Rothera Diary - November 2001

written by Pete Milner

The Summer Starts (sort of) and Field Parties Head for the Hills

Its probably best that I skip over our Halloween party in order not to shock wives and girlfriends at home. Sufficient to point out that tough male Antarctic explorers and face paint can produce some very worrying results. One lad even shaved his head specially to add to the effect. In comparison my efforts were quite humble as I was dressed normally (except for the bolt through my neck).

Our air bridge to the outside world has become established this month bringing in new faces both on the technical services side and scientific staff. Everybody arriving at Rothera has a very fast learning curve. Briefings about base safety, medical training, radio training, vehicle training and finally my area the field training. The outdoor team train all the new arrivals how to survive in the Antarctic. This has been especially important this season as we still have winter weather. That is official as Don the Met man describes:-

"It was hard to imagine that this was summer. Winds had just touched Force 11; the next strength up was Hurricane Force 12 and temperatures were hovering around zero. The wind chill factor was off the scale, a long way past "brutal" and people were still working outside. That, I suppose, was the mark of a Winterer at Rothera Station however. They all were totally unfazed and had seen it all before during the winter darkness and icebound frigidity.

On the other hand I was in still in awe of the Antarctic weather. Having arrived a month previously, I was assured that these were the summer months and my job of weather forecaster for the airfleet would become increasingly easy. In retrospect, slightly less difficult might have been closer to the mark, and occasionally harder - especially these last few days. En route, we had a delay in the Falklands of 3 days due to weather conditions, both at Rothera and our diversion airfield on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The previous group however, had to wait 3 weeks for conditions to improve, before leaving Stanley to the locals again. So it is fair to say that even for Antarctica, this summer weather has been inclement.

On arrival the snow was around 5 feet deep and in some places it had drifted to double that. We were welcomed by some fake palm trees put on the terrace, together with a hardy bunch of souls sitting outside the main building. I was told that this time last year people were in shorts outside, drinking morning coffee under the"swaying palms". Then, as new arrivals, we had to undergo immediate training in all aspects of Antarctic living, including mountain craft and crevasse rescue. The former involved roping up together and using crampons outside on some suitable snowfield. This was only across the runway about 500m away but conditions dictated the use of full winter survival gear and about 4 layers.

There also came a session on weather observations in the icy wilderness, and how to give accurate reports to the likes of me back at base. These would be crucial to flying operations and a valuable source of information to the Met team, so in a way it was good to have overcast skies and snow to demonstrate the correct reporting techniques. I was impressed by the ability of the field parties to gauge windspeed by a bamboo flag bending in the breeze, in the absence of any proper measuring equipment. As the training progressed the weather slowly cheered up, with much sunnier conditions setting in by the time we did our crevasse rescue and overnight field camping. The visibility improved so much we could see shadows on mountains over 140 miles away. Sadly it couldn't last, and it didn't. Unsettled conditions developed again the next day with more snowfall and drifting in the strong to gale force winds, so as fast as we dug out the doorways to keep access clear, the snow would drift in again to undo our efforts. The fact that it was still so cold and the snow relatively dry didn't help either. Milder conditions would have binded the snowpack together as it would have been wetter, so winds would have been unable to pick up much, if any snow.

Rothera wasn't the only casualty. The bases at Halley and Sky Blu, as well as the field parties, had more than their fair share of drifting snow and blizzard conditions too. Flights to Halley to put in the summer seasoners, were delayed by around 10 days due to either strong winds and drifting snow on the Brunt Ice Shelf, or low cloud and poor visbilities at the re-fuel depots on the Ronne Ice Shelf; or (as was more likely) both simultaneously. And quite recently, Sky Blu reported visbility in a whiteout of only ten (10) metres - then with the very next report they said it had actually got worse!

So here I sit, with 10 days to go until Christmas, looking out into drifting snow again and Force 11 winds; the gusts have just hit 80 mph and people are still telling me it's summer!"

Donald Ferguson
Meteorological Forecaster
Rothera Station

Having lived through two Antarctic winters now it is interesting to see summer staff experiencing what winter weather conditions can be like. Since Tom and Steve spent so much time clearing snow lots more has arrived, drifting in buildings and blocking doors. On the door at the south end of the main accommodation we had a home made wooden porch put in during the later part of the winter. It shelters the entrance somewhat but still tends to be blocked with drifting snow. During a no fly day, Ant Tuson one of the pilots, invented an ingenious roller blind system made from bits of wood and some old tarpaulin. As long as you close it behind you it keeps the snow out so successfully I wish that we had thought of it in winter.

Anyway back to the field training. This is one of the great parts of my job, we introduce people to the subtleties of camping on glaciers, point out some of the local hazards and how to avoid them, plus for field parties and wintering staff we teach crevasse rescue and mountain travel. One group I was with experienced full blizzard conditions after camping out for the night. The previous evening was cold and clear showing off the usual amazing views around here, then changed overnight to emphasise my warning about how bad the weather can be. Taking the training tents down then driving home in the Snow Cat proved to be a challenge and once again the line of flags marking the safe route proved invaluable. The following days course in crevasse rescue was conducted in atrocious conditions, with blowing snow and reduced visibility. Quite a good lesson to learn just how difficult things can become in poor weather. Putting a jacket or a glove down on the snow is to invite the loss of it to the wind.

Two of the people on the course were due to go out onto Alexander Island for a field project. As luck would have it logistical problems meant that I was asked to head out on this project to assist Carolyn Bailey. My camping gear was ready and we soon organised things into 4 plane loads and one day the weather was right and we packed our kit into the rear of a red Twin Otter aircraft, watched the pilot strap it all down, then flew south. These are always amazing flights and I shall never forget the stunning landscapes we fly over. Southern Marguerite bay has still got lots of sea ice which is in fact holding our relief ship RRS James Clark Ross out in the southern ocean unable to reach Rothera.

Our pilots always keep a watch on the weather and especially so this season where winter has yet to leave us, in spite of the fact that we have officially declared it to be summer. The conditions were not getting better so the decision was made to stop at Fossil Bluff until things improved. Suits me fine, afternoon tea at Bluebell cottage hosted by Ian Martin and Wil Gilchrist, how very civilised! All good things come to an end and so we caught a skidoo and sledge taxi out to the aircraft. No need for boarding cards here so life is fairly simple. Twenty minutes flying time further south and we are overhead Utopia Glacier.

Nick turns in to land and there we are out in the middle of nowhere again. Stepping out of the plane is a bit of a shock as I had not realised just how marginal the weather was becoming, its actually blowing 40 knots and starting to throw snow around in the air. Survival is paramount during Antarctic operations, so our first priority is to get the tents set up and secure. Carolyn, Mairi and Marie-Francoise are struggling with a big three person pyramid tent in near blizzard conditions. Mike Powell, our Copilot, runs over to help them as Kevin and I set up my smaller pyramid tent. Experienced winter staff are invaluable helpers in this situation so thanks to Mike for his assistance. Mairi made the comment that she now understands how Jenny felt storm pitching a tent on her winter trip. ( Described in the September Diary by Jenny Dean and Chris Hall ) This time it was not as bad, given that we could actually see what we were doing. This sort of thing is exactly why we do survival training before we leave the station. Everyone was pretty impressed by the event after we had settled down. As soon as the tents were secure, radio links with Rothera need to be established before the aircraft leaves us to the wilderness. Once we are on our own the next priority is another cup of tea. This was Carolyn's first Antarctic expedition and it has obviously left a deep impression.

"Diary of a baptism of fire by Carolyn Bailey, rookie Field Assistant, recruited June 2001, landed at Rothera Base November 4th and dropped at the Utopia Glacier 10 days later.

OK, ok so I thought I knew all about this Winter Mountaineering lark from many-a-season amongst the white stuff in Scotland and other hilly regions of the world. How wrong can a person be? Working for the British Antarctic Survey is quite another cup of tea; for one thing if you camp like me I generally carry most of the stuff on my back or maybe drive to a campsite with a car boot full of stuff. Well get this, for a month's camping for seven out on Alexander Island you need more than three metric tonnes of gear and four separate twin otter aircraft trips to drop it all off. Pyramid tents, which have changed little since Scott's day as they are so robust, weigh in at a mere 85 pounds and your common or garden tent peg has transformed into a three-foot long alloy tube. These tents have probably saved many a life by staying standing and relatively unscathed in 100 mile per hour storms and anything less solid would simply not do the job.

Getting familiar with new equipment was naught compared to the shock that was awaiting Rothera once I picked up a radio handset. I do like to communicate it's true and my radio batteries did seem to need recharging quite a bit, much to the amusement of the comms team back on Base. Links with the outside (Rothera) world are a real tonic especially when you're stuck in the tent because of bad weather.

In summary, my first field project out at the Utopia Glacier was a truly fabulous experience, packed to bursting point with the challenge of the new and made particularly rewarding by the fact that everyone's scientific objectives were over-achieved. I was fortunate to be surrounded by the best bunch of fun-loving scientists I could hope for who knew I was a rookie and quietly supported me, and Pete, my team member and co-Field Assistant, whose help was invaluable and let me just get on with things in my own special way."

Carolyn Bailey
Field Assistant
Rothera Station

The weather did not give us an easy time on this project and I remember leading a roped team probing for crevasses in the midst of blowing snow as we established a line of flags showing the safe route to the base of the mountain ridge we had come to climb. Most of the work we had to do on this project was up on the local summits and ridges, so our morning routine was to go to work on a sledge. The Biologists were off to Mars Oasis underneath Two Step Cliffs and we were off to Syrtis Hill. Driven by skidoo and sledge to the end of the flag-line we fitted our crampons, selected an ice axe, then walked up a smooth easy angled ice slope to the base of the rocky ridge leading to the col above Secret Lake. Once at the top the view is brilliant, looking across Alexander Island and endless snow covered mountains. Secret Lake itself is just lovely, nestled in a small steep sided valley dropping away onto the Mars Glacier. Blocked at its lower end by moraine and overhung to the north by huge ice cliffs, it is a beautiful blue frozen patch of water.

Whilst out working on field projects I have a superb opportunity to learn about science from the best in the world, without having to pay course fees or be asked to pass exams and write papers. There are times however when the work is so detailed that I really cannot help. Now there is a chance to relax a little, everyone's safe, work is going well, time to take a few minutes to contemplate just where I am. Cold northerly winds usually meant we would be pressing on with the work, keen to descend into the shelter of Utopia Glacier and the luxuries of a warm tent. It was not all bad weather, a couple of days were calm with blue skies. The summit of Syrtis Hill is narrow and flat, wide enough to lie down for a picnic lunch, head resting on your rucksack. A welcome hot drink from my flask and a long look at the view. One of those days when you go through two rolls of film. Most of the mountains around me are unnamed, probably mostly unclimbed, all are snow covered and massive glaciers flow between them. To the north are mountains, to the west even more. South the land opens out somewhat and you begin to see the great flat, white, wide open spaces that form the southern peninsula. To the east I can look out over the sea, admittedly its frozen but I know I'm on an Island. Beyond the sound are the mountains of the mainland, there is in fact nothing but white as far as the eye can see. I keep watch on the clouds to see if there are any incoming storms, now I have bands of high Cirrus stretching from one side of the horizon to the other. I am on the highest point around, above me is "Big Sky", wide open, clear and completely empty except for lines of thin cloud disappearing into endless fields of snow. My feelings are a mixture of wonder and the knowledge that I'm lucky to be here. Occasionally somebody does not enjoy a tour in the Antarctic, its their choice I suppose but I fail to understand how you cannot be utterly impressed, possibly overawed, by what you see.

Soon we need to move on and start work again, breaking my thoughts about how to describe this landscape. My photography may go someway to answer that question but I may need to sit and write when I go home, as it would take pages and pages to really bring over how it feels to be out in the Antarctic wilderness. With no wind its so quiet that you can hear the blood pulsing through your ears, with storm force winds you may have to shout into your partners ear in order to make yourself heard. It's a pure land, free of pollution, pristine and untouched for millions of years and with a scale that is difficult to comprehend, it is insufficient to say that the snow spreads from one horizon to another, it's all much bigger than that.

Other scientists are at work while I'm dreaming on a hill top. Biologists studying plant life at Mars Oasis between the cliffs and the ice pressure ridges, scientists studying the palaeoenvironmental history of Alexander Island by taking cores from frozen lakes but all in all there are very few people on Alexander island. Seven people were living on Utopia glacier and when the winds died down it was nice to stand outside eating and drinking. Nice summer evenings are always a good occasion to spend time chatting to girls, a rare pleasure in the Antarctic.

Taking a core from a frozen lake

Taking core samples from a frozen lake

Relaxing on a nice summer evening Relaxing on a nice summer evening

Relaxing on a nice summer evening
Click on images to enlarge.

Contact with home is important too, field parties have an evening radio link with Rothera Station, checking that we are safe and well then discussing our intentions for the next day. It's a chance to catch up on gossip and maybe some news from around the world. Best of all is an air drop of Post. One day a little red Twin Otter flew over and dropped a blue bag full of mail and also containing a loaf of bread which I have to say is a real luxury item in the field.

Soon enough though the work is finished and its time to return, I need to report the weight of my gear so the pilots can calculate their fuel requirements. Up early doing a meteorological observation which will allow the aircrew to decide if they can come and take us home. Plans come together and we are treated to an fantastic flight home, north up the George the Sixth Sound, past Fossil Bluff then climbing to rise above the clouds. A couple of short hours later and its down to land at Rothera. The station now is full of new faces, the winter team is mixed in among strangers, it will take me awhile to get to know everyone. A welcome shower and it's time to be sociable. The bar and dining room feel crowded, we have perhaps 60 people on station. I'm due back in England in May 2002 and apparently my home town now has a population of 106,200. I have absolutely no concept of that number of people, it seems to be an incredible figure.

More adventures to come before I head further north as I have another field project to do after Christmas. RRS James Clark Ross, our research and supply ship, is due in next month which is good news as we are running low on some food supplies. Perhaps the real summer weather is stored in a container on board, can't wait to unpack it!!