Halley Diary — May 2011
The sun sets for the last time
May already… wow. One thing I’ve noticed since arriving down at Halley is just how quickly the time has flown by. It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes ago we were all arriving at the base and now it’s the 1st May and we found ourselves all standing on the Laws platform for the yearly sundown ceremony. This ceremony marks the day that the sun sets for the finally time at Halley and all we begin living in total darkness for the next 105 days. Keeping with traditions the rather wind battered Union Jack flag was lowered down by the oldest member of the base, Ian MacNab our resident Field Assistant.
From now on, although we will still get some ‘twilight’ during parts of the day for the most part we will be in complete darkness, loosing on average around an hour of daylight every 3 days until August when the sun appears again. In accordance with BAS tradition the new flag will be raised at sunrise by the youngest member at the base, Rory in 3 months time.
For me, the best part of suddenly finding yourself plunged into 24 hour darkness is the fact that the Southern sky truly comes into its own. We’ve been privileged throughout May to see some wonderful glimpses of our solar system. On certain nights, despite the fact that the temperatures can be well below −40 degrees Celsius there is nothing better than braving the elements to stand outside and gaze upwards. The stars are truly breathtaking, especially the Milky Way which at times stands out spectacularly, spiralling across the sky along with billions of stars. And although the sun may not be visible to us at Halley, its presence was still felt as we were also lucky enough to have a couple of evening where we witnessed the Aurora Australis. This mesmerising display of lights in the upper atmosphere over Halley occurs when electrons and photons emitted from the sun collide with the gases in our atmosphere and produce electrical discharges which we see from the ground as different coloured lights. We have a number of budding photographers on the base and although it’s rather a tricky process trying to capture these lights it’s a photographer’s dream to capture the event on camera — seeing the auroras first hand was one of the best experiences I’ve had since arriving in Antarctica and something I know I’ll remember for a long time to come.
May for me work wise can be summed up in one word. Counting. Not the most exciting of past times I’m sure you’ll agree but during May most of us have our yearly indents which need doing. Everything must been counted from how many VHF radios are on base, printer cartridges, keyboards, computers right down to all the spares necessary to keep the communications equipment maintained each year. Indenting is actually a very important job as if anything goes wrong down here and you don’t have the replacement parts, we simply don’t have a PC World or B&Q around the corner to pop into and get what we need! Equally if you order too much you end up with nowhere to store it and it simply gets in the way (lasagne sheets or couscous anyone!) And it’s not just those in communications who have to tally up their stock takes — every department has to ensure their inventory levels are at a sufficient quantity for the following summer season and winter. Everything from toilets rolls, shampoo, nuts and bolts, medical supplies and food has to be accounted for. This usually means that many of us have to make regular visits to the container lines (where any excess items are stored as the base itself simply isn’t big enough to everything in one place). Here you’ll find yourself surrounded by hundreds of spares all of which need sorting into some sort of order by the end of which your fingers and toes start to freeze.
As a break from indenting many of us have also been distracted this month with winter present making (or at least giving it some thought as to what to make). Back in March, just after the JCR departed each of us pulled a name out of a hat to make a mid-winter gift for in June. This is another BAS tradition whereby each base member’s blood, sweat and tears goes into a painstakingly crafted handmade gift for one of his or hers fellow winterers. Seeing as we have limited materials on base most gifts are usually made from wood, brass, aluminium etc so throughout much of May everyone one of us spent some time in the garage and workshops cutting, sanding, drilling and the worst job of all — polishing!
May has also seen our Doc Jenny kept busy with another burst of birthdays. Since the start of our winter it seems we’ve had a constant stream of birthdays to celebrate and for each one Jenny has made the cakes, all specially tailored and themed to the individual in question. This month started off with Ian’s Birthday. Being our Field Assistant his cake of course was in the guise of a pyramid tent and Jenny spent most of her day baking before meticulously putting together the marzipan work of art.
Birthday’s also mean that someone on base has to make a card and it was Brett’s turn this time to create his masterpiece. Even though Brett is more used to taking apart and putting together engines he found himself spending the day cutting card, gluing and making a 3D pyramid card tent for Ian. When it was finished it was brilliant — the pee flag with yellow snow gave the added touch of class! In the evening Ian celebrated with a whiskey tasting event where Ian had specially selected Halley’s finest malts and the rest of us used our olfactory senses and tongues to sample the selection and see which ones we liked.
Next up on the Birthday front was Brett and Paul who were both celebrating the big 30 milestone. In keeping with Brett’s love of all things tractor related Jenny crafted him a superb John Deere cake and even managed to squeeze on all thirty candles.
For Paul’s day Chris, our chef cooked up a tremendous Chinese banquet for the event and even though temperatures outside where well below −40 we celebrated Paul’s big day by having a beach party. Hawaiian shirts, shades, shorts, flip flops and sandals all got hauled out of the closet in order to pass the dress code. Judging by the pale complexions on show, having spent the last 7 months in Antarctica a bottle of fake tan wouldn’t have gone a miss either but sadly none of us packed any.
During May we also had our fair share of storms — in fact our maximum wind speed during the month was 42 knots. When the weather is this bad you simply can’t see your hand in front of your face and you have no option but to use the hand-lines to get from A to B around base. Of course in such conditions everything takes longer — the simplest of tasks such as digging melt-tank or doing the daily balloon launch becomes a battle when being tossed about by 40 knot winds. This kind of weather however does make you realise just how remote and isolated a place we are all living in and just how powerful mother nature can be.
The bad weather however didn’t stop Andy finding time in his busy schedule to fit in a trip to Halley VI to carry out some repair work on the Z6 AWS (Automatic Weather Station). As with most jobs in Antarctica it involved a fair bit of digging in order to replace the guy ropes. However with Ian’s help they managed to install some new dead men anchors in the ground, re-tensioned the guy ropes and levelled the solar array and battery box. With luck the structure will now last until the summer season before it will need servicing again.
With all the bad weather a much better option rather than going outside was to stay cocooned up inside and start practicing rope techniques ready for the trips to go and see the penguins. Most of us who come South have a list of goals we’d like to achieve before heading home and high on most people’s is a trip to see the Emperor Penguins. These trips to the coast usually start in August but beforehand each of us has to reach a certain competency level with regards to climbing. This is because in some years the only access to the sea ice where the penguins live is to descend the ice cliff by rope and then jumar back out again. In order for us to practise Ian along with help from Brett and James rigged up system in the garage which enabled each person to climb to the garage roof and back down again repeatedly all while wearing big gloves and boats like we’ll have to when we do it for real in a few months time.
Well that about sums up May’s events at Halley. Sending all my love to my family and friends back home especially Oli, Adem, Bevster, Kezza, Wendle and finally to my Godson Zack. I miss you the most and can’t wait to see you again next year little buddy.