[I N D E X]
As Pete Milner is currently in the field with BAS scientists, the task of writing this month's newsletter has fallen to me. Allow me to introduce myself - my name is David Molyneaux, the new over-wintering Communications Manager at Rothera Research Station.
My journey to Antarctica began one foggy morning in October. Together with six other BAS staff, we were due to fly the first leg of our journey to Antarctica from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, courtesy of the RAF Tristar air-bridge to the Falkland Islands. Our flight had already been delayed twelve hours from midnight on October 20, until midday on October 21, the first of many delays we would be encountering on the journey south.
My parents and I arrived late for check-in, leaving little time to sort out the extra items that had been brought by Rod Arnold, Rothera Field Operations Manager from BAS HQ, before our flight was called. The farewell to my parents and sister was over all too quickly, my Mum crying she hugged me goodbye. This would be the last time they would see me for two and a half years. I watched them leave with sadness as I walked through into the departure lounge. After they left I felt strangely detached from the world, alone. The realisation of the enormity of the adventure that lay before me and the distances involved was becoming all too real.
Brize Norton Tristars
We were airborne by 1 pm, destined for our refuelling stop at Ascension Island, in the mid-Atlantic. I was quite surprised by the RAF Tristar, as it was much like any commercial carrier, complete with cabin crew service, although admittedly the cabin crew all wore RAF flightsuits. There was also several inches more legroom, although the aircraft was starting to show its age with reading lights which either refused to work, or flickered on and off during takeoff and landing like some strange airborne disco.
We arrived at Ascension Island in the dark some eight hours later and were herded off the aircraft and into a fenced compound. We were then told that there would be an additional three-hour delay on top of the one and a half hours refuelling time, as the crew for the next leg required an additional rest period. We all sat at picnic tables in the cool evening breeze and waited. There was coffee on offer, but no sign of tea, and all the cold beer was sold out from a small shop within the first half hour after landing.
After waiting, with nothing to do but have our passports stamped and watch endless re- runs of American sitcoms on the TV inside the small departure lounge, food was provided in the form of hot pies. When we had finished the pies we were all eager to re-board the aircraft for the final leg. However, just as we were walking beyond the halfway point across the apron we were recalled, as there was bad weather at Mount Pleasant Airport (MPA), our destination in the Falkland Islands.
The initial word was that it would be a short delay, but about an hour later we were informed over the tannoy that we would now have a fourteen hour delay, as our diversion airfield at Montevideo in South America was also closing due to bad weather. It turns out that Tristar 'stop-overs' are not uncommon here, and there is an accommodation complex nicknamed 'bunk bed city' ready to accommodate us just a short drive away.
Ascension Island's volcanic landscape as seen from Bunkbed city
I slept a fitful sleep that night, waking occasionally to the sound of rain on the tin roof. Morning brought a cloudy but warm day, and Terry O'Donovan one of the Rothera Field General Assistants suggested that Michael Wallman the summer chef and I might like to go for a walk up Green Mountain. The mountain is the only real 'lush' area on the island, with the rest being much like a volcanic wasteland with patches of scrub and thorny bushes. Walking up the mountain was tiring in the heat, and we got just over half way before deciding to return so as not to miss the last bus back to the airport.
The author half way up Green Mountain
We were airborne again in no time, and eight hours later were descending over East Falkland to MPA, the RAF's base of operations in the Falkland Islands. The RAF traditionally send Tornado jets to escort the Tristar the last few miles from Stanley to MPA in a wing-abreast formation, one on each wingtip; an amazing sight I'm told. However, due to the delays we were landing at the pilot's dinner time, which meant no escort.
First glimpse of the Falkland Islands
After landing and disembarking at MPA we were all given a landmine status briefing. There are about 120 minefields remaining from the 1982 conflict, mainly around the population centers at Stanley, Goose Green and Darwin. All the minefields are carefully marked, and the Army provides free maps detailing the locations around Stanley for those out hiking. Some of these minefields even extend into the sea, or near rivers, so it is still possible for mines to be carried large distances from the original minefield.
Minefield warning notice
As we drove the last few miles back to Stanley I watched the sunset, and it struck me that the Falklands looked very familiar much like the windswept peaty moorland a short drive from my parent's home in north-east Manchester. There also appear to be no native trees or shrubs, just miles of tussock grassland with the odd grazing sheep here and there.
On reaching Stanley, we discovered that Terry, Michael and I were staying at the Upland Goose hotel on the waterfront, while Will Lang (Met Office Forecaster), Paul Woodroffe (Electronics Engineer), Paul Rose (Rothera Base Commander) and Rod were in one of the Falkland Island Company's bungalows just behind. After grabbing our bags from the back of the bus, we entered the warm, well-lit hotel for food and drink, before falling asleep to the sound of water gently lapping at the waterfront.
The Upland Goose
Victory Green (Jeremy Robst)
Terry, Mike, Will, both Pauls and Rod were all due to fly to Rothera on the first flight South of the BAS owned de-Havilland Dash-7 aircraft, but the Dash-7 was not due to arrive until late the next afternoon, so after a long lie-in, Terry, Mike and I walked east, past Stanley Airport to Surf Bay, a beautiful beach with white sand and amazing surf, which is only spoiled by the minefield that borders the dunes to the west.
The author in front of a minefield
The following day the Dash-7 got the go-ahead with both good weather predictions from forecaster Will Lang and from Marsh, the Chilean Antarctic Station, our required diversion airfield located on King George Island off the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Dash was airborne by 10 am, but due to encountering unexpectedly strong southerly headwinds the aircraft was forced to turn back and return to Stanley.
Day after day the pattern was the same - arrive at Stanley airport at 08:30 local, get the current weather from both Marsh and Rothera together with their forecasts, and decide whether to fly. Unfortunately, throughout the week either the headwinds were too strong for the aircraft to get to Rothera, or Marsh were forecasting bad weather.
We filled our time by walking around the local mountains, many of which are well known from battles in the Falklands Conflict such as Tumbledown, Longdon and Wireless Ridge. There is still much of the paraphenailia associated with war lying around on the hillsides; empty billy cans and ammunition cases, rusting remnants of Argentinian soup kitchens and deactivated large bore artillery pieces. There are also many shell craters still scarring the landscape; small mortar craters on the mountain approaches interspersed with large craters from naval and aerial bombardments.
Rusting Artillery gun (Jeremy Robst)
It felt strange walking in a place that I heard so much about when I was only six years old. I have vivid memories of watching the daily news and being scared that my father would be called up to fight if the war escalated. The war happened almost twenty years ago, yet still has a large effect on everyday lives in the Falklands; the copious minefield signs and rusting remnants are merely the visible reminder of the war where psychological scars still run deep.
On Tuesday, while on the top of Mount Longdon, we were startled as two Tornado fighters suddenly shot past us down the valley, flying north-east over Stanley to join the next Tristar inbound with the next load of BAS people on-board. The fighters re- appeared shortly escorting the Tristar, flying what looked like only feet off the wingtips of the Tristar. An impressive sight must have been even more impressive to look out from the Tristar and see a Tornado only a few meters away with the brilliant sunlit mountainous panorama in the background.
War memorial on Mt Longdon
The new arrivals had already booked into the Upland Goose on our return, and were just sitting down to one of the regular sumptuous meals that the Upland Goose hotel famously provides. I am sure that by the time I flew south to Antarctica I had put on several pounds of weight, which was unfortunate as there was a total weight limit for myself and my baggage of 33lbs, so any weight I put on meant I had to leave a corresponding amount of baggage behind in Stanley. Luckily the baggage left in Stanley would follow in the not too distant future on RRS James Clark Ross, one of BAS's two Royal Research Ships that would be calling at Rothera around the start of December.
By the end of the week, having enjoyed several days exploring Stanley and the odd game of short tennis with Terry and Mike at the Sports Centre, I decided to walk to Gypsy Cove a local Magellanic penguin colony. The Magellanic penguins are just one of several species of penguin found in the Falkland Islands. There are also Rockhoppers, King and Gentoo, although they are the only species that live beneath ground in burrows.
Gypsy Cove Magellanic penguin (Jeremy Robst)
Seeing the penguins at Gypsy Cove was a magical experience for me personally. I knew I would be seeing many penguins in the Antarctic, but I had never before seen one in the flesh. Although there were only a dozen penguins, I sat down at the side of the cove with some of the other BAS new arrivals who had arrived just after me, and sure enough, heads soon popped out of the burrows on either side of the path as the penguins came to see what was happening. Either a seemingly very inquisitive species, or one with very bad eyesight, as most of the penguins I've seen since have also walked up to me to have a good look.
The walk back from Gypsy Cove is via the shore of Stanley Sound, and also takes in many of the wrecks of old working ships, many beached at the start of the last century as they were too costly to make seaworthy after sustaining damage at sea. Stanley was as that time a common place to aim for if a ship was damaged encountering one of the frequent and violent storms of the South Atlantic.
The Dash-7 finally made the first flight south on November 1 2000 - one and a half weeks later than planned! By this time there were almost 30 BAS staff in Stanley, distributed amongst the various FIC bungalows and the Upland Goose. With the arrival of Tristars twice a week, the numbers had quickly spiralled. Our plight was also the subject of regular Falkland Islands Radio news items, and we even featured in an article in the local 'Penguin News' newspaper, with the headline 'BAS Stranded in Stanley'.
Stanley Cathedral with blue whale jawbones from the whaling days in the 1930s
Being on standby for the Dash-7 flight south for over a week is quite tiring. You are required to be up, fed, packed and ready for departure everyday by 08:30, with the caveat that you could be picked up within 10 minutes after the go/no-go decision is made. This means that although you may unpack some things if the weather forecast is bad for the next few days, most of your personal effects must remain packed with some kit bags already loaded on the Aircraft ready for departure.
Biding our time in the Upland Goose
The Dash-7 returned north to Stanley within the next few days, to await weather good enough for the second flight south. It was yet another week before I would be completing my 10,000 mile journey to Antarctica. By the end of the second week at the Upland Goose, I think I had just about had every item on the menu and probably increased my weight by a few stone in the process!
The day we flew south was marked by the fact that we had pre-booked with a local Stanley company, Hebe Tours, for them to provide transport that day to the King, Magellanic and Rockhopper penguin colonies at Volunteer Point. Unfortunately we never got the chance to see the penguins - something for the way back in two and a half years time perhaps .
Our time to fly had arrived. I had been feeling frustrated by the wait in Stanley, but was now feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension. This was it. There was no turning back now. Two and a half years.
The Dash-7 loading cargo in preparation to fly South to Rothera
The Dash-7 was airborne by 10 am, climbing gently for marvellous views of the mountains and over Stanley for our last glimpse of civilization.
Stanley from the Air!
The flight to Rothera took around five hours, although the last two hours passed quickly as we all peered out of the windows to see the islands and peaks of the Antarctic Peninsula poking through the clouds. I was also lucky to get the jump seat in the cockpit for the landing at Rothera, which is a small seat just in front of the cockpit door affording a pilot's eye view of the landing.
The peaks of Adelaide Island, with Rothera at the Southern end of the Island
We flew overhead Rothera while descending through the cloud to around two thousand feet, then turned back for a visual approach. When we could see the runway, we flew a circuit around the base - flying parallel then turning round beyond the end of the runway meanwhile performing what felt like an amazingly steep dive to descend the final hundreds of feet for a perfect landing.
Final Approach to Rothera Base with the main buildings on the left and the hanger on the right
After taxiing to a stop outside the hangar, we were instructed to take only our hand luggage and disembark to walk to the main building. It was something of a shock to suddenly have come from sunny and relatively warm Falkland Islands into the cloudy, isolated and cold wilderness of Antarctica. It was all too much to take in I'd seen photos of the base, but nothing prepared me for the reality.
We were marched in a group over to the main building, led by Paul Rose the Base Commander who had arrived on the first Dash flight. We paused only briefly as Paul pointed out various buildings, the names of which meant little to me as yet. On arrival at the main building, soon to be renamed Bransfield House, we shed out outer layers, leaving our outdoor coats and boots in the aptly named 'boot room'. Paul explained that the first night was now our own, but that we would begin the training bright and early in the morning.
My assigned bunk room was in the main building, so after rescuing my kit bags from the gym I headed off to find my room. The current "pitrooms" sleep up to four people in a rather confined space. The metal-framed bunkbeds and wardrobes also mean you cannot easily get out of bed and dress without disturbing the other occupants; quite a challenge when you have to be up before 7 am. I was assigned to share a room with Ian Turner, the current generator mechanic, and Tim Blakemore, one of the Field General Assistants who would arrive on a later Dash flight.
The toilet and washing facilities are similarly shared, with only one shower upstairs and another two communal showers downstairs meaning queues at the height of summer when there are potentially over 100 people on base. When the new accommodation block is finished in February 2001, thankfully, the new rooms will have only two bunks and an en-suite bathroom. As winterers, we should also be able to spread out over winter, as there will be enough rooms in the new block to have exactly two each.
Main Building and Ops Tower, with phase 3 to the left, and new accommodation block to far left
After dropping bags into my pitroom I went in search of Ian Parsons, the current wintering Communications Manager and my counterpart here at Rothera. The Operations Tower is a new addition at Rothera, the main shell was erected last summer, with the internal fittings completed overwinter. The tower stands some 11 metres high, and has a commanding view of the entire base. If seen from a distance the tower conjures up images of the base as a prison camp. One half expects there to be guards patrolling the walkway on the lookout for escaping winterers.
The view from the Operations Tower over the base surroundings is, simply put, stunning. When we first arrived the sea was still frozen over, so the landscape was white to the horizon, broken only by the rocky escarpments of the towering peaks in the distance.
View out of the front door over Ryder Bay, with Leonie island in the center in front of the cloud bank and lagoon to the left
Because the Antarctic air is so free of dust and pollutants, it is not uncommon to be able to see hundreds of miles. Combined with a lack of anything to compare with for a scale creates an optical illusion of mountains that look deceptively small. It's not until you see a plane such as the BAS Dash-7 as a small dot in the distance flying next to the towering mountains that you start to appreciate the scale. The local islands of Lagoon and Leonie also appear very close, so close that you could almost stroll out over the sea ice and arrive in an hour or two on the shores of the islands for a picnic lunch. In reality the islands are over 5 km away, and take a good 30 minutes to reach in a boat through open water.
Base Training began the next morning with a tour and an introduction to the various domestic base jobs we all have to take turns at. These include Sunday cook, gash (waste management and cleaning days) and communal scrub-out where everyone cleans part of the base. This was followed by a series of training sessions covering such topics as the base vehicles, radios, meteorological observations and the base medical facilities.
I particularly enjoyed the Skidoo driving in the vehicles session, but was surprised how unstable they felt when driving over the bumps on the ramp up to the old aircraft skiway opposite the station. The precarious riding position kneeling on the seat and their speed (over 50 mph downhill possible) sometimes make you feel as though you are about to be thrown off the skidoo even over small undulations! However, there are two 'doos for general use, so I'm sure that with plenty of practice my confidence will grow.
We next faced three days of field training to reinforce some of the skills learned on the course in the UK, and also to practice some skills such as ice axe arrests that can only be done in the snow. We also had the opportunity to spend a night up on the skiway in one of the BAS pyramid tents. This design of tent that has been used right from the start of Antarctic exploration 100 years ago. It is a design that is very well suited to the rigours of Antarctic weather and especially the high winds frequently encountered.
Camping in the pyramid tent was actually quite warm - on top of the groundsheet there is a foam mat, followed by a self-inflating thermarest camp mat, followed by a sheepskin rug, then an arctic grade sleeping bag around which is a thick cotton bag to protect the sleeping bag from fire. Inside the sleeping bag you can also put a wool bag to increase insulation and a cotton liner to keep the bag clean. Inside all this it is rather cosy, although while we were camping the minimum temperature was only around minus 10 C at night; apparently they are not quite as comfortable at minus 30 C.
Our BAS pyramid tent with the snowcat and Reptile Ridge in the background
It was a memorable evening camping; my second night in Antarctica was spent in a tent miles from Rothera with breathtaking views over the iced-over Laubeuf Fjord across to the mountains of the Arrowsmith Peninsula, part of the Antarctic mainland and down to the amusingly named Pourqoui Pas Island. The sky was also wonderfully clear; an azure blue with a pink and orange glow suffusing the mountains in the distance as the sun dipped below Reptile Ridge. I stood looking at the full moon hanging imperceptibly over the mountains to the northeast for several minutes, listening to the sound of nothing. It was quiet like I have never before encountered; a total absence of background noise.
Following the night camping, we started two very enjoyable days of 'jingly-janglies' so called because of the clinking sound you make walking when wearing the climbing harness with all the ice screws and climbing equipment.
The author carrying jingly-janglies on a base skidoo
Jingly-janglies built on the skills taught on the field course back in England, consisting of basic rope and snow/ice work designed to help you protect yourself and others. We practiced walking roped-up with someone else in an alpine pair, ice axe arrests for stopping when we fall down snow slopes, crevasse rescue, snow and ice anchors, use of ice screws and rock pegs, plus the correct use of crampons and ice axes.
The crevasse rescue was enormous fun as we had to jump down a windscoop several times, simulating falling into a crevasse; admittedly one with relatively gentle sloping sides. The other person in the alpine pair then had to use their ice axe to help brake the fall, place one of the many types of snow or ice anchors then transfer the fallen persons weight onto the anchor. The person who fell into the crevasse could then climb out, or if the victim was unconscious or unable to climb out unaided, a Z-pulley system could be constructed from the jingly-jangles to winch the casualty up.
Saturday Evening Barbeque
We arrived back on base after the crevasse rescue training to a Saturday night evening meal. Saturday evenings are special, and almost everyone makes a special effort to be more formal by wearing shirts instead of T-shirts and jeans. That night we had a slightly less formal barbeque, but the next Saturday we had an Indian meal, with subdued lighting, candles and tablecloths for that indian restaurant feel. The people on 'gash' also provided a waiter service, so the illusion was almost complete, except when you looked at the amazing view outside the window.
Base Commander Paul Rose and Station Support Manager Dave Ganiford on St Helena Night.
The domestic staff and the summer chef treat the base to authentic St. Helenian food
Saturday nights have been by far the most enjoyable nights so far. It's interesting that traditions from home continue to such an extent down here. I guess it is because people want to feel as though they are still a functioning part of normal everyday society, not removed by thousands of miles. The copies of magazines around base further go to increase this illusion - there are Men's magazines such as FHM, car magazines, Cosmo and Marie Claire for the women (and men!) and amateur photography magazines. The only thing that isn't available like in the UK is a proper daily newspaper. Instead, every day we receive a four page electronic newspaper containing a news summary, which is printed out and available for everyone to read.
Domestic life is generally quite civilised. We have official tea breaks or "smoko" as they are called here, and all food, clothing and accommodation is provided. However, we do have to take turns on 'gash' (cleaning the communal areas) and clearing the rubbish - which is no mean feat when you are clearing up after over 80 people in the height of summer.
Will Lang, the Met forecaster on Gash
Given the limited resources and infrequent resupply, the food is generally good. Since arriving I am also finding that I will eat almost anything, even food I would not normally eat in the UK, as I am usually quite hungry by meal times. We also have 'smoko' at around 10:30 and 16:30 weekdays which comprises a cooked breakfast in the mornings and a coffee & biscuits type snack in the afternoons. It is also a good opportunity to talk to people, when they may otherwise be working on the other side of the base.
Strangely, another benefit of Antarctic life is free chocolate! Snacks and chocolate are available throughout the day, and when out in a field party you are actually expected to eat one full bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk per day to consume the increased number of calories required for working in cold conditions.
Manfood boxes eaten by field parties provide a 10 day balanced diet for two people
I was quite amazed by the amount of wildlife around Rothera. When we first arrived there were only seals basking in the sun on the sea ice in the distance, but as it got warmer more and more life appeared. George and Mildred the base skuas returned at the start of the month, a solitary emperor penguin appeared over the ice in North Cove, stood around for an afternoon then headed back the way it came, then towards the end of the month there were snow petrels, Antarctic terns and penguins galore as the sea ice started to break up.
Unfortunately the wildlife can also be a hindrance to base operations as stubborn Weddell seals often refuse to move off the runway even when Gary, one of the Dash-7 aircraft mechanics try to encourage them with a long stick.
Weddell seal sleeping on the runway
Adelie pengiuns admiring the sunset
After completing all the base and field training, I still had to be trained for the real reason I was in Antarctica; work. I had enjoyed many weeks of training while in the UK for various aspects of the job as a Communications Manager, achieving many varied qualifications that I would ordinarily not otherwise have even thought about
I am now a qualified advanced first-aider, ship-board radio operator, a Civil Aviation Authority accredited Airfield Air/Ground radio operator, qualified for mast-climbing and maintenance, a Novell Netware operating system administrator and have learned how to observe and record the weather during a very enjoyable week in Cornwall.
Mast climbing and rescue course in Taunton
Cathy, one of the Halley Base Meteorological Officers rescuing a simulated casualty on the mast climbing and rescue course
To complete my training, I spent a week shadowing Ian the current Communications Manager, gradually becoming 'hands-on' with the radios, talking to the BAS aircraft and collecting meteorological data from other bases around the Antarctic Peninsula. By the second week I was talking to the four Twin Otter aircraft, the Dash-7 and Fossil Bluff, a summer only BAS station that was passing weather. Initially I found this extremely stressful, as I did not then know what to expect from the next call I would receive from the aircraft. As my confidence and experience grew over the next few weeks, the apparent workload decreased to a point where I was quite happily dealing with all the aircraft, several other bases passing weather and talking to Marsh and Stanley if the Dash-7 was flying.
Dash-7 flying to Sky Blu, a blue ice runway south of Rothera
The job definitely requires early mornings and long hours; a typical day starts at 07:25 when field parties and other BAS stations pass us weather information. After an Operations and Weather Forecasting Briefing for the pilots at 07:45 we then start flight following the Twin Otter aircraft and the Dash-7 on takeoff. The flight following lasts until all aircraft have finished flying for the day, and can occasionally continue until well into the early hours of the morning.
The author in the Ops Tower at midnight
In the evenings we also have radio communications "scheds" with the field parties, where we talk via HF radio about their days' activities and future intentions. We also pass them any e-mail messages that they have received and send any short messages they want to dictate over the radio. This is the only daily contact field parties have with Rothera and the 'outside world', so we try to keep them reasonably sane with an informal chat about things that are happening on base and any gossip we have heard!
Due to the high overall workload over the summer season at Rothera, BAS also employs two Army Royal Signals radio operators. This year with David Walker and Ian Fisher confusion reigned, as our whole communications team was either called David or Ian! We therefore quickly got into the habit of calling Ian Fisher 'Fish' and Dave Walker 'Chips', with Ian Parsons known as 'Parsnips' and myself as mushy peas.
Although the Twin Otter aircraft are rated for single pilot operations, the BAS operating procedure requires two crew members on board when they are flying. Co-piloting is generally very enjoyable, as it allows scientists and support staff, who would not otherwise leave the base, to see other areas of Antarctica.
Towards the end of November I was chosen to co-pilot a flight inserting Sledge Delta field party into Mars Oasis on Alexander Island to the south of Rothera. Lez Kitson would be my pilot with Blair Lawley, Terry O'Donovan and Sledge Deltas's tents and sledge onboard. We few south in convoy with a second Otter piloted by Giles Wilson carrying the remaining two personnel and cargo for Sledge Delta.
Our first port of call was Fossil Bluff, a BAS summer-only station and refeulling stop for the Twin Otters some 90 minutes south of Rothera. The British Graham Land Expedition first named Fossil Bluff as Fossil Camp in 1936 as the first fossils on Alexander Island were found embedded in the cliffs there. It was subsequently renamed as Fossil Bluff in 1948 on a resurvey by the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (FIDS), the organization that subsequently evolved into the modern day BAS.
Approach to Fossil Bluff Skiway, with George VI Sound to the right
Following the refueling operation from drums of Aviation fuel (Avtur) that had been left by previous flights, we continued south for another half hour to the Mars Oasis field party site. As we flew south, the white, snow covered George VI Sound Ice Shelf stretched for miles to our left between Alexander Island and the peaks of the Antarctic mainland in the distance.
VP-FAZ On the ground at Mars Oasis with (Left to Right) Terry, Lez and Paul Geissler
Landing on snow covered terrain is a tricky business when you don't know what hidden dangers, such as crevasses and rocks, lie beneath the snow. Lez therefore set the aircraft down lightly to trail its skis over the ground while keeping the engine near full throttle. He then pulled back on the yoke to become airborne again and circled back to check that no crevasses had opened along the line of the initial landing. It looked safe, so we returned for a landing along the same line.
The author at Mars Oasis with George VI Sound in the background
After offloading the Sledge Delta sledge and tent, Giles returned to Rothera while we returned to Fossil Bluff to pick up two Ski-doos. On return to the Sledge Delta site we offloaded the Ski-doos and said goodbye to Terry, Charlie, Blair and Paul; we were the last faces from Rothera they would see for at least a month. It was a beautiful site, and I definitely wouldn't have minded staying there with its great views out over George VI Sound and the peaks along the coast of Alexander Island.
At the end of the month I was again co-piloting, except this flight was to Palmer Station; an American research station on Anvers Island north of Rothera. There was a requirement to depot aircraft fuel for an upcoming Sledge Foxtrot aerial photography project, and as I talk to Palmer every day when collecting meteorological data, I was selected to co-pilot.
The author at Palmer
The flight was about 90 minutes long, initially flying on instruments through the cloud, but it became sunny around our destination and for the return flight. Their base was a lot smaller than Rothera, with no aircraft of its own and only 33 people on the base until the Lawrence M Gould resupply ship arrives. However, being at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula they get a lot of tourist ships; the British summer-only post office and shop at Port Lockroy is also just around the coast, about 15 minutes flying time away.
I felt really privileged to have reached Palmer station; not many people have the opportunity to see life on another base. The base was quite amazing inside, as it had been refurbished within the last few years. It had luxuries such as a large gym, ten large sofas in a Cinema room, a bar with a huge red felt pool table and an enormous (3ft square) popcorn machine!
We flew back via the Lemaire Channel with its towering cliffs either side rising up from the water and circled Vernadsky (formerly the British Faraday base, handed to the Ukranians in 1995).
When we arrived at Rothera on the Dash-7 and first glimpsed Rothera through the cloud there was no open water, only sea ice; a vast white plain, broken only by the occasional jagged protrusion of icebergs. I was very surprised to see the base, floating, like a small rocky island in a sea of white. In all the photographs I had seen previously there was only the occasional iceberg in an otherwise blue ocean surrounding the point on which Rothera resides.
Since arriving we have had warm weather; above freezing almost every day, with little wind most days. This has melted much of the snow on the base and thinned the sea ice so much that by the last week of November the dive team stopped diving through the holes they had cut into the ice as it was deemed unsafe and likely to break up any time. It seemed strange to me that Antarctica gets so warm, but I remind myself that it gets much colder in the winter as I walk around outside in shorts and T-shirt.
We are due a visit from one of the BAS resupply ships - RRS James Clark Ross at the start of December, which is carrying the remainder of the wintering staff, all the winterers' personal effects and much needed cargo such as fresh food supplies. RRS James Clark Ross is an ice strengthened vessel that can break through ice up to 1 metre thick at a speed of two knots, although it didn't look as though this statistic would be tested this year, as surprisingly, right at the end of December, a lead of open water suddenly opened in the sea ice near the southern threshold of the runway. This was followed some days later by a gradual movement of ice away from the southern end of Rothera Point and the wharf.
We now wait the arrival of the the vessel with anticipation. Their estimated arrival date December 4, but if ice conditions are favourable they could arrive as early as Saturday December 2.
The first lead of open water
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