Saturday, January 28, 2006

To Rothera and beyond

The time finally came for my flight over to Rothera. Weather is the primary factor in deciding if the plane will fly or not. Even if it looks fairly good at Halley, the pilot still has to consult satellite photos, and get weather observations from field parties to see what it's like between here and our destination. The last thing you want is to run into bad conditions and have nowhere to put down. As well as the major bases, BAS has a number of strategically placed fuel dumps in the Antarctic, enabling pilots to plan a journey. The Twin Otter generally has about five hours fuel endurance depending on load and wind speeds, but they are never run right down to empty. So in the morning Geoff our pilot had decided that conditions were good and we had enough options open on the way, and we were given the call. There were 5 passengers on the flight, and we all rushed about grabbing bags, making packed lunches, and getting ourselves out to the skiway. We then waited for about an hour for Geoff as he was still back at base checking the latest weather! Several people came out to see us off, most of the Met team, and Nathan and Tommo in the traditional Halley Hats of Farewell.

Traditional Halley headgear

As we had five passengers, quite a bit of cargo, and only one spare drum of fuel in the back we were right on the edge of our limit to get to Rothera without having to camp out somewhere overnight. At some point in the journey the pilot has to make a PNR (Point of No Return) decision, that being the last point at which we can turn and head back to base without running out of fuel. Before we took off Geoff told us that in order to save fuel we would be flying as high as possible, and the heating would be turned down to minimum in the back. Sure enough we were soon up to about 13,000 feet, well above the clouds and most of the weather, and stayed between 13 and 14,000 for the next five hours. You soon realise just how lucky you are in commercial airliners as it was pretty bloody cold up there, and after a while we started to feel a bit nauseous due to the thin air. I guess the pilots just get used to it after a while. We stopped for fuel at Fossil Bluff, although we couldn't stop to chat with the guys there as while we were fuelling a second plane pulled in behind us, so we were soon up again for the final hour and a half to Rothera. This second leg was flown a bit lower and there was some beautiful scenery. Even after only a couple of weeks at Halley it was nice to see mountains and hills again.

Refuelling at Fossil Bluff

Look! Geography!

On arrival at Rothera we were given a quick safety brief, then up to the kitchen where dinner had been saved for us. It seems the BAS rumour mill had been working overtime as everyone was expecting me to turn up with horrific facial injuries and were most disappointed when there was nothing to see. Over the next couple of days I helped out the Rothera Comms guys laying some cabling to commission a new HF aerial. While we were there the base was due to celebrate Burns Night, and I got roped into playing fiddle for the Ceilidh afterwards. The bastards asked me after I'd had a couple of beers so I was utterly defenceless. Luckily someone had a book of fiddle tunes, so after a quick afternoon rehearsal with Phil on guitar and Andy, who was going to be Caller, we decided we'd made a reasonable racket and would go ahead with it. The Burns dinner was excellent, everyone made an effort to dress up, the haggis was piped in, and after a few poems and speeches from the Scottish contingent we enjoyed a fantastic meal. After that the dining hall was cleared and we set up for the evening's entertainment. I haven't really played fiddle for a while so there was a certain amount of nerve jangling beforehand, but Andy did a great job talking everyone through the different dances, and from what I could see of the limbs flailing on the dancefloor everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

The little known and highly advanced Beer Bottle Technique

After just four days at Rothera I was off again on the next leg up to Stanley. This was another 5 hour flight, but this time in a Dash 7 aircraft, rather more civilised than the Twin Otter, with heating and drinks facilities and everything! After getting through Stanley Passport Immigration and Customs control (one bloke with a passport stamp), we were ferried to the Upland Goose Hotel, where I'll be staying for the next couple of weeks. I ventured out in the evening to see if Stanley had changed dramatically in the last month and a half, and managed to bump into a guy from my mum's home town of Hawick, who was amazed that I'd even heard of the place. The world certainly seems to be getting much smaller lately.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Inside and out

Despite the enormous trauma of a slightly wobbly tooth, life has continued normally, or what I imagine passes for normally down here, it's difficult to tell sometimes. I've been out and about visiting the various bits of the base to acquaint myself with all the IT and radio gear we have. I live on the Laws, the main building on base, and the Comms office is there as well. We also have Simpson and Piggott, the two science buildings, a garage, and the Drewry which is only open in the summer as extra accomodation. There are also various cargo containers around which are used as storage. I've been trying to resist the temptation to go everywhere by skidoo and have been walking between the buildings in the vain hope that it will combat the effects of all the excellent food we have on base. On one occasion I needed something from the Comms container, so decided I would walk over pulling a sledge to bring the stuff I needed. I knew it was a bit windy that day but figured it would still be OK. This where the naivety of the newcomer shows up, as not only was it windy, there was a fair bit of snow blowing about, the temperature had dropped quite a bit and the snow on the ground was knee deep. It took me nearly three quarters of an hour to walk what must be all of half a mile and I had to stop at the Drewry on the way for a bacon roll. And this is summer.....

In order to prepare us slightly better for the rigors of winter there are various stages of field training that everyone goes through, the first of which involves camping out on the perimeter of the base for a night. After an indoor session involving Primus Lighting Level One, Tent Erection for Beginners and Camp Cooking Theory 101 four of us headed out into the wilds with nothing more than two tents, two stoves, several boil in the bag meals, more bedding than I've ever seen and a highly trained instructor for protection. For field camping Pyramid tents are the preferred accomodation as they are fairly easy to put up, very stable, and offer excellent protection from the elements. Having got the tents up without too much drama we set about cooking dinner. After getting the primus alight, we filled a pan with snow, and after about half an hour Andy and I were enjoying Lamb Pilau and Chilli Con Carne a la Antarctic. Flushed with success we headed out for a lesson in how to use a field radio, then the five of us whiled away the evening chatting over a few beers, feeling very much the polar explorer. After an excellent nights sleep, blissfully ignorant of Andy's attempts to stop me snoring by throwing snow at me, we packed up the tents and headed back to the Laws as fully qualified Module2 campers, also earning the right to put our names on the list to go out as co-pilot with the Twin Otter aircraft.

Camp kitchen

5 star accommodation

Once we'd got our field training done in 20 knot winds and blowing snow, the weather naturally decided to improve greatly. However, this brings oportunities to try out new things, one of which was cross country skiing. This is my first attempt at any kind of winter sport, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I took up Simon's offer of a beginners lesson. Skiing looks hard enough to me when you've got a slope, but Halley being rather flat we have to resort to self propulsion just to make it harder. Apart from being unable to stand up after practising falling over, I managed fairly well skiing about happily for an hour or so, although afterwards I had a much clearer idea of why man invented the internal combustion engine. At the opposite extreme from skiing, the vehicles department ran a bulldozer driving for novices session. This proved hugely entertaining, going back and forth in a slow rattly bulldozer trying to level out snow dunes, which is actually a lot harder than the guys who do it every day make it look.

Scenic ski lesson

Less scenic D4 bulldozer

When we're not outside being hardy Antarctic heroes there's plenty to keep us occupied indoors as well. There seems to be quite a few musicians down at Halley this season, so a few of us have got together with guitars and keyboard and run through some numbers, and once Mark had found all the component parts of the PA system we had a music night in the bar, which seemed to go down well. The only possible problem is that if any more musical talent emerges from the closet we'll have more people in the band than in the audience. We've also kept ourselves amused with a Pirate party. The surgery stock of eyepatches was duly raided, as was the fancy dress box, and we had a fine evening with some excellent costumes, plenty of pieces of eight, timbers being shivered and people saying"Arrrrr!" a lot.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Learning the job......and what not to do

After we had all recovered from the relief operation it was time to get down to learning our jobs. For those of us wintering there is someone here who has been doing our job for a year or two, so we can spend the summer doing a handover. In my case Mike, the current Comms Manager, has been very helpful, introducing me to all the various bits involved in the job, especially the radio stuff as that is all new to me, ensuring nothing will trip me up in the depths of winter. We've also got Richard here from head office doing some server upgrade work, so I get to have a hand in ensuring the IT side is OK.

Unfortunately I managed to throw a spanner in the works by injuring myself, meaning I've got to go back to the Falklands for a couple of weeks at least. It all started when I foolishly volunteered to go drum raising. Anything left lying on the snow here soon gets buried by snow as it accumulates (over a metre last year), so a lot of time is spent digging things up. In this case we were digging out a batch of a couple of hundred fuel drums. This involves clearing the snow and ice, then using a crane to get the drums out and onto a waiting sledge. Once on the sledge the drums are then heaved upright, using a metal bar device to give extra leverage as a full drum is pretty heavy. This is all well and good until the bar slips off the drum and flies up into your face resulting in a split lip and a chipped tooth. Luckily Vicky the doctor was also out working with us, so I had immediate first class healthcare. Unfortunately it appears that in the Antarctic first class healthcare means starting your own ambulance, as Vicky's skidoo was proving rather recalcitrant. To add insult to injury I was then told I couldn't wipe the blood off my face as it wouldn't look gory enough and people would think we were skiving.......

Once back at the surgery an initial assessment of the damage was made, the gist of which was "Stop whining you're alright, it's only a chipped tooth and the lip will fix itself". Having been put at my ease it was then decided that x-rays would be a good idea as the tooth might be fractured. This is where it started to get interesting. Luckily Simon our GA is an ex radiologist so was able to lend a hand. Now I'm no expert but I don't think the base x-ray machine is really designed for doing teeth, however after a lot of umming and aaahinng, drawing diagrams, working out angles and experimenting in the dark room, we had a beautifully clear image of my chin and part of my hand. It only took another 6 or 7 goes under the leather apron thoughtfully provided to get a passable image of the guilty denture, which was e-mailed off to Penny the dentist on the Shack. To cut a long story short the x-ray image has now been seen by about 6 dentists, doctors, consultants and radiologists and still there is no consensus as to whether or not there is a fracture. As a result I will be heading back to Stanley to see a dentist and get things sorted before the winter.

The image which has baffled the medical world

Regardless of my life threatening injury I have struggled manfully on with the task at hand, trying to understand what's involved in the job, playing pool and darts, and drinking my fair share of the beer ration. But it's not all sweat and toil you'll be pleased to hear, we find time for leisure activities too, more of which in the next instalment as it's now gone midnight, I'm supposed to be on a plane in the morning and I haven't packed.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


A strange name for a week of utter chaos..... Once the ship has arrived and moored up the first priority is to offload all the cargo and fresh food, and load up any recycling waste. To take maximum advantage of the 24hr daylight this involves continuous working, with everyone on 12 hour shifts, and carries on until the job is done. We were all anticipating a much longer relief than usual as the journey from N9 to Halley is about 6 hours in a snocat, so each vehicle would only make one round trip per shift. In the end it was decided to make a half way point where sledges could be left, so there were 2 snocats operating between the ship and the halfway point, and 2 operating the other half of the trip to Halley. A lot of the new drivers were very excited about getting to drive a snocat, but I think the novelty wore off fairly quickly! Luckily I was on day shift all week so didn't have to disrupt my sleep patterns, although it's all a bit irrelevant when it never gets dark. My job was flight following the Twin Otter aircraft so I spent most of my time hidden away in the radio room. Flight following involves maintaining radio contact with the aircraft, giving them weather information, keeping a record of flights, passengers and aircraft fuel capacity, and letting people know when the plane is due in so a party can be ready at the skiway to unload. The plane is very versatile, able to carry people or cargo, and Ian the pilot does an amazing job of cramming as much as possible into it. He is ably assisted by Dave the Air Mech who acts as ground crew, fire tender and maintenance department. Vicky the doctor has also been seconded as skiway crew and has been very busy making furniture out of snow. Soon we'll have our own departure lounge.

Our hardworking doctors at the skiway

The plane was used to ferry people, and cargo that can't be left on the snow to freeze (important stuff like beer, wine and spirits), while all other cargo was carried by sledge with snocats from N9 to the Halley cargo line, where it stays until we find a space for it. As Christmas fell during relief we didn't get much of a chance to celebrate, although our chefs did a fine job of providing a Christmas meal, complete with crackers and silly hats. It was strange in many ways, all this snow but not much else in the way of traditional festivities. Perhaps the strangest thing was being able to enjoy a Christmas meal without the constant fear of certain elder sisters stealing the food from my plate.....

Snocat delivery at the Laws platform

New Year is generally a bigger celebration here as relief is over and we get a chance to relax before work starts in earnest. The chefs did us proud once again and laid on an impressive spread of curries, after which we all retired to the bar for drinks. Not sure if I've described it yet but the base has very good leisure facilities. We've got a bar with pool table and darts board, and a lounge with TV and videos and DVDs. There's also a library and a gym, and of course plenty of space outdoors! The New Years Eve celebrations also featured and impromptu gig by the Halley Samba band. Our first public performance, and it went really well, we paraded down the corridor and into the bar where we played for about 5 minutes. Everyone played well and the audience seemed to enjoy it, hopefully we'll have enough people to keep it going over winter as well.

Samba band entertaining

New Years Day was celebrated with a football match. This was highly entertaining to watch, being played on an uneven and fairly soft snow pitch. There was certainly some interesting techniques being employed, more Queensberry Rules than FA Regulations. The match was followed by a celebratory barbecue in the snow. The burgers tasted marvellous, despite being cold by the time they had got from the BBQ to the table, but I suppose that's just one of the many hazards of being here. All in all a good start to the new year, it's certainly going to be interesting.

Spot The Ball