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Rothera Diary - December 2001

written by Pete Milner

White Christmas

It was a white Christmas here at Rothera station. Not that surprising I suppose given that we live between icebergs and ice cliffs. Mid summer is so close to Christmas that the two celebrations merge. This year I was on station for the now traditional mid summer St Helena night. It was a beach party with loud shirts, grass skirts and great company. Rob, Nick and Steve took over the kitchen for Saturday night and produced a great menu. A poster of their green equatorial island home reminded me what trees look like. I remember returning to my home in Gloucestershire from previous travels and being surprised at just how green the landscape seems. When I next see the Cotswolds I suspect the contrast will be even more marked. Time passes quickly here, probably because our pace of life is pretty quick and there is always lots happening. It has now been two years since I started writing the Rothera monthly diary and I'm now a veteran of the Antarctic winter, but not one of the new incoming team. They have some great experiences ahead of them, in fact I am slightly jealous.

Our summer supplies arrived at the beginning of the month when RRS James Clark Ross docked on the wharf. Lots of containers arrived for unloading and the technical services boys were kept very busy driving the big machines needed to deliver supplies around the station. Then lines of volunteers are needed to begin unloading the containers into the various buildings. Once that's all over things start to settle down. After a busy time it was good to have the opportunity to take the JCR crew up on to the upper glacier for an afternoons skiing, great fun. Some experts, some just having fun and some folks who will be able to say in the pub that they started to ski in the Antarctic, pretty unique that. In return they played host to us in their own bar. It is actually pretty special to have a drink in a new location, almost like a holiday. Different surroundings, different drinks and new friends to chat too.

We have to deal with constantly changing plans as a matter of course here. The end of the year has seen many changes of personnel at Rothera. Scientists on the early season field projects have returned, dried their tents and clothing, taken a welcome shower and headed back north. New visitors have arrived, two artists are busy looking at our wonderful landscape, perhaps placing their own interpretation on it and the BBC have been busy filming. Some of us will no doubt be famous for a brief appearance on TV. The special Rothera hospitality ensures that our visitors see the best we have to offer, skiing, camping, boating and for the lucky ones flights to visit field camps.

This season is quieter than in my two previous summers, easier to get to know people and more sociable. We are now fully involved at all levels in the new season's program and there is lots of activity. Personally I have been busy preparing for my main science project, which begins in early January. The "Sledge Echo" project is "deep field" as we call it and starts with a training period for my scientists. We will be heading down to the southern end of the peninsula near Mt Rex. Pretty much the whole of January and February will be spent in a tent in the middle of nowhere looking at vast open plains of snow and ice in temperatures around minus 20°. The moment when the aircraft fly away, leaving you alone in the massive open spaces of the Antarctic, is always special. I've done loads of flight supported expeditions both in the Antarctic and further north in Arctic Alaska and Greenland, both in summer and winter, but it has always been an awe inspiring moment.

Christmas eve was windy with lots of blowing snow reducing visibility. Alexandra Gaffikin and I were due to spend the evening camping out, training ourselves for much colder campsites. Normally we use the field rations and make things as realistic as possible. This time however it's Christmas, so we had a bottle of wine to share and the company of Ian Parsons, Alex Cottle, Steve Faulkner, Rayner Piper and Don Ferguson all of whom had decided to wake up on Christmas morning out on the snow and ice. We had not really bargained for the continuing blizzard conditions that greeted us on Christmas morning. Packing tents in the maelstrom of whirling snow that reminded me so much of winter expeditions was a familiar challenge. That done we hid in the caboose where Alex Cottle produced a welcome fried breakfast. Real luxury in the field, no porridge or cold cereal but the full spread of fried eggs, bacon and sausages. Driving home in the Snow-Cat I had to keep my eyes alert to keep within the safe line of flags. Back on station Keith Walker and Mike Wallman our two chefs were busy cooking the Xmas dinner. Lots of celebrations here obviously, Santa was played by "The Rev" aka Gary McCall, surrounded by various mechanics as angels(!) plus a star guest appearance of Brian the base commander as Noddy Holder from Slade.

Santa visits Rothera. Click to enlarge
Santa at Rothera
Click to enlarge

The weather had improved during Christmas day and I took a beautiful walk around the point after lunch attempting to work off a wonderful meal, but actually to work on my photography and spend some quiet time watching the penguins and icebergs. Boxing day produced dingle weather and it was back to work running a mountain travel and crevasse rescue course. The conditions were so good that a climb up onto Reptile Ridge just had to be included as part of the days training.

Reptile Ridge
Reptile Ridge
Click to enlarge

Once the training has been completed we will be checking the scientific equipment and planning the flight details with Rod Arnold the Field Operations Manager and Nick Chittenden the Deputy Chief Pilot. Early in the new year "Sledge Echo" will hit the road and head out into the wilderness. A shame to leave my lovely local views but everywhere is spectacular here. Flying south I shall pass the mountains close to my home for the last two years , then further south past Fossil Bluff (Ian Martin and Jenny Dean celebrated Xmas in this old hut) and the mountains of the peninsula, down to our remote camp at Sky Blu where Carolyn Bailey and Simon Garrod spent a cold and snowy Christmas day. Then further south still, out to where the land is flatter and even the mountains become rare. My new world will be flat and white, as cold as a Rothera winter, my companions and I will be some of the most remote people on the planet. During a storm we will have no chance of help, just a radio link with Rothera and the knowledge that the air crew will return for us. It probably says something about my character when I realise that I am actually looking forward to it. This is the last project of my tour here at Rothera Station, I would love to return if they will have me, but that is far in the future. For now it is time to close this diary, I shall not be around for the next two months and then it's my turn to head for home.

North Bay. Click to enlarge. Mountains close to Rothera. Click to enlarge.

North Bay and mountains close to Rothera

Mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula. Click to enlarge View of mountains further south. Click to enlarge

Mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula and a view of mountains further south
Click on images to enlarge

This has been a fantastic experience and I have to say that I could not have done it without the support of all my friends in the British Antarctic Survey, especially the two winter teams I have served with, plus of course my friends at home who have stayed in contact supporting me all the way. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this diary and I'm grateful to the many people who have been complimentary about it, I hope you have all enjoyed our news and perhaps gained some small insight into how we live our humble but adventurous lives.

My world here is fairly extreme but the station itself does not change that much. I shall be surprised no doubt by the many changes around the world which I will have missed during the last two years. It will feel strange not to be part of the preparations with the winter team this year. This time it is my turn to be on the ship as it departs. I will have touched a latitude of 74 degrees south before turning north for home. Then comes another adventure as I face a long sea journey up the Antarctic Peninsula, across the Drake Passage to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, then north across the world and home. Personally I am pondering on the fact that I have not seen anything of the world this millennium, an odd thought, I hope you have all been looking after it for me.

"Trying to imagine a place where it's always safe and warm,
come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm"

Bob Dylan

From that classic track "Shelter from the Storm". Find time to listen to it, he describes what it's like to go from "British Army Service" to "British Antarctic Survey" and to travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic, much better than I ever could.

Best Wishes for the New Year