Monday, 27 August 2018

Sea Ice

A lonely figure drags his sledge across the ice.
One of the most interesting, enjoyable although, at times, frustrating aspects of my work as a field guide at Rothera is dealing with the sea ice.  Every winter the sea around Rothera freezes to some extent. If and when the ice is deemed to be strong and stable enough, we are allowed out on it for both science and recreation. I love being out on the ice. However, sea ice is hazardous and fickle material, and BAS are understandably cautious about what and where we are allowed on the ice.

Last winter was a very poor winter for the sea ice, and so I was really hoping for a decent sea ice season this year. Things did get off to a good start with a some cold and settled periods in June during which the sea froze. Over the next couple of weeks there where a few windy days, but the ice survived. The ice was deemed solid enough to venture onto in the more sheltered Hanger Cove for testing purposes on the 26th of June. The results were encouraging, and over the next few weeks other areas were tested and deemed suitable of science, and even a little recreation. The marine team got to go out and cut dive holes in the ice, and then go diving. They also managed some CTD sampling through the ice. The ice thickness was consistently between 30 and 40cm, and everything was looking good.
Marlon and Aurelia from the Marine team drilling to test the thickness of the ice. 
Kate cutting a dive hole in the ice in Hanger cove in late June.  
 Marlon and Aurelia about to go ice diving a couple of days later. 
By mid July, the sea ice situation was looking very promising, I remember thinking it would take a pretty substantial and prolonged storm to blow the ice out. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we got For the best part of a week winds of 30 to 60 knots howled down from the North. The ice survived the first few days, but then began to break up. By the flag up ceremony on the 21st of July, most of the ice to the South had blown out, and a couple of days later it had all gone. However, the ice to the North the ice hung on. Conditions suddenly changed again, the temperature plummeted again that the sea almost immediately refroze. Another cold and settled spell was followed by another mild and stormy period which blew out some, but not all, of the new ice. Since then there have been a few more colder days, and a few more blows. This has left a complex pattern of ice of different ages and thicknesses in different areas. Some area the ice is very solid,  in other areas we are now back to open water.

 It feels like quite a variable season ice wise, with good conditions rapidly giving way to poor conditions and vice versa. The forecast for the next few days is relatively calm, and am hoping for some more chances to get back out on the ice. However, one things I have learnt down here is that the Antarctic weather can be highly variable and unpredictable beast, so who knows what will happen.

A team on a short recreational trip onto the sea ice. 
Field guides testing the ice out in South Cove. The wharf and some of the marine science buildings can be seen in the background. 


A satalite image taken on the 22nd of July. The area of open water is clearly seen from it's much darker colour. Rothera is located on the peninsular on the top left of the area of open water. Due to a number of factors the sea ice around Rothera breaks up sooner than in other areas. 

Friday, 27 July 2018

Flag Up

Looking South with the moon setting behind Jennie Island. 
The past month or so has felt like one of changing weather and light. The first few week after mid winter the weather was generally cold, settled and clear. The sun did not rise high enough to break the horizon. Through the day there were long periods of dawn/dusk which gave rise to skies characterised by soft pastel colours,  particularly when looking to the South. I don't remember such colours to the South last winter, then then again we did not have much settled weather last winter. 
The last time I had (just) seen in the sun. Climbing on Picts in early June. 
The last time I had actually seen the sun directly had been in early June. A few of us were climbing on the North side of a mountain called Picts. At around one o'clock the top of the sun disk just manged to scrape it's appear above the horizon to the North. I basked in it's weak pinkish glow for twenty minutes or so before it was gone.
The view out across the sea ice in early July.

Clouds catching the sunshine looking South just before the weather broke. 

The view from the skidoo parking pot the say we headed up Gwendolyn. We could tell it was going to be a good view on top. 
The next time I saw the sun was on the 14th of July, the same date as last year. A few of us went for a ski tour up one of the local peaks, Gwendolyn. Being slightly higher than the surrounding Stokes Peaks, and having a clear view to the North, it gets a lot of sunshine. Skinning up over the summit rise and into my first direct sunshine for about five weeks was an uplifting experience. Despite it being cold and windy on the summit, I stayed as long as  long as possible, and was the last one to head back down into the shadows.
Seeing the sun for the first time, on the summit of Gwendolyn
A couple of days after Gwendolyn the weather changed. The winds from the North strengthened, it got a lot milder (to the extent that it actually rained one day) and the skies become overcast, and stayed that way. It felt like someone had turned back the clock in terms of daylight, it seemed dark and ominous outside.

The flag-up ceremony was held during a break in the weather on the 21st of July. The Union Jack on the hill above Rothera is raised when the sun gets high enough above the horizon that Rothera would get some sunshine if it were clear. The flag is raised by the youngest person on base, who this year is Elgan the Chippie. He read out a poem, it was in Welsh so I didn't understand any of it, but it was nice all the same. It was another four or five days before it was actually clear enough for base to get some sunshine, and even then it was only for a few minutes. 
The 26 of us who are wintering at Rothera just after the flag had been raised.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Mid winter week

The Rothera mid winter greeting picture. Most of the Antarctic bases
send each other greeting pictures. We went for the retro look. 
In a tradition which goes back to the early Antarctic explores, midwinter is a time of celebration in Antarctica. Everybody on station gets the week off. In may ways it feels like the Christmas/New year period is in Britain, but (fortunately) without the commercialisation of Christmas.  There are some fun/festive activities as well as a fair bit of time for chilling out and enjoying the Antarctic winter.

The main celebration is on the Mid winter's day; the 21st of June. The day started with Jess the station leader offering to bring people tea or coffee to their rooms. I declined this offer, and went and did some stretching instead. At ten o'clock there was a champagne breakfast. After that everybody gathered in the bar for the opening of the mid winter gifts. 
One of the fun activity which traditionally organised by the field guides for
 mid winter week here at Rothera is the Winter Olympics.
Here the winning team of Jack and Stew pull Aurelia on the dog sledge race.
Another winter Olympic event was create stacking.
Aurelia on crate 11 before the tower collapsed.
 The winning team manged 13 crates. 
Part of the mid winter tradition is that people make gifts for each other. Back in April all the winterer's picked the name of another winterer from a hat to chose who your gift had to be for.  I was not at Rothera at the time, and this this was done on my behalf. I got Theresa the boating officer for my mid winter present recipient. Like myself Theresa had wintered  at Rothera last year, and I had been out on a couple of winter trips with her. I decided to make a photobook which contained about fifty images that I and other people had taken to sum up the winter's she had so far spent at Rothera. A few of the photos in my last blog post made it into the book.

Theresa had also traveled down on the ship with myself in early May. It was decided by the powers that be, that as neither of us would meet a number of the winter's until we arrived on the 10th of May, by which time people could have been working on their winter gifts for a while, that we would be fairest if we made winter gifts for each other. Of course neither of us new this until after the event. Theresa made me a couple of whiskey glasses which had originally started life as beer bottles and been cut, etched and polished; she knew that I like a wee dram from time to time.

Tom opening his winter present. It was not as hazardous as the box would suggest, it was a lovely folding chair made by Sam the chippy.  Sam's framed picture can be seen in the background. 

Kate Doc looks pleased with her gift while Tom looks on from his new chair/throne. 
People admire some of the winter gifts (those that would fit on the poo table at least). My whiskey glasses can be seen towards the back left side of the table. 
In  the afternoon we gathered in the dinning room for to begin an amazing seven course meal which  Lewis the Chef had been working on for days. At 6pm we adjourned to the communication tower to listen to the mid winter broadcast. The mid winter broadcast is half hour BBC radio program for the all BAS winterer's in Antarctica, and is presented by Cerys Mathews. A link to the program can be found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06blwrc   After that it was a return to the dinning room for more food and drink.
Mid winter's meal. 
The weather in the days following mid winter was some of most settled winter weather I have seen here at Rothera. There was not a cloud in the sky, and very little wind. Rothera is only a few tens of miles South of the Antarctic circle. Although at this time of year we don't get any direct sunlight on base, some of the local mountains are high enough to cancel out the curve of the earth, and catch a little direct sunlight around midday. 
The view across Rhyder bay. The sun catches the summi of Mount Liotard on the 22nd of June. 

Out for a boating trip. The boats are actually breaking through very young sea in ice, which slowed progress and prevented us from getting very far. However, it was great weather to be out. 
With the settled weather during the days after mid winter, I managed a couple of trips out. On the 22nd joined boating team  and a few others for a recreational trip out into Ryder Bay. The sea was starting to freeze in the settled conditions, and we did not actually get very far due to the ice conditions. However, it was great to get out on the boats, and an unusual experience to be boating through very young thin sea ice. Since then the ice has continued to form and thicken, and we have recently started to do a bit of work on the sea ice. Lets hope it sticks around.
Heading out for an ascent of Orca peak in the pink light of another fine Antarctic morning in the days following mid winter.



Friday, 1 June 2018

Back to Rothera

I didn't actually take any pictures while passing through the Falklands this time. However, on my way North last December I also had a few days in the Falklands, and took this shot of  other BAS people having a look at the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth. In 1936, during a strong gale, she broke from her mooring and drifted down the harbour to Whalebone Cove where she ran aground and still rests today.
Back at Rothera! As mentioned in my last post, I  am spending another winter at Rothera working for the British Antarctic Survey as a field guide.

I arrived here on the Thursday the 10th of May after what had felt like a very long journey. I had left Aviemore eleven days previously. My journey had started with a pleasant train journey down to London where I stayed for a few days. I ended up doing a few last minute jobs which I should have done before I had left Scotland. However, I did manage to find time to do some cultural things like going to the theater. However, it was soon time to do some decent travelling, it is a long way to Antarctica after all. Therefore, the next day I got the train and the bus out to RAF Brize Norton where I caught an overnight flight to the Falkland islands.

I spent a few days in the Falkland islands on my way back North from Rothera last December. At this time I had been near mid summer, and even then it felt like quite a bleak place. This time I was staying on the ship, the RSS Ernest Shackleton. Although we remained in the Falklands for a few days, due to space constraints on the dock, the ship spent a fair of that time a couple of hundred meters off shore. This obviously limited my opportunities to get out and about. However, when the ship was docked I did manage out for one run along to surf beach and a paddle in the sea.
The RSS Ernest Shackleton, the ship I had sailed to Rothera in about to depart from the Rothera wharf for it's journey back to the Northern Hemisphere. 
The Shack heads off. 
After a few days in the Falklands it was time for the ship to sail. The area of the ocean which we were required to cross, the Drake Passage, is a notoriously rough. About half an hour after leaving harbor the boat began to rock noticeably. This got worse  and worse, and I began to feel more and more ill. I am happy to admit that I am no sailor, and I spent the next few days in my cabin being sick. Through the journey I noticed a few different types of motion in the ship; sometimes it left like it would slid down the front of one wave, and then the whole ship would judder as it slammed into the next oncoming wave; at other times it bob from side to side much like a cork, other times it took on a  a slow corkscrewing motion. I am not sure which of these was worse. I don't think I have ever been so relieved to get onto dry land when we landed at Rothera five days after we had left the Falklands.

Due to the threat of ice the ship was keen to get going as soon as possible. After a couple of days of loading and unloading cargo, the ship was off, aiming to make it back to the UK in mid July. The moment the ship leaves is a significant moment in the Antarctic winter. This year there are 26 wintering at Rothera. As we waved the ship in the morning half light we knew that were were unlikely to see any other people until the first planes arrived around the middle of October.
Theresa near the summit of Picts on the second day of out winter trip. 
Ski touring on our winter trip. Mount Mangin and Gwyendalyn in the back ground. 
Exploring crevasses around MacCallum's Pass. 
With the ship departed there was still a lot for me to do. I was out on a winter trip a few days later with the boating officer, Theresa, and had a fair bit of organising to do for that. When all the kit was finally found, organised and packed a day or so later we headed out to the Stokes peaks.  Although daylight is limited at this time of year we had some reasonable weather. We had a good few days with a wee bit of  everything; ski touring, mountaineering, climbing and crevasse exploration.
Sam lowers the flag on quite a grey day at the Flagdown ceremony. 
No sooner than we had got back from our winter trip, than it was time for the flagdown ceremony. This happens every year in mid to late May when the sun no longer climbs high enough in the sky for direct sunlight to hit Rothera. Traditionally the oldest person on base says a few words and then lowers the flag. The youngest person on base will raise it about two months time when the sun reappears.This year it was Sam the carpenter who lowered the flag. Sam is quite musical, and so brought up his guitar and played a tune after lowered in the flag.
The 26 of us who are wintering at Rothera this year. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Northern Hemisphere Winter

Myself on The Chute, one of the few winter routes I did this season. Although not particularly hard, it is not often in condition, and it felt good to have got it done. 
It is a long time since I last updated my blog, for which I apologise. I kept meaning to do it, but kept getting distracted. Also, until recently there were no significant events, hard winter routes or interesting trips away in my life to write about. However, an imminent change of circumstances has spurred me into action. As I type this I am sitting on a train on it’s way to London, my first step on my journey to return to the Antarctica for another austral winter. However, more on that later.

Although it does not feel like it, it is now five months since I left Rothera. Returning to Scotland in mid December, I had about three days before starting my winter job as an avalanche forecaster. 
Work wise it was a busy winter for myself due to a combination of factors. I did not manage to get much climbing in for myself, I certainly did not do anything that I would regard as hard or  significant. However,  I did mange a pleasant route or two,  and despite a lack of climbing it was a satisfying winter.  
A pleasant day avalanche forecasting on Ben Nevis. 
Some winters, such as the winter of 2016/17, are quite pleasant weather wise, but with little snow on the hills. During these winters being out on the hills is quite pleasant, but the avalanche hazard is quite a bit lower, and the work feels less satisfying. There are other winters which are characterised by stormy conditions with lots of precipitation and freeze/thaw cycles. Although these winters can build good ice conditions, lots of strong winds and regularly getting soaked by the incessant West coast rain makes work harder going. However, the avalanche hazard tends to be higher making the work more satisfying if physically less pleasant.

This winter seemed to be the best of both worlds, there was a fair bit of snow meaning with work felt worthwhile, as well the skiing being pretty good, but it was generally below freezing on the hills, so things were good in terms of comfort. I could definitely handle a few more winters like that one.

Through the winter I was pondering Antarctica, and whether I should go back down to Rothera for another winter season. Before I had even left Rothera previously I had been offered a position as a field guide the following season. BAS were keen for me to head down in the middle of March so as to be able to catch the last flight on the season into Rothera. This had felt a bit too soon, I had wanted to remain in the Northern hemisphere into the Northern spring. Fortunately however, there was a change of circumstances, and an opportunity arose to head South in late April/early May. That tipped the decision in the direction of heading South for another austral winter in Rothera.
Sunshine and good snow. Ski touring near the Gran Paradiso in Italy. 
Being around for March and April gave me the opportunity to get involved in a bit of Alpine ski touring. However, all the people I knew who were going out were at times when I was not available. Then I noticed a post on social media from a Scottish guy called Chris Dickenson who was already out in France with a car and who was looking for people to go touring with in a few weeks time after the people he was with had to go home. I did not know Chris, but a little research suggested he knew what he was doing and as I was keen to get touring in the Alps, this seemed like a very hassle free way to get that done. I sent him a message, and we made a plan. A few weeks later I flew to Lyon, from where it is easy to get the train to a place called Oulx in the Italian Alps where I met Chris. In the days leading up to travelling the weather forecast had been poor. The the Gran Paradiso area seemed to offer opportunities given the forecast, and so we headed there. In the end the weather was not as bad as was forecast, and we had a good five days hut to hut touring in the Gran Paradiso area. I was impressed by the Italian huts, particularly the quieter ones which were off the beaten track (i.e not on the main route up the Gran Paradiso itself.). 
Great weather conditions whilst touring in the Vanoise. 
I had also been invited on another touring trip a few weeks later. Initially, I was not sure if I would be able to go on this one due to the timing of various medical check ups required by BAS for my work in Antarctica. However, a cancellation by someone else allowed to to re-arrange  the timing of some of these, and I was able to head out again. My friend Andy from Inverness was also going and had made all the arrangements. All I had to do was book my flights and get myself to Aviemore where he would pick me up and drive me to the airport. At the other end, in Geneva we were picked up by Tom, another friend who was already out there.

Arriving in the Alps we did not really have much of a plan. The forecast was looking pretty good all over. After a fair bit of discussion, in the end we decided upon the Vanoise area. There we managed six days hut to hut ski touring with great weather, with an ascent of the Gran Casse (3856m) on the final day being a bit of a highlight. 
Andy and Tom at the summit of the Grand Casse, the highest peak in the Vanoise. 



Thursday, 28 December 2017

Into the Field.

Steve in the cottage at Fossil Bluff. It has quite "traditional" feel about it
A couple of weeks after the first planes arrived at Rothera in mid October, I had my first trip off Adelaide island since arriving at Rothera back in March. Myself and fellow wintering field guide Steve were sent out to open Fossil Bluff for the summer season. Fossil Bluff is a refueling station for BAS's four twin otters, which are used to support the science and logistics in the field. It is situated  on Alexander island and is about an hour and a half's flight South of Rothera. It consists of a small cottage which was build around 1960, a few sheds/out buildings, and a skiway (an unprepared snow runway). Although occupied during the during some winters in the 1960's and 70's, today it is a summer only station. However, the interior of the hut does not feel like it has changed much since people were wintering there, and staying there feels a bit like staying in a museum. 
Skiing above Fossil Bluff. Not a bad outlook. 
Myself and Steve were there for about ten days. Although we were quite busy dewinterising the cottage and preparing the skiway, we did manage to get out and about for a bit of skiing and mountaineering. Although the rock was quite shattered and the snow was a bit firm the situation made up for it. 
Julie having dinner outside the Pyramid tent at Castle depot with John the pilot and Adam the co-pilot.  
I was then recalled back to Rothera for a week or so in preparation for my next stint in the field. BAS has a number for fuel depots scattered around the British Antarctic Territory. Due to accumulations of new snow every year or two these need raised to the surface to prevent them from being buried. The plan was for myself and Julie (one of the other wintering field guides) to raise a couple of depots.

The first one of the list was Castle depot. Castle Depot is at almost 77 degrees South, and in view of the Ellseworth Mountains. Despite being over 1000 km from Rothera were were able to get there in a day due to consistently good weather conditions on route. 
Depot raising. There were about 50 aviation fuel in the hole in the snow that needed pulled out and stacked on the surface. Fortunately we had a skidoo to help. 
The next morning the plane headed off, back to Sky Blu (a deep field logistics centre which I spent a fair bit of time at during my first stint in Antarctica) leaving myself and Julie to start digging. It took us about a day and a half to raise the depot.  Fortunately during this time the weather was good with us. Unfortunately when it came time for us to be picked up the weather was not so good further North, and no planes were able to come out and pick us up. The following day the weather deteriorated with us, and we had about four days or so of lie up until a plane was able to get in to collect us. It was then back to Sky Blu for a few days. With the running of Sky Blu being someone else's responsibility it felt quite pleasant place to be, pottering around helping with a few jobs here and there. 
Good optical effects above the pyramid tent at Castle depot as the bad weather which had effected us for a few days cleared. 
By this point, it was getting relatively close to the time when I was suppose to be leaving Antarctica.  It was decided that it was too much of a risk to send me back out to get involved with raising any other depots in case I got stuck out, and missed my flight North. Therefore I headed back to Rothera on the next twin otter which was heading that way. 

Arriving back at Rothera I noticed an increase in both the number of people and wildlife on base. There were around 80 people, which although less than the peak numbers, was still much larger than the 22 of us who had wintered and so it felt quite busy. Wildlife wise the elephant seals had started arriving, and although there were not in full force yet, were starting to get in the way a bit. 
An elephant seal having a good scratch. The number of these guys around base had increased significantly just before I left. 
A few days later my bags were packed, most of my admin was sorted, and it was onto a BAS's Dash 7 to leave Rothera. As the plane took off and climbed away to the North I watched as Rothera, my home for the previous nine months, got smaller and smaller before finally disappearing into the distance. I pondered my feelings about leaving, about how a winter in Antarctica had effected me and whether/when would I be back. However, at that stage, only a few minutes away, it was too soon to answer any of those questions. 
The view from Rothera. How much would I miss it.  







Friday, 1 December 2017

The End of Winter.


Our camp at Myth. Unfortunately due to a combination of factors, I didn't get any routes done in this area. 

Firstly a wee apology for this post being a bit out of date. I had some technical problems which prevented me from updating my blog for a while. However, despite the delay I still felt it was worth writing about the end of the winter here at Rothera. 

After my winter trip with Zoe, discussed in a previous post, I had four more winter trips.  On the first two of these I managed to get through McCallum's Pass and over to the West side of Adelaide Island. The mountains there tend to be larger and more spectacular than on the Rothera side of the island. Unfortunately due to a combination of factors I was only able to look at these mountain, and was not able to climb them. Something to come back for perhaps?
Digging out windows of the accommodation building during Sepember. The snow is just about up to the roof,  and this is the less snowy side of the building.
During September the weather turned very stormy for a few weeks. Due to the weather didn't manage to get very far at all on my next winter trip. In fact most of it was spent digging out windows and doorways around base as the snow drifts reached roof level on a number of the buildings.

Towards the end of September the weather started to calm down. My final winter trip was a field guide trip with Bradders and Steve. With lots of daylight hours and two fit and keen companions I had I high hopes of getting some good climbing and skiing done. Unfortunately, the night before we were meant to head out the weather did something I had not seen before, it dumped about two feet of soft snow with very little wind. From a skiing point of view this might have been good. Unfortunately it was not very good for travelling. We tried really hard, but the skidoos kept getting bogged down in the deep soft snow, and after a number of frustrating attempts we failed to get more than a few miles fro base. Due to the snow and worsening weather through the week I only managed a couple of routes and a small amount of skiing all week. 
Steve driving through some deep snow. Unfortunalty the skidoos did not mamage very well in this snow, and we did not get very far.
However, when the weather and snow finally settled down in early october there was some good skiing to be had. 
After the field guides trip it was time to get the base into summer mode. This required some long hours, particularly from the mechanics who had to clear all the snow which had accumulated on the roads around base and the runway throughout the winter. After a few delays the planes finally arrived, slightly later than expected, on the 18th of October.
Watching the first plane coming in. Tom and Julie (seated) where on sea ice safety cover. Bradders (in red) and myself  just came out to watch.
The Dash 7, the first plane of the season, coming in to land. 
At the time I was slightly apprehensive of the regarding the arrival of new people, and the resultant change in the atmosphere. After all, there had been just 22 of us on base and we had not seen anybody else since the ship had left back in early April. Although there inevitably was a change when the planes arrived, this was not particular rapid or negative. Most of the people of the first few planes had spent a fair bit of time down here, and were people that I knew.  The first planes also brought a bag of fruit for each of the winterer's, which having not had any fresh fruit for about 6 months, tasted fantastic.

Although the arrival of the planes did mean that some of the freedoms of the winter were curtailed, it also meant the beginning of the field season began. For me this meant the opportunity to get into the field and see a bit of Antarctica, something which I will write about in my in my next post. 

The first fresh fruit for over 6 months, Amazing!