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Rothera Diary: March 2000

by Pete Milner

The end of summer

Rothera station

Adelaide Island

Hi Everyone,

This past month has been something else. Wow! I'm not sure I have quite settled down yet. Firstly let me run through what else has been happening recently. Now that I have found a computer that has a mouse (more later). Quite a lot of time at the end of the summer season was spent in debrief meetings. One evening the Foxhat choice was appropriately "As Good As it Gets" with Jack Nicholson; watch it if you get the chance. That was the day when I was told that I had been chosen as one of the winter Deputy Base Commanders.

On the first weekend in March the Saturday night meal was moved to Friday. The air unit held a special dinner just before they went home. The dining room was laid out like an aircraft and we all had to meet in the bar; sorry departures lounge. Tickets for flight BAS666 to "Hellanback" were issued. I was in cattle class with no chance of an upgrade. The aircraft mechanics had all dressed up in tartan shirts and homemade orange miniskirts complete with make-up (not a pretty sight). Food and drink were served on plastic trays and the in-flight video was "Airplane". It was a great night, but the planned water pistol hi-jack did not happen in the end. The lads had really put in a special effort. The reason the meal was moved to Friday was because the air unit was going to fly home on Sunday. I got up early along with several others to see them leave. They also took quite a few of the summer staff as well. Less of a queue for dinner that night.

We were then trying to get ahead of the maintenance jobs in an attempt to reduce the workload in winter. We are going to be one short in the outdoor team, because Maggie has been promoted to Base Commander Bird Island, South Georgia. During winter the team on base will have to rely on themselves, much more so than in summer. It was decided to hold a search and rescue exercise as part of the run up to winter. The scenario was that we had to rescue a fallen climber three or four miles from base. It was really realistic with Randall the doctor playing the casualty. The weather was adding interest with gusts of 30 knots blowing snow about and very poor visibility. Full on Scottish conditions you might say. All the outdoor team were deployed using the Sno-cat and skidoos. It was very realistic with Randall acting out all sorts of symptoms including a collapsed lung. Chris Burrows the winter Doctor coped magnificently. We followed this up with a marine search and rescue operation. The idea was that a diver had come up to the surface unconscious. My role in this was to run things from the Operations room with the other Deputy Base Commander George Fell. Meanwhile Keiron Fraser the Base Commander and marine biologist was involved in the diving store. Both exercises went well and it's good to know that we have the skills necessary to help out in an emergency.

Another "Top" day was soon round the corner. We finally had some good weather which would allow us to mark a safe flagged route through McCallum Pass. This is the most dangerous area for crevasses that we cross during winter trips. Steve Hinde and Dave Reynolds set off to do the route finding. In the morning I went out to Léonie Island with Terry O'Donovan helping to service the gear held there. Nice sunny day to be out on an inflatable boat. On our way back we saw eight crabeater seals sleeping on an iceberg.

By four o'clock the lads were back and Alfie Conn and I set off to travel through the McCallum Pass. The entire outdoor team have to go through McCallum Pass before anybody else is allowed to go. It was just a magic journey one and a half hours out from base just the two of us with our skidoos and a sledge full of survival gear just in case. The sun was getting low and giving brilliant orange light. You descend into the pass and climb out the other side, going west, following the flag line and passing over two massive crevasses. These are bridged with snow, but it's easy to see that they are there. At the end of the flag line we turned around. This is the point that allows access to the west side of the island. The wind had got up and it was feeling cold. Snow was being blown across the surface. It's very beautiful to see snow snaking across the ground. There were also blowing snow devils, little tornado's five or six feet high made of twisting snow. At one point on the return journey my skidoo was drifting off track because of the side wind, a strange feeling. We drove straight home and I was just buzzing. Great journeys, great friends, fabulous conditions and brilliant views. We warmed up afterwards with a well earned cup of tea. That evening we had a slide show about one of the lad's trip to New Zealand. I must say I would like to go there one day.

The following day produced more great weather so we went back out and did some GPS navigation, all good basic skills to practice. We could see as far south as Alexander Island approximately 150 to 200 kms away. Life was a bit of a roller coaster from then on. Following the navigation practice the supply ship RRS Ernest Shackleton docked. Whilst we were waiting for the ship, two humpback whales swam past, TEN metres off the wharf! Just amazing, they were huge and so close. It must be really rare to be able to get that close to some whales. With four furry seals playing in the surf as well, it has to be the best day's wild life spotting ever.

I then had an appointment with Wendy the ship's dentist. I had been feeling a bit down for a week or two with tooth ache. That is now sorted, thanks to Wendy's delicate work I am now minus a wisdom tooth. It's odd lying there while the ship gently rocks as she removed my tooth. I know what the tools look like. The tooth was put under my pillow, but I did doubt my chances of a visit from the fairies. It's pleasing that this happened now rather than later on. After a short course back in England I am helping out as the base dental nurse. As further training I had the chance to sit in whilst Wendy examined some of the other wintering staff. It was interesting to hold the suction gear and closely watch how a filling is done. You don't want to know.

We all helped unload the winter supplies. For some bizarre reason, unknown to anybody, we have twice as much toilet roll as we need, but no dried milk supply arrived. This is going to be a real problem (think of us next time you go down to the shops). We cannot now get a delivery. Keith the Chef thinks we can ration things through the winter, but we will still be using stuff that had been marked down to be thrown out. On the plus side however the winter beer order has arrived OK and Keith swapped a package of tea bags (the ship was short), for a package of fillet steak, and they thanked us for the deal!

In addition to the dried milk shortage we seem to have a potential razor blade and toothbrush problem. I have no worries about the razor shortage, beards seem to be fairly compulsory down here, with the exception of Jenny who is excused. The photo of me standing before Jenny Island (I don't think it's named after Jenny Beaumont) can testify to the beard. Several friends suggested drinking lemon tea as a way of beating the dried milk shortage when it comes. I had to e-mail back asking where they thought we could get more lemons from down here. Just as bad, we seem to be running out of digestive biscuits already! This Antarctic Exploration game sure is tough. Keith the Chef did say today that we are over-stocked with ice cream of all things. At least we do not have a problem keeping it cool.

All the winter staff were invited onto the ship for a special meal. It was great, lots of fresh salad stuff, fruit and tasty cheeses. Personally I ate and drunk too much, but why not. Monday 20 March dawned with everybody up early to see the ship go. Wow this is it. A very emotional time, saying goodbye to all the friends I have made this season. Quite possibly never to see them again. This is such a committing moment, no turning back now. Nobody really wanted to stop shaking hands and walk up the gangplank. The ship's whistle reminded everybody to get on board. The ship cast off as a few bottles of champagne were passed around. Gradually the RRS Ernest Shackleton pulled away with blasts on the whistle and lines of people waving from the deck. On shore we let off the out-of-date flares and smoke bombs. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that there are so few of us here for the next seven months. We are twenty men and one girl, which may sound a lot, but in a large base there seems to be nobody around half the time. It's traditional for the departing staff to play practical jokes on the remaining winter crew. Hence the reason it's not been easy to find a computer with a mouse. They all seem to have escaped. Keith's bread refused to rise on the first morning, due to an excess of salt in the flour, all the leads to the stereo went missing and part of my work area had the power turned of. We have already dealt with a water tank overflowing and a surprise fire alarm.

I can remember writing home and not being able to adequately describe how I felt. Alone and self-reliant for seven months of Antarctic winter. This team is on its own in this massive continent, with the world's harshest weather to come and it's getting dark. We cannot even expect help from the same continent. A thought for the day "Nobody else on the planet can reach us until October."

I found this poem in the library recently. Things have not changed much since it was written

Down in the deadly stillness, cut off from the world - alone

Held in the grasp of the ice king, on the steps of his crystal throne:

Waiting returning sunshine, waiting the help we'll bring -

Wearily watching the hours go by, till the ship comes with the spring.

J. D. Morrison, 1903

The poet sums things up better than I can. If you know somebody down here during winter, support them via the e-mail. They will appreciate it more than you can possibly imagine.

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica