Sunday, September 30, 2007

Send me a postcard, drop me a line!

Calling family, friends and random readers!

It's less than a month till the first plane comes in, bearing new fruit, faces and messages from the outside world. Yeah, I know we've got 24/7 email, but the post is always better.

So, please surprise me! Ironic twee postcards and challenging compilations CDs are most welcome.

David Vaynor Evans
Halley Research Station
British Antarctic Survey
Falkland Islands
South Atlantic

PS - Please keep it light (letter size) as every gram on the planes is precious. Ta!

Nights, take two

Yippie! This week I'm on nights. Last time I hated it, slept badly and summed up the experience as "A whole week of cleaning, with no-one to talk to". But this time's better, possibly because I've slept well in the day, grabbed a blast on the kite before sunset and been kept busy making snacks for the revelers and fresh bread for tomorrow.

There's also a good view. Now we've passed the equinox, dark nights are a thing of the past. The sun still rises in the East and sets in the West. But after sunset, rather than the sky going black, a thin red glow travels from right to left across the southern horizon.

The CASLab at local midnight

There's more light at midnight now, than there was at midday in the winter!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Sledge Golf - Part 6 - the Penguin Pages

I've written so much tonight that Blogger's broken and now only speaks German. Nevermind, this is the last one!

Saturday 22nd - Moving

Any hopes of a early night were shattered when I popped out to clean my teeth just after midnight to be greeted by an awesome aurora dancing over the tents! It started in a small letterbox poking through the clouds, but as I brushed it grew, eventually leaping over the whole sky. I pocketed my toothbrush and kicked the tents to wake the sleepers, then rummaged for the camera.

(Click the photos for a bigger version)

Aurora over the tent, with southern cross to top right

The most dramatic campsite on earth?*

*Not including Llangenith on a hot bank holiday!

We stood and watched, spell bound, for about an hour. There was enough moonlight to see clearly, but the aurora was strong enough to be distinct. With the equinox gone and 24h daylight fast returning, I think each aurora will be my last. Even if the light allows another display, I doubt there'll be one to stick in my mind more than this.

After a hour or so, we snatched some sleep ready for an early start, filling flasks and hydrating before packing up and heading out. Packing camp takes as much time as setting up - three hours without faffing, but clear and still weather helped no end. The skidoos had all survived and started on the key, but were still idled for half an hour and rocked vigorously to free their tracks before moving off. Once on the move, the fresh snow allowed excellent progress. We un-linked on leaving the crevassed area and bounced over the powder mounds with big grins inside our helmets.

The ride covered about 40km, bringing us to Windy Bay, home of the emperor penguins. As we were staying in the Antarctic equivalent of a mountain hut - a caboose, unpacking was a lot easier: I just grabbed my sleeping bag, covered the doos and went inside.

Covering the `doos

Windy Caboose

A caboose is exactly what it looks like - a shipping container with windows and a door. Thankfully it also has a stonking kerosene stove, cooker, 4 beds and a roof hatch incase snow builds up blocking the door. There was only enough room for two people to stand at once, but compared with camping it was the Ritz!

Excited about being so close to the penguins, we threw our bags in, grabbed a quick brew and headed to the cliffs, hoping for a visit before dinner. The light was excellent so I shoved an extra camera battery in my inside pocket to warm, but sadly high winds meant we could go no further than the clifftops that night.

Sune overlooking the penguin colony at Windy Bay

Snow drifted off the cliff tops making spectacular eddies of spindrift and though we couldn't go any further, the sunset made the walk worthwhile. When the sun and temperatures dropped, we headed back, agreeing to get up at dawn to catch the best light.

Brew's up!

Sunday 22nd - Penguin-ing!

After a cracking night's sleep (it's amazing how much better sleep is without the ground creaking and cracking below), I woke with my alarm at 6am, only to hear the wind howling round the chimney. A radio call to base confirmed what we already knew - it was over the limit and we were going nowhere. Feeling gutted at the prospect of a third failed penguin trip, I drifted back to sleep.

Three hours later, things had changed. The wind had dropped, the sun was out and we could go! Back at the edge of the icecliffs, we banged in an anchor, set the abseil, crossed a crevasse and dropped onto the sea ice.

A handful of penguins had seen us coming and waddled over importantly to give a noisy welcome. Looking and acting like doormen, they sqwarked and stared as we passed the roamers and headed to the main colony.

Is your name on the list?

It was fantastic! As they have no land-based predators, the Emperors had no fear of humans and wandered up to investigate the strange coloured incomers to their home.

This fellow came within a meter of me

The colony was split into two groups on either side of the headland, perhaps with a few hundred per group. Within the group, a few adults still sat on eggs, but the majority had fast growing fluffy chicks at their feet.

The Colony

Happy Families

Cute chicks

They were great fun to watch. Very human-like, not only in their stance, but also in interactions. Some neighbours were best of friends, others sworn enemies. And it seemed to all be down to petty boundary disputes!

Feeding time

Climbing back to the iceshelf

The ride home was a brief 18km, but long enough to reflect on an absolutely wicked trip.

Click here for more photos.

Sledge Golf - Part 5

Friday 21st - Abseiling

Another windy night and slow start gave me enough time to finish Scott's "Voyage of The Discovery", his account of his first voyage south. Old Polar books make great reading as there are loads of similarities with current day operations. There's also a lot of differences - we don't routinely fall through crevasses and need reviving with tea too often these days. Well, perhaps I lie about the tea.

We got out after lunch and headed towards the ice cliffs we'd inspected earlier in the week. Our target was a spectacular castellated berg, wedged in the sea-ice about 2km offshore. Sadly light was fading fast, but there was still enough time to drop over the edge and take a look at the frozen valley below.

Sunset over a frozen valley

By now we'd been out for almost a week. We were out of frozen "real food" and onto army ration type "man food" - a name left over from the husky days, to distinguish the boxes from the very similar looking (and tasting, apparently!) dog food. Tonight it was chicken curry, or was it spag-bol? I wasn't really sure, but anything hot and filling that required nothing more than a cup of water in the bag was a Good Thing.

Radioing up base at nine, we finally got the news we'd be waiting for: A clear day tomorrow. It was time for an early night and to hit the road in the morning.

Sledge Golf - Part 4

Thursday 20th - Ice Climbing

The day started windy with poor contrast, but relatively warm at a sultry -21C! We had intended to break camp and head west, towards a safe route down to the sea-ice and penguin colony, but conditions kept us bound to the camp area.

Not to worry, there was still plenty to do. The local crevasses were still accessible, and after our taster a few days before, we were keen to take another look. To make things a bit more interesting, we replaced the jumars with ice axes, allowing us to climb back out instead of haul up the rope.

These photos were taken with my remote flash wedged under the snow bridge.

Tom focuses on the next move

Popped tools!

The crux - soft snow offers little purchase

After a couple of runs down and up, Sune decided a great challenge was in order - no tools.

Sune "Who needs ice axes"?

The axe-less approach was a great laugh. We found a perfect grit-esque flake to layback, with plenty of cold slopers towards the top. Ok, it's not Stanage, but you've gotta take make the most of what's here.

Waiting for my go on the rope, I stopped to think about what I was wearing. In brief, everything! From the skin up, I had thermals (my own nice wooly ones); fleece salopettes and top; Skidoo Suit (V warm); Wind proof smock and Canada down filled coat. This was topped off with fleece gloves and Bear Paws, a Wind stopper balaclava, a massive neck warmer and goggles. All this clothing kept me toasty warm, but severely restricted every sense. Frozen goggle = blindness. Thick hats = deaf. Bear Paws = clumsy and all the layers restricts movement to next to nothing. To see, anything, the whole body has to move. To get better detail, you grasp the item (after a few attempts) and bring it close to the frost free area of goggles to get a good look. If the aliens were to land, they'd probably think we were giant red and orange chimps! It's seriously annoying, but very funny to watch someone else.

Restricted senses aside, it was a good day that deserved a toast of success.

Prost! to a top day

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sledge Golf - Part 3

Movie night. Watched "Once Were Warriors", a bloody look at the dark side of Maori life in the mid 80's. Grim, but worth it.

Tonight I'm trying to edge my body-clock round 12 hours, in preparation for night shift, so I'll stay up and try and continue the Sledge Golf story. First, the name. We didn't pop down the range and hit a few buckets - it comes from the phonetic alphabet. Ironically, the next group, Sledge Hotel, are being treated to a hotel break at home. The blizzards are back, pinning them down to base on their holiday week. Because of limited time before all hands are needed for summer work, everyone has allocated dates for their holidays. There's a bit of flexibility in the system to account for crap weather, but not much. You've just gotta take the cards the Big White Hand plays you, and make the most of it. Hopefully they'll still get a long weekend...

Anyway, back to last week:

Tuesday 18th: Exploring

The wind died over night and the warming blanket of cloud dissolved, leaving us bitterly cold in the morning. Before retiring, we tried to be sure everything required to light the stove and tilley lamp was close at hand. Both units were refuelded, but de-pressurised to stop leakages. The meths (for priming) and matches were left in an obvious place, to try and reduce the time with arms out of the sleeping bag to an absolute minimum. Old style matches, the ones with a nice British battleship on the pack (despite being made in Sweden!), are getting harder to come by. The newer "safety" matches fall into two camps. One that fails to strike. The other the catches first time, but splits, throwing the burning phosphorus towards your tentmate. Even if Alex wanted an extra 10 minutes snooze, my burned fingers (and language) made sure he wasn't going to get it!

Once warmed, fed and watered, the weather continued to stay fine and Sune had learned from Dean over the radio that it would remain so all day. Hands now working properly, we donned harnesses and headed to take a closer look at the bergy region we'd briefly seen on arrival.

Toms picks his way through the frozen maze. Note crevasse in centre frame

Creaks and groans greeted us as we entered the crevasse field as the ice strained with the change of tide beneath it. Clutching my ice-axe and expecting the snow to give way at any moment, I felt like a character in Apocalypse Now, with enemy hidden everywhere. After a while I settled into my surroundings, spotting the hazards and avoiding them with careful steps left, right or just plain long.

As we moved higher, the route became more and more confused. Pushed up from beneath, the iceshelf had shattered into many jagged blocks, which had then become covered and bridged by falling and drifting snow. It was like nothing I'd seen on glaciers in Europe, but thankfully Sune's far greater mountain experience helped him pick a way through the 'safer' bridges.

Crevasse between two chunks of iceshelf, with cornices (*)

Twisting and turning from block to block, we dodged holes and eventually made it to the top and enjoyed the view.

Tom on top of the World, at the bottom of the World

The keen wind kept us from lingering, but the excellent vantage showed a better route down, so off we trudged, keeping the rope tight. A few bridges gave way beneath us, but with nothing worse than a vanishing leg and a scramble for solid ground. We wouldn't be needing the jumars today, I thought.

Sune with camp to top left (*)

Before long we left the ice field and headed to the coast to check out possible future abseils. The wind had now picked up, but my biggest cause of discomfort was the over indulgence on curry the night before. It's amazing how quickly a harness and three layers of clothing can move when they have to!

The Rumples by night

The end of the day was as good as the rest with a good sunset and a cracking moon later on. Alex and I joined Sune and Tom for a well earned glass of port, a game of cards and increasingly tall tales of narrow escapes from "slots of doom". It was a good day.

Right, I was going to do more, but now I'm tired and out of wine, so one more day then I'll close.

Wednesday 19th: Snoozing

This is Antarctica! You should all know what follows a good day. Yup, it snowed and blew all day. We snoozed, read and drank tea. I finished Scott's "Voyage of the Discovery" and was impressed with the quality of the writing and amount of science that voyage undertook. I was also surprised to learn they never intended to stay for two years!

More tomorrow. In the meantime, check out more photos here.

Photos marked (*) are courtesy of UAV met-guru, Tom. Click here for his blog (and to brush up your Deutsch)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sledge Golf - Part 2

Sunday 16th - Drinking Tea

As if by law, the fine weather of Saturday had to be followed by a good old storm. I stuck my head out at 9am to see a carpet of drifting snow and not a lot else, so went straight back to bed. The afternoon was spent melting snow and trying to re-hydrate after loosing a lot of water the day before. I'd read about this chore in many mountaineering books, but before camping down here, I though snow melted (and boiled) quite quickly. Despite pumping the Primus till it roared like a jet engine, it still took a surprisingly long time to fix a brew and fill the flasks.

The rest of the day passed with the simple pleasures of playing cards, chatting and feeding. And hoping for better weather tomorrow.

Sune passes the time

Monday 17th - Crevassing

Another whitish grey start, but what's a holiday with a lie-in, anyway?
We eventually dragged ourselves up in time for lunch and treated it as more of a late breakfast - (nice warm Alpen muesli, eaten from the packet) , instead of the usual field-feed of frozen Mars Bar.

Poor contrast stops exploring

Although the wind had died, poor contrast made seeing crevasses, hidden beneath a coating of fresh snow, especially difficult. With this in mind, we decided rather than to risk falling in un-expectedly, we would pick one and explore it further. We didn't have to venture far to find a suitable slot.

Bashing into a crevasse

I set an anchor using two 60cm snow stakes, equalised on a sling. Back in Snowdonia I used to find gloves got in the way when manipulating ropes and hardware, but my hands seem to be learning and I was surprised how much could be done without removing the massive Bear Paws.

Me abseiling in

Once set up, we clipped on our figure-8 (abseiling device) and jumars (metal toothed cams to some back up the rope), and dropped into the slot.

Being sheltered from the wind made the crevasse a lot warmer than the surface, so I could take time to nose around and look closely at the layers. The snow-bridge at the top starts with powder snow, gradually becoming more compressed at its base, but still loose enough not to take an axe placement. The walls themselves are much firmer compressed snow, becoming solid ice towards the bottom, some 50m below.

Me near the top with snow-bridge behind

Looking down towards Sune

This was more than just a photo opportunity. As crevasses are a hazard, knowing how to get out of them is actually part of our health and safety training! So, camera safely pocketed, I sat back in the harness and fumbled with the jumars, clipping each to the rope in turn and gently transferring my weight onto that system. Once happy they were gripping, I removed the abseil kit and headed upwards. Jumaring is warm work. To climb the rope, you stand up in a sling attached to the lower unit, then raise the one attached to your waist to a higher point before re-weighting the harness. Then the lower sling-carrier is brought up and the process repeated, gaining a couple of feet each time. I really wish I took a photo of this system now!

The afternoon flew by, getting us hungry enough to run the social risk of eating curry in a tent! Tucking in to tea, Dean called up on the HF radio for our daily safety schedule and to our surprise was joined by Tristan, coms manager at Rothera station some 1200 miles away. After talking shop, Tris agreed to cover for our frozen iPods and play us some music.

I should probably apologise to all within 1200 miles of Rothera for my part in Whitesnake booming out over the airwaves. Perhaps the whiteness is cooking my mind, but it made us laugh.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sledge Golf - Part 1

Friday 14th - Packing

Traveling round Antarctica needs a lot of kit, but the system used has evolved well over 50 years and is pretty much unbeatable in its environment. Each tent pair has a main sledge (known as the Full Unit) containing enough fuel, food and spare parts to last two men four weeks. It weighs about 500kgs fully loaded. If that wasn't enough, we also take two extra sledges (Half Units), as back up, and to give the freedom to travel away from camp on day-trips.

A Fully Loaded Field Unit

Field Assistant Sune (an overly modest job title, if ever there was one. Try "mountain guide and man of international environmental knowledge" and you're getting closer) had worked hard through the winter overhauling the sledges, replacing runners and re-lashing legs. Sledges get a rough life, but are as well looked after as any vehicle. Each has a service history and mileage log by which maintenance is carried out, so the chance of fatigue-failure in the field is low. Much lower than tipping them over at least!

As they had been unloaded for the winter, we spent most of Friday packing boxes, filling jerry cans and finding frozen portions of "Ant Food" to keep us off the dehydrated "Man Food" for as long as possible. By sunset, the units sat outside the Laws, ready to go.

Saturday 15th - Riding and digging

A clear and bright start gave us a good get away, leaving late in the morning after downing as much Ribena as possible to try and stay hydrated. Remembering a cold face on my last outing, I'd found a full-face skidoo helmet with visor and was soon speeding along enjoying a warm nose.

We headed for The Rumples, an area of hillocks and crevasses formed where the Brunt iceshelf strikes an underwater ridge, forcing it to rise. When I first flew to Halley back in January, we crossed the area and were amazed by the maze of jagged ice. Buzzing along for 18km on the skidoo, I hoped it was going to be as much fun on the ground.

The Rumples with sea-ice beyond.
(Take from the air, back in January)

The ride took less than an hour. For most of the way we traveled un-linked, but as the crevassed region got closer we hitched the skidoo and sledge units into pairs, so should one fall into a crevasse, the other would break its fall and rescue the rider!

Sune and Tom pitching their tent

Arriving at our camping spot, we circled twice to check for holes and once satisfied, parked up and unpacked. Like everything else in Antarctica, setting up camp takes a long time. About three hours, but there was a lot to do. Tents were dug in about a foot below the snow with a big valance buried to keep them planted in a storm. The pyramid design is pretty much bombproof and good ones are know to have survived 100knt gusts. Skidoos needed re-fueling and covering in tarpaulin, the toilet tent pitching and the radio antenna pointing the right way. Only then could we have a brew and think about heading out to explore.

An evening walk

It was a good wander, up through the crevasse fields to a point above the campsite. We traveled in a rope of four with Sune at the front, finding a route and prodding any suspicious snow. The large crevasses were fairly obvious to spot, running perpendicular to the slope with their snow-bridges sagging beneath the line of the land. The smaller ones, however, were much harder to see. A fine surface crack only a few centimeters wide could easily reveal a slot wide enough to swallow a person! Thankfully the snow-bridges were quite strong and although a few of us put legs through up to the knee, no-one vanished completely!

Me,getting iced up

Although it was sunny, the temperature hovered around -30C with a bitter wind. I was wearing five layers, plus the massive Canada Goose down jacket when stopped, but the cold would still creep in so we didn't hang about and quickly turned back to warmth of the tents.

Phews, this has taken most of the afternoon - more tomorrow!

The the meantime, there's some more photos here.

Sledge Golf - The full album

Isn't it great to be back home

And we're back!

Despite it being damn cold (average -29C!), Alex, Sune, Tom and I have had a great nine days in the field. We climbed in crevasses, explored pressure ridges in the ice shelf, tiptoed over teetering snow-bridges and smiled at the penguins. Got back in time for dinner last night, quite tired, a bit feral and stinking of parafin, but with big grins.

There's quite a bit to say and I'm going onto nights from Thursday, so I'll break it into a few posts.

But first I've gotta work out how to batch-edit RAW photos....

Sledge Golf camped at the Rumples

Friday, September 14, 2007

Roll on the holiday!

Gloriously sunny today. Got the sledges packed, the skidoos loaded (with plenty of cake stashed under the seat) and a good selection of books in my bag (in case the weather craps out again).

Leaving tomorrow morning, we'll head into a steep, crevassed region known as The Rumples for some exploring and climbing, and with a bit of luck we'll also get down the coast and call in on our feathery neighbors. I can't wait!

See you in ten days!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Big White Fist

Yippee! I'm on holiday next week!

After being couped up for six months, we're all looking forwards to getting out to do some exploring, see the penguins and generally stretch our legs. If we can. August brought the end of darkness, warmer temperatures and the return of normal days, leading me to lower my guard thinking the worst was over. I'd survived an Antarctic winter! An easy few months and I'd be riding Table Mountain in the morning and surfing all afternoon. How hard can it be?

How wrong could I be.

As viewers of The March of The Penguins will known, if the Antarctic winter has its cold, the spring has its gales. If I has forgotten this statistical detail, over the last three days I've been brutally reminded that despite the internet and big-screen DVDs, this is a mean, harsh place where humans aren't really meant to live at all.

Snow creeps past the door seals

It wasn't so much the magnitude (sure, we've had 60+ knt gusts before), but the duration of the last blow that brought on this opinion. Almost 4 days at over 40 knots. On Monday and Tuesday it the tech-service guys battled the elements, tweaking and bashing to defeat the snow and wind. The buildings rocked and commuting sucked, but at least I wasn't on digging duty.

On Wednesday morning, team Met entered the ring. At about 11.00, Tamsin battled to the BART to try and get a balloon away (very difficult as the downdraft tends to smash the sonde into the ground before the helium gets a chance to lift it clear), and found the blimp-haven making a bid for freedom!

Despite being sheltered by a sledge full of helium cylinders, the front door of the haven had blown in, opening it up like a giant windsock. The left hand side was pulled clear of the ground and flapping dangerously.

A radio call brought out a large gang, armed with ropes and snow stakes. Lines to the wayward corners brought the shelter back under control, allowing us to safely enter and rig a pulley system to bring the front back together and get the door closed. The blimp lay wrecked in a corner, donating its moorings which we used to secure the frame internally. Simultaneously, the outside team attached new guylines and piled snow over the remains of the valance.

The Blimp Haven back under control

The front door, secured by ropes and snow

It took an hour to secure the shelter and a further trip after lunch to add extra guylines. The storm's now (midnight, Wednesday) starting to subside and I'm hoping we'll get the repairs done in time to start my trip roughly on time. I'm also hoping never to see such a storm from inside a pyramid tent...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Night Blimp

Science never sleeps, as we say to explain the varying shifts on the Simpson building.

It was certainly wide awake last Saturday night. While eating dinner (this time at Ant's Pizza house) the monitor in the corner showed a sudden drop in ozone levels, the second of the day, so rather than retire to the bar we headed outside.

Dean steadies the Blimp

Tamsin about to attach the Ozone Sonde*

Up she goes!

We send the Blimp up at about 5m per minute, slowing the rate when it enters the body of ozone depleted air. Luckily, this was relatively short flight, peaking at 150m. There's enough line on the winch to reach 500m!

*(The ozone sonde is a custom made datalogger that records temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction as well as ozone. It's mounted in a toilet roll tube, giving it the local name "BluePeter Sonde"!)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Deja Vu

Warm weather over night, so up at 8 to pack bags and make flasks for a second attempt at seeing the penguin. We planned to take a Snocat, so Matt switched on the pre-heaters (a fuel fired device that warms the engine by heating the coolant and pumping it round the block) and checked it over.

From black-out to white-out in a few weeks

But two hours is a long time in Antarctic weather terms. The nice warming cloud blanket dropped enough to reduce visibility to under 1km and contrast to zero. One thing no-one fancies is driving towards the edge of the iceshelf and not being able to see it, so the trip was canceled.

No penguins today

Nevermind. Absolute zero contrast means no distinction between sky and ground. It made for some fun photos:

Playing with angles

More whiteness

Spent the rest of the morning lounging about drinking tea, chatting about places to visit and waiting out crap weather. It felt just like being back in Bangor!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Never say never!

Yesterday I said "Possibly the last aurora we'll see before it gets too light...."

But last night we had this beauty:

This one was fantastic. Although not as bright as previous displays, it made up with spectacular movement, snaking across the sky overhead. Imagine standing inside a plasma ball and you're halfway there.

I didn't take many photos. It was just good to watch.