Monday 6 March 2017

Back in the world

A week might not seem like a long time, but my time in Antarctica was one of the most intense weeks I’ve ever experienced.  A phrase that stuck in my mind was a scientist talking about something happening “back in the world”, and it did feel as if we had been to a different world. Going into town the day after getting home, I felt overwhelmed by so many people and wondered how the base workers readjust after not just a week, but six months or a year on the ice.

I also found my head full of ideas, thoughts and images. I think going down to the ice is an experience that sinks deep inside you and may influence you in different ways for years to come.  

So I'm still thinking a lot about Antarctica. It is in my head and probably in my heart forever. I'm still keen to answer any questions you or your students have about it, and still thinking what else I might write about it. 

Thursday 8 December 2016

Day Eight: Thursday 8 December

Back to NZ

Today we were due to fly back to New Zealand - probably! 

You can never tell for certain until the flight leaves, and even then there are sometimes boomerang flights going back to NZ, as well as coming down to the ice. But we kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't get one.

Leaving Scott Base involves a whole new set of procedures. First is bag drop, which means packing everything up into your two Antarctica NZ bags, the large black one which gets checked in, and the smaller green one which you keep as carry-on luggage. If the flight boomerangs, or is delayed, you might have to go a day or so without your large bag, so you need to think carefully what to put in which one. 

The night before departure, you bring both bags to be weighed (and you get weighed too) and the black bag is taken away. Then you keep an eye on the noticeboard to see what time you need to be ready the next morning.

Our meeting time was 6.30am - that meant 6.30am in the locker room, all packed and dressed in cold weather gear, and hopefully with nothing left behind, including lunch in a brown paper bag, put together the night before from sandwich fillings and other treats that Mike the chef left out for us.

Four of us were leaving this morning, and Ash drove us out to the airfield - not Pegasus Field,which we flew into, because that's now closed for the season, but Williams Field which is closer. The American bus was coming over the hill from McMurdo with their passengers for the flight, but Ash managed to sneak in front of it.

Ivan the Terra Bus from McMurdo
(this is what picked us up the first day when we landed at Pegasus)  

I didn't really take in Pegasus Field at all when we arrived, but Williams is pretty scenic. No passport control or any formalities -you just wait for the call over the radio that they have finished refuelling and are ready to take "Scott pax". Ash zoomed over as soon as we got the call, so we could beat Ivan again and get good seats on board!

Control tower!
This was another seven-hour flight in a Hercules, but it all went very smoothly. I guess we knew what to expect! There were more people, but it wasn't as hot, and this time I even had some leg room. All the green bags got stacked in a pile down the middle of the plane, but this time I brought a smaller day pack as well, so didn't have stuff falling off my knee. The windows were harder to get at  - you had to climb over and stand on things (in fact I nearly stood on a person, not realising that the US Air Force guy two seats along had unrolled his sleeping bag on the floor and gone to sleep in it), but most people looked really tired and slept a lot of the way (although not on the floor)!

That's another thing about being down on the ice in summer. The constant light outside makes it easy to think that you'll stay up for a  bit longer, and a bit longer again, and people who have come down with work to do are focused on getting that work done, which is another reason why Scott Base has a big focus on set work hours and the importance of recreation and having time off.  

Woody was waiting to pick us up at Christchurch airport, and then it was back to the Antarctica NZ offices to de-kit and hand the gear back. her we were back in the same place we'd been a week ago, but what a lot has happened in that week!

Proving I was actually there (under all the hats and hoods) 

Day Seven: Wednesday 7 December

Real science!

Today was set aside for visiting one of the teams working out in the field this season. Scott Base is the hub for all science activities, but for many of the teams it is the place that they leave from and come back to, and it takes a lot of organisation to get that to happen.

Just as the food and all other supplies for Scott Base have to be carefully planned, ordered and sent down by air or sea – which means you feel guilty leaving even a mouthful of food because you know what it has taken to get it to your plate - so the science teams have to plan in detail what they need and how to get it to Antarctica. And because of the extreme conditions, things don’t always go as smoothly. Equipment breaks down, or doesn’t work the way people thought it would, or lots of other unexpected events can happen – like equipment not arriving on time - to hold up the work, and living and working conditions are often challenging as well.

The team from K001 (each science team or event has a number, even mine – I’m K136) took me out with them on a day trip to the site.There were seven of us, so we took five in a Hagglund and the other two rode on skidoos. They left after us and I tried to get a photo of them zooming past halfway there, but they were too fast!

This team is led by David Prior from the Dept of Geology, University of Otago. They’re trying out a new way of taking ice samples from a hole in the ice shelf, and they’re also hoping to freeze seismometers into the ice shelf to listen for sound waves and ice quakes. This is a test of technologies for a bigger programme in the 2017-2018 summer season, and it’s connected with bigger issues of ice flow towards the ocean, ice shelf collapse and global warming.

We passed the site of our AFT camp and continued across the ice shelf. This is the way to Cape Crozier, which three members of Scott’s team travelled to in the middle of winter to try and collect emperor penguin eggs. One of them, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote about their horrendous trip in a book called The worst journey in the world.

Our hour-long drive was much more straightforward, and even the AFT camp site didn’t look so alarming. In fact I realise now that I spent the first few days feeling completely overwhelmed and intimated by the environment, but I’m proud to say that I went on my first solo walk later today.

The camp is built around tents and linked containers for living, eating and sleeping spaces, with the drill site off to the side. It's all by itself in the middle of the ice shelf, surrounded by vast expanses of unbroken snow, overlooked by Mt Erebus and Mt Terror.

Cosy camp kitchen!

The view from the camp toilet!
The on-site team members welcomed us with cups of tea and even toasted our sandwiches for us (we’d made lunch before leaving Scott Base). They talked about how the project was going and the problems they’d come up against, and gave us a tour of the drill site. 

It was really interesting to see how things don’t always go to plan, or work out perfectly first time, and part of the process is figuring out what to do next. What makes that specially difficult, and often very frustrating, down in Antarctica is that everyone knows what an expensive and time-consuming process it has been to get things to that stage, and they also know that they only have a limited time available when they can be out in the field doing this work.

We got back to Scott Base at about 5pm, and spent a few more minutes de-kitting, getting back into ordinary clothes and putting gear away. At quarter to six, I was supposed to be meeting the American group who were coming over for dinner, including their writer in residence, Maris Wicks. But just before that, I found out that our bag drop for the next day’s flight was at 6.45pm, and I hadn’t even started packing. So I managed a quick chat with the American group, then 15 mins of crazy throw-everything-in packing before hauling all my stuff to the bar for weighing (this means weighing the check in luggage, which is taken away and disappears  and weighing your carry-on luggage and yourself.) Luckily the American group were still finishing dinner so I could join them after that. It’s so nice to have made a link between the US writers and artists programme and our NZ one.

Later that evening, at about 10pm, I went out to the pressure ridges by myself, and everything went fine, even if I did have a bit of trouble working the radio. But Jim who was on the late shift on comms obviously knew it was me calling in, and patiently waited til I got it right! The seals were blobbing out as usual and some of the Scott Base crew were out kite surfing. It was a lovely evening.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Still Day Six: Tuesday 6 December

When we went into the labs at McMurdo, Paul bumped into some people he knew and one of them, Caroline, offered to take us downstairs to the wet lab and touch tank, full of sea stars and sea anemones and other graceful, colourful and beautiful sea creatures. Look at these - (this water was freezing, I had to warm up my hands in my gloves afterwards)

We were so late getting back that lunch morphed into afternoon tea, at which I’d arranged to meet Lizzie who was going to show me the work she and the other conservators are doing on the contents of the TAE Hut .More on that hut later! And then Trudie tracked me down to say that Tim Naish, one of the scientists on the hot water drilling project, had some very cool fossils if I wanted to see them – so here they are. Leaf fossils and bits of wood from 15 million years ago, when small beech trees grew in the Dry Valleys.

And the day still wasn’t over, because after dinner at about 8pm, Kat offered to take us out for a walk in the pressure ridges (more on them later!) just in front of Scott Base. So much snow had fallen that Kat took a pole to probe the path between the flags -

But we made it round to the spot where you can see the seals – fat black blobs contentedly lolling on the ice.

As as we stood marvelling at the weird and wonderful ice shapes -

we heard a puffing and snorting and saw the tip of a seal’s nose emerging as it came up through one of the breathing holes. What a magic way to end the day.

Day Six: Tuesday 6 December

Snow, seal blubber and fossils

Today looked as if it was going to be a quiet day because it started to snow and the forecast was for worse weather to come, but it has been really busy and full of fascinating stuff, from smelly seal blubber to fossils.
This morning I had a trip to Discovery Hut organised with Paul, the science tech, as driver and guide. Discovery Hut is the hut from Scott’s first expedition, and it’s tucked away in a small bay only a few hundred metres from the American base at McMurdo.
We took the main road from Scott Base to McMurdo (only 5-10 mins drive away) and drove through a muted black-and white world, so different from yesterday’s blue sky and sunshine.
 I’m glad to have been able to experience such contrasting weather conditions, especially for visiting the hut where Scott’s team lived through much worse weather. In fact the hut was prefabricated in Australia and based on an Australian bungalow with a wide verandah, and it proved so cold that the men ate and worked there but slept on board their ship anchored nearby.
Just inside the front door was a pile of seal blubber leaking ooze, and the whole hut smelt of it - and lying outside the front door was this - a very dead, mummified seal. 
 I was lucky enough to have ten minutes or more inside the hut on my own, just soaking up the atmosphere. These huts are so evocative of history that you almost expect to hear voices or catch glimpses of the men at work.
Remains of the last dinner cooked here, still in the frypan

 Afterwards we had a drive around McMurdo, which makes you see Scott Base in a whole new light. McMurdo is so much bigger, housing over a thousand people, and it has big accommodation blocks, a fire station, hospital, helicopter pads, warehouses, a gym, a chapel,a coffee house/wine bar and huge computer labs, and a more industrial, mining-town feel.  Having said that, the people we did meet in the labs and the canteen were all really friendly. Scott Base has an American night every Thursday and apparently the Americans from McMurdo love coming here for dinner.
Whenever you leave Scott Base, even if just for a walk, you have to sign out, say which vehicle you are taking (if driving) and what time you expect to be back. At least one member of your party has to take a radio and spare battery, and you have to call in to the comms team at regular intervals with updates. We signed out from 11 to 12.30pm, but were out longer than planned as there was so much to see, so we called back and asked comms to extend our return time to 2pm. We also asked if they could arrange to put aside two lunches for us and lovely Ruby (who was on our Cape Evans trip yesterday) sorted that for us too.
There was more to come – I haven’t even got to the fossils yet! The day wasn’t over!
Christmas at McMurdo
Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo


Monday 5 December 2016

Day Five: Monday 5 December

Unexpected treats (but everything down here is a treat)

Today our programme got rejigged slightly and suddenly a trip to Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans was on offer. How could anyone refuse that?
There are three huts that are either very close, or fairly close to Scott Base. Discovery Hut (from Scott’s first expedition) is at Hut Point, right beside the American base at McMurdo. Cape Evans houses the hut from his second Terra Nova expedition, the one from which they launched their attempt on the South Pole, and further away at Cape Royds is Shackleton’s hut from his Nimrod expedition. (Discovery, Terra Nova and Nimrod are the names of their ships.) I could never get the positions of these three huts straight in my mind before, but now I’ve been to one – and might see another tomorrow – it all makes more sense.
Departure time was set for 8am, we got away by 8.15, packing the survival kits on the roof of the Hagglund in case it went through the ice, so they would float. (Comforting thought.)
Mark drove us out from Scott Base, and across the sea ice in front of McMurdo, then just kept going in a straight line across the ice for about an hour and a half –
But we did stop to have a look at these amazing icebergs frozen into the ice, near the islands we saw from the top of Castle Rock. The icicles were melting and we could hear the tinkling of water, the only sound in that vast landscape apart from the odd screeching skua overhead.
The hut at Cape Evans is right on the water’s edge, or where the water would be if the sea ice melted, which means you have to watch out for tide cracks and make sure you don’t fall into one.
I’ve read so much about these huts and expeditions – books and diaries written by the men themselves – that I knew it would be an amazing experience to go there, but everyone finds it amazing, no matter how much you know (or don’t know) about the early polar explorers. For a start, it’s astonishing to think that they brought everything they needed with them to build the huts, and then built them, and what they left behind is just a fraction of what they needed for their time on the ice.
And inside, it’s so beautifully restored that history seeps out of every dark corner, and you can close your eyes and imagine it all being used: the kitchen, bunks, tables, jugs and bowls, chairs, scientific equipment, clothes, sealskin shoes, tins of food, piles of skis leaning against the wall…
I especially love the tins and cans of food and other kitchen equipment -

And the way that all the bunks differ because the men built their own ones, some better than others.
And other random stuff...
Seal blubber!

A box of penguin eggs!
After we’d dragged ourselves away, we drove a little way further to see the Barnes glacier spilling off the slopes of Mt Erebus –
And on the way home, we saw one Adelie penguin - the first one we've seen (because they need to live near the edge of the sea ice) that caught sight of us too and scurried away.


Saturday 3 December 2016

Still Day Four: Sunday 4 December

Castle Rock

Today Richie, one of the field safety guys, offered to take a group of us out to Castle Rock - a half hour drive in a Hagglund, then a scramble up the side of a big rock. Does that sound easy? Well, it wasn't!

I've left out the whole bit about getting ready - although I'm much better at that now. I know where to collect a day pack and snacks from, what sort of clothes I might need, and what else to put in my pack, and I remembered to sign out without having to traipse all the way back and do that, and I gave myself enough time so I didn't get completely hot and bothered pulling on all the jackets and boots, and I don't feel quite so overwhelmed when stepping outside into the cold.

I've also left out the bit about slipping over on the ice, and figuring out how to use the cows tails (I think that was what Richie called them? like carabiners) to haul myself up the rock face, and  not getting freaked out by Richie's descriptions of what would happen if you got too close to the edge.

But once at the top, it was pretty amazing, with views from Mt Erebus smoking away to the peninsulas of Cape Royds and Cape Evans (both sites of historic huts) sitting behind Razorback Island, and glaciers spilling into the sea ice, and away across the other side, the mountains and glaciers of the Dry Valleys, and bits of McMurdo and Scott Base down below, just visible behind Hut Point. We stood up on top for a while and then ducked down into a less windy spot and had a cup of tea and biscuits while still admiring the view.

I've also left out the bit about scrambling down again, which was just as challenging as climbing up,.

A few of our group set off to walk back, but I felt like I'd had enough adventure for the day by then, and anyway we had another science team lined up to talk to - a group of four guys from Wellington who've been working on rare atoms and cosmic rays, which sounded pretty enticing.

Scott Base is a long way from anywhere, but there's a lot to do, both indoors and out. People have been on walks for their day off, watched movies, visited McMurdo, or joined in supporting the NZ teams in the man hauling competition, with teams of four pulling one other team member on a sled from McMurdo to Scott Base. (Sadly the Americans won this time... )

After dinner, the science team we'd talked to gave a general talk about their work in the bar, but Guy and I missed it because we were on dishwashing rota in the kitchen, which involved a whole pile of dirty pots and pans (but it was a very delicious dinner) as well as sweeping and mopping the floor. Dessert was provided by My Crew Rules! (Part of an ongoing competition between the different groups at base) and their entertainment also included a "surprise mystery speaker" who turned out to be Richie, talking about leading a group on a 75-day climbing expedition up Everest back in May. Castle Rock is tiny in comparison, but it was big enough for me!