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The weather is a common topic of conversation at Halley. It determines much of what we can do outside, what work can be done and whether or not field parties can leave or return to base. We have seen some extremes of weather this month, from blue sunny skies to howling wind and blowing snow. Our meteorologists measured 35 knots as our highest wind reading. This amount of wind whistles past the windows and makes the buildings creak and shake. In our lounge we have a hanging model plane and this swings around madly when the wind rocks the building. When we venture outside, snow gets into every crevice of clothing and has the effect of sandblasting parts of exposed skin. When the wind blows and the contrast is next to nothing, such that we cannot even see a pole just 20 metres away, it makes me realise just how powerful the elements are here in Antarctica. Then the blow stops, vehicle tracks are covered over by fresh snow and there are sastrugi patterns, mounds of ice that form like sculptures. It is as if no one had ever walked or driven over the ice.
It has also become noticeably darker in the evenings. March 21 marked the equinox, the time of year at which the sun crosses the
equator, when day and night are of equal length. We have witnessed
some brilliant night skies with the Orion and Southern Cross shining brightly.
Our keener astronomers have been out to our telescope and looking for less
well known constellations. This month we have witnessed intriguing
halo effects around the sun. Haloes occur as sunlight interacts
with different types of ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.
One day we could see a huge circle around the sun and an inverted rainbow
arc with glittering diamond dust. As you can see, it produces a spectacular
|The silhouette of Dave Glynn, standing in front of the halo phenomenon around the sun on March 9. You can see the halo with bright spots, called sun dogs and the inverted (circumzenithal) arc.|
Field trips are an opportunity for base members to have a week off base. These trips require a lot of planning and preparation. We take everything we need to survive in Antarctica. This wilderness does not give us anything we need to live except water, and even then we need heat to melt the ice. Sturdy wooden boxes are lashed onto sledges containing food, tent, cooking and radio equipment. Mountaineering equipment, medical supplies, emergency clothing, emergency food, a large pyramid tent are also tied on. The sledges are packed with jerry cans full of fuel for the skidoos and paraffin for the lamps and stoves. In addition, there are essential personal items to take such as sleeping bags, warm clothing and a good book.
Steve White is Halley's field general assistant (FGA) from Bath, England.
He has been climbing and skiing for 18 years in Britain, Europe and the
Himalayas and has worked previously as a climbing instructor and a ski
technician. Steve was at Rothera station on the Antarctic Peninsula
from 1995-1998, including two winters, also as a FGA. Such experience
is invaluable in the Antarctic wilderness as conditions are changeable
and the terrain holds surprises for even the most experienced. Steve
has returned to Antarctica because he loves the place and the job, where
he can use his mountaineering skills to take people to places and terrain
they would not otherwise visit.
|Steve White, our professional mountaineer, on a field trip in the Hinge Zone.|
The Hinge Zone has been the venue for our field trips. This is
an interesting area geographically, where the Brunt Ice Shelf meets the
Antarctic Continent. It is a big backdrop of ridges and crests, with
crevasses lurking underneath for the unwary. For this reason, we
are linked by rope and harness in pairs for travel across such terrain.
Steve would lead, testing the ice for crevasses. It is a great way
to see the area, walking across ridges, digging our crampons into hard
snow or blue ice. It is a real change to walk across such undulating
terrain or downhill ski, as Halley itself is flat ice, all the way to the
horizon. The scenery is truly beautiful and made even more special
knowing that very few people have been to this area before.
|Walking across the Second Chasm of the Hinge Zone in linked pairs, with the sun casting long shadows on the ice. Erny Duston is in the foreground, ahead of him is Richard Turner and Steve White is leading.|
Pitching a pyramid tent on the ice is a real art. First of all
we had to decide which way to orientate the door in order to avoid the
force of the wind. We dug holes for the corner holes, pitched the
tent and pulled the guide ropes taut. Then the sledges had to be
unloaded and the boxes were arranged in a certain order inside the tent.
It was quite something to be camping in a place with such a view, in complete
silence with no fear of disturbance by neighbours. At night, we would
light a tilly lamp and the tents would appear like Chinese lanterns against
a starry night.
|Pyramid tents in the Hinge Zone. Each tent houses two people with a demarcation line of boxes in the centre. You can see the radio dipole, which allowed us to communicate to Halley twice a day or receive news from the BBC World Service.|
Living in minus twenty degree Celsius temperatures is an experience in itself. The cold permeates everything. It freezes liquid items such as toothpaste and sun block, and turns the food inside tins to solid. Butter becomes one hard ice block. Overnight, any left-over water freezes in pots. None of this matters when we crawl into our sleeping bags. It does matter when we wake up and all around us is frozen, even the condensation of our own breathing. I could put my arm out of my sleeping bag and watch steam rise, confirming that there wasn't much living outside my sack. Once the primus was lit, some warmth was infused into the atmosphere, increasing the below zero ambient temperature a few degrees. This defrosted our clothes and made it bearable to leave our sleeping bags.
We experienced katabatic winds while on our field trip. These occur when air at the top of the plateau cools quickly and falls down the plateau, becoming forceful wind. This wind confined us to our tents and threatened to take any unsecured item. Our pyramid tents have been tried and tested against heavy winds and are known to be left standing after gusts of eighty knots. Such knowledge gave us a lot of security, knowing that we were well sheltered against fierce 30 knot winds. On days like this, the wind fought us in any task we undertook. Alex Gaffikin and I went out to dig blocks of snow and we could see the drift blowing up to eye level. It whipped our faces and and just about blew our socks off. Inside the tent, we would read excerpts from books of previous polar travellers. I was reading The Worst Journey in the World ' by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and my tent mate Alex was reading Of Ice and Men' by Vivian Fuchs . Even though we were confined to a tent with wind flapping against the tent, it was immeasurably more comfortable than the conditions they had encountered! Poor weather was an ideal opportunity to spend time preparing a meal. Food is a subject of great importance in the field and we tasted some excellent world cuisine, including Indian curries and chapatis, Chinese stir fries, pancakes and frozen angel delight.
The Hinge Zone has been shaped over many years. Wind and time
have formed arches and walls of sculpted ice. We ice-climbed on hard
blue ice to a spot called Aladdin's Cave. It looked as if someone
had shaped its walls with a hammer and chisel. Stalactites and icicles
hung from the ceiling of the cave. The view of Antarctica seemed
endless. It was so silent as the only sounds I could hear were
man-made - the crunch of crampons, the sound of my own breathing and my
heart pounding in my chest.
|View from Aladdin's Cave|
March has also been a busy time at Halley. Small parties of base members have been raising drum lines, which mark routes to parts of the coast and bringing back cabooses (small hotline shelters which house up to four people) to clean and restock contents. A major event has been refuelling, in preparation for winter. In addition to this, we all have our own jobs to do. It reminds me of Cherry-Garrard's quote from The Worst Journey in the World :
"Time does not hang too heavily in an Antarctic base, the difficulty
being rather to find time for all that has to be done"
|Drum raising: Andy Cope, giving the thumbs up to the Sno-cat driver ahead to drive forward, pulling a wire strop attached to a 45 gallon drum, ejecting it from the ice.|
As each month passes, I'd like to introduce you to members of Halley Station. You've already met Steve White. This month we focus on our meteorological team, who observe weather around the clock.
Base members at Halley have many talents. Our community has a cross-section of society and we live, work and socialise together. We have a few guitarists on base, a violinist, a trumpeter and an aspiring keyboardist. Cat Gillies has been drawing portraits of base members. There is a excellent darkroom where many a quality hour is spent developing colour slides or black and white prints. March has marked the birthdays of Richard Turner, Erny Duston and David Glynn and base members have hand-made gifts, spending hours on wood turning and sanding. Alex knitted a two metre long scarf! The results have been impressive and appreciated more for the effort put into them. When you can't go downtown to the local department store, creative ideas arise from necessity!
Each week one base member takes a turn to stay up during the night to keep an eye on the base. One recent night watchman has developed a talent for poetry writing:
Night Watch by Dave Glynn
Wake as the day dies, people unwinding from work,
Most soon fade to bed, but some insomniacs lurk,
The lonely tasks loom, a few minor chores,
Rush or take time, then the night is all yours.
The washers hot depths cleanse of grease and of rice,
Then mould soft white dough, bake and chisel a slice,
The warm smell melts butter, and craves sweet pure honey,
Close eyes and consume, dream of picnics when sunny.
Feast on leftover food, cold lard in a heap,
Your friend is a book, your enemy is sleep,
Films take you away, choc and coffee assist,
Beer calls your name, duty helps to resist.
Halley ghost for the night, doomed to wander unseen,
No one to haunt, so you spookily clean,
A mag or a can, crisp packet or pot,
They all have their place, and that's where they're not.
Time to do met, the excuse for outside,
Guess oktas and metres, fine as long as you tried,
Tap it in the computer and wonder who listens,
Those few abstract digits can't say moonlight glistens.
You know the night's over when caffeine won't help,
Time to bang on some doors, to a confused and vague yelp,
Friendly, chirpy awake faces, is the inverse of true,
Best leave them to toast, there's a soft bed for you.
March has been a good month at Halley. The days are getting shorter as the sun sets earlier each day that passes. Some members of base continue to ski or manhaul sledges out on the ice. The gym is being used regularly as our fitness guru, Neil Farnell, is running regular circuit sessions. We have had preludes to winter blizzards. After the storm abates, it is like rediscovering what our environment looks like when we can see the horizon again.
The end of April will bring the sundown at Halley - officially April 28. We intend to make the most of the sun while it is still with us and look forward to telling you more about life at Halley next month.
Best wishes to you all,
|Fun on the ice at Halley: playing ice volleyball on an a sunny autumn day|