Sunday, 3 April 2011

Winterer's Antarctic Field Trip - Part 2

We spent the next two days in the tent. Poor contrast kept us static at camp. I wiled away the hours catching up on the blog and honing the text. I enjoy writing. I enjoy trying to make sense of things with words and I enjoy trying to make the words make sense. The summer season was full on. After Relief I was so tired and I don't think I had really recovered from that. I seemed to enter a work, sleep, work, sleep routine. The blog fell by the wayside as did my other side projects like learning computery stuff like UNIX and UNIX scripting and mastering the basic card slights. Now that the 'quieter' winter season has arrived I can now afford more time to those other things…..well I hope that is the case.

Being tent bound also gave me the opportunity to talk to my friends / colleagues. It was interesting to hear about James's other interests like diving and kayaking (paddling as it's generally referred to) and Ian's many adventures out and about in the wildernesses of the world.

I also got tucked in to a bit of reading. I don't usually read books. I read loads of text on the computer screen but to sit down with a book is unheard of. Richard left me 'Carrying the Fire' to read. Michael Collins' book ticks many boxes for me; it's an autobiography (I love learning about interesting people), it's about an astronaut and it's written in a very honest, almost self depreciating tone. I have alway been amazed and struck by mankind's endeavours into space since I was a little boy. Anything to do with space really. My mum brought me up on Star Trek, Doctor Who and Blake's 7. I remember her taking my brother, Ian and I to see Star Wars in 77/78 and whilst I was drilled into the back of my seat as only a wee boy could be by that spectacle of a movie my Mum was actually teetering on the very edge of hers. Mum sure does enjoy a bit of sci-fi and it has definitely rubbed off (03/04/2011 Happy Mothers Day mum and thank you for being such a great mum).

Anyway, there's nothing fictitious about Michael Collins story. It's all fact and the autobiography details how he ended up becoming the command module pilot for the Apollo 11 moon landing as well as detailing his journey to and from the moon and his travels in life after his lunar adventure. His words offer a real human insight in to that amazing journey of exploration and the innovative engineering that made it happen. His autobiography is recognised as being one of the best in it's genre as Michael manages to accurately document the life of an American Astronaut as it actually would have been during this exciting period of manned space exploration. I'll keep turning those pages because, as it stands, there's nothing else to do apart from melt snow which is in itself a very very important task. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink (unless you melt it)

By the evening of the fourth day the clouds eventually broke and with good contrast we grabbed the bull by the horns and headed off to do some exploring. Off to Aladdin's cave we went. After a quick abseil down into a crevasse and an ice scramble up the other side we found ourselves in this well known and very well explored little cave.

Inside Aladdin's Cave (Photo: James Goby)

Once done we climbed down from the cave then up out of the crevasse and managed to back to the tent for some tea and biscuits brown just before bed time.

James making his way down from Aladdin's cave into the crevasse

The next day we broke camp and before heading back to Halley V we went on a reconnaissance mission to survey the lay of the land during which Ian undertook some 'safe route' flagging. We arrived back home safe and well later that evening. It was a cold trip back. It was the first time that I really felt the Antarctic winter beginning to take hold. The temperature was definitely beginning to drop.

The weather changes for the better the evening before we have to go home. I thought this only happened to people holidaying in Scotland (Photo: James Goby)

I must thank Ian for keeping us safe and both Ian and James for being such cracking company on our predominantly tent bound adventure. I hope we have better luck with the weather on our next trip this October.

Outside Aladin's Cave. Ian looks over the Hinge Zone

Winterer's Antarctic Field Trip - Part 1

With the summer season behind us and with only the Halley winterer's left at Halley V, winter trip season is now upon us. The winter trip is essentially a week away from the base and a break from ones work. The winterer's go out in pairs to explore the Brunt Ice Shelf (a seasoned field assistant accompanies them to ensure that they don't fall in to any crevasses). This trip is repeated in October so, in total, the winterer's spend two weeks away from base as Antarctic explorers.

My trip began on Sunday the 6th of March and myself, James and our wintering field assistant, Ian headed out to the Hinge Zone. The fresh water glacial ice flows from the Antarctic Continent on to the sea. This ice then floats on to the sea forming the Brunt Ice Shelf. Just as with a land bound glacier, this process is ongoing and the Brunt gets bigger and bigger until huge chunks break off at it's  extremities (referred to as calving events). The Hinge Zone is the area where the glacial ice from the continent begins to float. Like an actual hinge the zone supports the rising and falling of the huge ice shelf as the Brunt extends out to sea. It is an area of ice caves, contorted ice forms, dangerous crevasses and other fascinating features.

Ready to go. The blue sky didn't last long though....

Every winterer is privileged to have the opportunity to explore this wilderness. It says a lot for BAS that it is one of the few organisations, if not the only one, that still allows it's staff explore in this way. Other countries limit expeditions to those individuals who have to make such trips e.g. scientists etc. Some people come to work in Antarctica and all they get to see of it is the view from their window. In BAS every one of the wintering staff has the opportunity to explore; the chef, the vehicle technician and so on.

However, it's not that straight forward, The wintering adventurer has one enemy….The Weather!

I am two days into my trip as I write this and I have been tent bound for all but four hours. High winds, blowing snow and poor contrast limit our activities to peaking our heads outside the pyramid tent to see if the weather has improved sufficiently for us to get going. I am still lucky to even get this far though. The winterer's have week long slots allocated to them and if the weather is bad through their allocated week there is a chance that they wont even get off of the base! It's just too remote and dangerous to take such gung-ho risks such as charging off into the wilderness in poor visibility and contrast. In poor contrast the diffuse light from the clouds 'hides' the relief of the land meaning that one may not even see the crevasse or even a sharp drop that may be just a few feet in front of them. There are no risks to be taken out in this wilderness. If you get yourself into trouble the emergency services are not coming to get you.

The pyramid tent. The Antarctic explorers 'home from home' of choice

So if the weather is bad? You stay put. And, to be honest, this is no bad thing. I'm enjoying relaxing and kicking back especially after the busy summer season that we have just left behind. James, Ian and I did manage a few hours exploring in the local area. As we headed off into the Hinge all contrast was lost as the cloud came in. As it was a route that Ian had already marked we continued on. Breaks in the cloud afforded a short spell of reasonable contrast. Seizing the opportunity we wandered off route during which we managed to stumble across melt pool. During the summer the 24 hour sunlight is extremely high in UV (there's no ozone to keep this strong radiation from the sun at bay) and this energy does cause the ice to melt in some areas. The water runs off forming pools that continually freeze. I've never seen ice that looks so blue.

The frozen melt pool (an oxymoron?)

With care we made our way back to camp, sorted ourselves out for the night and collectively hoped that the next day brought better weather. It didn't and we spent the day cooped up inside the tent. I still made the best of it and, to be honest, it was no hardship. Not even a disappointment. Again, it's just great to be somewhere else doing something else even if that 'something else' amounts to 'not very much else'. Time to recharge the batteries so to speak. Sometimes, There's a whole lot to be be gained from doing a whole load of nothing.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Sun is going down!

The twenty four hour days are now behind us and the twenty four hour nights are fast approaching. It's all part of the Antarctic experience. Now that the sun is dipping below the horizon we're being presented with some pretty spectacular sunsets that bathe the sky and landscape in colours from pink through orange to silver

Absolutely beautiful.

James really captured the moment with these outstanding shots

(Photo: James Goby)

The Simpson platform's windows reflecting the sunset through the thin fog on to the snow (Original Photo: James Goby)

Brilliant photos, James.

Halley Winterer's 2011

Time to introduce the Halley V 2011 winterer's properly. The piccy's were all taken during the Winterer's Meal on the RRS Ernest Shackleton. Many thanks to the Captain, officers and crew who laid on a great evening and who made us feel most welcome.

Ben Mapston. Winter Base Commander

James Goby. Machine Operator

Paul Barwick. Electrician

Frank Jaffray. Generator Mechanic

Ian McNab. Field Assistant

Chris Walton. Chef.

Halley Ladies: Jenny Hine (Doctor) and Emma Philpot (Communications Manager)

Brett Walton. Vehicle Technician

Rory Fleet. Plumber

The team of professionals that will keep Halley V going until the next summer season (this November).

Catch Up 3: The Summer is Over

All things must come to an end and the Halley 2010/11 summer build season had wound down.  Although there was still some tasks to accomplish like tidying up the sites and readying them for their winter slumber the main bulk of the work had been completed. To celebrate the end of the season Field Assistant and documentary film maker Kirk Watson put together a 'Folk Night'. Although only recently resurrected by Kirk, Folk Night was an occasion at which the Halley staff would regale each other with song, poem, story or any other form of 'acceptable' entertainment. At Halley the occasion had fallen by the wayside many, many years ago but Kirk saw fit to get it going again just as he had resurrected it at Rothera, BAS's station on the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a time for everyone to let off a little steam, relax and consign the tensions and stress of the season to the place where all that kind of stuff belongs….in the past.

It was an absolute privilege to be asked to host this years event and I thank Kirk for the opportunity. The show opened with Richard and I performing a version of Carol King's take on 'Natural Woman' which was a kind of apology to all those lads in the audience who were used to having 'Met Babes' instead of 'Met Men' around. Kirk was kind enough to post our performance on YouTube.

The rest of the show included; poetry that reflected on the build season with the prose being, at times, a bit 'savage' though always insightful and comical, sketches of comedy and drama were performed and this years wintering Halley Doctor, Jenny, even managed to put the Folk into Folk Night by playing a couple of traditional tunes on her fiddle. The night finished with a collection of films by Kirk that detailed the best and worst of the season. Phil Moneypenny's filmic review of the Halley VI team doing their stuff was also a standout moment.

So with the Folk Night show over it meant that the show otherwise known as the Halley 2010/11 build season was finally over as well. Also, for the 2010 winterer's, it meant that their time at Halley was coming to an end.

With the Halley VI modules finally installed at their new home some 16 kilometres away towards the continent, the Morrison tradesmen were tidying up for the winter. The BAS staff busied themselves with mothballing the build machinery and winding down the summer buildings. The summer BAS staff and the 2010 winterer's then readied themselves for their journey home. There are two main routes out of Halley; by air or by sea. Most of the Morrison tradesmen who had already finished their tasks were placed on flights out of Halley which saw them basically retracing their steps back to South Africa (Basler DC-3 to Novo. Ilyushin from Novo to Cape Town).

Basler DC-3 arriving at Halley International Airport to pick up it's Morrison's cargo (Original Photo: James Goby)

BAS staff and the rest of the Morrison staff would be taken out on the RSS Ernest Shackleton with the last of the BAS staff going out on the RRS James Clark Ross.

Departing wintering chef, Anthony Dubber making his way to the RRS James Clark Ross

The Shackleton was the first ship to arrive (followed by the RRS James Clark Ross a few days later). The remaining waste which was to be transported to the Falkland Islands and other items to be shipped to Cambridge were loaded while last minute supplies for Halley V were unloaded. It's arrival also afforded an occasion that is something of a tradition on the Shackleton, the Winterer's Meal. Every year the Shackleton's Captain cordially invites that years winterer's to join him for an evening of food and socialising aboard his vessel. Again this was an opportunity for the 2011 winterer's to relax and enjoy each others company. Something that the busy summer schedule had not really allowed us to do more than once. The welcome afforded to us by the Captain, his officers and his crew was greatly appreciated by us all. It was a smashing evening and it's memory will remain with me.

The Captain, officers and crew of the RRS Ernest Shackleton made us feel very welcome 

These were emotional times for the previous years winterer's. After spending such a long time with their wintering pals strong bonds of friendship had formed. Some winterer's also form an attachment to the base itself. After all Halley V had been their home for nearly 18 months, their life support, their social life and the base itself will remain in their minds as an icon of their time in Antarctica. Whilst some of them may have been feeling a tinge of sadness about leaving their excitement regarding their trip home was tangible as the loved ones they had not seen for such a long time would be waiting for them.

The 2010 winterer's were an honest bunch and I for one greatly appreciated their candour. I was about to undertake my winter at Halley and their ability to tell it how it was and not just dress it up as something 'which is really great' or 'absolutely the most amazing thing in the world' was greatly appreciated. Knowing the highs and lows that are in store helped me to prepare for my journey through the Antarctic winter. A journey that I shall be sharing with my ten fellow winterer's. I shall continue to write this blog in that vein, detailing all the highs and the lows so that anyone considering a winter trip to Antarctica  knows exactly what to expect. Being something of an optimist I have found that in the past my 'glass half full' approach can sometimes blind me to the actual realities of the endeavours I undertake. So, again, I thank ALL of last years winterer's for all of their opinions and their advice.

So it was with great sadness that I wished Richard a final farewell. He is such a talented nae gifted lad. He has the world at his feet and the energy to make the future his very own. I wish him all the very best. I say 'Cheers, Aye!' to the outgoing Doctor, Mike Ramage. A man who lives just over one mile away from me in Glasgow but whom I have only just had the pleasure to meet in Antarctica. The sometimes crude but always entertaining banter I entered into with the 2010 wintering chef and all round 'cracking lad', Anthony Dubber could maybe have been a prelude to a lifelong friendship. Who knows? My respect for Tim Gee and Ed McGough knows no bounds and it's the quiet ones like Jack Parker and Matt Hooper that you've really got to watch ;-). Craig Brown was as pleasant a guy as you would ever want to meet and Ian Sisson's impending adventure touring his Honda C90 through Europe says more about the man than I ever could. Winter base commander Paddy Power kept them in line the best a true Irish man could and to my pal Mark Green I can only say, 'COOL BEANS!'

Saying farewell to Richard

I say a fond farewell to all the 2010 winterer's all of whom I would have liked to have known better. A few may return to Halley later this year but the majority I will probably never meet again.

I will however probably meet the summer staff next season (this November). Their trip south is an annual one so to them, Au Revoir!

There are now only eleven left at Halley V and this is now our Winter. Indeed, what follows is my Winter.

Halley Summer Build Season 2010/11

Catch Up 2: It's not all work, work, work

With the summer build season underway everyone was busy. The 2010 Halley winterer's were busy with their tasks and were handing over the reigns to the 2011 winterer's who were just flinging themselves into their tasks. For me, the science handover from Richard was ongoing as were the daily met tasks. For others like Brett the wintering vehicle mechanic the work volume was consistently high due to the amount of vehicles in action around the base which varied from little ski-do's to the mobile cranes that were required by the Halley VI project. Everyone was in the same boat and with everyone up to their eyes in it it gave no time for the new winterer's to spend some time together and to bond as a team.

2011 started with a couple of days at the seaside for this years Halley winterer's. We didn't go far, after all it was only a wee jaunt down to Creek 3 (about 10 kilometres away).

On our way to Creek 3: Ben, Brett, Jenny and Emma

Once there we were welcomed by some beautiful weather and some beautiful skies.

Crepuscular Rays bursting through the Stratocumulus clouds

The objectives were three fold: Learn some Antarctic field and camp craft from our top Field Assistant's, Ian McNab and Kirk Watson, bring the wintering team together for, what was essentially, the very first time and to have a nice wee break away from the madness at Halley V (a change is as good as a rest etc).

The trip was arranged to bring us up to speed on Antarctic survival equipment and techniques. Instruction was given on camping craft which included erecting the pyramid tents, assembling stoves and generally becoming better acquainted with the camping gear.

Setting up a pyramid tent as demonstrated by Kirk and Ian

The night ended with a barbecue Antarctic style followed by some tall tales and a bit of team bonding.

Jenny demonstrating what an Antarctic barby is really for

The following day was all about traversing the crevasse riddled Antarctic terrain with an introduction to the equipment and techniques utilised if a situation took a turn for the worse. Our field assistants, Ian and Kirk, are an experienced pair so the instruction was both concise and informative.

Traversing the ice. Crevasses are the biggest hidden danger. Luckily Ian can smell them

We will take the skills we learned on our trip to Creek 3 away with us on our winter trip and I am sure that we will take our burgeoning friendships with us well into the future.

With the expedition over it was time to head back to Halley V

Catch Up 1: The Halley VI Build Season

This summer season at Halley was the penultimate build season of the Haley VI project. There were over 100 people staying at Halley V during the summer period. All being fed watered and entertained. That's a strain on a base that was never designed to cater for that amount of bodies. The Laws platform is the primary facility at Halley V. The platform can accommodate around forty personnel and also contains the catering facilities, support services and their associated workshops, the communications hub, some office space and, of course, the bar. In addition to this space there is the Drewry Annexe that only operates during the summer season. The Drewry features accommodation space and catering facilities only. These two buildings were still not enough to cater for the numbers required for the Halley VI build so temporary containerised accommodation was implemented to take up the slack. 

The Drewry annexe being moved into place at the beginning of the season (Photo: Kirk Watson)

All these extra bodies were necessary as the 2010 / 2011 build season saw numerous skilled teams working on many different aspects of the Haley VI build. There was a team working across at the Halley VI site preparing it for the imminent arrival of it's modules. This team was also responsible for erecting the masts, arrays and cable catenary's that would be required for the science that will eventually be implemented at Halley VI. 

The Southern Hemisphere Auroral Radar Experiment (SHARE) array under construction at the Haley VI site (Photo: Unknown)

Teams of tradesmen were employed at the Halley VI construction site at Halley V to complete the modules exteriors and as much of their interiors as possible. Another major task to be completed this season was the implementation of the hydraulic systems that would enable the module legs to be jacked up and down to enable the raising of the new base as and when necessitated by snow accumulation.

The module legs can be extended and the modules raised as snow accumulates

Each module was then towed the 16 kilometres from it's construction site at Halley V to it's new home at the prepared Halley VI site. With the blue modules weighing in at a hefty eighty tons and the big red 'Module A' tipping the scales at a whopping two hundred tons this final phase presented arguably the biggest challenge to the project. Some individuals speculated that Module A would be the heaviest single item ever to be towed across Antarctica. Could something that big and heavy be supported by the snow and ice without it digging in to the very surface that it was travelling on? With the expertise of BAS and Morrisons construction on the job the task of moving the big red one the necessary 16 kilometres was achieved with apparent ease. The image of the monstrous Module A being moved is one that will stay with me for some time. 

Module A being moved from Halley V to it's new home at the Halley VI site

As the modules arrived at the Halley VI site they were arranged in their final configuration. The final arrangement and connection of the modules was one of the many Antarctic firsts that the project has had to contend with. It was conceptually and, obviously, conceivably possible but what would it actually take to join all these modules together and make a functioning Antarctic scientific base out of them? The Halley VI base, as a concept, has never been tried in Antarctica and it's realisation is a feather in the cap to all the individuals who have been involved with the project in whatever capacity. The completed configuration of Halley VI is definitely an impressive sight.

The assembled Halley VI base in the Antarctic evening light