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Halley Diary — April 2009

Extreme is a word I could use to describe April at Halley this year. We hear it often when referred to living in the Antarctic. It was drummed into us before coming south and in the summer preparation we were told many a tale of the hard days that lay ahead during the winter months. But we did not expect (yes even in my fourth winter) to see all of the possible extremes happen in one month!

April began as March left us, in kind weather, cool crisp days and beautiful sights (both indoors and out). You see Ladies’ Night at the Races was the theme for Susanna’s birthday. So in true Halley inventiveness a race track was made through the bar and lounge area and each person was to produce their own horse. No day at the races is complete without the fashion parades with all managing to acquire a designer hat to perfectly match their outfits. Coco, I would watch out, we have some talented hat makers here. After a thoroughly enjoyable evening and a close call at the end of the races the winner was Robbie.

Susannae's first cake (her favourite mash) - the second one was much nicer! (photo by Susanna Gaynor)
Susannae's first cake (her favourite mash) - the second one was much nicer! (photo by Susanna Gaynor)

While we were jolly happy inside, temperatures outside were progressively dropping. A calm spell I said thinking it was somewhat unusual to get so cold so quick. Good experience for the winter ahead I assured all. Vehicles however start to complain when it’s cold. When it drops to −30°C the mechanics are saying no to operations and even the bulldozer begins to make strange noises. We find ourselves walking about, skidoos abandoned as they can’t cope then digging the hardest snow (it feels like it at the time) in the world for melt tank, but we need water. Extreme, we think as we watch the numbers on the weather screen drop even more.

Screen shot of weather (Image from Zmet)
Screen shot of weather (Image from Zmet)

On the 9th April I walk into the dining room in the morning to find Giles (the met man, on nights at time) beside himself with excitement. It’s hit −50°C and we look like we are heading to the coldest April temperatures recorded at Halley. Slowly the remaining base members creep in for breakfast and everyone is stunned at the news. Someone pipes up about the boiling water trick and rapidly cameras are grabbed and everyone armed with a jug, glass or mug of hot water assemble on the platform. At these low temperatures, hot water thrown into the air almost instantly transforms into steam and ice. It is amazing to watch and rather addictive to do as it seems to make almost a popping sound as the change takes place.

Water tricks at -50C (Photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)
Water tricks at -50C (Photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)

Thinking of traditions it appears we are to have a BBQ. A little tricky initially as we didn’t have the BBQ or any wood on the Laws platform and no vehicles available to use for collecting said items. No fear, with our combined talents, brute force and willingness, teams are organised and stride off into the distance towing polk sledges. A BBQ is delivered and plenty of wood to keep us going for the night. Robbie and John throw together the last minute food and we are ready to go. Eating at these temperatures is an interesting affair. Your drinks freeze and to limit the ‘stickage’ factor of lips to cans, straws are employed though if not continuously sucked these were also found to freeze and crack. We huddled about dressed somewhat like Michelin Men and with massive gloves ate our rapidly cooling burgers. It was a great evening and our first BBQ of the winter. Of course a small mention needs to go to the brave souls who partook in another Halley tradition and ran around the building with no clothes (Niv and Susanna).

Rob wonders if frozen sausage is ok to eat. (photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)
Rob wonders if frozen sausage is ok to eat. (photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)

Easter weekend fell upon us during this time of cold weather and many brave souls ventured out to take advantage of the beautiful days. Susanna, Niv and Karen clocked up tons of miles by skiing to every possible extreme they could over the weekend. South marker, 4km marker, perimeter… nothing was safe. Instead of Easter bunnies John made a great selection of Easter penguins which took some eating but were irresistible. In all we enjoyed having a nice long weekend to chill out and catch up on all those things we have been meaning to do. Somehow time just escapes here!

In 2008 a Race to Antarctica Event was conceived. Teams were to ‘race’ the distance by Mid-Winters Day (21 June) and money was raised for charity. Due to its success they have decided to repeat the event this year and we jumped at the chance to take part again. So the Halley Hellcats team was entered into the race! On the 14th April the gym was hit by the first lot of contenders and never has it seen so much use. Everyday there were people rowing, cycling, running, cross-training and often you needed an appointment to get in! Not to mention the outdoor opportunities we still have on our doorstep. Cross country skiing and walking are never to be underestimated, especially the well skilled Blizzard walking perfected by Giles.

Halley Hellcats. (photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)
Halley Hellcats. (photo by Agnieszka Fryckowska)

It was looking cold but great for the outdoor travel when numbers of a different sort began to change on the met screen. Wind began to pick up and temperatures increased. This is typical of what we understand as a ‘Blow’ down here. High winds usually associated with these pressure systems will mix the surrounding cooler air warming it up. Together with the wind is the blowing snow which sometimes is drifting snow picked up or a mixture of that and falling snow. In all, it removes the ability for outside movements almost as much as the extreme cold temperatures. A small blow we thought and in a little break the girls set off to raise the Halley VI drumline. Thankful to be outside and off base it was a beautiful day and we enjoyed it immensely.

Girls drum raising (photo by Susanna Gaynor)
Girls drum raising (photo by Susanna Gaynor)

Extreme. There is that word again. Our first little blow was a nice taster for being stuck inside for 5 days and basic movement around base was generally possible. As for the forecast, surely we thought the winds can’t get that high? Let’s just say, I did wonder to myself 5 days later when it was gusting over 60 knots, Will this building hold together? The next morning the winds dropped and we ventured out to inspect the damage. Items had flown off containers and were found scattered and broken. Many were surprised at the strength of the wind as some things weighed at least a ton. Knowing we were due some more wind we raced around the base tidying up what we could. The wind in the afternoon was recorded as zero. A stark contrast to the raging blow just 24 hours prior.

As predicted we were thrust again into another blow, fairly strong but not as bad. However another extreme event began to occur. Right in front of our eyes the temperatures warmed up to −1.4°C. So within the month of April we experienced a 50 degree change in temperature and 55 knot change in winds. Antarctica, the coldest and windiest continent on this planet they say. After April I believe them.

A Fryckowska