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Exploring the jagged relief of the Hinge Zone linked in alpine pairs
October has been a month of quite rapid transition from night to day with the sun circling higher around the horizon with each passing day. Twinkling stars were sparse early in the month, and we can no longer see them at night as the sun rose and set for the last time around 30 October. We now have twenty-four hours daylight and can feel real heat in the sun's rays, so we are steadily shedding winter layers of clothing. The temperatures have been milder, so the snow is melting off the buildings and the ice surface is somewhat soft and sugary. This is tough on the runners on the station who sink deep footprints as they pound around the station perimeter, but it is a good surface for skiers and snowboarders to glide over. Flocks of Antarctic petrels have been circling around in the vicinity of the station, heralding the changing season. The real novelty was watching them deposit guano on the windows, not something we encounter very often. Altogether this gives the station a very summery feeling.
Sunshine, blue zenith and high cirrus clouds have featured prominently, in direct contrast to the blizzards of September. The meteorology team have been coding all manner of cloud formations and performing multiple ozone observations at the most unsociable of hours. Glittering diamond dust, sundogs and haloes around the sun have added to the weather phenomena. The pace of life has shifted up a gear with the warm weather. Outside work has steadily increased, with further mast work, raising of fuel depots and filling the fuel flubbers in the underground tunnels. There is a lot of on-going maintenance which requires much coordinated effort. Some of the wintering team have been cleaning out the melt tank shaft which descends into the tunnels. Vehicles have been much easier to start and their tracks are visible all around the station. As well as this, we have been preparing the station for the the imminent influx of summer personnel.
A picture of the full moon in October, as seen through the Halley telescope
"At four in the afternoon the moon rose again through this icy mist in colour and form. It was the most remarkable lunar aspect I ever saw. First, as it came over the horizon, its size seemed so much above what we were accustomed so that we did not easily guess it was the moon. After it rose clear of the ice line it took a wrinkled distorted form which in shape and colour resembled an old withered orange." From "Through the First Antarctic Night" 1898-1899, Dr Frederick Cook.
The full moon was spectacular to look at earlier in the month through the eyepiece of a telescope on which Dan Carson, one of the meteorologists, has been doing some repair and maintenance work. The telescope is a reasonably large structure and takes two people to lift and mount onto its tripod. Through this, it was possible to see the finer details of the moon's surface at high magnification such as the sea where the Apollo spacecraft had landed and a multitude of sharply defined craters named after learned astronomers and mathematicians. It was interesting to look at such a barren and uninhabited landscape from one of the least hospitable parts of the planet. The moon, although lacking in a few major points such as atmosphere and life, seems not entirely dissimilar to the polar desert we live in. Now its face is just visible to the naked eye, overshadowed by the light of the sun. I quite like Dr Cook's description of the moon resembling an old withered orange. We haven't seen an orange here for months now so it is rather a stretch of the imagination to liken the moon to a piece of fruit. Cook was part of a Belgian expedition which spent the first Antarctic winter on a ship trapped in pack ice, drifting around at latitude seventy degrees south. Over one hundred years later his observations are fascinating to read.
A great view from the toilet block; the last sunset of the year
Field parties have been travelling to the Hinge Zone which is only accessible in the most excellent of weather conditions. These trips are the equivalent of annual leave at Halley, and they allow us to explore a unique area which hinges the Brunt Ice Shelf to the plateau of the Antarctic continent. In March, I spent a week there and I had the opportunity to return again this month. Once again, we packed sledges with tents, radios, climbing and medical equipment, spare skidoo parts, emergency clothing and enough food and fuel for months. The process of packing the sledges is quite a time-consuming effort as the rope is lashed in a particular way around the equipment requiring a few twists and knots. Skidoos are then linked to the sledges with strong rope and karabiners. As there is a known area of crevassing en route to the Hinge Zone, we travel in linked pairs which means two skidoos and two sledges are linked in series by rope. This is not an easy way to travel but the safest way of getting across a crevassed area. The person in front is trying to drive at a steady pace without dragging the person behind; the person behind is trying not to drive over the rope or cause stress for the person in front. All the time we look out for crevasses and flags and keep an eye on our sledges. It certainly requires concentration and patience.
Pausing for a break in skidoo travel, looking out across the sastrugi
It was a great feeling to arrive at the camp site with a brilliant vista of a large chasm containing jagged ridges and troughs. As the sun set lower on the horizon, long shadows cast blue tones on the ice leading up to the plateau. There's a sense of timelessness here, where the dynamic forces of nature act on a massive area of pressure. It is a pristine area with walls of blue ice and mounds of snow drift. There's a multitude of avenues to explore. During our time there we traversed and climbed in alpine pairs across and along the chasm, passing overhanging cornices, hummocks and sculptured bergs. We were lowered into crevasses with intricate arrays of stalactites. Our schematic map had named features such as Eiger, the Matterhorn and the more obscure Whale Meat Sausage Berg. In reality the Matterhorn is no higher than five metres but it had a good view from the top. The silence when we stopped was quite profound. I think that will be one of my enduring memories of being in the Hinge Zone, the absolute quiet and the magnitude of the place.
Looking up to Aladdin's Cave
It's a simple existence camping out in Antarctica. There are necessary chores to set up and keep camp. We have to dig blocks of snow to melt for water and keep the primus stoves and tilly lamps topped up with kerosene. The latter involves siphoning from a twenty litre jerry can into smaller bottles and trying to avoid catching a mouthful of kerosene at the same time. The skidoos are refuelled and packed under tarpaulin covers. The tent is weighted down with snow and boxes. The radio dipole is set up to enable communication with Mark Stewart, our communications manager at Halley. It was good to hear his cheery voice twice a day, giving us the weather update and segments of news. Then there is the decision of what to defrost and cook. Fortunately the temperatures were quite bearable, minus 20 degrees Celsius during the day and dropping into the minus 30s overnight. Once there, there is no turning back for forgotten items. If you have only brought one pair of underclothes that's too bad for you and even worse for your tent-mate. A major feat of engineering was the reconstruction of the toilet block. This required the digging of a deep pit and stacking snow blocks into a wall around the hole for protection against the wind and to provide some semblance of privacy. After the chores are done, there's nothing better than to light the primus and get a hot brew of tea going. I would like to think that my word power has increased slightly after the amount of Scrabble we played out in the field, but I can't say I strung together too many high scoring words. Some bright spark tried to tell us that 'vzt' was a word, the last noise ever made by a piece of electrical equipment. Needless to say it was rejected outright.
After ten days of exploring, it was time to return to Halley. The process of dismantling camp took a good couple of hours as we repacked the sledges and linked up for travel once again. Fifty kilometres later we arrived back on the station. The change of scenery allowed a fresh perspective of the place. It was great to see everyone and swap a few stories of the week's events although a few held their noses as they talked to us. I'm sure they were doing this in jest as I'm not convinced that we really smelt that bad. After unpacking the sledges, refuelling the skidoos and tidying up, a hot shower was on the cards. The melt tank had very considerately been topped up with more snow for our return so there was plenty of water to go around. The next day it was back to work as usual, with much to catch up on. Steve White, the Field General Assistant, had a few days to relax and pack up again to go out on the next trip.
That's about it for this month. In November the first plane will touch down at Halley, bringing our winter to an end. Those of us due to leave in February are tentatively making plans for life after Halley. It seems a little strange to think about living in the outside world again. It has been described as civilisation although I'm not so sure about that. Some are continuing to learn Spanish and reading guidebooks in preparation for travelling on to South America. Others are thinking further afield about jobs and bills. It'll be a change from our cocooned life down here at any rate. In the meantime we're enjoying sunshine on the ice and steadily working away at the tasks that need to be completed in the near future.