Rothera Diary — March 2010

30 March, 2010 Rothera

March — the month of change in an Antarctic context!

Welcome to March, a month in the Antarctic calendar that signifies change, a rising sense of panic and relief. Depending on which camp you are in, will dictate exactly which combination of these is felt as the month nears its end.

My name is Matt von Tersch, and I am the laboratory manager for the Bonner complex here at Rothera. As it has now been roughly 18 months since my arrival in Rothera, and having completed my first winter, I felt suitably placed to write the first of the winter 2010 entries.

It seems hard to comprehend, but in a year’s time my ‘tour of duty’ on the white continent, for want of a better phrase, will be at an end. It feels like only yesterday that I caught my first glimpse of an iceberg from the Dash, encountered my first ‘wild’ penguin or gazed at the view across Ryder Bay to the glacier and ice cliffs beyond. Today, Antarctica continues to be an awe inspiring site — everyday a little different from the last, with intricacies that only now am I starting to notice. It will be greatly missed when I depart…

Still, no time to dwell on such matters! For myself and two others, Shaun (carpenter) and Terri (marine assistant), a second winter beckons. Along with 19 other hapless souls, the majority of whom are venturing into unknown territory, a multimillion pound research facility becomes our responsibility and home for the next six months. Scary stuff!

Those who read these literary masterpieces regularly will of course know that the ‘change’ to which I refer, encompasses not only the weather, but cargo and personnel movements at the end of the summer season — better known as relief. The imminent arrival of the Ernest Shackleton diarised for the end of March meant that it was all hands on deck.

The base assistants Riet and Andy ferried a seemingly endless stream of one tonne bags, containing all manner of waste for recycling such as cardboard, plastic and paper, from the miracle span to their departure point at the wharf in a private game of Tetris.

Empty fuel barrels formed an orderly queue alongside other 205 litre drums filled with glass and cans, the end use of which according to the recycling campaigns, may just become another can — who knows, the possibilities are endless!

Field assistants, safely back from recent field campaigns on ice streams, caps and shelves, assisted the technical services department with mooring lines and fenders on the newly repaired wharf.

Departing winterers succumbed to the final moment of clarity and had to accept that the winter present they received was just too big, and no matter how inventive their packing, would not it fit inside their P-box. Somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Oliver Twist, the odd winterer would have to venture off to the ‘chippy’ to beg for some more timber to manufacture yet another container for their treasured possessions. It still amazes me despite the lack of shops — just how much one person can accumulate in one year, or two! We shall see…

Those scientists still on base spent their precious last days and weeks of the season completing experiments, tabulating data and to my relief packing away science cargo ready for the journey north.

It has been a particularly busy season, despite not having the usual visits by cruise ships this year; a precaution taken with the spread of bird flu last year. A science cruise aboard the JCR before Christmas resulted in the laboratory becoming a hive of activity, as scientists sorted through, and preserved, samples collected from the Bellingshausen Sea. The latter part of the season was just as hectic, combining a mixture of diving, shore work and molecular science.

Obviously, with all this work — there was a lot of cargo to send back at the end of season, and the last few weeks are always notoriously busy. Ensuring that cargo northbound has been packed, consigned, labelled correctly and accounted for in triplicate certainly requires a bit of organisation. I have never been one for notebooks, but keeping track of 170 items; comprising biological and environmental samples, expensive analytical equipment and waste, has rather dictated the need for one.

Elsewhere, deep field sites were closed as dependent science parties finished the last of their survey lines or ice profiles and headed back to base. Machines at Sky Blu were parked in their underground ice garage for a well earned rest, weather havens were dismantled, clam shell tents packed up and reflex stoves winterised. Fossil Bluff, a midway depot between Rothera and Sky Blu, closed its doors for another season too. The doors and windows of Bluebell Cottage and food store, known affectionately as Tescos, were battened down and sealed; and Becky, resident meteorologist made final checks to the AWS for the coming winter season.

Finally, with all parties safely back on base, the air unit prepared for their long journey back to Calgary in Canada. Much to the delight of those of us with a camera handy, the two remaining twin otters made their departure by night, whilst Daisy — the Dash 7 — left the following morning, gracing those up to see her go with a traditional flyby before disappearing off into the distance.

So too, with the departure of the planes, went members of the management team and the VHF requests for ‘runway status’ from Clem, carer of all things runway and a BAS institution all of his own. Base took on very much more a winter feel.

On the 24th of March, VHF silence was broken as the Ernest Shackleton made contact and loomed into view soon afterwards. Mooring parties were despatched to the wharf and soon what little cargo that was due to come ashore was being unloaded.

I, along with Maddie from BAS Cambridge, ensured that cargo was accounted for with barcode scanner and tick sheet. Although, as the weather started to deteriorate, it was not really apparent which method was more reliable, with cold batteries and soggy paper conspiring to thwart our efforts. Needless to say, cold fingers were much more of a concern, and come smoko time, the kettle in the Bonner laboratory worked overtime to keep the troops topped up with tea.

The arrival of the ship at last call is also a time for dental checks. This oral hygiene MOT is not only for those of us having completed a winter, but those heading into one. Once the ship leaves, such matters rest with the medical professional on base… and unfortunately for the medical professional, unless particularly adept at drilling while looking in a mirror; akin to something from the skills test in the Crystal Maze, any oral problems and treatment rests with the medical assistants. Never has the phrase prevention is better than cure been more appropriate!!

Needless to say — I was pretty confident that having completed a winter, stayed off the chocolate for the most part, and not experienced any problems, I was in for a quick visit. Hmmmm… prevention better than cure was certainly the name of the game, with block anaesthetisation and four fillings to my credit. Still — it provided a useful live subject for Claire, our doctor to practise on!

The final day of relief before the ship left was to be a day of mixed emotion. In the evening, the wintering team for 2010 were invited onto the ship for a meal and drinks, the first time that the team would be together alone before the start of winter. There was just enough time to take a quick photo of the new bunch in the bar, before sitting down to a fantastic three course meal.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on base, the outgoing winterers and remaining summer contingent were up to no good, arranging a few traditional pranks by way of a goodbye. Some of them were immediately obvious — ceiling tiles re-arranged, pool cues missing and pool balls locked within the table itself.

Some however have still to be solved… and if any of the old team are reading this — where are the remotes for the lounge, we still haven’t located them! Oh — hold that — just been informed that they have been located — still you get the picture of the last few days at Rothera!

A cursory glance in my own room confirmed that I had not got away this year, with the entire base supply of duvets and pillows having taken up residence there.

The rest of the evening was spent in the lounge, with its newly built bar, reminiscing with firm friends made over both the summer and winter. By 10 am the next morning, with all parties safely on either dry land or ship, the Shackleton prepared to pull in her lines. Tearful farewells were the order of the day topped off with massive helping of hugs all round as many of those on the ship said goodbye to a base that has been their home for the last 18 months. The gangway raised and lines cast, the recent heavy snowfall encouraged a barrage of snowballs between the ship and dry land before as the Shackleton bid a farewell to Rothera for another season.

As is customary, the departure was saluted from land by flares, with both rocket and smoke variety filling the cold morning air. Very quickly, the Shackleton disappeared out of sight and the remaining 22 made their way back up to the main building for a cup of tea.

Due to the proximity of relief coinciding with the already dwindling daylight hours at a rate of one hour per week, winter training trips were due to start on the Monday. It was rather assumed that this would mean that the six members of the first trip, that included myself and the chippy Shaun would miss the annual scrub out week, but hopes were dashed when our illustrious leader decreed that scrub out would be started the following day, on a Sunday no less! Tasked with cleaning Giant’s House, a transit accommodation block used extensively throughout the season, we working as a well oiled team, managing to turn each room ‘upside’ down, completing the job by the end of the day.

The next day all parties rose early to a mixed bag of weather, although spirits were high as we made our way up to the skiway on skidoo to dig out our sledges and leave base for a week. All parties were intending on heading to the southern side of the island which involves crossing a known area of crevassing called McCallums Pass. I say ‘were’, however, as it soon became clear that the heavy downfall of snow was to be our undoing, as skidoos simply became bogged down as we tried to release the sledges. After a couple of hours, it was clear that we were to go no further, and so pitched our tents less than four kilometres from base.

Despite the travelling conditions, we experienced a week of glorious weather, allowing us the opportunity to do something different everyday. A walk along the entire length of Reptile Ridge, (the nearest ridge walk to base) was completed one day in glorious sunshine providing spectacular views of the Shambles glacier and Ryder Bay. Another day was spent investigating the inside of a crevasse near Stork Ridge.

With a full moon and calm conditions, it was also possible to snowboard the local ski area, something that I have wanted to do since I arrived. We even managed to find time in the evenings to build an igloo, complete with sculpted table, seating area and penguin gargoyle.

Well — that just about rounds up March. It has been a hectic month, but with an enthusiastic group of new people with whom I shall be spending winter — the prospects for the next six months look like they will be a lot of fun. To those of you who know me — feel free to e-mail a picture of petrol prices, traffic jams or rain, just to remind me of what I am not missing back home, and I will see you all in 2011.