Ben’s Adventures

Update in December

This is a quick update as I have been very busy, firstly fixing some met instruments and being the network engineer and secondly I was supposed to fly out on my first field work visit this morning and had to prepare. We had all our tools and spares packed in flight cases, weighed (in lbs, the aircraft people are still living in the ancient times) and were ready to go. I had nervously got all my warm clothes ready as well, as we were destined for a set of high mountain peaks where the wind can blow 200MPH and rip steel scaffolding apart (we were taking hacksaws). But as is often the case, by breakfast the weather clamped down, the snow blew at us horizontally and plans had to change. We are stood down until Wednesday, but I am so busy with report writing and fixing things, that I will not have time to write this blog properly just yet. We had a nice ski day on Saturday, but I worked most of the day, just getting a few hours in slushy conditions. I had to ski-hike the 4-5km up the mountain and ski back as all the transport was taken but it was worth it. Sunday the weather was miserable and the whole base took the chance to sleep, knit or play board games. I played a game where all the players fight viruses that spread. It was really good and quite challenging. I might be forced to knit; it’s almost a competitive pastime around here, with people turning out fancier and fancier stuff. When I get the chance I will write a little bit about life on base, the routine and the challenges. One thing I did when I first arrived was keep patting my pockets for keys, wallet and phone. These 3 things are never used here, and after about a week I stopped. Now I walk out without thinking about a key, phone or my wallet. None have any use here. We have been joined by even more scientists. A whole Scottish team have turned up with a drill they plan to send to Mars. It is a sonic drill and has to be tested here, before it goes to space. It’s great seeing such diverse projects being built. That’s all I can write tonight, I need some sleep, the excitement of today’s cancelled field trip meant I hardly slept last night, and previous nights were spent working late on snowy hills inside junction boxes (photos to follow). Thanks to everyone for your comments, I enjoy knowing you are reading my posts and it motivates me to write more. I also received a very unexpected package from a former colleague at Oxford which was a really pleasant surprise.

The Ice Continent

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I walked to the end of the wharf tonight, to breathe in this magic place and remind myself of where I am. It is the limit of our base, where it meets the sea. At 2am the sun has gone behind the mountains, lighting everything in an eerie grey and shadowy light, a kind of perpetual dusk. I went to look out to the sea, but there is no water, just a white blanket of soft downy snow. The icebergs are stuck obstinately in amongst it. They sit there, slightly menacing like grounded ships and its as if they’re saying, we are here to stay, your oil and steel can’t move us. The whole of Antarctica is like that. A strong continent, unbending to human will. In this half-light, the distant mountains and dimly lit snow have a proud distant beauty. Like a warrior king, dressed up in all his finest armour. Worn to remind us of his strength, but also to show his magnificence.

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A few days later these words seem to have a prophetic effect. Our resupply ship could not get to us through the porridge ice. The worst kind, it freezes around the ship, hindering its movements. After days of forwarding and reversing 100 tonnes of steel, they have given up and headed back to the Falklands. On board that ship are people, food and supplies for the coming season. A huge set-back. It maybe weeks before they try again. A reminder of just how remote we really are. Though for now they will try and fly as much back and forth as possible.

I have been very busy the last few days. Every meteorological instrument, upon which not only does the base and the planes depend but also the world’s whole weather model needs, has decided to break. We’ve worked hard to get most of them back on-line. It is satisfying work to make repairs where they are truly needed, and most of it is straightforward enough, just sometimes time-consuming. I’ve had little time for much else.

There are two types of weather in Antarctica. Snowing, and snowing hard. Today it was snowing, a soft light fall of snow. When the sun shines, the sea looks like it has had whipped up ice cream blobbed on it. Soft dollops laid out on a flat white plate. The rest of the landscape has been dusted with fine white icing sugar. But when the wind blows, it is a horizontal type of snow, impossible to walk against or look into. The landscape just disappears into grey shadows.

Tomorrow I am on “gash duty”. I will be washing dishes and cleaning all day. Electronics will have to wait.

A Hole in the Head

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I woke up late this morning. The sun was completely gone. Not because I had slept through summer and found myself in the Austral winter, but because the snow had drifted across the window, plunging my room in to darkness. My room mate is a chef and had long gone to work. I hastened to get up. Outside the wind was still blowing a steady 50 knots (100kmph). It has been blowing hard for 2 days. Walking into the weather results my face being lashed with small ice crystals until it is painful. The blowing snow has accumulated in drifts, burying the accommodation building completely. To keep the fire escapes (our bedroom windows) clear, we have to dig them out again, but only after the wind has abated a little. In the office I help my colleague scavenge bits off old power systems. Cambridge sent some spares, but they are quickly used up. We have a fantastic set of tools and two workshops but essentials like wire have to be scavenged off old computers. Nothing is wasted here. Every last scrap is kept in case it has a possible use. Wood from pallets and packing is kept for personal carpentry projects, all other packing is kept for sending things out again. Any waste material we have is zealously recycled, an almost full-time job for the general assistants. In our department, if we want to repair things, we need to either find something as a donor for parts, or we put in an order now and wait until next year, when the ship comes again. This would leave the instrument out of order for 6 months. I am used to scavenging for parts – I started my electronics hobby when my Father suggested I recycled a TV that blew up. So this is a familiar world. Between us we get 5 power supplies of the 12 needed working. We have until Friday to get another 7 working because The Ship Is Coming. At lunchtime there is meeting explaining exactly what this will involve. It is a large merchant ship (the RSS James Clark Ross) but we have no stevedores here. Instead, the base must do all the port operations. The base crew have already got some rocks ready to moor her up to, and the vehicle drivers will be unloading the ship with the tools we have. Then all base crew will have to help manually handle the goods into the base. An operation that will be seven twelve hour long days of hard work.



I was away on Monday and Tuesday doing field training. Really this is little more than learning to put up a tent, but our field guide is an experienced mountaineer who has pioneered routes in the Himalayas, and he was happy to take us up a few neighbouring mountains. The weather was just perfect as we set off, though we knew it was forecast to change, and we took extra warm layers. The system and kit used here has little changed since Scott. This is reassuring, as it is a proven system and is also a contact with the past. Though I do find lighting a stove underneath a kerosene lamp a little worrying in this day-and-age of health and safety. On this base we are very lucky, as we have several miles of mountains to use for recreation. Despite being littered with crevasses, the field guides know the area well. It didn’t take long to get to an area on top of a large wide glacier. The view I got stretched off North to distant icebergs. Somewhere beyond those is the South Atlantic and beyond that there is home. Home seems so far away now. This is home. Home is the base I just left. They say nowhere is truely home until you have been away from it and travelled back, so I guess when I return, Rothera will have become my home.

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We set about putting up the tent. Fairly straightforward, except for the extra hard work of digging it into a foot of snow. My back complains loudly about this. Our field guide shows me an efficient way so the snow lifts out in neat blocks. I am learning a lot about the qualities of snow. Its stickiness, thickness, weight and curious sounds it makes. Once the tent is up, we set up the HF radio. We have a scheduled radio call with base to tell them we are OK. For the other trainee, this is the first time he has spoken on a radio, and he is a bit nervous. I recognise the base commander at the other end. The radio is very clear, which surprises me as HF is usually noisy and crackly, I guess we have better equipment than most. We have our stove and lamp set up in the tent, and we’ve been supplied with army ration packs for dinner, but we hold back on eating just yet. Despite being nearly 9pm we instead decide to for a mountain ski. Before we leave the camp ground, I take a moment to listen to the silence. That is the most surprising thing here. The silence is utter and complete. Only my breathing and the rustle of my coat are audible. If I hold my breath, I hear the blood rushing in my ears. Only an anechoic chamber or a continent of snow can create this effect. As I look around, I once again feel so lucky to be here. The last unspoilt part of our planet. There is not a single sign of human activity for hundreds of miles in any direction. Even the frozen sea shows that ships have not yet disturbed these waters. The beauty is Godly. It reminds me how our existence on this planet is so much more than our every day lives leads us to believe. I think on the futility of the every day back in the UK. I have everything I need here. There was nothing for me in the UK, except my friends and family. What would I return to?

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We set up off a steep slope. I have found the skins on the skis really easy to use, nothing more difficult than walking. We get to the top of a short slope, both us trainees panting for breath, but our guide is keen to go up a steeper section. We decide this is steep enough, and set up to ski back down. A few others from the base have come out to snowboard with us. Being such a beautiful evening and with the threat of being snowed in coming up, the base has made a mass exodus to the mountains. The slope we’re on sits in a glacial bowl, and ends a few hundred meters above the sea. We are cautioned to make sure we don’t go off the edge! I take the first run cautiously, stopping to admire the view south. I can see the low sun and open water out this way, where the ice is starting to break. Another breathtaking angle to take in. I could stare out at this every day, and never see it the same way twice. Shadows change as the sun moves across the sky, and the snow and ice are in constant flux. This is our own private ski resort, and as yet not a track has been made! Only the six of us are up here. Could we have it any better? I want to continually take photographs, but I know they will never capture the wide expanse in front of me. I think of my Mother who likes to paint – a far better medium to try and capture the pink light reflecting off some distant peaks right now, but alas I don’t have the skills. The sun comes out on my third and final run, and the view is lit golden, as are our faces. But it is hard work climbing up each time, and with a little regret we head back to the campsite, mainly motivated by hunger.

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After eating the army rations, we are ready to do one more thing before bed. A spot of Alpine climbing – because of course we can! We have the kit, an excellent guide, and the best mountain range in the world to go and play on. Plus, despite being nearly midnight, it is not dark. This time we leave the skis, rope up and plod across the snow. Soon we are on the rocky area of Reptile Ridge. We take time to practice with crampons and axes. This is a fairly benign area, and I find myself enjoying getting some proper instruction. If this is how good mountaineering can be, then I could see myself getting into it. Previous attempts when I have not really known what I was doing meant I was too scared to take pleasure from it. But here I have trust in our guide, and the kit we are using seems to work really well. I can tell from the terrain that we are not in any real danger. It is just good fun, and in the white pure air, it could get better. I notice that my lungs are clearer than they have been for several years, and for that I am both relieved and thankful.



Our guide points to some distant peaks, and promises us a trip there one day. It seems a bit more technical, and I make a note to get more fit. My thighs complain a bit about the up-hill work they’ve just done.

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We set back to the tent, and once there get into the generous quantities of warm layers. First there is a wooden board to sleep on, then a foam mattress. On top of this is a double thick Thermarest, already twice what most mountaineers would take. Then on top of this goes a real sheep skin. Then our sleeping bags are wrapped in flame-retardant cotton (a nod to fire safety as we have the stove and paraffin lamp in the tent with us). The sleeping bag is the thickest I have ever seen, taking up four times more space than my winter sleeping bag that I’d normally use. Then finally (in case it gets a bit nippy) not one, but two sleeping bag liners. After some faffing about I choose to use just the sleeping bag. It is midsummer after all.



That night I don’t sleep very well. The light and back pain keeps me awake. Morning comes too soon. We’ve planned to leave early, to be down safe before the gales come in. But on waking the conditions are still perfectly calm and the sun continues to shine. So we go back up the mountain, this time to practice more skills: ice axe arrests, falls etc. I relish this, as having discussed the theory, I’ve never really practiced these things safely. We go through a variety of skills before finally heading back. By the time we’re coming back to Rothera, the wind is picking up. My thoughts are about the tranquility I have just experienced. I’d like to share this place with my friends, but then that would quickly become defeating. If everyone brought their friends, and their friends… it would soon be as busy as an Alpine ski resort. Still, I’d bring a few who could truely appreciate this place.



Coming down the mountain, the industrial-military build up of our tiny research stations hoves into sight. I amuse myself at this thought; that in such as short time, three huts and some antennas looks like an eyesore, after seeing only natural beauty for the last 24 hours. We descend into grey clouds and blowing snow, and pack away all the kit. The base has no shortage of the right kit, and I’ve managed to find clothes and shoes that fit me perfectly. I am really looking forward to more field trips. However, now it’s back to station life, which is already becoming routine. Not much happened while we were away, a few more fire alarms (toast, pop corn, and a defective flame detector). In the library later, I find a book where one explorer describes having had a hole left in his head by Antarctica. I know exactly what he means. Space creates space. A similar feeling can only be achieved out in the world’s great oceans.



In the bar later, I feel a bit out of sorts. The noise and business shields us from the howling winds outside. It’s easy to forget where we are when the windows are snow-covered, and we’re in a warm room with plentiful beer on supply. But I think something in me would rather be out there, on that glacier field.



This evening’s excitement was the post office opening. I have bought all my Christmas gifts, from the very limited selection. I hope they make it to the UK this year. I might be home before they are. Tonight I am in my workshop, still trying to rescue two broken laptops. This afternoon I was cursing computers once more, and life felt very “normal” again. I don’t want normal, I know I want the peace of those mountains.

Sunday Evening – The Sun Changes Everything

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The conditions changed rapidly again. With the wind gone and the sun out, it was a perfect opportunity to ski. A group of us quickly assembled, and I had my first experience of being towed up a ski slope with a ski-doo. It was a little scary at first, but no worse than the type of ski lift that pulls you up, and a lot faster.



Up on the slope, the view was spectacular. I can’t get enough of it. I want to photograph every shifting aspect of the light. It was hard to see the different patches of ice and powder snow, as it was blown into striations, but the ski conditions where just perfect, and to think I can step outside every day and do this.



After a while I tired of skiing and went back inside. The library is exceptionally well stocked, and I browsed the books for a while. Thousands of paperback fiction, as well as Antarctic books, snow dog veterinary skills and even theoretical physics of quite an advanced level. However, the best part was the view from the library, and after a while I had to go back out. I trudged around the point, and listened to the different sounds my boots made in the snow. The squeaky and crunch of fresh new powder, the crack of the icy bits, and the barely audible plop of the softer deeper drifts. The only other sound in this incredible stillness is the cry of a Snow Petrel, a neat little bird that has been disturbed from her rest by me and seems to be shrilly complaining. It wheels high above my head before heading off to sea. There seem to be more birds around now, perhaps the sea ice is clearing and they feel it is time to come south.



Off in the distance mountains catch the sun and glisten. In the long evening light, shadows catch the blown snow, where gentle ripples show themselves like sand on a beach. In the foreground, the ever present glaciers catch the yellowing sun. I am beginning to know each one like friends. There is the tall proud pointy one, showing his height off against his friends. ARound the corner a big fat blob of ice sits like a dollop of ice-cream. In between an intricately carved arch shows how complex icebergs can be. Other little ones that are pock-marked with age, and the big majestic table top dominates the view to the South. The icebergs stretch of into the distance. I look out to where the sea is, knowing it goes on until it becomes the Pacific ocean, a distance too vast to contemplate.



The sun is low on the horizon now and long shadows are forming. I look back across the ski slope, which sits next to a crumbling ice clift, now lit in deep contrasting sunlight. I comment to a colleague that I just could not get enough of these views.



I notice the ice is clearing far off-shore. The boat is due on Sunday, and perhaps it will be clear. This means post both in-bound and out-bound, as well as many more people and supplies. I expect the calm I am experiencing now will become a frenetic flurry of activity.

Snowy Sunday

I’m seeing quite a different side of Rothera today. Looking outside the dining hall window earlier, it was just as if someone had pulled down a white blind across the glass. There was not a single feature visible. The wind has increased steadily – first to 30 knots and now over 45 knots. Walking between buildings is hard. I came out of one door and was literally picked up off my feet. The wind is drives ice crystals into my face as I walk, and without googles it is too painful to look up and see where I am going. It is what my Father would call a “wild” day. The view had steadily disappeared as more driving snow came across the base, and now snow it beginning to pile up against the doors. These heavy porticoes are like industrial freezer doors with big handles that swing to lock them closed. At first I didn’t see why all the doors open inwards, but the shovels and picks at each exit are the clue. It might be that we will need to dig out if any more snow blows up against them.



We had three false alarms this morning. Each time we had to muster in the dining hall. This requires everyone to tramp across to the main hall. Each time it was a false alarm, perhaps the wind is blowing into something, but at least now I have seen the drill. In the entrance hall stands the fire-fighters clothes and breathing apparatus, a solemn reminder that we are completely self-sufficient here.



It is a quiet Sunday today. People filed in for brunch and we chatted and did crosswords. People have filtered off again to play games, read, contact family or do gym workouts. I went to the gym myself, it is pretty basic but has everything I need. I wish I had brought some more suitable clothing. I also wish I had wellie boots. Most seasoned hands do, and they are much quicker to get on and off when going between buildings.



The snow damps all noise. Even a plane taking off becomes a distant roar. But today the wind howls around every structure on base. A few minutes outside, and my face becomes red raw. I really need googles and a muff, but I have not received by personal belongings yet. At breakfast we discussed whether the wind would break up this ice and the ship can get through. Most people are hoping it will, but at least one person expressed the opinion that it is nice to be frozen in still. It adds to the feeling of isolation and makes for magnificent scenery.



I poked around the mountaineering store early. Wooden shelves and tin boxes which hark back to bygone eras are full of everything that is required to mount over-land sledge trips. There is history evident on every wall and on the labels of every box. Different hands from many generations have made notes and comments about their expeditions. Faded logos, dated stickers and greying posters are all memories of the explorers and scientists who have passed through. Loading up their sledges and their dog teams before setting out into the white wilderness. Little has changed, and this is a comforting thing. Modern equipment adorns the racks, but the same skills and practices keep people safe out on the ice. The field guides are all very experienced and photos of them scaling rock faces in more sunnier climbs are testament to that. Little in-jokes are shared on cut-outs from magazines and well-wishes have been sent from celebrity climbers.



Someone asked me to describe the community here. How it functions and what people are like. Going up the ski-slope on Friday, someone commented that “there is no ego here”. I am not sure about that, I think that everyone acknowledges the skills of others; there would be no point being a big-mouth when the guy next to you probably has more experience than you in many other things. I notice a weary patience amongst the more seasoned staff. It’s a manor I’ve noticed before with a certain type of farmer. It is the patience that comes with being in touch with the seasons and reliant on the weather. It says, I won’t rush this today, as I know the weather will be better for it tomorrow. One mechanic commented to me that he prefers this work to “commercial” work as he has time to do a good job. Perhaps that is what brings people here, that you can do a good job and be appreciated. That you need to plumb the depths of your knowledge, and still you will be thanked properly for it. Everyone is keen and enthusiastic to help, not being waited to be asked. But there is still a great dependence on rotas and schedules, things are planned out by the clock, despite the weather being the real true master.



I’d like to customise my room and my life a little more. It didn’t seem too important when I left the UK, but I feel a little envious of people who brought cups and clothes from home to make their life a bit more colourful, and express who they are. I will probably print some pictures out when my box arrives, and hopefully I packed a few things to adorn my bunk room. It’s great to be able to communicate with home, the emails and messages that get through are keeping me going. I haven’t resorted to opening up any of the “care packages” people sent me just yet, I figure after just 3 days, I can wait a bit longer. Yet it already feels so long! I do have a piece of priceless Swiss art work and an Indian god looking out from my desk. I also am well-supplied with jam and very cosy wool socks. It would be nice to have a kettle, there is no shortage of hot drinks, but having to walk across to another building each time is unappealing in even the sunniest weather.



Not much else to say today, it is quiet apart from the howling wind and dripping snow. I think when the wind drops tomorrow, the scenery show another spectacular side to me, and I will be setting out for more field training – Monday’s task is to stay overnight in a tent.

Crevassing

I just came out of dinner, we had a steak night with wine. It is surprinsing how quickly I have settled in, and it already feels like home. I feel I have been here for weeks, where as this is only the second full day. Being a Saturday means I have had my first chance to see how the base relaxes. This morning was more training, this time driving ski-doos and learning to “co-pilot” a plane. More just a case of giving the pilot a hand. But interesting never-the-less. We had perfect weather to go for a drive in the ski-doos. The view from on top of the ramp was brilliant, despite some cloud rolling in, the icebergs still look magnifigant in their frozen isolation.
The weather does change quickly, this morning it was still warm, about -7C with some cloud. But over lunch the wind picked up and by the afternoon we had 25 knots of wind. I signed up for a crevasse trip. I have tried to avoid falling into a crevasse all my life, so I was keen to see what the inside of one looks like. I wrapped up warm, expecting it to be like a freezer, and we were fitted out with mountaineering kit. I am thrilled by all the experiences we are getting. The kit store has everything we need, and we have amazing guides who can not only competently lead us but are good at fitting out and maintaing the kit, and patiently explain its use to us. That’s a big difference here. Not only are people good at their job, but they are happy to help others. I have done so much in just two short days, things that would normally require going on specialist courses to learn, and I am very thankful that I am so lucky to be here.
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The pictures above show the crevasse. We had to slide down quite a deep and narrow hole and it was a little worrying, especially when you know that this ice is living stuff, it moves and compressed, and is never really still. But I have complete trust in our field guide and they have already set up the ropes. Down below, without a torch, the ice glows an eery blue. I double check that there is not a torch set up below, but it really is sunlight filtering through 10s of meters of snow. The icicles are as thick as a man’s waist, and extend several meters from floor to ceiling. Some are deformed from the slow and unrelentless pressure above. I try not to think of the tonnes of snow and ice above my head. It must be stable, right? Otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed in here. Also we are clipped to a horizontal rope, yet we are walking on what appears to be a solid floor of ice. I rememember the glaciers I have crossed in the Alps, and I realise the clipping on is probably necessary; this crevasse could drop another 80m below me and I might only be standing on a snow bridge. Our guide explains to us the beautful hexagonal ice crystals that hang from the ceiling are only created because the crevasse has been opened up and that has allowed warm air in. I can see ropes frozen into the ice below, where previous years trips accessed deeper in the crevasse, but warm air introduced down here has cause a melt-thaw cycle, effectively drowning the previous years’ paths in ice.
I take as many photos as possible, everything down here demands it. We squeeze through narrow gaps, and the crew’s headlights create stunning visual effects. Eventually it is time to leave, so we climb out of a second hole, and stomp back to base. It is clouded now and the weather has turned. I am happy to be heading to a warm base with a shower and the chance to get a sleep before dinner.
I awoke to some comotion in my corridor. Ah! It’s Saturyday, that means formal dinner time. I don a shirt and head out. People have left an iron in the corridor, clearly this is an important occassion. We are in the dinner hall, and it has been laid up for a proper dinner. However, everyone is still keen to help. It is not a case of “someone’s on duty” or only the kitchen staff clean. Here people are keen to show that they will help, serving and cleaning. From the base leader to the chief pilot. No one is proud.
That’s it for tonight. I am off to drink beer. I have uploaded some photos for “photo of the day” – maybe our crevasse trip will make the esteemed screen in the dining hall tomorrow?

First full Day

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Today has been the first full day of training. Have learnt how to use latest cutting edge technology such as Primus stoves (circa 1960) and how to put up a tent. I also overcame a huge phobia of mine, and managed to give a foam dummy an intramuscluar injection of Adrenaline. Turns out I am fine sticking needles in other people, just don’t like them in myself.
The base is steeped in history with pictures of men with beards and dogs everywhere. There is a whole family tree of all the sledge dogs and how they were bred. However, they stopped having dogs when they started having women here, so I guess men had to make a choice! There are also various military memorabilia on the walls.
I have just had my first ski, in mountaineering skis with skins. Learnt how to do all that, which is great. It’s been the most glorious weather, completely still and sunny. Everything is melting fast, but the sea is still frozen solid, and there is only a week before the ship is due to arrive. There is a surrealness to the icebergs laying frozen in the sea ice, and there is no clear boundary between the ice and the land. However, two people discovered exactly where it was by going in to deep snow up to their waste. The scientists have been out on the ice today to collect samples from ice holes. I saw one loan seal pop up and have a wonder around. No penguins yet.
The tagging in and out is a pain, and I forgot various parts of the procedure during today. I appreciate it is for safety, but the word “tag” does make it sound like a criminal on bail. Going between buildings (of which there are many) is an effort too, as each time we have to don boots, coats and sunglasses, even to cross a hundred yards to go to another block. I am carrying around clogs between the boot-rooms, but most people seem to just walk about in socks. This is probably why socks are in such high demand here.
The quietness, the stillness and the beauty all create an incredible tranquillity here, and I will definitely make more time to walk around a bit and not get caught constantly chatting, which is easily done, especially as I meet all the people for the first time.
I’m pretty tired tonight, as I was kept up all night by snoring and I really hope I can sleep tonight. The 24 hour light does not help; it is strange to wake up at 4am and have bright sun outside.
I’ve just taken delivery of 3 huge parcels. I can see my Dad’s hand in them. Before I open them I am going to check they are not for Christmas. The aircraft have been able to fly today and they are still ferrying people and equipment over. Also Internet has been good as the base is still quite quiet.
Thank you for all the messages! Going to upload some pictures now. Tomorrow is aircraft training, and Monday I will be camping out for the first time with BAS.

Flying Over The Drake [17th Nov 2016]

On the beach Across the runway In the plane dsc00074 dsc00083 Mountains in the sea
Briefly the southern ocean has just made an appearance through the low cloud. I’m on board the Dash 7 en-route from Punta Arenas to Rothera. Our boarding passes were blank, but we entered the normal security lane. Liquids weren’t a problem on this flight. The police opened up a special booth and processed our passports while we sat and waited. Then we were lead out of departure via a backdoor, and down a ramp, pushing past some barriers with a certain carelessness. Across the tarmac we walked in single file to the waiting plane. From outside, the smart orange paint gives a sense of newness but inside the faded brown decor dates the plane to the 80s. The button above my seat labelled with a woman in a short skirt are unlikely to bring a hostess, as the only service on this plane is a chemical toilet and a self-service kettle. The seats are at the back of the cabin and the cargo is netted down in front of us. No patronizing lecture about seat belts – our pilot addresses us one-to-one and suggests that whilst it is ok to come up to the cockpit, we should not disturb them if they are talking on the radio. Our Canadian flight-engineer sits in the back on a deckchair, reading a book. The day before we’d sat in the hotel watching a safety video. It included how to launch the life raft, a sobering thought, and I think of my diving suit, hoping it is accessible in the luggage. A dry sandwich and a runny yogurt in a brown paper bag are our provisions for the journey. I managed to get the front row seat for being the tallest, but I miss out on the window seat. After the crew have carefully checked the plane over and the military jets have cleared the runway, we take off to the roar of the four turbo props. I realise I can’t access my sound recorder but this will be a noise I will try and capture when we land. We steadily climb and thenbank left, leaving a spectacular range of snow-capped mountains out of the right windows. I look around at my passengers, and think to myself it would be worth learning each of their histories. Over dinner the night before I had already picked up on various vignettes of each of their lives. Working in Antarctica is not a job, it’s a calling.

It seems to me we are now cruising over the Beagle Channel, but I make a mental note to ask the pilots about our route. Flying over the Drake in just 5 hours is really different to the two-day crossing in 10m waves I’d made 2 years before. The flight is very smooth, and despite a warning of turbulence, there was none. No hint of the most world’s most notorious seas that are down below.

The view soon disappears into cloud, and with the seat belt sign off, we’re free to move around the cabin. Kirk, our Scottish film making colleague is busy with a variety of cameras, catching every moment. Sleeping, chatting, reading; the passengers soon settle in. I guess for everyone here, flying is fairly routine, but I think to myself how much I prefer this kind of flying to commercial air travel. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like being herded like a sheep, treated as just another body to load on and off the metal transport, or maybe it’s because a plane like this brings one much closer to the reality of flying. I look around the cockpit, now the door is open and the meteorologist has come back in to the cabin. Every instrument is clearly labelled, 4 of everything to match the 4 engines. It reassures me that we have this much redundancy, and that this old analogue technology is probably more dependable than digital. However, I note modern sat navs and an ipad have been added to the cockpit. In the cabin, the only nod to modernity is the ash trays that have been glued shut.

In the back, the flight engineer is making the crew tea. He laments the fact that this aircraft is coming to the end of its serviceable career, and he will soon have to retrain on another model. Is it comforting or disquieting to know that he is ready in the back with his tool box, should something break? I decide to play air steward, making a few cups of tea. Working in the galley is not dissimilar to a boat, and I take satisfaction in slamming a few cupboard doors shut, just like the air crew of airliners do, normally as I am just falling asleep.

I take some time to do a pencil sketch of the cabin; paper might be in short supply so I use the back of my flight printout. It’s not much good, but it passes time and it make me observe my surroundings more carefully, noting details of the 80s decor and equipment. It’s something that has been lost with the enthusiasm for digital photography, the art of really looking.

There is a monkey hanging in the cargo net. I wonder how many air-miles he’s amassed, probably more than the crew. Just 2 hours to go now, and I will be landing at my new home. I still cannot imagine what my feelings will be, when this aircraft departs and I’m standing on the snow, unable to leave for 18 months.

I’m struck by a thought a friend shared with me… There is a need for pragmatism that draws people out here that no longer exists in our modern world, and perhaps that is the appeal. That some of us want to live on the edge of society, in the frontier lands, rather than be comfortably enshrined in technology. Cargo has joined us and I think about the shipping networks that exist. I realise how little I know about the world, the workings of an airport or how the shipping industry works. What would I understand about chartering a container ship or the bewildering array of instruments on the flight deck? Modern air-travel shields us from all the workings but here it is laid bare, and it fascinates me.

I’m wondering if were on radar this far out. The only SAR is from Rothera, and I didn’t see an EPIRB on board.

Most of the passengers have been here before, only the overwintering electrician and an architect are new from the British side, and two young students from the Netherlands, who are sat playing on their computer consoles; more interested in that than looking out the view. The peninsular is now below us, but invisible in the cloud. At the airport I’d noticed was a gleam in everyone eyes: excitement? Talk has mainly been of the bases upcoming redevelopment. Will solar panels power our future energy needs? Do we want a sauna? A gym? I suggest a ball-room, a high-ceilinged multifunction room that could be used for exercise classes, socialising and presentations. We talk about the need to have one efficient building to save energy, yet the need for redundancy in case one is lost to fire. I learn of the walk-in costume cupboard, apparently dressing up is a big thing here, a kind of winter madness. It initiates a dream late that night where we are greeted by last year’s overwintering team, all of whom have become transvestite goths, with thick white makeup and staring eyes.

Only 1.5 hours to go. We’ll be arriving in time for dinner hopefully. I drink more water, it’s very dry here and no amount of water seems to moistening my lips or throat.

Little bits of ice are formed in patches below, like mould growing in a petri dish. The broken soft cloud blends with the white, so the boundary between sea and sky is unbroken. The plane is lit with dazzling white light. In the distance, snow covered peaks loom so high, at first I don’t see them as my eyes had fixed on too low a horizon. Thick ice is visible still clinging to the shore.

The oceanographers are discussing boats. I realise how lucky we are, this hand-picked few of us that get to play out here. In a recent magazine article, I had learnt how people are willing to pay $40 000 for a week out here on the snow. Of all our colleagues back home, we’ve been the few chosen to come out here and experience this.

I am typing this in my room, and will write about the station, but the 24 hour daylight is keeping me up right now, so I will post this.

Leaving UK

This is my first blog post. I am about to leave the UK. It is late at night and my friends would not be surprised that I am up late worrying about what to pack! I am still downloading files, and just now realising that my baggage limit is 23kg. I just threw out half the stuff I was planning on taking. I’m down to some socks and tee-shirts. 8kg hand luggage is already filled with my own personal laptop and a work laptop. The harddrive on my laptop died, which means all the carefully downloaded projects, files, movies etc are lost. But I do still have all the USB sticks. I’ve been touched by the things people have sent me, and I am looking forward to the great surprises that I will have when I open up the files, and see what’s been sent. This is a short post as I am closing down Facebook etc. I will also send email for more personal messages.