Saturday, 29 December 2007

Random tidbits

My life has expanded so much in the last few days! I've gone so far beyond avtur in the things that Rich and I transport, that I wonder if I can handle much more innovation. Like a job where I don't transport stuff up an ice shelf for 12 hours a day! (10, if breaks are taken out.)

We've sped up our loading schedule, mainly because the stuff we're transporting is much less fiddly on the Amderma, compared to the Shack stuff. Like massive structural frames, instead of bags of frozen peas. Today, we transported a spool of cable that was 3 m in diameter and weighed 5.5 metric tonnes! Most impressive. We had to stop before hitting the ramp and put extra chains on it, because it was a bit wobbly. Wouldn't want it to roll down the ramp and off into the Weddell sea!

Anyway, I may be relieved in the next few days and go back to Halley, as I have fresh toys waiting for me. Like £100K worth of solar powered GPS sensor systems. They're in a box, just waiting to be hooked up. Can't wait!

So, my time on the Shack may be drawing to a close. But a storm may blow in tonight and delay everything. We shall see.

On a completely different note, I was thinking about the jargon we use down here. There's a site that lists a lot of it here. You may recognize some of it from my blog: terms like gash, beaker, etc. Some of the ones here I've never heard of, even the ones that are marked "Br" for British. Like "Monk on". Huh?

However, one thing that is not there is a list of the "P's". Not to be confused with one another!

P-bag - sleeping bag and accessories. Sheepskins, mattress, etc. Keeps you warm in a tent!

P-box - Box full of personal items, shipping to and from Antarctica. Mostly for winterers.

P-flag - Flag you P near, if you can be bothered to go outside.

P-bottle - Bottle you P in, if you can't be bothered to go outside.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

The Russians are docking...

Yesterday, we finished the avtur. And then some recycling, for good measure. After that, our Halley V relief came to an end. Hooray!

So, when we woke up this morning, there was nothing to do! We sat around and joked about it for awhile, and then everyone set up with things to do to enjoy their "day off" - at the ship, at least.

I found it difficult to occupy myself. I read a book for a little bit, then got bored. Then I re-read my thesis, just for a lark. Messed around with Matlab for a bit. Shaved off my 2.5-month-old beard. Thought my hair looked a bit funny, so I got out my scissors and sawed at the sides a bit. Paced the ship. Wandered around the ice shelf with Rich and a few others. Took these pictures:

This bird is a skua. It came very close to us, circling our snowmobile and then landing nearby. We all delicately extracted our cameras, hoping not to scare it off. Then, when we got our fill of "landed skua" shots, we got closer, so that it would fly away and we'd have some airborne shots. However, it showed no inclination to do so. In fact, it sat down and looked at us insolently. So, we snapped off a few "sitting skua" shots and left. Probably sitting there still! We could have rushed it to make it take off, but I believe we're not legally allowed to do so! Damn bird probably knew it, too. Smartass.

Finally, at the end of our "shift", there was one last delivery of some cabooses to take down to the ship, so we saddled up and skidoo'd up to the shelf. And, when we got back, hauling a caboose, the final guest to our 2007-8 Antartic party was just arriving. Everyone, meet the Russian ship Anderma:

Biggest ship to ever come to this part of the Antarctic, I'm sure (I'm sure the significance of this was lost on the penguins in the foreground). The Anderma had been stuck in the ice for quite some time, but broke free earlier today and sped down here, arriving at 8pm. On this huge ship sits Halley VI, and with three cranes onboard, and three of us Snow Cat teams, I predict we'll be quite busy bringing it off tomorrow.

Good thing, too. Don't think I'd have any hair left if I had to have another day off.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Allow me to wish you a...

Merry Avtur! I mean, Merry Christmas. I hope all is well with you, wherever you may be celebrating the midwinter Saturnalia and/or all of the religious holidays that mysteriously occur around the same time. (And apologies for the lateness of my wishes for you who celebrated Ramadan...I hope you didn't put on too much undesired weight.)

But let's talk about avtur, which has dominated my life today and yesterday. Avtur is jet fuel, kerosene. It comes in large black barrels. It fuels generators and vehicles around here. It stinks when you spill it on your windbreaker, as I know too well. And my holidays has been dominated by the unloading and reloading of avtur barrels from the Shackleton.

Once all of the other cargo was unloaded - including a couple pallets of beer and wine, which I had the privilege of transporting - it's come down to the several thousand black barrels that need to be moved. So, I get up in the morning, have breakfast, move a couple hundred barrels of avtur, have second breakfast, couple hundred more, lunch....

...and at 7:30pm, I grease my Snow cat (sounds like a euphemism, but it's not), wash off avtur, and have dinner. I wash it off because I've spilt it on myself, not when transporting it, but when refueling our Snow cat with it.

But we also have bulk avtur which can be transported by 5 tonne tanks. If timed carefully, we can be the Snow Cat team that uses the bulk container to refuel. And then, we sit back like fat cats, lording it over the other two Snow Cat teams. They must manhandle barrels around, while we sit back and effortlessly watch our sledge fill with avtur, while we discuss world politics or the weather.

When avtur is your whole life, distinctions like this become very, very important.

And a word on sledges. These vehicles that we use to drag things like fuel around, are the mother of all sledges. I've mentioned the Nansen sledge, a cute little dogsledge-inspired vehicle for the basic survival supplies. These things that transport our fuel are anything but cute. They're called "German sledges", made by a company named Lehmann, and they are awe-inspiring. Capable of moving probably 10 metric tonnes, they extend out their skiis when you pull them, and contract them back up when you push on them (i.e. reverse your towing vehicle). Not really sure what the purpose of this flexibility is, but it looks really cool.

Anyway. Tomorrow, on Christmas day, the -big- ship comes in, containing the Halley VI base. This ship is expensive to lease, and doesn't belong to the British Antarctic Survey (unlike the Shack). So, when it arrives, we all switch over to it for unloading. Which may be a bit of a shock to me, as I will not be unloading avtur. How will I cope? Avtur is all I know about now. What purpose shall I have if I am not involved in its transport?

By the way, I do really miss my regular Christmas, and seeing many of you who read this blog. It's hard to think about Christmas at the moment, which is probably why I'm currently obsessing about avtur. Someone in the ship's galley stuck on some carols, and it really didn't feel good, as it made me think of Stratford and St. Marys, where they blast the stuff out on the streets when it's snowing - a very pretty picture.

I think I wasn't the only Christmas music critic in the galley, for a torrent of profanity was directed at the unfortunate deejay/chef who selected it. Who, to her credit, was able to reciprocate the profanity in spades. I wished I had a pen and paper at the time to record the never know when such expressions may come in handy.

And now, off to bed, with visions of avtur barrels dancing in my head.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Ok. A bit of spare time now. And I just had a sauna, some salad, a shower, and when I finish this blog there's a Shepherd Neame ale waiting for, it doesn't get better than this.

And outside my porthole window there are emperor penguins swimming around and chattering to each other. Nice!

Ok, let's start with the penguins. On Tuesday, before my life turned upside down, there was a last call for penguin trips, and I managed to climb aboard, and get a few more pictures.

The kids are getting pretty old now - and there weren't many parents around. Probably off getting food. But it was a fun trip, and I was happy to go a second time.

Wednesday. I managed to get a lot of my project working, and I was in high spirits when Vicky, our base commander, called.

"Ryan, I'm afraid that we've had to shuffle accommodations around. When you get back from the Shackleton, you'll be living in the containers. I mean - the Annex."

The Annex - sounds pretty la-de-da, doesn't it? Yeah, they are containers. Shipping containers with beds chucked in them. I've been moved from the two-bunk Hilton on the main platform, from which I could crabwalk to the bar and breakfast, to a storage box out in the
Great Big Empty, holding four of us. Well, at least they're brand new, and I know my roommates.

But in the meantime, life is pretty sweet on the Shackleton. Relief has been slow starting, as predicted. We stood around quite a bit today, as they assembled cranes and so on for transport. We finally got into the swing of things at the end of the shift (7:30 pm), and I think the nightshift will hit its rhythm now, unloading boxes at a steady clip.

Yesterday, I showed a picture of the Shackleton from far away. Here's one a bit closer.

And here are three penguins who stood around watching us set up. I've got a video of them, too, but bandwidth won't allow me to send it at the moment.

Here's a picture of the ramp from sea ice onto shelf ice. This is the destination for our sea ice deliveries. It's a bit steeper than usual, and some of the Snow Cats can't haul everything up. The new melt-tank, for instance, needed to be rescued by a Challenger.

And our Snow Cat broke down even before it got near a load of cargo. The main steering hydraulic ram broke. Fortunately, we've got a solid set of mechanics, who had it replaced in short order, ready for the afternoon, and the night shift.

And presumably the morning shift, which is in T minus nine hours.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Too much to blog about! At the moment.

Well, I'm experiencing overload at the moment. Hopefully tomorrow I can catch up. Today, at about 10:30am, when we were about to leave the Simpson and have second breakfast, the radio crackled on, and our base commander said:
"All stations, all stations...please be advised that the Shackleton has an ETA of 16:00 local time. May God have mercy on us all."
Well, okay, she didn't say that last sentence. And chaos didn't reign as soon as she said that. But things did pick up considerably. The night shift went to bed. I packed all my stuff up. I cleaned up my office. And, here I sit, blogging in a portside berth on the Shackleton, bobbing off the coast of Antarctica. Away from Halley. Strange!

And, as of two hours ago, the Halley relief has officially begun. As I sit here, the biggest items are being unloaded off the Shackleton onto the sea ice - which looks solid and not too far from the shelf, I'm happy to say. In about 9 hours, I will be starting my first 12-hour shift on a Snow Cat, hauling stuff up to the shelf.

Tomorrow night, I'll bring more pictures of the Shackleton, and the last minute penguin trip I squeezed in on Tuesday.

As for today, I note that tomorrow (GMT) is the winter solstice - or summer solstice, in my case. The shortest (longest) day of the year. Although the concept doesn't really apply when the sun hasn't set for a few months!

Sunday, 16 December 2007


The forecast for Friday was perfect. The weather on Friday morning was perfect. We finally had the two ingredients for a trip to the Hinge Zone.

The Hinge Zone is where the Brunt Ice Shelf is connected - "hinged" - to the Antarctic mainland. My final three rosette measurements are out there, and it's a long trip; a couple hours each way. Roped up. Ugh.

So, Rich and I went on our way. It was a bumpy ride. We stopped at the Halley VI site en route - it was just a bunch of flags. And then, another hour snowmobiling and we were at the first rosette site - Site 4. Weather was still perfect. We agreed to go deeper first and work our way back.

So, Another 45 minutes of roped skidooing and we hit Site 5. Ah, but now it started to cloud up. We conferred, and agreed to go onto the furthest site, site 6, before it got too bad.

Site 6 was in an iffy area - crevasses, hills, and so on. And that was when the weather really started to turn on us. Contrast just disappeared - pfft. Suddenly, we were back skidooing in the void - except this void had invisible holes and cliffs in it. Brr. We found site 6, reflagged it (but didn't measure it - that took too long), and slowly followed our tracks back to site 5, in a safer area, pledging to go back to Site 6 if contrast improved.

So, we started surveying Site 5. About half an hour into it, it started to snow. Not good. Rich called me over and said "We have a choice. Leave now, or keep going and risk getting stuck out here for a couple days." I thought about it, and was inclined to take the risk and stay. He looked at me for a second. "No. We cut and run." And so we did. And I was pissed. Hours of roped riding for nothing.

However, we drove back to Site 4, and measured it. And then it improved slightly. So, we skidoo'd back to Site 5 and did that one. But it never got clear enough to go back to Site 6. But still, a relatively productive day. We got back to base at 9pm - 12 hours of bumpy snowmobiliing, and fish and chips waiting for me when I got back.

I slept well that night.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The "Moment"

It's been a week of harsh weather, here. It all blew in on Sunday, and since then there's been no visibility, 30 knot winds, and a lot of shut-in people looking for things to do. I happened to have plenty of things to do, so I was actually relieved to be excused from field trips. I've only got one or two trips left before relief, anyway. Assuming relief happens, of course.

Anyway, the wind finally died down today, and we could see again. I used the opportunity to ski out to the CASlab (Clean Air Sector; a lab outside the base where vehicles can't go within a km, and delicate instruments measure...clean air, I guess).

After a brief chat with Neil, who runs the lonely lab, I wandered back to base and checked that my Linear Motion Sensor setup was, in fact, Sensing Linear Motion. And then I had a moment.

I haven't been too poetic in this blog, to date. Yes, Antarctica is beautiful. Some people's blogs wax lyrical regarding the vast emptiness of the place, and of course one can gaze in beauty at the penguins, and so on. I prefer to talk about the Onion, and flatulence, and the like. But as I left the linear motion sensor to go back to the main building for supper, events conspired to create the magical moment.

Usually, I plan ahead on my iPod to get some good lively music going when I ski - some Zeppelin, Great Big Sea, even Kim Mitchell in odd moments. But at this time, Rachmaninoff's Prelude in F was playing. I was too close to the building to bother fishing out the iPod to change it. Don't really know why it was on there to begin with - two friends of mine have raved about Rachmaninoff in the past, so I added it (Blumenthal, Devastator...I'm looking at you).

Then, a solitary beam of sunlight pierced the clouds to light up the ice cliffs far off on the horizon. And, best of all, a storm petrel (a black swallow-like bird, rare at Halley) came by and swooped around in circles around me and some nearby snowmobiles for a few minutes. And it cavorted and sweeped in time with the music. I just stood there and soaked it in - it was surreal, and beautiful. If I only had my camera!

But then it was over - the petrel left, Weird Al Yankovic came on next on the iPod, and I walked into the main building to smell my dinner - brussel sprouts. Reality asserted itself in the most brutal way possible!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Ships, skiis, and automobiles.

Our schooner and our sloop in Ferryland they do lie
They are already rigged to be bound for the ice
All you lads of the Southern we will have you to beware
She is going to the ice in the Spring of the year

Laddie whack fall the laddie, laddie whack fall the day!

Our course be south-south-west for two days and two nights;
Our captain he cried out 'Boys, look ahead for the ice!'
And we hove her about standing in for the land,
And 'twas in a few hours we were firm in the jam.

Laddie whack fall the laddie, laddie whack fall the day!
That's an excerpt from Ferryland Sealer (with a direction change); one of my favourite songs by my favourite band, Great Big Sea. I'm sure it's available on iTunes! Check it out. It's the only song I know about icebreaking, in any case.

Yes, the Shackleton has now hit the ice, and the icebreaking has begun. This year, the ice is thick. From satellite scans, it hasn't been this thick since 2002, and that year, the Shackleton didn't get in at all. However, this year, with Halley IV arriving on a very expensive ship behind the Shackleton, the captain will be very motivated to find a route. Whew, wouldn't want to be him at the moment.

And it's confirmed; we're unloading at the Creek. The duty postings are posted on the bulletin board; it was funny seeing everyone on base crowd around the sheet, as if they just posted the volleyball team at high school. My job, predictably, is "Sea Ice Driver's Mate", meaning I'll be sitting in a Sno-Cat and loading/unloading from ship to shore. I'll probably be driving a bit, too. My "mate" is Rich Burt, my partner-in-crime for all my field trips. So we know we'll get along just fine.

Anyway, it's Sunday morning here - my day off. And the weather is absolute crap, so it's really a day off. Might curl up with a book, some movies, or maybe a long game of Civ IV. But first I thought I'd show off some of the vehicles around here. Almost all of them have been purchased or modified in Canada. I shall introduce them in increasing order of boo-yeah.

So, we start with x-country skiis. You can ski within the 2km perimeter of the station. In the clean air sector, one quarter of the circle, that's all you can do. I don't ski as part of my job, but I try to do the perimeter a couple times a week, just to partially undo some of the damage my new food regime is wreaking.

Next, the skidoos. Here, we see some of the base skidoos, which are pitiful in comparison to my powerful new field skidoo. The idea is that I need the best and most powerful, as a breakdown for me is much more of a problem than a breakdown in the backyard. But these are still good for chugging stuff between buildings. We use them with sledges to drag stuff around, and it's surprising how much a skidoo can pull. All of these skidoos have stickers showing they have been purchased from a dealer on Hwy 11, near Midland/Penetanguishene.

I'll skip the field skidoos - you've seen mine.

Next, the tracked quad. I forgot to take a picture of one, so I stole this off another website. (an Australian one, actually!) These machines are great. I remember that my old neighbour Derek once had to choose between an ATV and a snowmobile, and he went with the ATV for fuel economy, if I recall correctly. This thing is a bit of both.

Now, the comfy vehicles. The Sno-cats are the big people-movers around the shelf - and they will be our sea ice vehicles. Relatively light, but still capable of hauling up to 6 tonnes, which is our sea ice limit. They break down fairly often, though (to be fair, they were never meant to be hauling 6 tonnes around).

And finally, the big boys.

Bulldozers, tracked John Deeres. and the Cat Challengers. The John Deeres are our versatile machines; they can lift containers around, and will be all-purpose machines on the base.

But the raw power machines are the Challengers, whose sole role will be transport across the ice shelf, from Creek to Halley V. Back and forth, 24 hours a day, other than maintenance periods.

And so, all these machines lie in wait, ready to be unleashed upon the tonnes and tonnes of supplies slowly making their way in our direction. All that is between us and this cargo is several hundred kilometres of sea ice.

Laddie whack fall the laddie, laddie whack fall the day!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Tick....tock....waiting for relief.

It's official; the HMS Shackleton raised anchor at noon today in Capetown, and is now on its way down here with all of our supplies and new people. And, it's escorting a much larger ship, containing most of Halley VI. There is a pool on when it arrives; I think I have the afternoon of the 16th. Winner gets a T-shirt.

Question is, where will it land? And will I get to see it? These questions are somewhat related.

I'll back up a moment. Let's talk about ice. There are two major types of relevance: shelf ice and sea ice. Shelf ice is what I'm sitting on right now - or what my building is sitting on, to be specific. The Brunt ice shelf is - for all intents and purposes - part of the continent hanging over the ocean. Pieces of it break off, naturally, but it's more or less a permanent fixture, in some shape. Ice shelves can be huge; mine is several hundred square kilometres, and there are much, much larger ones. And they're thick - a kilometre or more. Enough to support any vehicle or structure

Sea ice, on the other hand, is frozen ocean. Often it's no more than a year old. It can be two, three metres thick; it can be flat or jagged; it can break up and flow away with the current in a matter of days. This happened while I was at Rothera - one day, ice as far as the eye can see, next day, all water.

Anyway. When it comes to unloading a ship, the major question is: are we willing to unload onto sea ice? Or, stated differently: How far are we willing to drive to find the perfect place to unload everything straight onto the shelf?

This is the question that is being debated by loads of people. I haven't figured out the dynamics of who has the final say in this decision, but I believe it's whittled down to two people: Martin, who is in charge of the vehicles, and the captain of the Shackleton, whose authoritas can't be challenged by anyone, of course. A sea ice relief is much more complicated. Heavy vehicles can't go on the sea ice. The construction workers will not go on the sea ice (it's not in their contract, apparently). So, if it's on sea ice, I will probably be at the ship, on the sea ice, unloading it. If not, I'll be at the base, packing stuff away (I've got a spot right below my bed for the London Pride).

It looks like we're down to two places - N9, a shelf ice location about 60km away; and Creek 8, which is a location that Toddy and I found about 10km away that requires a sea ice unloading. I think they're leaning towards Creek 8.

I've filched this picture off the blog of Richard, the base doctor, from last year. This is a sea ice relief.

If it is a sea ice relief, I will probably be sleeping on the ship and not too close to e-mail. But I'll let all y'all know if that's the case!

In the meantime, I'll still be blogging about things and stuff around here. Hopefully until the afternoon of the 16th, so I can score that T-shirt!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

I woke up on Saturday... find myself in a crazy new place. Halley Summer 2007 has officially kicked off!

Who are all these people? The planes have been busy bringing in plant technicians, vehicle dudes, sparkys, chippys...and now, when I walk down the hallway, I don't recognize half of the people. I can only imagine what the poor winterers feel. For 9 months, there are 15 of them wandering the hallways. Now, there are 50 people running around. And soon, there will be 100!

And, lucky me, I was on gash duty for Friday and part of Saturday. I've never been a busboy at a restaurant (although at my first job, I did serve food at a mini-putt), but cleaning up after 50 people and a high-octane chef seems to be a hell of a lot of work. That was definitely my last gash duty, though; amongst the arrivals are the Saints - the BAS name for the domestic assistants which now do all the cleaning, laundry, etc. Their name comes not only from their worthiness for reverence, but also because they come from the island of St. Helena, just off the coast of....nothing. A good place to send a French emporer in his exile.

But back to Halley. One of the new people, who came alone last week from Rothera, is my new field assistant, Rich B, as we retire Toddy to stud. Actually, Rich is the new wintering field assistant, so he'll be staying around here for the next 18 months. And, as my project is the only one where you can get out to see all corners of the Brunt Ice shelf which we call home, it makes sense from him to join me in mapping it. Here's an odd-angled picture of him in a hole:

And here I am, digging said hole (pardon the helmethead):

This hole now contains a radar reflector, also shown in both pictures. One of the ways we're going to try to track the movement of the ice shelf is to observe it from satellites. Problem is, there's not much to track. Visible features change from season to season. So, if we bury a large metal corner - shown in both of the pictures above - these locations should light up on a radar picture. We'll find out in a few months!

One of the other changes for the summer is that the alcohol rationing has gone into effect. No more hard liquor, and wine/beer limited to two per night. This is fine by me - didn't break those rules most nights anyway (except the occasional gin and tonic). But it did leave the problem of hard liquor disposal - so we disposed of it last night in a cocktail party. The drinks were locally named ("Windy Fart", "Sex at Precious Bay", "Unhinged Zone", and (my favourite) "Onion Overflow") and the bar was predictably packed. I bailed out early, as I'm still trying to work on GMT time. But the rest of the crew managed to finish the job.

And now, here I write, as I'm surrounded by a) hungover people, b) sleeping people, c) the veteran drinkers, and d) the ascetic. I class myself somewhere between c) and d), I suppose, for the moment.