Going off base

There are jobs and jobs among the members of the Winter team. One would hope that, as a member of the scientific and wintering team, most of my work would be sitting in front of a computer writing code or something of the kind. How wrong was I…

The electronics engineer position, and the the guy that gets all the radars plus the Lifetime of Halley project in particular, includes loads, and I mean loads of ski-doo field trips around the ice shelf.

I can actually brag about being the winterer with more kilometers on a field ski-doo, apart from the Field Guide obviously.

Right for starters I had the GPS and GPR surveys on the old crack (Chasm 1) on me. There alone I had to visit the crack in the beginning of each Winter month. Then Summer comes in and I had to do my maintenance visits to the GPS sites from the Lifetime of Halley project. Between these I still had the Winter trips, field training trips, penguin trips and other stuff. All in all, I  think there wasn’t a month going by were my behind didn’t had a close encounter with a field ski-doo seat.
Lets deal with the definitions first. Has I mentioned before, Halley isn’t just the 8 colorful modules. The station includes all containers, garage, summer accommodation, cabooses, radars, etc… It is obvious were Halley starts, but where does it ends?

We have a line around the station, of around 5 kilometers, that encompasses all the modules and related junk that I just mentioned. The line is made with a continuous line of empty AVTUR drums. These ones are already black so they are perfect to mark things in the white snow. The people movement inside this perimeter is somewhat free. All we need to do first is to make sure that we set our “out-of-modules” tags to the right area, write down the specifics in the log book (working area, name, departing and expected arriving time) and take a hand held radio or make sure there’s one in a earshot from us. The rest is up to us. But if we need to go outside of this line, then we are talking of a completely different animal.
But what’s so special about leaving the station’s perimeter? Maybe the lure of being truly isolated, even when we are already limited to two hands full of people. But given our context, that is, the closest hospital its a whole continent away and it costs around half a million pounds (Or even more! What do I know about these things?) to land a plane in Halley during Winter, going outside of the station’s perimeter its a careful process that has been perfected through a lot of seasons.

Rule #1: No one, and I mean no one, leaves the station’s perimeter alone. There’s no issues in taking a dozen bodies with us, as long as the station has the resources for it. Minimum is two. Less is impossible.
Rule #2: The field team should include a Field Guide. Its kinda obvious since this is the element with more field experience and ski-doo hours than anyone else in the base. 99% of all travels that I did outside the station’s perimeter had a Field Guide in the team. It wasn’t the same person every time and some occasions I even took more than one with me. But at least one should go out with us. I only did one travel outside of the station without the Field Guide but that was because it was a short trip to fix an equipment on a flagged line. And he didn’t go with me because he was also out of the base at that moment, busy with the first set of Winter trips. But I still had to find someone else to go with me because going alone was a big no-no.

Rule #3: Always, always take a survival sledge with you. This is another inflexible rule. One of the Field Guide tasks around here, when he’s not driving crazy scientists away from crevasses, is to keep the survival sledges operational.
These are a set of sledges called Nansen Sledges (the original design is Norwegian since these gentlemen know a lot more about snow than anyone else). These are long and heavy sledges made out of wood and steel plates, with a very low center of mass, which gives them stability at high speeds, and able to carry over a tone of whatever is necessary.

What do we carry in our Nansen sledges then? Well, we use two configurations: the full survival unit or just half of it.

A full survival unit is basically the bare minimum for 3 to 5 people in order to survive lost in an Antarctic storm for at least a month, or close to it at least: a canvas tent and respective equipment (querosene stove and Tilley lamp, matches, plates, cutlery, etc..), sleeping bags, dehydrated food, fuel, spare parts for the ski-doos, first aid kit, etc…

A survival unit is more than enough for 3 people, which is the normal number of bodies for when one leaves the perimeter. As such, in those situations, we normally take the half survival unit instead. The essentials are all there but the tent is a bit smaller and we take less fuel and food with us, which makes the whole setup significantly lighter, which translates in a faster trip with less fuel spent. If we are not going anywhere too far, an half unit is more than enough. It only weights half a ton. Its nothing…

Rule #4: Each element of the outgoing team must take its own emergency clothing rucksack.
This one looks a bit silly if we use the normal world as context. I’ve known people that used to keep a spare pair of underwear in a drawer in the workplace, because sometimes the curry is a bit too spicy or because sushi and a glass of warm milk is never a good idea, but hardly one of these situations would qualify as an emergency. In the normal world, if I get out of the house in a t-shirt and flip-flops on a rainy day, I’m only making a fool of myself. In Antarctica, if I leave the modules poorly dressed I can easily qualify for a nice pneumonia, hypothermia, frost nips and bites or simply death. It is, by far, one of the more focused areas around BAS: clothing. Anyone that goes South with BAS is issued a more or less standardized kit bag with all that it is necessary for nor dying down here. This kit contains everything from socks, gloves ( a lot of gloves I might say), coats, hats, trousers and even sunglasses, that here are way more than a simple fashion accessory, since one cannot even open them on a sunny day in snowy Antarctica.

As winterers, as soon as we get to the station we get a second kit in a very handy rucksack. In it we should keep any spare clothes for emergencies, along with some pieces that are only usable during Winter, such as the down jackets, the face masks, ski goggles or the mad bomber hats. Whenever we go out of the station we need to take this bag just in case.

Why? Well, the bigger issue is sweaty clothes, among others of course.

Its hard to get the perfect outfit, specially right after getting into this life. During those “habituation” days its easy to get caught outside with too much or not enough clothes. Both cases are problems. With not enough clothes the problem (and its solution) is obvious. Too much clothing is not good idea also. If we get too hot we start sweating. Besides being highly uncomfortable and disgusting, sweating in Antarctica is bad since the sweat has no were to go and ends up soaking the clothes. But it is still very cold since, well, we are still surrounded by snow and ice, and as such the clothes end up freezing solid (its kinda obvious actually) and walking around with frozen underwear is not nice, believe me. We are halfway into a nice pneumonia in that situation.

If we are 50 km away from the modules in a pair of soaked socks, after a whole morning digging snow ditches, believe me, a pair of dry socks in the rucksack would worth their weight in gold.

Rule #5: Keep a communication channel with the station. This one is obvious. As soon as we hit the perimeter line, in either direction, we have to stop and get in touch with Comms by radio. The exchange is quick: we need to give out our names and the numbers of the ski-doos that we are going to take out and the type of survival sledge that goes behind the party.

Inside the station’s perimeter we are always reachable. The modules are ridden with radio base stations and hand held units, telephones and computers. Each caboose as at least one radio and a telephone. The problem is when we get so far away from the station that the radios loose their reach. The VHF radios work as long as we have a direct line of sight with whoever we want to contact. We can attach an high gain antenna to get a few kilometers above this limit, but not much more. If the radio is not reaching anyone, we are limited to satellite phones. These ones are just like those old Nokia 3310 phones. They have almost unlimited coverage but they take a lot of time getting registered in the network, the call has always a couple of seconds of delay and the voice quality is not that great. But if I’m stuck inside a tent during a 100 km/h winds storm, I don’t really care about getting the nuances of the Scottish accent of the rescue team leader.
The Field Guide carries one of these at all times and, as per rule, we always take another one if we go out with more than 3 people.

Rule #6: Take a GPS with you. Its been a while since the last guy that had to use the Sun and stars to get his bearing. Nowadays any cheap smartphone can get its global position within minutes. Its only logical that we use this great technology. The funny thing about using GPS devices in Antarctica is that there are no maps to get ourselves into. Its an advantage in that sense. Around here we usually go directly from point A to point B. Unless there’s a crevasse in the middle.

Another curious phenomenon around here, and this one is exclusive for ice shelfs, is that any point that we save in our GPS, a month later is roughly 60 meters East of its original position. Its what we get for living in a moving piece of ice. Whenever we redo a trip we have to update any reference point that we go through because all it takes is a few weeks to make a custom map obsolete.

Rule #7: Fill out the “out of base” form and notify the SAR team. Before leaving we fill out the proper form and it must be signed by anyone in the station leader’s office. We have to write down the name of all team members, what gear are we taking with us, were are we going (in coordinates that is), when are we going out and when are we expected to get back and the phone number of any satellite phones that we take with us.
Finally, the Search And Rescue team needs to be warned. During Winter, this team is made from other winterers and we need to make sure that they are available and able to go out looking for us or pull us back from the entrails of a crevasse. Just like the First Aid team is trained by out doctor, the SAR team is trained by the Field Guide. If all goes well, we don’t even need to bother them. But it always nice to know that there are people back in the station that is capable of setting up a pulley and rope system to winch me up from the bottom of a hole.

Rule #8: Travel linked whenever you go outside of flagged lines. This one is part of the basic course in preventing death by crevasses.

In the vicinity of Halley, only flagged lines are considered safe. After a couple of trips without accidents and after the Field Guide team has given their OK to that route, the rule is to put a line of black flags, 200 meters apart, to signal the route. Besides defining a sort of road in the snow, the flag line it is also useful to avoid getting lost when the visibility is weak. I’ve happen to be out in a ski-doo one time when a sudden fog bank just descended over the area in a matter of minutes. In that situation I couldn’t even tell which way was the sky, let alone the station or anything else. Fortunately I had a flag line just outside of the caboose in which I was working and I could get to the station eventually. Even so, the 200 meters between flags sometimes is not enough. The 4 or 5 seconds between loosing one flag and finding the next one can be bit worrisome. Or thrilling. It depends.

But Halley doesn’t have an infinite supply of flags to mark every possible route. Besides, every Summer it is necessary to replace damaged or missing flags from the existing lines since many of them don’t survive Winter.

Sometimes – or whenever I need to visit a Lifetime of Halley remote site  – we need to “improvise” our route. In that situation, as soon as we get out of the safe zone – either the station’s perimeter or a flag line – all ski-doos in the party are linked to each other with thick and long ropes. The Field Guide heads up the convoy, as one might expect, with the survival sledge behind him. The rest of the team follows the Guide, linked to the survival sledge. In this situations, we also wear an harness in which we attach yet another rope and to our ski-doo. The convoy carries on slowly from that point on since we need to take care so that the rope ahead of us don’t get tangled in the ski-doo’s tracks and also to give some reaction time to the Field Guide.

What’s the point behind all these light bondage? The line of ski-doos works as a giant anchor. If one of the line members happens to fall into a crevasse, the remaining ski-doos and sledges can hold it, in principle.

What if it is a really deep crevasse and the guy on the bike falls off and looses consciousness? We need the harness and connection to the ski-doo for those scenarios. Actually, I’ve never heard any stories of people getting save with this method.

I did hear of a couple of fatal accidents with crevasses and such. Sometimes the crevasse is not that deep and in the end everyone gets a cool story to tell their grandchildren one day. But most of the times it ends quite badly, as one my imagine. Better safe…

The first couple of trips that I did outside of the perimeter were quite stressful. There are a lot of rules in place and implicit precautions. But we get used to it and by the beginning of Winter I was doing them with my eyes closed, which wasn’t such an hot idea according to the Field Guide that took me out of the hole where I had stuck my ski-doo in. After that, it was a matter of keeping my eyes open when driving and we never had to bother the SAR team even.


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