Mike in monster blog update shocker

January 27th, 2007

British Rail would like to apologise for the delay in updates to this blog. It’s nearly a month since I last wrote and so this is a monster catch-up on everything that’s happened so far this year…

Christmas on base was pleasantly low-key, as it’s right in the middle of our busy season. As the weather was good and work was behind schedule we carried on flying, so I spent Christmas afternoon doing air traffic rather than dozing in front of the Queen’s Speech.

A busy day at Sky Blu – three Twin Otters at once!
Shortly after Christmas I got sent into the field. As usual, I was told that I “might possibly be going to Fossil Bluff tomorrow” and then found myself copiloting down to Sky Blu, overnighting there, and then going on the following day to Pine Island, which sounds like a lovely place but is in fact a vast expanse of flat white empty glacier to the south-west of the Ellsworth Mountains. The flight down there does, however, take you right over the mountains (and as these are the highest on the continent, you fly as high as possible and through a handy pass between the bigger ones). The view is awesome, but with so sense of scale it’s hard to judge the size of the mountains themselves. Pine Island Depot is (or was – more on that story later) a typical BAS fuel dump – a hundred or so drums of aviation fuel buried in soft snow in the middle of the wilderness. The depot is marked by an empty drum on the end of a tall wooden pole – this can be seen clearly from the air and will also show up on the aircraft radar.

Flying over the Ellsworths
Our task was to dig up all the drums and fly them out to other depots nearby to be used on forthcoming projects. Over the two years since the depot had last been visited the snowfall had buried the drums under 2.5m of snow, so eight of us armed with shovels dug into the depot and then started dragging the drums out with a skidoo. Having brought 30 or so drums to the surface we split up – a pilot and co pilot going with each of the two aircraft to fly the drums, seven at a time, up to Castle Depot, which was about a 2.5 hour round trip. I ended up doing more flying than digging, as one of the team doesn’t like flying and would rather dig…

Pulling the last drum out of Pine Island depot – it was a BIG hole!
The whole operation took just over a day – we arrived one afternoon and had finished by mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately we were just too far away to get back to Rothera for the big party, but Dickie, Geoff, Nico and I welcomed the New Year at Sky Blu with Liz and Mark, who very hospitably shared their food and drink with us.
After that I got dropped off at Fossil Bluff and spent a very pleasant four days in the very homely hut there. It really is an idyllic place to stay – I’d have liked to stay longer but I was wanted back on base again. So ends my Last Field Trip.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we’re into the Peak Season. Last year this felt a bit like running a rather chilly branch of Butlin’s with lots of visiting people coming and going for about four weeks, but this season all the visitors came at once, leading to one very disrupted but entertaining week.
It started with ITN, who sent two journalists and two techies down to Rothera to do a series of live reports into the news programmes on ITV1. They seemed to get on pretty well with everyone, but the reporting seemed quite superficial and sensationalised – but that’s the media for you.
Then the whole world went mad. HMS Endurance arrived, and the base was suddenly full of people in incongruous green camoflage. It was certainly very entertaining watching the crew and Marines skiing, sledging and generally mucking around in the snow.
Very shortly after the Endurance we had a late Dash-7 flight from Punta Arenas, bringing us HRH Princess Anne, her husband Admiral Tim Lawrence, and a small entourage. They got off the plane and boarded the ship after midnight with no noise or ceremony. After that, everyone was on their best behaviour!
The plane was actually earlier than planned, but bad weather was forecast and this would be the only opportunity for several days to actually get a flight in. The programme for the visit was hastily rejigged and suddenly we found ourselves giving the VVIPs (yes, royalty get to be very, very important people!) a tour of the field operations departments – including a visit to the hangar to see the aircraft and a look at the work in the Ops Tower. The whole tour was conducted with the absolute minimum of formalities and it was quite clear that the Princess and her party were keen and interested to see everything and meet everybody. Afterwards, a group of winterers (including myself) joined the party for tea and cake and a long and rather rambling conversation that was ostensibly about wintering but went onto a whole range of topics.
On subsequent days they saw pretty much every aspect of the base – the biology labs, the diving facilities, all the physical science work, the water-treatment and sewage works, the whole lot. They also went up to Vals and saw camping and field equipment and rode skidoos! There was also a Winter Olympics in which several teams from the Navy and Marines competed against two BAS teams in skiing, snowboarding, snowball throwing, sledging and snow sculpture. The result was a draw between BAS and the Marines! More practice needed perhaps – in previous years we’ve beaten them hands down…
We also had a ceremony to bury a time-capsule under the new building – a photo of the 2006 winterers and a journal in which lots of people wrote entries will be preserved there (hopefully) until 2107!
There were also two social events – a buffet lunch at which all the VVIPs (the Princess, Admiral Lawrence, Phillipa Foster-Back of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and Jane Rumble, who’s head of the Polar Regions Unit at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and also acts as the “Governor” of the British Antarctic Territory) met all the staff on base in a fairly informal manner. There was also a more formal dinner. A few winterers were picked to sit on the top two tables and to my surprise I ended up being placed next to Princess Anne! The dinner was excellent (thanks to Cyril, Riet and Alan) and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. The conversation flowed very well on all sorts of topics and then at the end there were a few short speeches – one from Chris Rapley (director of BAS), one from the Princess and one from Jane Rumble, who said that the Placenames Committee had decided to name the mountains on the southern part of Adelaide Island “The Princess Royal Range” in honour of the occasion.
Whilst it was slightly incongruous to see the Princess in BAS-issue moleskin trousers and rigger boots (although to be perfectly honest her private secretary looked much more uncomfortable than she did!) it was clear that both she and her husband enjoyed themselves, relaxed and had a genuine interest in the life and work of the base.
They left on HMS Endurance after four days on base and visited several other bases on the peninsula, including Palmer, Vernadsky and two abandoned British bases, Stonington and Deception Island. The media left a day or two later, although not before I’d had a chance to go over and watch them do a live link into the evening news. This was quite strange for me as it brought back memories of both working at the BBC and (perhaps more) days of doing student TV in York – operating in makeshift facilities using miles of wire and not enough staff!
Now we’re back into the usual routine, although last night the Scottish contingent on base organised a Burns Supper and Ceilidh (I’m still stiff from the dancing) and tomorrow the L M Gould will be back here tomorrow for the traditional party – it should be a good night!