Rothera Diary - September 2001

written by Pete Milner

Interesting Times....

Last month's diary was finished in a hurry and posted north via email as the next winter sledging expedition was rapidly approaching. Perhaps a small glimpse of what real writers feel as the publishing deadlines approach. For us, as usual, things are different. I had to finish writing to be ready for an expedition into the mountains. As I was thinking about this month's diary it seemed to me that I've been putting my side of the story forward too often. With that in mind I asked a few people to describe their winter trips. The expedition that hastened my writing of last months diary was going to be called Sledge Juliet. This formal sounding radio call sign covered myself and Chris Hall with two sledges, two skidoos and enough camping gear to survive whatever the Antarctic decided to throw at us.

This winter has been one of consistent bad weather and yet again the Antarctic decided to throw some pretty wild blizzards our way. Just as an aside we recently were involved in a study of the Antarctic conducted by school children during which they could ask us questions. One was "Have you ever been caught in a blizzard?". I found the question slightly surprising, as I seem to be living in them constantly, but I can understand how people at home think of these fierce storms as one off events. Believe me they are not. Constant efforts to dig your way through a snow drift to stagger out from the accommodation building, wrapped up in warm clothing, a short climb over another drift before digging into the main building, this is the way we go to work in a blizzard. Quite amusing sometimes, as one day I dragged my tired body out of bed and opened the south east exit door to be faced with a solid wall of snow completely filling the doorway! Enough of my descriptions, let Chris describe the exploits of Sledge Juliet as we managed to find a gap in the weather.

"My week camping....."

"The weather looks good" said Dave R on the morning of 29/08 as I waited for Pete Milner to give confirmation that we were ready to head off. Pete arrived soon after and said "Right, we're on!". After loading up the skidoos and putting on our helmets we blasted up to the caboose to attach to our sleds and link up for travel...Pete-sled-myself-sled all fastened together. The other party of Andy and Jenny were already at the caboose themselves ready to go "camping". We set off into the white distance up to Trident (14km North of Rothera) and decided to set up camp as the weather had suddenly started turning for the worst. Setting the tent up was straight forward but physical......digging down to some hard snow, digging holes for the corner poles, then shifting boxes inside, and snow blocking all the edges. Inside the tent we got the primus on and laid out our P-bag contents (thermarest, sheep-skin, sleeping bag etc.) and settled for a cup of tea. Outside the low cloud had reduced contrast and visibility. Andy and Jenny's tent some 20m away was disappearing slowly. Time to read a few chapters and drink some tea and hope the weather would didn't. It got worse. The wind was starting to howl and batter the tent for the rest of the day. At 2000hrs we listened for the nightly radio sched, a chance to talk to base and let them know that all was OK. Next day the wind was still giving it "six nowt" so more reading, tea drinking and eating "biscuit brown-s's and marmite".

Day 3 the weather eased and visibility increased. Andy and Jenny were going to move on so me and Pete helped them pack up and waved them off. We planned to climb Trident. What the?!...... within minutes the contrast went, the visibility gone, but what of Andy and Jenny? We could see the skidoo lights heading back to our site, they were going nowhere today. Better help them unpack and pitch the tent again. Sounds easy, but what happened next was berserk. The wind must have gusted up to 50 knots and we couldn't see, it was all white, you could just make out the orange ventile jackets of "figures" just feet in front you. It took four of us to pitch the tent each hanging on to this essential piece of survival equipment. The holes we had dug were filled in seconds by blowing snow, "right quick get the boxes and jerries on the valance, get all the pegs secured, make this thing fast". The next job was to tarp the skidoos, it took three of us to pull the sheet over them as it filled with air and nearly lifted us off the ground. Andy and I had to sit on the sheet while Pete quickly fastened a rope around it. Jenny had been sorting out the inside bits. So that was it, we could go back to our tent and rest, worn out and ready for a brew.

The next day saw Andy and Jenny off successfully this time as the sun was up and there was no wind. We knocked up a "Half Unit" and travelled round to Trident, roped up and climbed the highest of the three peaks. We stopped at the top to take in the breathtaking view and snap up some photo's. Looking south you could see Alexander Island some 200km away. The view to Stonehouse bay and the Sunnyside glacier to the north was equally as awesome. Still, calm waters, the sun reflecting back like it does on a river on a summer day back home, only this piece of water is below zero and full of icebergs! We headed down the slope to take a drive over to N2, this gives a view to the east of Pinero Island and the Arrowsmith Peninsula but sadly the weather was turning again so we headed back for tea and biscuits.

Day 4 was calm but cloudy, so it was out for some telemark skiing to the nearby rock at the base of Trident and back. Vis was going ...tea and biscuits. Day 5 will be one of my most memorable days in the Antarctic; the day we climbed Stokes-west. The day was perfect, no wind, sunshine and about -20°C!!! Half unit put together we were off, contrast perfect. We parked up and roped together, then started to ascend. It was a slow and steep climb in soft powder snow every few steps tapping our crampons to get rid of the snow so they gripped well. Once at the top the scenery was spectacular. To the west was the notorious Shambles glacier, crevasse ridden crumbling into the sea and the Piedmont of the other side shining in the sun. North was Mt. Bouvier and the Wall, to the east was an ice mushroom and a shear drop off the next peak. Time to get the camera out and shoot away. The islands mountains seen in a different light just emphasising the natural beauty of this sacred place. Looking south gave us a view of Trident and Stork. We climbed down reluctantly, I think if the wind hadn't picked up we could have stayed there all day. On the way back we drove in between Stokes-east and Trident looking at the overhanging ice. A perfect day. Day 6 a hooly. Day 7 was clear and we were packing for home, then as we were almost ready to start taking down the tent the weather went berserk again.....another hooly. Day 8 this time nothing was stopping us, clear and still, all cleared away and sleds loaded we headed back to Rothera for hot showers and clean clothes a truly remarkable experience."

Chris Hall, Rothera Base Electrician, Winter 2001.

I quite like social camping and it was good to be joined by Andy and Jenny, "Sledge India", at our white camp site. I've stayed at this camp site often, it's a nice spot and nobody comes round for the rent in the morning. Everyone who comes to Rothera spends time learning how to camp in the Antarctic. Training is one part of the job I really enjoy, it's fun and could one day save your life. I'll let Jenny describe camping in a storm....

"How I was involved in storm-pitching a pyramid tent in the Antarctic winter!"

"Andy and I had arrived at our winter trip campsite by Trident, but just as we were about to pitch our tent, the winds picked up and the next thing we knew, a gale was upon us. So, it was for real, the storm pitching of a tent that we had been trained for on our arrival at Rothera. At that time we had to imagine a strong gale coming from the South, but in truth there was no wind at all. Now, for real, there was wind, and a great strong one at that, blowing snow all over the place. Snow was just getting everywhere and making it pretty difficult to see anything. Luckily, we had Pete and Chris there to help us, which made a great difference. Initially my job was to make sure the tent was not blown away and I don't think I quite held onto anything for dear life as much as I did then! The others set about making holes for the four corner poles and then trying to get the poles into them, with the tent erect and covering the holes up again. All the while I held on! More pegs were inserted and the guy ropes tightened. This done, the tent was secured further by placing all the heavy jerry cans, boxes and large blocks of ice onto the valance. Finally the tent was up and going to remain in place, so I could take my place inside and set up home. I levelled out the ground sheet, rolled out the sleeping rolls (consisting of a camping mat, airbed, sheepskin and sleeping bag), and placed the food -, tent - and pots-boxes in their place down the middle of the tent. I was feeling very glad to be doing all this as I listened to the wind outside, rattling the tent so much that you were almost deafened. Even the ground was trembling! Outside poor Andy had to ensure that the tent was really secure, park the skidoos and get the tarpaulin over them for any protection they could afford, and set up a flag line between the two tents. At times you couldn't even see 5m ahead of you, so when you are surrounded by nothing but white and can't even tell where the sky begins, you realise the importance of all these preparations. After what seemed like a lifetime, but couldn't have been much more than an hour or two, it was finally time to rest and brew up a nice cup of tea on the primus stove. Thus, ended one of my most memorable experiences in my life so far!"

Jenny Dean, Rothera Doctor Winter 2001

Other expeditions have been out this month and Felicity had some of the rare good weather managing to travel further.

"Earlier this month it was my turn to go out on my second winter trip. We had been waiting for a couple of days for the weather to be good enough to go, so it was a bit of a surprise on Sunday morning when Asti knocked on my door to tell me we were going! After an hour of rushing about looking for camera films, crampons, flasks and extra gloves I was finally ready to leave. We drove up to the caboose to collect the sledges, then set off towards McCallums pass which is the only point at which you can pass through the mountains to the West side of the island. It was slightly disconcerting to see the deep cracks in the crevasse field to our right as we drove through the pass, keeping as close as possible to the flag line that marks the safest route. Once we were on the other side the ground flattened out into the white expanse of the Fuchs Ice Piedmont. The surface had been eroded by the wind into hard sastrugi so it was a bumpy ride travelling over them on skidoos. After a few hours uncomfortable ride we stopped and set up camp but we still had enough time to make the most of the good weather and drive up the nearby Sloman Glacier. Once at the top we could look down to our right and see the ice clogged sea to the west of Adelaide Island and to our left the ice free waters of Marguerite Bay and the familiar Jenny Island.

The next day was a bit groggy in the morning so we made the short trip to Pinnacle depot. This is a tall stack of rock that has been used as a depot for sledge parties for forty years or so. At that time the sledge parties would come out of Adelaide Island, which is an old BAS base that is now used by the Chileans and has been renamed Teniente Carvajal. As we made our way back to the tents the weather brightened up enough for us to make the hour long drive right to the southern tip of Adelaide Island and have a look around Carvajal. It is completely empty at the moment as the Chileans only use it during the summer. We spent an hour or so looking around the buildings and taking photos of the amazing views, that stretch along both the east and western coasts, before heading back to the tents. It was a cold trip as the wind had picked up again, so cold in fact that all the wrapping around my face was frozen solid within a few minutes! The weather deteriorated overnight so we spent much of our third day in the tents. The others all went skiing in the afternoon but by then I was full-up, warm and getting into my book so I opted for staying where I was - it was supposed to be a holiday after all!

Luckily the next day was bright and sunny so we packed up and drove back through the pass. This time we could see all the mountains that had been covered in cloud the last time we passed them and it was really spectacular. Once through the pass we drove around in the sunshine, scrambling up to various high points to get a better view of the surrounding nunataks and mountains. It is incredible how different the most familiar features become when they are all laid out in front of you! After a final night in the tent we all decided to call it a day. Not only had we been incredibly lucky with the weather but we had managed to pack in a lot of things so I thoroughly enjoyed myself - it was a great holiday."

Felicity Aston, Rothera Meteorologist Winter 2001

Regular readers of this diary will understand just how long I have been living at Rothera. I last saw green grass in October 1999 and I think I have adapted to this lifestyle. Snow, cold and blizzards are almost normal now so often I forget to mention things that seem so much a part of life down here. I have a beard and my breath regularly freezes in it producing lumps of ice. I'm glad I asked others to write about their experiences, it reminds me of how much my life has changed. Felicity's comment "so cold in fact that all the wrapping around my face was frozen solid within a few minutes!" just sums up what this team deals with as a matter of course. The journey to Carvajal is one of the most spectacular I've ever done and Dave Molyneaux headed that way earlier this winter and has provided us with some spectacular photographs.

"Carvajal and Lie-up"

The end of July saw my second winter trip approach, and just as on my first trip, I was aiming to reach the summer only Chilean base of Carvajal, at the southern tip of the island. Unfortunately my first trip, before Midwinter, we had encountered bad weather with high winds for the whole of the trip, so it was more like four days in a tent, reading and trying to sleep despite the incessant roar and hammering of the wind on the tent. Carvajal itself is the old British Base 'T' or Adelaide Island Base, which was originally destined for Rothera point, but in 1961 as the ship transporting the buildings got stuck in heavy sea ice, they were unloaded and assembled at the most accessible point on the island, which happened to be the southern most tip. The British base was finally closed in 1977 and transferred to Chile in 1985, becoming Teniente Luis Carvajal V. It has been opened most summers by the Chileans, flying south in Twin Otter aircraft from their Presidente Frei base on King George Island, just off the northern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Skidoos from the
caboose. Click to enlarge

The trip started well, with clear blue skies and light winds. Myself and Dave Routledge, my field guide, set off from the Caboose near our ski slope Vals in the morning just as the sun was rising above the mountains, and reached McCallum's Pass about an hour later. McCallums's Pass is a large crevassed glacial area, dropping down from the large flat expanse of the Fuchs Ice Piedmont on the west of the island into Stonehouse Bay to the east. Rothera is situated on the south east of Adelaide Island, and to travel to Carvajal we have to initially head north, then turn west and follow the carefully flagged route through the Pass, crossing crevasses hopefully closed by snow bridges. On my first trip, it was easy to see the crevasses you were crossing, open thirty of forty metres to the right of you, and there was even one small hole about a foot diameter a few metres off the route, quite a scary experience the first time through.

McCallum's Pass

When we travel to the other side of the island we must travel with two full sledges and linked skidoos, just in case one of the skidoos or sledges falls down a crevasse. The theory is that if just one of the skidoos or sledges disappears, then the others will break the descent and allow some sort of rescue. We had a four hour run down the west side of the island in brilliant sunshine. It is an amazing view travelling along next to the nine thousand foot mountains of Adelaide island, and as you travel being able to look south and see the mountains of Alexander Island over a hundred miles away.

Main building at 
Carvajal. Click to enlarge.

We reached Carvajal by sunset and stayed there for a couple of days, exploring the base and the local area. One of the most interesting things (for me) apart from the base was an old crashed BAS Twin Otter aircraft at the top of the ramp down to the base. No-one seems to know the story behind this aircraft, so if anyone out there knows the story behind it, then drop us a line.

Sunset behind the 
crashed Twin Otter near Carjaval. Click to enlarge

There were a surprising number of birds around at Carvajal, and when we first arrived sea-ice as far as the eye could see to the west of the island. We even saw the lights of the American ship Lawrence M. Gould in the distance some nights. The ship was heading south into Marguerite Bay for a science cruise, and actually payed a visit to Rothera later that week while Dave and I were still camping. After a couple of days at Carvajal there was an afternoon good enough to travel, so Dave and I moved north again to camp about halfway back to McCallum's pass for the next six days. Unfortunately the weather turned very windy, so we were stuck in the tent almost permanently with 40 to 50 knot winds and blowing snow for the rest of the trip. Finally we made it back to base after the sixth day in the tent, having had to do lots of digging to get the tent and skidoos out of the snow.

Our tent in the 
snow. Click to enlarge

It's a shame about the windy days (we call them lie-up), but I really enjoyed getting down to Carvajal and seeing some of the BAS history. Back to work now..."

Dave Molyneaux, Rothera Communications Winter 2001

You are fairly remote out in your little orange pyramid tent with just a daily radio link with friends back at the station. Back at Rothera even with our limited email facilities you can feel out of touch with the rest of the world. Dramatic and tragic events in America this month touched us here as well, news travels fast even to the furthest corners of the world. We first heard of the attack on the World trade centre via radio link to our friends at Palmer station to the north. I have some special friends who live in Boston Massachusetts, their email was terrifying. Susan was flying in the same area at the time, there was so little I could do except worry. Just before I had been describing to Laura just how beautiful our local walks are. This is an extract from her first email after the event.

"Dear Pete - I'm glad to hear of a place where one can spend the afternoon admiring icebergs. To sit & admire something so simple & pure. It's hard to believe that exists anywhere anymore............

..............It's shocking to realise how easily this all can happen. And how little we are prepared, or can realistically do, to prevent it. We had a loud thunderstorm in the middle of last night, just south of us. I was convinced a huge bomb had gone off in the city. Not even rain is comforting or normal to us now.

I have a million things to say, but this'll have to do for now.

Send me an iceberg.

Love - Laura"

This photograph taken by Dave Molyneaux from the summit of Stork shows the area in which we have been travelling, pretty spectacular I'm sure you will agree. It is just the most beautiful part of the world.

View from Stork

Life is full of twists and turns of fate and so it is heavily ironic that at this time we are planning for the arrival of our aircraft. It does seem strange for us to be practising our worst case scenario given the news. One evening's first aid session was designed to study our major accident plan so wintering staff would be ready for problems at the beginning of summer. We figure that the worst that could happen here is for our four engine Dash-7 aircraft to crash into the station loaded with passengers. We have lots of medical gear and rescue kit ready under the stairs in the sledge store. The doctor would probably be in charge helped by winter first aiders. Last year we also practised fire drills. That was fun, putting out drums full of blazing aviation fuel with extinguishers and fire blankets. Don't know if we will have the heart to do the same this season.

Fortunately the weather one Saturday was not too bad, allowing the American science ship Nathaniel B Palmer to visit. As Mike (the BC) was still out on expedition I took the satellite phone calls to arrange the visit. I was stood on the wharf early that morning talking to the captain by hand held VHF radio. They had trouble launching their Zodiac inflatable boats so we scored points by offering to put our boats in the water. In actual fact they managed to come ashore in their own boats. 30 to 40 people came to visit and received guided tours around the station and visited our post office and shop. They all ended up in the bar for drinks. Being a dry ship this is a bit special for them, it was all great fun and instantly livens up the station. Probably because lots of the crew were female! It is so refreshing to talk to different people. After they left we continued the party atmosphere with our Saturday night dinner which is usually an excuse to do something slightly special, even if it is only putting table cloths out. The Americans had donated some fresh fruit and veg plus some bottles of wine and tequila. We were impressed by that because they are a dry ship and had specifically bought the drink in Montevideo with a visit to Rothera in mind. We gave them chocolate and tea bags which they were short of. I keep saying that this is the world's most bizarre job but there are down sides. The lack of privacy is an example. In winter I have my own room but we share in the summer. Communal living means there are really few secrets amongst us. This season we have had so many visitors and to top it all we even had an Emperor penguin peering at us through the window and tapping on the glass. The cheek! Can we have no peace? He also wandered up a snow drift onto the roof of the sledge store. I last saw him looking at the door of the accommodation waiting to be let in.

Emperor Penguin 
being nosey. Click to enlarge.

The last few days of this month have been dramatic, tiring and not without risk. Fire is the one major nightmare that all wintering Antarctic stations pray they don't have to deal with. After a normal day's work on Thursday 27th I went to bed at around 23:00 only to be awoken less than two hours later by the fire alarms going off at twenty to one. We have had several false fire alarms this winter, so it was pretty impressive how everybody turned out and checked in at the fire muster point in a full gale. This time however it was going to be different. The fire alarm panel indicated the Bonner Laboratory as the site of the fire. When I arrived two of the lads were away with extinguishers and others were suiting up in fire fighting gear and breathing apparatus. As initial radio reports indicated smoke and flames had been seen, Mike the BC headed off down to the lab. A team in breathing apparatus investigated the building. It became apparent that a fire had taken hold in the loft above the boot room and main east door. It would have been impractical and indeed risky to attempt to fight the fire in a restricted and smoky loft area armed only with a couple of fire extinguishers.

A second entry was affected to the building using breathing apparatus to recall the first BA team on safety grounds. During this brief entry electrical power in the building was switched off and the emergency satellite phone recovered. At this point Mike decided that it was obvious no further fire fighting could be safely done using the equipment available. After reporting the incident to HQ the next stage was to deploy the small fire engine in an attempt to put water onto the roof and dampen down the fire. The operation to fill the fire engine with water, from the sea, was done in the dark, on a runway that is sheet ice and in a full gale. You have to consider that the fire engine is only designed for use on standby during aircraft operations in the summer and uses wheels not tracks. Although the initial deployment of the fire engine and the snow blower was carried out in the dark, a gradual dawn allowed better visibility and made operations on the runway slightly safer.

Fire Appliances near the 
Bonner Lab. Click to enlarge

The condition of the runway is effectively sheet ice after the recent snow clearing operations. Operating on the ice in semi dark with increasing gale force winds had some risks. A weather forecast for Friday indicated extremely strong winds and this proved to be the case. Our record wind speed of the winter, 74.1 knots, occurred on Friday morning. Subsequent analysis of the met data has shown another gust of 83.6 knots (96 mph). This affected people and vehicles on the ice plus the team of observers above the lab. At one stage someone was blown over and a skip full of water (approx 3 - 4 tons) was moved a significant distance by the wind. Snow and water was blown onto the roof of the building but the strong winds blew most of it away. An attempt was made to get a hose around the north of the building to access the east door to direct water onto the main fire area. Fire teams on the ground in conjunction with Mike considered the effectiveness of the fire fighting efforts given the obvious spread of the fire, the strengthening wind and the safety of staff. It was decided to pull back at this point and take no further risks attempting to dampen a fire that was spreading fast. The next priority was to secure water and fuel supplies to the rest of the station. Fortunately the strong northerly winds worked in our favour by blowing all smoke and flame to the south. Had the wind been southerly it would have been a much more hazardous operation. Once the roof started to fall apart the winds could get in under the panels and just peel them back, allowing sheets of flame to leap into the sky.

Flames leap out of
the Bonner Laboratory. Click to enlarge.

During a break for a brew on Friday afternoon a huge explosion rocked the main building which turned out to be the oxygen cylinders in the dive store exploding. Steve LeBretton describes what it was like to be close to the action.

"On Thursday we brought the fire engine over to the garage to give it a bit of a service ready for the new season. This was, in retrospect, quite lucky... Thursday night I went to bed at about 1 am and literally 2 minutes after getting into bed the fire alarms went off. As normal I considered ripping the alarm off the ceiling but instead got dressed and went to muster at the main building. The normal drill is that everyone checks in, two people rush to the fire with extinguishers while others get into BA kit in case anybody is unaccounted for. When the first fire team radioed back to say that there were flames, all the people in BA kit, including me, went down to the lab. Nothing could be done to stop the fire but luckily some of Dave B's research stuff and Rayners photo album were rescued. Once we were all accounted for we went back up the main building to get a good seat by a window. Mike called all the people who would be able to help in practical ways to see if we could do something about fighting the fire so from then on we were busy getting pumps and filling the fire engine from the sea, getting the snow blower running and doing all we could to stop the fire.

I think we all knew it was not going to do much good but it was worth a go so we had the snow blower throwing snow over the building and had a pump pumping sea water from the sea across the runway to the fire engine and then every 5 minutes we could use the fire engine to pump the water to the fire hoses. All this time we were battling winds of up to 90mph while working on the runway that was sheet ice. The wind was so strong that at times we had to crawl on all fours to move on the ice and slowly the fire engine was getting blown side ways down the runway. The snow blower could not blow the snow far enough to really cover the building in snow but then it ate a big rock and bent the auger so that was the end of snow blowing. Because the distance from the sea to the fire we could not get enough water to the fire and the wind meant that we could only use the hose with the wind. At about 10 o'clock in the morning we had a break and made a new plan that meant starting up some of the machines in the hanger to carry water to the fire engine before throwing the water to the fire. By the time we had got everything ready the fire had truly caught hold and we had to give up as the flames had started to lick through the roof and air vents. From then on we all just stood back and watched it burn.

It all finally went down at about 1-2pm and then at about 3.30 pm a couple of gas bottles went up. I heard the first one and went to the library window just in time to see the second one fly 70 feet in the air with a huge boom. By then the roof and walls had collapsed and the flames were dying down. Everybody was very tired. So now everybody is trying to sort out everything from the fire. All the science people here, Dave B, Mairi, and Rayner are trying to work out what data they have got on the computers and what has been lost overall along with what substances have been burnt. All the people who have had machinery involved in the fire are now trying to sort it all out and fix the broken equipment. Everyone has to write a report on his or her version of events and generally there is a lot to do. HQ has been on the phone all the time and have been busy trying to work out what to do with the next season. So there we have it. We all did as much as possible and all our emergency procedures went better than we ever could have expected."

Steve LeBretton, Rothera Mobile Plant Technician, Winter 2001

As for the future, it's been very encouraging how fast HQ have responded. We are obviously very busy with the clean up and plans to safely remove the debris early in the summer. Our aircraft are due on the October 16 so summer is nearly here. Everybody is still safe and well although speaking for myself very tired. We are trying to get back to normal but the science team obviously cannot.

I hope that gives you some idea of the drama, but I guess you would have to be here to appreciate just how major this incident was. The efforts of this wintering team were very impressive and the conditions pretty appalling. Extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. There is an ancient curse that goes "May you live in interesting times....."


Read the Press Release about the fire.