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.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

From Halley to Rothera

Apologies to all for the extended absence. I've been everywhere under the sun since I last put in an entry, and I'm writing on a flight north out of Antarctica, back to Punta [and posting it a week later]. I shall make three more entries, say, after this one, as I slowly catch up on all my doings. So let's start by going back to the end of December. At Halley.

I believe when we last left off, I was waiting for relief to begin. Well, it never did begin for me! We waited and waited for the Russian ship, but it seemed to be stuck pretty fast. So the three of us passengers to Rothera - five, including the pilot and air mech - made plans to leave on the 30th of December.

As it was, the ship arrived just as we took off. We actually flew over it on the way out:

...and here's my last look at Halley.

Flying to Rothera in a Twin Otter is a bit more involved than on the Basler, which is how I've always done it before. There's not enough fuel to go straight across, so we had to stop at fuel depots along the way.

An extended aside here. I've gained a much larger appreciation of fuel depots in the last three weeks, as much of my activities has greatly depended on them. Scattered all around Antarctica are hidden fuel depots for each country. The fuel in these locations is worth a LOT of money. Let's say a barrel of jet fuel costs $1000US, in the UK. (I think it's more, actually.) First, we have to load it onto a ship and carry it down to Rothera or Halley. Considering the fuel burned to get that incremental weight down there, let's say it costs an extra $100 to get it to the edge of Antarctica.

And this is where the costs begin to skyrocket.

If you want to work in the interior in Antarctica, you'll obviously need fuel to get there. If a site is 800 miles away in the interior, you'll have to stop at an intermediate point to refuel, in both directions. But first you have to go to that intermediate point to drop off the fuel at that depot. And then go back. And that, of course, costs just as much fuel as you've dropped off. If there are two such intermediate points required, you have to go to the first one three times, and then go to the second one once. And so on.

$1000US of jetfuel can cost easily $8000US to get in the right location. It's a logistical pain.

It's actually not unheard of for one country to raid another's fuel supply for this reason. There's one country in particular who has a bad reputation for such shenanigans - but I shall be a gentleman and not say its name. Theiving pikeys!

One thing I will say - it's not the Americans. One of my pilots, Steve (who you'll get to meet in upcoming entries), did a deep deep field project with the Americans, who work on a completely different scale than the rest of us.

"Where do you need the fuel?" says they.
"Right here." says he, pointing at a location on a map, deep in the interior.
"Okay, a Hercules will airdrop it in the next few days."

Sometimes it's nice to have an obscene amount of money.

Anyway, back to me. So we made three fuel stops between Halley and Rothera. Bluefields, which is just a discreet cache of fuel marked by an empty barrel on a stick:

...and then Sky-Blu (which you will also see much more of, in the next few entries)...

and Fossil Bluff:

Fossil Bluff is a pretty place, with a bit of internal BAS controversy. It has a beautiful, original hut from the 1950's - it's one of the oldest buildings in Antarctica. It even has a nice Aga oven. And BAS wants to tear it down. Apparently, it's not too safe. Many would like to preserve it as a historical building - problem is, there's nobody to visit it! The cruise ships that come down to Antarctica don't come that far. It's not even at the runway, so I didn't get a chance to see it myself.

But eventually, I got to Rothera, in time for New Years. And that will be my next entry.