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Rothera Diary — April 2010

Beach parties and Barbee sauce

So we have reached the official start of winter… what, already? How did that happen? Surprisingly it seems time really does pass quite quickly down here.

Well, where to start, I guess the beginning seems as good a place as any. It was our first weekend as a winter team and what better way to celebrate spending an Antarctic winter together than by having a beach party. So, we did just that and the orders were simple: dress up in loud bright beach wear!

Now, anybody who knows me will know that this task did not require a visit to the fancy dress cupboard, oh no; I just needed to open up my wardrobe and pick a shirt. The usual fancy Saturday night meal was replaced with a BBQ style finger buffet and I compiled an especially cheesy beach related music play list. There were lots of fun beach related games, including limbo and twister, and it was great to see everyone getting on so well. Before the RRS Shackleton left we hadn’t spent much time together as a winter team. The people on their second winter knew each other well and some of us feel like we’ve known each other for years, but in fact it has been only six months or so. And, some of the winter team arrived only a few weeks ago. At the party people chatted, exchanged stories and got to know each other a bit better. The night was a very good introduction to weekends to come and I’m really looking forward to spending the next seven months with my wintering team.

Beach party (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Beach party (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

Sunday, our day off, was a tad on the windy side and slightly overcast, but nobody seemed to mind. Most of us just chilled out watching movies and shooting zombies on the Nintendo Wii.

Work wise my week started with a broken dishwasher. It was a dark day for the poor field assistant who was on Gash (cleaning) duties who had to resort to the age old method of washing the dishes by hand! Whilst slightly traumatised he did manage to struggle through the whole day with only minimal counselling.

That week we were greeted with a healthy covering of snow, something we were all glad of as the snow/ice ramp (our only access path to travel away from station and onto the local and technical travel area) was mostly ice and really in need of a good snow topping. In an attempt to try and retain the snow on the ramp a small group of us spent an afternoon going up and down on skidoos compacting the snow down and preventing it from being blown off with the next gusty day.

Palmer on the wharf (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Palmer on the wharf (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

The previous weekend was pretty busy compared to this one. The station was on stand-by to receive the U.S. research ship — the Nathanial B Palmer — our last visitors of the season. Scheduled to arrive on the Friday, bad weather delayed her arrival. Saturday and Sunday came and went but still no ship. Finally on Monday she docked alongside the wharf. It was a brief visit, more like a ‘pit stop’ than anything. We received some supplies from them and loaded up two freezer containers full of ice cores that had been stored at Rothera as part of a collaboration with U.S. scientists.

I had been responsible for looking after the freezers while they were on station and if I said I wasn’t pleased to seem them depart, I would be lying. They had become increasingly hard to maintain with all the snow we had been getting in the last few weeks.

I went on board the ship to find my lucky counterpart to whom I was passing over the job of looking after the freezers. Everyone on-board was very welcoming and friendly; I had a pit stop of my own in the canteen where I had a coffee and shared some rather delicious home made cookies with some of the ships staff. It was nice to make some new friends and hear some different accents, being very aware that I would not see any new faces for several months; I appreciated the company even more.

My counterpart, Tony was grateful and asked if there was anything he could do for us. ‘Well, maybe one thing.’ I said. ‘I don’t suppose you have any Barbecue sauce?’

He looked at me with a surprised face and began to chuckle. I explained that we had very little barbecue sauce, in fact the only barbecue sauce we did have was given to us from the Palmer’s sister ship — the Gould. Given that I love barbecue sauce so much I was highly concerned that this commodity would run dry all too soon. “Barbecue sauce — is that what you want? Sure thing, I’ll take you to the kitchen”

The Americans don’t like to do things by half, I was hoping for two small bottles that would see us through for a month or two, but I was rewarded with two catering-sized bottles of tasty looking Texan barbecue sauce — two gallons in total. Thank you guys! The Palmer left that evening and we waved away our final visitors of the season. Winter was now truly here. We spent the next day clearing away various bits of equipment from the wharf and preparing it for the winter months before the falling snow hid everything from view.

Freezers being loaded (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Freezers being loaded (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

On the following Thursday I had a break from the electrical world and teamed up with Daz our Genny (generator) mech and spent the day in the kitchen cooking for everyone. Justin, our very talented chef, is only human and can’t work 24/7 like some sort of super-cooking robot, he needs a break too! So, every Thursday and Sunday we take turns to do the cooking.

Back home I did enjoy cooking but didn’t really challenge myself that often. I certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of cooking for 22 people. One of the good things about living in a small and isolated community is that you really get the chance to learn new skills and help out with other people’s jobs. Having already helped to cook a few meals on station I had a little more confidence in the kitchen, with myself and Daz having previously provided the culinary delights for Sunday morning brunch and main evening meal. Myself and Daz had by now successfully managed to cook both a fry up and a lamb and mint roast with no reported cases of food poisoning and no one refusing to eat; for me that was a victory.

For our lunch menu we decided on lamb kebabs with onions peppers, mushrooms and pitta bread, with the evening meal to be chicken and mushroom tagliatelle with sweet and sour vegetables. I even made a lemon steamed sponge with slightly lumpy custard. Of course, the lumps were not an intentional ingredient, they just sort of appeared. At one point I did try to blame the custard powder, but I think it was more down to my lack of experience. (We continue to give Nate lots of stick over his lumpy custard. - Editor.) However the day as a whole was a success. I did enjoy my time in the kitchen and now have a greater appreciation of what it takes to produce large amounts of food; I also have even more respect for our chef.

In the kitchen (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
In the kitchen (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

At our Saturday night meal we carried out the BAS tradition of picking names for the midwinter present. Because Christmas in Antarctica falls during the busiest part of the summer season there is not much fuss made over it; instead the real celebrations occur in midwinter. Each of us picks a name at random out of a hat and makes a present for that person. The present can be anything you want, the only rule is that you have to make it yourself with no cheating and bringing something from home; it has to be handmade.

Not surprisingly most of the past presents have an Antarctic theme, but not all. There have been deck chairs, hammocks, pictures, paintings, model sledges and tents, a long bow and shot glasses turned from both wood and metal. A lot of time and effort is spent on the winter present and this year was going to be no exception. A slight clerical error first time round meant we had to do the name draw twice, but eventually everything worked out alright.

I started work on my project straight away. I am unable to say what it will be and who it is for, as I do not want to ruin someone’s surprise, all I can really say is that it is an ambitious project that may prove to be too much for my skills. But hey, if you never push yourself, you’ll never achieve anything.

Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day, the likes of which will soon be scarce, so myself and a few others travelled far afield (behind the hangar) and had an enjoyable yet tiring day ice climbing. The weather was also favourable the following Tuesday and I managed to squeeze in another quick session during lunch. The following week I was departing for my winter trip — these trips are a good chance for us to have a break and learn new outdoor skills. So I was keen to get as much climbing practice in as I could before I would be ice climbing away from station and in ‘real’ Antarctic conditions. After my two training sessions I started to believe that I was ready to climb a mountain gully as if I was Spiderman himself.

Ice climbing behind hangar (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Ice climbing behind hangar (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

Back in the world of work and I was recharging fire extinguishers for the Bonner lab, but I was soon back in the kitchen. The dishwasher I had repaired was still working, which kept the gash person happy, but this time the steamer oven had started to play up. After a strip down and service it was up and running again.

The weekend was soon upon us and I paid a visit to Fuchs house to sign out some heavy duty winter clothing. You wouldn’t want to be going away anywhere around here without the right gear. If the weather is good, it’s no problem to wonder around station in jeans, T-shirt and jacket, if I get cold I’ll go inside to warm up for a bit. Out in the field you have to stay warm all the time.

The weather report came in and it was decided that Sunday was the best day to travel out of the local area and attempt a crossing at ‘the Pass’. So it was agreed that we would leave Sunday morning. I made sure I kept it mellow on Saturday night and was in bed by 11.

Freeing up sledges (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Freeing up sledges (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

I woke up early on the Sunday morning bright eyed and bushy tailed. I prepared for our long travels by popping into the kitchen to cook a batch of sausages for sandwiches to take with us.

There were six of us leaving for winter trips, myself and Tom (sledge Lima), the two Ian’s (sledge Kilo) and Becky and Alan (sledge Mike). Promptly after breakfast we loaded the ’doos and went up to Vals where we had to free our sledges and lash on our personal belongings. The recent weather had been kind to us and kept the snow light so this didn’t take very long. Soon we were on our way off out in to the Antarctic wilderness. The weather was clear and sunny although to say it was warm would have been a lie. We made good progress and successfully negotiated McCallums Pass. At the top of the pass we stopped for a short break while we waited for the other sledges to get through. Time for a frozen sausage sandwich — yummy. Extra care has to be taken when travelling through the pass as the Glacier nearby breaks into the sea the risk of crevasses becomes much higher. Through the pass and the going got a lot rougher; the snow was softer and the ground very uneven so my pleasant Ski doo ride had now changed into something that was more like riding an epileptic horse. Nevertheless a few hours of bumpy going later we had made camp. The pyramid tents were put up and we got the stove on.

Camp site at night (Photo: Tom Weston)
Camp site at night (Photo: Tom Weston)
Camp site daytime (Photo: Ian Ridkins)
Camp site daytime (Photo: Ian Ridkins)

The next morning I woke to a very cold tent indeed. My temperatures probe read -28 outside and -14 inside the tent. You didn’t feel this cold in the warm ’n’ cosy sleeping bag though, they were good at keeping heat in. Tom set up the stove and turned on the Tilley lamp. Slowly the tent warmed up. We had a hearty oaty breakfast and then got kitted up. We were climbing the Myth. The Myth is a small peak sited right by our camp site some 1300m high. Now I had never climbed a mountain before and it didn’t take me long to realise why, it’s incredibly hard work! Sledge kilo was also summiting the Myth. They had gone for a more scenic route that followed the ridge all the way along. Tom selected a slightly more challenging route that cut in half way up the ridge. By the time we reached the ridge I was really feeling the burn on my legs. A quick pit stop for half a Mars bar and some water then we were off again, Tom didn’t like to hang around. We made good progress and despite me asking for several more breaks we stopped only once more near the summit to finish of our chocolate and neck a bit more water. We reached the peak in two and a half hours; I was exhausted while Tom had barely broken a sweat. I was amazed standing there on the summit, not only at how I had managed to keep up (just about) but also at the breathtaking views. It was a perfectly clear day and you could see for miles. We spent five minutes on the top before we descended. Two hours later we were back at the ’doos.

From the top of the Myth (Photo: Tom Weston)
From the top of the Myth (Photo: Tom Weston)

The next day it was overcast and dull. Me and Tom with sledge Kilo took this opportunity to go to Carvajal — a former British Antarctic Survey station now operated for part of the summer by the Chileans. We took about an hour and a half to reach it. There was a very eerie feel too it almost like it was haunted. Everything still remains there as if it was in regular use, the kitchen and storerooms were filled with food, all the skiing and climbing equipment is still hanging up. It gives the impression that the habitants had mysteriously disappeared. We stopped for lunch in their dining hall, frozen sardines on biscuits for Tom, frozen Marmite on biscuits for Ian S and frozen processed cheese on biscuits for Ian R. As I was not too keen on Marmite, processed cheese or sardines I stuck with old faithful dairy milk fruit and nut, yummy lunch sorted! We stayed for three hours or so having a good wander round all the buildings and taking some pictures of the elephant seals that now use the yard as a sleeping station and then headed back to camp.

On the Wednesday the weather was once again clear and bright. Me and Tom went out to ‘windows buttress’ for a spot of ice climbing. We tackled two routes, both grade three. One of the routes was yet to be named so I named it after the recently born child of two close friends. The views from the top of the climbs were yet again stunning.

Ice climbing (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Ice climbing (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

On the last full day we paid a visit down a local crevasse — it was absolutely massive, however Tom was concerned about some large over head icicles so we didn’t venture too far in. We finished the day off with another climbing session, this time the route was more snow than ice and that made me realise one thing, I really do prefer ice. It may sound a tad backwards to say that it is better to climb up a surface covered in ice than snow, but it really is. With ice you get your axes dug in and then pull yourself up. Trying to wade uphill through waist high snow is a lot harder. We got back to the station reasonably early and prepared the skidoos for the drive back the next day.

Me abseiling in the crevasse (Photo: Tom Weston)
Me abseiling in the crevasse (Photo: Tom Weston)

It was an early start; six am to pack away the camp, by nine we were on the road again and we made good progress up to the pass. Well, we did make good progress until sledge Kilo kindly pointed out that my P bag had become untied and may have jettisoned some of my belongings. They rescued one of my climbing boots, but on investigating I found I was still missing both my snowboarding boots and the other climbing boot. Me and Tom swung around and back-tracked in search of my scattered property. Luckily we only had to travel back on ourselves for twenty minutes until we found all three boots in a neat pile across our tracks. Nevertheless we made it back to station for lunch.

Looking back to McCallums pass (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Looking back to McCallums pass (Photo: Nathan Bowen)

In my mind winter had gotten off to a flying start as the team had bonded well, really quickly and I had had an amazing time away. Now we are right in the swing of things my only fear is that it will all be over too soon… so this is me, Nathy B, saying Goodbye and God bless to all those back at home.

Me at the bar beach party night (Photo: Nathan Bowen)
Me at the bar beach party night (Photo: Nathan Bowen)