Monthly Archives: March 2015

A Holiday in Antarctica

During our time here, we get three main holidays. One is a week off to celebrate midwinter’s in June, the other two, at the very start and the end of our winter, are week-long field trips. In groups of three or four, we head out and spend a few days camping in an area away from base of our choice. We go in staggered weeks to make sure we have enough people to run the base. My week, which was shared with chef Sarah and doctor Nathalie, went to a popular area for such trips known as the Hinge Zone. We were guided by veteran field assistant Ian, who has previously wintered at Halley (the only one of our crew to do so). So, on to the snowmobiles and off we went!

After a couple hours’ trip heading inland towards the continent, the flat uniform ice was broken up by features – large crevasses, cliffs and holes. These were impressive, glistening in the sun, and are created as the ice cap slowly slides off the landmass under us and onto the sea to become the ice shelf. The ice shelf (on which Halley sits) is affected by small tides, and the flex point is around here – hence Hinge Zone. This movement, as well the the sudden change in sub-glacial topography, creates these features and some rolling “hills” of ice. Our kit was hauled with us in 5 towed sledges – 2 of which were entirely spare supplies. We had enough stuff in total to accommodate ten people, and food enough to last us a month.

We arrived at Aladdin’s Cave, the local tourist hotspot (by local standards), and set up camp. The sun had been out, providing excellent contrast and visibility for our drive, but it started to cloud over once we had our tents in place. In previous years, there has been an actual cave at Aladdin’s, but that has long since closed up and now it is a hard-to-describe geometrical feature. I suppose it is best described as a small ice canyon or gorge, with a frozen lake in the middle. Very cool to see. We had a wander around in there before we retired back to the tents for the evening.

The first night was particularly interesting as we had some high winds that night. The tent rattled and flapped aggressively but I slept excellently throughout it all. You tend to sleep well in the field, it seems, as long as you have completely emptied your bladder before you get in your sleeping bag. It is a personal aim of mine not to use our issued pee bottle in my time here..

The next morning we woke to a overcast, snowy scene:

The tent had fared well and the temperature was pretty good – a mere -20°C. Our campsite was located in a chasm – a very old and wide crevasse that now resembles a large valley. And the edges of this chasm were numerous interesting ice features. We set off on snowshoe for one of these features we could see perhaps two kilometers away. The first thing that greeted us was a large bowl-shaped hole in the ice – as vaguely seen behind this pose of my trip-mates:

But the better part was a little bit further. Roped together into Alpine pairs, we trudged into the feature and the landscape changed dramatically. It was a complex, undulating, irregular landscape quite unlike anything anywhere. While easy enough to penetrate and around walk in (thanks, crampons!) is was alien and desolate.

A low, cold sun and a moderate wind that whipped up drifting snow across the strange shapes gave the distinct impression we were somewhere very unusual and special. It felt more like Antarctica than my first day at the base did.

The next day, the visibility was very poor and we struggled to get anywhere new. We instead went to a well-known local landmark, Stoney Berg. This is a large chunk of ice that has become trapped in the ice. Ok, that may not be quite so unusual-sounding, I suppose. What is evidently peculiar is that this ice mound, sticking out of the flat chasm floor, has stones on it. Small boulders sticking out. This, again, may not be unusual to you, but here it’s very strange. We have not seen rock in months! Nothing but ice around here! There’s no obvious way that these rocks could have got here, but current thinking is that this chunk of ice is actually an iceberg that flipped over at some point, scraping the seabed as it did so, and lifted some rocks up with it. Then it got frozen into its current position. Unusual.

However, not being a major geology fanatic ,I satisfied with the observation that they were “probably granite”, we moved on to the highlight of the day: ice climbing! We spent a few hours laying ice anchors, abseiling down an ice cliff and then climbing back up. Good fun. I like ice climbing. Once you get the knack of it it’s quite a bit easier than regular climbing, but you still get a good sense of satisfaction when you make it to the top.

The weather was pretty poor so we went back to camp for our last night of the trip. Our holiday was a little shortened by the crap weather – a problem that plagued all four trips (and indeed, many an Antarctic expedition). Sarah navigated our way back through the whiteness in a suitably advanced and high-tech way:

Despite the weather, I was very happy that we got to stretch our legs off base and explore a place only a few people get the chance to see…


While preparing for a field trip today, I noticed something. I have a higher-than average number of gloves. 19 pairs, to be specific, of 11 different types. All issued by BAS for a purpose!

I thought I’d quickly describe them and why we have so many. From left to right, we have:

  1. Down stuff gloves – tiny lightweight but very warm gloves carried when off base as a backup in case our main gloves get blown away, buried in snow or wet ..
  2. Field mitts – heavy duty mitts for wearing out in the field. You’d wear these when skiing or walking outdoors off base.
  3. Optional fleece inner for the mitts.
  4. Winter field gloves when you’re out on a cold winter day but need more dexterity than the mitts offer, perhaps because you’re ice climbing or something. Two pairs of these.
  5. Summer field gloves – my favourites so far. I use these whenever I’m going outside and now expecting to work on anything messy. Comfy – similar to normal ski gloves. Two pairs of these.
  6. Thinnies #1. These are thinner gloves we car wear under the mitts or winter gloves for extra warmth, and to allow us to take of the main gloves to do fiddly work without needing to expose skin. I’ve not used these much yet but will need to soon.
  7. Thinnies #2 – a lighter version of 6. I’ve not made much use of these since it’s not been cold enough for them, and because they have a habit of siding with the outer glove over my hands when I take them off.
  8. Electrical gloves – for handling electrostatically sensitive items, or delicate items that don’t like getting grease fingerprints on them. An excellent choice for the the discerning criminal looking to evade detection.
  9. The Gold Freezes have a mixed reputation here. Some people say they fall to bits quickly and aren’t very warm. Those people are right. However, we were issued with four pairs of them, so they there always tends to be a pair handy when you go outside quickly. As a result they get more use than any other glove type.
  10. Fuelling and dirty work gloves. Fortunately, my job description doesn’t usually involve really messy stuff (with one notable exception..) so these look fairly clean still. Some of my teammates, however, aren’t so lucky and their pairs of these are a distinct shade of black.

Not shown are the bearpaws, another pair of oversized mitts with fur on the back side. We will use these for skidoo riding in the coldest weather when we need vast amounts of insulation. You can’t really move your hands in these, though.

Up next: Footware of Antarctica! 🙂

Alone Now

Earlier today the last aircraft left Halley, taking the last of the summer staff out to our other Antarctic base, Rothera, on the peninsula.

Fun fact: this particular aircraft built in WWII and has crashed once since then. It’s looking spendid today, and evidently the bungee cords attached to the tail control surfaces work great.

There wasn’t supposed to be an aircraft here today. The same ship I came in, the Ernest Shackleton, was scheduled to return to Halley to bring us winter cargo, fuel, and take the summer staff out. It is currently bobbing around in the South Atlantic just off the coast, but is unable to get in to the relief point. The ice is now too thick and growing, and it can’t risk getting stuck at this time of year. So, non-wintering staff are being evacuated to Rothera before the weather turns too foul for air operations. For some, quite the adventure: it’s a scenic flight to Rothera, and from there they’ll be taken to Rio de Janerio on the HMS Protector, a navy vessel that happens to be in the area.

We won’t get our resupply cargo, but this isn’t the end of the world: we have enough contigency here to sustain us until its next visit in December. The Baslers, on their way here, brought other essentials for our safe winter such as fresh food and gin. The worst loss to us is all our mail and any last-minute things we’d ordered which now will not make it here.

This was the last of three flights by a Basler that was shuttling people out. The weather the last few days has been a bit crappy and it wasn’t certain that the planes would make it in and out until the last minute. This is how we felt when the first transport was away:

After a few goodbyes with those we’ve lived, worked and played with over the last two months, this last plane left, quickly disappearing into the whiteness.

The 13 of us are the only people for hundreds of kilometers, and thousands from the nearest thing you might call civilisation. It’ll stay like this until the first aircraft can get back to us in October or November. We’re by ourselves now.

And it’s exhilarating!


Earlier in the summer, a few of us clearly had far too much energy and so we built an igloo in the evenings:

It’s pretty big! About 3m across and taller than me. It’s built in a semi-official way, with a
spiral of narrowing blocks to the top and a raised floor. It went together very easily at first.

When we got higher and the walls started looking more like a ceiling, we starting getting
nervous that the blocks wouldn’t stay put. Turns out that fear was unfounded. Gravity doesn’t seem to apply in igloos, and the blocks stayed in their precarious places solidly. Mostly.

The build team: Celine, Grant, Flash, Tim and myself, with help and advice from many others (thanks!). I think we were all happy to have built an igloo in Antarctica – definitely
something I can tick off the bucket list as soon as I make such a list.

The igloo, Halley 7, in front of the base it replaces

(I should probably mention that the damp patch on my tshirt is because I came out for this
photo moments after cleaning dishes…)

It was pleasant and spacious inside. You could just about stand up in there. We got a ten
people comfortably inside for a victory beer.

Once built, we had to, of course, make use of it. So, we grabbed some sleeping kit and spent a night in there. Plenty warm, but surreally bright – the light permeates the walls and at the time we had solid 24 hour sunlight which meant it was like sleeping all night in a well illuminated room. The joins between the blocks were a little bit brighter, giving a neat Tron-like pattern.

Flash in his sleeping bag. Fun fact for my camping friends: that’s a one-season sleeping bag, where the one season is summer.

(With thanks to Commander Tom for his photography skills. His photos are those that look good.)