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Rothera diary: August 2000

written by Pete Milner

Planning for summer in the cold of the winter

Hi Everyone,

Digging out the caboose The month started for the outdoor team with one of our digging chores. We spent the day moving the caboose. It needed doing, as a large drift of snow had surrounded it and soon it would have been buried. Interesting conditions up there, low cloud and poor light, meant poor contrast, so you couldn't tell one patch of snow from another. I stepped down from the Sno-cat, walked towards the caboose on firm icy ground, then fell up to my thighs in soft snow. It must have been blown there in the last gale. It took lots of digging to clear the hut and then many tugs by the Sno-cat to get it moving. It would then nose-dive into another patch of soft snow and require digging out again. Still, once it was dragged out of its hole and placed on the surface again, things went alright. We left a large hole in the snow marked by red flags to provide some interest for the skiers.

Winter trips for the hard working base staff are still happening this month. Interestingly enough on my second trip to Carvajal, it was getting there that was more of a problem. You may remember my description of the last trip where we managed to find our way back just before days of storms hit Rothera. I was leading Howie, our boatman, on his winter trip. His main aim was to visit the Chilean station at the south-west tip of Adelaide Island. All the gear had been organised and we roped up to our sledges then headed for McCallums Pass. Unfortunately we really got no further than the last of our local mountains, East Stork. This mountain marks the start of more dangerous terrain and also is one of the returning landmarks that tells you when you are home. It was poor visibility that stopped us. More accurately as we drove past East Stork there was just a wall of cloud and no chance of seeing the route ahead. There was no doubt we had to turn around. After a drive around the local area, just for fun, we headed home. The plan was to get up early the next day and try again.

On the following morning things looked promising; there were stars in the dark sky, which usually means a chance of good visibility. Our equipment had been packed and ready for days, so we only needed to fill our flasks and wait until there was sufficient twilight to set off. Things were much better the second time. We easily passed Stork and across the ice piedmont with the skidoos and sledges roped together, travelling on a firm driving surface. Next we hit a wall of fog, it felt thin so we decided to carry on, relying on my GPS to keep us on the safe track. Luckily we drove out the other side of the mist before we reached a mountain called Trident. This is where the route turns westerly and begins the climb up to McCallums Pass.

Low cloud had by now covered our previously clear sky. With no direct sunlight and the clouds darkening, the contrast was very poor. Outside of the Antarctic the contrast is not so important. Here it is a vital weather condition that governs our travel. In good contrast conditions you can see every footprint in the snow and every detail of the surface. In poor contrast, like we were now facing, it was almost impossible to tell up from down. The whole world is white - snow, sky and mist. As we were driving, the skidoos would hit sastrugi, wind-formed waves of snow, which were impossible to see. It was a bumpy ride.

At McCallums Pass Howie and I joined Alfie and George, the other sledge party out that day, looking at the view. It was not much of a view. You could see across the pass to the ice piedmont on the other side, but the contrast was so poor that we could see no detail in the dangerous Shambles Glacier. Do we push on or turn around? Firstly we gave it half and hour to see if the light improved. Time for some chocolate and a drink from the flasks. Alfie and I walked forward along the flag line to see if we could get a better view. We could not really see the edge of the slope and as we returned to the others our footprints had disappeared in the poor light. In the end the decision was fairly obvious, it was not sensible to continue. Our best guess on the weather was that it was not changing, so we turned around. As we were leaving I spotted a cloud developing on the piedmont across the pass. It was the right decision, but disappointing all the same. Up early again in the morning, I guessed.

The following day dawns practically 'Dingle', Antarctic hero speak for wall to wall blue sky and no wind. The routine is pretty slick now so we are travelling out to Trident fairly early. Amazing to be able to see all the lumps and bumps in the snow that caught us by surprise yesterday. At McCallums Pass the visibility is perfect, no question, we are on for Carvajal. My sledges are equipped with remarkably efficient rope brakes and these will be needed for the steep descent into the bottom of the pass. After we reach the base of the slope it's a long climb out of the other side crossing several large crevasses, fortunately bridged with snow. At the far end of the flag line the danger is past and we pause to refuel the skidoos. Alfie and George are heading north and we wave good bye. My journey continues west to clear Lincoln Nunatak, then turns south to drive down the Fuchs Ice Piedmont on the west side of Adelaide Island. It is a perfect day, the mountains are clear, you can see for miles and other than some soft powder snow, the driving surface is good and firm. We make good time and are soon down by the mountain called Myth. After that we hit hard icy sastrugi and again we are bounced around on the skidoos.

I have a GPS way-point marking the turn to Carvajal, now only 11 km away. It is important to get this right because you are now heading for the edge of the island and steep ice cliffs dropping into the sea. With only one or two kilometres to go I slow down and move forward cautiously. I am looking for a fuel dump and the wreck of an aircraft. Just a few hundred feet off my track to the left I soon see it. We leave one of the sledges there and take the other one, with all our camping kit, down the ice ramp and into the Chilean base.

Purely for my own amusement I have a small key ring thermometer on the zip of my wind-proof jacket. It has been reading minus 25°C all day. Howie looks around the base while I move our camping kit into the small kitchen and secure the sledge. It's late afternoon so we both climb up to the top of the rocky point for a look at the sunset. This sunset is probably the most awesome I have ever seen. Not because of the colours, I have seen better, but because of the position. On my right is the huge flat ice piedmont, to the left the Southern Ocean, trying to freeze. Looking north, I see the sun, which is setting between the twin pinnacles of a large iceberg. Lots of other icebergs are about, but this one is silhouetted against the flame colours of a setting Antarctic sun. Just incredible. I am so lucky to be here. Fingers freeze as I try to photograph it. These slides will not do it justice.

We struggle to get a freezing generator going and the base lights come on allowing us to settle in and get some tea brewed. After a simple meal of dehydrated beef, instant mashed potato and more tea, it is time for the radio link with Rothera and then the sleeping bags. Howie sleeps in their lounge and I sleep in the dining room. It's warm inside my sleeping bag and I am in the middle of a dream about a girl I once knew, when the alarm goes off. The generator was put away last night so it's time to light my Tilly lamp. By this light I can see that the thermometer reads minus 20°C, Indoors!

A brew of tea takes an hour, as last night's prepared water is a block of ice. While that is heating we pack up and tidy away. The weather forecast is for good weather, but poor the day after, so we have decided to return to base, if possible. A slow dawn reveals a cloudy view, our guess is that it's sea fog and we decide to go for it and head home. It is a chill morning and feels colder than minus 25°C. After relashing our kit onto the sledges we set off into cloud and poor visibility. I am confident of the ground here and we are heading inland so the route can be followed on a GPS bearing. As we climb up away from Carvajal the fog clears, revealing a perfect day, blue sky again and thankfully no wind. One of the sledges now decides to roll onto its side, tipped over by a snow drift. It takes a while to pull it upright and set off again. I hope that does not happen too much on this journey. We soon pass beside Sloman Glacier which generates a bitter wind, as the heavier cold air sinks down to the lower ice platform where I am travelling. Wind chill really bites here. Today feels cold, much colder than yesterday. The thermometer is slightly lower than yesterday's minus 25°C, but I guess we started from cold.

We push on knowing that we need to be able to travel through McCallums Pass in good visibility to get home safely. The alternative would be a cold camp, and storms are coming, as they inevitably do here. Everything is cold, except our hearts and our souls. I feel warm inside my clothing, but only just. An inch away is an environment that will kill me if I did not have good insulation. I am wearing my full mountaineering fleece and windproof kit, plus a one piece freezer suit, it's only just enough. My boots are insulated by one centimetre thick felt and two pairs of thick socks keep my feet warm. I have two layers of balaclava plus fleece neck and face masks, a safety helmet and goggles. I feel alright, but I know that any exposed area will freeze instantly. There is ice in my beard from my breath. Last night it took the best part of an hour to thaw out my beard once we got inside. Now I am freezing to my fleece face mask. The goggles are freezing up on the inside, making it difficult to see ahead. The LCD screen on my GPS navigator is struggling to work in the cold and failing rapidly; fortunately I can navigate by the mountains and my skidoo compass. The ice in my right eye makes it necessary to stop. I am worried about my eyes freezing shut. It costs me most of my eye lashes as I remove lumps of ice from my eyes.

Great to arrive at the McCallums Pass flag line after a long and bumpy journey and see good conditions. Time to refuel again, being careful not to freeze your hands to metal Jerry cans. Stonehouse Bay to the north is full of sea fog, but fortunately it is lower than the Shambles Glacier. Brakes on for the descent and we then use two skidoos per sledge to climb out of the other side. We were going to stop for a late lunch at the top, as we are now virtually on home ground. However it really is too cold, so we push on and head home. The whole of the east side of our island is surrounded by sea fog. The views travelling on the glaciers above it are fantastic. Back past East Stork and the sledges can be left by our ski area. Now we drive easily down into the fog and Rothera Station, warmth and tea. Great journeys and great companions.

My small pit room now feels like my own home, my tiny personal space filled with tapes, books and little gifts, friends have given me for my travels. Luxury is warmth and clean sheets, never take those for granted. I genuinely love this place, it is just awesome, but I never forget that it can kill. It takes intelligence, skill and good equipment to survive here.

Other sledge parties also felt the cold this month, Steve Hinde and Steve Ainscough returned from an attempt at one of the local mountains. They reported that it was fairly cold. Probably near minus 40°C given that they were at a higher altitude. Certainly their ski-skins would not stick to their skis it was so cold. Alfie and George who were on the north-west of the island, while Howie and I were in Carvajal, experienced a very cold camp indeed.

Even though we may not say it, I think everybody appreciates the facilities of Rothera Station. This winter Keith the chef has broken the base record with a meal needing fourteen pans. Keith took his turn on night watch this month, so we relied on volunteers. I did sausage and mash for lunch followed by a cheesecake. The milk supply is still holding out, but I don't know for how long. Personally I can live on black tea but we need milk to make cheesecake, not sure I can survive without that. It also appears that we have totally run out of garlic.

Rear view of the main Rothera building - deep in snow Living down here still produces amazing experiences. I happened to look out of my window one night, living on the first floor my window is still clear of snow, and saw the full moon. It was rising above the generator shed and as it passed one of the vent's you could actually see it move! Being so near to the pole probably means the moon's orbit is faster in relation to us. Quite amazing to watch it move in relation to a stationary object. Our buildings are now quite deep in snow. The view is of the rear of the main building, which is on the left. My pit room window is roughly in the middle; take a look at the position of the door in relation to the level of the snow. To the right is the Ops Tower which has been the scene of much hard work this winter, and the building on the right is the chippy shop.

The windtail on the chippy shop The carpenters workshop or 'chippy shop' has an impressive windtail on its southern end. Here you can see the snow in the lee of the building. To the left is the transit accommodation building. In the background you can see our ice ramp and the tracks of sledges being taken out for winter trips. Under the distant mountains and below the ice cliffs you can pick out the sea ice. This is the view I stop and look at every day.

I think we were heading for probably the coldest period of the winter. Several days have been calm and clear, not necessarily good as that always produces the coldest days. The cold here is now fairly spectacular. As soon as it's calm the sea freezes in about a day. I drove a skidoo up to the ski area to drop off a mountaineering team and it was about minus 25°C up there. So easy to get frost nip in the slight wind which only adds to the chill. It was quite strange to feel how warm it was back down by the base, at only minus 17°C. It's quite noticeable, but I suppose an eight degree rise anywhere makes a difference. Just reminds us of Chris the doctors frostbite lecture, with his accompanying pictures. Time to be careful.

In contrast a week or so later we spent a day filling hundreds of Jerry cans of fuel using a hand pump. We were outside in the snow. Not too bad once you get a system going. The fuel is to be used in the coming summer. It was quite a warm day at minus 2°C. I even saw some lads sitting out on the front steps with their tea, that's a first this winter. Nobody has done that for the last six months. Positively spring like, but it may just be the start of the next blow.

Dental checks were available this month. Nice not to have to queue in the waiting room and no bill. The first training course I went on for BAS was dental first aid. Chris the doctor checks everybody out, so I have to assist his dental check. I must be the world's ugliest dental nurse. The course itself was pretty interesting. On the first morning the instructor was explaining how to give a local anaesthetic injection into the mouth. He then said "Well I suggest you split up into pairs and get on with it then!". There was a little silence round the room and then you end up giving an injection to some bloke you met that day. The needle is huge, bit of a nervous experience that. Chris now has my signature on his dental records. Odd thought really. I did the full examination, scrape and polish, plus fluoride treatment. White coat, mask, gloves, I even looked like the real thing.

We have no need of a waiting room, but we do have stacks of out-of-date magazines. The base has a subscription which is saved up and produced monthly during the winter. Obviously the choice is made by somebody who will not be there when it arrives. This winter we get Newsweek, a year out of date, Amateur Photographer (popular), High a mountaineering magazine (also popular), Cosmopolitan, New Scientist and What Car!!! Don't ask me what use the last one is. What Skidoo would be better.

The overwintering team at Rothera Everybody at Rothera is now busy with the plans for the summer. Details of the coming season's field projects are filtering through. In the outdoor gear store we are assembling mountains of equipment ready for the summer field projects. Chris Thompson and Mark are preparing the skidoos that we will rely on in the field. All the technical services lads are busy making sure the station is in top condition for the arrival of the summer staff. The plan is for the first of these to arrive just after October 15, so it will be nice to have somebody different to talk to. Winter is the best time to be here, it will be strange when our small team becomes a small part of something bigger. At the moment it is our base, it will be odd to hand it back to the summer management. In a strange way I don't really want winter to end, but I am really enthusiastic to get on with my summer field project. You will have to wait for another instalment of the diary to find out where I end up.


Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica