Thursday, January 31, 2008

28 Days Left!

I had never thought about leaving much until last week. Maybe it's the new month or reports of South African beaches that have turned my eye to the calander and my mind to moving on.

Simon decommisioning the CASLab Mast

Work's been trundling on with most of the build materials now un-packed, freeing me some time to find my scattered possesions and locate a guitar and snowboard sized box. My crane driving is improving with familiarity, as the Italian controls were baffling at first (moving a lever up would, I hoped, make the boom go the same way. But no!).

Days are long and the few leisure hours are restricted to foot or wind power as we're out of petrol till the ship arrives. Couple that with water restrictions and late post, and I really could be in a UK summer! Fellow winterers Ant, Dean and Richard were also feeling the need for space, so last Sunday we headed out to the closest thing Halley has to a landmark - the 4km marker. It was a gloriously warm day and fantastic to get away from the noise and clatter of the station for a few hours. Thinking back on it made us laugh: skiing 4km to see a pile of fuel drums must mean it's time to go!

A Halley Landmark

That's all for now. Off to feed and enjoy my precious two personal hours...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The tents are on

I'm back! Everything from my last back-up has successfully transfered to a borrowed laptop, so the blog continues!

Lashing the tents up

This week was mostly spent inside the Halley Vi modules, lashing the giant tents to the frame work to try and withstand the infamous ceaseless winds of Halley winter. After the weather haven experience, I had little hope for the giant tents' chances, but have seens exactly how many lashing points are in there, I now recon they'll be ok!

Inside the plant module

The heavy plant is in, but mothballed for winter. It'll be commissioned next season once the outer panels are on.

Skis with keels

This one's for Ben - The units wont slide away as it's totally flat here, but the flexing of the legs in high wind could cause them to "walk" if unsupported. This problem is solved by large dighy-style dagger boards bashed into the snow!

Other news - the weather is getting colder. The days of working outside in jeans and thermal top are gone and we're back to a not-unpleasant -10C. The new (as yet nameless) band are storming ahead with a largely new set. All we need now is a venue to fit 100 revellers...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Total Isolation!

My little window to the outside world has slammed shut.

Laptops don't like showers, so I was surpised that mine appeared to survive an encounter with a glass of water last month. It was all false hope though, as its condition has steadily deteriorated and now failed completely.

It'll try and keep this blog going, but service will be reduced. Lucky I keep everything backed up externally...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Halley VI - coming on nicely

The long days starting to fly past. Working on site, shifting, digging and driving has been excellent physical training. I've lost all fat gained over winter and am feeling like I've finally recovered from hibernation. The job's not especially interesting - I move things to where they're needed: It's what they're needed for that's worth talking about.

This season (and the next few) are all about building a new station. The principal driver for this is not so much the age of the existing base, but of the ice itself. The whole Brunt Ice Shelf we're sitting on is flowing west at about a metre or so per day. Glaciologists have studied this across the ages and determined that the a large chunk of it, including the existing base, is due to calve off and head north within the next decade or so.

To avoid Halley V meeting the Shackleton half-way home, BAS have decided to build a new station. Mounted on skis, Halley VI will be built on site over the next few seasons, then towed into position and commissioned. Its final destination will be roughly the same as where this station started life in 1990 - some 18km "inland".

Today was bright and beautiful. The summer's furious heat is leaving as the sun sits lower in the sky "overnight". It wont cross the horizon until mid February, but the difference in elevation is enough to drop nighttime temperatures to about -15C. This is great for skiing as the snow conditions in -10C are pretty much perfect. Construction work stops on Sunday, so I went for a nose around the site. There was a module in just about every stage of construction, so I'll take you through the process.

How to build a research station

1. Jack up space frame and remove old legs

2. Attach hydraulic legs

3. Slot in Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) cassettes containing all plumbing and wiring

4. Lay the floor

5. Place module's pre-fabricated "rooms" on platform

6. Add wall and roof beams

7. Move plant (generators pictures) into position and secure

8. Find a big crane

9. Cover with a large tent to keep snow out of complex machinery

So there you go. More to come as the sides go on, and hopefully we'll then get a look inside.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I love it when a plan comes together....

Here's a little video from my flight earlier in the week.

Gotta go - am building a new engine management system for a generator.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Yesterday was great. Just as I was settling into the mundane but somehow satisfying process of compacting waste plastic into bales, Ags came rushing in exclaiming "ah, there you are. We need a co-pilot".

The weather had cleared and a fuel depot needed restocking, so half an hour later I was at the skiway ready to go.

Chad fueling the aircraft

We heaved and lashed four drums of fuel in the back, then strapped in as Mark corrected his altimeter for air pressure and banged our destination into the GPS. Within a few minutes the engines were warm and we were ready to go.

Ready for take off!

Taking off on the groomed skiway was very smooth - The Twin Otter is a Short-Take-Off-&-Landing (STOL) aircraft so gets airborne only motorway speeds, even less is there's a headwind.

Once climbed and on course, Mark asked if I'd like to fly. Trying not to grin like a maniac, I said yes. Being a highly qualified instructor, he gave some brief instructions and then handed over the controls. To get the feel, I turned left, leveled then came back right again, all the time watching the horizon ahead. Next was up and down, watching the Rate of Climb and Air Speed instruments to be sure I wasn't pulling too hard.

Another school-boy dream comes true!

Although the yoke is connected to the control edges by nothing more than cables, the feel was positive and responsive, requiring little movement to affect our direction. If you can remember a car without power-steering - it felt like that, but in 3D! I was a bit surprised when after 10 minutes, Mark started filling in his paper work. A little while later he looked up, gave a new compass bearing to follow, and tucked into a sandwich!

The best job on earth

After a little over an hour we had covered 125 mile onto the continent itself. As the GPS showed our destination approaching, I handed the controls back and strained my eyes to spot the marker, a single oil drum, against the enormous white backdrop. Suddenly we spotted it and dived into a bumpy but precise landing, coming to rest right on target.

Waiting for the propeller to stop completely - they're right next to the front doors - I stepped down onto "Proper Antarctica". Not just a floating ice shelf, this was the actual continent - although it looked no different at all!

Mark unloading his aircraft

Petrol-Station Diner

If we couldn't see any difference, we soon felt it. The aircraft's altimeter showed we'd landed at 5,500ft - enough to feel short of breath when lugging 180kg drums about.

With the drums in place, we opened our flasks for a civilised lunch and chatted about the planes. The Twotter design dates from 1964 with the last being made in 1988. Age is irrelevant as maintenance standards are so high, but even if BAS were to go shopping for a new aircraft there's nothing on the market that can do the job. High capacity, simple and tough, they really are the Transit of the sky. Proven in harsh environments across the world, pilots have a well-founded trust in the aircraft. This trust was tested and proven during a Medevac from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station in 2001 when a Canadian team flew in temperatures in the -60C - so cold that blow-torches had to be used to light drums of aviation fuel to illuminate the runway in the winter night!

I've always admired them form afar, but having been up-front I can now really appreciate why the little red planes are so special.

20-something years old and still lookin' good

On the way home I swapped seats to let Les, the incoming plumber, have a play. Although he'd had a full RAF trade career, he was still as delighted as me to have a fly.

Mark (L) shows Les (R) the controls

Sitting in the back, I got to admire the spectacular crevassed Hinge Zone (which we visited back in March) from above. It was humbling to think how 40 years ago lives were lost trying to force a route through the crevassed maze, and we had just leap-frogged many years' work in a relatively safe hour and a bit.

The crevassed maze of the Hinge Zone

Passing over the spectacular area, Mark took the controls once more to give us a closer view. Although the cowboy days of leaving ski-marks on mountaintops are long gone, these guys can really fly.

Turning for a better view

Sight-seeing done, we headed back in via the Halley VI site, where the remote construction camp is now up and running.

Halley VI site

From the air you can see how much the old base has changed. Three 1km long cargo lines stretch northwards with the main construction taking pace in the prop-blur, just to the right of the building cluster.

We landed smoothly, taxied in and climbed down with massive thanks and big grins. These little toppings make staying on well worth it.

Videos coming soon. More on the cracking little Twin Otters here.

Penguin behaviours

Vicky, our new boss deserves a lot of credit. Despite the busy construction programme, fun trips are still running on the weekend to take in the sights of the area. On Sunday morning, after some pleasant kiting, I got asked if I fancied another trip down to the coast. I honesty didn't expect to get another so checked if anyone might have missed out. They hadn't, and the place was definately mine, so off we went.

The ice was a lot more broken with much fewer birds than a month ago. Those that remained were mostly chicks in the last stages of malting into their adult plumage, ready to take to sea. Due to the stunning heat (-1C!), the place really stank!

The full photo set is at the bottom ofhere
, but this time I tried to take pictures of penguins doing something other than looking cute.

Some Penguin Behaviors

1. Chasing off predators
I was wrong about there being no land-base predators, as the skuar will eat eggs and weak chicks. These lot seemed ok, but we found a less fortunate carcass picked clean to the bone.

2. Malting
This is an action shot, honest! You can see the adult feathers coming through as the fluffy infant coat falls off.

3. Flapping
I got too close and he didn't like it!

4. Drinking
They eat snow to drink.

5. Feeding
A few adults were still feeding chicks, but not many. If was funny to see over sized chicks pressuring parents for one last meal. Not as funny as fully grown lambs tipping over their mothers when they try to suckle, but it made me laugh all the same.

6. Looking embarrassed
Penguins love to keep themselves clean and are forever preening their coats. This one looks ashamed to be half dressed.

7. Posing
They were as curious as ever, but a bit cautious as the skuars were about.

8. Being cute
It's in their job description, and I'd get complaints if I left this off!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fid FM

As part of BAS's media work, we've been asked to contribute to a BBC Radio 4 programme called "Team Spirit". The programme follows the lives of team living and working in closed or semi-closed environments, recording their experiences, interactions and highs and lows. It's likely to be series featuring us, a Formula 1 team, a Morris dancing troupe (?) and some Majorettes. The show should air sometime in April. I'll post the exact date as soon as I know.

Tamsin handed the recorder over as she left, so over the last few days I've been recording my diary plus some of the sounds of base. Last night it was Ant in the kitchen; this morning the weather balloon being launched into a raging blizzard.

A face for radio!

Later I popped into Brian's workshop to try and capture the sounds of plumbing. The quality of the mic and Marantz recorder is unreal - every little sound, even pencils on pipes, came out crystal clear.

Hisssss, crackle, clunk

As a big fan of Today and Home Truths, it's great to be doing some work for a station I've admired for ages. It's also quite scary, as 4's standards are so high. I just hope they like the Taffy accent!

Friday, January 11, 2008

For a few dollars more...

So the ship's left and I'm still here, working in my new, extended contract as "Base General Assistant". It's a general Gofer job which depending on who I'm talking to, can either be described as "waste export manager", or bin-man. I took this offer as it means I leave in March, which is more convenient for meeting my family and lining up my next job.

Dave S is now capably handling the Met role single-handedly, although I popped back in the other morning to help troubleshoot the Automated Weather Station, which was having issues. Luckily Ryan speaks Perl and re-jigged the code, so all's well. There's talk of some more field work in a few weeks, but for the time being I just take on whatever odd jobs need doing. Working with Andy and James, I've compressed waste, tidied the garage, re-marked the route to Halley VI, unblocked the melt-tank shaft and recorded a radio-diary for Radio 4. It's been physical and varied, to say the least!

Nicolla unblocks the melt-tank shaft

The new buildings are slowly taking shape, but the weather's Halleyed-out again, so there's no photos to see. To the south, the skyline has changed dramatically, with the tall masts and wide radar antenna gone allowing an open view of the polar plateau. More accommodation buildings have sprung up to house the South African contractors who are causing the waste team enormous grief as they slowly learn the concept of material separation. Did Spitting Image get it right, we ask at times.

But smiles were back on faces for Dean's 30th. After a good evening's boarding, we sat in the bar as he opened his present - 2008's latest ride:

Dean's new ride - 30 today!

Can't wait to see how that goes behind a skidoo.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Thanks for the post!

The second Twin Otter arrived today, bringing with it a massive sackful of mail. After the gutting news that my Christmas box was still en-route from the UK, this was a welcome surprise.

A massive thanks to all who posted cards, letters, CDs and other essentials to make the last few weeks fly by. This really does mean a lot to me, but blease, please, don't send anything else, as it definitely wont make it before I leave.

Thanks again.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A proper send off

Trying to say good-byes after being awake for almost a whole day didn't really work. On Saturday afternoon I was well pleased to get a lift down to Shackleton to see off Tamsin and Kirsty, and to say a better fairwell to the others.

Since I left, the Shackleton had snapped one of her mooring line and been blown out to sea where she rode out the storm. Now she was standing alongside using thrusters, the gangway couldn't be lowered so people were hoisted aboard using the Wor Geordie.

The last of Team Met join ship

As the crew secured the cranes we had some good banter and fantastic snowball fight - a classic case of height advantage vs supplies. Those on board soon found better entertainment from Dave the purser's complimentary champagne and retired safely out of range on the helideck to toast Halley and their voyage.

Tom, Tamsin, Alex, Kirsty and Chris say cheers

As glasses were raised, Captain Marshal appeared at the bridge-wing controls to edge his ship sideways away from the ice and turn her bow to the north. With a puff of smoke from the funnel, the main propeller started churning the water and the Shackleton slipped quietly away.

Heading for CapeTown

Joined by three emperors, we waved till the ship became a speck on the horizon. It was great to give the first winter departures a proper send off.

Next stop, Cape Town

Heading back to base, the chef's had been busy laying on a bbq and bar. There was definite relief the all cargo had landed safely and on Monday, the building work can launch ahead at full speed.

BBQ, with all the cargo in the background

Black and White Penguins

I've had an enjoyable three days off to recover from nightshift, and have finally got round to developing some black and white films I shot on my last visit to the colony.

Why bother with film? you might ask. Well, it was a challenge to myself to see what I'd learned over the year. By taking away all the extras of a DSLR and using a fully manual camera, I could be sure it was me, not the electronics, doing it right.

I'm pretty pleased with the results.

Emperor being empiric

Colony against the icecliffs

Colony again

Young 'un

Gaggle of chicks

(For photographers: All were taken on a Nikon FE3 with a 50mm Nikor lens, using Ilford 50 film and scanned on a Nikon negative scanner. No computer editing was done).

Friday, January 04, 2008


It's Friday. Or so I'm informed.

The last cargo left Amderma with day-shift so we spent our time putting the last of the out-going waste on Shackleton. Work done, it was time to kick the bodyclock round the dial once more. Going onto nights is easy, but coming off is like coming off smack (I would imagine - think of the Crawling Baby scene in Trainspotting...).

After peaceful sleep and queue-less meals, part of me was dreading returning to the hustle and bustle of Halley. Fears were relieved as I climbed down from the Snowcat and caught up with Dean, Tamsin and others based on site over the last few weeks. But lunchtime, with 100 people in a canteen designed for 40 was too much for my overtired mind to take, so I went to bed.

A few hours later I emerged to bid fair-well to part of the gang I've worked and played with for the last year. Searching hard for familiar faces in a sea of strangers, Alex, Chris, Tom walked down a corridor of handshakes, pulled on their coats and were gone.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year! (Updated)

We're nearly done. After two weeks of unloading and lugging, all bar one load is off and safely up at base. The last few parts are large and fragile, so we'll move them once the wind dies down. After working flat-out for 20 days, it's great to spend the afternoon off watching films, lounging in the sauna and just kicking back.

Hurry up and wait

On the whole, I can't believe how lucky we've been with the weather - A blizzard-free fortnight is a rare thing.

Shadow on Amderma's hull

New Year matched Christmas in its splendor. While others gathered and counted the pips, we exchanged gloved handshakes and hitched up the next load. Celebrations came later, and in style, with the crew inviting us to their cabins for beers and Champagne! In the spirit of international cooperation, Toddy and Chris look some of the Russian crew for a tour. Although few spoke English, they returned half an hour later with big smiles, penguin photos and many gestures of thanks.

Dayshift have had some fun too - this igloo appeared at shipside one morning.

Back home, New Year was always a big deal for meeting up with old mates from Bangor and heading somewhere hilly to play. This tradition is too good to die, so Toddy and I set off to explore one of the creeks and abseil back down to the ship.

Updated - All photos now working!

Toddy heading into Creek 6

Walking the ridge to the right

Setting up the anchor

And abseiling back down

To meet Chris, 2nd Mate from the Shackleton

Safety First - Clear labeling saves backs!

Brian makes the tea

So there we are. 2008 has started well and with any luck will carry on the same.