Saturday, December 18, 2010

Leaving Royds

Yesterday I said goodbye to the Nimrod hut and natural beauty of Cape Royds as we packed up camp for the season and moved to Cape Evans for a brief time before Scott base. The weather for the move was once again fine with little winds (A blessing when pulling down tents etc). Amongst the fast paced activity in every direction I managed to take a moment to myself to visit the hut one last time and look back on my time here at Royds, as I will likely never have the opportunity to travel here again. A combination of subtleties like the worn socks hanging from the hut rafters to more prominent features like the penguin rookery close by will be sincerely missed. Royds is a phenomenal place stooped in page turning history and natural beauty.

(moving camp with the assistance of some heavy machinery)

The road to Cape Evans was paved in two displays of magnificent wildlife. First of all driving along in the hagglund a flock of a dozen or so snow petrels flew alongside us darting through the air with the agility of a bat and the attractiveness of a dove. Secondly as we passed the Barne glacier we came across a group of near 50 seals all sunbathing together in the same spot, both good omens according to some of the more superstitious members of our team. Upon arrival at Evans we spent the most part of the afternoon and evening setting up our camp. To celebrate the day’s success we had our dinner outside under the relative warmth of the evening sun.

(eating out under the sun)

Today the weather is unbelievable. The temperature is sitting above 2degrees with no wind. However in direct sunlight it feels a lot hotter, hot enough to wear a singlet for part of the day! We continued to establish camp today for the team to inhabit over the next 6 weeks. At the end of the day (which happens to mark 99 years since the Norwegian Amundsen first attained the South Pole) we are doing some exploring ourselves. We took the quad bike out over the ice to a nearby iceberg that has been stranded. Equipped with crampons and an ice axe I climbed the iceberg and had another unique Antarctic experience. A fresh glacial pool sat at the top with crisp tasting water that accompanied panoramic views of Erebus the Ross island peninsula and other stranded bergs.

(iceberg ahead)

Although my experience cannot compare I can associate with the words of Ernest Shackleton as he departed Cape Royds on the Nimrod, ‘We all turned to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence…but, on the other hand it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…we watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that someday they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus’.

Calm after the storm

As the storm cleared we began our last week of work at Cape Royds before heading back to Cape Evans and eventually Scott base. Since the weekends storm the weather has been tropical with forecasted temperatures going the as high as +4degrees Celsius before accounting for wind-chill. Whilst pleasant for me at the time being and good enough to have lunch outside, I can’t help but think global warming has a part to play in these bizarrely high temperatures.

(fine weather)

This week has been fantastic so far. We completed the digging of the deflection dam and gradient gutter around the hut meaning we can now put away the jackhammers and move onto other tasks. With four days good sunshine some ice has melted around the hut giving us the opportunity to see our gradient gutter successfully in action (so far!). As a part of my work schedule I have also been able to spend a couple of days with Randy (a Canadian carpenter) cutting and assembling metal edging on some contemporary wooden boxes to be stacked around the hut along with some of the historical Venesta boxes.

(contemporary boxes)

We decided to celebrate some milestones in our month long work program the team went sledging before dinner last night. This was following the lead of a penguin that visited camp and slid down a nearby slope on his stomach for fun more than any logical reason. The snow was in perfect condition, not too firm but good to get a decent amount of pace up for a thrill.


To balance the long hours and physical work put in by everyone on the AHT team there is always fun to be had. Whether it is going sledging or for walks to the boarder where the Ross Sea meets the ice there is constantly a fantastic sense of happiness and collective enjoyment of being in each other’s company in one of the most amazing places on earth.

Friday, December 17, 2010

True Colours (Condition One)

Sitting down to dinner at Cape Evans the weather started to turn on its head. Earlier in the day I had made a painstaking two hour journey across from Evans to Royds on the quad bike. J.T and Al were in the haggling tugging six cuba’s (big plastic bins with about 4cubic meters capacity) carrying artefacts that will return to Scott Base for conserving in the winter months, but this meant a maximum speed of 10km/h. All togged up in my cold weather gear it was a cold, slow trip into the prevailing winds. The purpose of our journey was to shift a ‘vortex generator’ (triangular steel objected used to scatter snow drift) to reduce the snow build up around Scott’s hut as well as move some gear before the sea-ice goes out for summer.
The weather cleared enough for us to move the vortex to its new position and head home to Royds. During the trip I met Antarctica New Zealand CEO Lou Sanson who was having a day trip out to visit the hut and field parties in the area, a really nice guy!

(snowy hut)

Unfortunately on arrival back at camp I was met with a tent full of snow. The Scott tents we use have ventilation pipes near the roof to make it safe to use a primus from inside. However with the weather being fine when I left camp for the night I neglected to tie them off resulting in a good amount of drift blowing in and covering my bags and clothes. Luckily a gut feeling had me zip up my bags before I left; meaning the majority of snow was kept away from my possessions! At least my outer tent didn’t rip open as was the case for Al and now the toilet tent.

It is now two days later and we have just finished work early for the day (3pm) as the wind blows around 30knots with a wind chill below -20C. We worked all of yesterday digging around the hut with constant snow and wind holding visibility to about 70m. This made for slow progress. There is however a very satisfying feeling though finishing work for the day and heading back to the warm wannigan for a nice cooked meal.

(in the trenches)

This morning I woke up after a blustery night’s sleep and kitted out for another day in the trenches. We were on landscaping duty in an attempt to slightly alter the gradient of the land to direct any melt water away from Shackleton’s hut. As the day progressed the weather moved to category one (visibility less than 30m due to heavy winds and snow drift). We continued to work for as long as possible out in the snow but eventually succumb to shelter not wanting to lose our way back to the campsite. The cold was not an issue with a number of wind proof layers on coupled with a lot of physical activity.

(working in the snow)

In a way it is great to experience the harsher side of Antarctica as it bears its teeth. Even just standing outside I can see our tents and flag markers disappear in and out of sight. The past two days work is certainly an episode I will not forget any time soon. With the Condition One weather forecasted to remain for at least the next day and a half we will have to wait it out and see.

(Al’s frozen moustache)

Special Guests

It is Wednesday December the first and a somewhat exciting day at camp. The weather is fine yet again for the visit of the Artists. They have been invited to travel to Antarctica as part of an Antarctica New Zealand initiative. Amongst the artists is musician Dave Dobbyn, photographer Laurence Aberhart and Sculptor Joe Sheehan, all extremely talented and nice people. In their trip to Cape Royds they visited the hut, looked at the near-by penguin rookery and had a chat with us. Laurence also took the opportunity to take some long exposure photos within the hut using a century old camera similar to that used by Herbert Ponting and Frank Wild in the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.

red socks handshake with Dave Dobbyn
I also had the opportunity to show off the ‘swingle tree’ I found yesterday whilst excavating the stables. The swingle tree is the first to be found at Cape Royds so far. It is a wooden piece with hemp rope fixed at each end, the swingle tree was positioned behind the ponies when they dragged sleds and stopped the rope from rubbing the on pony’s hind quarters. The attached wooden toggle to the rope also seemed to have some dog chew marks in it, a nice piece of character added to the object.To make this find even more special Lizzie (Head Conservator) found a picture of it in use last night in a book on the Nimrod expedition.

swingle tree
In addition to the visit from the artists Lizzie and Al also gave us a first class tour of the hut. It was great to be talked through all the little details of the hut. Little things that you wouldn’t normally pick up on were highlighted making the building come to life with character. Stories of Shackleton’s leadership and seeing his signature etched on the wall along with Mawson’s lab (complete with a slide door to access under the building) were stand out in the details pointed out to us.

Shackleton’s signature on the head board on one of the bunks
Overall a busy, yet exciting past few days with nice weather and some esteemed company.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ice Excavation

Having spent the best part of a week attached to the other end of a jackhammer or similar tool, I am moving jobs. Shackleton's hut was elavated about 300-450mm from the ground using piles. Over the years with the gradual weathering of the hut there has been a mass of ice accumulation underneath the floor. Although the mass of ice is not as bad as it once was (due to some intervention by the AHT in 2007, where they famously discovered Shackleton's hidden whiskey stash) there is still an estimated 12 cubic meters of ice still needing removal.

Kitted out in thermals, a bunny suit and waders I got to work with J.T and AI. As you can imagine, with very little crawl space breaking off and removing the ice is a big team effort. Breaking the ice away was awkward as well as quite exhausting at times, especially pushing the ice out, often on our stomachs pushing it with our hands. However there have been some exciting moments under the hut. In our excavation of the ice we came across a number of artefacts, perhaps for the first time in over a century (I put this down to wearing our lucky red socks from the Sir Peter Blake Trust). Amongst these artefacts was an axe with label in-tact, some rusted up tins and what appears to be some old custard powder. Quite interesting stuff, particularly now they have thawed out in the sun and the conservation team is restoring some of the items, from what appears in some cases to be utter disrepair.

All the while as I work away around and under the hut there have been some interesting happenings outside the hut. Some of the AHT team has been extracting old boxes from the stables area. A difficult job as wind-blown scoria over the years has deteriorated the boxes as well as burying them below ground level. It does however make for interesting finds, including a jug and leather horse strapping.

One thing that stands out working for the AHT is the value of good preparation and a great team environment. The individual skill of every team member along with an open minded approach makes for an incredibly efficient and effective machine, one which I am learning plenty from.

Outside of work hours we have taken to going for group walks. Today the weather was as close to tropical as Antarctica has to offer. We walked along the coast to Horseshoe Bay (with Cape Bird off in the distance). It was intriguing to find a few patches of lichen growing in a few places. Any fauna in a place as inhospitable as Antarctica must be incredibly robust to survive! Not long after that we found a family of seals relaxing on the ice-pack. Amongst these was a noisy pup that kept crying out and playing with its mother (penguins were all sure to stay clear as they navigated the pack-ice for the sea). The views were breathtaking in every direction. I still find it hard to believe how lucky I am to experience this magnificent landscape, but also how important it is that we continue to protect it.