Our winter ended in a murky, overcast afternoon with a thick blanket of dirty grey cloud hanging low over base. A handful of people had gathered in the ops tower to watch for the planes - our first visitors at Rothera for 7 months. The rest of the winterers were clustered around the hangar doors. Simon (our Winter Base Commander) paced the apron nervously 'as if he was waiting for a birth' as someone put it. The weeks of preparation were over - we'd had days of 'scrubout', cleaning everything from the doors to the floors and the mechs had been driving up and down the runway clearing snow for an eternity. We were ready!
Above: Rothera from the air - Click to enlarge
Chums voice crackled over the radio from the leading otter to say that he was only six miles out. The familiar voice brought back vague memories of last summer and suddenly made the whole thing much more imminent. All of us scanned the gloomy skies to the south looking for any sign of them. A small dark speck slowly enlarged from a dot to a dash to a tiny red plane standing out against the grey. It flew past us followed closely by a battery of binoculars and cameras before turning inwards and landing neatly infront of the apron with a roar. The other three planes emerged in quick succession, Nick adding a bounce or two to his landing as he touched down. A voice that could have come straight out of a biggles book announced his arrival over the radio, "Penguin 632 on the deck......after a fashion."
Above: Left - Our first sighting of the air unit, and right - a Twin Otter on the apron. Click the images to enlarge them.
The first plane taxied towards the welcoming committee at the hangar, the winterers hanging back like a group of school children pushed forward to meet a dignitary. "Well, that's that then" said somebody. The arrival of the Air Unit marks the end of our winter. Not far behind them will be more planes and more people. The base becomes a research station again rather than our private residence. For me the end of winter had been signalled a few days earlier. All through winter the 20 of us have sat down together on one long table for meals. In preparation for summer the tables had been split into several smaller tables and it was this change in dinning room arrangement that made me realise that summer was on its way.
As much as we'd all like winter to carry on forever, summer does bring with it some advantages. Before the air unit had finished sorting out the planes for the evening the boxes of freshies they'd brought with them were being carried in through the door of the main building. A single large tomato was sliced up to share around. Gary Wilson the chippy came in to claim his slice popping it all in his mouth in one go, a big grin spreading across his face as he chewed. "Its not so much the taste but the texture" he enthused. Meanwhile Doctor Jim delicately sprinkled salt and pepper on his tiny portion, hunched over it as if someone was likely to snatch it away at any minute. "I want to make sure I get the most of mine." he said with his eyes on the next slice. Boxes of oranges and two big bags of mail followed the tomatoes. By the time the air unit made it over from the hangar all 20 winterers were sat around the tables noisily slurping oranges as we sorted through our little piles of mail. Envelopes were ripped open and photos or letters from family and friends were passed round, news from bygone winterers passed on and chocolate shared out. It was fantastic.
Winterers often wonder what the new people will make of us all - have we developed any strange ways over the winter? A twitch of the right eye here, an unexplained in-joke there? Greg flew into Rothera in the first twin otter with Chum the chief pilot. Not only was he the first to touch down but this is also his first season in Antarctica as one of the air unit pilots. This is what he made of it all:
"My Antarctic adventure began back in March this year when I was interviewed for a job as a pilot for the British Antarctic Survey. Meeting the Chief and Deputy Chief Pilot was an interesting experience in itself. I left the interview thinking; these guys are obviously completely mad, it sounds like an amazing job, I would love to do it, but probably didn't have a snowball's chance of getting it. Much to my surprise I came up a winner, and I was about to be a pilot in Antarctica (subject to a bi-lateral agreement with my wife of course).
The rigors of training for my shiny new job didn't start until June. It was very stressful spending a week in sunny Land's End completing the Twin Otter ground school. The Twin Otter is an uncomplicated aircraft, so the course was not too taxing. It was, however, to be another month before the serious fun of flying training began.
The Twin Otter is a great aircraft for pilots and within a few hours of flying it you soon appreciate how rugged and reliable it really is. Short field takeoffs and landings are impressive and the aircraft is a good instrument flying platform. Combine this with impressive load carrying ability and you can soon see why it is the aircraft of choice for the Antarctic environment. The only thing the Twin Otter doesn't do well is get anywhere in a hurry, but I figure the countryside is always best viewed at a leisurely pace.
With the initial training and aircraft type rating completed, I was then set loose in the UK. Flying backwards and forwards to Guernsey, where the aircraft are maintained, allowed me a fantastic settling in period, giving me 50 hours experience in the aircraft before I got anywhere near Antarctica. With training phases one and two out of the way, the excitement really started to build, the ferry flight south was quickly approaching.
Above: Greg Marks, BAS Pilot. Click to enlarge
The Air Unit departed Guernsey on the 8th of October in aircraft loaded to capacity with fuel and snacks. The flight south is a story in itself, you could probably make it into a small book, but far too much for here. The entire trip was very, very hard work and at no point did we even attempt to enjoy ourselves, ever, at all. Enough said. The flight took us through Spain, Tenerife, Cape Verde Islands, down the East coast of Brazil into Uruguay and then out to the Falkland Islands. The whole exercise took nine days and consisted of around 60 hours flying, with the longest leg being Praia (Cape Verde Islands) to Natal (Brazil) across the Atlantic Ocean at 10 hours 25 minutes.
Disappointingly, the leg from Stanley (Falkland Islands) to Rothera (Antarctica) saw us in cloud for most of the way, so no views of the Peninsula. We broke out of the cloud at around 2000 feet on the approach and I for one was completely gobsmacked. You can try and imagine what its going to be like here until you are blue in the face, but it doesn't in any way prepare you for seeing Antarctica for the first time.
As we taxied in the people who had wintered over down here all gathered at the hanger to meet us, carrying off the mailbags and the fresh vegetables at an almost indecent pace. The aircraft were tucked away into the hangar and a short tour of the base conducted.
Settling in was fairly quick with a spell of excellent weather helping things along. Field training was completed in the first week and then it was up to the skiway in the Twin Otter for some airborne fun on skis.
I think I am going to rather enjoy my new job!!"
Not all of October was spent preparing for the summer onslaught. Long sunny days meant that we could make the most of the empty miles of sea ice and surrounding islands while we still had the place to ourselves. Winter definitely ended on a high with a busy few weeks full of birthday celebrations as Matt Danby describes below:
"The first week of October turned out to be one of the best weeks of the winter as there were 4 birthdays in this week. The first birthday was Dave Bowden's on the last day of September. To mark this occasion a lot of us all went up to Vals for the evening. With a bit more daylight we were able to enjoy the evening boarding, skiing or hurtling down Vals on other means like inner tubes or the so called 'sledge of death' - which was great fun. A few drinks were also in order and a birthday cake made by Dave's fellow marine team members Phil, Rayner and John.
Above: The Sledge Party at Anchorage. Click to enlarge
We didn't have long to wait before the next birthday which was Johns. We all had the afternoon off work and because it was a beautiful day and the sea ice was still good most of the base headed over to Anchorage island - the scene of some great boarding and then in the evening we headed over to the hut on Lagoon for dinner and drinks around a fire outside the hut. I think we must have had the record for the most people over at the islands at one time ever. Again the marine team made a superb cake for one of its hard working staff.
Above: Top - Matt Danby and Dave Molyneaux. Bottom - some sumo contenders. Click the images to enlarge them.
The next birthday was my birthday and this was spent on base. After a superb meal the bar became a sumo wrestling ring! Aided by huge 'doo suits filled with cushions we all had to fight it out to be the overall winner. This was done in a league format but to my own disappointment I was knocked out in the second round by a hard challenging Dave Molyenaux.The overall winner was Dave Bowden proving there was life in the old dog yet!! We were up into the small hours and a good night was had by all.
Above: The defeated sumo - Click to enlarge
The next birthday was that of the lovely Felicity. The venue of this party was back at Anchorage island for fun on the slopes and drinks in beautiful surroundings. We had the party sledge behind a skidoo with balloons etc which looked a surreal sight heading over the sea ice. Again it was a lovely day. The evening was spent back in the bar but to make Felicity's day she had the pleasure of it being a 'ladies night' so all the lads dressed up as women with some quite scary results!! As we were all dressed as women it was decided that our wintering group photo should be taken on this occasion so anyone coming to Rothera will see the results. It turned into a "girlie sleep over" in the bar with duvets and cushions to make everyone comfortable watching episodes of Friends. What a fantastic week before the planes arrived to mark the start of summer and the end of a fantastic winter!"
Above: Top - Ladies night. Bottom - Rothera Winterers 2002. Click the images for larger and scarier versions!
So my last Antarctic winter is over. Months that have been made special by the people as well as the surroundings. Coming back from the islands on my birthday, huddled on a skidoo with the others and watching this amazing world of snow and ice fly by, I was struck by how bizarre my life has been over the last two years and looking back I am pleased that it has been that way. Not many people get to see all the faces of Antarctica as closely as we have and I'm glad that I have been one of the few.
Above: Tom, Rich, Felicity, Stew, Pete and Matt - Click to enlarge
By Felicity Aston