Rothera Diary: August 1998

written by Alison George

The Sun returns


August 1998

Hello all,

August is the month everyone warns you about in the Antarctic. "If you think this is bad, you wait until August" is a common expression in early winter. It is traditionally the month when the blues hit as the lack of light takes its toll. It's still a long time before a boat, or in our case, the planes, arrive to break the isolation. To me the "August syndrome" is surprising, because this is the month when the sun is returning with a vengeance after the darkness of midwinter. The sun is up over the mountains for just five hours at the beginning of the month, but for about nine hours by the end (assuming you can see it through the clouds, which on the whole, you can't).

Certainly the weather colluded to be as depressing as possible. Rich our resident Met man, informs me that it was only sunny for 47 hours this month, and it snowed for 22 days. A group of us returning from circuit training in the hangar one evening were almost propelled down the runway on the journey back by gusts of over 70 knots. But the one thing it wasn't in August was cold. The temperature hovered between zero and minus ten, but rarely fell lower. Nevertheless, the sea made a valiant attempt to freeze again. At the beginning of the month the swell washed up goodies from the sea floor, and hundreds of birds gathered for the feast at the ice edge; shags, terns, gulls and many beautiful white snow petrels. As the days progressed, the sea surface froze into pancakes of ice, and soon the sea was totally covered with a crust of ice. The wildlife, dependent on the water to live, deserted Rothera Point for less icy places.

We all looked at the sea-ice optimistically, hoping it would strengthen enough to travel on. The freedom generated by this extra platform is great. Skiers can make day trips to local islands, and winter trippers can travel off Adelaide Island, where Rothera is based, to visit distant huts across the ice, as they did last year. Despite the collective hopes of all at Rothera, the ice always was a bit meagre, and sure enough, at the end of the month it was blown away in a storm.

Winter trips continued, despite the weather. If you remember, during the winter here we are allowed to have two week-long breaks. I would call them ?holidays', but I don't imagine that most people would describe sitting in a tent in subzero temperatures and gale force winds as a ?holiday'. But I can assure you that the pyramid tents we use are very warm and comfortable, the views are stunning and you never get bothered by the crowds. In fact, if you see another living thing on your trip (this includes lichens), you'll be lucky. At first all the trippers headed for Adelaide Island's top tourist destination, the summer-only Chilean station Carvajal, a 90 km skidoo ride away. It was joked that the route there must be a veritable motorway, though I hardly think twenty or so skidoo journeys a year is going to make much of a dent in the ice! However, as it got lighter and sunnier, more adventurous places could be visited. A stunning sharp mountain called Barre overlooks Rothera from a distance, and Rich and Ian climbed it on their trip, getting close to the summit. Karl and Steve found a route up a glacier called the Sloman, and ascended a peak called Snowditte. Phil W took Alice climbing for her birthday, and pioneered a route called "Pink Moon".

There were two new arrivals at Rothera this month. After much tinkering in the garage, Rich, Si B. and Nige launched their new babies, reconditioned skidoos or "doos", as they are known in Antarctic slang. There was much debate about their names (our current base skidoos are called Zebedee, Scuba Doo and Winnie the Doo). One of the new creations was christened ?Yabba Dabba Doo", and the other "How d'you Doo". I rather liked the name "Ski Don't" myself, but given the dismal prospects for such vehicles (they really are old nags) such a negative name would not be a good omen.

Considering we were all supposed to be locked in our rooms suffering from chronic light depravation at this time of year, a peek at the winter diary shows a considerable number of events arranged for August. There were slide shows (luckily for us Si B's grandad had spent his retirement taking slides of green places), computer lessons and a Line Dancing night (which probably would have most Texans turning in their graves). As for sports, a darts match was held over the radio against our sister base Bird Island (I believe we won a Spice Girls video) and badminton and circuit training were going strong (despite the lack of any functioning shuttlecocks - they don't like the cold).

With all this talk of trips and entertainment, I should also add that for the most part life here follows a pattern not unlike that at home. There is a normal working week where you find scientists in the lab, field assistants preparing for the forthcoming season of projects and technical staff tending to the upkeep of the base. Sometimes it feels so ordinary that I have to pinch myself to be reminded that it is not at all normal to have views of glaciers from the office window, nor to climb through snowdrifts on the way to work every day!

In a society with no money and no means of obtaining new goods, the value system is vastly different from that at home. Whilst expensive cameras are left lying around with no worries about theft, bizarre items such as banana-flavoured Angel Delight are coveted because stocks are thought to be running low! Other valuable items in Rothera currency are crisps and lager and any decent music (in fact, any new music - it's amazing how sick you become of your music collection). The dwindling stocks of Ribena and Baked Beans will no doubt inflate the perceived value of these items. Everyone is looking forward to the arrival of the planes in October, not least because of the fresh food and parcels from home they bring.

When the UK took its annual August Bank Holiday to enjoy the sun, Rothera, despite having no banks no money or no sun, for that matter, took a day off too. A suckling pig was roasted during the day, and the weather was good enough for us to go for a ski on the nearby piste called Vals. A 70s party arranged for the evening. The costumes and decor were amazing, and the old generator shed was alive to the sounds of the 70s and the swish of flared trousers. A fitting end to the month.

Until next time, Alison George.

Alison George, Rothera Research Station, Aelaide Island, Antarctica