Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Best 25 Hours In A Long Time

The Cliffs At Creek 4

exciting photos, this entry will be less about the base and more a self-indulgent Having finally caught up with writing about relief at length and including some not particularlyreminiscence of a spectacular day and a bit last weekend. Intentionally long on photos and short on words...

Late Evening Manhauling
Photo thanks to Rich Burt

Ant (Z-Chef) and I have wanted to travel by ski off-base for a while now. As exciting as travelling by ski-doo across miles of the Antarctic is, there is something particularly romantic and simple about travel under your own propulsion. A post-winter manhaul trip would not have been practical for various reasons and there has been little time or conditions amenable to do so safely at any other point.

Ice Cave Buried In the Cliffs

So the arrival of a ski-enthusiastic Field GA, an urge to get off-base and a Base Commander supportive of outdoor activities, we planned a trip to the only caboose off-station at the moment at Creek 4, where the cargo came off the sea ice. However, any trip further afield than a few kilometres off base requires a half-unit to be taken, either towed behind a ski-doo, lashed to the roof of a Sno-Cat or in our case manhauled.

Lashing the Manhaul Nansen

cooking stove and pans), a medical box, copious paraffin fuel (stored in A half-unit is essentially an emergency kit to allow survival for an extended period of time should bad weather descend. It consists of an emergency tent, a pots box (with a Primusjerry cans), P-bags (the sleeping bags and insulation for sleeping), manfood boxes (dried field food), along with a few other bits and pieces including rope and climbing gear. By not taking ski-doos we are able to avoid the large number of petrol jerrys and vehicle spares that would usually be carried and use a lighter Nansen sledge- a manhaul sledge- as opposed to the more robust versions that are designed to travel at greater speed. Along with all our personal kit, the whole thing came to about 150- 200kg between us, a lot for just a night away!

Heading Out Into the Bondoo

Having planned it since before relief, we felt it would be prudent to at least have a trial run before heading out across the shelf, around base. Several evenings were spent towing the cumbersome cross-country ski-track maker around the perimeter, playing with kit and the fan trace until we were all satisfied we were all pulling the same load, even if some arrangements seemed to defy our understanding of physics, and were happy with the skis and skins set up. (Skins are strips of either fur or artificial fibre glued to the bottom of the ski to provide extra traction)

In Training
L-R- Rich Burt, Ant and myself- photo thanks to Les Johnson

So last Saturday evening (the 19th), given that we are all working Saturday until late and Ant had the Saturday dinner to cook, serve and scrub the kitchen down after, we finished lashing our personal kit, donned manhaul harnesses and headed off base at about 9 at night. The benefit of 24-hour daylight, is that the illumination on the three hour trip or so hours down to the coast means even at midnight, that there is no need for torches and sunglasses are mandatory.

The White Cliffs of the Brunt

The total weight of the sledge may seem heavy but on a well-maintained Nansen (with thanks to Alex Gough- who gave them some much needed attention during the winter), running over a near perfect surface (hard ice base with a light snow cover), and with three of us hauling the time passed rapidly and sociably strung out in a line ahead of the sledge. The 14 kilometres or so passed fast and the sun was dipping low by the time we arrived at the caboose; a few weeks yet and the sun should set once more. The persistently photogenic altocumulus was illuminated such that you felt you could reach out drag yourself up and peer across the cloud tops.

Nearing the Caboose
Photo by Rich Burt

After a very comfortable nights sleep in the familiar caboose that has been moved to the head of the creek from its old site at Windy Bay, we sprang out early, radioed into base for our field sched and roped up for a walk out onto one of the headlands. Despite the ambient temperature of -10°C or so, the sun was out and there can have been few more beautiful places on earth.

Walking Out On the Headland
Roped up in case of crevasses

Rich had reconnoitred, during his time working off the Shackleton during relief, a safe cliff (free from overhangs and cornices), for some abseiling and climbing about a kilometre or two from where the Anderma had tied up. After setting up the anchor, I headed off over the edge first, abseiling the forty or so metres off the ice shelf down to the sea ice beneath.

About to Go Over the Edge
Abseiling off the cliffs onto the sea ice, the open sea with pack ice only a hundred metres or so away- photo by Rich Burt

Until this point, it felt as we were alone in the middle of nowhere, no other living organism anywhere on the edge of this vast desert. Suddenly halfway down the cliff, it became clear that this was no longer true; a loud exhalation of air and a disturbance in the water revealed a pod of Orca swimming along the ice edge.

The Large Dorsal Fin of a Male Orca

That moment, suspended 20 metres in the air feet against a brilliant white ice cliff, with deep blue skies looking out over the sea and pack ice, without another human being in sight, interrupted only by my first sighting of Killer Whales, cannot be captured adequately in photographs or prose.

Adélie Penguins

The reason for the presence of these first non-human mammals I have seen in a year, soon became obvious as two small penguins waddled over inquisitively towards the foot of the cliff. Jokingly referred to as 'Jellys' for their small size and resemblance to Jelly Babies- at least to Orcas- Adélie penguins are the only other penguins along with Emperors that live off the Antarctic mainland and these were the first I had seen since South Georgia.

Ant Abseiling

The pod continued swimming lazily along the ice edge, they are brought in by the abundance of both types of penguin around the sea ice, either moulting adults or young heading off into open water for the first time. Adélies form the perfect snack- though this pair were still wandering around the ice when we left later in the day.

Rich Burt Ice Climbing

Ant after a few minutes of watching the Orca followed me down and then Rich. I have never been a climber yet BAS is replete with those who get kicks out of climbing rock, ice, whatever. It is not something I have been able to understand or empathise with the stories- until now.

Still a Long Way to Go

After an exhilarating climb back up the face, we headed back to the caboose to rendez-vous with four people who had turned up by Sno-Cat from base for an afternoon's climbing.

JD Stops to Admire the View

The whole area is particularly photogenic, all the more so on a bright sunny day. The other appreciable aspect is the lack of noise. Even on a base in the middle of nowhere there is still the continual hum of a generator in the background with the drone of ski-doos and large vehicles super-imposed at the more noisy times.

Vicky (Z-Base Commander) Mid Abseil

The same is not true at the creeks, the difference in the intensity of the silence is appreciable, even if it is punctuated by the occasional snort of an orca or the distant creaking of pack ice rubbing together.

Working the Lens
Jim abseiling on the left, I am on the right- photo thanks to Dean Evans

In order to try and get some quality shots, we put in another snow anchor and I abseiled down to try and catch everybody on their way past, against the stunning cliffs.

Female Orcas

Using crampons and dynamic ice axes while belayed from above for the inevitable fall, the climb back up was as exciting as the abseil down, admittedly without the view apart from a large wall of ice.

JD Heads Back Up

Hanging onto ice axes often pitched above head height, led to cold numb hands, such that on reaching the top, there was an opportunity to revisit the pain associated with colder days as the hands re-warmed followed by the waves of nausea that accompany profound re-perfusion.

Watching From the Bottom
Vicky, Ant and Jim contemplate the climb back up

Dean and Jim were particularly glad for a chance to go climbing as their winter trips had been particularly badly affected by bad weather, spending their first trip almost entirely within their pyramid tents., while for the second trip they were confined inside Windy Caboose in the midst of 60+knot winds until the last day.

Deano Heads Back Down Again

After a good afternoon's climbing, we roped up again and headed back to the caboose. The Sno-Cat was quickly loaded and the four headed back to base.

Roped Up
An unusual Alpine 7

I am sure each of the three of us left behind must have thought for thirty seconds about throwing all the kit in the back of the 'Cat and taking the easy route home, particularly after a good day's climbing. The trip back however was just as good as the trip out.

Improvising Repairs to Ant's Skis

The Antarctic is beautiful, even those who deride the Brunt for its bleak flatness and lack of mountains could not help but appreciate its desolate beauty. A beauty all the more inspiring when viewed leisurely on skis than on the back of a noisy ski-doo. Despite a few problems with Ant's skins losing their grip with the skis, we were back on base by 10 that night. an eventful 25 hours after we left.

Back On Base
Ant (L) and I (R) power the last mile home- photo by Rich Burt

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to spend a weekend in such a way and it is weekends like this that I am sure I will look back on with the most fondness and excitement. What more could you want, great company, weather, orcas, climbing and manhauling? There is little that I can think of more captivating that skiing unaided across the Antarctic, a method of travel that is all the more exciting for its echoes of early polar travel a century ago.

Ant Descends the Cliffs

Friday, January 25, 2008

...& An Equally Busy New Year

Coming Alongside the Anderma

Celebration of Christmas was subsumed by the annual relief of Halley V; New Year disappeared into a similar haze as relief shifted up a gear with the arrival of the second ship to visit the Brunt this summer- the Anderma. As soon as the Shackleton was successfully unloaded and then backfilled with the winter's waste and a few other northbound goods, notably including my various research samples, the larger ship appeared over the horizon. It intentionally left Cape Town a few days behind the Shackleton, such that the Halley V and VI reliefs merged into one long haul.

The Anderma Up Against the Ice

The Anderma was designed as a large Russian icebreaker to carry amongst other things military tanks around the world, used now for commerical shipping, she has the requisite size to carry the large steel frames that form the skeleton of each of the seven or so podules that will make up the new base. As well as the frames, there is an enormous amount of construction cargo that has had to come ashore, dwarfing the amount that could be carried on the relatively small Shackleton. The Anderma absolutely dwarfs the BAS ship, as they sit tied up against the ice. Along with the cargo, the Russian ship bore a handful of the construction team, full of stories of Russian meal times with endless cabbage soup, a sharp contrast to the relative luxury of the Shackleton, with its salads and bottled beer.

A Sno-Cat Approaching Across the Sea Ice

One of the constraints in the whole construction project is the relief stage, particularly the sea ice. As thick as the ice is and it is supposedly at least a couple of metres thick, there is a limit to the weight of objects (in the order of tonnes), that any ice will tolerate, which neccesitates a lot of the construction taking place on site despite the brief summer season available for work (around 10 - 12 weeks), as opposed to being pre-fabricated and towed into position.

Offloading Cargo

The unavoidable risk of working on sea ice (as opposed to the several hundred metre thick shelf ice that separates Halley from the sea underneath the Brunt), requires various precautions when unloading the ships to protect against not only the loss of cargo through cracks in the ice but the possibility of somebody getting wet in near freezing waters.

Nascent Sastrugi

The most notable is the use of special tracked Sno-Cats which shuttle across the ice carrying no more than a single sledge (which will take a single shipping container), accompanied by a driver and a driver's mate, the latter riding pillion on the sled whose job is not only to help with the cargo but carries a throw-line for the driver should the former get into trouble.

Working the Sea Ice
Dave (Met) and Toddy (Field GA) adjust the straps on their cargo

The Sno-Cats drive off the ice up a ramp, specially bulldozed weeks ago at a prime spot, to surmount the 40m high cliffs and onto the safety of the shelf. At this point their load is unhitched and they return as part of a shuttle system, controlled for the period of the Anderma relief from the bridge of the Shackleton. The latter, as well as acting as a control point for all the sea ice operations, acts as a floating hotel, accommodating the large number of BAS ship's crew and FIDS working the cargo and driving down on the ice. With two twelve hour shifts a day, it is long enough without a two hour journey that would be required to commute to and from base each day.

Road Train Across the Shelf

From the mechanic's caboose at the head of the cliffs, the cargo is linked to form a long train of sledges, which are then pulled the short distance across the shelf at (relatively) high speed by one of the large Challenger prime movers to base. Both ships are close enough to base that if the conditions are right they can be seen miraging on the horizon, so the jourrney is brief.

The Memorial At Halley

The Halley VI relief took well over ten days with this continuous cycle of sledges making their way twenty-four hours a day across the Brunt Ice Shelf. Met at the base end by depot teams on unloading the sledges, the cargo lines for the summer work stretch several miles in length.

Skiway Refuelling
Chad (Z-Air Mech) in action

While a large number of the base have been down on the ship working, I spent most of the time on base. I did however hitch a lift on one of the Challengers to sneak down ships' side for an evening to see the sheer scale of the Anderma, see some of the crew who I sailed South from the UK with and simply an excuse to escape base.

Operating the Platform Crane
Probably not a transferable skill within the NHS- photo thanks to Mel D'Souza

New cargo means a lot of unpacking, most notably on my part for the surgery. The problematic nature of drug expiry dates means that there is, unfortunately, a fair amount of stock that has to be removed, as it has gone out of date unused, as the new drugs and kit are placed on the shelf. Nonetheless, given that the base is isolated for nine months of the year there are a fair few unlikely eventualities which have to be covered for and there will always be some drugs that are carried and sit unused, to cover uncommon but life-threatening illnesses.

End-of-Relief BBQ

Fortunately, given the proximity of the creeks, some good weather and a lot of hard work, both reliefs were over much quicker than expected. Numbers on base have sprung upto nigh on hundred neccesiating the appearance of new temporary accommodation to house the extra numbers.

Blocked Melt Tank

One of the complications of the large number of people on base and the increased water demands means that the melt tank has great demands placed upon it. As a result it struggles to melt all the snow that comes its way as it is filled and there is a tendency for the 30 metre chute that leads down to it, ending up blocked.

Way to the Wings
Steps on the side of a Twin Otter

A blocked melt tank is an arduous and not particularly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. The chute has small doors on it every couple of metres, so following the long climb to the bottom, it is slow progress gradually clearing out compacted snow and ice at each level heading back up to the surface. Until, finally, a lump of snow, thrown in from the top will fall, fall and fall, until there is a resounding double thud as it stops at the dog leg that leads into the tank itself.

Skiing After Work
Joe, Dean and Tamsin take on the perimeter

Throughout the two reliefs, unusually, the Twin Otters have kept flying. Most years the whole base would stop while everyone works on relief but this year with a lot of summer science to be done, there has continued to be a fair amount of work on the skiway for me. While there are four Twin Otters in the BAS fleet, it is unusual for there to be two on base at Halley as most operate out of Rothera supporting the majority of field projects that work from there. So there was a fair amount of excitement to have two on base for a few days.

A Pair Of Twin Otters

As well as the need for Bravo Lima to return for a significant service that cannot be carried out here, the incoming Bravo Bravo has been modified for aerial photography. MAGIC is the BAS mapping division and in one long successful day they succeded in a long high altitude flight across the Brunt Ice Shelf to capture a set of photographs, which will help produce a new map of the area around the base and contribute to our understanding of the glaciology of the shelf. With that goes also the big question for daily living at Halley- when will the ice shelf calve (or break off)? A large part is expected to calve at some point taking with it the current base, hence the construction of a new base- the question is when.

Drum Raising Along the Creek 4 Drumline
The driver's view from the Sno-Cat

With both reliefs safely out of the way and a huge amount of cargo unloaded and brought across treacherous sea ice, the season is now well under way. The surgery window looks east across the base where Halley VI is starting to take rise out of the ice.

The Base Doctor
Photo thanks to Pete Milner