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Rothera Diary : October 2000

written by Pete Miner

The end of winter


October 2000


Rothera Station has no local council to provide our essential services. During the winter we rely on ourselves totally. No social services department to pick us up if we hit problems. Keiron, the winter base commander, has represented the long arm of the law here. Chris Burrows has provided medical cover, and the fire service has been organised by Pete Martin the fire officer. Regular fire alarm practices and training sessions with the breathing apparatus have carried on throughout the winter.

In preparation for the arrival of the aircraft Ian Parsons our communications manager organised an aircraft fire and rescue course. In the morning it was mostly theory. It is all rather sobering, as in reality with two people at an Antarctic camp and an incoming plane full of fuel, we would have to react very quickly and effectively to deal with a serious incident. As this job continues I learn more and more about how potentially dangerous it actually is. The second half of the course was fun. We went out into the wind and snow to practice putting out fires, which had been lit in 45- gallon drums cut down and filled with aviation fuel. We tried out all types of extinguishers - Foam, Carbon Dioxide, Dry Powder and Water. The last one to show that you definitely don't want to use water on a fuel fire, it just makes it all flare up massively. Howie, who has fire fighting experience from his days on board the BAS ships, helped make the course great fun in spite of it all looking a bit scary at first. In order to have any confidence in this stuff you really need to get hands-on experience with the kit.

Life is not just a constant round of excitement. We do experience the usual problems that our friends back home have to deal with. I got caught in the traffic during the ?Antarctic rush hour'. I had just finished my week of winter holiday, which managed to coincide with probably the most consistent of the bad weather we have had. There was not one day where we could go out climbing. In actual fact it was nice to stay in, read and use the dark room. However I did have my eye on some climbs. Alfie and I had a plan to ascend some of Stokes Peaks to the north. It was not to be unfortunately. In seven months we have had two weeks off, one for mid winter and one last week. Most of the time we were averaging one day off a month. However as our job is to run expeditions for others the outdoor team have done really well for getting out and about.

Of course, as soon as we return to work the weather changes, producing wall to wall blue sky and no wind. Our main task this month, with some willing helpers, was to prepare the alternative aircraft landing site up on the glacier above Rothera. This required us to mark the ski-way with empty fuel drums - all two kilometres of it - move the emergency shelter (the caboose) nearer to the landing site and dig in some anchors for aircraft to tie onto in a storm. There was a gang of us up there, all day, enjoying the 'hot' work. The sun is now definitely getting warmer and the sun cream needs to come out again.

So at about five o'clock we knocked off and the rush hour home started. There must have been at least four skidoos and the Sno-cat all on the flag-line at the same time. Practically a traffic jam for us. Having fought my way home in the commuter traffic it was time for a walk. Three of us wandered over to the east side of Rothera Point for a look at the seal pups. It is good to be able to relax after the rush hour stress. I mean honestly, I had to travel within one hundred yards of the nearest vehicle. Still the view was good though.

Since then we had a week of storms and the sea ice to the south of us has broken away so now the water is visible in the distance. We can still go out on the sea ice locally. Just before tea I was within five feet of a seal pup suckling its mother. They are really cute with grey shiny fur and big black eyes. Just a few feet away and not worried about us at all. Most of them were just sleeping in the sun. Hopefully I will have some good photos. One of the pups was playing peek- a-boo with its flipper. Just to remind us where we are, the temperature still plummets as soon as the sun dips down to the horizon. Back inside for somebody else to cook my tea. Tough but rewarding days. The pups are now reluctantly taking to the cold water under the watchful eye of mum, who has to keep the breathing holes next to iceberg open with her teeth.

We had a special dinner organised by Keith to celebrate the last Saturday night together as the Winter 2000 team. The Union Jack flags that have been flying all winter were given away by lottery. They are now tattered rags destroyed by the winds, but a great souvenir none the less.


Saturday 14th October


Drinks in Ye Olde Fidde Inn At 7.00


French Onion Soup with Croutons

Bacon Vol-au-Vents

Champagne Lemon Sorbet

Main Course

Escalopes of Turkey and Veal with Tomato & Tarragon Sauce

Surprise Vegetarian

Roast Potatoes

Légumes Restes


Pudding d'été

Torte au Chocolat

Meringue Cygne Delice

Café, Port et Chocolats

The meal went well and the food was great, unlike the following day when I was Sunday cook. Keith the chef won the flag that had been flown on Rothera Point and Jenny received the one that was flown at Fossil Bluff.

Inevitably as winter draws to its end we start looking forward to the return of the aircraft. Mail and fresh fruit, perhaps even some eggs, will be welcome plus new friends to talk to. Apparently they get a special briefing about what they are likely to meet here after seven months of winter. So they tend to hit the ground running and cheer everybody up. They are good lads all of them.

You would not believe the amazing meal I had near the end of the month. It started with an apple about five o'clock, honestly a real one, juicy and crunchy. For the sweet we had a sponge pudding and chocolate sauce, which is pretty good for us, but the main course!!! Egg, chips and a side salad. I had forgotten what fried eggs were like and crisp green salads surprised the taste buds, which were not expecting it. Crunchy fresh Lettice, chopped raw onion (not dried) and red peppers, I could go on. The most active the dining room has been for ages.

It is a really special day when three red British Antarctic Survey Twin Otter aircraft land within ten minutes of each other. Plus another one half an hour behind. I spent the day listening to other peoples' voices on the radio, they were some friends I made last summer. I was standing the other side of the runway listening to their final approach on the VHF radio. Our operations team had passed information on the wind speed, direction and air pressure, ....... and then a tiny dot was visible in the north over Stokes Peaks. The noise of aircraft engines sounded so strange after seven months of howling wind and skidoo engines.

It was a great day. The first pilot reported over the radio, "one minute to landing", then Ian started to have his fun. The new Operations Tower has an external tannoy system for use in emergencies, you can hear it all round Rothera. So in came the first red Twin Otter accompanied by "Ride of the Valkyries" played at maximum volume. Wonderful moment, no apocalypse but then we don't surf here either. The air crew jumped out all smiles and handshakes. I knew all these guys from flight operations last summer. We also have a new aircraft mechanic, so it will be interesting to watch him settle in. It is the winter crew that are the old hands now. Then it was the apple.

There is a down side of course, as I now have somebody else in my tiny bedroom (or pit room as we call the rooms). The evening ended with my drinking of one too many gin and tonics. We ran out of gin months and months ago, so it was nice to try a sip for a change and this time it was with a slice of fresh lemon. You just have no idea how strongly the smell of a freshly cut lemon assaults the senses. The whole base has an atmosphere of excitement about it at the moment.

So winter is officially over. I'm not really sure what my emotions are, as the fact has not really settled in yet. All I know is that it was a pretty amazing day. The wind is still cold and as usual I was glad to get back inside. We have new people sharing our station. Others follow soon, and operations will start in earnest. Summer adventures are coming. Antarctica is a special place; it runs you from one end of the emotional scale to the other. It will always change your life, often in ways you did not expect.

With the new arrivals I went out teaching the basic mountaineering and survival course. The planes were off to Fossil Bluff, then the plan was to find and dig out their emergency fuel depots. On long flights around the Antarctic the pilots have areas where they can land to wait out a storm. Normally there are some fuel drums there, in winter of course they will have been buried by snow. I had a great day out with the training course. Personally I really enjoy instructing, it is very rewarding, although somewhat strange to realise that when I say to somebody who has just roped up "OK jump over the edge of this ice cliff", they actually do it! We need to train them so that if somebody falls into a crevasse they can handle the situation and recover the casualty.

The aircraft managed to get away and run south to the hut at Fossil Bluff. Two lads now live there, alone on an island the size of Wales. They will be getting the kit sorted, generators tested and fuel supplies dug out. I was lucky to have the chance to co-pilot a flight to Fossil Bluff. That was great. Up early to make a sandwich and fill the flask, then hope for good weather It's a nice feeling with aircraft operations starting again. I have been watching the events from up in our new Operations Tower. Radio traffic from the Twin Otter aircraft is good to listen too, but will soon become normal routine again. "Rothera - Victor Papa Foxtrot Bravo Lima on route Fossil Bluff, two souls on board and five hours endurance" would be a typical radio transmission. VPFBL is the aircraft call sign, VP for British colonies F for Falkland Islands and BL to identify the aircraft. We also have the Twin Otters BC, BB, BZ, and the Dash-7 BQ. I really enjoy being part of these operations.

Well I guess we have all done it, probably as a first adult job or as a student. I am talking about being a postman, I once did a shift delivering the Christmas mail. Considering this is the Antarctic, delivering the mail is altogether more interesting. Fortunately my co-pilot flight to the hut at Fossil Bluff went ahead. It was great to be away from the station and flying again. The weather round here was not up to much, with low cloud and poor contrast. However off we went with two bags of mail destined for the Argentinian Station, San Martin. They are across the sound on the Antarctic Peninsula and further south than we are, from the air it looks similar to the red huts at Carvajal. This station is situated on a little strip of rock jutting out to sea, which like Rothera Point is frozen solid. Giles, the pilot, buzzed the base until they all came out to see us. My job is to go back into the rear of the aircraft and on the signal, open the main door and throw out the mail.

Sounds simple and it is, but you can forget any image of pin point drops. I sit on a drum of aviation fuel, hold on as best I can, then force the door open into the slipstream. About 150 feet above the sea ice the cabin signal goes and I push the mail bags out, one hand on the door and one on the bag, hoping the plane remains level. Somewhat more successful than the time they threw the mail out from the passenger window, it went straight through the propeller. Once that's done we bank sharply and circle round to see that they have spotted the blue bags on the sea ice close to the base. Job done and their waving hands show just how much that must have been appreciated.

As we are in the area we take a look at the old BAS station called Stonington. I'm not sure of its history but it will have been one of the first huts to be built down here. When I get a chance I shall look it up in the library. Next leg is the longer flight south to Alexander Island. The weather is dingle on this route (dingle is the description for cloudless skies and "unlimited" visibility, often far greater than 100 miles). I have done this flight before, several times last summer, but I had forgotten how truly amazing this landscape is. At 11,000 feet you can see hundreds or even thousands of miles of ice, snow and mountains. Even on the Alaska / Canada boarder, when I looked down upon the Canadian Yukon from the summit of Mt Logan, there was a small green strip in the far distance. Not here, the far distance is white and we know that for thousands of miles beyond it will be the same.

I had a chance to look at Ablation Valley, the site of my forthcoming summer science project. I needed to pick a camp site and a safe route to the work site. A wrong choice now is going to be a real pain when we are landing there later on. Landing at Fossil Bluff is relatively easy as the area is wide open snow and, as long as you don't hit a depot of fuel drums, not much can go wrong. Alfie and Ian Turner are there to receive the four drums of aviation fuel we have brought. A quick chat, then back to Rothera for more. We did that run three times during the day. It was about twelve hours in the air, off and on, with two pilots. Tiring but extremely enjoyable. The Dash Seven was delayed for a while in Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, due to bad weather. The first flight brought in Paul Rose the permanent Base Commander, and that signalled the end of my time as one of Keiron's Deputy Base Commanders. Still I enjoyed being a postman just as much.

Not every day can be spent being involved in aircraft operations, and soon it was my turn on gash and sensibly I emptied the bins early. We need to compact the plastic and paper waste and also shred all glass and tins. In the afternoon there was a 40 knot northerly gale with blowing snow. No fun for Antarctic bin men, another entry on my ever-expanding CV.

Rothera station has played host to three Canadian Twin Otter aircraft flying for the US Antarctic Program. They landed using wheels on our runway and then spent some time fitting skis instead. This involved me driving the Sno-cat for the day. They would fit hydraulically operated wheeled skis then fly up to the glacier above us and then send the skis down for the next aircraft. In the end two aircraft stay out on the glacier with skis and the third uses wheels and skis on the runway. I had a great time as appointed liaison officer for the Canadians. I spent the morning in wonderful hot sunshine up on the glacier, helping them fill up with fuel and then watch them fly off. First thing that morning I was in the radio room listening to the operator at the South Pole give his weather report. The Canadians are flying to McMurdo via the South Pole. Now I have had my first contact with the South Pole.

Later on three more Twin Otters landed. These were from Adventure Network International. It was busy in the Operations tower as we had our own aircraft on the radio as well. Great to meet new people and they did have Bananas!!! Incredible, it must be a year since I have had one, what a taste sensation. Their team stayed for a while, then two of them fly south to Patriot Hills, the base camp for Mt Vinson climbs and the other one goes, via Halley, to Queen Maud Land in support of a climbing expedition. It gave us the chance to send mail and some fish to our friends at Halley. They have been on dried meat for months now.

Now I am waiting for the arrival of the three scientists I will be working with this summer. Early in November I will be flying off to Alexander Island and camping for six weeks. We should be back on station for Christmas. So I will need to find somebody else to write a November diary. When the New Year arrives I will write and tell you how my field project went. I am very much looking forward to it.

The view south across the sea ice from Rothera Point to the islands is still fantastic and I have been on this station for very nearly a year now. Amazingly I still love that view. With the arrival of the aircraft and the start of the summer field season, its strange to think that I have just completed my first Antarctic winter. Not many people in the world get that experience. All in all it has been great.

Pete Milner

Pete Milner, Rothera station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica