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Rothera Diary: June 2001

written by Pete Milner


I talked last month about the need to rely on ourselves down here. Not only do we need to keep our station running efficiently and look after our comforts, but we also have to deal with the weather conditions outside. We are certainly lucky at Rothera in the amount of recreational travel we have available. Locally there are walks on Reptile Ridge and skiing at Vals. It therefore makes sense to practise our mountain rescue skills. In both winter and summer people take their turn on standby for emergencies. Jenny the doctor is obviously on 24 hour call. Will the boatman would lead any marine rescue and the field GAs cover land-based search and rescue. Towards the end of the summer season we had practised our response to a marine diving incident. It was now time for us to rehearse a mountain rescue.

With limited daylight our idea was to simulate a fall from Reptile Ridge into the windscoop above the station. Steve LeBreton kindly agreed to play the casualty. This job required him to lie down in the snow for a while and make pretty realistic screaming noises. Asty Taylor called us on the radio to report the 'accident'. My role was to head out as soon as possible with Jenny so we could stabilise the casualty. We have loads of specialized medical and rescue kit, but until you are on the scene it's difficult to know what is required.

We used a skidoo to drive up the ice ramp to the top. The ice forms a windscoop which drops 50 or 60 feet down to below the rock buttress. The casualty and his partner were in the bottom of this wind formed feature of snow. I quickly set up two snow stake anchors and roped down. Next our thermal blanket was sent down and I was putting this over a cold looking Steve when Jenny arrived. By now additional helpers were available, Raynor and Phil descended with the rescue stretcher and a scoop stretcher, because we were assuming a back or neck injury. Andy Chapman took charge above the ice cliff and organised a rope pulley system which would winch us to safety.

After Jenny had examined Steve he was lifted into the stretcher and then moved to the base of the vertical snow cliff. I connected the stretcher to the ropes Andy had dropped to us. Then I tied on and my role was to control the stretcher during its vertical rise to safety. Mike, Dave Routledge, Paul and Dave Bowden slowly winched us up with Andy ready to help us over the edge.

Click for a larger image

Once on the top we changed the ropes around and using the skis on the stretcher walked down the ramp to the waiting transport. Steve headed off to the surgery where Nurse Mairi had already set up drips and warm fluids.

It's all pretty realistic, this stuff. We use out of date fluids in the surgery but stop short of injecting anything. The SAR kit we have ready is good quality and I always have my rucksack packed with climbing gear, warm clothing, maps, GPS navigation unit, spare hats and gloves, first aid kit plus my crampons and ice axes etc. All in all I enjoyed the whole thing and learnt more useful skills. Felicity filmed the whole event and it was good to review our performance afterwards. It took about two hours to get Steve to the surgery, which actually felt like a long time. We were operating close to the station so our main lesson is to consider just how long it would take if an incident happened further afield. Just as it would in UK, a rescue like that takes some organising and is unlikely to be swift.

However our main focus this month has been the celebrations of Midwinter. Mairi proved that science does stop, if only briefly, to allow her to organise a whole host of events. We take the week around June 21 as holiday. It is our own personal celebration and has been special to everyone who has spent a winter in the Antarctic. Even in the most desperate circumstances as Shackleton's crew existed under an upturned lifeboat on Elephant Island they celebrated with a concert and sing song.

Will and Keith organised a treasure hunt and we all dashed madly around the station finding clues in the most unlikely places. With a bottle of wine at stake this was serious stuff. Steve, Tom and John hosted an excellent cocktail evening which proved to be entertaining for everyone. How they managed some of the concoctions with only powdered milk is a mystery.

Traditionally each department decorates their work space as closely to a real English pub as we can get. It was good fun as we started at the boat shed with drinks served through an iceberg. Will had fished a big bit of ice out of the sea and drilled holes through it. So you placed your glass under a hole one side and he poured the drink in the other, instant chilled drinks. Next to the "Gone Fish Inn" situated in the lab. Port or Whisky served in test tubes. Next up was us, the outdoor guys and the famous "Bungee Bar". Similar to last year, but with more decorations and disco lights. Then to the "Weather Guess Inn", the Met tea drinkers serving vodka from a tea pot and dispensing vodka jelly. Then up to the radio room for drinks served by Dave Molyneaux who has the best view in the area. On to the Kebab shop in the dining room for a snack before a visit to the "The Punk Rock Inn" aka the Sparky shop. Here the punk version of 'Nellie the Elephant' was a popular number and I seem to remember dancing to this one. The evening finished in the "Snow Blow Inn" with the garage converted into a disco. The volunteer cook the following morning only needed to serve some soup, easy life.

The solstice is not always celebrated around the world, but since the days of Scott, Shackleton and the early expeditions that overwintered in this cold and beautiful continent, June 21 has been special. It marks the darkest days and the start of the sun's return. Everyone has spent days secretly working away to make a present which will be given away by lottery. Messages of support from other Antarctic stations are exchanged as the comradeship of 'winterers' is a little stronger at this time.

Here are some extracts from messages received by Rothera Station from around the world:-

         "I am pleased to send warm greetings for Midwinter's Day 2001 
         to the scientists, researchers, and other professionals from around the
         world who are stationed in Antarctica. This June 21 observance is a 
         special time to recognize your contributions to learning and knowledge."

         "The United States is proud to support your important work in Antarctica.
         Your spirit of cooperation, demonstrated recently by an international effort
         to rescue a sick colleague at the South Pole, inspires people everywhere. I 
         applaud you for your courage and professional dedication as you work in a 
         tough and unforgiving environment."

            George W. Bush
            The White House
            June 19, 2001

        "On the occasion of the 'Antarctic mid winter day', 
        I have great pleasure in sending my warm greetings to you all. 
        The people of India admire your courage and determination in 
        braving the Antarctic hazards in pursuit of scientific knowledge. 

        I wish you all a fruitful and happy stay in Antarctica and safe  
        return to your home countries."

           The Honourable A. B. Vajpayee
           Indian Prime Minister

    "On behalf of the National Science Foundation and the
    US Antarctic Program, I salute your commitment to scientific
    understanding and environmental stewardship that will 
    benefit future generations. I wish you continued success 
    and a safe return to your homes and families at the end of 
    the polar night."

        Karl A. Erb
        Director, Office of Polar Programs
        National Science Foundation

    "The Secretary of the Interministerial Commission for de Resources of the
    Sea and the staff of the Brazilian Antarctic Programme send you our best wishes 
    for a very fruitful work in the coming season.

    Please, extend our greetings to those wintering in Antarctic. People involved in 
    Antarctic activities know the hardship and loneliness some of you are experiencing
    down South and have high respect for the work of all expeditioners. 
    Now that the longest night has passed, let's cheer the forthcoming return 
    of the sun and let its brightness and warmth rise our spirits.

    We hope you all had a happy Midwinter celebration."

    "On the occasion of the antarctic mid-winter day, the director of Chilean 
    antarctic institute and staff have great pleasure in sending their warm greetings
    to all who are wintering in antarctica this year; managers, scientists, logistics
    operators, engineers and all personnel that overwinter in the station."

         Oscar Pinochet de la Barra
         Instituto Antártico Chileno Director

     "On behalf of all the staff of the Australian Antarctic 
     Division and all ANARE Expeditioners, I send you our warmest
     greetings for the 2001 mid-winter."
       A. J. (Tony) Press
        Australian Antarctic Division

        21 June 2001

    "The 36 scientists and support personnel of Palmer Station extend our
    warmest mid-winter greetings to our Antarctic colleagues throughout this 
    remarkably beautiful continent. We work together in peace, a powerful reminder
    to the world of humanity's true potential."


    "The 2001/2002 wintering team of the Ukrainian Antarctic Vernadsky Station
    is sending to you best wishes  for pending celebration of Midwinter. Hope with 
    the sun turning back it warms our houses and hearts, lights up the delightful 
    nature surrounded us and brings new perspectives, ideas and good friends in our live.
    Good wishes and  kind regards to all."

    "My Midwinter greetings to all scientists and winterers of Antarctic stations 
    who provide important research during this winter. Let this holiday will be a 
    symbol of Sun appearance above the icy continent and bring you the hope on success
    in your research, safe returning to home and confidence that you work serves to high
    quality science and education for all mankind."

       President of Ukraine
       Leonid Kuchma

     "Only few people have the privilege to 
     celebrate the midwinter solstice in Antarctica.
     Here, in this hostile environment, this day 
     is attached with much more importance than 
     at home, where the ancient meaning of the
     midwinter festival is almost forgotten. During 
     the antarctic polar night, one gets a feeling 
     again for the importance of sunlight for nature 
     and, as a part of it, for human beings like us."

       Dr Werner Bittner
       Leader of the 21 crew
       Neumayer Station



   "Warm wishes in this icy wilderness are sent to you all Polarmen from 
   The Indian Antarctic Station Maitri."

   "Antarctica in all its isolation continues to be mystifying, beautiful 
   and fragile too. Our major concern today is perhaps conservation of this 
   still largely unpolluted and fragile continent, which offers unique
   opportunities for Scientific Research."

      Mervin D'souza
      Station Commander & Leader


These messages say a lot about how significant our work is. This is just my personal way of saying thank you to people, who I have never met, who thought of us on our special day. Your messages are very much appreciated.

In addition to all the messages of support from around the world, the Rothera Winter 2001 team gathered together for our own celebration. Starting at 1330 there were drinks with the magistrate. Mike the Winter Base Commander is also a magistrate representing the law in this little outpost of the empire. He supplied some nice blackberry gin made with his own Brecon blackberries. A few Gin and Tonics later we all sat down to the Midwinter Dinner. Keith had saved rations for today and had put in extra effort to ensure a great feast. Lots of wine and port appeared throughout the afternoon. The menu included nine courses and was pretty impressive:

Egg and Prawn with Russian Salad

Tomato and Basil Soup

Ravioli with Rice Timbale & Oriental Dressing

Ragout of Ocean Fruits

Melon, Strawberry & Grapefruit Sorbet

Tournedos Rossini

Chateau Potato, Glace Carrots, French Beans

Seasons Fruit Cake

Cheese board

Coffee & Petit Fours

A far cry from biscuit and pemmican hoosh served in the old days. In actual fact we were pretty full and the cake had to wait as we sat around the table and chatted. Half a bottle of rum in the cake made that one special as did Felicity's decorations.

After dinner we retired to the bar and listened to the special broadcast put out by the BBC World Service especially for British wintering Antarctic stations. Makes you feel a little proud to have half an hour of worldwide broadcast dedicated to us, with messages from family and friends plus our choice of music.

Here is Felicity's impression of events

By three it was getting dark again but we were all inside sitting down for our midwinter meal. We had a nine course extravaganza which was nothing short of a miracle considering what Keith, our chef, has left to cook with. Somehow he had managed to save a sack of potatoes and some eggs for the occasion, even though our last resupply of fresh food was in March! After dinner we all went through to the bar and listened to the midwinter broadcast put on for us by the BBC World Service. We all sat in silence listening to messages recorded by friends and family. My turn came and despite the interference it was unmistakably my Dad's voice reading his recorded message to me on the radio. The mixture of realizing how much I miss everybody at home and the boost in hearing the familiar voice almost reduced me to tears. I think everyone else felt the same too.

The cheese board finally made an appearance late in the night. After the messages from home we all drew lots for the mid-winter presents which we had all been making in our spare time.

Dave Bowden the marine biologist received my present, which was a model sledge box acting as a CD rack and a framed picture of my sledge and skidoo in front of Stokes Peaks.

The following day was understandably quiet. I took a walk around the point watching the ice beginning to form in the sea and the huge fantasy castles that are our local icebergs. Special days. Special times.

During the week we went up to the cross above the station and had a photo taken. We did one normally then one with us dressed in T shirts.

The cameraman was told to hurry up on that one! A special mid-winter showing of the horror film "The Thing" was organised and timed to finish close to midnight. It features an alien invasion of a wintering Antarctic base.

The week finished with a concert evening, called folknight, where the Rothera Winter Band,

named after a glacier to the north, did a few songs and others did sketches.

There is so much talent here its amazing. A great night was had by all and the first showing of the Rothera station soap opera was brilliant. Felicity and Steve had filmed sections of this around the station but no one knew the full story. The evening finished with the girls singing their version of 'I Will Survive'. A few lines were modified to give their point of view.

The station was decorated as if it was Christmas. The real Christmas Day feels somewhat artificial here and so this is our celebration. Now during my second winter the difference between summer staff and the wintering team seems even more marked. In the British Antarctic Survey there are those who have done a winter and those who have not. More experienced staff always talk about events during their winter, wherever that was. I have met people who have wintered in huts now long abandoned. Polar exploration has a relatively short but interesting history and Antarctic travellers' tales are often quite amazing. Most certainly the majority of them can never be written down. We have the colder part of the season to come and the storms during the last couple of days remind us that so far it has been relatively easy. That will change.

It is during this week that thoughts of home and friends are strongest. I just want to wish all of you every happiness for the future and hope that you managed to enjoy the day in some small way.

Best Wishes

Pete Milner

British Antarctic Survey