Rothera Diary: January 2001

written by Pete Milner

Visitors and visits to the Palace


January 2001


Rothera station celebrated the New Year in fine style, nothing unusual there, but this season we were entertained by a new force on the music scene. Yet to be discovered, the newly emerging talent of The Tabasco Band were on stage in the garage. Named in honour of the St Helena lads who seem to add tabasco sauce to everything. An action packed evening started with a BBQ and continued with the band providing a great concert. One of the more popular numbers, Mustang Sally, was backed by some brave female vocalists. They certainly need to be brave standing on stage here, and doubly so, as the Air Unit lads had decided to break out their dresses for the event. It all seemed to improve the surrealism of the evening. Great fun, although I'm not sure that all of our friends from the construction company Top Housing approved of the dressing up. There is a rumour that one of the lads actually took his girlfriend out to help him buy the dress before heading south to the Antarctic. Her opinions are not recorded.

Most parts of the world celebrate the New Year with a party so a slow start the following day is not unusual. As always events here at Rothera are never mundane. Out in the afternoon on New Year's Day I was helping Terry O'Donovan run some ice climbing sessions behind the hangar. Lots of people came over and climbed the vertical ice cliffs protected by a rope from above. They were watched by a sleeping seal and several bemused penguins. These ice cliffs are adjacent to the sea. I've been ice climbing before but never on cliffs that rise out of the sea. Several brave souls having done the climbing had to rush off to fit in the New Year swim. It's cold in that sea.

There has been a party atmosphere here at Rothera this month. Personally I am back on base routine and catching up with jobs around the field store. Jim Mayer, who is one of the guys responsible for our waste management, helped Mike Wallman organise a murder mystery evening. Mike worked hard cooking the food, and Jim chased up budding Thespians. In the real world Jim has worked as a stage manager, just the sort of talent we need here at the moment. Apparently the toilet roll millionaire Orton Morton was discovered murdered in his study. Interviews had been recorded by Police Cameraman Steve Le Breton, then further evidence and clues emerged at each course of the Saturday night meal. A motley band of very suspicious characters had become involved in this sordid tale of intrigue and violence.

Paul Rose as Henry Morton, Felicity Aston as Felicity Morton. Mike Wallman as Orton's French mistress Fi-Fi Le Boeuf (he fits one of Mairi's skirts suspiciously well), Dave Moleneaux as the axe carrying and disturbed Quintin Morton. Mairi Nicolson played Rebecca Morton with her new boyfriend, potential country and western star Damien Dawson, played by Tom Corbett. Detective Sergeant McGill (Ian Parsons) helped us expose Mairi Nicolson as the evil mastermind with the blood stained kitchen knife. I am now wondering about the sense of wintering with axeman Moleneaux and Mairi the knife wielding femme fatal. It has also started to get colder and darker.

Fortunately we have had our social lives brightened up by other visitors. Unexpectedly and at one hours notice, the Chilean Navy support vessel Lautarou called in to see us. It was enjoyable showing their crew around the station and they were most hospitable in return showing us around their cramped quarters. Their visit coincided with a normal (for us) Saturday meal. Gifts and speeches were duly exchanged and despite language difficulties everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Two days later The United States Antarctic vessel Lawrence M Gould called in to run a science cruise out into southern Marguerite Bay. Luckily I was able to accompany this voyage along with all the scientists working in the Bonner Laboratory. Strange to see the station retreating as the ship sailed. That experience will be over a year away for me when I leave for home. I really enjoy visits as it's a chance to hear different accents and a chance to meet new people. There was a lone English scientist among the American team and we were pleased to be able to supply her with English tea bags and Marmite. Being a dry ship they seemed to be happy with our offer of a party in the bar. They have a computer generated map of Adelaide Island that marks our station, not with the name Rothera, but with the note "Beer Here". I have a strange feeling that the ship did not depart exactly on time, most people watched the captain and only moved from the bar when he did. "Top night " as we say in the Antarctic.

It would not be right of me to leave you any impression that we just party here and that we have forgotten why we are here. Officially it's for science and I have enjoyed meeting and helping the visiting summer scientists from different nations. However most of us are here for the adventure. The route up to the upper glacier above the station is marked with flags to show the safe route. One day we started to notice a crack opening up in the ice by the flag line. It was time to check out what was happening, cracks can turn into crevasses. Five of us roped up and started to probe the snow around the cracked area. It was fairly obvious that the flag line would have to be moved. With an avalanche probe (a telescopic multi-part metal rod) I could feel the ice just underneath the snow. I think Anne Salisbury found it, her probe just sunk into soft snow and there was obviously nothing solid down there. We decided to dig and find out what was there. Soon we broke through the snow to reveal a dark black hole disappearing downwards as far as we could see. Interesting to realise you are digging away at exactly the snow that is stopping you falling into the void. We excavated a big enough hole to be able to see what was going on. So we had to set up the ropes and go in. Florian Piper and Anne went in first and reported a pretty large ice cavern. I had a look later and I can say I was impressed. All these icicles are actually fairly spectacular.

Most of the staff on the station were interested in our find. Considering it was only ten feet outside the flag line we thought it would be good training to show people the insides of the hole. Given the quality of Antarctic adventurers everybody seemed to want to take the opportunity of leaping into a crevasse on the end of a rope. There were several weekends when the outdoor team set up anchor points and ropes which allowed people to descend into the depths. I love these sessions, I particularly like the moment when they realise that the walls disappear and they are hanging in space. You often hear a small voice say "wow", even Mairi went quiet as she descended into the cavern.

I find it difficult to describe how it looks , Richard Hollingham a visiting reporter from BBC Radio Four described it as follows:-

"From the line of flags which lines the snow covered hillside it's invisible. Even close up it appears as just a small hole in the ice. It's only when you're hanging from a rope at the top of a vast underground cavern that you realise why crevasses are something you would be wise to avoid. Giant icicles, tinged deep blue in places, hang the ten or so metres from the roof. Smaller ones stretch, seemingly forever, in both directions through a deep corridor in the glacier. Some of the ice is so clear as to be transparent, appearing like great columns of glass. Even though the only light comes from a small gap, it's as if all the walls are illuminated."

Descending into a crevasse. Click on image to enlargeTo me its an ice palace. As I was standing at the bottom attached to a tube of metal screwed into the ice I could watch peoples' reactions as they slowly spun on a spiders web of rope descending in awe to a magical alien landscape of ice. Very difficult to photograph the scenery or to describe your feelings as you descend into the ice. I hope the photo of Tom Corbett gives you some idea.

Getting out of a crevasse. Click on image to enlargeYou really really don't want to fall into one of these by accident. It is difficult enough to escape on the pre-placed rope using ?Jumar clamps' with just a camera; imagine trying this if you had your rucksack, skis, sledge etc etc. People seem to stick to the flag line now.
Click on the images to enlarge.

Talking of palaces we had some good news from Buckingham Palace. Captain Andy Alsop one of our pilots has been awarded the MBE and Dave Ganiford the out-going Station Support Manager has been awarded the Polar Medal. Both of the lads are typically modest and will not like me mentioning this. The rest of us are pretty pleased for them as the awards are well deserved. They will be able to visit the "big palace" in London. I shall have to be satisfied with my ice palace above Rothera station. However more people have been to Buckingham Palace than Rothera station's ice palace.

In January we have also been privileged to receive a visit from the Commissioner for the British Antarctic Territory and from the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Patricia Scotland. She did us the honour of renaming several of the station buildings. All our visitors, be they BAS staff or guests, receive briefings on station operations and field training. Training is important here as most people have little opportunity to experience glacier travel before arriving in the Antarctic. I was involved in this training session and on a superb evening we camped high on the glacier above Marguerite Bay.

Ash Morton driving the sledge carrying the Baroness to afternoon tea. Click on image to enlargeThe day had started with a flight to the hut at Fossil Bluff, for our busy guests this was the only place they could escape from Fax machines and e-mail. Everybody loved it and George Fell provided tea and homemade scones at Bluebell Cottage. This picture shows Ash Morton driving the sledge carrying the Baroness across the glacier for afternoon tea.

More skidoo driving for me in the evening as we moved up to our regular camp site out of view from the station. We have been so busy lately that I'm beginning to feel rather like an Antarctic Taxi driver. "There was that Baroness Scotland on the back of my skidoo last week", doubt if I could stand the London traffic even if I have got the cabbies' chat sorted. Anyway we all went skiing until late in the evening; so very few people can say that they have skied in the Antarctic. As the sun sets behind Reptile Ridge the temperature drops and people are rather glad to drift off to a warm sleeping bag. Anne Salisbury, Chris Gilbert and I decided that as it was such a nice evening we would sleep outside. It is a fantastic experience to lie out in the open, warm in a sleeping bag, protected by a Gore-Tex body bag and look at the view across the Antarctic. Even more satisfying to know that our visitors thought we were hardened explorers and completely mad.

Morning at the campsite. Click on image to enlarge It was another beautiful morning as we packed up and headed back to Rothera for a late breakfast. After some further training our VIPs had a chance to descend into the local crevasse. I know it was a pretty amazing experience for them. I am sure that the story has done the rounds of the House of Lords by now.

The month started with a party so it is appropriate to finish with one. At the end of the VIP visit the bar rocked to the sound of The Tabasco Band. Mustang Sally was again a popular number and all the girls were up behind the microphone as backing vocals. Credit where credit is due, Baroness Scotland was on stage with the band. I'm sure she will remember her visit and the star guest performance with The Tabasco Band has to be one of her career highlights. Personally the sight of several Antarctic explorers, one Baroness and a couple of mechanics in dresses has to be one of the most surreal I've seen here.
Click on the images to enlarge.

As a postscript it is unfortunate to have to report that The Tabasco Band has now split up due to unreconcilable musical differences. So if you had the chance to be backing vocals you have had a unique experience.

Pete Milner

Pete Milner, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica