Diary of a Rothera Boatman

December diary: summer returns and I fly further south to work at remote field sites


December 1997

Dear All

It's been quite a while since I managed to write something. Sorry - my excuses will follow ! The four Twin Otter aircraft returned to Rothera on 25 October flying in from Punta Arenas on the final leg of their flight from Britain. The arrival had been delayed for a few days due to bad weather. A few days later the Dash-7 aircraft arrived from the Falkland Islands. For those who overwinter in the Antarctic this is always quite an odd time. Twenty one of us had been living and working together for seven months in isolation and then suddenly we were back in touch with the world. It's quite a difficult thing to explain - but it was still very pleasant. With the planes arrived mail, parcels, fresh fruit and vegetables and the pilots and the air mechanics, most of whom we already knew. So it was a chance to munch an apple, read some letters and chat with old friends catching up on what they had been doing.

Winter was well and truly over but for a while there was only the Air Unit and the winterers on base. During this time many people had the chance to head off for flights as the pilots familiarised themselves again with the area. I had a trip over to the Larsen Ice Shelf, to a position essentially due east of Rothera. The Larsen Ice Shelf is a large area of ice that juts out from the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula far into the Weddell Sea. The flight time from Rothera is only thirty minutes and we landed at a place where a fuel depot is located. Over the years, as the snow builds up, the drums become buried deeper and deeper. Five of us - Andy, Mark, Oz, Giles (one of the pilots) and myself - set off armed with shovels to dig up the drums and relocate them on the surface. It wasn't particularly hard, and after a couple of hours we had the drums clear of the snow and marked so that they can be found easily in the future. The flight back to base was spectacular. It made me realise how narrow the Antarctic Peninsula is in an east / west direction. East of Rothera it's only about 50 miles wide, being made up of stunning peaks rising out of glaciers. All in all, a good return to flying from Rothera.

A few days latter I left base on what turned out to be a bit of an epic, but a very enjoyable trip. I left with Mike, one of the field GAs, to head out to a place called Sky Hi. Sky Hi is a BAS deep field fuel depot, and is located at almost 75 degrees South. Mike and I were the first people there this Antarctic summer, arriving with three aircraft loads of equipment. The aircraft left soon afterwards and we turned to our priorities. Most of the first day (it was afternoon by the time the aircraft left, the flight from Rothera taking about three hours with a refuelling stop) was taken up with setting up what we needed immediately. That was basically the tent in which we were going to live. Once we knew that we had shelter and food available we set about making Sky Hi operational. Much is left at Sky Hi over the winter so the bulk of our early work was digging away the snow that had accumulated. With the snow cleared we could then raise the drums of fuel and food boxes to above the level of the snow where they are accessible and easy to use. While this was going on aircraft were arriving with equipment for field parties that were operating from Sky Hi later in the summer. This we arranged into lines for each individual party so that when the people arrived they could easily get hold of what they needed. This equipment can comprise all sorts of things - sledges, ski-doos, food boxes, fuel, tents and scientific equipment.

Sky Hi takes it's name from the nearby group of nunataks (mountain peaks that rise up out of the ice shelf) but the area itself is flat ice shelf. This is good for the aircraft to land on. The camp is a collection of tents . It perhaps doesn't sound too exciting, but it is a good spot. When it's clear and sunny it's beautiful and nunataks can be seen in the distance all around. There's plenty of work to be done outside as well as frequently passing the weather conditions to Rothera and the aircraft. As people live in tents things like cooking take up a bit of time. Once the meal is over in the evening there is the evening radio call back in to Rothera to say that everything is well and to find out what's been going on and what is likely to happen during the next day. We can then lie back, read, write or listen to the BBC World Service. As it is relatively far south and quite high at 1000 metres above sea level Sky Hi can become cold. While Mike and I were there the temperature crept below minus 40 degrees Centigrade on a couple of nights. Fortunately the sleeping bags that we are supplied with are more than able to cope with that. The problems arise next morning when at half past seven it's necessary to clamber out of the lovely, warm bag to radio a weather observation to Rothera.

After eight days at Sky Hi I left and moved on to Fossil Bluff where I spent the next three and a half weeks. That's in no way a complaint as Fossil Bluff must be one of the best locations in the Antarctic. It's located half way between Rothera and Sky Hi, on Alexander Island over looking George IV Sound. The sound itself is comprised of an ice shelf . From Fossil Bluff there are superb views across the sound to the Antarctic Peninsula opposite. Fossil Bluff was established as a base in the early 1960s and has been overwintered in on a number of occasions until 1975. Now it is only operated in the summer with staff from Rothera taking it in turns to go down and do a spell of time there. It's run as a metrological station and as a refuelling stop for aircraft heading further south. The base is made up of a few huts. The smaller two are a store and a workshop, while the bigger hut is the one that is generally used for living in. Outside it's painted a colourful red and seems to retain the atmosphere of the 1960s when it was built. Inside there are four bunks at one end of the room. There's a table and chairs in the middle and shelves down each side of the room, one side for books and magazines, the other for food and cutlery. In the middle there is an Aga stove that is used for both cooking and providing warmth. There's a little cubby hole for the radio and meteorological equipment and at the far end there is a water tank and sink. The radio cubby hole also houses many of the old base reports. It's fascinating to read of the sledging journeys that used to take place with dog teams pulling the sledges. Cliffs of scree rise up behind the base and although they are steep they can be climbed up with a bit of a scramble. On a sunny day it is one of the most beautiful places imaginable. With the aircraft gone for the day it's possible to get out and out in the hills or just to relax on the balcony that surrounds the hut and read or write. As for the name, it is very fitting as there are fossils everywhere, you just have to look closely at the rocks as you wander about.

So that's about it. Christmas at Rothera will be spent with RRS James Clark Ross alongside our wharf discharging all the cargo that the base needs for the coming year. I'll write again in the New Year and let you know how we are getting on. Maybe by then the ice will have gone and I'll be able to get my boats back in the water !

Best wishes, Stuart.

Stuart Wallace, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica