors, two during summer and only one during winter, we rely upon our volunteers from base who we have trained to be our nurses. Whilst we had been out on patient retrieval the medical assistant team, Matt von Tersch, Jon James, Nick Warburton and Terri Souster had prepared the surgery ready for the patient arrival. This was the endpoint of our scenario and our task was complete, our injured scientist returned to base with the safety of all involved preserved.

It is reassuring to see how as a group we bring our individuals skills and personalities to deal together with such scenarios in such a calm and effective manner.

Ice ice baby

A couple of days later we celebrated Folk Night, an opportunity for all on base to demonstrate their artistic and theatrical skills, acts included Antarctic poems, film shorts including a ‘guide to reintegration into normal society’ for the outgoing winterers, and also a tribute to Werner Herzog made by the visiting BBC Frozen Planet crew, and many songs. The most popular of which remains the Rutford Rappers, Ian Rudkin and Roger Stillwell, with a reworking of Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t touch this’.

The evening culminated with a base wide rendition of Happy Birthday to Sian Henley and myself, as we entered the 21st February 2010. And so I turned 30, at a garage party in Antarctica!

To call Antarctica home, if only temporary, is a great privilege and I feel so incredibly fortunate to be here, to have the opportunity to fulfil a dream. I am often asked what brought me to Antarctica, and for me the stimulus was reading an article in the British Medical Journal about a doctor working for the British Antarctica Survey. I hope that you too may find reading this an inspiration to achieve your own dreams, be they Antarctic or otherwise.