Rothera

After a busy summer season at Halley, our travel home was delayed due to sea ice around the Brunt and Stancomb Wills – which prevented the RRS Ernest Shackleton from making it in for it’s second call. After investigating the options BAS decided to fly everyone out of Halley to Rothera, which is further North (making ship access much easier) and has a gravel runway (making it possible to operate a greater range of aircraft) – putting us somewhere that they have more options to get us home.

View from front of Basler on approach to Rothera.

View from front of Basler on approach to Rothera.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to visit Rothera, having heard much about it – particularly because two of my wintering team had wintered there before and others had visited for summer seasons or travelled through on their way to Halley this year. It is surprising how different the two stations are.

Rothera research station

Rothera research station

Rothera’s most noticeable features are it’s runway and the rock it is built on. During the winter months it does get a covering of snow, but arriving towards the end of their summer means the ground resembles a quarry – which in some ways it is, as the runway was built by blasting the rock the station is now built on. It is quite strange coming from the pristine white of the Brunt Ice Shelf to the dusty setting of Rothera; but, it is probably a good halfway-house to the UK! The temperatures were generally around 0°C during my visit, which meant one didn’t have to don extra layers for moving around outside (although they were advisable for longer durations, especially if not moving much.) Having had a few days there, we were able to see most of the sights – a walk around the Point, visiting the Bonner and the Dutch marine biology labs, a tour of the upper atmospheric experiments (some the same as ones at Halley) and a trip up to Rothera’s ‘show crevasse’.

Inside Rothera's show crevasse

Inside Rothera’s show crevasse

On Friday evening a barbecue was held at the wharf, alongside HMS Protector which will be taking most of the Halley group North. In true British style, we were not deterred by the wind and snow which also came along for the evening!

Barbecue at the wharf

Barbecue at the wharf

Posted in Antarctica, Rothera

Relief

The past few days has been the busiest part of Halley’s summer, with Ernest Shackleton arriving – after a few days delayed by sea ice – for the annual relief of the station. This involves removing all of the cargo and fuel destined for Halley from the ship and transporting it to the station, ~30km away.

My job in this was as a sea ice drivers mate, on the night shift. This involves following a Pisten Bully on a Ski-Doo, to render immediate assistance in case of the sea ice cracking and also to help with hitching the machine to the sledges used for moving cargo. Working ship-side, I was staying on the Shackleton for the duration.

Ernest Shackleton loading cargo

Ernest Shackleton loading cargo and fuel

The first night we mainly moved fuel, shuttling it between the ship and the large bulk fuel tanks waiting on the shelf ice. These larger tanks are too heavy when filled to be safe on the 2m thick sea ice so a smaller transfer tank is used, taking about five rotations to fill a bulk tank. Towards the end of the shift the ship was ready to unload cargo so we began moving sledges to the ship for loading, before leaving them on the ice shelf edge from where were the taken to the station in sets of four by one of two John Deere tractors.

Pisten Bully moving cargo up the ramp to the shelf ice

Pisten Bully moving cargo up the ramp to the shelf ice

The fuel and cargo continued through the second shift and by the third we finished bulk fuel and were left moving drums of fuel, which are preferred by pilots as they are sealed and so more reliably water free (but are still tested before use!) Surprisingly, we were finished with the cargo by the fifth shift so we could begin loading the ship with outbound cargo and waste, which is essentially the same process in reverse.

A John Deere prepares to leave for Halley VI

A John Deere prepares to leave for Halley VI

Once relief had finished, the remaining 2014 wintering staff were invited for lunch on the ship – during which the ice we had been driving on for the week broke up when the mooring lines were removed (the ship was holding position with thrusters while they prepared to leave.) A new safe edge was made and the crew craned us off onto the remaining, secure, ice and we proceeded back to station ready for the summer season to really get under way.

Posted in Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton, Halley VI, Ships

Summer

With our third aircraft of the season approaching the station as I write this, summer at Halley is really starting to get going – along with much improved weather and, as of this week, 24 hour sun.

Some of the new wintering team have already arrived to start working on projects over the summer as well as some Cambridge based staff who provide the long term continuity. The biggest change however, is that we have lost the first member of our wintering team. After an eventful summer last year, we found ourselves without a doctor and James was good enough to stay on for a second winter with the assurance of getting home as soon as possible afterwards. We are all extremely grateful he was willing to stay on.

twotter1

Twin Otter pictured from my pitroom (through the comms array)

The previous aircraft was the first to bring post; mostly philatelic mail, a surprising amount of post intended for other (not even British) stations and what seemed like half the mailbag was for me! This was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed reading through the various letters and cards.

When the first Twin Otter arrived, the air unit wanted photographs of the skiway at Halley. This meant the aircraft needed to fly over the station and was able to take a few passengers, so I got the chance to see the station from a slightly different angle.

Halley VI from above

Halley VI from above

The pace of work on station has already started increasing, not just my usual science related work but also helping out with other jobs; raising drum lines, laying out the skiway, digging out vehicles and anything else that comes up.

From experience last year, and knowing the work planned, this is going to be a very busy, hectic and often tiring season but should also be lot of fun.

Posted in Antarctica, Halley VI

Winter Trip 2.0

This past week was my second winter trip, again with Al and Silver, this time six days (five nights) long. Unfortunately bad weather delayed our departure three days, but weather is just ‘luck of the draw’ when it comes to trips – they are timed to try and get the best of it, and are ordered so that people should get good weather in at least one trip (which we did last round), but at the end of the day you just have to accept it.

Windy caboose - outside

Windy caboose – outside

When the weather did clear up on Sunday afternoon, we headed out to the caboose at Windy bay. We were able to depart quite promptly as we had been packed for several days and as there is a flag line to Windy we were able to travel unlinked as the route is known to be safe. We set up in the caboose and settled in for the night with nothing but the sounds of the Reflex stove putting away, the wind around the caboose and the Emperor Penguin colony down on the sea ice a few hundred meters away.

Windy caboose - inside

Windy caboose – inside

We stayed in the caboose Monday morning as we had been informed by Kev, back on station with the latest weather forecast, that the wind was due to continue dropping. Early afternoon we set off towards the penguin colony, where we abseiled down the cliff onto the sea ice with the birds. On the way we saw a number of Petrels flying around, a sure sign that Antarctica is starting to wake from the winter.

Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

The penguins had spread out from their winter huddle into a few large groups with many more spread out between these. The chicks were becoming decidedly active and the majority were off their parents feet and running around, chasing each other and wrestling. I didn’t see any that were starting to lose their baby feathers, but some were beginning to imitate adult behavior, forming little groups and copying their actions. The chicks are definitely getting bigger, generally about a foot in height now, with the adults standing at about three feet tall and are the largest species of penguin.

Emperor Penguin chick - the very definition of cute

Emperor Penguin chick – the very definition of cute

We spent several hours down on the ice where it was surprisingly warm – the wind had indeed dropped off, almost completely, so that we could wear thin or no gloves most of the time which made camera operation easier. We then headed back to our rope where we tried some ice climbing – Silver was much more successful at it than I was – before jumaring up and heading back to the caboose to recover from the surprisingly exhausting ascent, probably due to a combination of the warm weather and the many layers of clothing being worn.

Several chicks in a small (and very fluffy) group

Several chicks in a small (and very fluffy) group

The remainder of the day was spent relaxing in the caboose again and we started back to station on Tuesday morning. managing to arrive before the next wave of poor weather arrived.

Posted in Antarctica, Trips

Sunrise!

Sunrise might seem like a rather normal affair back in the UK, but for the thirteen of us at Halley it was a much anticipated event as we have not seen the sun for over 100 days (sunset was 1st May.)

Sunrise - not an explosion!

The sun – not an explosion!

While the days have been getting brighter, and it really thought about it yesterday, the disk of the sun finally popped up shortly before 13:00 today, much to everyone’s delight. While not an unexpected event, it is a major milestone in the wintering calender and promises the return of much warmer (but still sub-zero) days.

Sunrise

Sunrise

The day is marked by the raising of a new flag over the station by our youngest winterer and a short speech. Short being the preferable term, as the temperature was well below -40, although fortunately it wasn’t windy (which made for an inanimate flag, but warmer people!) We were lucky it was a clear day so we could see the sun, although there was some low cloud and patches of mist, which diffused the sun’s disk creating some interesting effects and photographs.

Securing the flag

Securing the flag

Posted in Antarctica, Halley VI

Midwinter

Midwinters day (21st June) is a big event in Antarctica, as it is the point at which the sun starts to return (although won’t rise for us until August). It has been celebrated ever since the earliest days of explorers wintering and is celebrated by all nationalities. A tradition that has arisen since stations started becoming internet connected is to send an electronic greeting, usually a photograph of the wintering team and messages of goodwill. These are printed out and displayed on the wall much like one might display Christmas cards back home.

Greetings from other wintering stations and politicians.

Greetings from other wintering stations and politicians.

The first BAS tradition of the day is for the Base Commander to cook everyone breakfast, which may be taken in bed if desired; nobody opted for that this year mainly because people felt it would be more social to eat together. We really lucked out here because John has previously wintered as a chef and is therefore very good at cooking. After this we headed upstairs to the TV room for the traditional screening of “The Thing”, which myself and at least one or two others had deliberately not watched since getting the job in anticipation of this event. It was quite a good film and I was surprised how accurately some parts of Antarctic life were portrayed; although, there were a lot of inaccuracies too!

After the film, we all went and donned our formal wear in anticipation of one of the largest parts of the day – lunch. We met in the bar where Gerard served us canapes and we all pulled our home made crackers (not a tradition this, but good fun; we had all pulled one name from a had and made a cracker – gift, hat and joke  – for someone else.) Then we headed to the dining table for the first of about nine courses.

My place at the table.

My place at the table.

The Midwinter cake.

The Midwinter cake.

The meal took a total of about six hours, including two breaks. The first was for the Midwinter gift giving; names were drawn out of a hat for the order to present the gifts, which were of a very high quality. The second break was to raffle off the Union Flag that had been flying on the station from sun up 2013 to sun down 2014 (again a name from a hat); this was won by Anton.

Presents - all wrapped up.

Presents – all wrapped up.

Presents - once opened.

Presents – once opened.

After dinner, we retreated to the Comms office and huddled around the HF radio to listen to the BBC World Service Midwinter Broadcast which was as 21:30 local time (UTC). This contains messages from family and friends at home, as well as some messages from famous people and the BAS director. Unfortunately there was a lot of fading on the signal and parts were not audible, however Kevin had been able to download an MP3 of the broadcast from the BBC earlier in the day and we were able to listen to it again more clearly. It might seem strange to try to listen to the broadcast when we had access to a higher quality version, but there is a certain charm to listening how they would have back when the radio was the only contact they had with the outside world.

The day concluded with everyone feeling very full and playing various card, darts and pool games in the bar as we all wound down before drifting off to bed.

Posted in Antarctica, Halley VI

Winter begins

It’s been a while since I last write a post, as life at Halley has moved on to the Winter routine which is of a much slower pace than during the summer.

On the 1st May we had the flag down ceremony as that was the last day the sun rose above the horizon before Midwinter; there is still a slight red tinge to the horizon at around midday, allowing you to see outside well enough to walk, but with slightly over three weeks until 21st June it won’t be long until it is completely dark all day. The ceremony included a speech by the eldest member of the wintering team, and was accompanied by a barbecue – like the best British barbecues everyone was huddled inside by the end, albeit avoiding the cold rather than rain!

Getting the barbecue going.

Getting the barbecue going.

There is much activity on the station preparing for Midwinters week. Activities are being planned, food is being prepared and the traditional Midwinters gifts are being made wherever a tool can be wielded. Midwinters week is the closest we get to a week off, with work being limited to essential jobs with tasks such as cooking, meteorological work and gash duties being allocated to volunteers.

While our biggest festivities are yet to come, the social scene on base is well established with regular Saturday night events, ranging from takeaway pizza’s to pool tournaments, fancy dress and funfair games. During the week the evenings are usually quieter, with card games, board games and film nights being popular.

Approximately 10 minutes of Aurora Australis; you can see the apparent movement of the stars.

Approximately 10 minutes of Aurora Australis; you can see the apparent movement of the stars.

One of the best parts of wintering at Halley is the spectacular Aurora we are treated to. With the right weather (within and without the atmosphere!) we have seen some spectacular displays of this phenomenon. My camera isn’t the best at photographing it, however I have found that by layering a number of photographs fairly impressive images can be produced. Even so it is impossible to capture the event fully in a photograph; it really does have to be seen.

Posted in Antarctica, Halley VI

Emergency Abseil Training

As with all places of work, Halley VI features an array of emergency exits and equipment. One of the most fun escape routes we practised with today – the emergency abseil system, for escaping from upper levels in case of fire blocking the stairs.

Practising with the Emergency Abseil system

Octavian practising with the emergency abseil system

These are located in the H2 module and the A module (pictured). These feature a large harness which is easy and quick to put on, and a mechanical breaking system to keep your decent at less than 1G to prevent accidental splatting! It is strange trusting your decent to a mechanical system after all the manual rope work we have done, but it’s all properly engineered equipment which is more than suitable for the task (although, will all the excellent food we’ve been having, it’ll have it’s work cut out if needed near the end of winter!)

Posted in Antarctica, Halley VI

Winter Trip

Last week was my first winter trip, with Al and ‘Silver’ (John M.). This trip was five days (four nights) long and we stayed at a place called Aladdin’s, named after a cave that had been located there. The weather was generally very good all week, with temperatures between -25°C to -30°C and little wind.

On Monday we left the station, drove to the camp site and set up camp. As we were able to get away fairly early, we were all done by about 2pm and decided to have a walk around the large wind scoop in Aladdin’s.

Panorama of the campsite with Aladdin's in the background.

Panorama of the campsite, with Aladdin’s in the background.

The highlight of our week came on Tuesday. We started out by driving to a location known as Stony Berg. This is an iceberg embedded in the ice shelf that is covered in stones and rocks, presumably from having scraped along the continent’s surface before being turned up as it reached the edge.
We then drove further south, to a small cave seen by Kevin and Richard on their trip two weeks previously, but had not been able to get to it as the area is covered in slots and crevasses. Al brought some long ropes and we were able to get to the cave mouth by abseiling diagonally down a slope, and then enter the cave by abseiling a bit more. None of us were prepared for what we found – it was an amazing chasm which was absolutely huge. The main chamber was around 20m high, with some amazing blue colours; when you looked out of the cave mouth the sky looked slightly purple compared to the ice surrounding it. There was also what looked like a frozen river running along one side.
There was another space to the back, which had shafts of light from holes in the ceiling and some incredibly fragile ice formations. They looked like they had been icicles which had grown from hoar frost formation rather than dripping water, so they were almost hair like in structure.
The third area was to the front, which featured a lower ceiling with icicles and more of the frost formations. There was a lot of debris in this part from collapsing snow, reminding us that this whole chasm could come down at any time and that we are probably the only people that will ever get to see it.

Inside the ice cave.

Inside the ice cave, looking backwards with the entrance up the slope on the left.

On Wednesday we had a more relaxed day, all being exhausted from the day before. We again went into Aladdin’s, this time climbing up the other side to a crack Al had found on the first trip with Mike and Octavian, which we abseiled into. This was quite a narrow crevasse which helped in someways – you could lean your back against one wall and feet on the other, making it a friendly crevasse for beginners – but I found it awkward when jumaring out as there was not a lot of leg room for pushing oneself up and resorted to more of a climb with the jumars as a backup. Unfortunately, the contrast was not particularly good and a light snow shower wiped out most of what contrast remained, so we headed back to camp rather than explore further afield.

Looking up out of Al's crack.

Looking up from the bottom of Al’s crack.

The weather was much improved on Thursday and we all felt more energetic so we set out to find somewhere to do some ice climbing. The location we found was not as steep as it had looked from a distance however, so while we did some climbing it was not as challenging as it could have been. We then proceeded to walk around Aladdin’s, which allowed for some excellent scenery, me finding a new crevasse with my foot (I only went knee deep and it is why we travel roped together) and was generally rather tiring – you don’t do much hill waling at Halley, so the undulations around Aladdin’s were quite an effort to traverse!

We broke camp early on Friday morning, again with excellent weather, and were able to make good time driving back thanks to the excellent contrast and relatively smooth snow. We stopped on the way back at a large crevasse known as Gatekeeper, which we drive over on a snow bridge that forms, and abseiled into it using the Ski-Doo’s as an anchor. This is a very wide crevasse, although last year it was apparently only a couple of meters across, showing how much the landscape can and does change in a relatively short time span.

Abseiling in Gatekeeper crevasse.

Abseiling in Gatekeeper crevasse.

Posted in Antarctica, Trips

Just another day in the office

Last week we spent two days doing our field training. This involves leaving the station for a night and learning how to live in tents in Antarctica. This training is required for all winterer’s, both for supporting field parties in the summer months and as an emergency survival option (e.g. if an aircraft cannot reach it’s destination due to poor weather, it may have to land  in the middle of nowhere until it can proceed.)

Being in such a remote and unique landscape makes camping more complicated than back home in the UK. We use pyramid tents made of very tightly woven cotton, which makes them wind proof, and have to do as much as possible in tents to keep out of the weather.

The campsite

The campsite

We left Halley after lunch on Tuesday, two people on Ski-Doo’s and the rest of us in a SnoCat. It took about two hours to reach Creek 3 on the SnoCat, where we learnt how to set up camp, made ourselves dinner (my tent had Pate on Biscuit Browns for starter, and ‘Man Food’ for the main – to get us used to the (remarkably good) field rations), had a sked with the base to demonstrate field communications and then roped up and had a short walk down to the sea ice.

The sea view

The sea view

After another round of hot drinks we filled our water bottles with water, which are then kept inside the really thick sleeping bag with us to stop them freezing overnight. This gives us instant water in the morning, rather than having to melt some to have a drink; although we did prepare a pan full of snow just before going to sleep so we could just light the Primus stove and start melting without leaving our sleeping bags!

Melting snow on the Primus stove in the tent

Melting snow on the Primus stove in the tent

In the morning we struck camp and learnt how to pack up the tents and field sledges, before practising more rope work and crevasse rescues. Rather than throw someone down a crevasse, we just kept tension on the rope to simulate someone hanging. We then headed back to base at about midday – myself and Al on Ski-Doo’s this time and the others in the SnoCat. The sastrugi was rather solid which made it a very bumpy drive, but it was good to practice pulling the field Nansen sledge on a Ski-Doo. The main thing to remember is that, as the sled is attached with a rope, you need to slow down gradually so it is stopped by friction rather than the back of the ‘Doo!

Posted in Antarctica, Trips