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Rothera Diary: May 2000

written by Pete Milner

Radio darts, cocktails and winter trips


May 2000


The weather during May started to feel more like winter conditions. Snow drifts started to build up and the wind speeds rose. One day however the temperature rose to an amazing 4·C and it rained! Can you imagine the effect of rain on a snow surface that then freezes? I spent part of the following day digging out my sledges. They had been buried by blowing snow, then softened by rain, and subsequently frozen in. We had a ground blizzard while we were digging. This is a weather feature where the snow is blown around by the wind, but only at ground level, whilst the sky is clear above. It's not too bad if the blizzard only blows around two to three feet off the ground. But it's nasty when it rises above your head. You can be stopped by an effect that operates only ten feet above the surface. When we finished we huddled in the shelter of a skidoo and Steve said "We can either stay here and have a chat or go home for a brew". We chose a warm cup of tea.

I felt that I had earned my evening meal that day. We have our own chef here for the twenty one of us. Keith is a great lad and looks after us well. I seem to remember it was steak pie that night followed by Keith's famous "Pear Surprise". The "surprise" was a peach dish. Some other pear surprises have turned out to be a flan with toffee covered with chocolate, but no pears and strawberry ice cream without pears. One pear surprise even turned out to be cheese and biscuits.

One unique social event that probably doesn't occur elsewhere in the world is Radio Darts. We had arranged a match with our friends at Halley Station. Things started off slowly as we had problems establishing contact and finding a workable radio frequency. I will not mention the dreadful breaches of radio procedure or the in jokes. It was amazing how little cheating went on, given that neither side could tell what the others were doing. In the end we won by three games to two. We had just started the all important beer leg with the competition being for two cases of beer, (quite how anybody expects the losers to transport the beer was not decided), when the radio conditions became so bad and the match was abandoned. I feel it just adds to our sense of isolation if we cannot even keep radio communications with our other Antarctic station.

The party held to mark the departure of the Sun turned into a cocktail evening. Kiwi Pete was the demon barman. Loud shirts seemed to be the thing to wear and my Hawaiian shirt with palm trees and a beach printed on it contrasted well with the conditions outside. Several fruit-based drinks appeared with ingredients that strangely no one seems able to remember. Other concoctions produced were either bright green or blue. It was a great night. The event was timed so that it did not clash with film night or woodwork classes. We decided against complex astronomical calculations. However the Sun still lights up the sky for a few hours at midday but is now hidden below the horizon.

I have been leading winter trips with Mark, Howie, Paul and Ian. Robin the youngest member of our team camped near Bond Nunatak; I think he found the experience quite tough. For a first cold-weather camping trip, it must have been an amazing place to start. This is his first job after university so the lad is doing well. On the last trip Ian and I travelled up McCallums Pass to take photos. It was - 18·C at midday, easy to lose the feeling in your hands as soon as you try to do any delicate work. There were cold hazes and mirages, just the same effect that you get back home when it's hot. Strange to see it caused by the cold. It makes you appreciate the efforts Chris and Mark put in servicing the skidoos. This is no place to be stuck without transport.

See if you can catch the following image in your mind. St. Nons bay near St. Davids in Pembroke, or perhaps the North Devon coast. It doesn't matter, it could be your favorite piece of coast. You are looking towards the sunset, the green fields slope gently down to fall over 60 to 100 foot cliffs into the sea, which is crashing in, piling surf against the base of the cliffs. Just a few yards out to sea are little islands and small sea stacks. A flock of birds flies past. Stay with me and hold the picture. It's now the Chilean Antarctic base at Carvajal, the green fields are made of ice as the Fuchs Ice Piedmont gently slopes down to form ice cliffs, from its height of 1000 feet. The islands and sea stacks silhouetted against the Sun are grounded icebergs. The birds flying past are blue-eyed shags and it's cold. Your fingers soon get wooden after slipping off the gloves to take a photo, which will never do it complete justice. Just to add icing on the cake there is a colony of nearly 300 seals (fur seals, crabeater and elephant seals) in front of me.

So how come I'm here. Find it on a map if you can, at the south-west corner of Adelaide Island. It used to be the old UK Adelaide base. It's time for us to be leading winter expeditions for the team who are normally confined to base by their work. I've got used to the local area a little and have not had the weather to go further afield. This time it was different, Paul and I reached McCallums Pass and the weather cleared to what we call "dingle" - wall to wall blue sky. Our sledges, skidoos and ourselves are all roped together for linked travel. A steep descent into the bottom of the pass cuts under the overhanging ice cliffs of Mt. Gwendolyn. The route doglegs left at the bottom to avoid Shambles Glacier. It's aptly named for a chaos of jumbled blocks of ice and huge crevasses slowly reaching the sea at Stonehouse Bay. My route climbs out to the west, past Mt. Mangin and over crevasses that are fortunately bridged by snow, at least for now. We placed flags along this route at the end of summer to help us keep to a safe line.

Moving further to the west to clear Lincoln Nunataks, we turn south for the long run along Fuchs Ice Piedmont. Safe going now, but the skidoos struggle in powder snow. The weather is still dingle and the view is great. In an hour or two we passed the ?Pinnacle' emergency depot. My GPS (Global Positioning System) soon tells me it's time to turn south-westerly for the Carvajal base. Behind is an amazing sunset, with fiery red sun dogs. We cannot stop for photos as the darkness is gathering and we are still in the open. A few kilometres further on we hit a wall of sea fog and visibility is reduced to a few yards with nil contrast. As I'm heading for the edge of our ice world, it's time for me to call a halt and put up tent for the night.

It takes a while to set up camp in the Antarctic, but it needs to be done properly, as you never know when that tent has to withstand sixty or eighty knot winds. Everything needs to be firmly secured, and skidoos covered by a tarpaulin to keep the snow out. Our camping boxes arranged in the right order. Inside I will have my pots and stove box, my tent box with all the domestic type stuff in it, and a food box. Just outside the tent is another food box with field rations and a jerrycan of paraffin. So other than the trips to the outside loo, we are secure for days.

My radio is set up and the dipole aerial pointed at Rothera. All field parties have a pre-arranged evening call to base, to make sure all is well and to keep the base commander updated with the teams' intentions. Just the previous week I was the base commander worrying about the lads camping out in the Antarctic winter.

It's never easy getting out of bed at the best of times, but if that bed is a warm comfy sleeping bag and the outside is a deeply cold, frosty morning, where the sun doesn't appear until ten-ish, it's doubly difficult. Blessed with good weather again and the sea fog cleared, we pack up and lash all the kit onto our sledges and set off for Carvajal. Eleven kilometres further on we can see the remains of a BAS Otter aircraft and the Chilean fuel dump; we're there. It's now a gentle ice ramp down to the base. We only move in the essentials and get the small petrol generator going for basic lighting. A well-earned cup of tea, a meal and an early night. But not before some amazing star gazing. Another lifetime's ambition completed, as I have now seen the Southern Cross. The Milky Way streaks right across a totally clear sky. No light pollution here. Scorpio is visible as well as Orion. Orion is upside-down of course.

Amazingly the following morning is dingle again, unheard of, especially as George the Metman forecast bad weather. The day was spent looking around the base and photographing the seal colony. The place is not as modern as our station and the wooden huts seem like museum pieces. There is a weird feeling looking around somebody else's home. The books in the library are in a different language, the maps and pictures of home come from a different part of the world. It seems more formal here, even the Ping Pong league tables are typed and signed by the base commander, whose picture hangs up in the dining room. It's only occupied during the summer so all the windows are boarded up. We leave our present of a bottle of Irish whiskey on their bar, with a rough note in Spanish. The seals sleep close into the buildings and a friendly Giant Petrel watches us. It's a huge bird and stretches out its massive wingspan obligingly for the camera.

I can't say I slept well, that bad weather will be with us soon. We get up early and are packed ready to go before first light. Easy really as first twilight was 0900 then. It was ten before we could really see to prepare the sledges. Now we travel. I have never been so sure of anything, the fact is we must move, right now.

I glanced to the north and clouds had come in, but it looked to me as if it would burn off in the morning sun. We push on and run north up the west side of the island. Up in the clouds on the ice, it's a whiteout of mist and snow. Totally reliant on my GPS we carry on, as I know I'm safe here from crevasses. The cloud clears, but not by much as there is really no heat in the sun. I have enough clear conditions to press on. By Lincoln Nunataks we are stopped by zero visibility. Time for a snack. As we munch chocolate, the clouds lift and we move forward underneath it. Approaching Mt. Mangin I lose the lock on the GPS satellites. Unnerving if you didn't know what was happening. We are heading for the Shambles Glacier. No place to go in poor visibility. My compass and map keep me in the right direction until the GPS finds its bearings.

I only needed a short weather window to get back through McCallums Pass and that's all I got. Just enough clear sky and thinning cloud to see the way through the pass. I have a view right across the glacier and all along the flag-line. It's a run for home now, and all thoughts of having to camp are gone. From the top of the pass we drive past Trident Peaks and the expected bad weather arrives. We just did it. Now we have wind and blowing snow with gathering darkness. It's a familiar route home for me now and we push on, beards encrusted with ice, peering into the gloom we can make out East Stork mountain. Past that and we are on safer ground.

Yes! Done it. My sledges live up above the base near our ski area. They are left there, marked by flags and we drive down the ramp towards the orange lights of Rothera Station. It's a beautiful base, I knew it would be there, you just need to believe you can get back.

It storms for days afterwards.

Pete Milner, Rothera station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica