Since I last wrote much has gone on in and around Rothera. On Rothera Research Station new building work has been completed and the buildings themselves occupied. Deeper into the Antarctic the field work programme is over half way through. We all had a very enjoyable Christmas and New Year.
Rothera is the hub for all of the British Antarctic Survey's field operations. "Field Operations" is the name that is given to everything that happens away from the immediate area of a research station. Groups operate away from the research stations to carry out work in more remote locations, contributing to the science programmes of the British Antarctic Survey. It may be a geological study or a study of a glacier or survey work to produce accurate maps. Each group is made up of the scientist or scientists whose research project it is and people called General Assistants. General Assistants (or GAs for short) are experienced mountaineers who are employed to make sure that all the travelling is conducted in a safe manner and to help out with the work in hand. Travel across snow and ice can be quite dangerous so great care has to be taken. When this is combined with the remoteness of the Antarctic it is important people know what they are doing and are properly looked after. Each party is given a letter to identify it and is then called sledge followed by this particular letter. So for example there will be a "Sledge A", "Sledge B" etc. etc. , but rather than just saying "A" or "B" we use what is called the phonetic alphabet and sledge A becomes "Sledge Alpha", sledge B - "Sledge Bravo". This is then the call sign of that particular group or sledge party to use when talking on the radio. Each sledge party usually radios back into Rothera a couple of times each day to confirm that everything is alright.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of Rothera station is the runway and hangar. From Rothera five aircraft are operated to support sledge parties who are working at remote sites. Four of the aircraft are Twin Otters. These are manufactured by de Haviland in Canada and are very sturdy solid little aircraft. An unusual feature of the four that are operated down here is that they are fitted with skis as well as wheels. The runway at Rothera is made of crushed rock so wheels are used for take-off and landing. Once heading away from Rothera landings are made on snow so the skis are lowered for use. The initial input of a sledge party is made by aircraft from Rothera. If the group is small and the equipment light this can be done in one go, but it usually takes more. The aircraft take the people and their gear to their chosen start site. The sledge party will receive aircraft visits later on to resupply them but for the time being that is it.
Once the aircraft has left them the sledge party then either sets up camp or starts to travel away from the landing area towards the party's first scientific site. The tents don't look too different from the type that Captain Scott or Shackleton used in the first twenty years of this century. Once put up the tents form the shape of a pyramid, they are bright orange and made of a tough wind-proof "Ventile" material. Everything has to be reliable to withstand the worst of the Antarctic weather. Food is cooked on primus stoves. These are small stoves that burn paraffin. Food supplies are good but quite often the food is dehydrated, so before any cooking can start, snow has to be melted to make water. It sounds primitive but is good fun. To stay warm inside the tent everyone is provided with warm, thick sleeping bags. For when it is really cold there is a second to go inside the first. This then goes inside a canvas cover which is put on top of a sheepskin on an inflatable air bed. It's a really comfy and warm way to spend a night.
If the party needs to move camp next day, everything is packed up and packed neatly on to the sledge after a good breakfast. Again the sledges - called Nansen Sledges - would be familiar in design to explorers of Captain Scott's day. They can take fairly large loads and travel well in polar conditions. What has changed is the method of propulsion. It's no longer dogs or men hauling the sledges but ski-doos. Ski-doos have a ski at the front and tracks at the back. They can carry one person and are driven in a similar manner to motorbikes. With their sledge - or unit as it is called - packed the sledge party would move on. Some sledges cover large distances working at many different sites while others may remain in one place for quite a while working from the same camp each day. The aircraft visit when a resupply is necessary, or at the end of the field season, to uplift the sledge and bring everything back to Rothera.
Well I hope that that gives some idea of one of Rothera's main roles. During the southern summer Rothera becomes very busy with aircraft landing, being refuelled and taking opff with new provisions and personnel. It is a side of base life greatly enjoyed by all as we all get chances to go out with the aircraft from time to time. On these trips we are there to assist the pilot and help with the loading and unloading of the aircraft's cargo. I was lucky enough to be on a flight quite far out from Rothera a couple of weeks ago, and got as far as the Patriot Hills - a small camp located at about 81 degrees south. The weather was beautiful and we had spectacular views of the Ellsworth Mountains - including Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in the Antarctic.
Next time I hope to be able to tell you about the work that I am involved in supporting, namely Inshore Marine Biology. A brand new facility has just been handed over and we are at present very busy setting up a boating, diving and research operation. It's quite an exciting time.
Best wishes Stuart
Stuart Wallace: Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica