Monday, 29 February 2016

Rothera life

Rothera from the ramp
Whilst all my ‘work’ down here takes place in remote locations, accessed by plane and ski, most of my time in Antarctica has been spent at Rothera, so here’s a quick run-down of life on the British base.

First things first: Food. I lived off ‘man-food’ (apparently named to distinguish it from ‘dog-food’…) for a couple of days whilst carrying out the installs at Cape Disappointment, but have mostly been fuelled the excellent food prepared by the three chefs here in Rothera. Not only is the food excellent, but there is plenty of it once you count breakfast, morning ‘smoko’, lunch, afternoon ‘smoko’, and dinner. Also impressive is the fact that not much goes to waste – every few days a dish appears which suspiciously seems to incorporate leftovers from recent meals, still very tasty though!

Seal relaxing close to base
Dash-7 and Twin Otter in the hangar
Waste: As I previously found at McMurdo, all waste at Rothera is sorted into paper, cardboard, metal, plastic etc., and recycled wherever possible. There is an array of bins in all the main buildings and it is your job to sort all of your rubbish into the right bins. Items are also recycled on a more informal basis – a bewildering array of clothing and other items can be found on the ‘sledge of dreams’ which is located in the communal area of one of the accommodation buildings; if you’ve finished with something, why not see if it can be of use to someone else?

Sno-cat up near the caboose
Accommodation: I am lucky enough to be staying in ‘Admirals’ (named after one of the old dog sled teams; these had to be disbanded in 1994 as a revision to the Antarctic Treaty decreed that non-native species could not be brought into Antarctica). The rooms are cosy and modern, comprising a bunk-bed, desk space, generous cupboard space, and a shared bathroom. One thing that I’d been told was that “everything is supplied in Rothera”. Indeed, in the storeroom along the corridor there were rows and rows of shampoo bottles, toilet rolls, soap, toothpaste etc. Some people will be here for up to two and a half years, so it makes packing a lot easier if you don’t need to start calculating how many bottles of shampoo you need…

Penguins pulling some shapes around the point
Malcy heading for the steep section of Gosmark's Gully
Communication: The most efficient way to ensure the smooth running of a base of 80-100 people is to use VHF radios. I don’t carry one of these as standard, but most people involved in the day-to-day running of Rothera do so it’s easy to keep track of what is going on. The constant background chat on channel 1 keeps me in the loop of what is going on as people request permission to cross the runway, confirm that a boating trip has returned, track down the doctor, or let everyone know that a plane is on the way in. Another great eye-opener involves listening to the communication between the pilots and Rothera whilst co-piloting on a Twin Otter. It reminds me of the ‘rules’ we have when rock climbing; to keep information succinct and to use standard phrases so that there is no room for mis-interpretation if the line is bad (or in the case of rock climbing, if there is a howling gale and your partner is out of sight!).

Recreation: One of the pleasantest surprises at Rothera is the freedom that we have to explore the area surrounding the base. Everyone has a ‘tag’ which indicates their location in one of four designated areas around the base – crucial information when trying to account for everyone during a muster situation (which happened twice while I was there). If I want to walk round the point, ski on the ramp, or ski round the flagline (a ~14km cross-country loop on the glacier opposite) then I can just move my tag to the appropriate zone, log my intentions in a book, and head on out (perhaps grabbing a pair of skis from Fuchs House and a radio from NBH). Heading outside the ‘flagline’ requires tracking down a field guide who is willing to accompany you on your adventures, but I quickly made it known I was up for such action and have squeezed in several post-work trips for climbing on Mushroom Buttress or ski-ing in Stork Bowl.

First run in Stork Bowl powder

Tag board in New Bransfield House
Generosity: The last thing to note about base life is the incredible generosity and good-spirit there is between everyone on base. This became apparent at my very first meal as the person next to me gathered up all the empty plates on the table and took them to the hatch for washing up. Turns out this is standard behaviour, along with helping the person on gash to carry bins to the span (I still have no idea who to thank for the several bins that moved without me seeing them!), chalking up a round for everyone in the bar (anything you ‘spend’ in Rothera is automatically debited to your bank account once a month), and generally helping out whenever you spot that someone needs a hand with something. It’s interesting that no-one is ever told to behave in this way; it just rubs off as each new influx of people arrives on base.

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