Rothera Diary - February 2002

written by Felicity Aston

Sledge Echo with a plane load of kit to be uplifted - Click to enlarge

February is the end of the field season so all the science parties that have been out in the field are uplifted and brought back to Rothera. After weeks and sometimes months out in the field the scientists and their GA's (Antarctic term #1: General Assistant - Mountaineering type person who accompanies field parties to spot crevasses etc) sit and wait for the Twin Otters of the Air Unit to collect them. Some of them had been out for as long as 3 months so they were pretty eager to get back to Rothera for a well-needed shower and some food not based on Munch (Antarctic term #2: Munch - dehydrated beef supplied in the manfood boxes. Tastes OK as long as you soak it for hours). Everything down to tents, sledges, science kit and skidoos are loaded into the otters so most uplifts take several flights and a lot of heaving. A couple of times I have watched a pilot stand in the back of a Twin Otter directing an impossible amount of kit into the back of a plane like a tardis.

Once all the field parties were back at Rothera the Air Unit were busy flying drums of aviation fuel all over the place to be depoted ready for next year. AVTUR (Antarctic term # 3: AVTUR - aviation fuel) drums are a part of life in the Antarctic. If you are lucky enough to get out into the field you are most likely to be asked to push, pull, lift or dig out at least a couple of drums. Matt Mcleish spent a few days with Dave Routledge out on the Ronne Ice shelf, where he got to know the art of depoting- the BAS way......

"It all started with a hot tip off from HQ that there was going to be an imminent strike from the east leaving us off our guard and with our pants down. In response to this the Rothera defence force had to send in its counter attack known only as Sledge Foxtrot. Once in position we waited vigilantly for the enemy to pounce. We waited. I made the brews. We waited some more!! Dave got some munch on the go. After a few hours we thought it best to uncover our secret fuel depot in preparation for the support elements coming from our rear (leave it!). After this we waited a further 8 days enduring countless storms more biscuit browns than you could pave a street with and the very worst of Geoffrey Archer novels only to be told that our presence was enough to drive the enemy back home with there tail between there legs. Once back to the protection of Fossil Bluff, the local safe house, I was given orders to report back to Rothera for tea and medals while Dave was sent to help with the retreat from the wind swept Sky Blu but that's another story. All in all a valiant tale told with a few white lies."

(Matt has been seconded to us from the Royal Signals for the summer season as a Radio Operator. As you can see, he is missing Army life!)

The very end of the field season is marked by the shut-down of the two forward outposts, Sky Blu and Fossil Bluff. Sky Blu is the furthest south and is closed first. Life at Sky Blu is fairly basic. You live in a red submarine-like shell, called a melon-hut, and sleep in Pyramid tents. Most of your time is spent clearing snowdrifts from the blue ice runway with a famously temperamental snow -blower and the rest of the time is spent shifting drums. The only concession to comfort is a combustible toilet identical to the one at Fossil Bluff. Sky Blu is a spectacular place but people either love it or hate it. It is affectionately thought of by most as a penal colony! Tom Marshall spent just over 2 months there this season and was there to close it down.

"A slightly manic shut down for Sky-Blu this year with only a day's notice before the last plane left for the season. However, with the help of Jack (who likes spending time in the field about as much as penguins like deep fat fryers), Kylie (the mad woman from walkabout creek), Adam and various others, all was packed away nicely, ready for the lucky blighters who get to live there next season.

'Job Advert for Sky-Blu:
Persons wanted with extensive experience of tea drinking, staring at walls and daydreaming. Previous history of unemployment would be advantageous. Occasional 24 hour bursts of manic activity also necessary. Ideal candidate must be capable of hibernation, mostly, and hyperactivity when exposed to large doses of aviation fuel, occasionally.'

Sky Blu - Click to enlarge Inside the melon hut at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge

Above: Sky Blu with the melon hut on the left and combustible toilet on the right (L) and inside the melon hut (R)
Click on the images to enlarge

The Bluff is far more civilized and thankfully the domain of the met people. Richard and I (The two wintering met people) were at the Bluff to shut it down for the winter. Once the planes had returned from Sky Blu we could start packing away all the equipment that wouldn't be needed again until next year. We tied down or packed away anything outside the hut and marked everything with black flags on long bamboo poles - when we come back next season most things will be buried in snow so the flags are the only indication of where things are! Then we sat and waited for the Cavalry to arrive.

Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

Fossil Bluff clean-up team - Click to enlarge

Three red Otters landed one after the other on the skiway, full of willing volunteers to help with the final tidy up. Jack, Nick, Chum, Joe and Paul of the Air Unit and shameless jolly merchants Keith, Rob, Don and Tom piled up to the hut and demanded jobs. Most of the packing can't actually be done until the last minute, so that evening we had time to celebrate the end of another season at the Bluff with a warming cocktail or two created by Jack the pilot - who was very relieved never to have to go back to Sky Blu again! The picture here shows the Fossil Bluff Shutdown Team (Rob, Don, Me, Joe, Paul, Tom, Richard, Keith, Nick, Jack and Chum.) Click on the image for a better view.

The next morning was an efficient chaos packing away all the met equipment, sealing up windows and doors, covering flues and ferrying equipment out to the planes parked on the skiway. The very last job was taking down the Union Jack that has flown continuously outside the hut since we arrived in October. A most British ceremony fitting the most southerly point of the British empire (Chum pointed out that Halley didn't count as it is floating on an ice shelf ). Jack had the honour of bringing down the flag, as it was his last season south with BAS.

A few hours later I sat in the back of the first Otter to leave and watched the few people left scuttling around on the skiway doing last- last minute jobs. It was a dull snowy day and there was a real sense that winter was here and it was about time that we were gone.

Saying goodbye to the skiway at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

A band performs on Folk Night - Click to enlarge

The end of the field season is traditionally celebrated at Rothera with Folk Night. It's called Folk Night but I have yet to see anything remotely 'folky' about it. A stage is built in the sledge store and anyone struck by inspiration is invited to perform. This year there were a lot of musical debuts. The band kept morphing and getting larger. The entire band list must have been 20 people or so - some serious, some funny and some just terrible (but I think that was the point). Steve the mech demonstrated the steam engine that he's spent the last month creating out of a diving cylinder and an old primus - don't ask! Another highlight was the premiere of Rothera's first bond movie, filmed by Jenny the doctor and starring Matt McLeish as Bond. It had everything from boat chases to bond girls and an unforgettable title scene involving a pilot and a portaloo!

A band perfroms on Folk Night - Click to enlarge A scene from the Bond Film - Click to enlarge

Above: Another band performs on Folk Night (L) and a scene from the Bond Film (R) with the Dash7 in the background (An expensive prop!!)
Click on the images to enlarge

So, we are one step closer to winter. Folk Night, as always, was a good note to end on before the Air Unit fly north in a few days time. With all the flying finished you'd think things would calm down but somehow they're still as busy. All those leaving in March have started to pack and talk about the first things they are going to do when they get home. - Have a pint of draught Guinness - drink a pint of milk - go on holiday to a very hot, sunny place. Every day my friend Keith, who is leaving on the ship after a two year stint, greets me with "I've got less days than you've got months!" Today it changed to "I've got less hours than you've got days!" So the end of the season must be getting closer.

Keith - looking forward to getting home - Click to enlarge

Felicity Aston