Halley VI, Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica 75°36'36"S 26°16'14"W
Wind Speed: 14.8 kts E
The scenery around Halley, whilst breathtaking, is sometimes just a little bit too white and featureless. On the days where the visibility is high enough, and the mirage of the horizon is quite pronounced the steep rise of the continental ice stream is visible and breaks up the monotony of endless flat white.
However, I managed to have the opportunity to fly out on one of the Twin Otter aircraft, VP-FBC, or Bravo Charlie as it is referred to for obvious reasons. This was incredibly exciting for many reasons, not least getting to see the continent properly as well as the chance to see something other than just an expanse of flat white.
The flying schedule is exceptionally volatile and is subject to change minutes before a planned departure into the field. Sometimes flights to one location are cancelled in favour of another, often changing the crew travelling to the site, and often with less than a day's notice.
On my planned day of departure I had ensured that I had all the kit I required in order to go out into the field, as co-pilot it is the person's own responsibility to check that their P-Bag is present on the plane, or that there is a co-pilot one already onboard. Each P-Bag contains an 8000m sleeping bag, urine bottle, Therma-rest mattress and a sheepskin - for mine I threw in my 8000m jacket as well, along with making sure I packed some food for the journey down, my camera, toothbrush and a few other extra cold weather items of kit and spares.
Due to the nature of the uncertainty surrounding the weather, a simple day trip could extend a number of weeks, so it is crucial to ensure that you are packed expecting to stay longer than you do. The aircraft also accounts for this, carrying a mountain tent, stoves, Tilly lamps for heat and man-food for two people for a few weeks - more is added if the aircraft is carrying more crew.
The reason we sleep in tents if we require an overnight stay rather than the aircraft itself is simply due to the fact it is much easier to heat a small tent than a large metal box, which when not heated, quickly gets cold and requires a much larger input of heat to maintain any given temperature.
When we left Halley, the skiway was looking exceptionally busy with another of our Twin Otters, Bravo Bravo, and the German Baslar aircraft (which are modified DC-3's with turboprop engines rather than the original piston ones) Polar-1. Halley was truly starting to look like an international airport - we have a rather tongue-in-cheek sign outside one of the skiway cabooses with "Welcome to Halley International" written on it.
Before I left the UK, I challenged myself to try and stand on the Antarctic continent proper - I even made up rather unusual rules, an island doesn't count, nor does the Peninsula, both of which rule out Rothera, it needs to be on solid land, which also rules out Halley, so the only way to achieve this would be a flight into the field, or to a neighbouring base over land.
The purpose of today's flight was to service some equipment and to install some new GPS tracking devices to monitor the ice flow at a site named Eagle near the Shackleton range.
Initially our flight provided us with excellent weather allowing us to see the sea, which had finally won the battle with the cold and broken up all of the sea ice, leaving vast swathes of open water as far as the eye could see. It was an incredibly beautiful sight which unfortunately I was unable to capture due to me being too busy doing other things to get my camera out - sometimes its nice to not see things through the viewfinder of a camera however - this definitely being one of those moments. It also made me realise how close to the ocean Halley sits, on land it takes several hours to reach the sea, but by air it is almost instantly visible.
Our flight took approximately two hours to reach Eagle, by which point there were clouds blocking the view below, it wasn't until we were near our final approach that we were able to spot something I had not seen for a long time - a mountain, but not just one, an entire range of mountains and nunatuks (the visible peaks of mountains buried under snow) comprising the Shackleton range. As we were on final approach, I was free to grab my camera and take some photos, sadly the reality of a photograph is that sometimes it just doesn't live up to the sheer beauty of seeing something with your own eyes.
Once we had landed, which was incredibly smooth, and the aircraft had come to a complete stop and the props had stopped spinning (the co-pilot's door opens pretty much straight out into the path of the right prop) I stepped out onto land for the first time in nearly two months. The first thing I noticed when I had stepped outside was just how much colder it was down here compared to back at Halley - I was expecting this and was surprised by how warm it was compared to how it could have been - it didn't feel cold to the skin as the sun was shining down with zero wind, making it very pleasant wearing just a base layer and my salopettes. The cold feeling was felt only in my nose, a feeling described by many before me, the feeling of the moisture on the hairs in your nose freezing. At -15°C it certainly wasn't uncomfortable, but definitely noticeable.
The site we were at was sitting at 3800ft above sea level nearly 81 degrees south, meaning we were less than 550 miles from the pole - slightly further than Aberdeen to London. It was a rather strange feeling as we were on a completely flat area of ice with mountains in the background but yet there was no feeling that we were so high up with hundreds of metres of ice beneath our feet - the mountains themselves looking much smaller than they actually are. Some mountains (nunatuks) were little more than a small cairn poking out of the snow cap.
Once I had taken the breathtaking view in it was time to start unloading the plane and get to work, which involved manhauling cargo across the ice to a site about 500 metres away. Once there, we unloaded the pulks and started digging. Fortunately this was made easier by the fact that the snow was relatively soft once we had gotten past the first ice layer, although this blessing made it much more difficult when the hole started to get deeper and it was much harder to shovel out the fine powdery snow - finally resorting to scooping out snow with a bucket.
Digging a 2 metre deep hole in the beating sun even in -15°C is hot and tiring work, made especially tiring after flying for two hours prior to arriving. Having said that getting the job done and seeing the equipment working before the weather closed in was an exceptionally rewarding thing, made all the better by having a fantastic view to look at whilst doing it.
By the time it came to loading up the aircraft and moving around the fuel dump cache so that it could be easily identified again should there be a large snow drift, the clouds had moved in and the contrast had reduced by a substantial amount.
The flight back was a very different affair from the one out - there were considerably more clouds for the majority of the journey meaning we were mainly flying using the instruments rather than visually - it did provide plenty of opportunity to have a great chat with the pilot Al and the time passed rather quickly. We were fortunate that the clouds cleared as we neared Halley, allowing us to see the sea once more and watched as a small speck on the horizon gradually grew larger and larger until it was once again recognisable as home.
All in all, the once in a lifetime trip was definitely worth a late dinner and an early bed!
The sun is now noticeably getting lower in the horizon, although it is still due to set for the first time in just under three weeks from now. Signs of winter are definitely looming, the weather is becoming more unpredictable, bringing more fog and snow for the first time since I arrived, and over the last day or so, it has become ever so slightly colder to the point of noticing it.
Today the Shackleton has returned with the BBC to N9 and tomorrow will mark the first day of second relief, with it the incoming and outgoing of cargo and personnel. I suspect it will be a busy week with our science handover, where we will be focussing on the ESA/NASA projects that we are conducting but I will discuss that more another time. For now I will leave you with a photo of me on Recovery Glacier looking rather pleased with myself having finished digging a rather large hole!