So, I’m back. And I’ve had a shower. Although I’m so far retaining my Polar Hero Beard, which has reached the two-week stage. Some people like it. Other people laugh. Combined with the fact that I haven’t had a haircut since coming south, I’m now the hairiest person on the Comms team (Pete had his ponytail shaved off for charity whilst I was away!). But anyway, you’ll want to know what I did whilst I was away…
Two weeks’ growth…
So, I finally went to “the Bluff” on Tuesday 31st Jan, via Latady Island, which is in the South Pacific – though being small, flat and snow covered, it’s not your conventional Rogers-and-Hammerstein vision of that region! We went to collect a small physical science team (Georgina, Cathy, Tom and Andy) who’d been drilling ice cores and retreiving a weather station – the latter was particularly exciting as it had been buried in several metres of snow and necessitating a vast hole to find it.
A first view of Fossil Bluff
Anyway, we arrived at Fossil Bluff with a full plane, and myself and the science team were left there – Alan took the plane back to Rothera with a bioscience team who’d been to Coal Nunatak the previous day. So the Fossil Bluff Motel and Diner found itself with a full house for the night!
The hut itself
Fossil Bluff (also known as “the Bluff” and “KG” – short for King George Sound) is BAS’s first and only station on Alexander Island, and was notable in being the only wintering base ever established entirely by air – it’s hundreds of miles from the open sea. It opened in 1961, and became summer only in the mid-70s. The hut and a lot of the fixtures and fittings date back to its early years, and it has a very pleasant and comfortable atmosphere. The hut itself is located at the foot of the huge scree cliffs that give the place its name, although it’s now nearly 1km from the skiway where the aircraft land – the Eros Glacier has retreated, living the hut high and dry on a ridge of moraine. In 1961 aircraft landed outside the front door!
Inside, there are four bunks, a table and chairs, some work surface, a cubby-hole with the radio and weather instruments and a Rayburn stove (perhaps the world’s most Southerly one!). The stove is the heart of the place – it burns the dregs of Avtur (aviation fuel) left in the bottoms of the barrels when the aircraft are refuelled – and is also used for baking bread and general cooking. It’s warm and cosy – Cathy described it as “Little House on the Prairie”, and it certainly feels like it. There’s even running water (on warm days) – a header tank is filled by meltwater coming down the valley behind the hut, and fresh filtered water is piped directly to the kitchen tap.
Rod and Riet in the hut
Outside the hut are a cluster of random little buildings. There’s a generator shed, containing a vintage Lister-Petter diesel generator, a food store (known universally as “Tescos” and painted with red, white and blue stripes) and a garage, which contains an ancient Muskeg tractor – a little tracked vehicle which drove to Fossil Bluff over the sea ice from Stonington in the mid-Sixties. There’s also the emergency caboose, which is an Antarctic caravan – it’s a little hut on skis, which has enough room for two people to live in. In days of yore it would be towed behind a Muskeg on long trips, providing accomodation for the team. Now it acts as overflow accommodation and a place to sleep if the hut ever burned down.
Emergency caboose (blue) and generator shed
Inside the caboose – a bit cramped for two!
Well-stocked shelves inside, although very little is in date!
The Muskeg in the garage
Living at the Bluff is like running a filling station, motel and restaurant for passing aircraft. The day begins at 0700, with the first weather observation, which gets passed to Rothera. You then give hourly observations until the aircraft no longer want them. If a plane comes in, you have to travel down to the skiway on skidoos and meet it. If the plane needs refuelling, you have to dig out the drums of Avtur and test them to check they’re not contaminated with water. Then there’s a little fuel pump (known as a Spate pump) which is powered by petrol and pumps the fuel into the aircraft. Other aircraft come in from Rothera on fuel runs – they land, drop off 4 or 5 drums of fuel onto the depot and then return, taking empty drums, rubbish and other cargo.
Often people get stuck at the Bluff because the weather worsens at their destinations, so they come back to the hut for tea/lunch/dinner/an overnight stay. We had ten of us there for several days, waiting for a weather window on Smyley Island that never came (the team went back to Rothera) and then several days with just three of us – Rod, Riet and I – sitting reading, cooking, digging depots and doing the odd bit of mountaineering close by.
On Giza Peak (also known as Sphinx, because of its shape)
Eventually our orders came on the radio – Riet and Rod were to return to Rothera, to be replaced by Pat and Richard, and I was going to Sky Blu. Then the weather worsened again. Finally, one afternoon, we got an Iridium phonecall. Someone at Sky Blu was ill – they were sending an aircraft – could we fuel it, and could I take the plane to Sky Blu? So I packed my baggage and took the late night plane – we arrived there at midnight (in broad daylight) and Alan returned to Rothera at 4am!
Sky Blu is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s another two hours south of the Bluff, and is “properly Antarctic” – never above freezing, covered in snow, and with a vicious wind that blows up the snow so you can’t see what you’re doing. This same wind scours snow off the surface, so instead of forming a bumpy snow-covered glacier it forms a sheet of perfectly flat and level blue ice. This ice gets covered in a thin layer of snow, but is usable as a runway for wheeled aircraft (including BAS’s Dash-7) as it’s cleared by a snowblower. The facilities are considerably more basic than Fossil Bluff, too: a fibreglass “Melon” hut with a little paraffin heater and a (slightly scary) two-burner petrol stove, plus a Weatherhaven tent (like a farmer’s polytunnel, only better insulated) and a few BAS Pyramid tents. There’s also an underground garage, cut out of the ice with a wooden roof. I spent three days there, two of which were spent largely inside the Melon hut, cheek-by-jowel with everyone else.
The Melon hut at Sky Blu – on a nice day!
Jamie and Georgina inside the Melon hut – it’s cramped with ten inside!
Orange boilersuits are all the rage in the Antarctic…
Twin Otter, on ice
On the third day the weather was clear. One plane that had stayed with us for a few days went off to Smyley Island to do more ice-coring, then we had another plane arrive aiming to go and pick up a field party on the Rutford ice stream, then the Dash-7 on a fuel run (a very impressive sight) and then another Otter on a transfer from Halley. This plane picked me up and took me back to Rothera – end of trip!
Arriving back at Rothera the weather is damp and warm and miserable. And dark. I came out of the bar at around 1130 to find it actually properly dark for the first time since I arrived. Winter is coming…
Lots more pictures of the trip – I will try and do some video editing this week, as I have about three video postcards in the pipeline!