Rothera Diary - November 2002

written by Felicity Aston

The low rumble of a plane echoed around the snow draped valley behind me. Scanning the white horizon I saw a pair of shiny red wings appear out of the snow, tilting as it followed the curved line of the cliffs towards us. Andy and Baz ran out of the hut just in time to see the sun glinting metal of the Otters undercarriage scream overhead. We all jumped up and down waving madly as the plane banked sharply into the sky, flashing us the top of its wings before straightening up and heading for home. With big grins we watched the bright red blob, standing out against the blue and white of Antarctica, get steadily smaller until it disappeared between a gap in the cliffs and was gone.

Twin Otter takes off from Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

Above: A Twin Otter takes of from Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

I turned to look at the view, a white world - silent and still. 200 miles from the nearest person, the three of us had been dropped off at Fossil Bluff to open it up for the season. It is a wonderful spot. A tiny wooden hut perched up high on the moraine, backed against the cliffs, looking out over the wide sound towards the mountain ranges beyond. The solid Batterbees, heavy with immense rock faces, line up directly opposite while the mystical Pegasus, hovering in the distance, seem to float above the gently shaded white. I wallowed in the sunshine for a bit - it was great to be back.

The hut at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge Inside the hut at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge
The view from the hut at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

Above: The hut at Fossil Bluff, the inside of the hut and the view across the Sound. Click the images to enlarge them.

Despite having lain empty for 8 months the hut was in remarkably good shape. There was quite a lot of snow around but barely anything that required a shovel. The hut, of course, was just as we had left it. Windows boarded up, chairs on tables. First job was to light the aga. It was -30°C when we arrived and everything was frozen, from the jars and tins of food on the shelves to the big water tank in the corner, which we had forgotten to empty before we left at the end of last season. (The resulting oversized ice cube took over a week to melt!). After an hour of unpacking boxes the radio was up and working, the infamous 'rocket powered loo' operational and the tanks refueled. All that was left to do was raise the flag. Chum unfurled the Union Jack as the rest of us hovered around the door feeling as if we should be singing something appropriate. After a few mumbled bars of 'God Save The Queen' and 'Land Of Hope And Glory' we gave up and just observed in mutual appreciation instead. Against a backdrop of sparkling white mountains, flecked with the deep blue of ceracs and crevasses, the vibrant red, white and blue looked particularly colourful as it inched up the flagpole. The finishing touch - Fossil Bluff was officially open for yet another season.

The Union Jack flying at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge

Above: The Union Jack flying at Fossil Bluff - Click to enlarge.

The last thing Chum, the chief pilot, said to me before he left the Bluff was, 'Don't worry old girl, we'll leave you alone for a few days till you get yourself sorted.'

The next day standing on the skiway waving goodbye to the 6th plane that had come through that afternoon and hefting around our 23rd drum of fuel I was beginning to doubt him. The Bluff was a busy place. The four BAS Twin Otters flew back and forth from Rothera delivering drums of aviation fuel that we depoted on the skiway for use later on in the season. By the end of the week we had over a hundred drums standing in neat rows of five on the snow. But business really started when it was time to open up Sky Blu.

Sky Blu is another outpost like Fossil Bluff positioned 200 miles further south. It's a cold, windswept place with an amazing strip of blue ice that is used as a runway - hence its name. Monday morning saw all four Twin Otters sitting on the Bluff skiway crammed with kit, each waiting to be refueled with three of four drums of Avtur so that they could continue on their way. Several co-pilots and passengers leapt out of each plane all eager to chat. Most of them were winterers so it was like a mini reunion on the skiway. Rich, Andy, Rayner, Tom and the two Gary's amongst others. I had only been away from Rothera a few days but it was still good to see them all. After a chaotic couple of hours we waved off the last Otter with a sigh of relief and once again stood alone on the skiway. It would be another 5 hours or so before they'd all be back and we'd have to do it all over again. However, they'd be back minus a few passengers. Gary Middleton was one of those left behind to set up Sky Blu.

On the 10th November, myself, Catrin Thomas, Tom Marshall, Gary Wilson and four Twin Otter loads of kit flew into Sky Blu at the southern end of the peninsula to open up the blue ice runway for the coming season. On arrival I was surprised to see so many nunataks in the area, as I had expected a Halley-like flat, white landscape as far as the eye can see. The nunataks are spread around in 360 degrees of skyblue, some over 50 km away, with a huge, flat ice field in the middle, which gives an amazing feeling of isolation.

Once all of the planes were unloaded, the others moved the kit up to the melon hut and set-up tents while I re-assembled the walk-behind snow blower so that we could clear the winter build up of snow from around the melon hut. Unfortunately it doesn't replace the shovel completely and we still had a lot of digging to do. When the hut was inhabitable, myself and Tom stayed there in relative comfort while the knarly Antarctic heroes, Catrin and Gary, stayed in the tents, Gary even braving a night in a bivvy bag at -25°C!

Tents at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge View from Sky Blu - Click to enlarge

Above: The tents at Sky Blu and the view from our door. Click the images to enlarge them.

After more than 8 months of winter, there was a lot of work to be done. Apart from the usual digging, the weather station and wind generator had to be set up, the snow clearing machinery serviced in anticipation of the job ahead and all of our food and supplies were depoted on platforms above the snow surface. The ongoing job of clearing snow from the ice runway can be slow work, even with the snowblower and the JD gator buggy with a scraper blade mounted on the front, and can be very uncomfortable when the wind gets up, but on calm, clear days, when you can feel the heat of the sun, or when the sky is full of halo's and sundogs the days seem to go much quicker.

Working at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge Working at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge

Above: Working with spectacular haloes and sundogs at Sky Blu. Click the images to enlarge them.

With the 24 hour daylight we had plenty of time to get out and about in the evenings. We walked up both of the nunataks next to base, Lanzarote, which gave a fantastic view of the blue ice runway below, and Mendes, which Catrin and I had some top skiing on. When the weather was too poor to go out it was a good chance to catch up on sleep, laze around reading or be entertained by Gary's commentary during games of cribbage.

Twin Otter at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge

Above: Twin Otter at Sky Blu - Click to enlarge.

The input of field parties saw the Twin Otters coming in often with fuel and equipment which kept us busy and also the Dash 7, which was an impressive sight seeing this four engined aircraft landing on the ice runway. It was also an opportunity to go on "co-pilot" flights to the field sites, mine being with sledge India to the Rutford ice stream near the Ellsworth mountains. I had two great weeks out there, during which I had my 27th birthday, one that I don't think I'll forget in a hurry, especially the recital of 'Happy Birthday' over the radio!!


After a few weeks at the Bluff it was time to return to Rothera. I came back to find a completely different base to the one I'd left. Half a dozen Dash 7 flights had ferried a good number of new faces in from the Falklands. I walked into the bar and had to look twice before I found a face I knew. Lots of old hands returned but for many people, like Dave Fletcher, this is their first experience of Rothera. Dave writes about his first impressions:

I sat in the jump seat of the Dash 7 as it neared Rothera base. I was immediately captured by the awesome power and beauty of the scenery outside. The large expanse of sea ice and snow covered mountains greeted our arrival. From this sea ice stood numerous weird and wonderfully shaped icebergs whiter than white, although a closer look could detect a hint of blue.

Rothera station - Click to enlarge

Above: A view of Rothera research station - Click to enlarge.

I'm at Rothera to provide administrative support for the Base Commander, Field Operations Manager and Station Support Manager for a period of two and a half months until the latter part of January. My work includes maintaining the bar, shop and post office accounts, assisting with the provision of training documentation and filing.

As a new arrival on base I had to undergo one day of base and pre-deployment training and three days of field training. Camping out on the 'vals' was great fun. Staying in the tents and cooking on the stoves was a great experience. I also remember the crevasse rescue training and tentatively abseiling down the side of the glacier to a rucksack. I have to admit I was absolutely petrified - the ground looked a long way down. It was equally nerve racking jumaring up and boy, was I glad when I reached the top! I'm sure I tested the patience and resolve of the two Field Assistants, Chris Fogwill and Terry O'Donovan, to the limits!

Having worked for BAS for nearly fourteen years I've had close connections with the Antarctic for some considerable time. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to go further south as a "co-pilot" in one of the Twin Otters and see more of the continent. The purpose of this flight was to take Morag Hunter and Adam Hunt to the Sweeney mountains; just east of Sky Blu.

Morag and Adam outside their tent - Click to enlarge

Above: Morag Hunter and Adam Hunt outside their tent near the Sweeney mountains - Click to enlarge.

The temperature was -20°C there that day, by far the coldest I've experienced in Antarctica, although it can be a lot colder than that at times.

I've met some fantastic people down here. Morale is high and everybody wants to help each other. Chris Fogwill and Terry O'Donovan who took me on field training, Andy O'Dare who is teaching me snowboarding and Rayner, Phil and Dave, the divers, to name but a few.

Dave Fletcher outside his tent at sledge Hotel input sight, Ellesworth Land - Click to enlarge

Above: Dave Fletcher outside his tent at sledge Hotel input sight, Ellesworth Land - Click to enlarge.


By Felicity Aston