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Rothera Diary: February 2000

written by Peter Milner

Summer visitors at Rothera


Dear All

February, Friday night is Folk night! Well actually it's not. Folk night is on a Saturday; Folk night is strange; Folk night is very funny. Folk night was the main social event in February, but as it happens at the end of the month, I will talk about it a little later.

February brought the end of our deep field science expeditions. Aircraft would appear late in the day carrying piles of mountaineering kit still covered in snow plus a crew of tired and disheveled scientists, with their even more disheveled FGA's ( Field Assistants are called Field General Assistants or FGA's). After spending anything from four to twelve weeks camping in the snows of the Antarctic, people are dreaming of a hot shower and clean bed sheets. The scientists have lots of results to work on and the FGA's have plenty of wet kit to clean and repair.

I was allocated to sledge Charlie at Mars Oasis on Alexander Island, but that project was completed before I started to write this diary. In January, Sledge Charlie completed several away day operations. Essentially this means getting up early, dressed in all the outdoor gear and waiting for the daily weather and operations briefing. Quite often it was no go, so we changed back into base clothes and carried on with the maintenance programme. The first flight we had was to Coal Nunatak. For those not familiar with this term a nunatak is a mountain with just the summit tip appearing out of the ice. Coal is a flat-topped nunatak south of the Mars and Utopia glaciers on Alexander Island. The main scientific feature that can be observed is the fossilized tree. This is just an amazing sight and was featured on the BBC Horizon documentary filmed a few years ago. It's so obvious when you look at it, a full tree trunk just standing nearly upright in the rock. After unroping at the top, it was pleasant to be joined by Crispin Day and Jodie Howe of Sledge Echo. Jodie was persuaded to be the model standing by the tree for photos, and she was able to point out the other fossilized remains that are a feature of the area and to join us for a very sociable lunch.

Then it was back to the old routine of getting up early, ready to go and finding that the weather was no good. We were waiting to go to Charcot Island which is named after a French explorer. This island is located at the north-west corner of Alexander Island and is an important site for the study of lichens and mosses. Good contrast is required for landing uphill to a snow col, it's a remote place and we can only estimate the weather from the satellite image. I was the co-pilot on the way in, because I needed to take a look at the hazards we were going to face. The pilot normally touches down lightly and trails the skis across the surface then takes off again. This is to test and feel the surface, pad it down a bit and mark the snow to help visualize the landing spot. Blair Lawley had the front seat on the way back, as he had not yet been given the chance. You know you are going to get a good flight when Andy the pilot gets out his video camera and briefs the co-pilot how to use it. I was right, the good weather meant we could fly home at about 500 feet off the deck. We flew between the icebergs, close enough to see penguins' eyes, I exaggerate, but it felt like it. Exciting stuff.

Towards the end of our season's operations, large numbers of people disappeared for several days to help move fuel onto the mainland from the supply ships. It was a major operation with complex logistics, lots of flying hours and a great deal of effort from a willing crew. Those of us left at Rothera enjoyed a slightly smaller queue in the dining room.

Several of the BAS senior management team, Professor Chris Rapley (Director), John Pye (Head of Administration & Logistics), Alan Roger (Head of Physical Sciences Division) and John Shears (Environment Manager) were visiting Rothera this month, so Maggie and I had to take them out for a basic mountaineering and camping skills course. I really enjoy running training courses, because we can give people a memorable experience plus some knowledge that might just save their life down here. The guys had a fantastically calm evening and wonderful sunset while putting up their tents. We drove the Sno-cat out to Skiway Col to look at the view and take photos. Once the sun has dropped behind the mountains the temperature can fall rapidly and just as I was heading for bed, I noticed my little thermometer was reading minus 20·C. In the morning they had to take the tents down in 15 knot winds and blowing snow, great training conditions. I had to wrestle with frozen fuel lines on my skidoo.

I have also been up the east ridge of Stork, one of the local hills, on a lichen hunt with Daniela Lud and Sieglinde Ott two visiting biologists from Holland and Germany. Great fun, especially as they kept stopping to take samples, which allowed me to relax and look at the view.

Visitors at Rothera are very rare. BAS staff keep coming and going during the summer, but this month we had a visit from a cruise ship. It was very much a special event for us because a large proportion of the passengers were ex-BAS people who had overwintered in the Marguerite Bay region. The cruise had been arranged to allow for some nostalgic visits to old haunts. The ship held off out to sea and our visitors came ashore by inflatable boat. These guys were great to talk to and full of wonderful stories about the old days. I talked to lads who were on Adelaide Island before Rothera existed. We opened up our ?T' shirt shop and post office. I helped Chris Burrows the doctor who doubles as postmaster. The shop did a roaring trade. We also met the artist who had done the drawings for a new issue of British Antarctic Territory stamps depicting Shackleton's epic escape from the ice.

Preparations for winter are slowly starting. I have already shown a picture of me putting out depots of emergency food and fuel for winter sledging trips. I have also been sent down to our blue ice runway at Sky-Blu to close down the temporary camp at 75 degrees south. This means that I shall now probably be on the team that opens it up early next summer. This is nearly the furthest south I have been. The weather is significantly colder down there. We had daytime temperatures near minus 16 and minus 20 Celsius It's also exposed to strong winds in the 30 to 40 knot range and sometimes more. You have to tie everything down and be careful not to allow yourself to get too cold. Working in these conditions is very different to the normal base routine.

Hopefully I shall be able to improve my skiing as well this winter. It should be possible as I only have to walk across the gravel runway at Rothera to be at the bottom of a ski slope. All of two minutes away. If we want to go to the easier slope, we have to drive a skidoo for all of four minutes to get there. It's a tough old life.

Several of last years wintering staff will be leaving soon and it will be sad to see them go. It's often the case here that just as you begin to make friends, people move on to other things. It's true that friendships made here will last for a long time. Rothera veterans often have places to scrounge a cup of tea dotted all around the country, if not the world.

The last aircraft operation this season involved local reconnaissance flights for wintering staff. These flights give us an idea of the local area and the local hazards. It was a small group that gathered around a map laid out on one of the dining room tables. We all had the chance of a flight out around Adelaide Island and also across to Horseshoe Island. There is an old hut there, and in the archives I have found a report about the sledging trips that were done at the time I was born. It appears that people were wintering at the hut on Horseshoe Island when I was born. One member of that team was a Mr Rothera; I guess he went on to greater things.

The winter flights took up most of a Saturday morning. If that was not enough excitement for one day the same evening was folk night. This event had been secretly planned for some time. Small groups of people would be getting together to rehearse their acts. We started the evening with a meal prepared by our friends from ?Top Housing' the Swedish construction firm who are working on the new accommodation building. Somehow several types of schnapps were available for tasting, accompanied by everybody singing Swedish drinking songs! It was a great start, so thanks for that lads. It was an evening full of music, laughter, comic acting and general mayhem. I could not possibly single out one act for special mention, they were all brilliant. Talent had emerged from everywhere and sometimes from the most unlikely corners. Songs, spoof awards, quizzes, sketches etc. all held together by Master of Ceremonies, Ian McDonald and John Evans. We finished with the song "Just a Perfect Day", and it was.

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica