Dan's Antarctic Dairy - Week Four

Sunday 23 Jan
The observant among you will have noticed that I've cheated a little bit this week and started my diary on a Sunday rather than a Monday. There are a number of reasons for this; firstly on an aesthetic, arty-farty level it was to distribute photos better through the diary. Secondly it was because the nature of my job here means that a lot of the time I am working and confined to base which means that there will be a certain amount of 'routine' (which I will liven up by making adding general comments about life in the Antarctic!) but today I went off base for a little trip.....this being my second trip in one week I thought it would be a shame to have both trips in one diary entry! And it's my diary so I can do what I want I suppose.

Anyway, Sunday morning felt really tired and perhaps a little hungover and disorientated when I got up. Also had a brief moment of panic thinking I was late for work, but reason and logic returned and I figured that if my alarm had woke me up how could I be late for work. Sauntered over to work and planned a leisurely morning's work followed by a lengthy lie down from the late morning to catch up on few zeds followed by a gradual coming round during the late afternoon just in time to try and re-coup some of Saturday's gambling losses by betting on Spanish football.

The best laid plans of mice and men eh.....

Knocked out the weather forecast, gave the briefing and was told to look lively and grab my outdoor stuff because I was going to Sky Blu. Where it was -20C.

Sky Blu is essentially a manned refueling depot at 75S 71W (about 2.5 hours flight and 500 miles from Rothera). The Antarctic Survey need to have various refueling depots around the Antarctic Peninsula to keep their aircraft going. Most are unmanned depots with simply a flag stucking out of the snow. Two (Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu - see map below. The map is taken from the British Antarctic Survey website) are bigger and manned. Sky Blu is one of the more southerly depots and therefore used for 'deep field operations' (ie when people are sent deep into the Antarctic). One of the exciting things about Sky Blu is that it looks different to much of the Antarctic Peninsula. 98% of Antartica is white. Most of it is on a gentle slope so looks white and flat (I know people who've been to the South Pole and most aren't impressed because there's nothing much to see. Bit like going to watch the Boro.). Bits near ice shelves and the coast are more exciting with hills, mountains and therefore grey stuff (and blue stuff if there's meltwater). However, scattered around the interior are peaks of mountains that stick up above the snow and ice - they're known as nunataks.

Sky Blu is a nunatak. Near the nunatak it's flat with no crevasses and it's a windy place, all of which make it a great place to land a plane (!?). You see, what happens is the wind blows any snow that falls away exposing sheet ice (which is a blue-y colour) and planes with wheels (the Dash 7) can also land here as well as the planes with skis (the Twin Otters) which can of course land anywhere. So, it's a windy place and they make planes with wheels land on sheet ice. Yep, you heard right. As it happens it's a perfectly safe thing to do! The great thing about this is that the Dash 7 is a big plane and can fit a lot of fuel drums in so can stock the depot up more efficiently than the Twin Otters. And this is basically why Sky Blu is a fuel dump - planes with wheels can land there.

Now, the reason why Sky Blu is manned is mainly so that when planes are coming the people there (they have a little hut and tents!) can make weather observations to help pilots land. Bearing in mind most of the Antarctic is white, you can imagine that if the sky is white (or grey) too it can be very hard or impossible to tell where the horizon is and therefore where sky ends and land starts. With not much light it's also really difficult to tell where crevasses are from the air and tell the difference between snow fields and low cloud when flying above cloud/snow. So. you need good weather. But, if people are on site they can go to the runway and provide something for a pilot to focus on when coming in to land even if contrast between land and sky is crap. As long as they don't wear white. Obviously. They mark the runways with red flags etc to make it obvious. But the pilots also have to fly to places where no-one is on site and then they will only go in when this land/sky contrast (horizontal contrast) is pretty good, which generally means pretty sunny weather because even thin high cloud can make this horizontal contrast poor. And of course this is something I have to bear in mind when making weather forecasts. Incidentally, the other advantage of having people at Sky Blu is so that if it isn't windy for a while they can clear the runway. It hadn't been windy for 3 weeks when I arrived. The runway is 800m long and 100m or so wide. Poor sods having to clear that.

Just as with Fossil Bluff in week 3, because I make regular forecasts for Sky Blu it was deemed a good idea for me to visit Sky Blu and see what it was like. Usually I have to be around the base all the time for the weather, but the powers that be make 2 exceptions so I can see Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu, and ideally I'd be sent to these places on days when the weather was quiet. So, after the briefing I grabbed my coats and jumpers and two and a half hours later I was in unbroken sunshine standing on an icy runway in temperatures of -19C. The sun was shining so it didn't feel cold. I ponced about gloveless for a while then my hands felt really cold. And took ages to warm up! Anyway, Sky Blu looked nice - snowfields and peaks. There's no air pollution in Antarctica and not much natural pollution so visibility is often sensationally good and distance difficult to judge - I could see stuff 50km away at Sky Blu! The chaps I flew down with unloaded fuel and took away empty drums and within 15 minutes we were off. And by mid afternoon I was back from my brief sojourn south. And then I could concentrate on the job in hand, namely knocking out some zeds and taking William Hill to the cleaners.

Oh yes, they didn't let me fly. Much to my relief (see week 3!).

Sky Blu Nunatak - the snow is about 5000ft above sea level and the nunatak another 1000ft or so!The Dash 7 plane at Sky Blu ice runwaywhere places mentioned in the text are!

Monday 24 Jan
It snowed today. Not much - only occasional light stuff, so nothing uncovered got covered, but it was only the second time it snowed since I got here. Sadly it was unexpected snow and therefore somewhat displeasing. The Antarctic Survey's supply vessesl - the JCR - arrived today and unloading began. The JCR was supposed to arrive in December but there was too much sea ice for it to get in. Since then some stocks have been running low; for example the bar had run out of lager a week or two ago. Most food, drink and equipment is sent on the JCR. It also carries personal stuff for people working here on 18 or 30 month contracts. Only really, really vital stuff gets flown down to the Antarctic.

Tuesday 25 Jan
Really busy day today! Some Germans needed to fly from their Antarctic base at Neumayer (click here to find out what Germany does in Antarctica) to Rothera. They wanted an early start so I had to get up at 0330 to brief them. The weather was expected to deteriorate later so they had to get a move on. I'm not sure they weren't 100% happy with the expected weather. I was then busy with the weather for the rest of the night and most of the morning. In between weather forecasting I was helping unpack food that had arrived on the JCR. The two German planes arrived during the late morning. Unfortunately one of the planes had a hard landing and a bit of a 'ding'. Luckily no-one was hurt but the tail of the plane was bent and the fuselage a bit crumpled - not enough for a good photo (unfortunately) but certainly enough for the plane to be written off. Fortunately the weather didn't seem to have played a role (or at least the weather was within forecast limits at the time of the 'ding'). Apparently pilot error probably caused the hard landing.

There were some more disappointed Germans at Rothera - two German biologists are here and need to go somewhere. Unfortunately no-one is on the ground were they are so they need pretty much clear and sunny skies to get in (if it's even a little bit cloudy the pilot can't see where the horizon is or pick out crevasses on the ground so can't land - just one of the forecasting problems in Antarctica!) - sadly the weather hasn't been playing ball for a good week or so where they want to go. I could hear their jaws hitting the floor when I told them this week wasn't looking good weatherwise. I almost felt guilty. Meanwhile, 'my' pilots were having a long day too and I was busy dealing with their weather until well into the evening. Sadly I made something of a hash of the forecast and they, quite rightly, weren't too thrilled with some of my output. The weather took a turn for the worse in the evening, something I hadn't entirely planned on, and it started snowing like I don't know what. And two planes had to land in very low cloud, poor visibility and snowy weather. Not the best.

Wednesday 26 Jan
It snowed all day. Loads of white stuff fell out of the sky and made everything look quite pretty. Several inches of snow fell and in the end no flying could be done because of the poor weather. The JCR left during the afternoon. In the evening Burn's Night was celebrated. Drinking restrictions were lifted (cue regulation bottle of white wine and several fresh lagers!)...there are quite a few Scottish people here who take Burns quite seriously, or at least seriously enough to don kilts etc. A number of other people used the evening to wear some rather eccentric fancy dress. Anyway, it was a most pleasant evening.

Thursday 27 Jan
Felt as though the alarm was a little too early for me this morning. Must have eaten too much haggis at the Burns Night celebration. Busy morning too; the working German plane needed to get away (and did) and the Dash 7 went off to the Falklands doing a personnel rotation. During the afternoon I fitted in a little snooze and then went skiing. I'd never been skiing in my life before. I'm also not very good at anything requiring a sense of balance. Bear these facts in mind as you read on....

....got up to the slopes (by snowcat) and got my skis on. And fell over. Skis, it turns out, glide over snow surprisingly easily. It took me quite some time to be able to wear skis and stand still (you have to bend your knees inwards). I then tried going downhill but discovered I could neither turn nor stop. So I just fell on my arse. And then couldn't get up. When wearing skis one lacks a certain amount of lower leg flexbilty. This, and an apparent lack of upper body strength, meant I couldn't get up whilst wearing skis. It took a long time for me to realise taking one ski off was the easiest way to get up! I had a few more goes at attempting to ski, but ended up spent most of the time sat on my arse. So much so that the tail of polo shirt I was wearing and which was sticking out from under my coat froze. Anyway, in 2 hours of pratting about on the slopes I got no-where. I couldn't balance, couldn't get up after falling over and couldn't slow down or stop without falling over. I'm the worst beginner of beginners I think! And it all looks so easy when you see other people doing it!!

Friday 28 Jan
Tired today. Luckily not too stiff from 'skiing'. Mind you I didn't do much skiing really, so I suppose the only part of me that might have ached is my arse. And to be honest I've had plenty of practice sitting on it so it's not surprising it didn't ache really. Anyway, took it as easy as possible today. In any case there wasn't much flying being done because most of the pilots were away in the Falklands. Went for a wander about at one end of the base where there were some impressive icebergs. Saw a penguin. Cute. Went circuit training in the evening. What better way to spend a Friday evening than makiing oneself ache.

Saturday 29 Jan
Fairly busy with work in the morning, and in fact work-wise it was a successful day because a lot of work got done in areas with difficult weather. Went for a walk around during the late afternoon. Saw some seals which were actually quite well camouflaged on the rocks so I nearly trod on one. I'm not really a big fan of seals. They look like big fat slugs to me. Actually, it was quite peaceful walking around with no sound other than the occasional crash of a bit of iceberg falling into the sea and the crunch of my footsteps on the rocky paths. Narrowly avoided being shat on by a big, mean-looking skua on the way back too.

Dan Suri, 30 January 2005. Click here to go to my home page and click  to email me.