Springtime in Punta

November 13th, 2010

The weather has been unseasonably fine in Punta Arenas since we’ve been here. It’s gloriously sunny, mostly pretty warm and the winds are relatively light. Given that Punta Arenas is normally renowned for being extremely windy with optional sideways-blowing rain, sleet and snow, we’ve got off lightly!

Sadly, the weather at Union Glacier has been day after day of snowfall with light winds, and now the ice runway is under half a metre of soft snow. Apparently the weather’s improving, and a gale is forecast for Monday which should help to blow the soft stuff away.

In the mean time we’ve done more prep work, been issued very smart new staff uniform jackets and hats, had an excellent barbecue and been to see the penguins on Isla Magdalena. The trip over there by boat was great – lots of pingus, seals and seabirds to look at.

Now we’re playing a waiting game and trying not to eat and drink too much…

Punta Arenas or bust!

November 8th, 2010

For those of you that don’t already know, hot on the heels of finishing both the Writing-Up Cruise and the actual writing up of the thesis (hurrah!), I’ve embarked on a new job in Antarctica. I’m working for Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, who provide support to private expeditions and governmental organisations and also operate guided trips to Antarctica under the brand name Adventure Network International. I’m spending three months as a communications operator/engineer at their main camp at Union Glacier, in the Ellsworth Mountains. But right now, I’m in Punta Arenas in Chile, doing the manic pre-season organisation and training and waiting for the conditions to be suitable to fly in to Union Glacier.

I got to Punta on Wednesday evening, having left Cambridge at 0530 on Tuesday morning! I took a cab into town, a coach to Heathrow, a flight to New York, another flight overnight to Santiago, and yet another flight to Punta Arenas itself. That’s three flights, five airline meals, thee meals in airports and about five hours sleep… In Santiago, they called my name and said that one of my bags hadn’t made the connection in New York: as I queued up to fill in the forms, I met Fran, one of the other ALE staff and a veteran of many seasons. As I completed my final form, a man appeared with my missing case – but poor Fran was concerned that her bags had gone AWOL in New York. Fortunately we had a long connection in Santiago, and Fran’s bags caught up with her in Punta Arenas…

Since then I’ve been getting to know everyone, done some introductory training in how the company works, done some field training (revision of my Rothera days!) and run round like a mad thing trying to get computers, meteorological and communications equipment organised for the first flight. We fly in to Antarctica on a giant Ilyushin-76 transport plane, flown by a band of jolly Russians, Belarusians and Ukranians – and it lands on an ice runway. Just at the moment the weather at UG is non-ideal – lots and lots of soft snow – and the runway isn’t yet usable. We should have flown today if conditions were right, so now we’re on daily standby!

In the mean time we get to enjoy Punta Arenas, its four-seasons-in-one-hour weather and its tasty food and drink. I’ve met the first of our clients, Chris Foot, an ex-Marine who’s planning to be the first person to ski from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back without being resupplied by air or using a traction kite. Chris is at one end of the ALE client spectrum – the other end being wealthy, elderly guests who come for a week’s holiday at UG and a day out to the South Pole by air. In between are lots of different expeditioners, tourists and scientists! Once I’m at UG I’ll have no web access and only limited access to email. I’ve got blog-by-email set up, so hopefully once I’m on site I’ll be able to keep everyone up-to-date via the blog.

Days 71-83: the end of the cruise

November 8th, 2010

It’s been too hectic to blog over the last few weeks, and now I find myself with a lot to catch up on!

I left Kilby Bridge in the company of nb Skean Dhu, with two guys on it delivering it to Brentford for a friend. Their throttle handle had jammed when they were about to set off, and I loaned them some tools to sort it out – then we travelled in convoy for the next few days. We went to Foxton Bottom Lock, struggling a bit in the shallow water due to a leaking culvert, and moored overnight. In the Foxton Locks Inn, I met Barrie Hayward, former deputy director of BAS… small world!

The lock-keepers were running water down the Foxton staircase overnight, and all the side ponds and run-off channels were alive with water – it looked like a formal water garden on a massive scale.
We ascended the staircase without incident, had a bacon sandwich and plodded on to Crick. The following day we had to descend the Watford staircase (as in Watford Gap, rather less pleasant than Foxton as it’s next to the M1) and were delayed by an hour waiting for boats to come the other way. I moored at Whilton overnight and said farewell to the Skian Dhus.

From Whilton I went on to Gayton Junction, filled up with diesel and descended the Northampton Arm – feeling very much like familiar territory now. Over the next few days I descended the Nene to Peterborough without too much incident apart from the fan belt breaking just as I left Wansford on the final morning – fortunately it was easy enough to nudge into the bushes before the engine overheated and replace the offending belt – always carry a spare one!

At Stanground the lock-keeper remembered me, and my journey through the Middle Levels was considerably easier than on the way out! I moored overnight at March and then at Salter’s Lode for an early tide on the morning of the 6th. I picked up Mike at Littleport and we cruised on to Ely. Now, our journey beyond Ely was blocked by Bottisham Lock, which was having emergency repairs. I had to be away the following week, so Innocenti spent a week in Cathedral Marina. Following my return, I went to Waterbeach to catch up with friends there, and then called the Cam Conservancy to find that the final lock, Bait’s Bite, had reopened. I found my previous mooring unoccupied, and tied up.

The total for the trip was 909 miles, 648 locks, 543 litres of diesel, 5 gas cylinders and 132 rashers of bacon!