Monday, 30 September 2013

Colbeck Archipelago hut & RMIT van history

In 1987 approval was given for a hut to be sited in the Colbeck Archipelago. In that year sea ice conditions did not favour the '87 party, and no trips were made past Stibbs Bay. But fortune smiled on the '88 crew, who took the plunge. They towed the ex-Rumdoodle hut (replaced by Maxine's in 1986) down the coast and installed it on an Island in the Colbeck Archipelago on 12 July 1986. The sledge the hut is sitting on was used to carry the 1973 prefab Rumdoodle hut  and now serve as a rigid base for a positive guy-down job.  

In 1969 while parked at Gwamm, an RMIT van was blown down the hill and ended up in a big crevasse just short of the ice cliffs. In 1970 it was winched out and returned to Mawson, but it had to wait another year to be repaired and for the badly smashed side to be mended. It had been written off as a traverse living van, and two enterprising expeditioners, decided on its future: Macey Island.
On 1 August 1971 the van departed Mawson behind an old Snowtrac, accompanied by a Snowcruiser. They winched the hut into place but did not guy it down, and much to their dismay 2 weeks later found that the van had blown over in a blizzard. The side was damaged again, but was repaired in situ and finally guyed down.
Since that day it has not moved, although it has had a few revamps and cleanups to keep it in shape. An outside toilet was attached in 1983.
On 14 November 1988, the van and its wooden Norwegian sledge (which was dried out and fragile) was winched onto a Smith sledge and towed it back to Mawson. So ended its 17-year reign on the island, the longest continuous service of any field hut except for Alice's Restaurant.
Today the van is still in good condition and is still mounted on a Smith sledge and is used as a temporary field hut. 

Wednesday 25th September 2013

We left Mawson at 7am with a bit of blue sky and a stiff 20 knot katabatic wind blowing. I headed straight to the Forbes glacier and it was a pretty fast run with little or no Sastrugi what so ever. From the Forbes glacier I kept close to the coast checking out the ice cliffs and wandering through the Stanton group of Islands which would be a nice place to come for a day trip. In amongst the Stanton group I came across a nice little jade berg were I pulled up to stretch our legs and take some photos.

When seawater at depths of more than 360 meters freezes to the underside of massive ice shelves like East Antarctica's Amery Ice Shelf, it forms "marine ice." Enormous chunks of ice calve—or break off—from the ice shelf, creating icebergs. When one of these icebergs overturns, its jade underside is revealed. The beautiful colour of this "marine ice" results from organic matter dissolved in the seawater at those great depths.

The organic matter in marine ice is degraded phytoplankton—not phytoplankton itself, which cannot survive at those dark depths. It includes complex organic molecules like proteins, lipids, amino acids, and sugars, as well as carbon, iron, nitrogen, silica, and sulphur. Jade icebergs not only store these dissolved organic compounds, they also transport them from great depths back to the surface, where they can be taken up by phytoplankton.

Striped icebergs, perhaps even more scarce than jade bergs, are thought to form in one of two ways: either melt water refreezes in crevasses formed atop glaciers before they calve icebergs (creating blue stripes), or seawater freezes inside cracks beneath ice shelves (creating green stripes).

From the Stanton group we had a good run all the way down to the Jelbart Glacier with little sastrugi but I was expecting the worst around the Jelbart. Lucky for us a massive amount of powdered snow had filled in all the gaps of the crazy rafted ice protruding outwards in all directions around the Jelbart and I found it quite straight forward to weave my way in and out around all the obstacles and tide pools and by 11:30 we were out of the worst of it and making our way down to UFS Island for a look. 

Down this way we ran into mild sastrugi which slowed us down but we did come across our first Weddell seal pup for the season that had just been born. 

The sun was shining and the wind was almost zero so we pulled up at UFS Island (Norwegian - Ufsoy (bluff island) and Darron and I went off for a walk to climb the summit while Trent and Jeremy stayed back to check out the lower areas. The Island is quite large and we thought we were climbing the higher of two summits, but at 260 meters we discovered it had three summits and we had scaled the lowest summit. Never mind, but the view from the summit was spectacular. We descended via a different route and made our way back to the Hag for a snack and a hot drink. 

As it was still quite early in the day we decided to head over to Chapman’s ridge where Darron, Trent and I went off for a long walk along the lower sections of Chapman’s ridge past some frozen lakes meeting up with Jeremy who had moved the Hag to Byrd head at the far northern point of Chapman’s ridge. It was a nice walk, each of us doing our own thing keeping in touch via radio and visual contact. While crossing one of the frozen lakes I broke through a section of crazed honeycomb ice and fell heavily smashing my already badly bruised shin once again. Falling is a constant hazard in Antarctica and the risk of breaking a leg is always present.

Once we reached the Hag it was a short trip through the Colbeck Archipelago to reach Colbeck hut which would be our home for the next five days. Colbeck hut is a pretty sad sight as it has been slowly enveloped by ice over the last decade and it will soon have to be abandoned to the elements. It has about ten centimetres of ice on the floor and you have to climb down into it from the surroundings. We unpacked all our kit and fired up the heater and stove and boiled up some water.

Jeremy and I slept in the RMIT van that had been towed down earlier on in the season. These vans were designed by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (where I studied) and are years old but warm and comfortable. After a couple of beers watching the sun go down and then a hot meal, we slept well after a big day.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Tuesday 24th September 2013

With the decision made to go to Colbeck tomorrow, today was mainly taken up with preparations for the trip. It was blowing snow and about forty knots today, overcast and looking very grim, but by the afternoon the wind had dropped ten knots and the sky was clearing up a bit. Our four survival packs have to be stored on the roof of the caboose (For easy access in case we break through the sea ice) along with a second polar tent I wanted to take as well as a long 3dB VHF antenna I want to install on the hut. Two hundred litres of ATK in ten jerry cans, as well as fifty litres of petrol. Eighty litres of water, a gas bottle and two generators. A chain saw, auger drill, shovel, four ice axes, piss pot and shit bucket, booze, food, cloths, camera gear, tools, spare parts, sea ice recovery gear, winches, sleeping bags, communications equipment, batteries, chargers and heaps of other bits and pieces.

Hopefully that should just about do it. I also programmed a lot of extra way points into both GPS’s and I will spend some time searching for seven old depots along the way to see if they are still stocked. I managed to get a forecaster at the BOM to give us daily weather forecasts so that gives me some extra piece of mind. The plan is to leave Mawson at seven o’clock in the morning and to be at Colbeck hut around five o’clock in the afternoon. Getting around the Jelbart Glacier through all the rafted ice and getting across tide cracks will be the most challenging obstacles and as long as the weather is kind to us and we don’t get stuck there by fierce blizzards we should be fine. The Hag is packed and all we have to do tomorrow is to throw our frozen food, thermos and personal effects in and we’re off.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Monday 23rd September 2013

It was a cold miserable overcast sort of day this morning. The day started off with the usual Monday stuff. Emails, phone calls, ARPANSA and by then it was smoko and after smoko it was the Monday meeting. After smoko I retired to my room to write up my Icy news story for this month. By then it was lunch time and I made a really nice roast pork and fresh hydro salad sandwich. Mmmm, why can’t we have food like that every day?

After lunch I spent a couple of hours cutting all the remaining meat off the pig we roasted up on Saturday and then I disposed the carcass. This will be nice meat for lunches for the next couple of days and I didn't want to see it go to waste. As for the head, well I didn't want to see that go to waste too. So I put it on a long bamboo pole and propped it up against Luc’s window to give him a good surprise when he opens the blinds tomorrow. That’s almost an Antarctic tradition down here. Seal heads were once the head of choice. I’m sure he’ll see the funny side of the prank. By the late afternoon the wind was howling with blowing snow.

Well, tonight I decided to leave for Colbeck seven o’clock Wednesday morning. It’s a tough call, but it’s looking like we will get a few days break in the weather so we have to take a chance and go for it. It’s over a hundred kilometres away west on the sea ice and we intend on being gone for five days, so let’s hope we don’t get stuck there for two weeks blizzed in.

Now that should do the trick 

Sunday 22nd September 2013

Not much movement today on station for some reason?

After a bit of relaxing I got up and had a shower then made myself a beautiful roast pork toasted sandwich and later on in the afternoon I wandered down to the transmitter building to see what the propagation was like. Propagation was lousy so I gave it a miss after a while and went back to the red shed. I tried watching the Americas cup on You tube but the Internet is so slow down here it was almost useless as it was stopping and starting all the time, but those AC72 boats are amazing. Later we watched a really pathetic movie called Mars one.

Saturday 21st September 2013

Today was time for a sleep in and a bit of relaxation. I did a couple of loads of washing and sorted a few things out. I spent most of the day down loading photos and writing up my blog. Keldyn had his first day practicing to drive the loader today moving snow and ice about as he will need to be proficient by the time of resupply. Listening to the radio he couldn't open the door to get out, and Geoff said just open the bloody door but little did they know the warmer weather we have been experiencing had melted all the snow inside the door and turned to ice in the door lock mechanism. After an hour or so, Geoff managed to get him back out using a crow bar.

It was October beer festable tonight and Trent (and a few helpers) went to a lot of trouble brewing many different types of beer and roasting a pig on the spit. At three o’clock the mare of Mawson made a speech and cracked the first beer to kick off the calibrations. It turned out to be a great night and one we won’t forget. Some of the highlights were Luc and Keldyn doing the chicken dance and Chris and Luc comparing each other’s guts to see who has the biggest gut. Somehow nothing got broken and no animals were injured but there will be a few sore heads tomorrow.

Luc and Keldyn doing the chicken dance

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Friday 20th September 2013

We left station at ten thirty in the morning and headed up the plateau in bright sun and blue sky. Conditions were perfect and it was great to be going up the plateau for a change. The Sastrugi was pretty light on and so we made pretty good progress up the Fang line to F14. Once at F14, I turned off at the Rumdoodle moraine line and headed North West until we reached a safe parking area just outside of the crevassed area. The temperature was up to minus seven and I was sweating and had to remove my fleecy while we were kitting up as I was so hot. The amount of gear required for glacial travel is nuts but we have to be tied together and be able to rescue each other if any of us should fall into a slot. Finally after we were all kitted out, I had my movie camera mounted on my helmet and we headed off with John in the lead and Justin taking up the rear.

I’m no fool; I had both ends covered and were in the best position. This area is really messed up with slots all over the place as deep as four hundred meters. We had only gone a hundred yards when John (Our field training officer) turned and said this is our first crevasse crossing so stay alert and remember your training. He took two paces and fell through an ice bridge up to his waist with legs dangling into an eerie blue bottomless abyss. It was hard not to laugh, but training kicked in and he was out in no time leading the way again. Some of the slots were narrow enough to jump over while others had to be walked as you probed the snow depth with your ice axe. It was quite nerve racking at times but you just had to put the consequences out of your mind and get on with the task. After quite some time we came over a rise and right there was the aircraft. 

It was pretty amazing to see all this metal in this white desert. The last twenty meters was probably the worst as it was all snow and you had no idea how many slots were covered over. First we reached one of the engines that had been removed ages ago by expeditioners. Story has it they were going to do it up and mount it on the wall as memorabilia but were told by management they had to return it, so it was taken back and dumped near the aircraft. I think it would have looked great in the bar or on the wall in the mechanical workshop? What a waste!! 

We made it over to the aircraft without incident and walked all around it inspecting everything in fine detail. It was clear it was a pretty rough old aircraft back when it was flying but what was amazing was the remarkable condition it was in after all these years laying on the blue ice being battered by blizzards for the past forty six years. Inside I could see a tent, fire extinguisher, axes and other bits and pieces, but the majority of the aircraft had been pilfered over the years. I sat in the cockpit and reflected on the dramatic end of the aircraft when it was blown into a crevasse when trying to take off all those years ago. Finally we said farewell and started our journey back to the waiting Hag. 

It was an uneventful walk back, that is until we were about ten meters from the Hag when my foot broke through a visible slot and I fell forward taking my whole body weight on my shin as I hit the deck. Bloody hell it hurt as I put another bruise on top of another bruise on top of another bruise on top of another bruise on top of another bruise. It was like an egg by the time I got back to the station but it’s amazing how the human body grows back again. It was a great day and I’m glad I did it. Back at station I soothed the pain with a nice hot spa while I read my new book and for dinner I had a beautiful gourmet scallop pizza.

The aircraft was a Lisunov Li-2, a license-built version of the American DC3. It had arrived in Mawson December 1968 to lay a fuel dump. Back then Mawson was regularly used as a refuelling/ rest stop between the 2 Russian Antarctic bases Mirny and Molodyezhnaya. When leaving and taxiing down the Rumdoodle runway a strong gust of wind caught the plane and blew it into a crevasse, damaging the landing gear, starboard wing and starboard propeller. The Russian crew were collected the following day by 2 planes which flew out from Molodyezhnaya but the damaged plane remained.

The plane ‘was securely tied down by the tail and two wing tips by a party from Mawson at the beginning of February 1969. It survived several blizzards, but on 8-9 April there was a major blizzard with gusts to 123 knots which destroyed it. Basically, it tried to fly; the fuselage broke into two near the tail, and the body of the aircraft flipped onto its back, rotating about the wing tie downs.

Over the next decade or so various bits (instruments, etc.) were surreptitiously souvenired by expeditioners. More openly, one of the propellers was engraved and presented to senior helicopter pilot Vic Barkell after the 1974/75 summer. The aircraft was completely destroyed in 1981 by Czechoslovakian dieso George Hedanek who drove a D5 through it because he “hated Russians”.

Monday 23rd December 1968

Mawson station log by the Station Leader at the time, George Hamm

Russians awoke at 0800 and had breakfast. Left Mawson in Snow Trac and VW (Beetle) for the airfield. Arrived there about 12.30. They had very crude Herman Melon type heaters – just huge blowlamps for warming up engines. Brought gifts, etc to be taken back to Dr Maksutov at Molodezhnaya. Got engines started and prepared to takeoff. In aircraft with me were pilot, 2nd pilot, radio operator, chief engineer, Soot (interpreter & correspondent) Ware (MET. OIC), Smith (geophysicist). At about 2pm as he was taxying, a strong gust of wind caught plane and blew it up onto slotted dome behind Russian fuel dump. Pilot at last moment revved motors in attempt to prevent total disaster – I had rear door opened and was ready to jump with the others when at last moment he managed to face back towards painted peak and suddenly we broke through a large crevasse – damaging starboard wing and propeller. Great catastrophe – pilot cried, all Russians depressed later sitting in OICery [building housing the Officer in Charge –Ed.]. He told me he might get the axe over this. Thank god he didn't want political asylum. What a day! No sleep - just tried to calm Russians down.

Christmas Eve Tuesday 24th December 1968

Quiet day – slept in very tired – many signals back and forth from Mirny and Molodezhnaya. Russians here quite depressed except Anders Soot – the Estonian who I think would like to stay. Advised their planes from Mokolazev were coming and they arrived at 9.25pm. Both landed at Gwamm which chief Russian pilot told me was a far better landing strip than Rumdoodle. One plane immediately flew back up to the damaged Russian aircraft near Rumdoodle while they refuelled the other at Gwamm. We had to say goodbye to them at 11.30pm as I wanted to (be) back at station for Christmas.

Most enjoyable but disastrous visit. Many souvenirs exchanged –the chief pilot gave me his beautiful fur cap.

In 2009 George Hamm, who continues to be in touch with the Estonian interpreter "Soot"; who advised that the pilot was dismissed from the Soviet Antarctica program and sent to Siberia. His fate beyond that is unknown.

This same Lisunov Li-2T aircraft #CCP-04214 was brought to Antarctica in 1958 and was used in 1961 to evacuate the seriously-ill expeditioner Alan Newman from Mawson, for the first leg of a 3-aircraft trip to New Zealand via Mirny and McMurdo stations.

Thursday 19th September 2013

Today was a rather quiet day at work sorting out redundant equipment to be RTA’ed and going through email. In the afternoon I had a nice spa. Last week I fixed the leak in the spa and filled it up again. The weather was looking good for a few hours tomorrow so I organised a trip out to the Russian aircraft tomorrow with John and Justin so let’s hope this time the weather holds up. Tonight’s foreign movie was “The deep blue”. Being a diver I had seen it before and I thought it was a bit ordinary. Later we watched a few episodes of “Trailer Park Boys”. God I love that show!!

Wednesday 18th September 2013

After a wild and windy night we awoke to a better day than yesterday although it was still overcast and quite windy. I was going to replace the antenna this morning but it was still too windy to do the job, so I lashed the antenna to the side of the shack for next time. We had a hot drink and cleaned up then hit the road back out to Auster for a few more hours. Once again we bounced our way back to the tide crack for a bit more footage and to watch the entertainment. It was so much fun watching the birds swimming around enjoying themselves and now and then they had us all in stitches when they would crash into each other or slip over.

 One penguin even got its head stuck in a hole in the ice and another thought if he flapped his flippers hard enough like a humming bird he might be able to take off. They also like to push each other out of the way or slap each other with their flippers. At one point we were gob smacked when we heard a chick. We turned around and saw a parent with a chick on its feet that had wandered several hundred meters from the colony over to where we were. It was such an odd thing to see. Slowly it made its way right up the water’s edge where it seemed to be fighting with another penguin which it actually pushed into the water and it climbed back out again. Was this other penguin its mate? 

The parent that dived in with its chick

Suddenly the penguin jumped in, chick and all and our hearts sank as the baby chirps ceased. It was horrible. How could a parent do that to its baby it has nurtured for months in this cold hell of a place? Suddenly after what seemed like ages, the baby chirps started once again but it was no where to be seen. Incredibly the chick had survived the frigid waters and was somewhere trapped under the ice. We were sure it was going to die and it was only a matter of time. Suddenly the chick poked it’s head out of a tiny hole in the ice. It was trapped in an air pocket and had no way of getting out unless it dived underwater and came out the same way it went in, but impossible with its buoyant baby fluffy feathers. We watched for a while at the helpless chick wondering how long it could last when finally I couldn't take it any longer, so I asked Jeremy if he could try and make the hole bigger with the length of bamboo his camera was mounted on. He gingerly worked on breaking the ice and making the hole bigger for the next few minutes until suddenly the chick broke free and swam across the water and crawled up the bank and then ran right across the ice and into my arms. Was this for real or was I dreaming? We can’t both be dreaming? Now what should I do? 

With no sight of its parent around, I decided its best chance of survival would be to carry it back to the colony and release it there. Maybe another bird would take care of it or maybe later its parent would come back and recognise its chicks call? Anyway the chick was wet and shivering so I carried it back to the colony and released it where it called and called in vain for its parent. It was depressing, so after a while we went back over to the tide crack. A while later we were watching all the action when suddenly lots of birds came scurrying out of the water as fast as they could and we sensed there was some sort of danger when right in front of us a huge seal leaped out of the water landing on the ice in front of us. 

We were gob smacked again but the seal thought nothing of it and wriggled its fat body all the way over to where our Hag was parked with penguins going in all directions. In a short time things were back to normal and the birds returned to the water once again. After a while longer we decided to pack up and start the long journey back home after capturing all these amazing events with our cameras. Several miles from the colony we came across six or seven huge Weddell seals sun baking on the sea ice so we stopped to get some photos as its been such a long time since we have seen seals or any form of life besides the Emperors. The seals had a hole in the tide crack which they keep open with their teeth and the odd Emperor penguin was coming out of it. Weddell seals die when their teeth get too worn down from chewing the sea ice. They keep these holes open so they can breathe and so they can have their pups on the sea ice. 

Suddenly a huge seal appeared in the hole and we got some great photos of it then without warning it sprung out of the hole right in front of us flapping about on the ice. C’mon, how much can a Koala bear in one day? It was an amazing end to an amazing couple of days. On the way back to Macey Island I steered the Hag to some colourful ice bergs I have seen before to take a closer look. They were actually bergs that had rolled over exposing the underside which were full of moraine containing dirt and rocks and boulders. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ice scraping the earth and sea bed compressing the ice with huge forces entrapping rocks and boulders to be carried away and deposited thousands of miles away. It was very interesting to see at close range but one has to be wary of any ice berg as even though they are grounded in thousands of feet of water, they can roll over at any time smashing the sea ice around them for hundreds of meters. 

We headed south for the coast where the huge ice cliffs meet the sea ice over ten kilometres away across the worst Sastrugi Antarctic could throw at us. By the time we reached the coast, tempers were frayed and spleens were macerated. This time I wore sun glasses which helped but now and then we would still hit a bliz trail or obstruction which threatened to break every bone in our bodies. The track back was nowhere near as good as it was on the trip up due to the blizzard last night and I had to travel slower but it was still much better than travelling over the Sastrugi out wide. We arrived back at Mawson around three thirty in the afternoon with plenty of time to pack up, refuel and relax before dinner. At the peoples night Justin played some amazing time laps movies he made on ice crystals forming on the mess windows while Cookie showed slides from Antarctica and Australia. It was a good night and I slept well later.