Rothera Diary : August 1999

written by Gerard Baker

A winter journey


August 1999

Dear everyone

I cut a finger last week. Nothing too serious thankfully - although it is still hampering my attempts to type quickly. I had been cutting up some beef for dinner - thankfully the knife was nowhere near the meat at the time. The price you pay for daydreaming I guess. My mind was wandering out onto the sea ice - out of body exercise you might call it. It is now the end of the month and I for one am mourning the passing of our remaining winter days. Soon the arrival of the Air Unit will herald the beginning of the summer season and what has for the winter been ?our base' will resound noisily to the sound of planes and people. It will no doubt seem very alien to the 22 of us that have enjoyed this very special period of isolation. Already, I find my time taken up with the business of summer - tidying the freezers ready for restocking, clearing space in the food bays and making sure that everything is in order for my successor. Even now as I type I realise I am writing about the summer - so I shall stop and dwell for a while on the magical month just passed.

August has been busy here at Rothera research station. The month started with bad weather that hampered the return home of six of our base compliment - they were out on various trips. By the third or fourth of the month they were all able to return in the good weather that has been the theme of recent weeks. Apart from one or two weekends (why??) of bad weather, we have been blessed with cold temperatures and gloriously sunny, calm days that have dragged everyone outside. Although it is well past midwinter itself, we have had our coldest temperatures to date recently - well into the minus twenties. Only bearable because of the relative lack of wind.

Most of my work - being a chef - happens inside the base - where I usually wear shorts and a tee- shirt. Moving between buildings is not too cold, and certainly better than being too hot. We have definitely acclimatised to the cold weather since being here - and so long as I am active I find that I stay nice and warm. However, deciding what to wear down here is a lot more complicated than you might first think - surely we just put on lots of thick clothing and go for it? Wrong - too many layers and you sweat - particularly if you are working hard, digging out snow-blocked doorways or skiing for example. And, when you stop - well, your body is covered in sweat which evaporates taking heat from your body and leaving you cold. So, in fact, skiing at -25·C often only requires a thin thermal vest and some windproof trousers. Stop, though, and layers have to be donned to prevent cooling and hypothermia. All very complicated, but thankfully we have plenty of clothes, training, and local expertise to help us work all of this out.

I have already admitted to being a day dreamer. There is little I enjoy more than being given the chance to sit, watch the world go by, and lose myself in musing about life, the universe and whatever pops into my head. Often at home in Yorkshire I will take myself off and wander about the countryside with my tent and camping stove, finding new places to enjoy. I travel light - my tent is just big enough for me and my rucksack - and have no need of spares, after all Britain is hardly a wilderness and one can always rely on finding supplies of food, fuel and such.

Generally, when we leave the base here in Antarctica, we also camp - there are a few huts about the place designed to be refuges or field stations - but these are few and far between. Camping here is as far removed from my ideal of strolling about the countryside at home as you could imagine. For a start, we cannot just wander off on our own. There are no camping supply stores here - no corner food shops and not a single abundant hedgerow in sight. Camping Antarctic- style bears more resemblance to moving house. Travel away from the base any distance, and the list of things we have to take with us is immense - food, fuel, tents, medical kits and spares of just about everything apart from people.

I was to discover just how much when, between the seventh and fourteenth of the month, I had my second winter trip which, as well as including a fabulous few days skiing around the local area on sea ice, gave me my first experience of travelling in a Unit.

Some explanation is required of that, I know, so bear with me. A ?Unit' is the term given to the basic amount of kit one needs to travel away from the base. It describes not only the camping gear, but the snowmobiles (called Skidoos) on which we travel and which pull our sledges, our fuel, food and cooking gear, spares, and emergency clothing, and this all amounts to a big heap of kit. The system of travelling overland here has been developed over a long period of time - and it works very well. We always go away on trips in pairs - two people, two Skidoos, two sledges - one with the majority of our kit on, and one smaller sledge - a ?Half - Unit' with spares of everything if for some reason the main sledge were to be lost.

Unfortunately, this has happened to some very famous explorers in the past. Sir Douglas Mawson, on his Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911 - 14 to name one. Whilst sledging with dogs in King George V Land, his friend and colleague Lt Belgrave Ninnis broke through the lid of a huge crevasse taking with him not only their best dogs, but most of their food, spare clothing and tent. Mawson and his second colleague, Xavier Mertz, made a bid for safety which saw only Mawson survive, barely even then. Lessons hard learnt.

Unit travelling is not something I find easy, as I will explain. The Unit itself takes the form of a long line - the front Skidoo is usually driven by the Field Assistant (the term we give our mountain guides ) - as they are then best placed to assess the nature of the surface, presence of crevasses and such. Behind this front Skidoo is the main sledge. Constructed principally from ash, the Nansen sledge bears no bolts or nails in its construction, its bindings allowing the wooden structure to flex and torque naturally over the surface.

Then comes the second Skidoo - roped up to both the sledge in front, and to the second smaller sledge behind. Keeping at the right speed so that the rope in between does not go under the second Skidoo or become too tight and pull the first to a halt is tricky to master. I shall admit right here that whilst paying attention to some other travellers passing by, on one occasion I did drive over the rope in front. A half hour of embarrassed pulling and reversing followed - oh dear.

Crispin Day - my Field Assistant for our camping trip is a veteran polar guide. As well as being a former Royal Marine, he has spent many seasons down in Antarctica as a guide and has also worked in the Arctic. A good partner to have on a trip. Weather, above all else, limits our travelling abilities here. For a start, wind freezes you - it blows snow about in your face and more importantly obscures the ground surface, hiding dangers that may be there. Clouds - as well as providing snow - limit contrast so that it becomes almost impossible to see where one is going - to the extent that you can easily be confused as to the nature of the slope. Disorientation is easy, and so we do not travel in poor conditions.

I was happy, therefore, that the sky was clear and windless on the morning we had planned to depart for a few days in the local hills. Blue skies - sun - good company - what more could you want?

We initially headed up onto the Wormald Ice Piedmont and left our local travel area, beyond which Unit travel is deemed necessary. A flat, brilliant surface beckoned as we drove past the peaks of Stork, Orca and mirages brought flowing rivers of rock and light as the air melted around us. In a desert, heat haze brings objects closer - or sends them further away. Similarly, sun on a cold surface distorts the path of light as it travels towards you, making islands float in the air and stretching hills and glaciers out in long broken lines of colour. Words are not adequate sometimes to describe such beauty.

It was not long before we saw fellow travellers - Kevin and Steve returning from their attempt to get south to the Chilean base at Carvajal - deep snow had forced them to camp just a few kilometres north of our base. For the best part of the afternoon we travelled in our long line in and around Stokes Peaks, and took a walk up a hill called Trident. Roped together, and wearing so many layers, we topped the snow ridge that led up to the small summit, to see the view back to the base at Rothera Point - about 20 km or so away. The ridge that is so familiar to us out of the base windows looked at this distance tiny in comparison to the main peaks of Adelaide Island - the sea ice so calm and still, brilliant white and leading off to the Antarctic Peninsula a good distance away. That little moment of calm after the noise of Skidoo travel was very welcome indeed. We sat with flasks of coffee, munching Cadbury's Dairy Milk, for half an hour - just watching the sun go down below the line of Stokes Peaks. To the north, Mt Bouvier standing majestically in a haze of tangerine light, a deep shadow forming along the bay down below, masking icebergs grounded in the shallows and calling us away - to set up camp for the night.

Only short Skidoo ride away - to the southern side of Trident, we camped on flat ground which gave us a panoramic sky view as night settled. As we erected the pyramid tent Venus was already showing above Mt Mangin, the sky showing a brilliant pink horizon and above, indigo to black. A fine contrast to the warm orange glow that soon emerged from the tent's interior.

A pyramid tent is just that - a tent in the shape of a pyramid. A double layer of ventile fabric, poles sewn in for strength, seven feet when erected, weighing almost 50 kilos. Not a tent to put in your rucksack, but one that ought to withstand more than one hundred knots of wind, so very appropriate for Antarctic weather. Four holes are dug in the snow surface to take the poles, which are buried to a depth of about 25cms. Then, the tent is pegged into place before the fabric is pulled taught to give resistance to wind. A separate groundsheet is put down - one person working inside to arrange the food, pots and such along the centre of the tent - with space for a person to sleep either side of this. The other person works outside, piling snow blocks onto the valances of the tent to provide extra weight, making sure there are enough small blocks in between the tent inner and outer tent for melting to make water. Each person has a "P" bag which contains a goose or duck down sleeping bag plus a thermarest, sheepskin, bivvy bag and various liners and extra warm bits to make Antarctic camping a luxury.

Once the tent was up and secure we worked in the dark to put the Skidoos and sledge into a safe arrangement for the night. Although we had a windless day, the weather is unpredictable and so before turning in for the night we made sure that the Skidoos were facing away from the wind direction, covered with a tarpaulin and that the sledge was arranged so as to be secured away from possible damage. Doing all of this for the first time is a bit slow and confusing. During the short summer season, scientific field parties will camp for as much as one hundred days, often having to move camp site - practice that must make setting up camp very quick.

Being well away from the base, we were in a sea of stars. With no moon to cast light, even the obscurest faint stars shone bright and the broad band of the Milky Way raced overhead. I sat outside for as long as I could, trying to record the scene in my diary, but was forced inside to the prospect of tea and a hot meal. Dinner was late - eleven o clock by the time we had chatted away several cups of tea and fruit biscuits. As promised, we radioed into base to tell them we were well and catch up with the weather forecast. Unfortunately, the low pressure system that had held off for the week was moving south and winds and snow were likely. Secure and warm in our tent, the thought of having to head back to base to avoid being stuck out for several days in a storm, was one we decided to put off until the morning. It was almost the end of my week's holiday and so I could not afford to get stuck out - neither could Crispin - work at base must go on.

The morning saw us return home - a good breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup sustaining us for the pack up - so much effort for one night out. But that is the way of things here and it was worth every minute of it. Thank you Crispin!

Turning to the summer - I could not help it - we are beginning to get information coming down from HQ about who will be visiting us here in the summer season. As I shall leave Antarctica next year, there will be a new chef coming to live here to replace me. His name is Keith Walker - from Liverpool. It is odd to think of the base being full of people again. Thoughts are turning to the journey home already and I do not feel ready for this part of my life to end just yet. Maybe I will find a way of coming back to Antarctica? I hope so, but for now I shall not dwell on thoughts of leaving - I shall just get on with making the most of being here now.

Best wishes from all of us here - see you next month.

Gerard Baker.

Gerard Baker, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica

A note about Sir Douglas Mawson.

During the same years as the race for the South Pole was being fought by men such as Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, others explored the new continent, but because their goal was not that of the South Pole itself, their names never reached the public in quite the same manner. Dr Douglas Mawson, along with Professor Edgeworth David and Dr Alistair MacKay made an heroic and desperate man hauling journey of several hundred miles in 1908 to the Southern Magnetic Pole. Mawson returned to Antarctica in 1911 - 1914 - and although his fated expedition did not capture the imagination of the public to any great extent, the hardships faced by him and his colleagues and the body of scientific knowledge gained during his expedition, earn him a place as one of the greatest explorers of this century.

Sir Douglas Mawson's Expedition of 1911 to 1914 is covered in his bookThe Home of the Blizzard. Look for the abridged popular edition - the two book first edition gives lots of detail and is lengthy. It is published by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. Our issue is 1930 - I am afraid that I do not know if there is a modern reprint - any library ought to be able to help. It is worth the effort, as he writes well and is very modest into the bargain.

An account of his fated sledging trip, based on his diaries, This Accursed Land by Lennard Bickel is published by Macmillan London Limited, 1977, ISBN 0 333 22939 8