Sunday, 13 February 2011

Station 60 and the zen of Sky-Blu

So, how’s life been for everyone in the last month? Anyone else have a deep life-changing journey into the depths of isolation and sensory deprivation?

Let’s begin.

My last post was correct. The next morning, I hopped on a Twin Otter to go to Sky-Blu, the field camp from which I would get out to the Evans Ice Stream, where I was to – surprise, surprise – raise and install GPS sites.

The team at the point was:

Steve K: Antarctica’s most experienced Twin Otter pilot.

Ross: Electronics Engineer from Wrexham. Along to do a similar project to mine, maintaining GPS sites.

Smiler: Vehicle mechanic from Rothera, off to do a stint at Sky-Blu. Not the most talkative fellow, but always in a good mood – hence the name. Even after spending 3 weeks with him, I still can’t remember what his real name is. Nobody uses it.

Me: You know who I am.

Anyway, we stop at two of Ross’s sites on the way down. His sites are on nunataks – these are basically mountain-tops, but less dramatic than one may think because of the glacier. A nunatak is anywhere where a mountain pokes through the surface. His sites were all in places where the mountains just poke through a tiny bit – so we can land on the snow, right beside the top, and walk over to it. His sites were measuring isostatic rebound – this is a measurement of how much the earth deforms due to the change of mass distribution that results from deglaciation. Cool, huh?

The first site was the Brenecke nunatak.

The second site was the Hutton mountains.

From the Hutton mountains, we were going to head straight to Sky-Blu. But first, we took a little diversion to Station 60. Where is that, you may ask? Right here:

A "Station 60" means that the front landing gear, 60" back from the nose of the plane, has buckled. Nunataks are dangerous areas for airplanes. You never know what’s hidden under your takeoff route. In the case, it was a huge rock outcropping, that we hit just as we took off. I didn’t think anything of it at the time; just noticed Steve looking down at the footwell in the cockpit a lot. I thought he was looking for a contact lens – turns out he was checking the extent of the damage. We only found out when he turned around and said “I bent the plane.”

It wasn’t his fault, of course – it’s just the nature of the dangerous terrain in which we work. Anyway, we limped on to Sky-Blu and landed without incident.

But that was the end of my quick surgical strike into my field sites. Now we were down one airplane, leaving one plane left to service all of the British field parties in Antarctica. And I was at the bottom of that priority list. My orders? “Stay at Sky-Blu until a) an aircraft is available, b) all of the other field parties are uplifted, and c) a suitable weather window opens up at your site.”

Thus began my wait at Sky-Blu.

Here are a few pictures of the place that became my home for three weeks.

Sky-Blu is all about fuel and aircraft. It is a blue-ice runway – a long runway of thick,thick ice that can support our big Dash-7, which brings in 18 drums of fuel at a time. These, in turn, are used to refuel the smaller Twin Otters that run us out into the field – when they’re not station 60’d, of course.

The cast of this little vignette has now been increased by two:

Ian: the perennial Sky-Blu manager, a man who constantly fights to get Sky-Blu more budget and equipment, and tries to get Rothera and Cambridge to acknowledge its importance a bit more. I’ve become indoctrinated to his cause somewhat since my stay.

Crispin: another long-term ex-military field assistant. Fairly soft-spoken, with a work ethic that makes me feel very lazy and inadequate.

So anyway – yes, fuel and aircraft. And snow removal, cooking, and water-melting. These are the subjects that consume all conversation and thought at Sky-Blu. We had an HF radio as well, with which we could talk to aircraft and Rothera. We could actually tune into BBC World too – but we didn’t. Interesting, that. In the outside world I would have kept on top of the Tunisia/Egypt situation obsessively – but why bother at Sky-Blu? BBC World wasn’t going to tell me anything about fuel, aircraft, food, or water-melting. And that was all that was important.

Sky-Blu really splits the Rothera crowd. Some love it. Some hate it. Some people get there and can’t wait to get back out. Like, they can’t take more than a few hours of it. Others don’t want to leave. Dave Routledge, one of the longest-serving field assistants, was pulled out of a remote camp during my stay, and flatly refused to return to Rothera, preferring instead to stay at Sky-Blu as long as possible.

Dave: see above.

Myself, I spanned the whole range of emotions towards Sky-Blu during my stay. Impatience, anger, boredom, frustration – interspersed with sudden flashes of happiness, contentment and excitement. Every once and awhile a plane would get there (happiness, excitement), and then go off somewhere else (frustration). I learned how to bake bread on a camp stove (contentment). I slept in -20C where it was too cold to hold a book – that involved hands outside the sleeping bag. And then there was the morning ritual of lighting the gaslamp to thaw out the pee bottle so you could empty it for the next evening. Charming task, that.

It was funny, though – at the end of week 2, Rothera asked for Ross to go back and leave me with his work. And suddenly, for no reason, I just snapped. In a good way. Suddenly I lost all frustration and just relaxed. Ross declined – saying he wanted to finish his work himself. They sent him back anyway, along with Crispin. This left four of us on our own (Ian, Dave, Smiler, me), without a plane. But I was zen at this point. We started watching movies in the evening, and I burned through all three seasons of “The Inbetweeners”. It made me a bit intimidated by British sixth-form state schools. Certainly high-school wasn’t like that for me – not sure if that’s because it was Canada, small-town, in the 90’s.

And then it all just happened. A plane came in on Sunday, a weather window opened up, and I got out to my sites. I slept in the plane Sunday night, and finished all my work by Monday night at 8pm. One more night at Sky-Blu, and I caught the next Dash back to Rothera by Tuesday lunch.

And here I am. A shower and a shave, and I was almost back to normal. 3 weeks of no hygiene doesn’t do the complexion very well. My face was so blotchy that I looked 10 years older and couldn’t shave completely. This has since faded, and I look vaguely human again.

And now I've just gone for a little boat trip around the bay, on my day off. A few more tasks to do for the next week, then it's back to Punta. And, since I handed in my letter of resignation on Friday, that's really the end of my Antarctic adventures!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Just a quick one

Hello all,

Sorry for the radio silence. Unfortunately, it must continue, as I am probably off in the morning to Sky-Blu.

I'm sitting at Rothera writing this. The plane came into Halley pretty much on schedule. It then went out to investigate a mysterious American package - actually, it was just a weather balloon, but we pretended it was something sinister - and then took me over to Rothera.

Fairly uneventful trip, right up to the end. Then, at Rothera, we had a 20 knot gusting crosswind. I had the ever-entertaining Steve King as my pilot, and he gave me last minute instructions as we landed: "If I shout 'ailerons', swing the steering wheel as hard as you can to the right. That will minimize our chances of flipping over." I stood ready; he shouted; I swung. And we landed as neat as could be. He turned to me and said "Were you scared?" And I replied: "No...should I have been?"

He just chuckled. So I don't know if we cheated death or just did another boring routine landing. In the arsenal of Steve's flight stories, though, this one definitely wasn't worth remembering, even if it was high risk. (I don't think it was.)

So it's just like last year - I'll go down to Sky-Blu and wait for a weather window to do pretty much the same thing I did last year. The same thing I do every year, no matter where I go - raise GPS stations. What I was apparently put on this planet to do.

I was planning on providing a map and explaining where I'm going in the next month; but alas, I must get to bed before going (hopefully) first thing in the morning.

So I shall do so when I get back. A bientot!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Ryan Anderson: PRIME MOVER.

[cut to scene: Ryan is sleeping soundly in his bed at 6:12AM on Christmas morning. The door opens slightly and Ben Mapston sticks his head in the room.]

Ben: Ryan.

Ryan [waking up abruptly]: What?

Ben: Ship's in. All Sea Ice people and Prime Movers are to be ready to go to the coast at 7am.

Ryan: Oh.

[Exit Ben. Ryan stares at the ceiling for a few minutes before climbing down his bunk quietly and beginning his morning routine.]

And that, folks, was my Christmas morning. Yes, after waffling around in sea ice for more than a week in a roundabout course to Halley (the last bit is the ship leaving today)...

... suddenly the Shack ended up on our doorstep on Dec 25. Thus, once again, all activities cease and we begin our alter ego roles for relief.

Ah, but I was expecting something a bit different for myself! After multiple reliefs of me being on sea ice - the guy who picks up stuff from the ship and hauls it up to the shelf ice one sledge at a time - this time I was a prime mover. That is, I was the guy who shuttled back and forth between the base and the coast, hauling multiple sledges of cargo at once. Of course, for this task I needed something with a few more gonads. Allow me to introduce you to Challenger 2.

I spent 6 days, 12 hours a day, sitting in this machine, driving back and forth from the coast ("Creek 3") to Halley V, and sometimes to the Halley VI site. 14km each way, between Halley V and both other sites. There are two of us on day shift, and two of us on nights.

Here's the approach to Creek 3:

...and the view of the ship at Creek 3:

Back and forth, all day long. No stops for lunch or smoko (coffee break) - as our manager Ben put it, we were to eat "on the hoof". Driving the Challenger would have been relatively enjoyable - suitably armed with audiobooks as I was - except for one thing:

Hauling several tonnes of fuel across snow doesn't take long to dig in some serious ruts. And Challengers like to bounce. The result is a corduroy road that has you hitting your head on the ceiling, steering wheel, or anything within reach as you travel along. I thought I was just a greenhorn that couldn't handle it, so I didn't say much - but no, even the veterans complained about back problems and abrasions from sliding around the seat so much. I have a photo in my collection of Tim's chafing as a result of constant seat-sliding - but they're barely appropriate for a PG-13 blog.

Occasionally, we were accompanied with a groomer - a John Deere dragging a large weight to smooth out the ruts. On the day shift, this was driven by Kirk - the author of the many videos I may have shown some of you. Grooming was helpful, but you couldn't drive on groomed snow until it had time to set and freeze. Given that most of relief was spent around zero degrees C, this took a long time.

Back and forth, back and forth. Hitch, unhitch. James Goby - my nocturnal alter ego, driving Challenger 2 on the night shift - took this pictures listed in this blog post. Here's one of a sledge:

...and here are two spectators that wandered along our route from the coast to the base, at a more sedate pace:

And then that was it! End of relief. I made my last trip on the morning of Dec 30. Now, I wait for my flight to Rothera. New Year's here was quiet - I didn't stay up for it, as we were working the next day. Our party was the following night - last night, as I write this. Today is our first proper day off in two weeks. I've spent it catching up on stuff that I've neglected for awhile. Like blog entries.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Good old pre-relief Halley

Right. Enough with them there foreigners. South Africans, Russians, etc...let's get back to jolly old British soil. By which I mean a floating ice shelf claimed by the UK amidst dispute.

Ah, but it's good to be back! Here's the good old Laws building.

Photo courtesy of Andy Dixon, as my camera is rubbish. It is now officially at the surface level of the snow around it (although it dips in the immediate vicinity). By next year, it may be below the surface, which may make for some pretty dull views from the windows. Once again, I've been lucky enough to score a bedroom on the Laws, which means I don't need to put on boots to get to the bar (which, sadly, I am not frequenting much this year due to my schedule).

Food is starting to run low, though. Ship is a bit late. Here is our drinks fridge:

Those of you who know your refreshments may identify that nothing is left but tonic water and lime bitters. No Coke. No Fanta. That's right - the only two beverages we have left are quinine-based. And we have no gin.

My Simpson buliding, however, remains the same:

(credit: Andy Dixon) The Simpson doesn't bury too much. Andy has taken some great pictures around the station, although he and his Photoshop friend "Shuggy" may have taken a bit of artistic license with the view out the Simpson office window:

Either that, or I'm just not looking out the window at the right times. Usually it's pretty empty out that direction.

Work for me has been same old, same old. Go visit a GPS station that looks like this:

Do a bit of this:

...and leave it looking like this.

and then go back to Halley with nothing but GPS records and a bit of lower back pain to remind me of the trip, until next year. (When someone else will do it!)

I'm a bit pictured out, so I'll save the penguin pics for another post. I'll throw in two, though. I managed to get down to Windy Bay - and once again, my nearby GPS station meant that I got to go before anyone else - and now, the sea ice has broken out yet again and there may not be any more penguin trips this season, so I got lucky. Because I cheaped out and got a £20 camera from a pawn shop, my pictures aren't so hot:

Whereas Chris, pictured above taking a similar picture of me, has a kickass camera: I may end up showing his pictures instead, with his permission.

Relief is about to begin, but I'm base-side for once, not ship-side. I have mixed feelings on this - it's easier at base, but not quite as exciting. And I miss the Shack, which will not be my mode of departure from Halley, it seems. Nope, from now on it my Antarctic work will be in conjunction with this little guy here:

Photo courtesy of Andy Dixon. Man, I wished I spent a few more quid on my camera.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

SANAE and points beyond

Hello all!

Right, where was I? Ah, yes, just landing in SANAE. This is how it went down.

The plane had landed, and we were just getting up and stretching when the back door opened and we were welcomed.

Those who read my blog from the start may recall my first Rothera greeting: "Stay on the plane....and welcome to Rothera." At SANAE, it was a Rasputin-esque guy who threw our back door open and yelled "Looks like these guys need some beer!".

Sure enough, he had a cooler full of Castle beer, and gave us one each as we clambered down from the plane.

Now, so I don't slander the South African SANAE team, I should mention that it was the weekend - they were winterers off duty. But man, these guys knew how to party. And, for the record, our visit wasn't the big party. That was the night before we arrived, when the first wave of BAS people came through. This party was so epic that any mention of it, or pictures thereof, are strictly forbidden.

SANAE, to my view, is the concept of the "man-cave" taken to extreme levels. You ever heard that expression? Some men in the suburbs use it to describe their unfinished basement which has hockey equipment, some token piece of machinery, and a widescreen HD TV. Well, suburban men, your feeble attempts at man-caving have been shown up by SANAE. Here it is on the outside:

And let us enter. Here's the bar. Which, of course, was our first stop.

The general room beside the bar contains a swimming pool and a pool table. I am not permitted to post a picture of this room. Except for this:

I thought this was their wine storage - but no, that's a different room.

Want to kick back and watch some TV? Here's the TV room:

...not, of course, to be confused with the movie room:

There are several more man-rooms - I haven't even hit the industrial gym or the garage - but that should illustrate the point.

Dinner was a further man-cave affair. Being South African, it was a six course meal, each consisting of nothing but meat. No exaggeration. There were six dishes of meat to choose from, and some token potato or something to tip the hat to a balanced diet.

And for a backyard, SANAE has a cliff. Apparently there was a recent death there, where someone drove off it in low contrast and blowing snow. Hard to believe from this picture, but only if you haven't experienced zero-contrast.

Anyway, the bedrooms are kind of bland compared to everything else, but spacious. As I have begun a teetotal diet for this season, I stayed in this room most of the night avoiding temptation (I decided that teetotalling at SANAE meant only two beers and a glass of wine.)

The night passed uneventfully for me, therefore. We were hoping for a second night at SANAE, but the weather cleared just enough for us to get out. Our plane had snowed in, though, so we had to stand around and wait for them to dig it out.

And then that was that - we got on the plane, got to Halley, and here we are. I have a room on the main Laws platform, where the real teetotalling began, as mentioned. Going to bed at 8pm and getting up at 5am has remained effective.

Next post: Rumples, penguins, and modules. Hurrah!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Season 4: Already Underway!

Hello all!

Well, I kinda abandoned last season's blog, as long-term readers know. Suffice it to say, all turned out well and mission accomplished. I may go back on one of these posts and put up a few pics and links.

But in the meantime, I am back at Halley now and will bring you up to speed on the current season. Fair warning - I will probably blog less this year; perhaps once every ten days. But this season could be the most interesting yet, as I have work all over our half of Antarctica and don't quite know when or how I'm getting home.

So let's begin.

My season this year started on November 4. After a charming weekend in Oxford and the Cotswolds, where we stayed in a 500-year old pub in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Rachel dropped me off at Heathrow for the Cape Town flight.

I've come into Halley three times in the past - twice through Rothera and Chile, and once via ship from Cape Town. This time it was by air, via Cape Town. As usual, though, we had a bit of a buffer between our arrival and our departure, so there was time to frolic in Cape Town. We were put up in a hostel-like place near the V&A Waterfront - the swish area full of expensive shops and whatnot. Our place was fairly bare bones, but had a good location. So no complaints.

As I'm now a veteran of Cape Town, once again I played a minor role as tour guide/town expert. I knew the best place for pizza ("Clay Oven", Long Road), the various routes up Table Mountain, and where to get the best banana colada (some place in Camp's Bay; can't recall the name).

However, this time, I went with an armada of chefs - we've got seven this year (this includes a few who aren't actively chef-ing; some have changed roles). They made a few new discoveries that have gone in my file folder. Or would, if I had such items of organization.

Usual pictures of Cape Town. Camp's Bay:

...and the obligatory climb up Table Mountain:

While wandering downtown, this newspaper front made me laugh:

Seriously, I've only got one suggestion for you and your old vuvuzela.

Anyway, it was about three days of exploring before we got the go-ahead. We left Cape Town at 11:30pm, for the 5 hour flight to Antarctica. I have to say, I'm not particularly a fan of this particular flight. It's a Russian plane, whose toilet is a ratchet-strapped portapotty, and is ridiculously hot. Fortunately, I had my iPad with Civilizations on it to keep me occupied. Sleep was sadly not an option.

But then we were there! Novolazarevskeya, the Russian base. Last time I came through there, in 2008, we were there for about 45 minutes. This time, it was three days.

First thing we did was unload the plane. This wasn't trivial. Five different bases were serviced by this flight. And, in addition, there was some equipment for a race to the pole! I've seen signs of this here and there - keep an eye out in the news for it. As it was, we were carrying down one of the vehicles:

I was lucky enough to get a ride in one of these vehicles up to base from the skiway - about 15km. I can safely say it was the coolest way to traverse a glacier. Fast.

As it turns out, it was a good thing these things were around the base. While I was there, some guy - a Canadian, no less - went out for a walk and fell straight into a crevasse. Just opened up right underneath him! He was a tourist and stuck down there for five hours. When they tracked him down, they tried getting him out by the usual mountaineering pulleys, but no luck. So they drove one of these vehicles up and winched him out.

However, I was oblivious to all this. We were staying in an area of the Russian base called the Oasis. The accommodations were a little bit, shall we say, tight:

Fortunately, it was only one night of this before we were upgraded. The best feature of Novoa and the Oasis, though, was the sauna/health club. It was set up by one of the Russian long-timers and polar heroes, Vladimir Baranov. He still runs it. I think he has a base named after him somewhere. But his passion is now the sauna. He and his daughter, a doctor, run the Oasis. Here he is, presenting a certificate to some of the sauna attendees.

I was to receive mine later that night.

Here we are taking a stroll of our own. We were knowledgeable enough to avoid obvious crevasse areas.

After day three, we had word there was a weather window at Halley, so we went for it. My travel back to the skiway was in a bit more traditional Russian conveyance:

And no, this thing wasn't exactly whisper-quiet.

Anyway! We got to the plane, and with minimal fanfare, we were on our way to Halley. But alas - our window had closed. We were half an hour away from Halley when we had to reroute to a different base, SANAE.

And I shall leave you here, for the moment. I need to convert a few more pictures from SANAE, which has been one of the oddest places I've been on the planet. And besides, it's 8pm - past my bedtime! I'm trying to keep very early hours this season, getting up at 4:45am and asleep by 8:30pm. This schedule usually has a half-life of one week. All it takes is one big party and I'm sleeping into 8am and there's no turning back.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Sky-Blu: The Great Wait

Right. I believe I left off my last entry arriving into Rothera, on December 30. This, obviously, got me there in time for New Year's celebrations, which was a party in the garage, which was transformed into a pub for the evening:

It was a costume party...I didn't get one together in time, though. And I also left the camera behind, so I couldn't capture the evening on film (so to speak). But suffice it to say that we heralded in the new decade with much aplomb.

Personally, it was a time of reflection for me - ten years ago, I was just finishing off undergrad, and dancing on top of a speaker at a charming bar in Waterloo named Philthy McNasty's. When the fated New Year's moment rolled around, a fellow patron apparently took exception to my presence there (I have no idea why) and started pushing me. I didn't notice - not being all that observant, and it was loud - and just as this fellow was giving up in disgust, one of my party (Tara, if you read this blog, I'm looking in your general direction!) threw a drink at them. Thinking I threw the drink, the fellow was about to engage in fisticuffs. I defused the situation adroitly by doing what I do best - smiling politely and looking confused, until the bouncers came and ejected the fine gentleman. Who, subsequently, will have to spend the rest of his life telling people that he ushered in the new millennium in an unceremonious parking lot, allegedly because of some jackass on a speaker.

Anyway, got sidetracked there. Just wanted to point out that the young fellow on the speaker probably wouldn't have predicted that his 10-year-in-the-future self would have been in Antarctica exactly ten years later. With significantly less money and possessions than intended (I wanted to be rich - it was the end of the dot-com era) - but definitely with a lot more life experience than was in the original plan. And more hair.

Ok, bringing it back to Rothera. New Year's Day was relatively quiet; Rothera parties hard and sleeps in on the next day, more than Halley. But I got the call to be ready on Jan 2 for transfer to Sky-Blu. And thus began the wait. The wait for a weather window to get to the Evans Ice Stream, where my work awaited me.

So here's where I waited. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Sky-Blu.

Sky-Blu is a way station; the place at the base of the Antarctic peninsula from where BAS launches its deep field activities. It is summer only - it is opened in late November, and closed up again in February. It is the southern terminus for the Dash; it has an ice runway that can handle wheeled aircraft, so massive amounts of equipment and fuel can be sent here more economically than one could in Twin Otters.

A posting at Sky-Blu is dreaded by some, and coveted by others. Work duties are fairly simple - you are constantly loading and unloading fuel from airplanes, keeping the machinery working, and usually either opening or closing the station, which takes about a month each. I happened to arrive at the apex of the summer, so duties were mostly restricted to fuel and snow. But mainly, I was working on domestics.

This big red thing is the "Melon hut", presumably named for its watermelon-esque shape. Inside is our social/radio/cooking room - basically, everything except sleeping and toilets, which are done in tents. I usually hovered around the hut, keeping our meltwater supplies up, doing dishes, and so on, unless a plane was coming in.

Here's where I slept; in a pretty comfy weather haven. We got a paraffin stove running while I was there, but it was a bit gutless. Weather was, in general, -10C the whole time I was there - the stove would "take the edge off", as we coyly put it, bringing the temperature up to 0C-ish.

Although really, the stove had much less impact than the sun and wind. If it was cloudy and blowy, we slept in -10C. If it was sunny and still all through the night, temperature would easily rocket up to +10C. Which made our warm sleeping bags unbearable.

And so my days came and went. And pilots came and went, too. The Evans Ice Stream remained shrouded in clouds for almost a week. I would get up in the morning, go to the Melon hut, and wait for the morning HF radio chat with Rothera. The pilots would outline what planes would be where, who'd be coming to Sky-Blu; and, as an afterthought, yes, the Evans is still unreachable. And then I would grumble and wander out of the hut, feeling like...

However, that was just work anxiety. Sky-Blu does have somewhat of a therapeutic appeal. It's certainly the longest I've been without Internet since 1996. The food situation was interesting; when I first arrived, it was just four of us guys there and we didn't make much effort. Kat, our mountaineer which eventually came to the Evans with me, arrived partway through and began cooking with a bit more effort. She even set up the solar oven and made bread and pizza:

And so the days rolled by. One day, we climbed a local nunatak (this is a mountain/hilltop that pokes out through the deep glacier). It was certainly a stunning view.

For some reason, a whole lotta nothing looks more impressive with some altitude.

Then, on Jan 9, a patch opened up on the Evans. Steve King was in the area, doing fuel runs, with the Rothera doctor, Matt Doc, as co-pilot. All the pieces were there...and Sledge X-Ray was ready to go. (That was our callsign.)

Stay tuned to the next blog for Sledge X-Ray's adventures. In the meantime, I offer penguin pics for your consideration.