Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Post beginning of winter parties, Aurora, More parties

Its been about 4 weeks since I got back from my prewinter trip (see last entry), which tells you something about how disorganised I am. Since the trip a lot has happened but I would have to say that less newsworthy stuff has happened. Sledge alpha as the name suggests was the first prewinter trip to take place and as there are 16 of us there were 4 more trips out. This has meant that during the week there have only been 12 of us about. The rules about winter trips are that people with similar jobs can't go on the same trips. This is because then there would be no one to cover all the jobs that have to be done on base. For example not all the electronic engineers can go on the same trip. This means that only one person from my science platform can go on a winter trip at a time. So we have been a man down on the platfrom for 3 weeks, then you have to factor in nights (we have one person on base on nights to be awake for alarms and to do the metrological observations throughout the night) and for us this mean that for 5 weeks we were missing people. Its mean a lot of covering other jobs which has been interesting but has prevented other work being done.

With all these missing people the place has felt slightly empty, and quite so when they come back on the weekend its usually a good opportunity to have a bit of a party. Immediately that we (sledge alpha) returned we had Frances' birthday party. For this she chose to theme it as a kids party. Everyone dressed up for it, and it seems that everyone enjoys dressing up, maybe some more than others.

The kids feast at Frances' birthday kids party. Posted by Picasa

We played loads of games, including: musical chairs, pass the parcel, hit the pinata, pick up cardboard of the floor. A magician and this lovely clown also turned up for entertainment. Posted by Picasa

Its not all play and I got to go down into the Piggott tunnels for the first time. This was helping Bob the genny mech refuel the flubbers. These flubbers are big rubber tanks for the generators and they live in the tunnels. For some reason the Piggott tunnels have this amazing ice crystal formation at the warm platform end. The other colder end has no crystals at all. It must be something to do with warmer moist air getting into the tunnels.

Bob poses for a photo at the scenic end of the piggott tunnels. Posted by Picasa

The actual job of refueling is not the most interesting if you are in the tunnels. If you're doing that job you just open and close valves and watch to make sure that everthing is ok. You then might dip the flubber to see how much is in there.

The flubbers deep under the ice hold gallons of avtur. Everyday fuel is pumped up to day tanks in the generator rooms for burning in the diesels. Posted by Picasa

The other job is on the surface about 25 meters above the flubbers where you have to crack open 44 gallon drums, and move a spout from a pump about. This is pretty good fun and good physical work. The other thing you get to do is drive dozers around. You need a dozer to drag the sledges with the drums about. So I have had the opportunity to drive two dozers about, the first was a D5 made by Caterpillar, an awesome machine with fingertip controls. So you have a foot brake, a decelerator (thats right not an accelerator) also foot operated. On your right you have a joystick that controls the blade (shovel thing on the front) and on the left you have a couple of small sticks that you operate with you first and second fingers, these brake the left and right tracks. Oh yeah you also have a hand throttle and a hand brake and gear selector. Anyway its great fun and easy to drive, the difficult bit is digging or using the blade. I can do it but it takes ages and I am rubbish, oh well. Hopefully I will get more opportunities to become a better dozer driver.

There was also a slumber party about three weeks ago. This was exclusively for girls, unless you made the effort to girly things, so I decided to do girly things. This was me just after finding the wig.

Me starting my transformation from Jules the dude. Posted by Picasa

Until I was turned into Miss Julie, super babe. Posted by Picasa

As you can see we did a lot of makeup and all that sort of stuff, I don't understand it, but I can now say thank god I don't have to have to put on makeup everyday, its so difficult. I also think I might have scared the base a tiny bit. None of the other men dressed up and some of them were giving me dodgy looks, one was even eyeing me up. The girls seemed to enjoy it a lot.

Not only is there a lot of dressing up, but there is a lot of experimentation with hair. Since we don't have a hair dresser down here, we cut each others hair and since we are not going to see normal people for a year and in some cases two years you can shave your head and see how long it takes to grow back. Frances has started this process but only in her second year, so to start with she got a mowhawk.

Fances practices her mime technique having applied her face mask. Posted by Picasa

She has since then shaved it back to grade zero. In order to do this another themed party was organised.

Frances cuts off all her hair so that she can be Ripley for Sci-Fi night. Posted by Picasa

I too have decided to shave my hair off, the idea being that a number of us will take pictures of ourselved everyday and make movies of our hair growing. Shaving my head gave me the opportunity to try to be Jean-Luc Piccard for Sci-fi night.

Frances, Dave, Nicola, Vicky, Kirsty and me getting ready for Sci-Fi dinner. Posted by Picasa

Dave was some sort of wierd alien with upside down clothes and two heads, Vicky was on the Men in Black people and Kirsty was Lilu from The Fifth Element.

Me as Jean-Luc Piccard operating a old fashioned 21st century computer. Posted by Picasa

The day before Sci-fi night I went on nights. We need to have someone on base awake at all times in order to respond to emergencies. The main emergency being fire. The buildings contain a lot wood and everything is freeze dried to such and extent that normal fire proofing doesn't work so most things but burn very well once you get it lit. This is the main reason we have someone on nights. The person on nights also performs the metrological observations at night. Kirsty would like me to point out that she trained me, so if I made any mistakes you know who to blame. One of the bonuses of being on nights is that you might get to see some aurora. For me this happened on Sci-fi night. Everyone else had gone to bed and I was still wondering about in my Star trek uniform. I went outside to do the 3am met observation and suddenly there was wispy glowing cloud about. I woke up a few people and by the time they came out it was a bit rubbish. I don't think people appreciated being woken up. Later the aurora came back even stronger, once again I woke people up and once again when they came out it was a bit rubbish. Then 5 mins after they all left again and the few people who remained were presented with a massive display of the aurora australis.

My first successful aurora shots, when I worked out you need a tripod. This photo is taken from (i am a girl, i like to wear dresses) the laws platform with an exposure of about 20 seconds. I needed a lot of help from kirsty taking this picture as I am a rubbish photographer. Posted by Picasa

Another photo from the Laws, this time in the direction of the Piggott. Posted by Picasa

The tattered Union Jack above the base and the stars with a bit of aurora. Posted by Picasa

Stars and the Laws, my room is the furthest lit window. Posted by Picasa

The stars and aurora in the direction of the piggott. You can see the Halley signpost in the foreground on the right. Posted by Picasa

These photos were taken over the next few days when the displays were not as vivid as the first night but they are still fairly awesome for me. Hopefully my next entry will include a photo of a pee funnel and news of my trip to Windy caboose.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Winter Trip - Sledge Alpha

So the day after the amazing melt tank party. I went on holiday - well that is how I viewed it. Officially I think it is supposed to be field training but as we don't have to do our normal jobs I think it's more of a holiday. We all get two winter trips every year. The pre-winter trip is for 5 days and the post winter trip is for 10 days. There are 15 normal winterers and the G.A.. Our Field G.A. (General Assistant) is Simon and he's really the guide for all the field trips off base. The rest of us winterers were then split into 5 groups. There are certain rules in who can go on holiday together so that the base can cope without missing too many Met people or be left without anyone who can fix the generators. It turned out that I got picked to go in the first group. Traditionally the groups are called sledges and our sledge being the first was called Sledge Alpha. The members of Sledge Alpha were Liz the carpenter, Kirsty (Metbabe), Simon the field GA and me. All the pre-winter trips tried to head to 2nd Chasm (see map below), an area in the Hinge zone which is interesting because its very churned up ice and contains loads of interesting crevasses. As I mentioned before Halley is not on the Antarctic mainland but is actually on the Brunt Ice shelf, a floating chunk of ice that is stuck to the Caird coast. The Hinge zone is the area where the ice shelf joins the continent proper and as the ice flows off the mainland its churned up forming crevassed areas. Occasionally there are massive calving events where huge chunks of ice shelf break off. This is predicted to happen in the next few years and this is why Halley base is going to be moved to a new site and have a new set of buildings.

Map of the brunt ice shelf. Halley V is marked by the left hand cross. The proposed position of the Halley VI is shown by the right hand cross. Our winter trip was at 2nd Chasm. The map was modified from a map used in the Halley VI proposals. Posted by Picasa

When the last major calving event happened it moved nearly the whole ice shelf and opened up a few massive cracks in the hinge zone, in these cracks there was the sea and this then froze over and left the chasms that we go playing about in.

So we prepared to go off on our holiday. We actually didn't get off on the first day. When you leave base here you have to carry a massive amount of gear. You need to carry a "full unit" between two of you. A full unit consist of two nansen sledges (wooden sledges designed by the great norwegian explorer ), 16 jerry cans of fuel for the skidoos, 2 jerries of parafin, two man-food boxes (each containing 20 days rations for one person), medical box, HF radio, Pans box, inside tent box, inside food box, two pyramid tents, P bags (bags full of fantastic bedding including the warmest sleeping bags ever, sheepskin rugs, thermorests, bag liners of various sorts) and then your personal stuff. It took us all day to get all the stuff together. We did get off the next day early in the morning, the first thing you notice when you travel any distance on a skidoo is how uncomfortable the throttle position is. You also freeze pretty quickly. When we got about 20 km from Halley we then linked up. This involved roping the skidoos together into pairs using a 30m rope, this means that if the first skidoo falls into a crevass the second one should be able to stop and stop the first one hitting the ground. We are also roped to the skidoos to prevent us hitting the ground in those circumstances. ~40 more kms (~60 km from Halley) we reached the campsite for 2nd Chasm.

360 degree of the campsite at 2nd Chasm. Posted by Picasa

The view of 2nd Chasm from the campsite. Posted by Picasa

We pitched up the tents and then went for a quick exploration of the wind scoup near the camp. It was during this little exploration that I fell into my first crevass. It was only a tiny one (an ankle biter) so I only went in up to my knee before I caught myself. In order to stop this happening we also walk around roped up, with aout 20 m of rope between us, once again this is so that the person who falls into a crevasse can be saved by the other person that they are roped to.

The campsite was pretty bleak but we brought enough things to make it comfortable. The tents are very good, are made of ventile (tightly woven canvas) which stops the wind. Inside you unroll your P-bags which are warm enough for you to sleep outside in but made extra warm in the tent. You then set about lighting your Tilley lamp and the Primus stove and pretty soon the tent is roasting. Of course you can also get carbon monoxide poisoning from burning stuff so we had a sensor that was going off all the time, and was probably the most annoying thing on the whole trip. Water is made by melting snow (dug from the clean snow area) and the food is pretty good and based on army rations. You things like biscuits brown and biscuits fruit. The loo is a red flag and the area around it designated as dirty. In fact we also brought a modifed pup tent as a loo tent. Pup tents are small emergency tents, and we brought one that was modified with a hold cut in the ground sheet. A loo seat made from a wooden box and some insulating foam finished off the luxury facilities. Having the loo in a tent made the whole experience a lot more pleasant and lessens the risks of exposure. The ladies also get issued with pee funnels so that they can go the loo without disrobing, maybe I will get one of them to explain it all.

Simon our guide and field expert demonstrates how to use the pee flag. There was also a dedicated loo tent with a loo made out of an old man-food box and pink insulating foam shaped appropriately. Luxury camping. Posted by Picasa

You get two people in each tent and I shared one with Kirsty which was great as she is pretty mad which makes things interesting. You spend a lot of you time in the tents sorting our bedding, melting water and refueling the lamp and stove, cooking and just chatting. We also spent a lot of time in the tents, one day we only spent a couple of hours outside because the weather was so bad. Spending time outside is cold if you stay still and knackering if you keep moving. You'd think that it might be boring being stuck in a tent but I really enjoyed it and am pretty sure I will enjoy more time in tents.

Kirsty sits outside our pyramid tent. This was the childrens tent. Liz and Simon shared the other grown-ups tent next door. Posted by Picasa

When we did get out we trained, learning how to: rope up, save people from crevasses using pulleys, use crampons, use ice axes, abseil down and jumar back up. And the best bit about the training is that it's for free in an amazing setting. Thats why this job is the best thing ever. It quite easy to forget that you are in an amazing place.

Kirsty and Liz at the back of an Alpine-four (all of us attached to the same rope) in Likijusi a mini chasm that we discovered. Posted by Picasa

Once we had learnt enough skills, Simon would then find something interesting like a crevasse (one of which seemed pretty big to me) and we would then go and explore it. So here are some photos of what it was like.

Liz waits at the bottom of a crevasse. Posted by Picasa

Kirsty abseils in to join us in the crevasse as Simon watches from above. Posted by Picasa

Me showing off my ice climbing skills. Photo courtesy of Kirsty. Posted by Picasa

Me lowering myself into a crevasse. I haven't fallen in! Photo courtesy of Kirsty. Posted by Picasa

Liz, Simon and me on then wind scoop ridge. In the background you can see the campsite. Photo courtesy of Kirsty Posted by Picasa

Simon, Liz and Kirsty moving along an ice ridge. Posted by Picasa

Sledge alpha enjoying a break and a snack. Posted by Picasa

Kirsty demonstrates her crampon and ice climbing skills. Posted by Picasa

Liz and Simon delve deeping into the crevasse. Posted by Picasa

All good things come to an end and so did our holiday. Having arrived at 2nd Chasm on sunday we left on thursday morning. Leaving took a few hours as you have to disassemble the camp. We then drove back the 60 odd km back to Halley.

The view from the back of the convoy. At this point we are travelling individually as we are getting close to Halley. In unknown areas we always travel as linked skidoos. This means that if a skidoo falls into a crevasse the other one can stop it reaching the bottom. Posted by Picasa

For some reason the journey back was a trickier than the journey out, mainly because the snow conditions had changed which meant that we kept on getting sledges tipping over. This always happened when going downhill as the sledge would catch up with the skidoo and then hit some sastrugi and flip over. I think we had to pick up sledges 5 times.

The first sledge that flipped over. Posted by Picasa

We made it back safely and I think all of us are looking forward to the next winter trip. They are so cool. So until the next trip we are essentially stuck on base. We might be able to get away to a caboose for a weekend but darkness is approaching fast and with it the cold.

Sledge alpha returns to Halley. Posted by Picasa