The training programme

Wouter van Werre | 5 Dec 2019

Before we can go searching for the meteorites, we have had to complete an extensive training program. For Romain and myself it was a very packed schedule, as we had to start from scratch. Katie and Geoff, on the other hand, had already taken some of these modules last year so they did not have to repeat all of them. The training program covers everything from how to be safe on the base, to how to record meteorological observations in the field to pass onto the weather forecasters at Rothera. Due to the poor weather the final module was delayed by a few days, but on Monday we were finally able to complete the program.

Romain already described our overnight stay just outside the base, but I thought it would be interesting to explain the different training modules we had to take since our arrival.

One of the first modules we all have to take is about aircraft safety. While the Rothera Research Station is the place where we all live and work, it is also an active airfield with the runway in the middle of the base.
Therefore we all have to be aware of the procedures for crossing the runway, how to approach the aircraft when they are on the apron (taxiway area) and how to communicate with the pilots. Afterwards we also learnt what to expect when we will be flown into field by Twin Otter aircraft.

The IT/communications team gave us a brief overview of the available IT resources, such as public computers and phone booths, as well as how to get access to the internet on personal laptops. They also introduced us to the VHF radio equipment and protocols that are in place for communications around the base.

One of the field guides walked us through all the clothing that BAS has issued to us, how the different layers work together and how to stay warm in the polar environment. All the different activities that are undertaken by the people here on base, as well as those in the field, require very different clothing systems. While we covered this before during our pre-deployment training with BAS in Cambridge, this served as a very useful reminder

Later on in the week we also went through the field medical box with one of the doctors on the station, walking us through all the medical kit available to us and how we can make best use of it.

Some of the modules, such as skidoo training and gator training are very hands-on. The gator training covers the use of the small wheeled vehicles, called gators, which are used to move around the base. By now the snow has been cleared from all the main paths around base, making these gators the perfect vehicle for moving around goods. Outside of the base there is still plenty of snow, which requires the use of the skidoos. During the skidoo training module the vehicle technicians took a group of us out on the skidoos and into the local travel area. Here we learnt how to safely operate the skidoos, particularly on slopes, where you have to be careful not to “roll the ‘doo”. They also showed us the outline of the local travel area, which is where people can move around safely on their own. This area is clearly delineated using flags and drums. We were also taught how to do the pre-start checks and basic maintenance tasks on the skidoos, which was particularly useful for us, as we will have to do these on our own when we go out into the field to look for meteorites.

One of the more surprising modules we had to take was the meteorological observations module. All field parties have to be able to record the current weather conditions and transmit these back to Rothera, especially when the aircraft are due to land at the campsite. Together with the forecasts that are generated by the forecasters on base these can be used to make decisions about the aircraft movements. We covered the basics of estimating the wind direction and velocity, the amount of cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height, as well as visibility and contrast. All these observations have to be transmitted hourly if there are any planned aircraft operations in the area.
This was a very interesting module for me, as I had no prior experience with taking structured weather observations (and I never knew there were so many different types of clouds!).

Far and away the largest group of training modules we had to take are the field modules (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These cover all the skills required to live in a field camp and safely move across the Antarctic terrain. For example, field module 1 covers the basics of how to use the Primus stoves and Tilley lamps and how to set up a 2-person mountain tent. The camping trip Romain wrote about earlier is part of field module 2, where you go out in a small group a few kilometres outside of the Rothera base. When we were on the hillside we were taught how to put up a pyramid tent, where to put the crates with cooking equipment and food, where to put the stove and Tilley lamp and how to arrange your sleeping area. We then had to cook some food (by melting some snow first!) and we stayed the night. It is amazing to realise that the pyramid tents, the Tilley lamps, and primus stoves are all the same design as those used by the likes of Scott and Shackleton.

Geoff and Katie joined us for the field modules 3 and 4 which cover basic mountaineering and crevasse rescue skills. We practised walking with crampons, climbing up and down steep snow-covered slopes, and walking on ice. We also had to practice being roped up to another member of our group, how to arrest a fall if the person you’re roped up with falls into a crevasse, and how to anchor the rope into the ground. We did all of this outside on one of the hills just next to the base. We then went inside to practice other crevasse rescue skills such as abseiling down into the crevasse, jumaring back up the rope, and how to set up a five-to-one pulley system to lift someone out. While I found this module very interesting, and I really enjoyed the ropework and the abseiling, I do hope we never have to use these skills!

Snow stake crevasse rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Learning how to hack up a hill wearing crampons. Not Katie’s favourite part of the trip. [Credit: Wouter van Verre]
Geoff learning the ropes in rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The final training module took all four of us back outside again, this time to practice linked travel on a skidoo. With linked travel a pair of skidoos and a pair of sledges are connected by a heavy rope. This way, if one skidoo does fall into a crevasse, the other skidoo will arrest the fall. Each skidoo has a rescue sack on the back with the gear required for a crevasse rescue, which we practiced in the earlier modules. The first sledge contains all the necessities to make a base camp (known as a full ‘unit’), while the rear sledge contains a half ‘unit’, from which we can make an emergency camp.
It takes a bit of practice to keep the skidoos synchronised so that the rope is just slack, but not so slack that the rear skidoo drives over the top of the rope.

Geoff and Romain learning how to drive in linked travel with two sledges. [Credit: Katie Joy]

This is an overview of the type of training a field party might receive before heading out into the continent. There are, naturally, many other training courses available as well for those who do other jobs on station.
For example, anyone who expects to launch and retrieve boats into the sea has to learn how to drive the tractors and operate the cranes.

All in all it has been a busy week and full of training and testing our science equipment. The training courses have been very useful and definitely add a bit of confidence before going into the field.

Many thanks to all the people on station who have helped us prepare during the past week and a half!

Visiting new field sites and a new skidoo

Katie Joy | 08 Jan 2019

We have been a week in the field now, with a few search days under our belts and three meteorites in the bag. It has been pretty warm here — in the last couple of days in the sun the air is between 0 and 5°C — really balmy with very little wind. There has been a mix of clear sunny skies and some high cloud as a system hangs around the area. When it clouds over here we lose contrast on the snow and ice surface and it becomes difficult to navigate between icefields. When it was cloudy yesterday we did a bit of a foot searching along the edge of our local icefield to see if we could spot any meteorites. We donned our boot chains to stop us from slipping around on the ice surface, when the sun shines there is a layer of water that starts to form on the surface making it very slippy. However, the recent snowfall from last week (or perhaps earlier in the season) has lightly covered up the surface in this particular spot, making it very challenging to spot much exposed surface blue ice and meteorites.

Taking in the field site [Credit: K H Joy]

We ventured further afield on Sunday, driving up to a large well-exposed (no snow cover) ice area close to a small nunatak (exposed mountain top) where we discovered our first meteorite samples of the season. Whoop whoop! When the sun shines and there is no wind and there are meteorites it is a pretty great day and it feels good to demonstrate that we are visiting meteorite stranding zones.

Meteorite and skidoo [Credit: K H Joy]

Alas later that afternoon we also had some skidoo issues, and despite some great remote trouble-shooting from the Halley and Rothera mechanical teams, and some in-field mech action from Julie, we needed a replacement, which arrived today. Thanks to all for the amazing response and helping get a new one out to us so quickly, and for Mark and Robbie for flying in the new ride and taking out the injured ‘doo’ (and for bringing in some fresh food!). Goodbye unlucky number 13, and hello number 11 — may you drive well for the rest of the field season. We plan to get back to work tomorrow and drive out to a new icefield — fingers crossed for some more meteorite discoveries and hopefully there won’t be much surface snow where we plan to visit.

It is amazing to live (albeit for a short time) in such a remote place — when there is no wind and you are lying in the tent at night it is so quiet and warm in the sleeping bag it is pretty hard to imagine that we are in the middle of Antarctica really (apart from being able to see your breathe as the tent cools down). We are eating well — are working our way through different types of rehydrated food options (sweet and sour chicken last night) and are trying to keep up with some of the comforts of home through improvised barista coffee making (it doesn’t work that well to be honest!), chocolate bars, and evening games.

Coffee making attempt [Credit: K H Joy]

PS Thanks Barbara for the Christmas present which was delivered to Julie in field today.
PPS Thanks Jess for the Rothera news in your letter 🙂

Out and About

Katie Joy | 06 Jan 2019

We had a tent day yesterday sitting inside our tent waiting for the weather to improve. Everything looks a bit custard coloured in here after a while with the light coming through the orange canvas, so in the evening as the skies were clearing I walked around camp to see a stunning Sun halo made by the light reflecting through high altitude ice crystals with sun dogs glistening alongside.

We have been debating where the closest people are to us — Halley research station is about 687 km to the north, the South Pole research station is about 945 km to the south, and our ice drilling BAS colleagues are about 1060 km to the west. See photo of our little tent world in the middle of the ice, hopefully gives you a sense of the remoteness of our workplace.

2019-01-07 little tent world
Little tent world — no-one else for 687 km in any direction [Credit: K H Joy]

By morning the snow has blown through and sunny skies and light winds arrived this morning. Pilot Vicky, by now an honorary team member, came in with the red Twin Otter around lunchtime with the final skidoo and sledge load, and some bonus tasty fresh food treats from the chefs for our lunch (thanks guys!). Thanks to everyone back at Halley for all the field support — from skiway loading and transport, to copilots and skidoo wranglers, to comms and weather — it is all much appreciated.

Unloading a skidoo from the Twin Otter [Credit: K H Joy]

We managed to get out this afternoon to do some initial scouting around some of the ice fields close to us to see what the snow cover and ground is like on route. To get to new
areas we travel by linked travel — using a sledge and tow ropes linked up between the two skidoos. Tomorrow we will head out and do some searching further a field if the skies stay clear and see what the blue ice has to offer.

Linked travel: en-route to new areas [Credit: K H Joy]

PS to the other team members (now including Tom) who are in Punta: Hope you are enjoying yourselves in the sunshine and are preparing for the cold!

Taking the temperature of the ice [Credit: K H Joy]

A bit of Chuckle Brothers

Katie Joy | 03 Jan 2019

We are sitting in the tent and doing a bit of waiting.

Yesterday our second plane load of equipment arrived from Rothera with one of the skidoos that we will need for our field work plans and some extra fuel. Getting the skidoo off the Twin Otter plane is more of an art than science with a lot of wiggling and grunt force to get it pivoted into position. Somewhat of a case of Chuckle Brothers style “to you — to me” whilst it gets lined up with the rampway to get it off the plane. The plane took off into sunny skies and afterwards we did a bit of ski-way chipping and shovelling to try and flatten out some sastrugi (wind shaped compacted snow mounds) that were causing some bumps during landing and takeoff. We sorted out the camp and as the meteorite collection kit and associated science equipment had arrived I got things organised and ready to go. We got the word later in the afternoon that the weather around Halley had closed in with snow, and so the third and final kit transport flight would be stood down.

Snowy tent scene [Credit: K H Joy}

After an evening meal of sausages, peas and smash, we had a peaceful night, but awoke this morning to poorer skies with some light snow and low cloud. The air temperature outside is about -9°C so not too bad, and the winds are relatively light. The Met Office team in Rothera and the Comms team in Halley are relaying lots of information back and forth to give us a forecast and planning for the rest of the day. Julie is sending over local weather reports to provide an idea of visibility, wind speed and direction, and contrast conditions. There are clearer skies to the north and the clouds are expected to lift later this afternoon, so hopefully there is a chance we could get out for a bit and/or the plane might be able to get in.

Sitting in the tent is warm — but the colours are very strange. The tent is orange so everything inside has an off orange-yellow light that drowns out all other colours. Even my blue jumper looks an odd shade of browny orange. We have the tent set up so that there is the primus stove in the middle for cooking, along with some boxes of living equipment like plates and fuel. By the door is our food box (we have more outside and just bring in what we need for a few days/meals). We sleep either side of the stove area in thick down sleeping bags on top of a thick sheepskin blanket, a blow up thermarest, a foam thermarest and a wooden board. At the top of the tent, where it gets warm from the stove, is where we hang our clothes to dry out. There are storage pockets around the inside of the tent for keeping loose bits of kit (sunglasses, sun cream, books etc.).

Boots hanging in the tent [Credit: K H Joy]

Now to do a bit more waiting and seeing what happens with the weather.

Geoff and Mike, who are on their way to test out our metal detection equipment are now in Chile at the Punta Arenas gateway — so should be heading out to Rothera later this week to start their preparations for getting out into the field.