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!