Tuesday, 30 October 2007

3am and all's well on the night shift

The clock is just rolling over 3am here, and I am sitting in a dark air traffic control tower, listening to a radio frequency which is mainly static, with occasional strange music (maybe) and screeches mixed in. I'm waiting for some to start screaming "Mayday! Mayday!", from one of the other remote stations in British Antarctica.

I don't mind saying I'm a bit freaked out here.

I signed on for a night shift at Rothera, which means I'm the only one awake should something go wrong. This could be anything from the sewage system overflowing, to a fire at the docks, to a medical emergency at Sky-Blu, a station 800 km to the south. Thankfully, none of this has happened yet. And, except for the times that I'm sitting in the tower (or patrolling the hangar), it's quite comfortable.

But right now, this radio monitoring is very eerie. There's just enough structure to the static in the radio to be unsettling. It's a bit like Stephen King's The Langoliers.

Another five minutes, and I can go back to the bar, where I have set up camp for the night. But first, I must go to another building and check that our freezers are still working.

Man, I'm tired. About four more hours to go.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Waiting, as we lose the plot

My flight is delayed until Thursday. And there will be no mysterious passenger. I've now got a few days to kill.

I think I'll go see how Doris is doing.

Waiting, as the plot thickens

Still in Rothera. The plane may or may not be on its way. But something interesting has occurred - we will have a mysterious co-traveller on this flight, whose identity and destination are unknown. Intrepid explorer? Government agent? The Thing? Speculation is abuzz amongst the Halley-bound Rotherites, and I smell the makings of a good novel here, somewhere. Of course, it's probably just a spare mechanic, but we don't have that much to gossip about here, so we assume the most dramatic.

In the meantime, I'm planning out my field trips, making maps, and continuing to play with my toys. I'm also helping to install a beacon called Doris. Actually, Doris is the name of the entire satellite system that helps to identify satellite positions precisely - like GPS, but in reverse. It relies upon a worldwide network of beacons, like the one I'm helping to install.

And here are some completely unrelated pictures, which I filched from one of my co-travellers, Neil Ross.

Here we are, boarding the plane at Punta.

Here's a better picture of the ice cave crevasse. You can pretend that's me, if you like.

The band shown below is called "Ass of BAS", and they set up in the sledge store on Saturday night for a party, complete with a bar with "barmaids" in drag. The entire production was quite comical, and I'm sure some of it will end up on Youtube.

And now...I will sit and wait for the plane. And the passenger!

Saturday, 27 October 2007

More rescue practises, and winter camping

Well, yesterday was another day of throwing Toddy down a crevasse and having him wait while I pull him out. This time, I did it in just over 30 minutes. This is a reasonably ok time, and I didn't screw anything up in particular. Probably, I can shave another five or ten minutes off that time, when I start to build up some muscle memory.

This time, we were working in a crevasse that was a bit of an ice cave. Quite nice; I have a picture or two that's pretty poor:

Toddy took better pictures than me, so I'll get those from him and post them later. The top of the crevasse also provided a good look at the entire Rothera base:
That's it; runway, a couple buildings, ocean, and some mountains. After we finished the crevasse rescue, we went back to base, packed up some equipment, and went camping. The BAS camp hasn't changed too much in the last 30 years, I believe - HF radios with 20m wire antennas, kerosene Tilley lamps, and kerosene Primus stoves, so we may shake hands with beef. Or freeze-dried chicken pieces in a balti sauce, as the case may be. Setting up camp takes about 2 hours, and I'm not looking forward to doing it in heavy winds and snow. It was great on this day, though - you can see the weather in the above picture. Some of the other guys came up in the evening to ski, and then we packed it in at about 11pm. We then woke up at 6:30am, took down the tent, and were back at base in time for breakfast.
Now, today is Saturday, a half-day for work. I'm starting to pack things up, because word is that the Halley flight may be on Monday. Tomorrow, Sunday, is our full day off. Might kick back and watch a movie, perhaps. A nice relaxing finish to my week of Rothera.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Airplanes, Crevasses, and 3.14159265....

Not camping tonight, due to gale force winds forecasted tomorrow. Our tents can handle it, but there's no point, when we can just delay it until tomorrow.

A fresh delivery came in today from the Falklands, including my new BAS-issued prescription shades. They're floating around the base here somewhere. Another plane just came in, as I was walking back to my room. It's pretty cool, living at an airport - you're sitting in a quiet, pristine mountain/lake environment, and suddenly sirens and flashing lights go off and Rothera goes into airport mode. 10 minutes of activity, and then it's back to serenity.

But back to training...today, I continued my quest to pull people out of crevasses. We unfortunately timed me on this one - a full rescue took around 50 minutes, which probably means that I might as well work another 25 minutes and dig a six-foot-deep hole for my erstwhile companion. But it sounds like I'm on par for a first attempt, and I should be able to cut my time in half. I lost a lot of time retrieving a glove that had blown away, and got tangled in my ropes at one point when I suffered a total case of the Stupids. I was intensely grateful that my trainer was stuck in the crevasse at this point, so he couldn't watch me struggle my way out of my self-induced strait jacket.

Here's a picture of me after this particular episode. I may look a bit pissed here, because I was dwelling upon my damned ropes.

We then moved on to travelling on roped skidoos. Takes a bit of concentration, when you're on the rear skidoo, to travel behind a sledge that you're roped to. The sledge itself, carrying tents, emergency food, petrol, etc., is pulled by my companion/guide (Toddy, in my case, who is pictured beside the sledge below).

Anyway, I'm off to bed now. I'm reading JPod, by Douglas Coupland, and want to power through it and one or two more books before leaving Rothera. I polished off almost a hundred pages in 15 minutes - mainly because 6o of those pages were either the digits of pi, or series of random numbers. Gotta love Doug.

A few pictures, finally.

Right. Here we go. This is my hotel in Punta Arenas:

and here is a random lake just south of Punta:

Here is the view from the seat of my airplane (not from the cockpit, sorry):

and here's a couple shots around Rothera (there'll be more, in and around buildings)

I took that last one, so I'm obviously not in it. These are some of the guys that I travelled down with. Simon, the one on the left, will be going to Halley as well; the other three are in my office and will be going deep-field.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007


"Stay on the plane. We've got two Twin Otters that have been circling while they wait for you to land, and another about to take off. We'll come get you when we're ready to walk you across the runway. Oh...uh, welcome to Rothera."

And with that greeting from the Base Commander, here I am at Rothera! The weather window was indeed good, and we flew down here in the BAS Dash 7. Pretty comfy flight, and I got to sit in the jumpseat of the cockpit as we took off from Punta Arenas. It was cloudy most of the way, but cleared up just at the end for a breathtaking view as we landed. I'm sitting here right now in a corner office, with a view straight ahead of a bay with icebergs and mountains. I've got some good pictures - I know I keep saying that, and I will post them soon. Unfortunately, my computer setup doesn't make it convenient at the moment, so just one more day. That's a promise.

This place reeks of Canada. As this is the only British base with an actual runway, all the pilots are based out of here, and the airplane mechanics, and everyone else. And where do you get mechanics and pilots familiar with snowplanes? Calgary. There's bottles of Petro-Canada snowmobile oil around, mukluks from Mark's Work Warehouse...yeah, a lot of familiar stuff around here.

Anyway, now I must run to my climbing training. We may have done it in Derbyshire, but now we have to do it again on ice, wearing full gear. Shouldn't be a problem, but we'll see. And I may or may not be camping tonight off base, depending on the weather.

I'll be here at least a week, by the way. Planes aren't available to take me to Halley yet. And now, I must go get my ropes.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Punta, Part II

Well, still here in Punta Arenas. Regarding the camera, I just bought a new cheapo one. And now, we have a possible flight window in a few hours, so I'm gonna run around and snap a few pictures before going.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

I just flew in from Santiago...

...and boy are my arms tired. And my legs. And my brain! What is it now, Saturday morning? I have finally emerged from that limbo-region of "travel-space-time" to re-enter the real world at the bottom of Chile, in the city of Punta Arenas.

Cambridge to London, 2 hours. London to Madrid, 2 hours. Madrid to Santiago, 13 hours. Santiago to Punta, 5 hours. Long times to be cramped in seats. However, I was thankful on the overnight transatlantic leg that there were no serious sources of noise to disturb my futile attempts at sleep.

Unlike the first flight, to Madrid. Now, I've travelled on planes quite a lot, and I've had several bad experiences with seat-kickers, screamers, and the gastrointestinally-challenged, if you catch my drift. However, this particular flight had one of the worst. The kid in the seat behind me would not sit. He would yell, though. And he would pound the back of my seat whenever he wished to emphasize a particular statement. He kicked my seat rhythmically while he was thinking of said statements. And several times he would actually reach through the seats and grab me, just in case I didn't hear his >120 dB oratory. The parents did their best, I suppose, to restrain him, but nothing short of heavy chemical sedation was going to calm this kid down. And another load of kids on the plane thought it would be fun to scream in terror when we took off, or banked the plane. Most of these people were connecting to Tenerife. It's really soured me on Tenerife; don't expect to see me there in the near future. Anyway, the 13 hours of transatlantic crossing were silent bliss in comparison. Whew!

My stuff all made it here, too. Every seam was bursting in my luggage, and I managed to pawn off some of my equipment onto my fellow travellers. However, even with that, I had to carry a lot of junk in my coat, because it couldn't fit in my carry-on bags. My coat had 8 kg of stuff in it, and my carry-on had another 12 kg. My coat was reminiscent of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix where he had weapons upon weapons concealed within. Except with me, it was books, slippers, travel documents, personal electronics, and even some GPS equipment. I spent 24 hours in constant surveillance of all my pockets, to make sure nothing was left behind.

Anyway, we got in last night and after a 20 minute nap, we had a nice rooftop dinner and hit a local bar for a few drinks. Quiet place, Punta. Pictures are still forthcoming - a few if I don't find a battery charger to buy, and a lot if I do.

And now I wait for further instructions. We will know in the next two hours whether or not we can leave today for the Really Dark Continent. They made an attempt once earlier this week and aborted, so they may be "once-bitten, twice-shy" about it today. So, the next blog will either be from here again, or Rothera station.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


Ok, I now have a camera, but I don't have time to download pictures yet. And I don't have a battery charger; I left it in Canada, apparently. Instead, may I offer a map showing the next point from which I shall blog, Punta Arenas. I shall be there on Saturday, I hope.

Since my last post - expect posts to be much more regular now, by the way - I have continued packing, packing, packing. Mostly at work. Space is completely limited on my flight in, so I've had to ditch or delay most of my personal luxury items. Delayed, most of them. In particular, I have heroically delayed my x-country skiing gear, my downhill ski boots, my favourite pillow and quilt, and my latest Jack Whyte and Colleen McCullough books. They'll be arriving on a ship in the next few months.

I have kept my Yagi antennas, extensive arrays of GPS devices and radio modems, my fancy new iPod nano, laptop, and camera. So, traditional distractions have been supplanted by technological ones, mainly because I need them for my work (except the nano, a 4-ounce luxury).

Still overweight on luggage, though. I need to carry my own 17 kg kit bag, containing all my winter gear. I may thin that out a bit...there's a lot of extra gear in there that no self-respecting Canadian would need in -20C.

Less than 12 hours from takeoff! Expect the next post to come from a Spanish-speaking country, either Spain or Chile. Hopefully Chile. If I have time to blog something from Madrid, something's gone awry.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Ave atque vale, Cantabrigge

Whew! What a couple of weeks. I've been running my ass off, getting a bunch of things done. When I last blogged, I was learning about BAS at Girton. Well, that went off pretty well. Since then, I've done first aid and field training. In theory, I should be able to pull off the following:
  • Tether myself to my companion while we explore a glacier region with crevasse potential;
  • Assuming my companion falls into a crevasse, prevent myself from falling in as well;
  • Tie him/her off, and abseil down to check him/her out;
  • Provide CPR as necessary;
  • Scale back up the rope;
  • Set up a block and tackle to pull him/her out; and
  • Keep them warm and happy until help comes, if needed.

Much of the training was done in Derbyshire, my new favourite place. Great little villages, nice farms and architecture, and nice hilly bleak landscapes. We set up our tents on a nice horse farm, where the friendly landlord had nice stone outbuildings, an incredibly energetic kleptomaniac border collie, and a thick brogue that was almost incomprehensible. We were within walking distance of a decent pub, too.

Damn, I need a camera, to show you this stuff. I'm buying one in the next few days, along with a new iPod nano (or Touch), and a bunch of other little toys to take with me. I've already got noise-cancelling headphones, which I strongly recommend to all, for the sake of your hearing and comfort. The brand is Audio Technica, and they're $120US. And buy them in the US, if you can. They're not available in Canada, and ludicrously expensive in the UK.

Anyway, I returned from Derbyshire to realize that my flight was one day earlier than I expected. After spending the weekend in Norfolk, I had about 8 hours to pack up my room and officially move out of residence. So, after four years, I have finally departed the University of Cambridge. At least, until next week, when I get temporary accommodations at Wolfson before I head down.

And, now, after some serious car troubles, I am back at my parents' place in Avonton, relaxing for a brief while, before things get busy again.

And I promise pictures in every entry from now on. I'm off to buy a camera.