Rothera Diary - April 2002

written by Felicity Aston

Well, there goes April, our first full month of Winter. The atmosphere on base is a lot more settled now that everyone has got used to the idea that we are here all alone. The shock of everyone leaving has subsided and the hole they left is gradually being filled by those that are still here as we all get to know each other better. The base doesn't seem to be so quiet and empty any more. So much has happened since the ship left that it is incredible to think that it was only just over a month ago. For a start Rothera itself looks a lot different. There is a good covering of snow on the ground and drifts have started to build up around the buildings. The sunny days are getting fewer and it is getting noticeably darker.

Rothera sits on a lumpy area of rock, called the point, that sticks out of the east side of Adelaide Island. Adelaide Island is 135 km long and only 35 km wide so it is shaped a bit like a long thin kidney. The point is tiny in comparison and is only attached to the main island by a single icy slope known imaginatively as 'the ramp'. Once up the ramp you are faced with a wall of mountains strung along the east side of the island. Once over the mountains the rest of the island is a large flat white expanse, which ends at the coast forming spectacular ice cliffs.

Adelaide Island from the air - Click to enlarge Rothera station - Click to enlarge

Above: Left: Adelaide Island from the air. Rothera is on a tiny dot of rock to the right, just out of shot. You can see the line of mountains down the east side of the Island and the flat Piedmont on the far side of them.
Right: Rothera station with the ramp in the background. The pink mountain in the distance is Mount Bouvier.

The Shambles Glacier - Click to enlarge

Unfortunately there is only one way to get through the mountains to the flat ice beyond and that is through 'the Shambles'. As its name suggests the Shambles glacier is a mess of ice slowly making its way towards the sea, splitting into a maze of crevasses as it rolls forward. Every year a route is flagged through the crevasses picking out the safest ground. The route takes you down a steep slope onto the glacier, keeping close to the slopes of the mountains on one side, before rising out onto the Piedmont (flat expanse of ice) beyond. Passing through is a nerve racking experience as on one side you have hundreds of infinitely deep but hidden crevasses and on the other there are the mountains with hugely over laden cornices and ceracs suspended above you. Given the choice I'm not sure which calamity I'd prefer, the cornices collapsing or falling down a crevasse, both options are likely to be terminal!

Despite this, everyone on base is given two week-long holidays, one before midwinter and the second after midwinter, to go and explore. This month we have been taking advantage of the remaining daylight and relatively warm weather to go out on our first winter trips of the year. Everyone goes out in turn accompanied by a GA and you all follow the same set of procedures for travelling and camping that has been developed by a long history of successful, and sometimes not so successful, field travel over the years. I was one of the first to go out. Paired with Carolyn Bailey (one of the wintering GA's) I made up half of Sledge Bravo. We travelled with Sledge Alpha (John Burleigh, the boatman and Tom Marshall, a GA) and Sledge Charlie (Jim Olson the Doctor and Andy Chapman, a GA). Altogether we made a very sociable group of six.

Everyone travels on ski-doos and in pairs. The GA goes first and you are linked together (ski-doo-sledge-ski-doo-sledge) by long 'linklines' (sturdy ropes). The idea is that if either of the two ski-doos falls through into a crevasse then the weight of the remaining ski-doo and sledges will stop it falling into oblivion - hence the need for STURDY ropes! Ski-doo travel really is unlike any other form of transport on the planet for frustration. Perched on the motorized toboggan ready for the offset you feel confident that every inch of skin is sufficiently covered in enough layers to be able to walk on Mars nevermind just keep out the cold for a few hours travelling. But as soon as you get going the cold finds its way in, a spot on the neck there, a patch under the goggles here - unfortunately, once you are on your way there is nothing you can do about it. It takes so much coordination between the two ski-doos to stop and start when you are connected together, that you'll endure almost any discomfort to avoid stopping. Anyhow, you have such a complexity of layers on, that the chances are you would never find the offending gap in any case!

Ski-doo party - Click to enlarge

Ski-doo tracks - Click to enlarge Ski-doo and sledge - Click to enlarge
Ski-doo travel - Click to enlarge Ski-doo travel - Click to enlarge

Above: Pictures of ski-doo travel. Click on the images to enlarge them. Thanks to Matt Danby for the photos.

A few hours driving brings you through the shambles and you have the choice of turning north or southwards. The field parties that head south usually aim for Teniente Carvajal. This was the British base Adelaide Island until it was handed over to the Chileans in 1976 when Rothera was opened. As a summer-only base it is completely empty during the winters and frequently visited by itinerant FIDS (BAS-speak for personnel down south). I visited Carvajal during one of my trips last year so this time opted to turn northwards instead.

Matt Danby at Carvajal - Click to enlarge The route north - Click to enlarge

Above: Left: Matt Danby at Carvajal. (Matt travelled southwards on his trip later on in the month.)
Right: The route north. You can see the Shambles Glacier in the foreground and Mount Bouvier to the right. Click on the images to enlarge them.

We camped beneath Mount Bouvier, which at 2230 m is one of the largest peaks on the island. Our first night was beautifully clear with an amazing display of stars. We camped, as always, in the same bright orange ventile pyramid tents that have been used since the days of Scott and Shackleton. At night the Tilley lamps inside make them glow a bright red and they really do look spectacular against the starry night sky. From the outside the three tents looked like a row of huge glowing beacons.

A tent at night - Click to enlarge

We went to sleep in this tranquil setting but awoke in a different world - in fact the world appeared to have completely disappeared. Opening the tent in the morning you couldn't even see the sledges less than six feet away, for the thick snow speeding past at 50 knots. The noise of the wind inside the tent was incredible, it felt like the tent was about to be ripped away from above us - but thankfully it stayed put! The storm raged for three days, slowly burying tents ski-doos and sledges in four feet of snow (which took a day and a half to dig out!) by which time we were due home. This is the norm with winter trips, thanks to the unpredictable nature of Antarctic weather. It is commonly joked that the only sunny days on a winter trip are the day you leave base and the day you return! In fact we were lucky and had a few clear days on the way home to do a bit of exploring. Gary Wilson, the base chippy, travelled to the same area a few weeks later and had similar troubles with the weather.

"I woke with a start. The wind was howling and beating against the fabric of the tent. Barely audible over this tremendous noise was the contented snoring of my GA. I huddled in the warmth of my sleeping bag and considered waking him to warn him of our plight - our pyramid tent against the unstoppable forces of Nature....

Towards the end of summer the Wintering crew were taken on one of two flights in the Dash 7 to reconnoitre the local area for winter trips. Under a cloudless blue sky on a perfect late summer's morning, with the reassuring thump of the Dash's engines pounding and an exciting narrative from the tour guide, Simon, my eyes alighted on the Mt Reeves/Bouvier area. Instantly I knew this was for me. The opportunity to stand atop Mt Reeves and gaze on the splendour of the Arrowsmith Peninsula, Day Island, Laubeuf Fjord and Hanusse Bay was on offer how could I refuse? Sadly the weather, on my trip, had other ideas. The image here shows Gary Wilson and his GA Adam Hunt.

Gary and Adam - Click to enlarge

We left Rothera in ideal ski-dooing conditions recent snowfall had smoothed out the sastrugi allowing us to move at a steady pace without jarring our fillings loose! Passing the familiar flanks of Stork Ridge and into (for me anyway) pastures new. We skirted Stokes Peaks and the massive "Trident" and reached the top of McCallum Pass. We paused and looked down on the chaotic crevassing of the Shambles Glacier.

A flagged route marks a safe descent and ascent through this area. So with sledge brakes on we rode into the pass. The scenery was marvellous with Mt Gwendolyn looming over us at the bottom where we stopped to take off the brakes. This done we then rode on until the ascent to take us out of the Shambles area began and "double-headed" (both ski-doos pulling one sledge) up the rise to the "P-Buttress" area and paused for lunch.

The journey from "P-Buttress" to the campsite is relatively flat cruising with a wall of mountains to the right and a flat open expanse opposite. But there are still perils to trap the unwary and through the wits, guile and cunning of my GA these were safely negotiated. Incidentally, dear reader, I asked my GA what is takes to become a GA, "Become?! Become?!" he said "it's a calling and let me tell you few are called and even fewer make the grade". "Oh" I replied.

We reached the campsite after riding through falling snow, it was quite surreal a blue sky overhead, the sound of the 'doos muffled and a million flashing snowflakes floating by, organised ourselves into "tent man" and "outside man" and made camp. This done we sat back and enjoyed a welcome cuppa.

To my mind no campsite is complete without a place to "ease nature". Now it may be said of me, that my mountaineering skills are perhaps not the sharpest in the world (no calling for me) but this cannot be said of my Antarctic privvies! Sadly this one was never used in anger because of the storm on the first night. Next morning only a shovel and flag remained where once this great work of topiary in snow stood.

So pinned down by the weather we filled our days with reading, tea, and Scrabble; with another party camped nearby to join in the games, some of them were bitterly fought - no quarter given none expected - crikey!

The weather eased enough for us to make two short ski-doo journeys, one to an area near Landauer Point and the other almost to the Mt Reeves/Bouvier col. On both occasions the "snowscapes" we looked upon were of another world. Rolling seas of sastrugi, blankets of cloud softening the peaks, Mt Machatschek wearing a lenticular crown and the colours in the sky. These were amazing, wonderful pastel shades diffused by the frosty air. The night sky was no less dramatic the blackness of space studded with millions of pinpricks of light.

All too soon it was time to return to Rothera, the summits would have to wait for another day, and our journey back was quite eventful. A blanket of freezing fog (the riming this caused on our clothing and equipment was amazing, our visors were encrusted with ice several millimetres thick!) forced us to make camp and spend an extra night under canvas. The following morning dawned fair and we rode gently back to Rothera to a chorus of hurrahs and much back slapping.

Footnote: Certain details of tent life have been omitted in respect to standards of public decency. Also this account of derring-do on the Fuchs Ice Piedmont does waver from the truth slightly!!

Joie de vivre,
Gary W.

Sunset - Click to enlarge

We may complain and make fun of the minor discomforts faced on our trips but I think all of us would agree that camping out in the Antarctic is something that you have to rank as one of the most bizarre experiences of a lifetime. Cocooned inside the pyramid tents protected from the outside by padded rugs and down sleeping bags like a sheik in the desert, it is almost a surprise to wriggle out of the circular doorway and find yourself to be the only blip of colour on the horizon in a flat, white world. It makes you feel very small and perhaps just a little vulnerable but very, very lucky.

John was half of sledge Alpha during our winter trip. We travelled together so here is his account of our 'holiday':

MY WINTER TRIP: By John Burleigh

"With the departure of the Ernest Shackleton from Rothera base, the start of winter had begun and after a few days preparing the base for the winter period, myself and Tom Marshall were ready to head out north to explore and journey across the Island, weather and snow conditions allowing. The night before departure was filled with last minute preparations and scrutinizing met charts and satellite pictures. The coming weather was summarized by several on base who described the oncoming weather system isobars as similar in structure to that of a dart board! It was going to be windy, and two days into the trip we were not to be disappointed.

The morning of departure was clear and bright but quite cold; we were all glad of the extra warm gear that we were able to draw from stores as part of the preparations made previously. Bear paw mitts, mad bomber hats and down filled tent socks ensured that if you were cold then you weren't wearing the right piece of gear at the right time. Motorbike helmet, waist harness with half a ton of jingly janglies (climbing gear), mukluk boots, and ski goggles completed the whole outfit so that simply jumping off the ski-doo and altering a keel iron on one of the sledges meant a fight with gloves, karabiners, spanners, ski-doo killcords and safety lines. By late afternoon we had made good progress and had decided to stay with the other two groups, it didn't take long to get used to the various procedures and hand signals that were essential to avoid time consuming delays and damage to the equipment.

The process of journeying in Antarctica is not a simple one, hazards from crevasses, white out conditions, sastrugi (hard snow formations on the surface of the snow), and changeable weather makes for a set of dynamics that have to be constantly assessed and countered for as early as possible to avoid problems that can often become far worse through rapidly changing conditions. One ongoing source of stress and frustration was the linked ski-doo and sledge travel that was necessary throughout the whole trip. Two sledges, two ski-doos and their riders, are all connected by a series of long ropes, karabiners, and hard rubber protective sleeves. The field guide leads the whole train out followed by a length of rope, then a sledge. This sledge is then trailing another length of rope which the second ski-doo is attached to which is also pulling another sledge. It sounds complicated and it was, however after narrowly avoiding tipping my sledge over, and running over the other rope and sledge in front of me, I learned to react quickly to change in speed, direction and how best to sit to watch both in front of me and also behind.

We managed a good pace throughout the day and the other two groups made the whole party look like a band of travelling tinkies, sledges piled high with equipment, colourful suits and helmets standing out against the white and blue of the surrounding plateau. The views on that first day were awesome, huge mountains, glacier snouts, crevasses and massive cols surrounded us for most of the morning and into the early afternoon; at 25 kmph you get more than enough time to take it all in and if you were really co-ordinated it was possible to photograph the scenes around you whilst traveling. (Well some of us had more success with this than others!) Travel that day stopped when blowing winds reduced visibility and contrast to levels that were dangerous for further movement.

Camping in Antarctica is quite an undertaking, from stopping in the late afternoon, normally around 1600-1700 hrs to finally getting the first mug of tea down in a slowly warming tent takes roughly two and a half hours if both members of the group work hard and know their tasks. Breaking camp isn't any quicker so after linked travel for most of the day followed by the inevitable pitching and organising process that goes on inside and outside the tent, we were all tired and starving!

The GA's knew the tasks that needed to be done, constantly planning for the worst case scenario. Storm pitching of the tents, correctly angled entrance porches, snow blocks cut for water and stored in between the inner and outer tent walls, P-bags (BAS sleeping system) laid out inside, wrapping the ski-doos in a tarpaulin for protection and toilet facilities (interesting work when it's blowing 40 knots and the huge sheet is about to launch you into space.) The right boxes inside and the right ones outside, they're all colour coded and the contents known to everybody, but it's important that they go in the right place as weather can often be so bad that getting out of the tent to fetch an item of clothing or item of food from another box is out of the question. I've been camping and traveling in remote places for years with my own trusty gear and methods to ensure comfort but you start an entirely new learning process when living inside a pyramid tent in the Antarctic. Get something wrong or ignore a basic essential and life at best can be very uncomfortable and at worst be life threatening. Time spent getting things organised makes for an extremely cosy living space and one which has been tested for years by past BAS folk.

After an evening radio schedule (SCHED) with base, a sound nights sleep and a morning call on the mobile satellite phone to test whether it worked, we packed up and were already to go by 11.30!! Well it wasn't a classic alpine start 4 am job, but another 3 hours of packing up meant that after an hour of traveling it was time for lunch! The day was amazingly still and the views for the second day in a row stunning. We climbed to the base of Mt. Reeves with the ski-doos and sledges and basked in a warm sun that made the whole place feel like the Med. Just being there was enough, the planned climb was abandoned due to huge quantities of soft snow which made further travel on ski-doos impossible and walking not feasible for the amount of light we had left. Another 3 hours saw us camped again and enjoying the comforts of Tom's excellent culinary skills, countless cups of tea and large measures of Baileys. Andy and Jim, Carolyn and Felicity were right next door so plans were made for an evening in one of the tents having a chat and plenty of tea! Not long after it got dark, it also got windy.

At first the wind grew steadily, the tents are solid and take a good blow before they start to shake, however it wasn't long before this was also happening and blown snow showered down on us through the tent exhaust pipe that is fastened to the top of the pyramid structure we were now concerned might blow away! Crawling into our bivi bags we both ensured we knew where key items were located around our own personal sleeping space in case we did find ourselves without a tent. We watched the canvas get repeatedly slammed by 60 knot plus gusts and listened to the wind ease and then build in huge bellowing blasts that did not ease through the whole night and continued throughout the next day.

Trips outside the tent were on occasions not possible and mostly very unpleasant but worth the effort for an hour or two chatting with the other tent bound travelers who sacrificed the comfort of a two man tent squeezing 4 extra fleece and thermal clad folk in for biscuits brown, chocolate and gallons of tea.

Tom and I learnt to play Othello and read at least one book each, we both managed to phone family back in the U.K. using the satellite phone and talked with the other tents on VHF radio during the day when the weather was too bad to get outside. After 4 nights of munch (dehydrated meat) curried, Mexican, and Italian themes all adding some variety to an otherwise rather bland choice of grub I decided to cook pasta without it and the results were not bad considering we were running out of " Tomato and Pepper chutney" which quite frankly makes everything taste pretty good.

The weather showed signs of improving so as a group we once again moved on and managed to get back to a location not more than 30 km from base. From here we spent another two nights waiting for a suitable weather window and enjoyed yet more munch with increasingly desperate methods of flavouring employed to add variety. Soft snow on a firm base made digging in at our last location tiring and time consuming, however the packing up was much harder as strong winds through the last two nights created big drifts around the tent and the ski-doos and sledges.

Journeying back to base saw us driving through a mixture of poor visibility, strong winds and finally clear skies as we arrived at the caboose on the skiway above Rothera base.

In all we were out from base for 10 days, 4 more than was actually planned on our first winter trip. The weather was not great for much of the time however the few occasions we did experience clear skies and relative calm made the whole journey an awesome experience and one which was made even more enjoyable for travelling with the others who helped make long hours stuck inside tents pass quickly.

It's only 6 weeks or so before midwinter and not long before the second trips start, I now know what to expect for next time,(excluding the weather!) but even the thought of being tent bound isn't all that bad when I consider the opportunity we have to travel in such an untouched wilderness. An amazing holiday.....thanks BAS!"


By Felicity Aston