Sky Blu and the Rutford Ice Stream

December 9th, 2005

I’ve been away for a few days – two days, to be precise, although it felt like a lot longer. I’ve accrued a fair number of air miles and seen a lot of interesting places. After several days standing around waiting for aircraft to be workable and the weather to be suitable, we left early on Sunday morning – pilot Doug, myself, and Kat, one of our terrestrial biologists. We headed initially for Mars Oasis, which is 200 or so miles away to the south of Rothera, on Alexander Island. Mars is the site of a number of long-term studies into Antarctic vegetation (mostly moss and lichen) and we flew in under the low cloud and dropped Kat off, collecting her colleague Kevin by way of exchange. A short flight from Mars is Fossil Bluff, where we refuelled the plane and dropped off Kevin to catch a connecting plane back to Rothera. Fossil Bluff is an old wintering station which is now occupied by two staff from Rothera during the summer and is used as a refuelling station for the Twin Otter aircraft. Doug and I then flew south to Sky Blu, another refuelling stop, which is named for its incredible natural runway, formed from a sheet of blue ice. It’s as flat as a skating rink and just as slippery. Astonishingly, we can land our large Dash-7 aircraft here (on wheels – it doesn’t have skis like the Otters) although Doug is quoted as saying that landing the Dash at Sky Blu is “like a one legged man wrestling an alligator on a skating rink”!
It was good to meet up with Bruce, Alex and Roger, who’ve been at Sky Blu for several weeks now, all except Alex sporting beards and smelling strongly of Avtur, the sweet-smelling aviation fuel that they spend a lot of time pumping into aircraft. After a quick cup of tea in the little fibreglass hut they call home, Doug headed out with Hilmar, one of the glaciologists, who’d arrived that morning on another aircraft. They spent the afternoon and evening flying around the Rutford Ice Stream setting up GPS stations to monitor its movement. The Rutford is one of the big ice streams that drains the Antarctic continent of ice and snow – it’s one of the fastest glaciers on the continent and can move up to a metre a day. Consequently it’s of great interest to our beakers, and we have three field parties doing science there this year. I spent the afternoon at Sky Blu helping out with odd jobs and cooking dinner from an assortment of tinned and dried foods over the Primus stove in the hut. Doug returned around midnight, bringing with him Tom, who he’d collected from Hilmar’s camp when he’d dropped Hilmar off – are you following all this? Sky Blu, being 74 degrees south or so, doesn’t even have any semblance of a sunset even at midnight, so it felt very strange going to bed in the hut in full sunlight.
The following day came (it didn’t dawn – the sun hadn’t set) and I headed out again, this time to take Alex and Roger down to the RABID depot. RABID is short for Rutford Area Base of Ice Drilling, and it was a major field camp during the last few years, where ice cores were drilled into the glacier. Now it’s just a vast depot of fuel and scientific gear, and every year some people get sent to dig it out of the snow and make it secure for the following season. We flew down to the Rutford, where the landscape becomes completely flat except for the Ellsworth Mountains, which look like they’ve been whipped up from Christmas cake icing – all white and lumpy – and which include Mount Vinson, the highest in Antarctica. The plane landed, we unloaded all their equipment, checked that the radio worked, and then flew off back to Sky Blu, leaving Alex and Roger to set up camp. After refuelling, it was time to load the plane with some drums of petrol and boxes of food and fly off to another part of the Rutford to put in a depot for one of the field parties who’ll be travelling across the glacier. This was a four hour round trip! Then we went on back to Rothera via Fossil Bluff. By the end of the 48 hours I was stiff, tired, smelled of Avtur and wondering how the pilots do it every day! But it was good fun and I would do it all again…

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