Rothera Diary - May 2002

written by Felicity Aston

I wandered down the runway yesterday, the frozen snow on the ground making a hard tinny clack as I walked over it in my padded boots. Despite being wrapped up in hats and gloves the cold began to find its way in. Within minutes my face stung and my nose began to dribble. I tried to sink my whole body further into the warmth of my jacket but it was no good. Slowly my fingers turned to plastic making it difficult to operate my camera as I tried to take pictures and my face felt numb and stiff. The recent spate of cold weather has been quite a new experience for us at Rothera. The temperatures have been regularly below -20° C which is nothing for those hardy souls over at Halley but is unusual here. It has been cold enough to freeze my hair as I walked over to my office in the mornings, coating it in a thin layer of frost and making me look like I'd gone grey! On a particularly cold day we tried throwing boiling water into the air only to see it freeze into a cloud of steam and dust before it hit the ground. Another morning everything had been covered in a thick layer of spiky hoar frost which transformed even the ugliest radio antennas into delicate spiders webs strung across the Point.

Combined with the calm weather the cold has also allowed small ice crystals to form on the flat sea which gradually froze together until the sea was covered in a flimsy film of thin gray ice. From high on the ridge above the base, looking down on the stretch of water between our island and the main peninsula 30 km away, I could see the swirling patterns of the young ice. The glossy, newly formed ice mixed in huge swirls with the thicker gray ice. It mirrored the colours of the sky and the sharp angles of the mountains, reminding me of wet sand on the beach at low tide. With growing excitement we watched as day by day the ice got thicker. Its increasing weight calmed the motion of the sea, so that with no wind, an utter silence fell on the base. I have never known such complete silence anywhere. Suddenly we are no longer nestled on a tiny limpet of rock clinging to the coast but are part of a new and unfamiliar landscape with no sound and no movement. Except for the occasional string of birds flying by in graceful lines it could be that the whole world and not just the ocean had frozen.

The first of us to venture out onto the ice were the divers in their dry suits. They cut large rectangular holes in the ice just big enough for two of them to dive into the icy blue depths beneath. Soon after, the GA's ventured out onto the ice to test the thickness. Adam Hunt was one of the GA's who went out drilling:

"Over the past few weeks our attitude to sea ice has developed as fast as the ice has thickened. The first tentative steps involved drilling test holes every few feet and imploring one another to tread gently. Our latest achievements include playing cricket amongst the icebergs, and haring about by skidoo in the pursuit of science. Recently our Polar Medal aspirant Commander Garrod demonstrated his Antarctic acclimatisation, according to tradition, by leaping fully clothed through a hole in the sea ice and proceeding to bob about. He looked surprisingly comfortable in the water, but did subsequently put on an impressive turn of speed in pursuit of a hot shower.

Two questions remain on everyone's lips:
a) Will it get so thick that the ship can't relieve us?
and b) Will it all blow away tonight?

If the sea ice is still with us when the post midwinter trips start, this will effectively mean release from our island prison. Obviously we will still be in a continental prison, with all that that involves - the smell of garlic, warders with submachine guns, etc. etc. Knowing that the ice could just blow away, everyone on base has been enthusiastically getting out and exploring our changed environment. The difference between Rothera now and Rothera during the summer is gobsmacking. And, astonishingly, even the weather has been better. I'm having a fantastic time, and so I think is everyone else."


Once the OK had been given, small groups of us were allowed to ski over to Mackay Point, a snowy headland 4 km across the ice from station. Strapping on long thin Telemark skis we set off from the sledge store. Telemarks are notoriously temperamental cross-country skis that are only attached at the toe. Traveling across ice on them is a bit like sliding along a polished wood floor in your socks. As one of my fellow stumblers said as he collapsed into another ungainly heap on the ice (not 50 ft from the door) 'You need ankles of rubber!'. Skiing away from base the sea ice feels just like solid ground and you quickly forget you are delicately suspended above the fatally cold ocean. The only reminder are the occasional leads that have refrozen but are still visible or the miniature pressure ridges where separate floes have been forced together and over each other. Icebergs the size of houses are trapped in the ice like the pieces in a huge game of chess or statues in an immense roman ruin. We weaved our way between them marveling at the shapes carved by the water and the colours of the ice. It is amazing to get up so close to these huge ice sculptures that usually float by just out of reach.

Gary Middleton and Paul Freeman also took the opportunity to ski on the sea ice:

"May has seen the arrival of what we were all hoping for this winter; sea ice, and lots of it! Over the last few weeks it has been growing steadily thicker and has reached a such safe thickness that we can ski, ride skidoos and even play cricket on it. My first trip onto the ice, with Matt Danby and Jim Olson saw us heading for Killingbeck Island, taking in some detours around the grounded icebergs in our path - a fantastic sight. After scaling the north face of Killingbeck, we took a summit photo then warned up with some hot tea and chocolate before the long journey back to base. The following Saturday saw a few of us ski to Lagoon Island, a 10 km round trip. Quite hard work when you are used to skidoos for getting around! It is a great feeling to be able to put on a pair of skis and go over to one of the islands on what was a month ago open water. It makes a welcome change from the confinements of base. Hopefully the sea ice will stay with us for the whole of the winter so that we can make use of it during our winter trips."


"It's a weird feeling walking on sea water that has frozen. I didn't think that the sea could freeze but there are a few factors that make it possible - the temperature dropping, the wind hardly moving the windsocks and the sea becoming calmer. Every step is filled with excitement as you move further out from base and further out to sea. The sea is now quiet with no more seals or whales until it all goes in a few months when it will be back to square one again, full of life. It's another dark morning in the Antarctic on Rothera Station. As the morning gets lighter at 11 you cannot miss the morning rainbow of colours on the horizon near Jenny Island to the south, while in the north you get some beautiful reddy-orange and yellow colours which I find brightens up my day."


Winter sun at Rothera - Click to enlarge Winter sun at Rothera - Click to enlarge Winter sun at Rothera - Click to enlarge

Above: The fading light of the sun in winter at Rothera offers some spectacular views. Click on the images to enlarge them.

For weeks we have been watching the sun drag itself above the horizon with increasing reluctance. It would glint between the distant peaks for a few hours before gratefully sinking out of view, staining the sky a fantastic array of sugary pinks, dark blues and a whole variety of purples. As the time between sunrises and sunsets became ever shorter we were treated to almost permanent sunscapes. The mountain peaks glowed red from 11 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon and the icebergs were tinted peppermint green with the low sun stretching long shadows behind them, across the ice.

The sun finally lost its daily battle with the sky and doesn't appear from behind the mountains anymore. With no direct sunlight our only option was to party instead. The two mechanics Gary Middleton and Matt Danby set about transforming the breezy garage workshop into a tropical paradise for our annual sundown Barbeque. They almost succeeded! Sawdust was liberally shoveled onto the floor as a sand substitute, a heater took the chill out of the air and a veritable rainforest of make-believe palm trees sprouted. We even had a deckchair!

Beach party in the garage - Click to enlarge Beach party in the garage - Click to enlarge

Above: Left: the beach party in full swing. Right: Simon Garrod relaxes in true Brit style complete with knotted handkerchief. Click on the images for a larger version.

While most of us were trying our hardest to forget the cold outside and enjoy our newfound beach resort, others were positively reveling in the chance to get as cold as possible! Andy Chapman, GA, explains:

"In an effort to make the long winter not seem too long, I with Phil Horne, Jim Olson and John Burleigh went to get away from everyone else, and everyone else had the chance to get away from us. On the Friday Phil and I went with pulks (small manhauling sledges) on skis at 5 pm in the dark, by head torch, up to the skiway and pitched the Northface VE 25 tent. After a cold night we headed out towards Badger Buttress. As the buttress came out of the mist we could easily pick a route, which we ascended to a spectacular summit view of the sea ice in Ryder bay.

John and Jim also headed up to the skiway. When we got back to the tent they were busy building an igloo that they finished by 8 pm using a Tilley lamp as light and some unusual roof supports - the flags that were used as my tent pegs! Phil opted to ski down to the station. After another very cold night I went with John and Jim to North Stork. We ascended it by a straightforward grade 2 route and then the route joins the classic line 'Anatomy of a dog' to the top. We descended and made our way back to pack up the tent. Heading back to base we arrived in the dark in time to catch the sched with Halley at 5.15pm. An active weekend! Back to a week of sea ice drilling and Nansen sledge repairs."


Jim and Jon's igloo - Click to enlarge Jim and Jon in their igloo - Click to enlarge

Above: Jim Olson, John Burleigh and their igloo. Click the images to enlarge them.

By Felicity Aston