Saturday 15 March 2008

The Expedition Ends..

So this will be my last entry on this blog for the Antarctic trip of a lifetime. A bit late I know, but this is the brief story of our trip back home (The delay in this entry due in the most part to being back at work and the ‘Real World’).

We had a 3.45am call to be at the main Laws building in order that everyone could be checked in and ready for boarding the flight. An unearthly time to be raised from your bed, particularly when the display readout of the weather data read a cool -24.6 degrees Celsius!! (which with the also displayed wind speed of 5.3 knots resulted in a wind chill of approximately -33 degrees!).

The ‘Flight’ we were to board was not exactly a comforting business class affair, but consisted of a 2 stop trip in a 1942 DC3 ‘Dakota’ via Sanae (South African base) to Novo (Russian Base). The plane arrived the previous afternoon and had sat on the ice overnight, the first task of the day then was to find enough methanol from the base to de-ice the wings. For those of a nervous disposition when it comes to flying, the combination of iced wings, 1942 build date, Canadian crew and extended flight over the most inhospitable environment on the planet did not look good. Still, no one seemed to be suffering such nerves, at least not outwardly. The feelings were of anticipation of seeing Antarctica from the air and delight at getting away from Halley after several months for some.

Personally I was looking forward to the chance of flying over Antarctica, greatly looking forward to getting home to my family, but also sorry at having to leave such an awe inspiring place.

My relatively short trip to this most incredible continent has left a lasting impression. It is easy to see how those who are regulars here get hooked with the need to return. Even the relatively bland (by Antarctic standards) flat ice shelf of Halley grips you. The creaking of the dry powder snow and ice beneath your feet, the crystal clear air filling your lungs, and unlimited visibility totally unspoiled by any pollution create a surreal environment. It is deathly quiet save the mechanical clanking of machinery when the essential machine based tasks are undertaken. Standing on the raised platforms of the base buildings, in silence, looking some 20 miles or so to the horizon with the sun beating down on you through the cleanest air you have ever breathed, makes you think about many things, not least what a stunning place it really is.

As equally lethal as beautiful at times, the speed with which the environment can change from clear dazzling sunny skies, to howling disorientating snow storms, is amazing. Go out at the wrong time, or unprepared with the wrong clothing or equipment, and fail to follow the essential safety procedures, and death will be waiting round the corner, a corner you don’t realise is there because the winds push you around and around without you knowing. No means of tracing where you have been or telling where you are headed, just an endless white canvass with no contrast, you could fall down a crevasse or walk into snow wall you had no idea was only feet in front of you.

The early morning temperatures!

So, enough thoughtful reminiscing, to the trip home..

We zipped across the ice to the plane on a sledge pulled by one of the base skidoos, fully loaded with 18 passengers and luggage. A close inspection of the aircraft revealed that yes, it really was that old, and it really was a no frills trip.

The steep angle of the fuselage, resting on the adapted ski wheels made getting in difficult, snow covered muckluk boots and smooth aluminium floor made for interesting efforts to get to your seat. Seats that were similar in build to an ancient deckchair.

Engines cranked an last waved goodbyes to those from base who had come to see us off. We skipped across the ice surprisingly easily and much smoother than I thought it would be to lift into the skies heading for Sanae.

Three and a half hours of flying in the most basic of aircraft I have ever been in and we were flying over the South African base. In itself this felt like an achievement, the strong fumes of Avtur aviation fuel had filled the plane throughout the trip, I am not sure if the sleep that many had was due to the early morning start, or was induced by inhaling the fumes!

Sanae is as different again to Halley. Its location is on the actual Antarctic continent (not just a moving ice shelf), and it is perched atop a 200ft cliff, surprisingly close to the edge. We turned and landed alongside the base and were greeted by several of the winterers left there for the long dark months ahead.

The first task was to roll over several drums of Avtur to re-fuel the plane. Jumping in to this task suddenly made me aware again of how tough things can be here. Suddenly exerting yourself by pushing along a 45gallon drum of fuel though deep soft snow shouldn’t be that bad, but as I neared the plane my lungs were burning. Heavy exercise breathing in air at around -25 or so degrees hurts. I was left with an irritating cough for the rest of the time we were re-fuelling.

Whilst we were initially told we had no time to visit the base itself, suddenly I was aware of a group of people leaping on a sledge to be pulled by skidoo. As I tried to run over, it set off and a lucky group (including Phil) headed off to the base, the excuse of weak bladders used. I would have liked to have got an up close look, but it was not to be.

Anyway, re-fuelled, more waving goodbye, this time to our co-antarctic explorers from South Africa and we were off again, heading further north to Novo (it has a much longer, much more complicated Russian name, but I won’t attempt to spell it!), the Russian base used as a transit point for many Antarctic trips.

Heading for the Dakota

The Business class seats!

Approaching Sanae at the edge of the cliff

And the Sanae base

Farewell to Halley (in Orange!) from Sanae

We were told as we landed that we were the last to arrive for the flight out to Cape Town and that it would be leaving in about 20 minutes. So a quick disembarkation, some yellow snow breaks and were on the back of yet another sledge pulled by a very smart new 1.4 litre 4 stroke skidoo which was the subject of much interest.

Our next means of travel was a huge Russian Aleutian aircraft, similar to a Hercules, but adapted to carry passengers and cargo. A powerpoint presentation of the safety issues on board, the engines roared and we lifted off from Antarctica for now at least, for the last time. The flight was unusual to say the least. Almost unable to breathe with the hot air ducted under the seats, fed with Russian cheese and ham sandwiches which could have been used chock the aircraft wheels easily and no windows to look out of. A truly international mix were on board, people from Halley (us), the Norwegian base and even I believe some with American accents. To get out of the heat I moved to the rear of the plane, near the 2 toilets (which were 2 chemical containerised toilets strapped up to the plane!) to get some rest on all the baggage sat behind the seats.

The super skidoo at Novo

The Aluetian

'Basic' accommodation
The last Antarctic leg of the trip
6 hours later and we landed back in Cape Town, full circle in 6 weeks. Strange really, the trip down from Cape Town took 13 days on the Shackleton, using ancient and foreign flying means, we returned in just about 12 hours. Also difficult to comprehend, was the huge temperature swing encountered. Having left Halley at -25 degrees, we landed around midnight in the late summer of Cape Town where temperatures are in the +30’s. A 50 to 60 degree temperature swing in 12 hours, strange.
Back in warm Cape Town at midnight

So that is it. We are back, save some waiting to get flights out of South Africa at the busiest time of year, our expedition is over. I have good thoughts and memories, and many, many, many pictures to record my experience. I guess people will run a mile when I suggest showing my photos of Antarctica, I may end up boring everyone with my stories, but hey, why not?

If you have made it to the end of this blog entry, well done, it has rattled on more than I thought, guess the boring stories are here already!

An experience of a lifetime? Definitely.
Something I would do again? Definitely.
Glad to be back with my family? Definitely.
Glad to be heading back to work? ………..

Monday 3 March 2008

The New and the Old

Now that the first new module of Halley VI is clad, it is possible to see the differences of the new and the old bases clearly.

Taking my life in my hands once more, and going up in one of the 'Cherry Pickers' at full height to get some photos, I was able to get a view of the new module B2 in its new blue cladding, with the main buildings of the old Halley V base in the background.

The differences (other than the obvious external views) should be felt throughout the new base once completed. Halley V was built at the end of the '80's and feels like it. Building techniques, materials and standards were different then. The base has served BAS well, but the new upgrade should help the future base staff overcome some of the difficulties of living and working on one of the most hostile environments you can think of.

There is much more detail on how these subjects will be resolved on the BAS website: but life should be that much better for the new station.

So having got to a level of completion for the first season of build, the only post left will be to go through our trip home - an interesting route - which I will add as soon as I can.

The New and the Old

The Halley V main corridor - the main spine through the base, all rooms fall off this main route

The mess room of Halley V - all our meals including puddings served here!

The bar and lounge areas - drinking, reading, watching videos and falling asleep.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Milestone Acheived

Yesterday saw a great milestone acheived on site, the only one of the new Halley VI base modules to be clad this season received its final cladding panel after the delays last week due to the bad weather.

The panel was lifted as ever by the trusty Mantis crane, ably manned by Austin.

The panel really brings into perspective the amazing and somewhat alien shape of the new modules, completing the skin to the steel skeleton of the structure.

It has been a great acheivement by all on site to get this far given the problems of the weather last week and means that the remaining works of the season can be completed with some comfort that the module is clad. The remaining works involve all the hundreds of bolts and shock mounts inside the module to secure all the panels together and ensure it is weather tight for the winter season.

In celebration of the acheivement, a summer construction team photo call was held this morning in front of the new module. The works are winding down now with the concentration shifting to getting everything ready and 'wintered' to survive the fierce winter temperatures and weather. Hope everything is in one piece when the summer returns next season!

The last nose cone panel finally in place

The view down the line of modules from B2 that is clad, through B1, C, E1, E2, H1, H2 that are wintered under temporary tents

Austin and the Mantis Crane deploy the last panel (yes it was a bit scary at that height!)

The modules in a line

The Construction Team, Season 07/08 Halley VI

Sunday 24 February 2008

.... We're Back

The weather finally abated, after 3 days of continuous high winds and drifting snow, on Friday. The site was back to work and the whole base sprang into action to dig out the enormous snow drifts.

We got the first real impression of how our home from home, Annex No2 had faired. Not very well really. There was a huge snow tail behind the annexes, up to the full height of the roof and about 20m long.

First thing and the bulldozers were in clearing the access not only to the annexes but also the main door of the other accommodation building the Drewry. During the clearing process, the front of No2 annex was hit by the ‘dozer and falling walls of snow. This buckled in one of the walls, much to the dismay of it’s inhabitants, not only Phil and I, but also Pete, the Morrisons Senior Project manager!

As it happens this was quite useful, sharing the room with the PM, as by lunch time the wall was fixed, the heating on and the room getting back to normal - labour directed to this ‘priority task’.

The task of freeing the annexes begins..

Nearly there, this is just before our wall got stoved in!

As we ventured out on site to review the impact of the weather, the site was a completely different landscape from when we had left it. Massive snow tails extended between the new tented modules, up to 3m deep in places. The site workshop cabins were buried similar to the annexes, the main stay of the construction kit – the Mantis crane – was buried in a snow tail quite unusually created by its unique shape, the jib of the crane protruding out identifying where it was buried.

The new clad module had performed very well, the design of the modules - its shape and structure - being specifically to speed up the air around it so no snow deposits beneath. There was minimal snow accumulation around it, and this was even in its wrong orientation (long ways not sideways to the wind), so a promising guide as to the future base’s performance.

The team of caterpillar bulldozers and guys with shovels set to work on the site and again, by a little after lunch, the crane was freed, the generators back running, the workshops cleared and the access to work areas opened. A great performance by everyone, it’s good to see how things spring into action, everyone here is so used to this sort of thing, it is second nature.

The other benefit of the blow and seeing the number and size of the snow tails formed around the site, is for the team who will be left here through the winter. As Halley is basically flat (although not when pulling a heavy sledge!), it offers no great possibilities for skiers and snow boarders. Having half a dozen or so large ‘hills’ formed around the site means they may get some better recreation this winter, they were all keen to hear how the ‘hills’ looked.

The Mantis crane, waving for help!

The new module performs well..

After getting back to work, the weather has still been limiting, the winds have been pushing around 15-20knots through yesterday, which limits what can be done on site with lifting equipment etc.

What was happening through the day, was a strange low level continual drifting of snow across the ice surface, when looking across the base it was like white water, very strange, but creating some magical effects, albeit very difficult to capture on camera. Toward the evening, ‘Sun Dogs’ were evident around the lowering sun. I have no idea where the name comes from, but the very fine ice particles in the air create a large Halo around the sun, at times several may be seen at once, but yesterday was one large halo, still impressive.

We had a group summer team photograph at 6.00pm last night, one of the John Deer prime movers brought a large sledge in front of the laws building and we all gathered for the obligatory team photo. The result was pretty good, taken by Richard on base, one to keep for posterity!

The photos here are a selection from the last couple of days, more can be seen on Phils blogsite with Phils usual amusing commentary and take on events.

The effects of the low drifting snow and the Laws building..

The white flowing sea..

The snow is more like moonscape

The Sun Dogs and filmcrew

It takes all sorts to survive the Antarctic, free booze also helps..

Our 2008 Summer Team photo, can you spot us?

A special view of the site just for Sam C!

Thursday 21 February 2008

And There's More..

Well the weather has gone on and on. We are still enduring the relentless winds and snow drifts. The winds have varied, anything between 25 and 43 knots, gusting up to 50 at times.

Life has almost stopped during the blow, no work on site, limited things that can be done anywhere. So people have had to adapt and find things to do.

Phil and I with the rest of the Morrisons management team have been keeping going in the Piggott building, working away, running through whatever we can to help the job (hard honest work you know!). In order to keep this up, we regularly need to head back to the Laws platform for dinner and teas. The trip a mini expedition every time through the wicked sideways winds and hardly any visibility. Dressing in full antarctic gear and radio calling the Comms base every time you leave and re-appear at you destination is a necessity.

The Morrisons site team have been kept busy with pool, DVD's, videos, quizzes, etc. etc. (well we may have joined in some of them). Everyone just want to get back out on site working, the closest forecast is that there may be some small opportunity tomorrow, but unlikely, but either Saturday or Sunday. So basically a full week lost to weather with the last 2 weeks of the job - Not good for finishing works.

We are still nomads, not able to get to our rooms, having to rob towels and clean gear from wherever we can. The annex accommodation is still under snow and cannot be sorted until the winds die down enough.

We'll have to wait and see what tomorrow brings...

Phil hard at work in our Piggott building office

The rest of the crew get on with things

The annex accommodation before and now, the No2 sort of indicates where our room may lie!

Crane and Lifting guy Austin on the way back to the Drewry building

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Let it Blow....

Well today the weather that has been forecast has hit. The barametric pressure has plummeted and the winds have picked up. It's the biggest 'Blow' of the season so far.
As Phils Blog will tell you, it is like the aliens are attacking and we are having to fight them off.

The winds are at 42 knots, with gusting to around 50. The snow is whipped up off the ice shelf and blasted horizontally at everything. Big snow tails form behind anything on the ground (Hence why all the buildings, new and old are on legs above the ground) creating huge mounds that block off access - which means we may not get back to our rooms tonight. We are in the annex to the Drewry building (basically site cabins in a row). The snow has built up to such an extent, we may not get back in, so it may be a night on the floor of the lounge in the Laws building!

The conditions are intersting for first timers down here, but also incedibly dangerous. It is easy to loose all bearing in the white out, pushed around by the wind, there is nothing to give you any indication of where you are and you could easily be lost. Indeed a couple of people around the site, some the most experienced seasoned Antarctic inhabitants have had problems, setting off, even in Sno-Cats and finding themselves driving back to where they came from.

We are commuting between the Laws building and the Piggott, but only because we go in teams and that there is a guide rope installed all the way between. Visibility is down to about 10-20metres. We have to radio into the Halley 'Comms before we set off and when we get there in order that any wanderers are picked up.

It is forecast to continue like this through tomorrow, but then to start decreasing from Thursday, who knows what carnage we will find then. Could be in for a couple of strange nights, hope the usual snoring competitions don't get worse!

Well I guess we have now seen a reasonable spectrum of conditions that this most curious of places can offer. Not sure what it will be like getting back to just rain, and some rain, oh, and maybe a little more rain..

Outside our room early this morning, a full days blow later and the front of the rooms are blocked off.

Me fighting my way toward the Laws building, this is earlier today when winds were only 33 knots

The line of poor skidoos left to the weather outside the Piggott

Karl Tuplin of BAS extends the guide ropes to the Piggot, tough job in the conditions (only a small clip, but gives you the idea!)

Monday 18 February 2008

Nightmare 'Round Halley Street

OK, we did it, sort of. Yesterday was the group ‘Walk to the Pole’.

Those who could muster the energy after the folk night (with unlimited alcohol, as opposed to the normal 2 tins a night, 4 tins on a Saturday rule), the start was next to a caboose north from the main Laws building along the base container line.

Some eager kite skiers were already out and as Phil and I, together with the rest of the Morrison construction team (who had adopted last minute to do a team pull of a happy sledge) got together at the start line around 10.15am. We loaded up our sledges with 8 sections of angle steel each (cut of bracing from the undercroft steel assemblies). These weighed 16kg a piece (confirmed by the mess room scales – used mainly by Phil to monitor pudding intake), so together with our kit, supplies of chocolate and the sledge we reckoned we had between 140 and 150kg total load each to pull!

When tasked with testing the weight, a couple of other Morrisons guys reckoned we were completely mad. After the first couple of hundred metres, I must admit I was tempted to agree with them.

So we set off on our treck, the right way around. Just to keep up with trend of the job, the Morrisons happy sledge went in the other direction, their ploy apparently to take extra supplies for handing out on the way round. As always the easy way out was to have 8 guys pulling a sledge with 4 people sitting on it, we reckoned their average pull weight was only around 60kg each – nothing compared to our stupidity.

The Two Amigos - Before the nightmare

The Morrisons team ready their Happy Sledge, including Lenny as '118 man!'
As we were trecking round, trying to keep the creeping harnesses from riding up too high where you end up pulling the weight from your shoulders, Phil and I realised how ironical it was, that Hugh Broughton Architects, and Merit Merrrell Technology, were once again having to carry the excess steel from Faber Maunsell! (those involved with the job will understand!).
I must make a point here, as we went on our first lap, taking a route past the new build site, toward the CASLAB and down the far perimeter of the base, I realised how everyone had been lying to me. I had endless people telling me that Halley was as flat as a pancake and a snow desert. Certainly a snow desert, but flat as a pancake?? No way, the damned incline we had to endure up toward the CASLAB was backbreaking. Liars the lot!
Phil and I finished our first lap and admittedly, after detailed consultation over sugar rich cakes and stuff at the caboose, we opted to dump 2 sections of steel each, reducing to 6 the number for our second lap. Cheap way out maybe, but we couldn’t face the thought of another nightmare lap. The next one felt just as bad though.
Half way around the second lap, Phil became interested with one of the common lines of advice when coming to the Antarctic – don’t eat yellow snow. So he had a go at making some yellow snow, not sure what his conclusion was, but I opted for water and another bar of dairy milk!
We called it a day with the sledges after 2 laps. Minus 13 degrees, half the lap into a 8 knot wind and hills that we thought were not there conspired against us. We were cold, very cold. So we packed up the sledges and shipped off the steel, getting frozen hands at the handlebars of an Alpine skidoo. I headed off for a hot shower, Phil decided to go back out and walked another 2 laps without sledge – very impressive.
Later on, I was daft enough to also go back out, but to ski a lap, which knowing what I did of the course, and what little I knew about skiing, was another challenge in itself. I managed to get around with only a few falls, and felt better inside at having made another effort.
In the end, the total number of laps was 212, well short of the target 320, but still raising some good funds for the charity. One point to note is the monumental effort of a certain Andy Rankin – one of the Halley Scientists. He ran around the base, the laps ticking off as the day went by. He finished doing 18 laps!!! That is a total of 90km, or 2 marathons. TWO marathons in a windy Antarctic -13 degrees! Mad.
Talking of mad, I now realise just how mad our Dave Mitchell must have been to do what he did back in ’97. One day, 2 laps with less weight and we were beat. 90 days plus, hard terrain and more weight? – really mad!
But we have done it, all after the folk night which was very good. A good effort on behalf of quite a few people made the night a success, music, jokes, comedy routines all helped create a good environment, given that we were in the skidoo tent which was unheated and it was minus 16 outside. A good point to the evening, was the ability of Pompei (Ian) to get all involved in a chorus of ‘Sweet Chariot’. Getting all involved meant getting a Welshman (Lenny) to sing the words with Ian and Mannie (a South African!) to go along with the moves! Not very often that happens.
So that was the weekend, tiring as it was, we are all back up on site today, it was another beautiful morning, but has now deteriorated into quite a blow, it was forecast, but as yet it isn’t as bad as we thought, but as ever here, it could change just as quickly either way.
One amigo (Phil) - during the nightmare
The other amigo (me) - during the nightmare
(P Wells Photo's Inc.)
Phil Testing out the 'Yellow Snow' theory
And Finished at last - well finished!

Saturday 16 February 2008

In Training

Phil and I have been in training – for our mammoth ‘manhauling’ walk to the South Pole. It is a daunting task, many have gone before us (Amundson, Scott, Shackleton (well, nearly there), Palin??), but we intend to make it much quicker than they ever did. We are not even taking the Clarkson type route to the North Pole (using a Toyota Pickup). We intend to walk, with enough weight of supplies and kit to last us our entire trip just pulled behind us on a sledge, no assistance, and do it all in day!

OK the assistance bit may be misleading, there will be probably be around 30 or so others doing there bit, and all our distance adds up, hopefully to make enough to reach ‘The Pole’.

On Wednesday night, before tea, we filled our sledges with snow, donned our harnesses and set off. It wasn’t too bad, although we didn’t know what weight we were pulling of course, so it may be a false sense of security. We did about 1000 metres, but then it was time for tea, so a quick trip to dump the snow (eagerly accepted by the lone guy shoveling snow for the melt tank at the time) and then in for tea. Just like a proper expedition.

The site work is progressing, the upper nose cone is now fitted to one end of the module being clad, I will add some pics later when all the machinery is out of the way.

Last night was a spectacular sunset, late into the evening, a low mist descended across the entire base. The resultant light effects as the sun went down were amazing. The Halley VI modules were backlit in the mist, the Simpson and Piggot buildings were half submerged, the light bouncing off their windows and reflecting in the mist.

I set off on a skidoo (another excuse to play I know), to try and get some shots around the site and base. It was fun weaving in and out of the other half of the base who had all come out with their cameras as well! Never miss and opportunity for a good shot that might get published in the Halley mags or may even win one of the competitions. There must be hundreds of thousands of digital images snapped up around the base, particularly with the site construction as well. So here are a few more attached.

The next update will probably after our Pole Expedition on Sunday, so watch out. We have a ‘Folk Evening’ tonight, where anyone can get up and do a turn, it is an unlimited alcohol evening as well, so we expect some non-starters for the charity walk/ski/kite on Sunday!

Phil and I in training pulling our snow filled sledges, every bit the explorers

Off on a Skidoo, again, for some photos (this one courtesy of Simon Gill - Morrison Construction)
with full cheesy grin!

The first module with cladding moving on..

The strange effect of the setting sun, mist and futuristic new base

The even stranger effect - the Simpson building like a landing space ship!