The last couple of weeks were really hectic here at Halley, with the ships first call and the following relief operation, the start of handovers and some more flying!
RRS Ernest Shackleton’s first call
We had our Christmas celebrations a bit earlier this year (Christmas is a bit of a fluid date at Halley, as it typically coincides with relief), on the 20th of December. I actually missed the Christmas dinner, as during that time I was still doing my week of Night Watch and therefore was asleep during the day.
The Shack was scheduled to arrive on 23 December, however they got stuck in the sea ice on the other side of the Stancomb-Wills Ice Shelf for almost a full week. They were so close and yet so far – the ice stopped them in their tracks about 200 nautical miles away from Halley, and they took most of the week to cover a distance of around 100 miles until they got to an open lead. The ship finally arrived to Creek 3 (our relief site for this year) on 28 December, and the relief operation kicked off.
We had the two John Deere tractors working 24×7 during the relief and we had a team of four drivers with me being one of them. Myself and another driver, Brian, were working during the nights, while the other two drivers, Tom and Robbie, were driving during the day.
There is 24km distance between Halley Station and Creek 3, and it took about 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes to cover that distance when the JD had no or a fairly light load (e.g. a couple of empty sledges), but it took over 2 hours when it was towing heavy stuff (like a bulk fuel tank or four sledges loaded up with drums of fuel).
The relief operation involved every single pair of hands on station. We had a team at the Ship, unloading the ship and loading stuff on sledges. Then there was another team at the Creeks, with the sea ice drivers driving the Pisten Bullys bringing cargo from the ship onto the ice shelf. Each Pisten Bully driver was accompanied by a driver’s mate, who was driving a skidoo next to them, just for safety (the sea ice was measured to be 2.7m thick, but at the same time, it is a dynamic environment and we needed to make sure we cover all eventualities).
At the edge of the Ice Shelf, at Creek 3, we had a team of vehicle mechanics, who were looking after all vehicles at the ship side, and helping with hitching and unhitching of sledges, etc.
The Ice Shelf drivers (myself included) would then take the cargo (3-4 sledges with drum fuel or broken bulk cargo, or containers, or bulk fuel tanks), hitch them up to the John Deere and carry them back to the station. At the station, a team of cargo handlers would then take over the load as it was unhitched from the tractor, and would position it on the cargo line.
Another team of vehicle mechanics, positioned at the station end, would then look after the vehicles there (refuelling, greasing and a quick look over), and then the journey back to the ship with either empty sledges or with waste would begin.
Occasionally, some cargo would have to be unloaded and brought to the modules straight away (e.g. perishable food, etc). In such case, the cargo handlers would bring it over to where it’s stowed for the winter, and everyone would try to help with unloading.
Once the relief was finished, the outgoing Wintering team went to the Shack for a day for lunch and just to spend some time away from the base. I managed to drink a glass or two of real milk for the first time in over a year!
Visitors at Halley
Apart from a number of new people who came to Halley for summer as well as the remainder of the new Wintering Team, we had a few Adelie Penguins visit us as well! Adelies are much smaller than Emperors, but they seem to be a bit more lively and are definitely much much funnier to watch. They are still quite clumsy which might even be exaggerated by the fact that they try to move a little bit quicker. They also seem to be a bit more inquisitive than the Emperors.
I really enjoyed my encounter with them and I hope to see more of them some time in the future. I could literally sit there and watch them for ages!
Just before the relief started, Al and three scientists who came down in the summer went out as Sledge India to the Heimefrontfjella, which is a mountain range in Queen Maud Land, some 220 Nautical Miles to the East from Halley. They were to spend around two weeks over there collecting rock samples, living in tents and exploring the area. After that, they were to move to the Theron Mountains (which are some 200 Nautical Miles to the South West of Halley) for another two to three weeks there.
All this required a number of flights – as there are four people on the team and each of them requires a skidoo, plus they have tents, sledges, fuel, food and all other stuff, it was determined that there would be five input flights required initially just before the relief, then four extraction flights to bring them back to Halley for the night, and then further four flights to move them to the Therons. Finally, when they are finished with their projects, they would return from the Therons to Rothera.
All those flights gave us each an opportunity to go flying! As I was on nights and working as a relief driver for the first flights, I got a chance to go on one of the second series of flights. I went with Andy the pilot and we flew out to Sledge India empty to pick them up and bring them back here.
I got a chance to fly the plane (actually, I flew it pretty much all the way out and all the way back). My task was to maintain the altitude and keep it on its heading and I used the combination of looking out through the windscreen and keeping the horizon level and at a certain distance above the top of the dash board, as well as looking at various instruments (altimeter, variometer, artificial horizon and the GPS). It was a blast!
I also managed to take a few pictures both in and from the plane, as well as after we landed. And it was the first time I actually made it to Antarctica proper (as in the actual continent) – remember that Halley is on top of the floating Ice Shelf, there’s nothing but ocean below us! It was great to see the mountains and the rock after such a long time!
We loaded up the plane quite quickly (we had a number of boxes and crates, a few empty fuel cans, a whole skidoo and a sledge, plus a tent and some bags with clothing and ropes), and we took off again for our journey back home.
The weather did play ball for once, and it was very pleasant – sunshine, blue skies, great visibility (I could see the base from 55 Nautical Miles away!) very little turbulence if any at all… simply perfect!
We finally landed in Halley, refuelled, and I got off the plane to let another person go on their co-pilot flight to take some more stuff out from Heimefrontfjella.
Just another day in the office!