Friday, February 09, 2007

Summer time........

.....and the livin' is chilly.

Well relief was as hectic as we expected. When the ship finally broke free of the sea ice and managed to get to Halley all on board were keen to get started unloading and getting supplies up to base. Like relief last year, a lot of my time was spent in the Comms office flight following and handing over to Dean the Comms Manager for the next year. The relief site was N9 again, which is the furthest away of the regular relief sites and normally means a longer operation. This year the plane did quite a few rotations to the ship and back which reduced the workload on the snocats somewhat, but also the vehicles section had a new secret weapon, in the form of very large Challenger vehicles and converted John Deere tractors. These are able to pull much heavier loads than the snocats and at faster speeds so relief was all over in 7 days. Luckily Dean picked up the flight following pretty quickly, so I got to copilot a couple of flights over to the ship. It's been a year since I was any more than about 20 feet above ground so it was nice to get up in the plane again. Everything looks very different from the air, with the base looking much more spread out than it feels on the ground, and having got used to being confined to the same couple of square kilometres it's a very liberating feeling being up in the sky. The flagged roadway from the base to N9 was already looking very well worn, and we took the opportunity to buzz a couple of snocats on our way over.

Snocats taking cargo to Halley

The ship looked much smaller than I remembered, nestled into a cove in the ice shelf and dwarfed by it's surroundings. We were picking up a variety of cargo from the ship so were met at the skiway by a snocat and sledge full of cargo handlers. I had the strenuous and very responsible job of holding a calculator and totting up the weight of everything as it was loaded onto the plane, calling a halt when we got to 1200kg to ensure we'd be able to take off again.

The Shack at N9

The rest of relief consisted mostly of moving boxes, moving barrels, or opening large crates and moving the contents. At the end of the week the ship headed north again, along with Vicki, Fran and Anto, the first of our wintering team to head off. It felt very much like the end of an era as they left so we were all up at the skiway for an emotional farewell.

Leaving committee at the skiway

And then we were full swing into the summer. The base takes on a very different feel, not just because the population has gone from 16 to about 60, but there is definitely more of a buzz and a sense of urgency about the place. That's not to say we didn't do any work over winter but things are definitely a bit more relaxed in the dark months. Luckily even in summer Halley is still small enough that you get to know everyone on base pretty quickly so there's still a bit of a family atmosphere. The main focus of summer for outgoing winterers is handing over to their replacements, ensuring they know where everything is and going over the finer points of the job. Dean comes from an IT background like me, making that side of things an easy handover, so after a quick run through the radio equipment and a tour of the HF masts and the comms container he was pretty much up to speed allowing to me to leave him to it and put my feet up for the summer!

Unfortunately we had a couple of projects to complete so my smug feeling of relaxation was short lived. First to be tackled was the install of a new Dartcom, which is a satellite system giving us images of the ice shelf and surrounding area. The existing Dartcom lived on the Simpson and was largely held together with gaffer tape and wishful thinking, so a shiny new one had come in to be installed in the Laws. Having found all the boxes we unpacked it all in the gym to try and see what was what. The internal equipment consists of a rack full of impressive looking computers, while on the roof there's a dome housing the satellite dish, and also a GPS compass. Everything had been meticulously labelled in the UK before being shipped so it all went together fairly easily, the hardest part being getting the dome equipment up onto the roof and aligning the dish with a compass bearing. The whole system is up and running now and giving very clear images, hopefully it will survive the winter just as well.

We started with a large collection of boxes

Shiny new computers

Jim and Terry lay the foundation for the dome

Dish installed and ready to go

Ready to withstand the winter

All our highly efficient handover work in the Comms department meant I was suddenly free to help out with some other base tasks.
"Morning Dave," said Pat. "You're going out in the plane today with John and Nic."
"Great," I thought, "off on a jolly."
"You'll need spare warm clothes and a shovel."
Our job for the day was to fly out to Site5 and raise a fuel depot, so with barely enough time to pack a bag and make some sandwiches we were off to the skiway. The flight was about 3 hours, with a stop on the way to refuel at Bluefields, a nice little spot by the sea. Site5 itself was rather more typical of an Antarctic fuel depot, a couple of flags and a post in the middle of a large flat white expanse. The depot turned out to be not too badly buried and after about 4 hours digging we'd raised the 6 full and 30 or so empty barrels to the surface, loaded a few empties onto the plane and were away. Well almost. We were bimbling merrily along at take off speed but the plane remained resolutely on the ground despite much yanking on the controls by Ian the pilot. It turns out that very soft powdery snow can be a problem for aircraft as it rides up over the front of the skis preventing take off, so we taxied back and forth over the same tracks a couple of times to compact the snow and had another go, this time sucessfully as the plane grudgingly got airborn. We got back to base at about 11pm after a good day out, and rewarded ourselves with a lie in the following day.

Site5: There's drums under there somewhere

The team in full swing. Photo by Ian.

Drums raised. Photo by Ian.

As it turned out I should have paid more attention at Bluefields when we stopped to refuel as I was soon going to become much better acquainted with it..... This time it was to be just John and I spending a couple of days raising the depot, so the following week we were going out with tent, food, radio and of course plenty of spare shovels. Bluefields was a larger depot, about 200 drums according to the plan, and was buried deeper than Site5, with the drums under a couple of feet of snow. We went out with Bob and Ian on the plane, the plan being for them to drop us off and head back to Halley. I hadn't realised that the plane couldn't leave until we had established contact with a base, so after a frustrating hour trying to raise people on HF and Iridium we finally got through to Rothera and set up our sched times, and Bob and Ian left us to it.

The plane departs

When the depot had been built last year someone had thoughtfully left behind a skidoo so we were saved quite a lot of manual labour. Having dug down to the first row of drums we created a ramp, and then after persuading the frozen barrels to separate were able to attach ropes and pull them out with the doo.

Drums ready to come out

Pulling out with the skidoo. Photo by Bob.

After a few attempts we had perfected a technique and were soon working well, although even at peak efficiency we were probably only getting out about 10 barrels an hour. The work was pretty hard but we were rewarded with a lovely view out to sea and the monotony was broken by the odd visit from aircraft.

The view from the tent

Ian and Bob came back several times to pick up barrels, as well as another plane that was working nearby at a different depot. The weather was somewhat warmer than it had been on our winter trips so the tent was plenty warm enough and after a days digging we certainly slept soundly. Well I did, John just got an introduction to my now legendary snoring, but that's all part of the Antarctic camping experience.........

After a long day. Photo by Ian

At the end of day 3 one of the planes brought us a drum crusher for the empties. Crushing the drums reduces them to about a third of their size and means we can fit many more onto a plane, which means less flights required to get them back to Halley.

The drum crusher in action. Photo by Bob.

After 4 days of digging, dragging, swearing and crushing we'd raised all the drums and rebuilt the depot on the surface, so we struck camp and headed back to Halley for a much needed shower to try and get rid of the all pervading smell of avtur.

The finished article

Loading the plane to go home

Unfortunately I was going on to a week of nights so I needed to try and stay up as long as possible. I made it to about half past five in the morning before collapsing into bed. For the next few days I ached. A lot.

Being on nights meant I neatly avoided the drama of raising the satellite dome. This houses the dish that gives us all our communications with the outside world, and we were a bit apprehensive about raising as it means switching everything off, and last year it took a week to find the satellite again. This year we were luckier and had everything back up and running in a day, thanks to Dean's expert work with the spectrum analyser (that's techspeak for accidentaly tripping over the satellite when he least expected it).

As the summer is a busier time there tends to be a bit less going on leisure-wise, although this year has seen a huge rise in the number of kiting enthusiasts, on a good day there are about 10 of them out whizzing up and down on skis and boards. We had high drama in the annual doubles pool competition, with the last few matches going down to the wire, and we've managed a couple of musical evenings to give people a chance to showcase their talents. We also had the traditional soccer match, with the traditionally liberal interpretation of rules, and a very good BBQ. The vehicles guys also extended an open invitation to anyone who fancied having a go at driving the new Challengers and John Deeres so a few of us went down and grinned like idiots for half an hour or so.

The answer to all your commuting problems

In action towing the garage to it's new location

But now the season is almost over, the ship is due back next week for second call and those of us who are leaving will be off back to the Falklands and then home. I'll leave with mixed emotions, it's been an incredible year down here and I'll be sad to leave, but I'm also looking forward to seeing hills and trees, scenery that isn't white, and catching up with friends and family back home. In the meantime there is a very good article here with advice for those of you awaiting the return of someone from the Antarctic.