Sunday, 3 January 2016

Relaxing at Rothera

Rothera with the point behind.

I have been back to Rothera for about two weeks which have included Christmas and Hogmanay. After my extended stay at Sky Blu, I am still very much appreciating the simple things that life in Rothera affords such as showers, warm building and not having to worry about weather obs every hour. However, being back at Rothera does not mean I have not been busy. The big job what occurred recently was relief. A couple of days after Christmas the ship The James Clark Ross (JCR) arrived. The JCR is one of two BAS ships, and it brought with it almost all the food and equipment that Rothera will require over the next year. With a minimum of about twenty, and a maximum of over one hundred people on base, the residents of Rothera will consume a lot of food over the next year. This all had to be unloaded and put into storage. There was also all the new field and recreation kit. It was the job of myself and the other field assistant on base to check, sort and store all this. On top of this I have been doing some training with the recent arrivals on base, organising equipment to be sent out in the field, proving some recreational opportunities for the ship's crew as well as my own recreation. Below I find a list of some of the more interesting things I have been up to in both as part of work and in my own time.

Heading up to get some nice turn in in Stork Bowl.
Skiing. There is some good skiing around Rothera and earlier in the season, there was some really nice snow about. Recently the snow quality has decreased due to a bit of freezing and thawing (it is raining outside at the moment), but even so it is still nice to get the skis on and go for a skin up a hill for some exercise.

Nice views from round the point.

Round the point. Rothera sits near the end of a small peninsular. On a pleasant day it makes for a lovely walk or, early in the season, a ski, round the point. Although probably only a kilometre in total, you can’t see base from the majority of the route, and it feels very peaceful and calm. On a nice day it is a great place to go to read, watch the abundant wildlife and ever changing sea ice or just generally chill out.

Doing some work out on the Larsen C ice shelf.
Co-piloting.  Sometimes extra people are required for day flights in the local area. Just before the ship arrived I got a trip to the Larsen C ice shelf. Over the past couple of decades the Larsen A and the Larsen B ice shelves have disintegrated due to the rapid warming of the Antarctic peninsular. The much larger Larsen C ice shelf remains. There are some concerns it may collapse in the near future, and so it is being monitored closely. I was part of a team to head over and service a couple of automatic weather stations. However, the Larsen is a notoriously cloudy place, and safely landing a plane on an ice shelf requires good contrast. The trip was cancelled times due to the weather, but in the end we did make it, although we were only able to reach one of the weather stations.

The band in the boat shed for Hogmanay.
Christmas and Hogmanay. Christmas was a very relaxed affair with the a bit of skiing and the chefs doing a great job preparing a Christmas dinner. Hogmanay was a bit more lively, with the boat shed being transformed into a music venue. With various musical people on base, there were a couple of bands playing. With the ships crew being around, it made for a good night.

Science. One of the main objectives of BAS is to facilitate the science which goes on in Antarctica. This means there is a lot of scientists passing through Rothera. I enjoy talking with the scientist about their work, and sometimes get to help out with various bits and bobs. One day I had the job of driving a vehicle up to pick up a pair of scientist doing some seismic training. I arrived in time to watch them detonate some charges which was satisfying. From time to time there are general interest lectures on base which, if I am around, I enjoy attending (although I have missed the majority of these by being in the field). 
Show Crevasse. Near base there is the show crevasse, although ice cave might be a better word for it. It probably was originally a crevasse, with meltwater draining in and freezing has created a spectacular ice cave.  Access is by abseil, and there is a nice loop which can be done. It makes for a good little adventure, particularly for people who do not have a climbing background. In the 1st of January we guided about various groups of sailors from the JCR round the crevasse. 
Suffering at the end of the Rothera 10km
 Rothera 10km. Traditionally on New Year’s Day there is a 10km race at Rothera. This year it was postponed for a day due to strong winds and heavy rain on the 1st. On the 2nd it was not much better. However, about 15 people turned out to take part. The route was five and a half laps of the runway. Although not the most interesting course terrain wise, the views were good, and it did have the extra interest of Elephant seals (who like to lie on the runway) which had to be avoided, and a group of penguins which sat about two metres off the course watching the proceedings. In the end I completed the run in 48 minutes and 9 seconds, which I felt was okay for someone who has, until recently, been sitting out at Sky Blu doing very little exercise.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Sky Blu

Sky Blu

74º 51’ South    71º 32’ West

The sun circles the sky, never dropping to the horizon, but never rising that high either. It does not get dark, in fact being a few weeks away from mid-summer here, there is not even a gloaming. Time flows at a different rate here.  Without the anchor of the diurnal cycle, the days merge together, time stretches and compresses depending on weather and work.

The landscape is equally alien; a few islands of rock stick out of an ocean of ice that continues in all directions for hundreds of miles. Very occasionally a snow petrel gracefully glides by; otherwise the human inhabitants of Sky Blu are the only living things until you reach close to the coast.  Other than our insignificant feeling camp, there is nothing but ice, rock and sky. This is the Antarctic continent.

A pyramid tent at Sky Blu with the midnight sun in the background
I am just back from Sky Blu, a fuel depot and blue ice runaway at the Southern end of the Antarctic peninsular, about 450 miles (or a roughly 4 hour flight) to the South of Rothera. Sky Blu lies just to the South of a Nunatak call Lanzeroti which rises about 1000ft out of the ice. The predominate wind is from the North, blowing for long distances across the smooth ice cap, before being forced over, and accelerating down, the Southern side of Lanerzoti. This strong katabatic wind remove any fresh snow from the areas to the South of this peak, creating an area of flat blue ice. This has been flagged to create a 1km blue ice runway.

A pyramid tent and communications melon hut with Mendez, one of the local nunataks in the background.
This runway allows the largest of the BAS planes, a Dash 7, to land here and depot drums of fuel. This fuel depot is used to refuel the much smaller twin otters to allow them to support deep field science projects. Planes from various nationalities also use the runway, often to change from wheels to board skis.  Other than the runway there is; a couple of melon huts, a few tents, three underground garages, and currently about 700 drums of aviation fuel.

A twin otter parked on the blue ice runway. A lot of the work at Sky Blu is associate with dealing with the aircraft.
I first arrived here on the 27th of October in some very Scottish weather; cloudy, windy, with poor visibility. It was a bit of a baptism of fire; as not was there a lot of work to do opening up the camp,  but there was also a lot to do to help the I-Beam land train project get packed up and ready to go. This involved working to midnight or later most nights, and some early starts. Being early in the season, it was pretty cold; below -20 ºC most days, with some days below -30ºC. It was also often windy. However, working late at night, early in the season meant that we got some amazing light as the sun would dip and touch the Southern Horizon around midnight.

A caravanning trip Antrartic style. The two Pisten Bullies and loads which make up the I-Beam traverse about to set off.
I-Beam departed after about a week after I arrived, after which various visitors came and went, mechanical issues with the stoves and vehicles slowly got sorted. The camp got set up and things slowly started to calm down, and a daily rhythm got established.

For myself most days start around 6.30am, with a runway inspection. Weather observation are made and transmitted back to Rothera at 6.55am, and repeated every hour until we are stood down which can easily be until 9pm, or later. Between weather reports; I help to depot any fresh fuel, refuel any twin otters, organise cargo to be moved, request food and supplies from Rothera, and generally look after the camp. During some quiter periods, I have managed to get out for a couple of recreational mountaineering trips up some of the surrounding nunataks.
The inside of the Communications hut. This hub of sky blu, and can get quite busy at times.
The number of people at Sky Blu varies, with a minimum of three people (one field assistant, and two mechanics). However, it is usually busier than that with various pilots, scientists, field assistants or others passing through. The maximum number we have had overnighting so far is ten. With more than about six it can start to feel pretty cramped in the comms hut where all the communications, cooking, eating and socialising goes on.

On the summit of Mendez nunatak during a brief recreational trip out.
The weather has a significant affect on the pace of life at Sky Blu. Due to combination or bad weather here and at Rothera, there have been some pretty quite period where only a couple of planes have passed through during the week. During these periods a lot of reading and tea drinking goes on. The winds howls down from the North, blowing snow gets forces under door and into tents, and the sun, just visible through the blowing snow, still circles the sky.



Monday, 26 October 2015

Arriving at Rothera.

Keeping ourselves amused in South America
A strong Northerly howls across the landscape. The temperature is about a degree above freezing. Sleet slants diagonally down from a leaden sky, plastering any exposed object in a layer of slush. Looking out the window today it feels like it could be Scotland, well except for the 30m ice cliff dropping into the sea that I can just about see through the mist.
This is not Scotland, this is Rothera, the main base for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), located on an island just off the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsular at about 67º South. I have been here for about a week now, and will continue to be based here for the next four months or so.
Torres del Paine. Pretty good looking mountains.
My journey South started about two weeks ago. Train from Aviemore to Cambridge, minibus from Cambridge to Heathrow, flight from Heathrow to Madrid, Madrid to Santiago and then Santiago to Punta Arenas at the Southern tip of Chile. Delays due to weather meant that I was stuck in Punta with eight other BAS employees for three days.
Punta is an interesting town,  and we spent a day wandering around some of the more random shops. One of my favourite was the hardware/outdoor/weapon shop, were you could purchase anything from screwdrivers and hacksaws to chalk and rockboots to handguns, rifles and large hunting knives. I purchased none of the above.
The view from the plane when approaching Rothera.
The next day, having seen the sights of Punta, a group of us decided to hire some bikes, and cycled up into the hills behind the town. On the way back down into town my gear set fell to bits.  Rather than walking all the way back, I took up my companions offer of a tow.  A towing system consisting of three shoe laces and a belt was constructed, and we set off dodging traffic through busy streets of Punta. At this point I was beginning to think (as you might be) what could go wrong with this plan? Surprisingly nothing did go wrong, it worked perfectly, and we soon made it back to the bike shop.
Rothera from the top of the Ramp.
On our final day in Punta we hired a car and drove up to the Torres Del Paine National Park. This was a lovely spot, and a place that I would be keen to return to climb one day. The weather then improved, and the following day the BAS aircraft was able to fly us over the Drake Passage to Rothera.
A wee trip out onto the ice to learn about living and travelling in the field.
Since arriving, myself and the other new field assistants, have been busy with training and getting organised for our field seasons. Although a lot of the mountaineering aspects of our work, such as crevasse rescue, were familiar to us from our mountaineering backgrounds, there was plenty of new stuff to cover. A lot of the new stuff had to do with travel, such as how to pack and tow sledges in the field, how to rope the skidoos together in potentially crevassed terrain, and how to communicate with base. There has also been some time to get out and do some personal skiing, and last night there was a pleasant surprise when an empire penguin (which are pretty rare here at Rothera) waddled up onto the sea ice not far from base.
A lone (lost?) Empire Penguin waddle about the sea ice just behind base.

Monday, 5 October 2015

BAS Training

 A group of us went punting one morning. Here Ali Rose (a fellow field assistant), takes a shot of being chief punter, and is concentrating hard on keeping us going and not falling in (which is harder said than done). 
Back in August, fittingly when I was pottering around on the snowpatches of Ben Nevis, I got a phone call from the the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). They offered me a summer contract working as a field assistant in Antarctica. The role of a field assistant is essentially to look after scientists and help with logistics in the deep field. This is a job that I had been interested in for a long time, so I jumped at the chance.

My training for this job started on Sunday the 13th of September, and lasted for about two and a half weeks. The first week was based at Girton college in Cambridge. Everybody who is going South for the first time has to attend this. There was about 100 people with a wide variety of backgrounds; scientist, mountaineers, carpenters, vehicle mechanics, divers, doctors, radio operators etc. The training started with a general introduction to BAS, and to life in Antarctica. It then proceeded to more specific courses depending on peoples roles and responsibilities. Here I met the other three field assistants who were also going South for the first time, and who I would likely be working with. This part of the training concluded with a three day first aid course, but with a slant to Antarctic conditions.
For the first week of training we were based at Girton college in Cambridge. It was very nice, but did have a bit of a Hogwarts feel about it. 

It was then up to the peak district for a four day field course. Various more experienced field assistants turned up, and helped us teach skills such as navigation, ropework and campcraft to the overwintering staff. Although I wont be overwintering, I was still involved as a field assistant. It was also a good opportunity to get to know others who I would I am likely to be working with over the season. Various staff who had summered before, who were returning to overwinter were there. There was probably as much learning hearing their stories in the bar in the evening, as had occurred through the day.
 A search technique during the field training. Although it might look like a group of people with buckets in their heads, they are in fact wearing white out simulations devices, and are searching for a lost comrade (the man crouching on the right). 

After the field course I had a few days off, so I popped over to North Wales to see some friends and get a few routes done. The route of this mini trip was The Skull up on Cyrn Las. It was a route which I had fallen off about 15 years ago, and to be honest nearly fell off again.  It would appear that Cambridge does not do your climbing a world of good.

The fire fighter course. A group of us putting out a simulated aircraft fire.  

After Wales it was back down to Cambridge for a fire training course. This was very much a crash course, with about 6 months of normal training being squeezed into 3 days. However, it was quite good fun crawling around smokey rooms wearing breathing apparatus looking for dummies and spraying fires with lots of water. The gist of it was that is a plane crashes down there with thousands of liters of aviation fuel, and it goes on fire, there is not much we are going to be able to do about it.

Am now back in Scotland for a few days before heading South on the 12th of October. I should be back around the 20th of February. Although internet access is pretty slow in Antarctica, I will try and keep my blog updated while on base.

BAS's finest fire crew. After 3 days training, what could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Snow Patch Surveying

Iain enjoying the translucent light in the Point Five Gully snow Tunnel. 
Last Friday (the 21st of August) I was again up on the North Face of Ben Nevis to do some surveying. This time I was helping with the Ben Nevis part of the annual Scottish snowpatch survey.
The Scottish snowpatch survey occurs each year in mid/late August,and basically involves people wandering around the hills counting and measuring the remaining snowpatches. I have been involved most years since 2008, and it is something I have written about on my blog a few times. This year I was joined by three fellow snowpatch enthusiasts; Iain Cameron, Mark Atkinson and Al Todd.

As expected given the snowy winter and cool spring/summer, there was a lot of snow on the Ben. In fact there was far more than I had seen at this time of the year before, you would probably have to go back to 1994 to find a time when there was a comparable amount of snow on the hill at this time of year. 
The Observatory Gully patch is not small. The tiny green/black dot is a person. 
The biggest patch of snow on the hill (and quite possibly the biggest in Scotland at the moment) was at the top of Observatory Gully. This is the most permanent patch of snow in the Lochaber area, with snow having been here continuously since November 2006. This year it was huge, hundreds of meters from top to toe.  In fact the toe of the patch was at about 1130 metres, and you could have walked on snow all the way into Gardyloo gully, or across and up to the top of Tower Gully at 1340 metres. The depth of the centre of the patch could only be guessed at, but greater than 15 metres seems reasonable. This patch certainly won't be disappearing this year.

The edge of the Point Five Gully Patch. Not a shallow patch of snow, but probably not as deep as the Observatory Gully Patch.
We then headed down to the patch at the base of Point Five Gully. This patch was about 70 metres long, and perhaps a bit more width wise. The stream that runs down Point Five Gully had formed a tunnel through the centre of the patch. Donning headtorches (as it was very dark in the middle) we went for an explore, and managed to scramble all the way through. At the top we were able to get an idea of the great depth of the snow, again it is very unlikely this patch is going to disappear this year.

Iain near the center of the Point Five Gully Patch it was pitch black. Headtorches were required for a full traverse, fortunately we had two between the four of us.  
We finished off with the zero Gully snow patch. This is currently a comparable size to this time last year. Last year it survived for the first time in a long time (since 2001 or 1994). Although I would not say this patch is guaranteed to survive this year, I think it is fairly likely. It will depend a lot on the weather through the autumn.

Although all the data from the different areas has not yet all be collated, the preliminary results of this years the Scottish snowpatch survey are impressive. At this time last year, after the very snowy winter of of 2013/14, 281 snowpatches were counted in the Scottish hills. This year the final figure is likely to be in the region of 600 or 700 snowpatches. It will be interesting to see which patches survive to be incorporated into next winter snowpack, I suspect that some very unusual survivals are likely.
Once again in the confines of the Point Five Gully Tunnel.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

North Face Surveying

Jenny the geologist about to do an exciting abseil to have a look at some interesting contacts 
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to be involved in this years North Face survey. The North Face survey is a detailed botanical and geological survey of the North Face of Ben Nevis. This opportunity arose through my work with the John Muir Trust who own a fair bit of Ben Nevis. The first part of the survey took place last summer, and a nice little film about it was made by Dave McLeod and can be found here. The third and final part of the survey will take place next summer.

My role, was to work with Mike Pescod and his team to moutaineers to help get the botany and geology experts into the places they wanted to investigate, and help keep them safe.  This involved scrambling or abseiling into some interesting parts of the Ben, places that I would never otherwise would have visited, particularly in summer. It was great being on the Ben with these experts, they pointed out how all the rock told stories, or could say so much about the plants and ecosystems living up there. In summary what I learned was that the geology of the Ben is more complex and less well understood than I had thought, and I can now just about recognise the difference between the rare and common flowers that you get up there. I hope to get the chance to be involved again next summer. 

A starry saxifrage.  I did find some much rarer flowers, but the pictures I took of them did not come out. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Salbitschijen and Other Alpine Rock

Sophie enjoying good granite on the second tower of the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen
The West coast of Scotland does not seem to have been the ideal place to be a rock climber this summer. It has been pretty wet, with little being climbed. Therefore at the end of July I decided to head to the Alps for some sunny rock climbing. I flew out to Geneva and hired a car. My friend Sophie was coming from Sheffield and traveled by train. I met her at Geneva station after a slightly random conversation with the former Pakistani diplomat to Switzerland who was wondering why I headed to Siwzterland rather than Pakistan for my climbing holiday. We headed over to Chamonix in some really heavy rain. It was late and I was tired when we got there, and then I made the tactical error of reversing the hire car into a tree; oopps. I assumed this was going to be an expensive error, but surprisingly Europecar only seemed to charged me £18 for the large scratch/dent.

Next morning we had a wander around Chamonix trying to decide on a plan. The Alps had been having the opposite problem to Scotland this year, things had been very hot and dry. This meant there was a lot of rock fall in the mountains around Chamonix, so we were considering other options. We bumped into some friends who suggested a 10 pitch granite sport route called AlpenTruam near Andermatt in Central Switzerland. AlpenTruam proved to be a fine warm up, and a good re-introduction to the dark art of granite climbing. That evening it started raining, but we headed up the lovely Salbit hut anyway.
The very pointy summit of the Salbitschijen
The next morning things were still a bit damp, but we did a nice 6 pitch route called Me-Mo, which was the equivalent of about E2 or E3, This allowed us to get back to the hut in plenty of time to sort our stuff out. After dinner we headed over and stayed in a bivvi hut at the base of the classic route of the area, the West Ridge of the Salbitschijen. This has about 36 pitches of climbing, and various abseils as it ascends the west ridge over various towers to the spectacular summit pillar. We did not move particularly fast, but were were steady and we did get to the spectacular summit in daylight. However, descending into the thick cloud, we made a slight navigational error (by following the footsteps in the snow) and got back to the hut a bit later than we should of done. Unfortunately this meant we missed Hans's (the hut guardian) birthday drinks.

Gary seconding the 8th pitch of the very fine Hammerbrucke
By the time the sun came out again a few days later we had been joined Gary Smith; a friend who we had met at the hut a few days previously. Gary's climbing partner had headed home, so he joined us for a few routes. We decided to do Hammerbrucke; one of the fine looking rock routes on the second tower of the West Ridge. The route did not disappoint, it gave about 10 sustained pitches of rounded granite cracks and corners. This was a fantastic route, well worth doing.
The top of the Furkr pass in the rain. Luckily Gary had a van which we able to use for cooking in  that evening.
After some more mixed weather we headed to the Grimsel/Furka pass area. There we did the classic 14 pitch slab route "Motorhead". A great route, but baking sunshine led to some painful toes by the top. The next day some cloud gave some welcome shade on the final route of the trip; Sacramotion, a 10 pitch 7a above the Furka pass.  A final day was spent sorting and socialising around the Chamonix area before heading home the next morning.

All in all a successful trip, and thinking back there is little we could have done to improve it (other than avoiding that tree on the first day), I certainly did more climbing than I have done in Scotland so far this year. In fact, it was so good that I am considering going back out in September.

An Austrian team following us up the classic Motorhead.