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!

Thursday 21 September 2017

Antarctic Entertainment.

The descent of Gwendoline, one of the local peaks which makes a good ski tour.
Before I headed South back in March, I wondered what I would do to keep myself entertained through the long dark Antarctic winter. In reality keeping myself entertained has not proved to be a problem at all, I fell like I have been constantly busy.
When I first arrived Rothera was on operating on summer work hours; 8.30am until 6pm Monday to Friday, and 8.30am until 1pm on Saturday. However, after the ship left the station changed to winter work hours; 9am until 5pm Monday until Friday.  
After work ski tour on the back of reptile ridge a couple of evenings ago. There is now just about enough light to get out after work.
At the weekends, weather and winter trips permitting, I have tried to get out skiing and climbing as much as possible. Unfortunately the weather has been very unsettled this year, and so I have not been out as much as I would have liked.
Soft snow. Myself enjoying some nice powder on the side of reptile ridge. 
Rothera is quite a windy place, and the snow we get here is often quite firm and wind affected. However, you do sometime get powder, unfortunately it does not tend to last very long before it blows away. There is some good ski touring in and around the Stokes Peaks, which are about half an hour skidoo drive from base. However, the number of skidoos we have access to is quite limited, which limits the number of people who are able to get out there. Reptile ridge, which is much smaller, but is much closer to base and can be accessed without skidoo can also give some good skiing.  
Climbing on North Stork. Conditions here were a bit better then on Reptile ridge, but not as good as over in the Stokes. 
From a climbing and mountaineering point of view the Stokes peaks offers the best option for day trips. There has been some good snow/ice on some of the routes this year. However, again access is via skidoo, and this as well as the poor weather, has limited how much climbing I have manged in the Stokes this season. Unfortunately the much more accessible reptile ridge has not been in great condition this year. Most of the ice here melted out last summer which was unusually warm and settled. Little ice formed here during the autumn, and so most of reptile consists of  unconsolidated snow on loose and shattered rock.

I have been trying maintain some kind of rock climbing strength. Therefore I have been training a fair bit on the finger board which I brought down with me and the small campus board which was already here. There is also a set of gymnastic rings, which are good for a cheeky half hour session at lunchtime. It will be interesting to see how I am climbing when I do finally make it back onto some rock climbing (although who knows when that will be). 
Trying to maintain some finger strength. 
There is a small gym at Rothera. I have found that half an hour or so on the treadmill or the rowing machine before work is a good way to start the day. On a Sunday evening and a Wednesday evening, Ben, one of the other winterer's, runs a Yoga class which have been going to. After nearly six months, I am slightly less inflexible than I was to begin with, but do enjoy the yoga class.

I have really got into playing go. Go is an ancient Chinese strategy game in which aim is to capture territory and your opponents pieces. The rules are very simple, but is is played on quite a large board (19 by 19) and the things tend to get very complex very quickly.
In the middle of a game of go. So simple, yet so complex. 
Then there are organised stations events. These have included film nights, crazy golf evening and an ongoing come dine with me cooking competition.
All this together with keeping in touch with people back in the U.K, keeping up this blog, and reading (there is a good library here), has kept me pretty busy. 
Steve, in appropriate attire, tee's off in the garage during crazy golf competition. 

Monday 7 August 2017

The Return of the Sun

The sun peaks over the horizon for the first time in a month and a half. 

Although still in the depths of the Antarctic winter, over the last few weeks the days have been getting longer, and the opportunity to get off base to go climbing and skiing has increased. It was a about three weeks ago now, the 14th of July to be exact, that I saw the sun for first time since May. A group of six or seven of us headed toVals, the local ski slope above Rothera, with the hope of catching a glimpse of the sun.
At first out chances did not look good, a dense cold fog reduced visibility to a hundred metres or so. We sat around in the caboose (we small hut on skis which is parked up there) drinking tea and blethering. Then slowly but undeniably it started to thin, around 11.30am a hint of blue could be seen above, by midday the top of the slope was clear, and half an hour later it had all gone.  The sun then caught the top of the hills off to the right, and started inching it's way leftwards along the ridge above. I had just completed a run when I saw this happening, and after a rapid skin up the hill, and I joined the others up on the ridge above as the sun was appearing between a gap in the hills to the North. For the next half an hour or so our little group sat, mesmerised by the direct sunlight, the very faint warmth, and the colour. For weeks the world had been black, white and shades of grey, and then suddenly colour returned. It was quite profound to suddenly realise how much I had missed it. 
Zoe speaks about the winter. 
For the next few days the weather was poor, the world was once again bleached of colour. However, in terms of daylight, things start to change quite rapidly at this time of year. About a week after my first view of the sun from above Vals, the sun got high enough that, on a clear day it would be able to peek to over the hills to the North, so that Rothera itself would glimpse direct sunlight. This was marked by the flag up ceremony. In a previous post I wrote about how the oldest person on base (Trev the chef) lowered the flag when the sun disappeared in late May. The flag up is carried out by the youngest person on base, who this year is Zoe, the marine assistant.
Zoe leads interpretive sun up dance (although Zac in yellow looks
like he is going for the "I'm a little tea pot" dance). 
The weather had cleared, and around 1 o'clock on Thursday the 20th everybody gathered up at the flag. Initially the station leader Paul Samways said his bit about the dark period. He then handed over to Zoe who read out some thoughts about feeling of community which has developed on base since the ship had left. In the days before flag up people had joking suggested that she marked the occasion with interpretive dance. After her words she then surprised people by  getting a small set of speakers out of her jacket pocket, putting on some tunes, and doing an interpretive sun up dance before actually raising the flag.
Group shot after the flag up.
The following weekend, the weather forecast for the Sunday was good, and fellow field guide Bradley was keen to get out for a bit of climbing. We were both aware of an obvious unclimbed corner line on N2, one of the local peaks. We headed out at first light, and after a 30 minute skidoo ride and gentle downhill stroll we were standing below the line. It looked good but hard with a very thin line of snow ice stuck right to the back of the corner.  I offered to give it a go, and was soon engrossed in the intricacies of mixed climbing. It was thin, with lots of technical 6 and 7 climbing, and at times bold, but the squeaky snow ice kept beckoning me on wards. Eventually I ran of of rope, but was fortunate to find reasonable belay and slightly cramped stance. Bradley came up, muttering things like "thin", "no ice" and "how did you do this bit". 
Myself on the crux pitch of myself and Bradley's new and as yet unnamed route on N2. 
I took my opportunity ans hinted that perhaps it would be easier if I led the next pitch due to the way that belay suggested, and Bradley happily agreed to this. I continue up the gully above over a steep chockstone and up the up easier ground to behind the pinnacle. After that a few more pitches of easier ground led to the top, and a stroll back downhill to the skidoos.  The route, unnamed as yet, was about Scottish VII,7. 
Zoe emerging from the South Face of Wolf into the sunshine.
A week after that and it was time for the first of my second round of winter trips. For this trip I was   teamed up with Zoe. Zoe is keen, fit, is a quick learner, and doesn't complain much, so is a good person to get lots of mountaineering done with. We headed out a couple of days early, and came back a day late so as to maximise the opportunity to get things done. The weather was pretty mixed, with some a couple of big storms which dumped a lot of snow, but some cold and clear conditions as well.
In the end we managed  an ascent of Wolf and Trident on foot, a grade IV and a grade V ice route, and ascents of the peaks of Mouse and Gwendolyn on skis. Mouse and Gwendolyn were particularly good efforts given that Zoe had never been ski touring before, and her downhill experience had been a few days at Vals. 

Monday 17 July 2017

Antarctic Wedding.

Tom and Julie as man and wife.

On Saturday the 15th of July, two of my fellow field guides, Tom Sylvester and Julie Baum, got married here at Rothera. This is the first wedding in the British Antarctic Territory, and has had a fair bit of media coverage.

I have known Tom and Julie for a good number of years. They both work as mountaineering instructors, and I would regularly bump into then in and around Fort William where they live during the winter months. I knew that they had both been applying to work for BAS for a number of years, but due to various things it had not quite worked out for them. Finally, about a year ago they were offered wintering positions, but on different bases, Tom at Halley and Julie here at Rothera. However, a crack in the ice lead to Halley been closed for the winter and Tom ending up here at Rothera for the winter.

Recent changes in the BAT marriage laws made it easier to get married at BAS based. The base commander is able to act as magistrate, making marriage valid in the U.K. Given the way events had unfolded, Tom and Julie it was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this and get married here at Rothera. They announced their plans to the rest of the wintering team the day the ship left back in April.
My wedding invitation with the rings that Tom made. 
Julie says her wedding while master of ceremonies Paul Samways looks on. 

Signing the wedding certificate. 
After all the preperation and planning of the past few months their big day started with a champagne breakfasts for the five girls on the wintering team. This was followed by breakfast for all the boys. The breakfast was prepared by generator mechanic Mabell, who as well being able to fix generator and engines is a dab hand in the kitchen.
After this people headed off to get scrubbed up and ready for the ceremony itself. This was to be held in the sowing loft of the Fuchs building, which, over the previous couple of days, had been transformed.  At just after 1pm Julie and group of bridesmaids walked down the aisle wearing wedding dress which she had in that very room. This was made out of an old pyramid tent, something which embodied a lot of Antarctic history.  

Julie and the girls. 
Is that a tent you are wearing Mrs Sylvester.

The ceremony was conducted by Paul Samways the winter base commander, and included various readings and poems by other winterer’s. After the vows had been said, and the certificates signed, it was outside for photos. The weather forecast had been for 30-40 knot winds. Fortunately the weather on the day was much nicer than that, with light winds and a temperature of around a balmy -10ºC.  However,  -10ºC is still pretty chilly for people wearing smart wedding attire, and particularly the girls in their dresses. Getting the correct people, in the correct places for photos without anybody getting too hypothermic was quite challenging, particularly when my camera battery decided to die at an inconvenient moment.

After the group pictures, I accompanied Tom and Julie down to the runway in the snowcat for a few pictures of just the two of them. It was a case of a few pictures, then jump back in the snowcat for a warm up. 
Amazing food by Trev the Chef. 
Tom and Julie admiring their wedding present. The top right section is a piece of the flag which was taken down in the flag lowering ceremony back in May, and can be seen in the group picture in the lower right.

Then it was back to the dinning room to for the meal. However, before that started I quietly met up with Paul to had a quick look through the photos I had just taken down by the runway. One of the better ones was printed off, and Paul headed off with this to finish the wedding present before the meal.

The dining room had been transformed, and as expected Trev the chef cooked an amazing meal as well the wedding cake. There were the traditional speeches by the groom, and the best man (Zak the boatman) and the cutting of the wedding cake.  Paul then presented Tom and Julie with their wedding present, a beautifully framed series of images, and part of the flag which had flown above the base all summer.  He had also made much smaller individual frames which contained a small piece of the flag and the flag-down group photo for each person. 
Free Whiskey at the bar that evening!.

Maz and Paul entertain. 
After the meal Ben had organised a treasure hunt round base. Despite some dubious tactics from other teams, this was clearly won by the field guides (including Tom and Julie of course). By the time this was completed time was getting on, and everybody retired to bar for some musical performances by various individuals and groups. It was also a free bar and Tom and Julie had bought a number of bottles of fine whiskey for the event. These went down pretty well! After the live music had finished DJ Steve’s playlist, based on suggestions from everybody on base kept us going to late into the evening. My suggestion, Born Slippy by Underworld, seemed to be a hit with those of us older than their early thirties, those in their twenties just seemed to get confused by it!

All in all it felt like a great way to celebrate the wedding of two members of the wee community here this winter. It think what Tom and Julie (as well a everybody else on base) liked about it was the way that everybody who was there was involved in making the day happen. From cooking, to decorating the Fuchs loft and dining room, to making the wedding dress and wedding rings, to the photos and music, and too drinking the whiskey, everybody got involved. Congratulations Tom and Julie!

Thursday 29 June 2017

Mid Winter Week

Bog Chisel Javlin at the Rothera Winter Olympics
Crate stacking at the Rothera Winter Olympics.
The tower fell over shortly after this. 

Midwinter is a significant event at Rothera. In a tradition that goes back to the days of Scott and Shackleton, mid winter is a time to be celebrate with the people exchanging home made gifts, and marking the start of the lengthening days.

To celebrate this we had a week off work which allowed us time to chill out, make the most of the few hours of daylight we get at this time of year, and enjoy some of the light hearted events such as the Rothera winter Olympics which were organised. I also took the advantage to get out on my skis in the local area, which felt great as I had not been out for a while.

The afternoon the ship left back in April, we all drew names out of a hat for who your winter gift would be for. For the next two and a bit months months people have been putting in many hours in the evening and at weekends working on these gifts. Although inevitably you saw what some others were working on, it generally remained secret as to who peoples gifts were for.
The Lamp made out of an old Primus Stove and Pyramid tent
material that I made for Zac the boatman.  
The main event of the week was midwinter's day itself.
The lovely table that Julie made for me. 
On the afternoon of the 21st we all gathered in the bar to exchange the gifts people had been putting so much effort into. I knew that Julie, one of the other field assistants, had been putting in long hours in the chippie shed. I was therefore suspect that I would get something nice when she announced that her present was for me. It was well wrapped in an old tent, and I finally manged to get the knots out and get into the thing, I found a beautiful table. The legs were made out of an old Nansen sledge. The top of the table was oak with a schematic of the view from Rothera carved in it. Thanks Julie!

After a bit of time examining the gifts, it was was down to the dining room for some food. For the previous few days Trev the chef had been busy preparing an amazing nine course meal.

Theresa opens her gift while Mari gives technical advice.
Checking out the winter gifts. 

Trev and assistant (Steve) serve up another
course of tasty food. 
The first four or so courses of amazing food took us up to around six thirty. We all then headed up to the communication tower to listen to the BBC world services mid-winter broadcast. This was hosted by Welsh singer-singer writer Cerys Mathews. There was personal messages to all the BAS staff overwinter in Antarctica on the three bases; Rothera, King Edward Point and Bird Island (about 38 people in total).

There was also group messages from Sir David Attenborough, Bill Bailey, and John Carpenter. (John Carpenter directed the classic Antarctic horror movie The Thing which we watched later in the week). There were also some gifts from home which had been packed up and sent back in October.
After that is was back to the dining room for another five courses for Trev's food. After that people headed up to the bar, but having eaten all that food, it was not a particularly late one (for me at least).

Monday 5 June 2017

The Polar Night

Looking North at around midday, the sun no longer manages to break northern horizon.
When I arrived in Rothera back in early March it was light until about 9pm. Since then the days have been getting shorter, and the midday sun lower in the sky. In late May it got to the point that even at midday the sun failed to rise above the hills to the North. From then until sometime in mid to late July Rothera would see no direct sunlight. 
Fuchs house in the darkness. 18 or so hours of darkness a day just becomes normal. 
To mark the disappearance of the sun there is traditionally a little ceremony at Rothera. On Friday the 26th of May the flag that usually flutters on the hill above base was lowered. This is always done by the oldest person on base, which this year is Trev the chef. Around midday everybody gathered on the small hill behind base to where the flagpole stands. The wind was light  and the sky overcast and grey day, which added to the atmosphere of the occasion. The flag, by now pretty tattery after 10 months being battered by Antarctic storms and bleached by the intense UV of the summer sunshine, hung limply in the calm conditions.
Samways the station leader speaks.
Paul Samways, the station leader, said a few words about significance of the occasion and how privileged we are to be overwintering in Antarctica. Trev then stepped up, read a little poem that he had written about the occasion and then lowered the flag. This was followed by a shot of whiskey, a group photo and the rest off the day off. In six weeks of so, when the sun returns, the youngest person on base will raise a new flag. 
I am usually not really into flag ceremonies, they often feel a bit contrived to me. However, on this occasion, perhaps because it did represent something significant and also very apparent (the loss of direct sunlight), or perhaps just due to the dynamics of a small group on base, it did feel worthwhile. 
Trev the chef lowers the flag while everybody else looks on. 
The group photo after the flag lowering 
So far I have not found that 18 or so hours of darkness every day has had a negative effect on me. Rothera is only just South of the Antarctic circle, meaning that at even at mid winter there is a few hours of dusky daylight every day.  The fact there is some daylight each day combined with set work and meal times, certainly keeps my body happily ticking away with it's normal  24 hour cycle. The main downside of the darkness for myself is the fact that it limits opportunities to get out and do things at the weekend.
Weekend skiing and climbing is starting to get limited by the short daylight hours. Heading off on a skiing trip before dawn (I think this picture was taken around 10.30am)
The day after the flag down ceremony myself and Steve (one of the other field guides) had a day trip up one of  Stokes Peaks, which, with it's good views to the North was still just getting a little sunshine.  
One advantage of the darkness and lack of light pollution is the opportunity to see the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights)