Part 7: Move to Fossil Bluff

Wednesday 28th November

Today we took all but essential living kit (leaving behind the pyramid tent, P-bags, tent box, pots box, medical box and 1 manfood box) out to the depot. I had two sledges with my orange BAS kitbag, rucksack, 1 rock box, and the red geology trunk. So a reasonable load, perhaps slightly less than on my our input (either that, or I am fitter!). Ian had a massive sledge as usual. Mike had his kit bag, rucksack and the Irridium phone pelicase.

Once we arrived at the depot, we hitched together all the sledges and towed them to the new skiway, about 500 m away. We towed it as a team, like a team of dogs. We needed to do several trips with all the sledges fully laiden to move all the kit from the old depot to the new one. For a laugh, I tried to move it by myself, and managed all of 5 metres! Once we were finished, Ian laid out the new skiway, marking it out with flags and the black emergency clothing bags to make it easier for the pilots to see. Then back to camp for tea and soup and biscuits brown and marmite (BBM – our favourite snack).

Tomorrow, we plan to strike camp and haul everything out to the sound, but it seems that we are in for a bit of weather (the wind is getting up). So it all depends. Plan A is to set up camp in the small V25 tent, with Ian bivvying outside. That way, we will be ready for an early pick up.

However, plans change rapidly. Ian has missed his flight to Halley, which had to go early without him. Mike and I have very kindly been offered a chance of a few days fieldwork at Fossil Bluff. The British Antarctic Survey have very kindly organised all the relevant permits to make this happen. Hopefully we will learn the new plan in our sked tonight – whether and for how long we go to Fossil Bluff, and whether Ian will accompany us.

Thursday 29th November

It is an absolutely dingle day. Difficult to believe that it is so miserable at Rothera, just 200 miles away, where it is a no-fly day. We have decided to leave the main pyramid tent up, and to chill out for the day, before striking camp and moving out to the depot in the early hours of the morning. That saves sleeping in the Sound, where it will be windier, but does mean getting up at about 4 am. At least it will be light!

So today is a day of resting and recuperating; of drinking tea and eating soup, and of mentally preparing for a long day tomorrow. We are definitely going to Fossil Bluff – again, we are very grateful to BAS for organising this – where we plan to do 3 to 4 days of fieldwork before returning to Rothera. Mike Dinn has kindly sorted out the permits for us.

Ian says we can request treats on the plane – perhaps a box of red wine! I have been enjoying his Glenlivet whisky, which he was kind enough to share.

Friday 30th November

This morning we awoke early to strike camp. It was a bit dank and cloudy and snowy, but the forecasters had predicted that the weather would clear. We were counting on this, because the twin otters will only land if there is good contrast and good horizontal definition; they need to be able to see a horizon line to keep the plane straight.

We struck camp in about two hours, loaded up our sledges and prepared to manhaul. I had three boxes, my rucksack and the poo tent on two sledges. Our route is getting longer as the snow melts, exposing bare ground and enforcing detours. As we made progress across the ice shelf, the weather began to clear and it soon became a dingle day.

The going was tricky as there was more and more meltwater. The snow that had fallen overnight was also wet and sticky, increasing friction. We spent a long time going around ponds that we had walked straight across on our deployment, and the uneven ground and slopes made our sledges roll over annoyingly all the time. Ian and I pulled the sledges together over some of the rougher ground, while Mike tried to stop them rolling over. Once we were through the pressure ridges, Ian and I lashed together his large sledge and my two small sledges together and double-headed the train. It was alright on flat ground but really, really hard on the slightest uphill! The flat ice shelf is not so flat afterall – there are lots of elongated troughs that will fill with meltwater in the late summer (hence our early deployment – we were the first science team to be in the field).

We got to the depot about 1 pm after a three hour slog. We checked the status of the skiway and gave a final weather observation, which Ian had been doing hourly on the satellite phone. Once the pilots knew that the skiway was in an acceptable condition they took off, giving us 1 hour and 40 minutes to relax and have lunch (biscuits brown, tinned fish and chocolate, with hot water from a thermos flask…).

Ablation Valley from our depot on the ice shelf

The plane arrived and we divided our kit into two piles; that to be taken to Fossil Bluff with us, and that to be picked up by the plane on its way home and returned to Rothera. We needed only our rucksacks, P-bags (sleeping bags), kit bags and selected science kit. Everything else we left behind for the unfortunate pilot to collect on his return journey. Our co-pilot Rob will swap with Tom Stroud who is at Fossil Bluff, and Tom will be the co-pilot for the journey from Fossil Bluff to Rothera.

It was only a 15 minute flight to Fossil Bluff, but we went the scenic way, flying low over mountains. Glorious. Upon arrival, we discovered that Tom Stroud had left us a cake and Bucko had sent us some chocolate – with nuts in! We had a cup of tea and devoured them both.

That night, we all enjoyed sleeping in a bunk bed instead of in a tent, ate at a table and enjoyed some red wine. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Map showing Rothera research station, Alexander Island and Palmer Land. Note George VI Ice Shelf.

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