Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Last Few Days

The Memorial

My last post from Halley has come around all too quickly, two summers and a winter have passed and it is time for me to head north, leaving the Antarctic far behind. The last few days were a great reminder, however, of why I enjoy this place so much.

With too many people on station to sail out to Cape Town on the Shackleton, a pair of Balser flights took a large number out flying them out across Dronning Maud Land. On the flights disappeared a large number of those who had wintered with me, they were in Cape Town enjoying salads and cocktails within the day. They were soon missed.

De-icing the Basler's Wings

However, the problems with flying this late in the season were only too apparent, the Antarctic winter is fast approaching and with temperatures dropping and bad weather increasing, the time-frame for flying plane starts to rapidly narrow. Moreover, with the low temperatures sea ice starts to form again and the escape routes north out of the Weddell Sea rapidly disappear.

Sunsets Over The Fully Clad Podule

For me, however, the last week or so was a fantastic opportunity to spend time on base when at its most beautiful. For Halley has a very different feel between both the summer and the winter, not just in the number of people, the weather and the obvious contrast in day length but more subtle aspects such as the colours, the quality of the light and the stillness. Halley is a place that is very much more beautiful in the winter than the summer.

The Tag Board
Brass tags for winterers, wood for summer staff

With little time left there was a rush to document the seemingly routine things on base that make it so different from the outside world. Items like the tag board, where each individual is represented by a different tag so that, particularly during the winter, you can be accounted for immediately in case of a fire. The board is accompanied by a sign-out book in which the time expected back is also completed, such that an attraction of leaving here (and there are a few), is the freedom to go somewhere without having to indicate where or the need to carry a VHF radio.

Halley VI and V
Karl (Project Manager) gives a sense of scale to the new base.

Other things that will not necessarily be missed are items like Nido, the replacement milk powder and the all-pervasive smell of AVTUR (the generic diesel based fuel)- though even that I have learnt to love. I guess that after friends and family, I suppose what I am most looking forward to are food items: salads, real milk, crisp fresh fruit and seafood, not just for their flavours but their textures too.

Inside the Ice Cave
Photo thanks to Richard Burt

A last minute boon was a plan on the penultimate night to sleep in an ice cave that had been painstakingly excavated across the summer in the windtail of the CASLab. The last ice feature we dug, several months back for Ant's birthday, had rapidly filled in with drifting snow. This latest one meanwhile had plenty of space for three of us to bed down for a comfortable night's sleep; they insulate their heat remarkably well and the cavern was well above the external -25°C.

Rich Burt in the Ice Cavern

I was fortunate to be on the last Sno-Cat transfer down to the ship and with the slightly premature departure of the last flight to make the best use of a weather window, it meant a final night on a very quiet base. The new wintering team are only eleven compared to the eighteen from our year (with only Deano (Comms Manager), staying on for a second winter), it will have a very different feel to our relatively large team

Last Melt Tank Dig

A beautiful sunset, a few final outdoor jobs to be done and without the bustle of a large number of people, it all contributed to the ambience of a typical winter's day at Halley. Having consigned all my luggage that will sail home in the hold of the ship a week before, it was easy to enjoy without the pressure of last minute packing of my bags.

Final Ships Cargo
Hasty labelling of northbound boxes

Despite my absence of skis on the ship, the weather and the light was too perfect not to take a pair of base skis and spend an hour on the perimeter. I know all too well how much I will miss Halley, particularly standing in the semi-darkness, alone, in the middle of the Antarctic.

Panorama from the North of Base
Click to enlarge

With limited daylight and a need to get round the Stancomb-Wills ice stream in good light, it was an early start with a procession of Sno-Cats taking the last five of us to join the ship and the majority of the new winterers to release the ships mooring lines and wave goodbye. For us Cape Town should be less than a fortnight's sail away.

Leaving Halley

I would quite happily have swapped my place on the ship with any one of the small handful of people standing on the ice, waving as water appeared between us and the ice shelf. They will, I am sure, have a fantastic winter, I just wish I was spending it with them.

Leaving Creek 4
The winterers see us off