Monday 26 October 2015

Arriving at Rothera.

Keeping ourselves amused in South America
A strong Northerly howls across the landscape. The temperature is about a degree above freezing. Sleet slants diagonally down from a leaden sky, plastering any exposed object in a layer of slush. Looking out the window today it feels like it could be Scotland, well except for the 30m ice cliff dropping into the sea that I can just about see through the mist.
This is not Scotland, this is Rothera, the main base for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), located on an island just off the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsular at about 67ยบ South. I have been here for about a week now, and will continue to be based here for the next four months or so.
Torres del Paine. Pretty good looking mountains.
My journey South started about two weeks ago. Train from Aviemore to Cambridge, minibus from Cambridge to Heathrow, flight from Heathrow to Madrid, Madrid to Santiago and then Santiago to Punta Arenas at the Southern tip of Chile. Delays due to weather meant that I was stuck in Punta with eight other BAS employees for three days.
Punta is an interesting town,  and we spent a day wandering around some of the more random shops. One of my favourite was the hardware/outdoor/weapon shop, were you could purchase anything from screwdrivers and hacksaws to chalk and rockboots to handguns, rifles and large hunting knives. I purchased none of the above.
The view from the plane when approaching Rothera.
The next day, having seen the sights of Punta, a group of us decided to hire some bikes, and cycled up into the hills behind the town. On the way back down into town my gear set fell to bits.  Rather than walking all the way back, I took up my companions offer of a tow.  A towing system consisting of three shoe laces and a belt was constructed, and we set off dodging traffic through busy streets of Punta. At this point I was beginning to think (as you might be) what could go wrong with this plan? Surprisingly nothing did go wrong, it worked perfectly, and we soon made it back to the bike shop.
Rothera from the top of the Ramp.
On our final day in Punta we hired a car and drove up to the Torres Del Paine National Park. This was a lovely spot, and a place that I would be keen to return to climb one day. The weather then improved, and the following day the BAS aircraft was able to fly us over the Drake Passage to Rothera.
A wee trip out onto the ice to learn about living and travelling in the field.
Since arriving, myself and the other new field assistants, have been busy with training and getting organised for our field seasons. Although a lot of the mountaineering aspects of our work, such as crevasse rescue, were familiar to us from our mountaineering backgrounds, there was plenty of new stuff to cover. A lot of the new stuff had to do with travel, such as how to pack and tow sledges in the field, how to rope the skidoos together in potentially crevassed terrain, and how to communicate with base. There has also been some time to get out and do some personal skiing, and last night there was a pleasant surprise when an empire penguin (which are pretty rare here at Rothera) waddled up onto the sea ice not far from base.
A lone (lost?) Empire Penguin waddle about the sea ice just behind base.

Monday 5 October 2015

BAS Training

 A group of us went punting one morning. Here Ali Rose (a fellow field assistant), takes a shot of being chief punter, and is concentrating hard on keeping us going and not falling in (which is harder said than done). 
Back in August, fittingly when I was pottering around on the snowpatches of Ben Nevis, I got a phone call from the the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). They offered me a summer contract working as a field assistant in Antarctica. The role of a field assistant is essentially to look after scientists and help with logistics in the deep field. This is a job that I had been interested in for a long time, so I jumped at the chance.

My training for this job started on Sunday the 13th of September, and lasted for about two and a half weeks. The first week was based at Girton college in Cambridge. Everybody who is going South for the first time has to attend this. There was about 100 people with a wide variety of backgrounds; scientist, mountaineers, carpenters, vehicle mechanics, divers, doctors, radio operators etc. The training started with a general introduction to BAS, and to life in Antarctica. It then proceeded to more specific courses depending on peoples roles and responsibilities. Here I met the other three field assistants who were also going South for the first time, and who I would likely be working with. This part of the training concluded with a three day first aid course, but with a slant to Antarctic conditions.
For the first week of training we were based at Girton college in Cambridge. It was very nice, but did have a bit of a Hogwarts feel about it. 

It was then up to the peak district for a four day field course. Various more experienced field assistants turned up, and helped us teach skills such as navigation, ropework and campcraft to the overwintering staff. Although I wont be overwintering, I was still involved as a field assistant. It was also a good opportunity to get to know others who I would I am likely to be working with over the season. Various staff who had summered before, who were returning to overwinter were there. There was probably as much learning hearing their stories in the bar in the evening, as had occurred through the day.
 A search technique during the field training. Although it might look like a group of people with buckets in their heads, they are in fact wearing white out simulations devices, and are searching for a lost comrade (the man crouching on the right). 

After the field course I had a few days off, so I popped over to North Wales to see some friends and get a few routes done. The route of this mini trip was The Skull up on Cyrn Las. It was a route which I had fallen off about 15 years ago, and to be honest nearly fell off again.  It would appear that Cambridge does not do your climbing a world of good.

The fire fighter course. A group of us putting out a simulated aircraft fire.  

After Wales it was back down to Cambridge for a fire training course. This was very much a crash course, with about 6 months of normal training being squeezed into 3 days. However, it was quite good fun crawling around smokey rooms wearing breathing apparatus looking for dummies and spraying fires with lots of water. The gist of it was that is a plane crashes down there with thousands of liters of aviation fuel, and it goes on fire, there is not much we are going to be able to do about it.

Am now back in Scotland for a few days before heading South on the 12th of October. I should be back around the 20th of February. Although internet access is pretty slow in Antarctica, I will try and keep my blog updated while on base.

BAS's finest fire crew. After 3 days training, what could possibly go wrong?