Monthly Archives: January 2015


In Antarctica, transport is difficult. Getting around is hard. In the year I will live here, I expect I will be able to count the number of times I leave the base on two hands. Usually we go to places not so far away, as we did with the ice climbing and field course, and we take snowmobiles or snowcats. This is fun, but the ultimate way to get around is to fly. I was expecting a chance to fly, perhaps, towards the end of my stay if I was good and there was a need to maintain some remote field site.

I was then somewhat unexpectedly put on a “copilot training” course. This, I thought while doing the brief session, was n exciting name for some not so exciting field training. It happens that if you fly, you need to be able to use the field kit carried on every aircraft to survive should the plane need to land away from base unexpectedly. But it didn’t seem particularly focussed around planes so I thought nothing more of it until I was called into a meeting and told I was then going to actually be a co-pilot for an upcoming flight.

So, a few days later, I found myself snowmobiling out to our skiway – a slightly flatter bit of snow among the flat snow that serves as our runway – and came to this:

A DHC Twin Otter, the quintessential Antarctic aircraft and the symbol of Antartica’s aviation for the past 40 years. BAS has five aircraft, four of which are these. They are old but reliable and are used by most national Antarctic programs that have air capacity here. They’re an interesting size – bigger than the general aviation Cessnas and Pipers and but smaller than everything else. They don’t have too many bells or whistles (I think someone accidentally broke them off somewhere in their three decades of life).

We were flying to take equipment to a field team, “Sledge India”, who were relocating to a new field base at the foot of the Theron mountains. Our flight would take about 90 minutes there, half an hour of unloading, then about the same back – not a long way by Antarctic standards, certainly – more of a milk run. I was very excited. We started by loading the aircraft with our cargo – tents, fuel, sleeping kits, miscellaneous boxes and a snowmobile. A big one too. It’s an impressive sight watching the delicate job trying to get a snowmobile into an aircraft though a door that’s hardly big enough and facing the wrong way:

Off we went. It was a very smooth ride – smoother than I had expected for such a small aircraft. When we had reached the cruising altitude – 3km up – the pilot, Andy, offered the controls to me. This is my third time flying an aircraft and by far the longest – I was flying it perhaps half of the way there. Admittedly, straight and level – but that was tricky enough 🙂 Me, with my “I’m somehow in charge of this machine” look:

The panel of the aircraft was complex but just simple enough that I could understand what was going on. It’s not a massively complicated aircraft, one you could learn and understand quite comprehensively in a way that larger aircraft could never be. It was also pleasantly responsive and you could feel the air on the control surfaces in your hands. My pilot, Andy, patiently answered all my questions and plied me with stories of Antarctic flying!

I was thrilled the whole duration of what I’m sure polar pilots would call a most unthrilling flight. The landscape was starkly white and even – it was impossible to hold a course by looking at something in front because there was, for most of the way, nothing at all for the eye to look at. Ultimately, the horizon served us some black dots that strengthened and spread until this came into good view:

The Theron Mountains. This is a mountain range in the strict sense, but only the very peaks get above the ice and act as a huge dam holding back a vast wall of ice a hundred metres high. Think the Wall from Game of Thrones, just with some mountains for structural support and without trees around it. With nothing living and little eroding it, the rock was stark and clear, with incredibly distinct strata.


We landed to the scene above, directly onto the snow, where the base camp was being established. It was a most beautiful scene these expeditioners had chosen to stay in. It was also very still and quiet – perfectly quiet. That’s an experience, I think, that rarely exists in the world; a place with no noise – not a hum of a machine, distance traffic, vague natural sounds or even slight wind. Can you remember such a time?

We unloaded quicker than I would have liked and set off home. I flew a bit on the way back too. The way back seemed quicker, perhaps because we were flying towards the distant shore. As we approached Halley again, we could see the outline of the Brunt Ice Shelf and all the features that surround it:

The top bit, stretching out to the left, is our ice shelf. Halley is in the middle of that. The coast closer to us is the actual Antarctic coastline, covered in ice as it always is. The cracks in the ice are crevasses caused by the sea ice flowing onto the sea. I will spend, in all likelihood, the next year within the top half of this photo, on that thin-looking veneer of ice. This is my home, resting upon it:

Field Training

Another weekend, another trip to Creek Three! Back to the coast we go, again in SnowCat & sledge. This time we are hauling lots of very soft stuff so the sledge is a very comfortable way to ride:

This time, all the new wintering team are heading out together. It is pretty much the first time the 13 of us were together alone for any decent amount of time. It was reassuring to see we all got along well and spirits were high!

The weekend was mainly a test of memory to see if we remembered anything from our training at Girton in Cambridge. We did, it seemed, and soon after arrival Karl and I had a tent up, which was only mildly wonky:

Fun fact about these tents – they’re not waterproof. The logic is that it’s too cold for water to exist outside and, if something does come through, it’ll evaporate in the dry air. The groundsheet is also completely separate from the rest of the tent and goes in last, which is odd. Karl and I piled snow around the outside like that to stop the tent being blown away – snow is heavy, as we discovered as we tried to lift far-too-large chunks in a bid to out-lift the other.

You get in by crawling through a “tunnel” in the side of the tent. Inside, it’s overwhelmingly red, as the light filters through the fabric 24 hours a day:

We set up our sleeping systems, which consists of:

  • a normal sleeping mat
  • a fancy Thermarest sleeping mat (a thin air mattress)
  • a very soft and fluffy sheepskin
  • a sleeping bag that when unpuffed is bigger than me
  • a liner for the sleeping bag
  • another, slightly thicker, liner for the sleeping bag
  • yet another liner that goes on the outside of the sleeping bag.

You might think that was all highly necessary when camping in a cold place like this but since we also have gas heaters and do all our cooking in the tent, it’s very much excessively warm. I was uncomfortably hot during the nights. My opinion might change in time, though, as the kit is for -40°C rather than the tropical -10°C we had this weekend. All the mats, though, are very cosy to lie on and you really get to “nest” with all the fabric available when you’re not sleeping…

While on the theme of red-tinted photos, here is a representative image of the sustenance we had that weekend:

These (in ascending order of importance) are:

  1. Emergency chocolate that appears to make up about 30% of our calorific intake. This is true even when we are on base and have lots of regular food.
  2. Melted snow. Other people call it water, but this is crucially different as what we have is invariably slightly too hot or too cold to drink after the melting process.
  3. Biscuits, Brown: a BAS tradition. I believe most of these were made in Scott’s era, and we’re still eating them. Surprisingly good, but better with condiments such as jam and tuna, or one of those alone.
  4. Manfood: add water and stir. alternatively, for soup, add more water and stir. Either way, how good it tastes is highly dependent on hunger.
  5. Hot Wet: any warm liquid that isn’t overwarmed melted snow. Typically tea, but also frequently cocoa. Karl brought a percolator and upped the ante by producing coffee, which is unconventional. That had the effect of attracting other people in our camp to our tent – success.

The rest of the camp looked like this:

6 habitation tents with 2 or 3 people in each, and a toilet tent in the centre. The toilet tent was indistinguishable from the regular tents from the outside, but as you started entering the tunnel the smell would quickly confirm you were indeed entering the correct tent.

During the weekend, we practised some usually-easy-but-difficult-in-Antarctica things like walking over flat ground and up slight inclines. We learnt how to stop falling into holes, stop other people falling into holes and how to pull those people out of the holes in case they didn’t quite get the first thing. We had bright sun and were right on the beach:

Most of us were wearing standard issue BAS wear but these rebellious three rejected that in favour of non-orange colours. From left to right, Nath (the doc), Tom (plumber) and Sarah (chef!) – all people you want to be on the good side of.

The wind picked up Sunday and started making being outside unpleasant. So, we retreated to the cabin of the snowcat – quite a squeeze for everyone – and played Cards Against Humanity. We learnt a lot about each other that day…

Most people left back to base that afternoon but four particularly keen peeps, myself included, decided to stay, braving the weather, to do a wee bit of iceclimbing before we left. I was much improved on the earlier weekend. Probably as a result of having to depend on my own snow anchors to hold if I fell this time…

Having suitably worn ourselves out, it was time to head back to base. We had four big snowmobiles and rocked back in style. These are fun to drive, but your hands get really cold and we had very poor contrast of the snow (very flat light) so the ride back was quite rough. We practised linked travel, wherein two snowmobiles move in formation, tied together with a rope – the idea being that one can act as an anchor should the other fall into a crevasse.

Appendix A: For all you penguin lovers out there, this guy came up to see what we were doing:

Another one came up to the camp during the night and starting chirping wildly at 0800 sharp. Great alarm clocks, are penguins.

Ice Climbing

This weekend a bunch of us got back on the SnowCat and, for the more cold-tolerant, the sledge it was pulling behind, and drove a couple hours back to Creek Three, the place the ship had moored to unload. The ship and indeed most of the ice it was attached to had long gone, but the vehicle tracks to and from that were imprinted during relief were still very visible.

Our trip was to get out and stretch our legs. And arms, as it turned out, as the purpose of our trip was to learn how to ice climb. It was largely recreational but ice climbing is a fairly important part of our training here, despite the unwavering flatness of the terrain. We need to be able to get out of holes we fall into and, when we eventually wander further afield, we may need to climb to get to interesting places.

So, ice axes in hand (as demonstrated by Hue above), we learnt the art of ice climbing. It’s fairly straightforward – much less thinking involved than regular climbing. Swing axe, kick crampon, pull up. That said, it feels a lot more tiring than regular climbing and my arms were pumped after just a few climbs. Might have something to do with my overall fitness and weight, though, rather than objectively being more exhausting!

For some, it was very easy. Others found it much harder. This chap, for example, took an innovative “leave your ice axes stuck as you dangle nearby” approach to getting up:

While these few took an equally creative approach to belaying (don’t worry, in the middle of that is someone doing their job properly):

It was great fun! It’s very satisfying, somehow, to haul yourself up a sheer edge that otherwise looks impossible to climb owing to being smooth, crumbly and steep. And the view behind us was stunning too – the sea, dark and brooding. It always looks dark and Mordor-esque, does the sea – I think it is the contrast with the bright and overwhelmingly white snow we see the rest of the time…

A Relief

Upon arrival on the station, we immediately started work on “relief” – a period of about a week where the base works 24 hours a day to unload the ship and haul the cargo to the base. I was on 12-hour “night” shifts – the “night” part being a useless description due to the same number of people being awake as during the “day” and the 24-hour sunlight. I was on the team at Halley unloading all the cargo from the transport sledges, pulled by large John Deere snow tractors up from the coast where the ship was being unloaded.

Luckily, that first night shift the cargo hadn’t started moving in force so we didn’t have to unload too much that first night – I had time to explore my new home a little and get to grips with this alien landscape that will surround me for the next 14 months.

Cargo started arriving in force the next “night”. We had three major types of cargo jobs to do: food, break bulk and barrels. The first involved unloading thousands of boxes, tins, packets and tubs of food, human-chaining it in to various storage containers and rooms, and stacking it. It was like a game of 3D Tetris without the music where every block was a oddly-shaped cube – quite amusing. I think 45% of our food by mass are those Ribena-like juice concentrates. My concerns about food quantity are quashed: they have sent vast quantities of food, more than I could even imagine. Certainly more than I could lift. To help explain how much, this is a small part of our emergency food:

I also noted, while passing boxes from person to person, that the people in charge of our food supply feel we need more rhubarb in our diets. A lot more.

The second part, break bulk, was fun – this is the most “traditional” looking cargo unloading: boxes of various shapes, poles, mast segments, generators etc. It was fun because for each item you had to work out a way to get slings on to attach it to the crane’s hook. All this, which represents everything we brought that isn’t food or fuel, was put in a long single-file like that stretched 340m. Over the next few weeks, people will come out to  this line to collect the various items they have been shipped. Here, one of the largest items we dealt with, a generator, is lifted using a Nodwell crane:

The last part was the most time consuming: the fuel. We unloaded 1738 barrels of fuel in about 48 hours. They arrived from the coast of sledge trains of 72 barrels at a time. We had to lift these off the sledges and into fuel “dumps” – a pile of 198 barrels each. This will be the major source of fuel for our base, vehicles and aircraft for the next year. When moving them, we had help from a JCB digger and so we only had to manhandle them a bit. Just as well – they each weigh 220kg, and we move three at a time….

All this was pretty exhausting. I slept well. Well, mostly. The first night we had two fire alarms. I was in a groggy state of disorientation when I arrived at the muster point in my PJs but it seemed the day shift had things under control – the fire team were suited up and people were being counted.

Three days in, we had new year. Since we were on nights, this happened right before lunch, just after we came back from unloading barrels. The day shift had stayed up late and we all sat and ate chocolate cake – the reason being another of the winter team, David, had made a bet with his sister the year prior not to eat any chocolate for 12 months. At midnight, that expired and he made up for that years’ chocolate deprivation with gusto!

The real treat for me, though, was later that afternoon, when, while coming back from a barrel unloading, we saw a bunch of penguins waddling near the base. They had wandered up from the coast following a series of drums we use to mark the path to the base. We walked as close as we were allowed to but, as penguins have no fear, they approached us further – perhaps coming to 2m away.  Their curiosity satisfied, they all started falling asleep, right in front of us, until they were all snoozing. The big one in the middle made an effort to stay awake (maybe to keep watch?) but ultimately nodded off too.