Match of the day

November 27th, 2005

Me, playing football? On gravel? In a minus 4 air temperature and a fifteen knot wind? With my reputation?

Well, yes, I did. And, startlingly, I enjoyed it too. No-one took it too seriously, which is, I think, what put me off last time I played (aged 10 at junior school – I went to one of those secondary schools that thought that gentlemen played rugby). I’ll now put on my best sports-journalist voice…

Great excitement greeted the announcement of the first match of the 2005/6 season. Assembling at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, the intrepid teams assembled on the apron in front of the aircraft hangar. No jumpers for goalposts here – the formidable team of Dan Smale and Damien Carson scaled a shipping container behind the hangar to retrieve two battered but serviceable goals and a pile of marker cones. With the pitch laid out, the teams were assembled. A brief suggestion of “picking teams, like in school” gave way to “winterers vs summerers” meaning that the closely-honed team spirit of the outgoing winterers with anti-freeze in their blood was to be pitched against the daring young challengers, full of fresh vegetables and enthusiastic optimism. The wintering team started one player short, but were quickly reinforced by the late arrival of Simon Herniman a few minutes into the game. “The Herminator” gave added vigor and pace to the already animated game, and soon goals were scored and the teams began to come together. A few memorable moments – Dan Smale’s deft dribbling leading to a string of quick-fire goals; Donald Campbell’s arrival in the second half, bringing with it some dramatic midfield action and the tackle that lead to Lowri Bowen and Matt Brown colliding head-on and landing on the gravel in a tangle of limbs, surprised but unhurt.
After 45 minutes play the winterers were 8-6 up, despite the summers having six players to their five. A cry of “next goal wins” went up and the teams redoubled their efforts to score. At the end the winterers smacked the ball into the back of the net, sealing the fate of the contest between vitamins and cameraderie.

Wintering team: Matt Brown (dive officer), Mike Tattersfield (plumber), Jo Coldron (doctor), Dan Smale (marine biologist), Simon Herniman (GA)

Summering team: Claire Hughes (oceanographer), Lowri Bowen (doctor), Donald Campbell (weather forecaster), Pat McGoldrick (Base Commander, Halley), Damien Carson (geochemist), Riet van der Velde (chef), Michael Prior-Jones (comms manager). Not all the summer team played at the same time – Lowri replaced Riet and Donald only played in the second half.

Planes and automobiles

November 21st, 2005

I’ve made another video, with footage of our aircraft and some of the vehicles on base. I hope you enjoy it! You should be able to play it with Quicktime or Media Player Classic.

Planes and Automobiles

An evening’s mountaineering

November 19th, 2005

A note appeared on the dining room wall. In florid handwriting, it invited anyone who was interested in an evening’s adventurous activity to sign up below. I signed.
At afternoon smoko, I was duly accosted by Matt and Tom, two of the new GAs, who said their plan was to walk along Reptile Ridge, and was I still interested. I was. Would I meet them at the sledge store after dinner. I would.
Reptile Ridge is a line of sharp-edged mountains that run for about two miles inland from Rothera Point – it’s a popular location for evenings and days out as it’s close to base and has a variety of challenges for both beginners and experts.
Anyway, I showed up at the sledge store, wearing a fair amount of my outdoor clothing and carrying a lot more in a rucksack. There were six of us in total: three GAs (Tom, Matt and Roger) plus: Andy the boatman, Doctor Lowri and me. We gathered our equipment – ice axes, crampons, harnesses, ropes, ice screws, various chunks of climbing hardware, snow stakes and helmets – and headed out. The wind was getting up, around 25 knots, and the snow was beginning to blow along the runway. Tom and I got going quite quickly and began the long slow plod up the Ramp to the bottom of Reptile Ridge. About a quarter of the way up we were passed by the others, who had elected to take skidoos as far as the top of the ramp. Tom and I felt self-righteous, and he pointed out that the others would have a longer walk back as they’d have to go and collect the doos again afterwards. I rapidly regretted wearing my fleece under my windproof jacket as I was getting too warm already. Getting hot and sweaty is a Bad Thing as it leads to you getting cold quickly later. Anyway, at the summit we put on harnesses and helmets and roped up into Alpine pairs – this is the whole business with having a big coil of rope over your shoulder whilst being roped to your partner, the idea being that if either of you falls into a crevasse, the other can secure the rope and then abseil down to make sure you’re all right.
And then off we went. Up the gentle snowslope at first, taking care to bang the soft snow from our crampons (if you don’t to this you lose your grip in an undignified manner) and going along at a gentle but steady pace. This turns out to be the tricky bit to mountaineering – you need loads of stamina to just keep walking, however slowly, rather than rushing on and then having to stop for breath. I rapidly discovered that I’m not as fit as I might be, but then, that’s not really a surprise! We went up to the ridge, stopped for a breather and a brief view, and then started to traverse along the summit of the ridge, going up and down the snowbanks that form behind the peaks. I was beginning to flag a bit on the final ascent to the top of Repeater Buttress (so called because the repeater for the base’s VHF radios is sited there) but spurred myself on with the thought of a drink of cold Ribena and a square or two of Cadbury’s chocolate at the summit. Not to mention Tom’s encouraging words from 10 meters ahead of me!
Me on Reptile Ridge, in full mountaineering gear
Yes, Tom, I am enjoying this, honest!

From here it was downhill almost all the way home. We had intended to go down the back of the ridge and around to Ammo Col in order to get back across the ridge and back to base, but it was getting late, and it became clear that Andy and Matt, who were in the lead had taken a short cut home. Tom and I traced their footprints into a bank of large scree boulders and then to a tiny cleft in the ridge, from which we dropped down easily towards the flagged route back to base. Just as we descended Tom warned of “ankle-biter” crevasses – small ones that take you by surprise, and sure enough within minutes I’d stood in one and was waist deep in snow with my right foot danging in thin air. This isn’t particularly difficult to get out of as the ground around me was solid, so I hauled myself out and we plodded on. At the flag line, which marks the safe route back to base, we unroped and took our crampons off and tramped back to base. This was my first real experience of mountaineering, and I definitely enjoyed it in retrospect, although some sections of it were more grim determination than enjoyment! I’m sure it gets easier with practice. I’ll let you know.

Panoramic view

November 16th, 2005

Thanks to the marvels of Autostitch I have a panoramic view of Rothera, as seen from the balcony of the operations tower. Please excuse the lens distortion – the runway and Admirals House are straight, not bent like a banana!

I’ve annotated the panorama with the names of some buildings and vehicles so that you know what I’m talking about when I refer to places around the base.

Penguin pictures

November 15th, 2005

Today we had a rare visitation from an Emperor penguin – they usually live much further South than us (there’s a breeding colony near Halley station) but this one was clearly lost!

An eventful weekend

November 13th, 2005

Well, the last few days have been very busy. Despite it being a weekend! Good weather means lots of flying, and flying means work for me. On Saturday we sent two aircraft to Sky Blu, a remote base on the Antarctic Peninsula, where there is a natural ice runway we can land our larger Dash-7 aircraft on wheels. Sky Blu is basically a service station for aircraft, supplying fuel and acting as a depot for supplies heading further south. The Dash-7 got there and back without incident, but the Twin Otter (a much smaller aircraft) developed engine trouble and had to stay overnight. The crew of the Otter thus missed out on Saturday Night At Rothera, which is a big event in the base’s week – with a formal meal and (often) some form of entertainment afterwards. This week was scheduled to be a barbeque, yes, outside, but the 20 knot wind and blowing snow led to the traditional British Indoor Barbeque, ably grilled by our new Belgian chef, Riet. Following the meal we were treated to a rare gig from the Rothera wintering band, Tepid Stan, playing a fine selection of rock and indie cover tunes in the lively atmosphere of the sledge store. My room-mate, “Soup” Laidlaw, enjoyed his birthday hugely!
Tepid Stan, live
Tepid Stan, live
Party in the sledge store
A busy night in the sledge store

This morning I had a late start, which was just as well. I’ve been flight following all afternoon, though, but I’m shortly heading off to the delights of the bar quiz. We’ll see how it goes…

Video postcards

November 12th, 2005

Thanks to the magic of DV cameras and high-efficiency video compression, I’ve managed to make a little three minute video to share with you all – contrary to what I say in the introduction, it’s actually a quick walk around Rothera Point, pointing out some of the features and wildlife. For the technically minded, the video is 352×288 encoded in H264 at 240kbit/s.

Around the Point

Week One – a bit of a blur

November 11th, 2005

Goodness me, doesn’t time fly? I’ve been at Rothera for ten days now, and have only just got time to sit down and write another blog entry. “Freshers Week” here at the University of Antarctica is definitely a busy time – here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

  • Base training: how to use the shredder and baler to dispose of waste; where to go to get toothpaste/suncream/razors and the like; first aid refresher; skidoo and Gator (wheeled buggy) driving lessons; health and safety
  • Basic field training: ropes and harnesses; snow anchors; walking on snow slopes; ice axe arrests; linked travel (walking roped up so that if one person goes down a crevasse, the other can rescue them); use of crampons and ice screws. We also did basic campcraft, which involved putting up tents and staying overnight on the skiway, which is on the mountainside above the base. You can’t see the base from there, so putting up our tents in a 30-50 knot wind was a taste of the “real Antarctic”. But they didn’t blow away, and we were all pretty warm in the morning, thanks to the immensely warm BAS sleeping system.
  • Learning the job: talking to field parties on the radio, talking to aeroplanes, passing messages to people and dealing with the computer system. We’ve been doing a lot of flying recently to put depots of fuel in for the start of the field season, so I’ve had a lot of time in the tower doing flight following. Several days this week I’ve been working from 0700 until 2130. Now that we have two more radio operators, Pete and Owen (they arrived on the Dash7 earlier this week) we should have a more reasonable workload.
  • Skiing: I’ve had one lesson, and am enjoying it. I’ve not managed to get out since, due to work pressures and variable weather
  • Wildlife spotting: I’ve seen one Adelie penguin (from a distance), and been introduced to Bubba, the “base skua” – skuas are large brown birds, looking like a big fluffy seagull sprayed mud-brown, and they scavenge whatever they can find – penguin eggs, carrion, whatever. Rothera’s had base skuas since it began – the original pair were called George and Mildred – but Bubba appeared last year to take over the territory after George finally passed away. They have a voracious appetite – apparently George was known to be able to eat 7 cold sausages and still just about take off!
  • Co-piloting: this is a bit of a jolly, but for work reasons! The Twin Otters are certified to fly with a single pilot, but BAS rules say that no-one leaves the base perimiter alone. The solution: people from round the base get allocated to co-pilot on routine flights, keeping the pilot company and getting to see more of the world beyond Rothera Point. I went to Fossil Bluff on a fuel run: we have a hut there that’s manned during the summer (it was a wintering station in the 1960s) and a huge fuel dump that’s used to refueld the planes as they fly further south. Most of the journey was cloudy, but I did get to see the huge rock formations around Fossil Bluff as Alan (the pilot) wanted to do some recces for work later in the season. Flying low over big mountains and glacial valleys affords a pretty stunning view.
  • Recreation: Saturday night is always a special evening at Rothera: there’s a more formal meal at 8pm, followed by general drinking and merriment. As it was a clear evening, we sat outside before dinner, drinking G&Ts on the verandah in our shirt-sleeves – the strong sunshine makes you feel warm even though the temperature was -5 Celcius. On Sunday evening, much later, I managed to speak to a chap in Alaska on the amateur radio frequencies, and he was having colder weather than us, much to his surprise!

Anyway, I’ll try and write more, and take more pictures this week.

Pictures of Rothera

November 3rd, 2005

I’ve been out and taken some pictures of Rothera this evening so you’ve got some idea of what the place looks like. The snow and sea ice is already beginning to retreat and so I thought you’d all like to see the place at its best – underneath all that snow is rock and gravel.

First day at Rothera

November 2nd, 2005

Well, after months of telling people that I might be in the Falklands for weeks on end, our plane flew on time – the Dash-7 took off from Stanley airport yesterday (Tuesday 1st) at around 10am and we arrived at Rothera in time for afternoon tea at 1500 – very civilised! I got to sit in the little jump-seat in the cockpit for approach and landing, so it was a very spectacular ride: the ice-covered mountains of Adelaide Island rising up out of the low cloud and then we descended and flew over the sea ice and down to a textbook landing on the runway at Rothera. The base itself is in a very scenic location – it’s on a little promontary (Rothera Point) surrounded by sea on three sides, with mountains beyond. Inside, it was very much like going back to university again: the main building (Bransfield House) was built in the 70s and is being refurbished, but the old bits (particularly the dining room and corridors) look a lot like Goodricke College at York. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and Jo the Doctor gave us a tour round. Our rooms are in the much newer Admirals House, which is very warm and comfortable. As we’re into the summer season, I’m sharing a room with Mark Laidlaw, but as he’s a Field General Assistant (or GA for short) he’ll be moving out to live in a tent for most of the season.
Food here is excellent, and the newly refurbished bar serves a selection of bottled beverages. Today we’ve been doing Base Training, learning about recycling our rubbish and driving skidoos and all-terrain vehicles. Anyway, must dash – I’ve got a safety talk to be at…