Life in Halley IV – Ski-Doos

Life surrounded by snow brings out challenges that are hardly considered in most of the regular world. Snow around here is more like powdered sugar than anything else. And how do you move around above all this sugar? Well, very badly for starters. My first walks around Antarctica soon left me gasping for air. First I have to wear boots as heavy as my own head so that my big toe doesn’t get completely frozen. And second, its like walking through a swap, were your foot gets sucked in all the way to the ankle in each step. 200 meters in these conditions seem like running for a kilometer.

Fortunately snow is not exclusive from Antarctica and we had cool gadgets for a long time now that ease up moving around this type of surface. Skis and treads are the key. Maximize the contact area to avoid getting buried. It seem simple and it actually is. Well, walking with skis around the base is not very helpful, mainly because its all flat and shuffling around is not that fun. But when you talk about motorized vehicles in Antarctica, conventional wheels are out of the question. Around here, practically everything that moves around while drinking petrol is over skis and/or treads. We have a plethora of vehicles around here, from the jeeps that brought us here from N9 to portable cranes. But the one that me, and most of the people around base, uses most is the Ski-Doo, or snowmobile to be politically correct.

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In Canada, where snow is also abundant, they are nuts for this “bikes” over skis and treads, so much that all the Ski-Doos around here are Canadian made.

To be absolutely correct, Ski-Doo is a comercial brand of snowmobiles manufactured by Bombardier, the Canadian company that produces them. But has many other things, the brand transcends the product and the habit becomes a rule. Just like a jeep – an all terrain car – that results from “Jeep”, the brand. Here, if I ask for a snowmobile they look at me weirdly. Halley always used Ski-Doos.

The concept is quite simple: an engine over a pair of front skis and a single tread on the back, where the trust comes from. The steer like a motorcycle but without any need of two wheel equilibrium, like a car. It a mix of both really.

In Halley we have two types of Ski-Doos: the Tundras and the Skandics.

Tundras are small and less powerful. They are the technical equivalent of a moped. Only two gears: forwards or backwards. We only use them inside the base perimeter. Whenever I need to visit one of my radars, I take one of these.

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They start like a well water pump or a chainsaw: pull on the cord hard enough until it starts. These poor bastards normally are left outside in the wind and snow. When the snow fall started to become serious, the day after a blow I always waste half hour removing snow from the inside of a Ski-Doo before I could make it start. Then I need another 10 or 15 minutes with ir running idle until it gets warn enough to ride. After a while this process becomes pointless since it is faster to just walk to where I want to go in the first place.

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When we got around mid Autumn around here, sometimes I picked up one of these Tundras just to realize that I couldn’t steer anywhere when I was already halfway through the base and one of the radars. That’s because when the temperature drops too low, normally during the night, the snow freezes around the mobile parts of the direction system. I can start it and if I push on the throttle, it goes forward and all that, but with a block of solid ice stuck to the steering axis, my choice of directions becomes rather limited.

Skandics are a different animal. They are bigger, heavier and more powerful. With a bigger fuel tank they have greater autonomy and they also have some interesting accessories such as heated handles. But its one of those things, when you travel in one of these at -25ºC and with a cool 10 knot breeze in the face, these “accessories” make the difference between getting back to base with all 10 fingers or not.

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These ones are called field Ski-Doos and normally are only used when one needs to go outside of the base perimeter. Due to the nature of my work, I can brag to be one of the winterers that has most time on top of one of these machines. These Ski-Doos are the only ones powerful enough to drag the survival sledge, which is pretty much half a ton worth of frozen food, a tent, sleeping bags, emergency fuel, radio and a first aid kit, all tightly tied up and neatly packed over a pair of skis. You don’t leave the base perimeter without two persons minimum and one of these sledges. Period. If we get a mechanical problem in the normal world, worst case scenario you get a very boring day and a poorly slept night in the back seat of the car. Around here you can freeze to death after hours. Prevention is paramount and simple cloth tent in a snow storm makes all the difference.

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Dogs were used around here until the early 90’s. In those years there were available Ski-Doos around here already but the implementation of the Antarctic Environmental Protocol forbade all non native fauna from the continent. And there were reasons for that. It seems that certain diseases that can affect dogs can be transmitted to seals. Without knowing how such diseases may evolve in such scenario, there was always the danger of creating an epidemic accident.

Before the internal combustion engines became common around here, dogs were used to pull sledges. Breeds used to extreme cold climates, such as Huskies for the most part, were trained to pull sledges. Though slower, a dozen Huskies are lighter than a single Ski-Doo, which made traveling safer. Besides, it seemed that Huskies have a sixth sense to detect hidden crevasses. I had the chance to talk with gentlemen that wintered around here in the sixties and they told us that the dogs automatically steered away from where the snow was more fragile. Impressive. Also, all dogs were loved by the station crew, which was also good for moral. Even after stopping using them for pulling sledges, a couple of dogs remained on station as pets for a couple of years, until the protocol forbade them completely.

One thing is certain, if we had dogs around there wouldn’t be shortage of volunteers to take care of them.

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