Rothera Diary - August 2001

written by Pete Milner


I signed off the July diary just before I was due out on a winter sledging expedition, so it seems appropriate to start the August diary by describing how we got on.

One Sunday it dawned a dingle day with clear blue skies and minus 20°C, so off we went. Travel through McCallums Pass proved uneventful and we camped at the other end of the flag-line that marks the safest route through(not completely safe as it still crosses major crevasses). It was a nice spot to camp with views into Stonehouse Bay to the north east, Mount Bouvier to the north and Mount Magin to the south. On the Monday we headed north with a single sledge carrying enough stuff to survive for a few days should the need arise. I was intending to travel further than the distance we actually moved, but just at the base of Snake Ridge on Mount Bouvier strong winds and blowing snow stopped us. To the north around Bond Nunatak it looked like conditions were worse.

I walked back to speak with Tom and we decided to turn around. As I then started to walk back to my skidoo I realised I could not see it in the blowing snow. Not a problem as I followed the safety rope connecting us together. Later on Tom mentioned that as we travelled he often could not see me ahead. Personally I could see little, and often only the ground immediately in front of me. So it was time to turn back and head home to camp for tea. As we headed back south the winds seemed to lessen so I guess our camp site was slightly sheltered.

The following morning we awoke to find the weather had worsened, so it was a day of lie-up reading in the tent. We had decided to travel back to the Rothera side of McCallums and Wednesday looked promising. In actual fact the next day we loaded up the sledges ready to go and then had to sit in a cold empty tent most of the day, waiting for good visibility as cloud and blowing snow kept obscuring the route back. Around three o'clock it brightened up so we cut back through just before the low, angled sun dipped. It had been our intention to camp near the peak to the north of the station named Trident. Arriving there at five o'clock in the evening, with a weather forecast that sounded bad, we took the decision to return to base. We felt there was no point camping in bad weather just for the sake of it, especially as Tom was with me in the monster wind storm I have described earlier in the winter.

After a shower and a night on station we awoke to a calm and relatively clear day, so we headed back out to climb Trident. Early morning cloud stopped us for a while as we approached the peak, but eventually it burnt off as the sun rose. We may have the sun back but there is precious little heat in it. Trident is a nice climb up an easy snow ridge leading to a flat summit. A fresh crevasse had appeared on one slope, but as it was not on our route we avoided it. On the summit it was blowing a gale and we could not see much. We turned around and descended, with the wind blowing our rope out into a half moon shape between us, which would have made an exciting picture if I could have been able to use my camera! We still had time for a cold bite to eat and a drive round the local area looking at the views which were impressive now we have some sunshine. In actual fact it was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in the hills recently.

Just when you plan for a quiet weekend something quite extraordinary happens. With bad weather forecast I was planning to chill out and maybe watch some videos or read. In the middle of Saturday morning the radio crackled into life and it was a signal from the American science ship Lawrence M Gould. Could they come past and call in? Well of course, always nice to receive visitors. So Steve, Tom and Will were running around fixing fenders onto the wharf. In the recent strong winds a lot of the sea ice has blown away so no problems there. I have to say it is an odd feeling to see a ship appear beside the station, such a strange sight as we have been used to our own company.

The Americans are pretty fun people and so we showed them around the station, sold them loads of T shirts and then wandered up to the bar for a party. It's a dry ship so they are in party mood as well. One of the girls was saying how nice it is to have a break in such a long six week Antarctic cruise. When I say I'm here for two and a half years I'm sure they don't really understand. She continued the conversation by describing a shopping trip just before departure. When asked where she was going, she replied "Antarctica". The woman behind the counter said, "That's nice, visiting relatives?". The rest of the world has very little idea of our isolation here. Our chef Keith headed off to visit the ship with the intention of bartering for as much fresh food as he could get. In the meantime a fun party was had by all, then as they prepared to slip the mooring ropes and sail away a bizarre scene occurred. Knowing our shortage of fresh fruit our American friends lined the rail and threw fruit at us. Bit like feeding time at the zoo as some folks were running around trying to catch apples, kiwi fruit and avocados. We could only reply with snow balls. So if you are a multi-millionaire and have done everything, hire an ice breaker, sail south through the world's most spectacular landscape, then throw fruit at the wintering crew, great fun!!

Keith took his turn on night watch so volunteer amateur cooks produced excellent meals in his absence. Sunday lunch immediately after the ship left was a baked potato and salad - quite incredible!! I actually ate a banana for breakfast! You would not believe how these simple pleasures are now so important.

My main memory of the rest of August has been the continual foul weather. Constant strong winds and blowing snow. Normally my room is quiet but the winds have woken me up on several nights. We keep a shovel inside the doors and most mornings I have opened the accommodation building door and had to dig my way out. You then climb up a snow drift, down the other side then over another drift before reaching the main building all of 100 yards away. This is from a door that has steps leading down to the ground in summer. Constant wind, blowing and drifting snow for a week or more has started to produce massive snow drifts around the base. The main door to the accommodation is in the middle of the building and is now completely unusable due to a massive snow drift up to the roof. When I say drift I mean something about fifteen feet high. This weather is truly wild, snow is blasting horizontally between the buildings, not that you can see one building from another sometimes. The facts speak for themselves, 66 knot winds ( 76 mph ) in a temperature of -10°C produces an effective wind-chill of -36°C. What does that mean in practice? I stupidly opened the middle door of the sledge store one morning and was engulfed in a snowstorm, I tried to shut the door, but too late a drift had got in. Then I had to dig the door clear, brush away all the loose snow before fighting to get the door shut again. I found it difficult to get off to sleep one night with the noise of the wind, god knows how Felicity managed with her night watch rounds.

"Last week my name came up on the night-watch rota again. As I am the Met girl it seemed ironic that the weather that week was horrendous. On my first night the blowing snow was so bad that I could barely see from one building to the next! During the night the nightwatchman does three circuits round the base, checking buildings and various bits of equipment at three hour intervals. Having to battle through gales and driving snow as you walk from one building to the next does not endear you to either the Antarctic or night-watch! The snow formed huge drifts around the buildings, covering doorways, so I had to dig my way in and out of some of the buildings. The trick was to open the doors so carefully that the drift that had built up against it didn't fall in through the doorway. Otherwise the door wouldn't shut again until you had spent forever removing all the snow! Using a skidoo to drive around means you spend as little time as possible outside in the wind but it brought its own problems. Skidoos are famously temperamental but trying to persuade one to start in -20°C and then keep it going was impossible! Its favourite trick was to roar into life, move forward a few feet then cut out; stubbornly refusing to start again. So most of the night was spent trying to make it over to the hangar in 2 foot bursts of action. I enjoyed my week on night-watch - you get to sleep all day and have the place to yourself all night but it was great on Saturday to struggle across to the accommodation block through 40 knot winds knowing that I was off to bed and that tonight it was Rayner's turn to brave the weather!" Felicity Aston.

As well as braving bad weather on night-watch, Rayner's work has been affected by the conditions too.

"My name is Rayner Piper. I am the Assistant marine biologist here at Rothera and my work is varied and seasonal. August has been a month of blowing snow and high winds, which has played havoc with the sea ice. Access to diving and sampling sites has been very difficult for the latter part of this month. This has meant I have spent much of my time in the laboratory, on the computer and in the aquarium. Part of my work at Rothera involves monitoring the feeding activity of selected suspension feeding invertebrates. This is done by visual inspection whilst diving. The invertebrates include Holothurians (sea cucumbers), Fan worms, Bryozoans, and a burrowing clam Laternula. All of which are believed to be predominantly vegetarian. I also monitor Gorgonians, Anemones and Hydroids which are believed to be predominantly carnivorous. As I have been unable to get into the water as much as I had hoped this month I have been looking at the data collected over the last year to see if I can notice seasonal feeding patterns. In the winter when temperature and light levels plummet the algal blooms that drive the marine ecosystem here die off. The water that has been like pea soup during the austral summer rapidly turns crystal clear. Visibility whilst diving can exceed 40 meters. The majority of the invertebrates monitored, having fed continuously during the 24 hour daylight of the summer, stop feeding for the winter. However there is a lot of marine larvae in the water at this time. The benthic invertebrates monitored miss out on this abundant larder whilst jellyfish and other gelatinous creatures such as Salps and large Ctenophores become more abundant and so make the most of this food source.

Rayner with a starfish. Click to enlarge A jellyfish. Click to enlarge
Rayner with a starfish, and a jellyfish
Click on images to enlarge

I look forward to my next dip below the surface to see if September brings with it the first signs of summer to this watery world."

One day we experienced gusts of 63 knots, which is about 72 miles per hour. You cannot see one building from another due to blowing snow, but if you look upwards there is blue sky above. Palmer Station (the US station to our north) has recorded a gust of 90 knots, which is about 103.6 mph. Shutters rattle and various radio antennae shake and hum. Once again I was digging my way out from the accommodation. If you ignore this chore it results in a corridor plastered with powder snow inside. Perhaps hibernation is the answer.

We also have seen -19°C resulting in a wind chill of -40°C, something of a record so far this winter. Watching the conditions from the radio room at the top of the operations tower is awesome. The world's worst weather is doing its stuff just the other side of the window. Every entrance seems to have powder snow leaking under the door. Any walk between the accommodation, the main building or the sledge store means your knee high boots fill with snow. The bad visibility results in you falling off the edge of unseen snow drifts and could be potentially disastrous if you got lost for any length of time out there. Blizzard conditions can occur with less strong winds as well. Snow blown around by the winds will rapidly obscure visibility.

We also have problems with something called contrast. This is a measure of how good the light is. In cloudy or misty conditions the sun cannot break through and it is impossible to tell snow from mist, you cannot tell up from down. It must be like living on the inside of a ping pong ball. You certainly could not see a crevasse so we don't travel in these conditions.

Pete on skis. Click to enlarge. Pete on skis
Click on image to enlarge

The main advantage of all the new snow is that we can now put our skis on just outside the doors and the daily wildlife walk around the point can now be done on skis. I had a great time joining the regulars one afternoon.

A trip out on skis. Click to enlarge. A winter trip
Click on image to enlarge.

Amazingly it was my turn for Sunday cook again, so that means we have done 20 weeks of winter. My amateur efforts seem to have been appreciated, but just in case, I'm off on another winter expedition, this time in the company of Chris Hall. Looking at my calendar I see that September will be the last full month of winter 2001; time flies when you are having fun!