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Rothera diary: December 2000

written by Pete Milner

Sledge Charlie and How I Retired to Bluebell Cottage

Hi Everyone,

Often people ask me what is it that I miss living in the Antarctic. If pushed to answer then it would probably be 'BBC Radio Four'. When I worked in a factory one of the main pleasures was to have a rare day out on business, and then be able to listen to the car radio with the play on 'Radio Four' in the afternoon. Down here we are able to receive the BBC World Service which is great for special occasions. I travel around the Antarctic with a red box containing a high frequency radio set designed to keep me in touch with the operations team at Rothera station.

The first thing we do when setting up camp is to check the radio communications with Rothera. Once this has been established the aircraft are free to leave us in the middle of nowhere. We all have call signs so that the operations team can tell who they are talking too. This season my call sign was 'Sledge Charlie'. Dom Hodgson, Pip Noon, Mike Bentley and I were off to Moutonnée Lake as soon as the weather would allow. In the later part of the Antarctic winter I had prepared all the outdoor gear we would need and with the arrival of the science team we were ready to go.

Moutonee Lake, Alexander Island.  Click on image to enlarge Our first site was a small valley on the north-east corner of Alexander Island. There was a large pile of scientific equipment to be delivered and I needed to consider how best it should be done. Our plan was to reconnoitre the area by landing an aircraft on George VI Ice Shelf then walk into the area. George VI Ice Shelf is a large area of glacier ice covering a deep sea passage (George VI Sound) lying between Alexander Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, discovered in the 1930's by the British Graham Land Expedition. David Leatherdale was flying the aircraft, call sign 'Bravo Lima', with Dom, Hugh Brown (as co-pilot) and myself. A straightforward landing left us with just a kilometre or two to walk. We roped up, which is always a good idea when exploring unknown ground, and I led a route through the pressure ridges into the valley.

Pressure ridges are formed when the ice shelf ice is forced against the land and a chaotic area of ridges, cracks, melt pools and hollows results. It took us a little time to negotiate our way through this weird ice landscape, before arriving on the moraine banks beyond. Originally our idea was to check out the thickness of the ice surface of the frozen lake we had come to study. However it became apparent to David that he could land the aircraft on a gravel bank beside the lake shore. Giles Wilson had now arrived in another aircraft with some more of our gear. In total we had three plane-loads of kit which were now ferried onto the gravel strip. Les Kitson was piloting the third plane to arrive. So once we had unloaded and I had tested the radio communications with Rothera, the air unit left us alone.

This is always a special moment, even though I have experienced it several times before, both here and in Alaska, it still impresses me. Stood by your recently erected tent, looking over a wonderful landscape of ice and mountains, you watch the aircraft (your lifeline to the outside world) taking off and heading home. There is a special kind of silence produced by the total lack of human habitation. The aircraft engine noise recedes and is replaced by the sound of the weather. No one speaks, it is too awesome a moment, our team is alone. It is tempting to think that other than ourselves and our gear there is nothing here. That would be very wrong, we have climate, our life here is controlled by the weather, but in addition we have landscape.

There is work to be done so we quietly get on with securing our camp and after that the first cup of tea in our new home. I do not have an address, no point, the maps are not accurate enough to allow a grid reference to make sense, so we work in longitude and latitude. I now live at:   70° 51.85' South;   068° 21.53' West.   Sledge Charlie is in business!

Each evening there is a radio conversation between the field parties and Rothera station. We report that we are safe and well, our location, the activities of the day and our intentions for the following day. So what are our intentions, why are we here? I have a great job; I can learn as much of the science as I like and not have to write papers or pass exams afterwards. Our aim is to drill through the surface of a frozen lake and sample the silt on the bed of the lake. This material has remained untouched for decades and will provide a record of change in this environment. At this point in the game I am not totally convinced that it's a good idea to be standing around on the surface of frozen water. The first test hole we drill puts my mind at rest, the ice is nearly two metres thick. Strong enough to support a lot of weight, so I could have had that extra portion of Keith's chocolate pudding. Mike and I drilled about fifteen holes in a line across the lake. Pip and Dom followed behind measuring the water depth and recording the lake profile. My new place of work is supported by two metres of ice above fifty metres of fresh water, beats working in a factory that's for sure, and the view is better.

The rig for taking core samples of sediment takes some setting up, but soon we have a routine and several days are spent lifting samples from beneath the lake. One day Mike and I climb up onto the mountain ridge to the south of our camp. I still find it odd to consider that sort of day out as work; it soon feels like it though as I carry my share of Mike's rock samples around. He is studying the geology of the area. Unfortunately we had a cloudy day for our climb onto Ganymede Heights but the view was worth it. You could see new glaciers and also down to our tiny camp which appears as an orange dot in the valley below. Also during the day we could see a small red Twin Otter aircraft flying across the lake ice below.

Contents of a BAS field camp food box. Click on image to enlarge It had taken us two and a half hours to walk up the glacier to the ridge but a little less than that to come down. On our return to camp it was a nice surprise to find that the aircraft had air-dropped the mail. This has to be most complex and the most appreciated postal service in the world. Particularly impressive given my lack of address or post code. We had been warned about the possibility of an air-drop so I was pleased to discover my suggestion that the bag should be weighed down with a thick chocolate cake was taken seriously. Letters are not heavy so you need something to prevent the bag blowing away. Chocolate cake makes a welcome change from meals prepared from field ration boxes. Wonderful feeling after a hard day on the hills to be able to relax in your sleeping bag with tea and the post. There were some letters from home for me, a Christmas present all the way from Pembrokeshire, and a surprise letter from one of the readers of this diary.

We continued with the science programme on the lake and also completed a survey of the local area. The time had come to think about the next site. Just to the north is Ablation Valley, similar geography but slightly larger. It has been a long time since anybody has been prepared to land in this area so we decided to spend a day walking around to check out the site. A pleasant walk along the edge of George VI Sound passing under the cliffs and above the icy melt pools. Where there is water flowing, life in the form of lichens and mosses soon starts to grow. Only in very isolated spots, but it is refreshing to see the colour green again.

We found one of the old campsites that must have been used in the late 1970's. Dom and Mike had carried the ice drill with them and a few test holes proved that the ice was a uniform two and a half metres thick. Quite enough to land an aircraft beside the line of flags we put out. Pip and I found a route through the pressure ridges from the lake ice to a pleasant campsite. On the radio that night we could inform Rothera that the situation for our move to Ablation Valley looked good.

The science program at Moutonnée Lake was finished but a couple of days of poor weather held things up. We had clouds, poor visibility and northerly winds. Nothing else to do but stay in and read a good book. One of these afternoons I happened to climb out of the tent to have a look around and check that everything was still secure. Imagine my surprise when I saw two little Adélie penguins walking up to inspect our tents. Quite incredible, they must be over one hundred kilometres away from the sea and they must have crossed some big pressure ridges and crevassed areas to find us. It looked like they were searching for a nest site, although after considerable fuss and waddling about it appears that our camp is not up to their requirements. We did tell them they would be better off finding somewhere nearer the sea. The penguin has been described as the world's most confused bird and they certainly don't take any notice of anything I say to them.

Ablation Valley. Click on image to enlarge Soon enough our enforced rest was over and the aircraft could fly. Chum the chief pilot arrived and moved us north to land directly on the lake ice at Ablation Valley. Another first, I have not been in an aircraft landing on a lake before. Fortunately he also brought some more post; it does feel like I have no fixed abode at the moment. So my orange tent is now pitched on rock and gravel and my post code is:   70° 49.20' South;   068° 28.81' West

The excitement of the move over, it is time to get back to work. Similar routine now, we drill holes across the lake and decide which one to do the sediment sampling from. It's a team effort to pull heavy cores of mud from about fifty metres down but after that I spend a day helping Mike on his survey work. Not as exciting as it sounds, I get to wander around the place holding a pole while Mike fires a laser at it. My office is the largest lake on the Antarctic Peninsula so I'm happy whatever we do. As the science programme winds up on the lake, we all head up onto the mountain ridges to help Mike look for his rock samples and help to carry them down. Himalaya Ridge proves to be very sharp and provides a great view down the steep sides.

Similarly to the situation in the first valley, we have some poor weather to sit out before we can be picked up by the aircraft. We have five possible sites now to look at and an air reconnaissance is called for. Dave Leatherdale and 'Bravo Lima' return and we fly off to examine Gadarene Lake, Cannonball Lake, Citadel Lake, Secret Lake and Flatiron Lake. Dave does a good tourist flight and its exciting to turn and bank low over the frozen lakes, then head back home for tea. Mike Wallman was the co-pilot that day, he is down south cooking for us during the summer, I don't think it was quite what he had expected to be doing when he signed up to be a chef.

It was decided that two of the lakes will be worth examining closely, Citadel and Cannonball. Chatting with the operations team on the radio it appears that my days as an Antarctic vagrant are nearly over, and soon I can retire to a proper address. On a potential flying day I have to be up and about at 07:20 in the morning to do an official weather observation and radio that back to Rothera. Based on my information and that of other field teams in the area, a decision is made whether or not to deploy the aircraft. It's a responsible task. We have strong gusting winds so things are held up for a while and I do hourly weather reports, but eventually Geoff Porter flies in with Keith Walker to move me on. I have friends who have been moved on by the police, and I have to say that the British Antarctic Survey Air Unit do a much better job.

Fossil Bluff aka Bluebell Cottage. Click on image to enlarge Everything we own is carried out, leaving nothing but footprints. This area may be visited next year but for now it is back to a more frequently visited spot. We are due to spend the next few days staying in the hut at Fossil Bluff. During my first summer down south I worked at this hut for ten days in the company of George Fell. He is there again to welcome us and fill the aircraft with fuel. Chris Burrows is also in residence and he helps us move our personal gear into the hut. It feels great to have a table to eat off and chairs to sit on plus room to move around indoors. This is a lovely spot and it is pleasant to stand out on the veranda of Bluebell Cottage, as it's called, looking out at the view across the Sound. I'm sorry but you must now amend your address books again to:   Pete Milner, Bluebell Cottage (also known as Fossil Bluff, or KG), Alexander Island, Antarctica. A much more up-market and exclusive address I'm sure you will agree. Personally I would never swap this for even the most expensive penthouse apartment in Chelsea.

Good weather on the following day means Geoff and Keith can fly us further south to Cannonball Lake. Landing again on George VI Sound it is a simple walk to move our kit onto the lake and start drilling. Surprisingly this small lake has one and a half metre thick ice over nearly six metres of fresh water. It is extremely unlikely that anyone has ever set foot on this lake before; we are the first people here. We take about six hours to complete the sampling and then we pull our sledges back to the plane. Fortunately we have taken the lightweight equipment this time, but I still end up pulling a sledge weighing 190 pounds uphill. There are no skidoos on this project so kit is moved by aircraft then man-hauled on sledges to the right spot. The Twin Otter now has to return to Rothera to have one of its regular service inspections. Good news, firstly to know that we have the best maintained aircraft possible and secondly that we have a full day to ourselves at Fossil Bluff.

A sunny day means that we can go out for a walk in the local area. Chris has flown north with Geoff which means Keith can stay in the hut for awhile. It's actually nice to have an afternoon walk which is not driven by a sampling programme. Part of the day was also spent sorting out equipment into loads to be flown north. Fossil Bluff routine is decided by the weather. Early morning reports get George out of his sleeping bag on the veranda, he always sleeps outside. Then, depending on the plan, various weather reports need doing and perhaps the refuelling of a plane heading further south. Doug Pearson appears on the next plane with Felicity Aston. She is one of the new wintering team and we first meet on a snowy skiway in Antarctica. Sledge Charlie are now off to complete the final task of our project, Citadel Lake.

Before we arrive there, we need to go much further south to visit 'Sledge Kilo'; Crispin Day, Hugh Corr and Adrian Jenkins. Without GPS. navigation systems it would be virtually impossible to find their camp. It is a very small dot on a huge, white, flat expanse of snow. Landing by an orange tent, I realise that here, there really is nothing. Not even landscape, just weather. Smiling faces, handshakes and gossip exchanged, they are pleased to see another team and we are pleased to be able to visit them. It feels like we are two tribes of nomads meeting in a desert, which in a way is exactly what we are.

All too soon we must be away to get on with our project, but Doug cannot resist buzzing their camp as we leave. We circle around Citadel Lake for a while, then land to trail skis prior to taking off again. This tests and marks the surface to make the landing safer. Doug gets us to just the right spot and we only have to unload the plane and start drilling. Reassuring to find that we are again on two and a half metre thick ice. This time it's only three to four hours of work before we are finished and it's time to return to Fossil Bluff. Our gear is then unloaded and Doug sets off for 'Sledge Delta', Terry O'Donovan and Mairi Nicolson. These two have kindly stayed out camping after their project had finished, to provide weather observations for us. Doug now picks them up and returns to Fossil Bluff. I had spoken to Marie on the radio one night, but we had not met face to face. On the snow beside a red Twin Otter aircraft we shook hands and introduced ourselves; we are both wintering.

The RRS James Clark Ross arrives at Rothera. Click on image to enlarge A swift re-packing of the cargo and every one except Terry climbs aboard the aircraft, and we set off home to Rothera. Felicity and George stay to run Fossil Bluff. It is nice to come home to a hot shower and clean sheets in my pit room, but it is actually a bit of a shock. Since I have been out in the field our supply ship RRS James Clark Ross has called, several Dash-7 aircraft flights have happened, and the station is full of people I don't know. They treat me as a stranger; that is a very odd feeling considering that I have lived here for more that a year. Some people say "Hi Pete, did you have a good time", but mostly they are busy with their own work. I often find it an anti-climax when you return from expedition, we have been living a totally separate life and now it's hard to reconnect with reality again. Personally I have a whole new wintering team to get to know.

Work carries on, as there is now a small mountain of outdoor gear to service. My Christmas present has been carried back north unopened. We have just managed to return to Rothera station in time for Christmas. Sledge Charlie is a short project in comparison to some of the outdoor team who will be spending up to three months out in the field. Another Christmas present awaits me with a Devon post mark. Last summer I was in the field for the Christmas festivities, so I am looking forward to the party. I also take the opportunity to chat, on the evening radio calls, with friends who will be out in their tents this Christmas.

Christmas tree at Rothera! Click on image to enlarge Christmas Eve is spent in the bar and so traditionally Christmas morning is a quiet affair. Several people had decided to sleep in the caboose for Christmas Eve and wake up on Christmas morning in the snow. Dave Molyneaux has taken the classic White Christmas photo featuring Chris Burrows and the only tree I have seen for the past year and a bit. I joined some others opening presents, thank you all so much for taking the trouble to think of me. One parcel contained a book called "The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook". Hope I don't need to use it.

Christmas dinner at Rothera. Click on image to enlarge The chefs Keith and Mike put on a great traditional spread and I personally ate too much and I'm sure most people did as well. On Boxing Day I helped set up some ice climbing practice. Behind the aircraft hangar there are some safe ice cliffs, down which we dropped a rope and several people took the opportunity to try out vertical ice climbing.

Christmas in the Antarctic does not really feel like Christmas to me. It is warm (for us) and sunny round the clock. You can climb ice on Boxing Day watched by some inquisitive penguins and a couple of sleeping seals, with the sea lapping against the shore just a few yards away. It's a five minute walk from the dining room. Others went skiing, we had a white Christmas and a fun one. New Year's Eve ahead. I must be half way through my tour by now, but there is another icy winter to come.


Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica