POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA

ARRIVAL

You will have to forgive me having taken so long to actually start writing this blog in earnest but summer is short in the Antarctic and as a result the working season tends to be pretty hectic. Even now, as I sit in my pit room writing this blog there are twin otters landing and taking off just outside my window, accompanied by the slightly angry, irritating siren that warns of impending planes. Yet things have quietened down a little – the Christmas and New Year festivities are out of the way, the ships have been and gone, the “Sir David Attenborough” leaving behind staff and cargo while the “Bona Fide” dropped tons of food, drinks and building materials. As for the “Discovery” the building has begun to rise from the ground as the steelworkers move on to the assembly phase of that huge piece of Meccano. When we arrived, about six weeks ago, the huge yellow crane was buried in ice and the building site was no more than a mound of snow marked by fluttering flags. Now most of the snow is gone, on camp at least, giving way to a coarse, dusty scree that sadly lacks the pristine beauty of the ice.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, we are the 4th December and our plane has just taken off from Camp Pleasant in the Falklands. For those among you who are not familiar with the British Antarctic Survey let me give you a little bit of background in order to better understand how things work down here. First and foremost this organisation has an uncommon fondness for acronyms and old navy slang, which, for the uninitiated, can lead to impenetrable statements such as “with the help of a couple of SGAs we’ll unload the BOL off the SDA and take it to OBH after SMOKO”. I have therefore compiled a short and by no means extensive list of the most commonly used terms and acronyms, make sure you memorise them all as there will be a little test at the end.

BAS – The British Antarctic Survey

The SDA – The Sir David Attenborough, BAS’s brand new ship

Dash 7 – Small plane that BAS uses mainly to ferry goods and people from the Falklands to Rothera

Twin Otter – Even smaller plane that carries people, goods and fuel all over Antarctica

Smoko – Something approaching a full English breakfast served at 10am Monday to Saturday

Bond – The booze cargo – fun to drink, not so much fun to unload.

Skidoo – A motorbike on tracks to drive on snow and ice

Gash – Cleaning duty taken in turn by everyone on base. (Naval term for Galley And Scullery Hand)

Reefer – A freezer. This is perhaps counter-intuitive but an Antarctic base needs rather a lot of freezers

Baffins or Baffin boots or Mukluks – Heavily insulated boots that will keep your toes toasty down to -40c

Sitrep – Short for “Situation Report” – Weekly briefing held in the dining room

Caboose – A small hut, not unlike a bothy

Right, there are many more but these are the main ones. So there we were, nine of us plus a pilot, his co-pilot and a plane engineer all aboard the Dash 7 on the last leg of a rather long journey made even longer still by assorted Covid measures . BAS owns and operates its own planes: one Dash 7 and four Twin Otters, they are all painted a brilliant red which looks absolutely fantastic in the limpid Antarctic sky against a background of icy mountain ranges and sprawling iceshelves. A five to six hours flight should see us there , weather allowing. The weather can and does change dramatically in the Antarctic, Rothera may well be bathed in sunshine when you leave Stanley only to become far too dangerous to land a few hours later; which is why all planes flying to or in the Antarctic calculate their POSR (Point of Safe Return – told you they loved acronyms) before they take to the air. It is the point at which the plane has still got exactly half its supply of fuel left. At that stage the pilot can take the decision to turn round if the destination runway has become unsafe, the corollary being that if he chooses to plough on he is now committed and will have to land come what may since he will not have enough fuel to turn round later or reach another airport (Oh! and there are no other airports for well over a thousand miles either). Fortunately for us the weather holds and five hours later the first icebergs begin to drift on the ocean beneath, lonely bits of blueish ice at first, soon thickening to end up crowding the sea like gleaming puzzle pieces randomly scattered at the surface of the ocean. Craggy peaks appear on the horizon, wreathed in mist, like some frozen Valhalla where one assumes fierce Viking Gods must dwell drinking hydromel and telling sagas while worrying about Ragnarok. The vision is exhilarating in its scale, its oniric quality. The brooding summits draw the eye away from the sea, towards the heart of the Antarctic continent which they seem to guard, mute gatekeepers whose mere presence suffices to inspire awe and warn travellers that this is no ordinary place. Enter at your peril the wind seems to whisper, and yet the etheral beauty of those hills belies the threat. Antarctica, on a sunny summer’s day, looks benign.

And it is sunny as we approach Rothera, the base is situated on Adelaide Island, a small Island to the West of the Antarctic peninsula, it sits on a rocky promontry at the Southern tip of the island. Adelaide is 140km long, covered in mountains and glaciers, the highest peak being 2565m high. It is 1860km away from the Falklands and 1630km away from Punta Arenas in Chile; no one is going to leave in a hurry. Running down the whole lenght of the camp actually splitting it in half a crushed rock runway that looks nowhere long enough for a plane to land draws an incongruous straight line across the ice. There has been a lot of snow lately, as a result the base is still cloaked in white. As we begin our approach the buildings come into view, looming larger as we descend: Old Bransfield House and the Tower, New Bransfield House, the Wharf and with the slightest touch we land in Rothera.

Un chef pas manchot

Aterrissage

En preambule veuillez bien me pardonner d’avoir mis aussi longtemps a lancer ce blog pour de bon; la belle saison est courte en Antarctique ce qui fait que les journees ont tendance a etre longues et chargees. Enfin, fi d’excuses! Me voici visse a mon laptop, pret a partager avec vous la suite de ce voyage vers le pole. Cependant, avant de vous propulser dans le vif du sujet je tiens a eclaircir quelque peu le jargon polaire en vigueur sous ces latitudes. Ceci afin d’eviter que des phrases telles que: “Prends donc 2 SGA pour decharger le BOL du SDA apres SMOKO” ne paraissent quelque peu obscures. Il s’agit d’un amalgame d’argot de marine militaire et d’un nombre stupefiant d’acronymes de tous acabits. Voici les plus courants:

BAS – Le British Antarctic Survey – La mission polaire scientifique Britannique

SDA – Le Sir David Attenborough – Le tout nouveau navire de BAS, nomme en l’honneur du celebre realisateur de programmes d’histoire naturelle de la BBC et probablement l’homme le plus populaire de tout le Royaume Uni.

Dash 7 – Un petit avion pouvant transporter environ 16 personnes que BAS utilise pour faire la navette entre les iles Malouines et Rothera

Twin Otter – Encore plus petit avion qui achemine personnel, equipement, vivres et carburant sur tout le continent grace a sa capacite d’atterrir n’importe ou – veritable taxi de l’antarctique

Smoko – argot de marine; en gros un petit dejeuner Anglais (bacon, oeufs, saucisses etc.) servi a dix heures tout les matins, donc repas numero deux de la journee, pris en sandwich entre le petit dejeuner et le dejeuner. (Il y a cinq repas par jours)

Bond – Le ravitaillement de boissons alcoolisees achemine par bateau – Se mesure en tonnes.

Skidoo – Une moto equipee de chenilles afin de pouvoir rouler sur la glace et sur la neige

GASH – La corvee de plonge a laquelle tout le monde doit contribuer – pas d’exceptions

Reefer– Un congelateur. Il est surprenant de constater que le congelateur est un des instruments essentiels de la conquete polaire

Baffin ou Mukluks – Grosses bottes de ski qui permettent de garder vos petons bien au chaud jusqu’a -40c

Sitrep – Abbreviation de Situation Report. Reunion hebdomadaire qui se tient le Lundi dans la cantine.

Caboose – L’equivalent d’un refuge de montagne en nettement moins pittoresque puisqu’il s’agit generalement d’un container en metal.

Voila, il y en a d’autres mais ceci devrait suffire pour debuter. Une des particularites de BAS est que la compagnie possede sa propre flotte aerienne qui consiste d’un Dash 7 et de quatre Twin Otters. Tous ces avions sont peints d’un rouge vermillon etincelant qui se detache de facon spectaculaire sur fond de banquise immaculee ou de montagnes resplendissantes. Le Dash 7 peut transporter jusqu’a 16 passagers, c’est un avion extremement fiable qui est capable d’atterrir ou de decoller sur des pistes tres courtes – comme par exemple a Rothera ou a Sky Blue (une toute petite base plus en profondeur dans le continent Antarctique). Il fait principalement l’aller-retour entre les Malouines et Rothera, acheminant personnel et cargo – selon les besoins. Aujourd’hui, 4 Decembre, il nous attend sur la piste de l’aeroport militaire de Stanley. Le vol devrait prendre environ cinq heures (pour couvrir 1860km – le Dash 7 est fiable mais ce n’est pas un supersonique), une particularite des vols sur l’ Antarctique consiste a devoir imperativement calculer son POSR (point de retour en securite). Il s’agit du point auquel vous possedez encore exactement la moitie de votre plein de carburant, a ce moment le pilote peut prendre la decision soit de rebrousser chemin si les conditions sur la piste d’arrivee se sont par trop deteriorees (ce qui arrive aussi souvent que subitement en Antarctique) soit de continuer sa route. S’il choisi de continuer le pilote sera force d’atterrir quelles que soient les conditions puisqu’il ne possedera plus assez de fuel pour rebrousser chemin ou pour gagner un autre aeroport (Etant donne que l’aeroport le plus proche se trouve a plus de 1600km!) Heureusement pour nous le beau temps par lequel nous avons decolle se maintient tout du long et au bout de cinq heures les premiers icebergs apparaissent sur l’ocean, eclats bleutes a la derive sur la houle grise. Ils sont bientot suivi par des blocs de glace plus imposants, ces icebergs tabulaires, plats et rectangulaires, sont des restes eparses de banquise charries par les courants, c’est de l’eau de mer congelee, par opposition aux icebergs d’eau douce que le continent degorge chaque ete. Ceux-la sont souvent de hauteur et de forme impressionantes, surtout quand les vents marins les ont sculptes pour leur donner l’aspect de larges meringues baroques. Apres les icebergs les montagnes pointent a l’horizon, chaine apres chaine, tel un Valhalla gelee ou l’on imagine des Dieux vikings heroiquement barbus buvant de l’hydromel et se racontant des sagas tout en se faisant du souci pour Ragnarok. Puis les nuages s’ecartent et la station apparait, minuscule eperon rocheux a la botte de l’ile d’Adelaide, barree d’une piste d’aterrissage qui parait beaucoup trop courte, meme pour un avion aussi petit que le notre. La base, encore couverte de glace et de neige, grandit au fur et a mesure que nous perdons de l’altitude, puis, avec le plus leger contact, l’avion se pose et nous sommes enfin arrive en Antarctique.

3 responses to “POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA”

  1. Stephane+Servin avatar
    Stephane+Servin

    Bon courage avec la preparation pour l’hiver. Merci pour partager a nouveau cette aventure.
    Happy cooking

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful place! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Watch for the gash πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

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