Tuesday, October 31, 2006

First Visitors

On the 28th of February earlier this year the ship left us for the winter. The RRS Ernest Shackleton left the N9 relief site in poor visibility- too bad for them to stick around and travel nearer the base so we could give our traditional goodbyes. It has been 245 days since the sixteen of us last saw someone else, someone new or just someone different.

This morning at 04:40 the Basler DC 3 landed at Halley International Airport, or more commonly called, the skiway. There were six persons on board, three Canadian Crew and three Russian passengers. They had flown from the Chiliean Marsh base up the peninsula and were on their way to Novo a Russian base further East of here. Since we're the only base for miles around the plane stops here to refuel on it's way in and out every year.

Halley International Airport. The Basler DC3.

Refuelling the plane. Photo by Anto.

I was on nights while this was going on, which was very convenient since no-one on the Met team had to stay up late or get up early to give the plane weather observations. It did mean that I had a very busy night, doing Air obs from 11pm, making bread, doing a bit of tidying up - there was no time for the usual film and a bit of tv that nights normally consists of!
Since it was quite early I was only asked to wake a few necessary people- infact we got the call that they 'could' be coming so late that I don't think everyone knew that the plane was due. Also they had a 50knot tail wind and so arrived 2 hours before the original ETA.
John wanted to be woken, as he's the BC. Anto and Bob needed to move fuel to the skiway and then assist with refuelling the plane. Vicki needed to be there since she's the most medically qualified (being a doctor and all) and she had become quite familiar with the whole skiway scene after spending a summer working there. John, Brian and Chris were still officially on holiday (but had come back early after being a little sick of each other's snoring in the caboose), so Brian stayed up for the entertainment. Anto stayed up as well and I don't think Alex had ever got to sleep. Liz was woken by the plane and apparently wondered into the dinning room looking quite confused.

Me driving the passengers back to base. Photo by Anto.

The skiway scene was fun, I made a sign for the Airport and there were a couple of flags for tie down points if the plane had to stay. There was a Snocat with a sledge of fuel behind in and a dozer incase the Snocat didn't have enough oomph to move it. There was a skidoo with the fire sledge, a skidoo with a box sledge and I'd brought a skidoo with a happy sledge for people moving. Vicki, Bob, Brian, Anto and I stood watching the plane land and taxi over to us- they decided they didn't want to walk very far and taxied into our laps! Alex had skied to the skiway and arrived shortly after the plane. We then stood in a huddle while the Air Mechanic and Pilots hurried around their plane securing it. Eventually we greeted them, and then demanded the freshies. After loading them into the warm Snocat we finished our hello's and discovered that they were quite hungry and wanted to get to base before refuelling.

The 3 Russian passengers outside the Simpson. Alex and I gave them a quick tour of the base.

John had very kindly stayed to look after the Laws while I went to the skiiway. In return for this I took some very dodgy footage of the plane landing and he made breakfast - a good swap for me. I'd already made the rolls and I'd made some croissant impersonators the previous night. Nic had got up and was wondering about her kitchen in her pyjamas. I didn't see Nic though, she'd scurried off back to bed just before the strange new people arrived down the corridor.

We all sat round the table and had a wonderful breakfast and chatted. Then the Canadian crew started to make calls asking about the weather while Alex and I took the Russian passengers on a brief tour of the Science Platforms.

The best thing about the day (besides talking to unfamiliar faces) was what they brought as presents... fresh fruit and vegetables. Eggs. I generally don't like vegetables and so all this was a very welcome sight, lettuce and tomatoes!!! I'd eaten lettuce once in around two years - during 2nd relief last year we were given some by the ship. Sure I visited the ship, but 1. The choice is amazing, there's so many new things to eat 2. A lot of other people want to eat the same things and 3. I was generally overwhelmed by the new faces, sites and tastes I really don't remember what I ate. I do remember getting off the plane at the ship and whilst helping put cargo on the plane before I went down to the ship I helped myself to my first tomato in a year and was politely left to eat it while everyone else loaded the plane without me. Yum!

Vicki, Dave, Alex, John and Liz celebrating the return of all things green.

This is the scene that had greeted the air mech that had come back for something. John was unpacking a box one thing at a time, we were cheering every item on - it could have looked a little strange.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sledge Gnome

Here at Halley Base, wintering staff get two holidays a year. My first one this year was known as Sledge Buttercup and included 7 days off, 5 of them camping at the Hinge Zone. I've just finished the second one which as well as other names was known as Sledge Gnome. All of the sledge parties are named using the phonetic alphabet starting with Sledge Alpha at the beginning of the year. Ours was officially called Sledge Golf, but every time we had a radio sched we tried to think of a different name. Gladioli was a popular one, as was 'Go Team' (after the band with the catchy tunes), but I find Gnome the most amusing since it doesn't start with a phonetic G.
Me on my skidoo. This is the first year that Halley have used Alpine 3's as the winter trip skidoos. I had a lot of luggage on the back and I was wearing lots of clothes since it was quite windy. Helmets are a must and everyone wears a harness and is attached to the doo by a long rope. Photo by Anto.

Day 1: Gale force winds, blowing and snowing. No chance of moving off base.

Day 2: The storm had cleared and we were left with a gorgeous day. Nicola, Simon and I got the skidoos ready and packed the two sledges that had been unpacked at the end of last trip. We were all ready to go by around 11am. Anto however, was not. He is the vehicle mechanic and wanted to use the opportunity of having a week off base to leave a vehicle that he was de-winterising inside the warm garage to defrost before he could start work on it. He also had a few other thousands things to sort out and after lunch Nic, Simon and I drove off to Windy caboose without him. When we got there the wind had dropped completely, so we took the opportunity to quickly visit the Penguins. It took a bit of time to put the doos away and take a couple of boxes off two of the sledges, get our equipment on and rope up. We then had a bit of a walk to the abseil point and then along the seaice to the Penguins. I've done this a few times this winter, so is all becoming quite familiar. I even managed to bob-camcord the abseil. Not a bad bit of footage.
The colony by the cliffs on the 1st of October.
I will never get tired of visiting the penguins. The first time I visited was in my first summer on New Years day. I wasn't too interested then, I went 'cause I thought I should and was more impressed with the day out than looking at the birds activities. Almost nine months later I went with the first trip to visit the colony in the winter. I was much more interested by this point, to see them manage to survive all that time in the cold while we've got heat, food, internet, dvd's and folk were still going off the edge and they've got.... well - each other. I think that was the moment they gained my utmost respect. I visited them again mid October and that was it, the sea ice went out early and all the little chicks died... Since then I've visited them loads this winter. I've been very fortunate.
So, we got back from our super speedy trip and put up the poo tent (an old pup tent with a hole in it) and got the caboose warm. Anto turned up with two people on Alpine 2's to accompany him. Jules and Dave went home after a fast turn-around and the four of us settled into caboose life.
A caboose is a small hut set on a sledge. They generally stay put, but often get moved about for relief. There's a reflex stove for enormous amounts of heat (my thermometer was reading +30degC when I woke up!), and each caboose has two Primus stoves for cooking on and two Tilly lamps for heat and light. There are also 4 bunks, a first aid box, stove spares box and a lot of spare food. No one could go hungry in one of the Halley cabooses.

Day 3: Another lovely day, another penguin visit. Anto and Nic roped up one pair, Simon and me as another. We all went to the regular abseil point and Anto and Nic went down. We were to meet them at the colony. Simon and I went walking around for a different abseil point. One we could ice climb up. We'd seen the desired section the day before but it took us a while to find it again.
My intention was to abseil to the bottom and then ice climb back up again, and then abseil down the 2nd time. I'm going to remember this abseil vividly for a while since it was fantastic. I enjoy abseiling, it's absolutely no effort and once I get over the edge and am totally on the rope I'm quite happy. This one was a little different in that I was b-laying Simon all the time he was setting up the point, so I couldn't see down until I had put the abseil device on and was over the edge. The initial view was fantastic. The whole penguin colony was spread below me and on either side were perfectly straight ice cliffs. It was also much taller than the regular point we'd got used to.. brilliant.
Not so brilliant was my attempt at ice climbing. I'd scaled a cliff once before (last year), but this cliff (one that Simon assured me was the only suitable one) was difficult. There wasn't much on it except for... blue ice. I know it's called 'ice climbing' and I shouldn't be surprised, but I had difficulty. Anto had a go too and got half way or so, but it was still a lot of fun to try.

Simon abseiling down the cliff at Windy bay.

After that all four of us were on the ice. We took photos and video of the Penguins. They're starting to creche and there were a lot of parents pushing their chicks round for a walk. They cresh so that both parents can go and fish at the same time, and this way each chick gets twice as much food. It suggested to us that a gap in the seaice couldn't be too far away so we went for a walk following the constant streams of penguins going to and coming back from fishing.
Two chicks following each other. When they initially get left by both parents the chicks don't seem to stop moving. They have a fantastic habit of coming up to people, asking for food. I had my film SLR out when this happened to me, I took three photos and the film ran out! I've since developed the film and all I got were half frames with in focus seaice.
We had underestimated these animals. The sea ice isn't flat. It must have been pushed together forming ridges while the bulk of it was freezing. These animals push themselves along on their bellies in small groups and then stand up every now and again to work out where they are. We know they can't see very well outside the water, I wonder how they do this journey after some snowfall or a blow when all tracks of previous journeys would be wiped out.

It was getting late by this point and we had walked a long way today. We headed back to the colony, stopped for a few more photos (had my camcorder out again!) and then went up the abseil. I was wrecked by this point, so Anto accompanied Simon to go and get the rope we'd dropped down for the ice climb, while Nic and I headed back to the caboose.
I can normally light Tilly lamps and Primus and reflex stoves without a hitch, but nothing was going right for us when we got back. We were cold, tired, dehydrated and silly - and that was after one day of holiday pace at -30oC. To walk to the pole and back? My admiration for everyone who's done something like that has increased.

Day 4: The plan initially was to move to the Rumples today. It wasn't more than an hour and a half on a doo, would take us 2 hours to break camp at the caboose and around 4 to set up at the Rumples... but we changed our minds and again we had another Penguin trip. This time not so long, an afternoon trip.

Nic and our regular abseil point in the reflection of my goggles. Photo by Nicola.

Emperor chicks. They'd just got to the stage when they were starting to creche. This is so the parents can both go and fish so that the chicks get twice the amount of food. And yes, they are that adorable. For more penguin photos follow the flickr link to the right of this page.

Day 5: Pack up from Windy and move to the McDonald Ice Rumples. This is where a bit of rock grounds our part of ice shelf. The ice shelf still moves over it, and so concentric ripples in the ice are formed. While anybody camps here you can hear the ice moving beneath you. Gunshot type cracks can wake you up in the middle of the night. That's all fine when you're in a tent on ground that you've checked for crevasses. It's when you're walking over a very clear 'there's no way anyone couldn't know there was a big hole underneath you' bridge and it cracks. That's scary.
Nic and me in our tent at the Rumples. I'd just fried up some bacon on the Primus stove, the Tilly lamp is going strong providing heat and light. Photo by Anto.

I like tent living, you wake up sometime in the morning. Dying for a pee. I somehow find my way out of the many layers and toggles of my sleeping bag, trying not to let too many ice crystals fall onto me in the process, fish out my gloves from inside my sleeping bag and then proceed to start the Primus stove. That's not a quite thing to do, so most of the time when one person wakes up in a tent, the other does too. Nic and I had a similar arrangement to all my other tent partners. I do the Primus, and Nic does the Tilly. I brought a small freezer thermometer with me on this trip and most mornings it read just above -30oC. Within 10 minutes that would easily read -10oC. Now to get it another 10 degrees and above zero would be a bit more effort. We use the Primus to boil some water for tea and hot alpen for me, coffee for Nic. Then I start emptying out the water from thermoses and reboiling it, making sure we've always got a good supply of hot water. We keep small blocks of snow between the inner and outer lining of the tent and pretty soon the tent is more like a (cold) sauna, I can see Nic's glasses steaming up and the carbon monoxide detector is sitting nicely on it's 'alarm one' beep. This is my cue to stop playing with water and turn off the stove. We're now a lot warmer, I'm fed and had some tea and am ready to get out my bag and start putting on the layers. Now that I'm safely in the middle of a long paragraph I can talk about a morning pee. Now this will entirely depend on your tent partner, but remember that we haven't looked outside the tent yet, so don't know what the weather's like. Nic and I were perfectly comfortable with using our handy pee funnels and pee bottles to have a pee in our sleeping bag. It isn't as difficult as it sounds, and when you're in a position where the tent's still cold and it would be even colder outside I highly recommend it. The only thing I'd advise is to beware of how much you need to go. I very nearly filled up my 1 litre bottle one morning!

Day 6: Was good contrast but was drifting snow. The wind was cutting and we all decided and then collaborated to have a day in the tents. Much bridge playing ensued.

Day 7: Weather was rubbish today. Still windy, but with very bad contrast, tent bound again (no-body complaining though).

Day 8: Gorgeous weather. Clear skies, a little windy. We packed up camp. It didn't take us too long (2 or 3 hours), and then got our kit on for a quick walk before heading off to Creek 2.
My hands and feet got cold while packing up our tent. I was tired, but up for a short walk. We roped up in a four which makes travelling faster and safer. If one of us were to go down a crevasse it would be easy work for three people to pull one out. When walking in a two I have very little confidence in my ability to arrest somebody else's fall - especially since everyone else was heavier than me. We walked through the Rumples 'Valley of Death' up the 'Temple Staircase' to arrive at High Point. The first two names are ones I made up during the journey. It took about an hour since Simon knew a route was possible since he did the same walk with the previous trip. High Point is a well known position, but is constantly changing. It is where the ice is churned into a big mass of slots and ridges and is... the wherever the highest point is. It was a lovely walk, we saw topography, I put my right foot in two crevasses which then wouldn't give it back.
Nic, me and Anto all roped up in the Rumples by Central Berg. Photo by Simon.

Once we got to High Point we could really feel the wind. Maybe it was the topography, but the wind felt like it had picked up a bit. We stopped for a bite to eat and took a few photos. We could see our waiting skidoos and sledges at our camp and beyond that Halley Base. The previous trip had got to this point and decided to radio us and wave. Poor Bob assumed that something was wrong couldn't work out what they were saying, I looked out, but couldn't see any blobs. They then stayed there to witness the partial eclipse. We then went onwards exploring. This was quite fun, we were following Simon who was just wondering to where he felt like going. We ended up near a large weathered berg that was sticking up somewhat. We took a few more photos and then wandered on some more. We got to a place where we could see the seaice. There were little puffs of cumulus and seasmoke in the distance showing that there was open water. Beyond that a huge iceberg. By this time the snow was drifting around us and we were all quite done. We headed back to camp. This was a very scenic walk, but tiring. Simon ended up dragging us all along while I was doing my best to balance being able to see possible crevasses and not get too sunburnt. The sun won and I've now got a very freckly face again.

When we finally got back to camp again we started the doos, roped all the sledges and doos together and drove off away from the Rumples. I'd been to the Rumples the year before, we did very different things then and had a very different experience. Both were great and I'm already disappointed that I won't get to do this again.
So, we were driving over crevasses to get to Creek 2 along the A line. The A line is a line of flags and Automated Weather Stations (AWS) and other technical instruments that are part of the Lifetime of Halley project. This line (and others) have a GPS survey done on them regularly. Scientists at Cambridge then use the data to study ice and glacial movements and (importantly for us) try and predict when the bit of the ice shelf that we live on is going to calve off. At the moment they are saying things like 'have you all got lifejackets?' and 'maybe you should practice evacuating'. Anyway still driving. I'm cold. Very cold, my hands are like ice and I only don't stop because I know that the wind is increasing and if it gets too windy we can't move anywhere (poor visibility) and then have to set up camp- again. So I move my doo on with my numb fingers and eventually the warmers on the handles kick in and help my situation. I also did a lot of strange acrobatics to keep my blood pumping to my legs and which might have looked quite peculiar. While driving along the A line we were heading into the wind so I could almost convince myself I was cosy in my millions of layers. Heading North along the Creek 2 drumline we were all hit with the wind across the skidoos where there's no windshield. I was cold again. We got to Creek 2 caboose quickly and started to get ourselves and our belongings off our sledges and doos, the skidoos needed to be tarped up and the caboose made warm. Nic and I were both quite cold but still managed ok. The evening was celebrated by recounting the day's memories over some lovely hot manfood. What a day!

Day 9: Still blowing, good contrast caboose bound. Auch well.
Anto holding up the meal that Nic and I had prepared. Simon helping me serve it up in the background. The meal was spaghetti and pesto with a chicken and vegetable stir fry. It was quite simple. We soaked dried chicken, onions, sweetcorn, olives, mushrooms and peppers in water. Added some herbs and fried it up. The best man-food meal I've had. Photo by Anto.
Day 10: Wind has dropped, another wonderful day we pack up the caboose then head for base. We got back in time for lunch, reuniting with hot showers, clean clothes and familiar faces. All in all a brilliant trip. We had 1 full day out, 3 half days and a lot of time travelling between places. I wouldn't have changed the order of what we did since we got three penguin trips in, a good walk in the Rumples and a good mix of tent and caboose life. Lovely.

Nic driving off on an Alpine 3 and towing a Nansen sledge from Creek 2. The end of our trip.