Friday, March 17, 2006


So now that there are just 16 of us here for the winter it's time to really get to know each other. And what better way to do that than to try and get everyone into a 5ft by 5ft tank of water. I'm not sure we got everyone in at once bet there were about 13 of us at one point all enjoying the Melt Tank Party. The Drewry building is only used in the summer, and as part of the shutdown process all the snow in the melt tank is, well, melted. It's quite a strange feeling being in a nice warm bath while your hair freezes from the -10 degree air. Luckily we had lights and music and the odd bottle of wine to fend of the cold, so a fun evening was had by all.

Come on in the water's lovely

The Drewry has now been all but emptied, as it has no heating over winter so anything left inside will freeze. Among the other jobs we've been doing in preparation for winter are various bits of outdoor work. First on the list was removal of the skiway. Unlike Rothera we don't have the luxury of a solid runway here so every year a length of snow is groomed and marked out to enable aircraft to land. This is marked out with empty oil drums, which are removed using a sort of wild west lasso method. A snocat with trailer is driven along the line of drums, with one person on the trailer with a strop which is dropped over the barrel as we pass, pulling the barrel out of the snow as we drive off. So I spent an hour or so driving 10 yards at a time while the team on the trailer unearthed and loaded the drums. My other driving duties recently have involved a crane and a bulldozer, as we've been sorting out waste wood and metal, and stacking sledges for winter storage. I had a brief moment of panic last month as I tried to track down some printer paper. Having checked the Comms container and found no paper at all I was envisaging a winter spent tippexing old sheets of A4 and cutting all our A3 in half, until John suggested I look in the Stationery cupboard. He's not Winter Base Commander for nothing you know.

Bob the Builder

The first of the winter trips have been away recently. This is our first official holiday and a chance to do the rufty tufty polar hero camping bit. Simon takes away groups of 3 people to the imaginatively named 2nd Chasm, where they indulge in walking, abseiling, rope work and falling into crevasses. I'm due to head out next week so quite excited, although looking at the weather forecast I may be in for a rufty tufty week spent reading books in a tent.

On the social side it's been quite a busy couple of weeks. We celebrated Fran's birthday with a children's party, much balloon blowing and party games and some very, erm, imaginative costumes. Simon our erudite GA hosted a quiz night, and most recently we celebrated Nicola's birthday, which coincided with St Patricks night so a good excuse to get out the penny whistles and the fiddle and have some diddly dee music. I've also finally had a go at kiting, well almost. Kiting has become a very popular sport down here in recent years, whereby you get a very large kite and let it pull you along on skis or a snowboard. Halley is an ideal location as it's pretty windy, but very flat and there's plenty of open space. I've got as far as flying a kite but haven't yet tried the next stage. As I've never skiied or boarded before it could be quite entertaining when I do.

Halley Base - Average age 7 3/4

Friday, March 03, 2006

Back to base

Once back at Rothera it was nice to be able to get on and do things, so I managed to keep myself busy helping the Comms guys laying some cables and sorting through some maps. Some of the older maps of Antarctica are hugely entertaing, consisting of nothing more than a blank sheet of gridlines, with perhaps one line where a sledge party travelled in 1956. Some are more detailed though and it was interesting to get an idea of the geography of the continent, and also realise just how much of it has never been seen. Rothera was quite busy with field parties starting to pack up and return, and also a few other visitors such as a DC3 full of Russians, a helicopter from a German ship, a yacht with a Canadian film crew, and the BAS ship James Clark Ross.

DC3 landing at Rothera International Airport

Enjoyable though Rothera was, I was keen to get back home to Halley and see everyone, so was quite glad when, despite winds and overnight snow, Ian the pilot announced that we'd be heading out. The flight itself was quite long, 6 hrs at about 12000 feet with mostly cloud to look at. When we arrived at Halley I was flattered to see that a small crowd had turned out to say hello. It wasn't until we were taxiing that I realised it was the samba band, drums and all, who were playing to welcome me back. It was a really fantastic way to return, and the guys had a done an excellent job of learning a new number while I was away with Alex at the helm. I fear I may soon be redundant as mestre..... Luckily I had come home on the day that there was a planned BBQ and Club Nido night in the garage, so after saying hello to everyone it was straight into burgers curry and beer!

Samba band at the skiway

I'd hate you to think it's all a life of leisure down here though, and as I'd been away for a month and there was only a week until the ship arrived to take people away there was plenty to do. Mike the outgoing Comms manager had been having some problems with the satellite system while I was away so was keen to go through the shutdown and startup procedures, and Richard from the IT department at Cambridge had been performing a server upgrade so there was plenty to show me there. Hopefully we managed to cram enough into the week so I can look after everything over the winter. No doubt I'll discover the gaps in my knowledge as soon as something breaks.

The last week of summer seems to be a flurry of people packing, trying to finish all their summer work, handing over winter work, saying goodbye, and generally panicking that things haven't been done. As a result it was almost eerie when the base suddenly became very quiet. Once the aircraft had left, most of the outgoing people left on one day, out to the ship in a caravan of seven snocats, along with several winterers who were driving the cats back again, so we went from having about 40 people on base to having 8. Without wishing to speak ill of those leaving base, as they've all been wonderful to work with, it was a nice feeling to finally be left with just the 16 of us, our family until October or November when we next see anyone.

The last plane gives a flypast of the Simpson building before leaving

There are several traditions that have grown around life in the Antarctic. One of these is that the outgoing winterers leave little booby traps for the incoming people. We discovered the first when we found that the melt tank was blocked. The melt tank is our water source. Snow is shovelled into a chute that leads down underground to a tank where it is melted to provide all the water for the base. In this instance we found that it was blocked with about 9 metres of snow, which took four of us two and a half hours of shovelling, poking, chipping and swearing to clear. Oh how we laughed.

One tradition that unfortunately we weren't able to take part in due to bad weather is that of waving the ship off at last call, which would have been a fine excuse to go and let some flares off at the edge of the ice shelf. Another tradition that we definitely managed however, is a meal to celebrate the beginning of winter. After a few pre-prandial G & Ts in the bar we were treated to an incredible feast from Nicola our chef, tortillas with a selection of dips to start, steak for main course, and as it was Shrove Tuesday, pancakes to finish. Then back to the bar to celebrate our independence and sample some of the contents of the winter bond. This then led on to one of the newer Antarctic traditions, that of new and exciting haircuts. Possibly it was a mistake when Jules and Kirsty suggested I have a trim at three in the morning, but it seemed a fine idea at the time, and I'm pleased with the result. Some of you will know that I'm no stranger to wierd and wonderful barnets, however those with a weak constitution may wish to look away......

Sorry Mum. That's Jules on the right, it's all his fault.