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Rothera Diary — March 2011

Good morning, outside world! As I sit here typing this, the first few snowflakes of winter are starting to fall outside the window, and Rothera is well and truly taking on an Antarctic winter feel. March has been a busy month for the base, the real transition between the summer hive of activity with upwards of 100 people on station, and the skeleton wintering crew of 20. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to live and work at such an amazing research facility, and hopefully the ensuing pictures will do a bit of justice to how spectacular life “down South” really is!

Sunset over Admirals (accommodation block) in the winter, with Jenny Island in the background. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Sunset over Admirals (accommodation block) in the winter, with Jenny Island in the background. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)

Dash 7 passenger flights leaving at the end of the summer:

From the start of March, passenger flights from Rothera back to the outside world departed, and the numbers gradually tailed off to a quieter fifty or so people. A busy period for flying, and we said goodbye to the Royal Navy comms officers, some of the summer-only field assistants, and a few of last year’s wintering technical services department and management. Even through spending a short busy summer with this group of people, some very strong friendships were made and many were sad to leave; “I want to stay for winter too!” was an often-heard phrase!

Before departing, Tom Gilderthorp (Royal Navy comms officer) presents Rod Strachan (Winter Base Commander 2011) with a gift of a tiny model helicopter - a lasting legacy! (Photo: Ross Harper)
Before departing, Tom Gilderthorp (Royal Navy comms officer) presents Rod Strachan (Winter Base Commander 2011) with a gift of a tiny model helicopter - a lasting legacy! (Photo: Ross Harper)
Dash 7 flying away from Rothera for the last time in the 10/11 season. (Photo: Rod Strachan)
Dash 7 flying away from Rothera for the last time in the 10/11 season. (Photo: Rod Strachan)

As well as the BAS outgoing passenger flights, it was a very busy time for flying in general in March, with a lot of airborne survey work requiring some early morning flying, and the associated aircraft support — flight-following radio operators, staff on fire cover for take-offs and landing, base assistants loading and fuelling aircraft, not to mention the very hard working aircraft mechanics, and marine safety cover from the boating team for the Dash taking off. It is amazing how much unseen work and organisation goes into seemingly simple operations, and is a testament to how hard everyone on base works, often at unsocial hours and going beyond what is asked of them, to make everything run so smoothly and to get the science underway.

Because of its location, and combination of gravel runway and skiway, (or maybe it’s the wonderful cooking and friendly atmosphere?!) Rothera is a hub for transiting foreign aircraft to and from Antarctica, from other countries science programs. Recently we had many foreign Twin Otters and Basler aircraft coming through, and it was nice to see some different faces and meet some new people.

A Ken Borek Twin Otter crew changing from skis to wheel-skis at the Rothera skiway, to enable it to take off on snow, but land on hard surfaces on wheels. (Photo: Mike Brian)
A Ken Borek Twin Otter crew changing from skis to wheel-skis at the Rothera skiway, to enable it to take off on snow, but land on hard surfaces on wheels. (Photo: Mike Brian)

Relief and the Ship’s departure:

Another major event in March is the re-supply from the RRS Ernest Shackleton. Nearly all of the food comes into Rothera on the two relief ships, the James Clark Ross at the beginning and “The Shack” at the end of summer. The ship stayed for 4 days, during which there was a monumental amount of cargo to be off-loaded, and then refuse, science kit from the summer, plant machinery, (and a few people!) to be loaded back on. Again, this is an incredible show of staff working very hard to get a job done — working hours during re-supply were seven am to seven pm, and everyone had their jobs to be doing — driving trailers up and down from the wharf to store food and cargo, hooking containers onto cranes, helping to unload and store frozen and fresh food, assisting with mooring and casting off, filling the fuel containers (6 months worth of generator fuel takes a fair amount of effort to unload and pump up to the fuel tanks). Anyways, the ship arrived on a Thursday, and by the Saturday afternoon everyone breathed a sigh of relief! (No pun intended!)

The Ernest Shackleton moored at the wharf during relief. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
The Ernest Shackleton moored at the wharf during relief. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)

As is tradition, the 2011 wintering team were invited on board the ship for a fancy dinner, and a mighty curry was prepared for us — many thanks to the Shackleton’s crew and chefs for their hospitality. This was the first time that the wintering team had been all together, and it was then that we all really realised this was to be our little community for the next 6 or 7 months! A fantastic evening was had by all, and there were a few bleary eyes the next morning as the ship cast off its ropes at 6 am on the Sunday.

Team-winter, 2011 (Photo: Ernest Shackleton crew)
Team-winter, 2011 (Photo: Ernest Shackleton crew)

As the ship drifted away from the wharf in the murky dawn, there was an eerie silence apart from the drone of the ship’s engines, and shouts and cheers of safe travels and great adventures. Flares were set off by our little group on the wharf in celebration, none of us really sure what to expect from the coming months, other than the fact we are all here for an amazing experience.

Ernest Shackleton departing Rothera, flares being let off in celebration! (Photo: Iain Rudkin)
Ernest Shackleton departing Rothera, flares being let off in celebration! (Photo: Iain Rudkin)

Winter training trips:

As a field assistant, my job in the summer is primarily to support the science — this means living in the field with the scientists, organising equipment for projects, and other tasks such as digging out fuel depots, refuelling aircraft, skiway maintenance, and training scientists and base members at Rothera before their deployment to the field.

During the winter, our job involves a variety of tasks, preparing and maintaining equipment in preparation for next summer’s projects, tents, stoves, technical equipment, wooden “Nansen” sledges used for towing kit by skiddoo, clothing repairs, etc. The other part of our job is to take the remaining members of the wintering team out on Adelaide Island on winter training trips — to teach them essential Antarctic survival skills and give them experience of travel in the field and mountaineering experience. Also, and arguably most importantly of all, the winter trips provide normal people from other backgrounds, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, chefs and doctors, with the opportunity to have a week away from base, a change of scene, living amongst an awesome environment, and doing things they might never again get the chance to do. Most of the field assistants are mountaineering instructors or guides by trade, and have a passion for instructing and teaching — the chance to share such an awe-inspiring environment with the rest of the base personnel is a real privilege.

Normal activities on winter trips include hill-walking/mountaineering, skiing and snowboarding, visiting an old abandoned research base on the other side of the island, skidoo-sightseeing, exploring crevasses, and if the weather is too bad to leave camp, potentially building igloos and snowmen! For masochists (or perhaps just those fancying a challenge), there is also “man-hauling” (or woman-hauling!) on offer, a term for shoving a lot of kit in a “pulk” (lightweight sledge), strapping it to your waist, and plodding out in to the great white yonder on ski-touring skis.

Travelling unit, loaded sledge and skidoo heading for the Myth campsite. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Travelling unit, loaded sledge and skidoo heading for the Myth campsite. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)

The final week of March saw the first winter trip head off — 3 field assistants, the generator mechanic, the marine assistant, and the plumber went off to the western side of Adelaide island, with the intention of some easy mountaineering and sightseeing.

The weather refused to play ball on the first day, with low cloud and insufficient contrast for skidoo travel, so the group went to explore an impressive crevasse round the back of one of the local peaks.

Tom the generator mechanic abseiling into the abyss. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Tom the generator mechanic abseiling into the abyss. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Tom Shergold and Simon Reeves inside the crevasse (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Tom Shergold and Simon Reeves inside the crevasse (Photo: Malcolm Airey)

The 2nd day of the week dawned bright and calm, so we set off for the Myth campsite on the west of the island, a cracking spot nestled in amongst some jaw-dropping scenery.

Glowing pyramid tent at night, away on a winter trip. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)
Glowing pyramid tent at night, away on a winter trip. (Photo: Malcolm Airey)

Over the rest of the week, we visited Carvajal base, an old abandoned Chilean base down at the south end of the island, and climbed a peak called “Snow Ditte”, with tremendous views out towards the main peninsula, and back to Rothera Point, a different perspective! After a day of “lie up” — tent-bound, waiting for the weather to improve — we were treated to another fantastic day of bright skies and low winds for our return trip back to base, a fantastic week, with all base members very enthusiastic for their next trip.

Hopefully this gives you all a bit of an idea of what life at Rothera’s really like, and if anyone out there is considering a “tour” down south — go for it — because we down here all guarantee that a year ago we were all sitting in the UK, gaping at the pictures and stories in these web-diaries, and it truly is as wonderful as it looks!!

So, thanks for reading and have a nice summer!! The nights are fair drawing in down here now!

Malcolm Airey
Field Assistant