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Rothera diary: July 2000

written by Pete Milner

July, the reality of winter


July 2000

Hi Everyone,

It must be diary writing time again, Chris the doctor is after his samples (you really don't want to know). I suppose we must be quite a unique group if the medical profession starts to run studies on us. Winter tours are certainly a different way of living. There must be few communities around the world that are so isolated from civilisation as us. Last month John Peel referred to our sad, cold, little lives. This month we were certainly cold and SAD. Cold comes with the job here and SAD stands for Seasonal Adjustment Disorder, with which we all suffer. Sleep patterns here in winter can be severely disrupted. It affects different people in different ways. Personally I sleep lightly which results in excessive dreaming on the edge of sleep. I am often awake at five in the morning unable to rest. It takes lots of self discipline to force a tired body out of bed.

Diary writing is an enjoyable hobby and I have tried to write a reasonably accurate description of life here. Others may see things differently, however each and every one of us will look back on a winter tour in the Antarctic as a unique experience. I often just stand outside the front door for a few moments, look at our magical landscape and remind myself that I just love this place.

If you talk to the summer staff they will try and tell you that winter is easy, just one long holiday. It is far from that, Matt, Simon, Pete, Martin and Co have been putting many hours into the Operations Tower project, ably assisted by others when they have time. Once that is over they have a huge list of tasks still to do. Chris and Mark in the garage seem to have a never-ending amount of machinery that needs work. Science, diving and boating is crammed into the hours of available good weather, with experiments and maintenance to do as well.

If this diary is to be a record of life in the Antarctic, people at home should be aware of the personal cost, to each individual, of a winter tour here. There is a policy of not wintering married people. Probably correctly, life here can be difficult and we are remote on a geographic scale and in social terms. A significant percentage of the lads, me included, get a ?Dear John' letter within a few months of winter starting. Don't ask me why, I thought we might be interesting characters, but apparently not. The Antarctic winter may cost you the most solid of relationships. I count myself lucky that I have friends who write. A small proportion of the second winter staff receive very little e-mail, as most of their friends have lost interest in Antarctic news and moved on with their own lives. I am realistic and also expect this to happen to me. The comment that an Antarctic tour is like pressing the reset button on your life, is probably very true.

I have no reason, or wish, to feel down, if a melancholy mood strikes. I only need to stand outside and admire the view, or walk around Rothera Point and watch the antics of the penguins. Usually this reminds me that I have a rare opportunity; firstly for the best job I am ever likely to have, and secondly an adventure which will stay with me for the rest of my life.

At the start of July we had a period of calm weather so we went out on the skidoos to check the flag line through McCallums Pass. You may remember this route from my description of the trip to Carvajal; it is the most dangerous part of our journeys. We check the route for crevasses, of which there are several, and mark the best line with flags on bamboo wands. Since we last travelled the route 30 or 40 percent of the flags had been completely buried by snow and others only had the tip visible. Steve Hinde, the senior field guide led and probed ahead when we thought there might be danger. In actual fact we moved the route 100 yards or so to the south, thus avoiding an opening crevasse. It was cold work. According to my key ring thermometer it was minus 20·C. Not really all that cold, but with a light wind and deep frost, it felt chilly. I was wearing thermal underwear, a thick pair of fleece Salopettes, fleece top and jacket, plus my Ventile wind-proof jacket and Gore-Tex. Salopettes. My hands were kept warm by bear paw mitts; these are huge gauntlet type mitts with fur on the outside and thick pile inside. Two pairs of thick socks inside plastic mountaineering double boots only just kept my feet warm. Head gear was a balaclava and a fleece neck warmer pulled up over my nose and a safety helmet. With the addition of a climbing harness and rope, it is a bit time consuming going for a pee. The route was clear of mist but only just. As we came home you could see an orange glow on the horizon to the north. There is a sun out there somewhere.

During July we had a chilly period, down to minus 20.2· C. Every exposed surface had inches of frost feathers growing on it. The radio and radar antennas which normally look like bits of dark wire, now look like thick white rope. With temperatures of minus 19.9· C at midday, we had no excuse, so it was out onto the sea ice. Struggling into a diver's dry suit was fun, if uncomfortable. The first hazard on the ice is a tide crack where the ice joins the land. As the tide rises and falls it flexes the ice, breaking the join between ice and rock. Then the sea can flood up onto the surface of the ice and you don't know what is solid and what is liquid. Much probing and thumping of the surface to test its strength is the order of the day. Further out the ice is more even, and we drill through using a large brace and bit. This allows us to measure the thickness of the ice to see if it's safe. On average the ice was 20 to 25 centimetres thick.

Other hazards include flex cracks around icebergs, glacier ice collapsing onto the sea causing cracking, and seal breathing holes, only just frozen over. It was cold out there with your breath freezing to your beard and your feet getting cold standing on the ice. The access to the sea for divers was looking good. A few more days of the cold temperatures and they will be cutting dive holes with a chainsaw.

On the 15th of July 2000 a small but interesting record was broken here at Rothera station. The previous record was in January 1995 at 85 knots. That week was one of storm force winds, blowing pretty constantly. Snow rarely falls here as it mainly blows in horizontally from somewhere else. That week the wind formed drifts producing tails on buildings, sledges and skidoos which just grew bigger. The more exposed areas were cleared of any loose snow, which presumably is now arriving somewhere else. The short walk to the sledge workshop required a battle with the wind, a dance on icy patches near the main door and a climb over a large wind tail drift on the south side of the building. What was the record that was broken? That day the wind speed reached 89.1 knots or 102.5 miles per hour. That's fast and it was carrying snow. Life is full of interesting little achievements, the Met. boys Bob and George, have announced that the record wind was officially a hurricane. So I guess I have survived my first hurricane. On the Beaufort scale that is force 12. We regularly have force 10, and force 11 has not been uncommon. These winds managed to smash up all the sea ice we had so patiently drilled. Howie will be out with his boats again soon.

One evening of excitement was provided when one of the generators failed, plunging the base into semi-darkness, with only the emergency battery lights on. A scary moment which makes you realise just how much we rely on technology here. I walked over to the generator shed to see if Ian Turner needed help. Walking between the dark buildings, with no exterior lights, I was nearly blown off my feet on the ice. With gale force winds and cold, plus no heating or lighting this station is a pretty inhospitable place. Everything was soon back working, but we had a sharp reminder of the fact that we are not really supposed to be living here. In the dark it's almost like another planet.

We appreciate things much more when you are given an idea of what life would be like without them. Keith the chef keeps morale up with excellent food. He has a day off on Sundays, so we have our traditional Sunday roast during the week. The Turkey, expertly carved off the bone by Howie, was certainly memorable. I will admit to putting on some weight, probably due to puddings and my lack of will power. A days work outside and you really appreciate one of Keith's famous pepper steaks.

I spent part of one Friday afternoon training with the emergency flares we use. Under the expert tuition of Howie Owen, we fired off loads of out-of-date flares, both Parachute and hand held lights, plus smoke and small mini flares. Great fun, it is a bizarre job where I can play with big exploding fireworks and call it work. In spite of firing off loads of distress flares nobody came to rescue us.

Saturday 22nd July saw two of us up above the base to fetch down a camping sledge and we saw a large yellow object in the sky. The scientists have confirmed that it is the sun. It's back! Days are definitely getting longer. The Met. team's computer tells me that we have had 2.3 hours of sun in July.

Monday 24th July, I managed to get a lucky break on that day. There was an opportunity to go and take Hugh, the Diving Officer, out climbing for the day. It was Hugh's holiday and as it was such a beautiful day, cold and clear, I jumped at the chance. We did a section of Reptile Ridge with minus 12 to 14·C on the tops, plus good, crisp, snow conditions and wonderful scenery. Most of the afternoon we had a setting sun which just moved along the horizon and disappeared again. A good day on the hill.

As for domestic news, I just thought you needed to know that my pony tail plan is no more. It was just scruffy and curled up in the way. That must have been the longest my hair has ever been. The last haircut will have been in September last year. Interesting experience having your hair cut by an amateur, Steve Ainscough did a good job, but then I don't have an extra mirror. Hope you are not too disappointed with me, at least I should look tidier for the people who will come in for summer. We have also discovered an interesting piece of technology that should amuse you. Our toaster packed up, so the spare one had to be fetched and dusted off. It was a different model and only toasts ONE side of the bread. I wonder which engineer thought of that one!

As usual the wind is blowing outside and chucking snow around. I have just finished speaking to Steve Hinde one of my colleagues who with Ian Parsons has been holed up at Carvajal, the Chilean base on the other side of the island, and they are now camped part of the way home. Radio communication was difficult, but they are safe and well and the plan is to wait out the current weather and then make the run for home as soon as it clears.

We have a sort of Tannoy system running throughout the base. Just now the loudspeakers switched on and the sound of gunshots, accompanied with lots of screaming, echoed round the base. Somebody must be playing a computer game, mind you I am not that sure, perhaps I should go and check.

Cheers for now

Pete Milner

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica