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Halley Diary — March 2009

As time is called on March 2009, the 54th Halley wintering team completed its first month alone on the Brunt ice shelf. Nights lengthen and darken, temperatures plummet and the realisation falls that we are here, 11 souls for the next 9 months. Here on the ice March is a month of winter trips, exploration, training scenarios and birthdays.

Following sledge Alpha’s (Niv, Ben and Colin) extended stay in the Hinge zone due to poor weather at the Hinge zone in February, and the safe return of sledge Bravo (Niv, Robbie and Karen) in the first couple of days of March, came the time for sledge Charlie to head out (Giles, Niv and myself).

We left base with the prospect of poor weather hanging over us, 30-knot blows forecast with blowing snow, zero contrast and the prospect of total whiteouts. With this in mind we headed out to Windy Bay about 16km from the base. This will hopefully become the winter home of the Emperor Penguins later in the winter but for now the sea ice is forming and the ice cliffs give Halley winterers a plethora of ice cliffs, small crevasses and open space to trek into within a couple of hours drive of the base.

We set off for the Bay at about 11am, towing with us behind our skidoos two sledges full of equipment. We drove through minimal contrast to the edge of the ice shelf to be greeted at Windy Bay with bright sunshine and great visibility. We set up camp, unpacked sledges and had a big mug of tea then headed out for a walk to assess the area for the next day’s adventures. As we set off there was a little disappointment within the group that we would not be heading out to the Hinge zone to the hills, caves and features seen nowhere else in the world. But what the Antarctic weather takes with one hand it gives with the other. At Windy we saw a beautiful perfect sun halo and as the evening fell, diamond dust sparkled in the air. Later that night a perfect full moon rose huge in the sky. How lucky we were to be seeing what so few people ever will. To place our feet where others never have and perhaps never will, to see features that change every day and reform the next to give us another view.

That evening Niv was treated to the joys of bringing the chef and Giles (the biggest foodie on base) on a winter trip, we had packed an array of frozen meals, pates, pesto, pasta and an array of goodies. After a hearty feed a good night’s sleep and a bowl of warm Alpen for breakfast, we headed out as an alpine trio to the ice cliffs. We spent the day exploring the ice cliffs, ice climbing, abseiling, and rope ascending. We tested the sea ice and trekked over the ice shelf attempting to find the best spot to descend onto the sea ice for midwinter trips to see the Penguins. We headed back to camp as a tired but happy trio and enjoyed a night of good company, food and drink.

Giles on the ice cliffs
Giles on the ice cliffs

The next morning with the prospect of poor weather closing in we decided to head to the hut at Creek 4 with the hope of spending the next few days exploring the ice cliffs there along with some huge crevasses and ice caves, all within 14km of the base. We travelled in good contrast with temperatures of −25°C without a breath of wind in the air. We arrived at the hut set up camp then went out and viewed the ice ready for the morning. Then the wind came. And boy did Antarctica show us that she is not to be messed with. The wind hit 40 knots, the snow blew, all contrast vanished and visibility was down to a few metres. Heading outside to collect snow for water and even heading out to the loo became an occasion to get dressed up for in full storm wear.

The wind blew for the next 4 days, burying all our equipment and building huge wind tails around the hut making trips outside even more comical. The three of us got on fantastically through the blow, eating well until we hit the man food. We chatted, read, laughed, told stories, made some bannocks with a few ingredients we found and relaxed.

On day three the wind stopped, we rushed out and dug out the sledges and skidoos and contemplated a dash back to base however a few minutes later the wind turned 180 degrees and began to blow at 40 knots again. The next day the wind abated and we quickly packed up and legged it back to base. Just in time as it turned out as the wind began to blow again a few minutes later. We returned pleased to have has the time away from base, pleased to have experienced a little more of Antarctica but glad to be able to have a shower and have a big plate of dinner.

John after a day on the ice
John after a day on the ice
The caboose at Creek 4 after the blow
The caboose at Creek 4 after the blow

The next day we headed back to work and back to melt tank duties. The melt tank has to be filled every day by shovelling snow down the 35m shaft into the melt tank below which provides water for the base. This has to be done whatever the weather, even if we have to follow the hand line to it. Doing this keeps showers short and gives all of us a great respect in terms of water use. Taps are always turned off, washing machines are used sparingly, only full loads are placed in the dishwasher and beer is drunk as opposed to using hard earned water! During a melt tank dig last week we were lucky enough to see a perfectly formed sundog.

Perfect sundogs over the melt tank
Perfect sundogs over the melt tank

Always mindful that we are our own emergency service, this month saw our first tunnel rescue scenario as a wintering team. Our casualty was “Ben” in the form of a heavy dummy that had been knocked unconscious in the tunnel system with suspected neck injuries. Our tunnel rescue team, Susanna, Rob and Nick headed down the shaft as the surface team, Niv, Giles and myself rigged the pulleys, winches and safety lines and lowered down stretchers and medical equipment. Within minutes the patient was safely fastened in the stretcher and was raised up the 35m shaft, accompanied by the doctor.

Doctor Susanna at work during the tunnel rescue
Doctor Susanna at work during the tunnel rescue

Niv, Shifty and I dragged ourselves out of bed early on Sunday morning, kitted up in full climbing gear and headed out to the coast to Creek 5. After a walk down the ramp and along the sea ice we climbed over the tide cracks and up the hill to the entrance into a large crevasse. Roped as a trio we crawled through a twisting tunnel to the edge of a large ice fall. We put in ice screws and descended into the crevasse proper. It was about a 30m descent to the bottom where we explored the crevasse for about 800m down deeper and deeper into the ice shelf until we reached the slush of the sea below us. As we crawled, walked and climbed through the crevasse the colours were spectacular. Blues, pinks, purples and oranges. All light getting fainter and fainter until at the very bottom we turned off the head torches and experienced total darkness. It’s amazing, our eyes are so used to having even a tiny amount of light to work with so when emerged in total darkness the brain sends impulses to the eyes which appear as flashes and sparks in the darkness. We made our way back and jumared our way out of the crevasse. Blinking into the light we reflected that the things we had just seen may never be seen again. The ice is constantly moving and changing, re shaping and falling into the sea. We then walked through the heavy powder snow back to the skidoo’s and headed for home. A wonderful, never to be forgotten day.

Niv the Antarctic hero exits the ice cave
Niv the Antarctic hero exits the ice cave
Colin the in the ice cave
Colin the in the ice cave
John ascending out of the ice cave
John ascending out of the ice cave

This month saw Halley celebrate three birthdays. The wrong’un, the long’un and the chef. (Robbie, Ben and me).

It’s a Halley tradition for whoever the birthday is to choose the meal and the theme for their birthday night. Fortunately for all Halley chefs the doctor is charged with the duty of making and decorating birthday cakes which Susanna does in a spectacular fashion. Robbie celebrated with a traditional meal, Ben celebrated with a football themed evening (as a devout Ipswich town fan we are all surprised he wanted to bring the subject up). Due to typo in Cambridge Ben is also our resident “Pant” technician. Susanna made him a beautiful Y-front cake to suit his new position.

For my birthday I invited everyone to dine at the chef’s table. (Some restaurants, especially those in the Ramsay group, have a table in the kitchen where customers can watch the chefs at work and experience the atmosphere of the kitchen). Everyone was given a set of whites and asked to make their own chef’s hat. The results were spectacular, hats of all shapes and sizes and 11 chefs in the kitchen. A very special night.

Dinner at the chef's table
Dinner at the chef's table

As we move into April the sun is setting earlier and earlier each day now, the sky is filled with reds and oranges. We have seen the first green tinge of the Auroras we hope to see over the winter. For now we will make the most of every day of sunlight, as over the horizon we see 105 days of darkness. The upcoming months will see us descend into a frenzy of winter present making, stock taking and preparations for the depth of winter.

Best wishes to all at home from Halley.
John Eager (Chef)

Special thanks for pictures to Susanna Gaynor, Ben Mapston, Colin Reston, Niv Nivan, John Eager and Agnieszka Fryckowska.