Sunday, November 28, 2010

Camp Life

The first few days at camp have been flat out as we (the Antarctic Heritage Trust team) set up our base camp for the next month. The first day was spent organising resources into accessible locations as well as setting up tents and the wannigan (shipping like containers used for cooking and as a dining/storage room, interestingly the wannigans we are using once served as the old hydroponics room at Scott base for growing veggies). By day two everything at base had come together nicely and since then the field camp has really started to feel like home.

Under the lead of Al Fastier, everyone was at work on their various tasks in and around Shackleton's Nimrod hut, come day two of our stay. Al, J.T and I are responsible for digging a ditch around the immediate perimeter of the hut, as well as excavating ice from under the hut. Other members of the team will be conserving and repopulating artefacts from in and around the hut, installing a polycarbonate dam as well as putting up batten on the weathered cladding surrounding the hut.

As I had discovered trying to put down my tent pegs, scoria (a black rock found all over Antarctica) can be extremely hard to penetrate. Our trench target is 600mm depth from ground level. To achieve this depth we have been equipped with two jackhammers, a small drill hammer and a couple of spades. Taking care not to make contact with the hut, it has been a hard week digging, however in three and a half days we have completed trenching the South and East walls of the hut ahead of schedule! As Al tells us, "you eat an elephant one mouthful at a time".

Typically we start work every day with a briefing at 7:30am and finish at 7:00pm, with two 40 minute tea breaks in between. On Sundays we get half a day off to do as we please, and this week most of the team went for a walk through a gully and then back up the coast. We came across spectacular ice formations on a frozen lake we crossed, stunning views of the sea in the distance as pack ice continues to float away in the ongoing sunny calm weather, and penguins doing their thing. Outside of work, spare time has been filled with some entertaining dinner table conversation. Everyone at camp has a great sense of humour, making for endless laughs during and after meal times.

Our second night at base was magical. After dinner we walked across to the boundary of the nearby penguin colony by the sea. In the distance we spotted a group of emperor penguins making their way towards us over the sea ice. After over an hour they came to within 100m of us, constantly trumpeting and calling to each other. The combination of brilliant scenery, great weather and penguins made for a very memorable moment, one I will never forget!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Historic Huts - Cape Royds, aka Home!

The trip to Royds was bliss. On the way we stopped close by the Barne Glacier for photos of the spectacular blues and I jumped on the quad bike for the remaining 45 minutes to Royds. That journey in itself was a highlight as I cruised across the sea-ice, all layered up for protection from the wind.
On arrival we were greeted by a curious Adelie penguin who showed off his speed and came within a couple of metres of us. Next I went to the Nimrod hut, with the intention of spending ten minutes to myself to take in the detail of a polar explorer's life over 100 years ago. The hut itself is situated opposite the fastest growing Adelie penguin colony in the world. Either side of the ridge shadowing the hut is the sea, covered in ice with spectacular snow covered mountain ranges and glaciers off in the distance.
Shackleton's hut is filled with light and is a very warming place. The open plan living as well as the smaller size made it feel like a perfectly preserved back country New Zealand hut. An affectionate place where I would happily eat at the table and bunk down in the preserved fur blankets for the night. I remembered Lady Hillary telling me of how Sir Ed had seen the ghost of Shackleton come out to greet him, and couldn't help but feel a comforting spirit surround me in the hut.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Historic Huts

This morning I enjoyed my last proper shower and shave for roughly four weeks, today I head out to Camp Evans, then Cape Royds the following day. It is at Royds where I will be working with the Antarctic Heritage Trust on conserving Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod hut, in particular installing a deflection dam around the hut and excavating unwanted ice from beneath the hut.

The road from Scott Base to both Evans and Royds is over sea ice, taking roughly three hours in total. Having spent the early part of the day unwrapping artefacts (transported to the Scott Base hangar for conserving over winter) I got set to take off for Evans. On arrival, we got straight into work with no time for sightseeing. The objective at Evans was to pack up gear that will be needed at Cape Royds for the following week. Simple as this seems, it was a slow and tireless process. The combination of careful thinking and physical activities dragged the packing at Evans from 2pm - 11:30pm. It was at this time I was given the opportunity to step inside Scott's Terra Nova hut and take some time for myself.

The site of the hut is brilliant. The Barne Glacier sits to one side and Mt Erebus to the other. I entered the hut not quite sure what to think. Having read Scott's diary from his last expedition and heard a lot about the hut from others, in the end I am uncertain of the overall impression I came away with. Firstly, the size and smell of the hut came to me, with the interior stained in the scent of soot and blubber. Every detail of the hut is genuine and builds on the atmosphere of the century old building. As I walked down the dining table I passed the cook's mess still surrounded in boxes and foodstuffs, I stared down towards Herbert Ponting's photography dark room and then Scott's separate sleeping quarters. As a Navy man he was a firm believer in rank and therefore gave himself a private bedroom, whilst his colleagues slept in bunks in the dining hall!

Aside from the historic stuffed emperor penguin laying in the study, the hut seemed a dark and distant place, overshadowed by the ultimate fate of Scott and his party of four others who perished on their return from the pole, having been defeated by the Norwegian, Amundsen, some 35 days earlier. However, thinking of the highs and lows over their years in the hut it is definitely an astonishing place!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

AFT (Antarctic Field Training)

The past two days on the ice I have been completing my Antarctic Field training (AFT). This course is compulsory for all newbie’s on the ice with more seasoned Antarctic goers required to do a refresher course. The field training was very much safety and survival oriented. It was present to us in such a way that we were encouraged to work in teams (as we will be doing in the field). The aim of each activity was to make us aware of the dangers involved in the field so that we could make a risk assessment of our immediate environments based on our own personal judgment.
The morning kicked off with a couple of hours of conceptual do’s and don’ts with our instructor Gideon. These included the meanings of different coloured flags (used to mark safe routes and show danger), how to prime and light a primus, decision making, the restrictions on approaching wildlife, and the importance of scheduled and constant radio communications with Scott Base just to name a few. Following lunch we had went through a scenario where the hagglund was sinking in cracked sea ice. Here we were required to evacuate the vehicle through the roof hatch safely. It was great to get out on the sea-ice for the first real time and begin to learn firsthand hands on. By the end of the summer the majority of sea ice here will have melted making it unsafe to drive on, and then eventually ice sheet covered water. In the afternoon once again we boarded the hagglung, this time with our sleeping kits, cooking gear, food and personal gear we deem necessary to take with us for an overnight stay.

We headed out from Scott Base to AFT camp, about a 20minute drive away towards Castle Rock (given its name by the early explorers due to its shape). Here we set up camp for the night with Mt Erebus and Mt Terror in the not so far off distance. There were five others in my AFT group and amongst us we set up three field tents, made a snow kitchen (with a barrier to protect us from the wind) and two snow cave shelters!

Dehydration is one of the biggest issues in Antarctica with it being so dry. Therefore main priority of setting up camp was to get the kitchen set up so we could start melting ice for water. All the while Gideon watched over our progress often offering advice and communicating with me as nominated team leader. As the evening progressed everyone happily ate there dehydrated meals and enjoyed varied hot drinks. The carpenters in the team (Randy and Jam) showed off their ability by making a couple of sculptures, including arch/doorways and icemen. All of these cut from the ice using a mix of saws and shovels.
At about ten I settled into my snow cave for bed (I chose this over a tent, it’s not often you get to sleep out in the Antarctic snow!). A reasonably comfortable nights’ sleep was had with temperature not an issue at all. The team demobilized camp by 8.30 ready for pick up. We carried out another scenario ‘finding a team member who is missing in a whiteout’. Once again we operated as a team to find our missing teammate. With unrestricted visibility and only a light wind we had to simulate the white out with beanies over eyes, no vision, no talking.
The next outdoor session was not until after the famous Scott Base Sunday brunch. As Sunday is usually a ‘day off’ for most of the staff a traditional cooked breakfast is put on with waffles to boot. Although the food at the base is great quality anyway (especially the bread) the merits of a cooked breakfast can never be overlooked.

The final part of the course was probably the most enjoyable. We visited ‘Mac Town’ AKA the American base, McMurdo station. Here we learnt about sea cracks and the training began to feel more like sight-seeing. We went to Discovery hut and the dive hole. The dive hole was amazing. We saw four divers gearing up to head under the 2-3meter thick ice in the name of scientific research. Very cool! Lastly we went to the pressure ridges out the front of Scott Base. These ridges are pushed up through the sea ice and form a huge line a few kilometers long. Amongst the ridges of broken up ice are many tide cracks both big and small. Some of the cracks go right through to the sea and are more than capable of trapping a person part or all of the way down. The trouble is that the cracks are covered in drift snow and move tens of centimeters a day. This makes them well hidden and impossible to mark. The bright blues of some of the ice is an incredible sight.

An extract from Scott's last expedition diary sums up my brief time in Antarctica so far, "Such weather in such a place comes nearer to satisfying my ideal of perfection than any condition that I have ever experienced. The warm glow of the sunwith the keen invigorating cold of the air forms a combination which is in expressibly health-givingand satisfying to me...No words of mine can convey the impressiveness of the wonderful panorama displayed to our eyes"

To be walking around this land is an amazing experience. I am forever reminded how lucky I am to be here.

Dream Come True

I was up before six this morning for a final check of my gear that I organised and packed last night. I also dressed in my Antarctic issue cold weather gear that I was required to wear and carry with me for landing. Wide awake brimming with excitement I checked my bags in return for a boarding pass, at the American base departure lounge.
After a little breakfast we were briefed for our flight via an American safety video that highlighted the dangers of the Antarctic such as fire (due to it being the driest continent on earth, almost drier than the Sahara desert!) cold and workplace safety. Just before 9:00am we had left the runway, destination Antarctica. The plane that carried us was not the usual Air force Hercules or similar that you would expect, but extremely similar to a commercial airplane. Two hours into the journey the occasional small iceberg could be spotted beneath the thick cloud. By 12.30 we were flying over large broken up sheets of sea-ice, with the cracks becoming less and less. Such a view was quite amazing and stirred many emotions mainly of elation, awe and disbelief that this was actually happening. It is only now that I am beginning to realise my lifelong dream to follow the footsteps south of the early explorers, Hillary and Peter Blake. As the skies cleared to perfect visibility I couldn’t help but smile.

Parts of the sea ice were huge as well as appearing quite thick. This only makes my respect for those who sailed to the continent grow. Navigating the frozen water (especially in early times or small boats like the ‘Seamaster’ used in Blake Expeditions) would have taken plenty of skill and courage as the sheet ice changed formations and at times began to close up.
As we landed on the ice runway outside McMurdo Station (the American base) we were ushered onto busses with Mt Erebus dominating the distant landscape. At only -1 degrees Celsius with very little wind conditions were perfect, if not a little hot considering the down jacket I was wearing. As we drove through McMurdo I constantly looked for landmarks like Discover hut and observation hill that I have seen photos of and hope to visit. As we were driven over the hill the humble yet homely Scott Base came into view.

We were met by David, the internal manager at Scott base who gave us the grand tour of the base after we had changed into some more casual clothing. David is a navy man but came across with a really nice vibe whilst making sure everything was explained and he met a set time schedule. Almost like a boarding master of Scott base which feels like a big hostel. Everyone is here for a different reason be it Scientific, Conservation or other but everyone cleans up after themselves and pitches in with work where they can.

I am now settling into the base having had a nice roast pork dinner with an extravagant chocolate mousse/ tart creation for dessert. Sitting in the lounge staring out at the ice is just amazing. It is now 9:30pm and the sun seems brighter than ever (the summer months in Antarctica sunlight is 24/7, it is the opposite in winter). It has been a long day I am now off to me allocated ‘bob the builder’ bed sheets to get some shut eye.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brushing up on History

Today started off with a trip around the Christchurch Antarctic Centre. Highlights included watching feeding time for the resident blue penguins, the storm room where I experienced a simulated Antarctic storm and brushing up on Antarctic facts, with the many displays and videos on show. The centre does a great job of promoting awareness of the continent and the importance of continuous scientific research being carried out there.

Following lunch the other members of the AHT team and I headed into town to visit 'The Heart of The Great Alone' photo exhibition. This displayed the works of Herbert Ponting (the photographer for Scotts 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition) alongside photographs taken on Shackletons 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition. These photographs tell an amazing tale of life in the heroic age and put a face to the names I have read about in numerous books. The clothing was basic compared to today’s standards as was the accommodation and means of transport. One thing that remains consistent though is the magnificence of the landscape and appreciation of amazing natural beauty. Some artefacts accompanied the exhibition. Including the Union Jack presented to Scott by Queen Alexandra, and subsequently planted at the pole some 35 days after Amundsen and the Norwegian party beat him to it. The flag was in amazing condition (no doubt owing to a dedicated conservation team) considering its age and rich history.

The Museum was our next stop. Here the curator of Antarctic and Canterbury social history Natalie Cadenhead gave us a behind the scenes look at some of the Antarctic artefacts up close. This included some of the Terra Nova party’s skis, cutlery, dog shoes (that were not very effective) as well as the very first Antarctic Polar Medal ever awarded (which was given to captain Scott). Much of the artifacts are being conserved so that they can soon go on display.

This was a great opportunity to get thinking about the work to be done on the ice. I am now well and truly ready to hit the ice and make this dream a reality. Fingers crossed this time tomorrow I will be pinching myself at New Zealand’s Scott base!

Gearing to Go

An early rise this morning to make my flight down to Christchurch, where I was to undergo the final steps of preparation, before departing to “the ice”. Upon arrival I was met by AHT (Antarctic Heritage Trust) administrator Karen Clarke with the news that our flight south had been bumped back a day to the twelfth, due to a backlog in cargo needing to be delivered to Scott Base. Although slightly disappointing it is not a huge setback in the scheme of things.

My adventure down on the ice will last approximately five weeks as I work alongside the AHT on conservation and repairs of Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ hut at Cape Royds (about a two hour hagglund drive over temporary sea-ice from Scott Base on the Ross Island). Being so far away from any established base I will be enjoying the authentic Antarctic experience of staying a short distance from the hut in a tent similar those used by the explorers of the heroic-age of Antarctic exploration. The AHT team being deployed this summer consists of eight others all of whom are highly experienced and knowledgeable in their specialised professions, from carpentry project managers to artifact conservers and furniture specialists. Their backgrounds are varied with a mixture of Kiwis, British and Canadians on the team. So far, of the team of ten I have met Martin, Jamie (Jam), Randy and the project manager and twelve season Antarctic veteran Al Fastier. All of these men will stay on the icy continent for the duration of the New Zealand summer, later working on Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ hut, with Martin and a few others “Wintering Over” at Scott Base.

The next port of call in Christchurch was The Antarctica New Zealand store room where we were fitted out with all the cold weather gear needed. A good amount of time was spent ensuring the clothing was a proper fit, a must in such harsh conditions! This included three jackets, eleven pairs of gloves (on top of the two pairs I brought with me) thermals, hats, polar-fleece layers, insulated overalls, tough waterproof trousers, merino tops, glasses, a “bunny suit” and two pairs of tough outdoor boots. All of this gear is designed to give different options of layering for different weather situations. Apparently the gear is good enough to stand up to -50 degrees C (any colder and you wouldn’t be outside), pretty amazing stuff!

Following the fit out Paul Woodgate gave us our departure briefing along with a quick lesson on the geography of Scott Base. A lunch at the Antarctic visitor centre followed, giving a break in the day’s events. This afternoon Al made a presentation to the AHT team at hand, outlining the work to be done this summer at Cape Royds and Cape Evans. To supplement this information he went into some detail as to the work the AHT has completed in previous seasons at the historic huts. It is truly amazing to see the progress of the AHT’s work since it was established in 1987. The passion, drive, forward thinking and sheer determination behind the Trusts efforts really ring true when you see evidence of the work done through rigorous processes and strict timelines. With all four historic huts in Antarctica being listed on the 100 most endangered sites on earth list in 2008 the importance of this work is plain to see. It is an
honour to be a part of such an exciting project on behalf of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, as the Antarctic Youth Ambassador.