More work, one shower, two adventures - 27 January 2013

After a promising start last week completing some major tasks we turned our focus elsewhere and relocated the foundations works from the anemometer tower to the shoreline.

Reboarding the Emergency StoreWe started work on the emergency store with the main intention being to secure the foundations. A large quantity of coal was stored here at the southern end causing the floor to sag and before we could do anything to repair the joists we first had to remove the weight from the floor. Our man-hauling days were not yet quite over and we spent a good part of the day shovelling coal (about a ton in all) into bags and sledging it over to the main hut (about 100 metres away) where we then slung it into the coal bunker. Tudor and Michael, both Welsh boys, revelled in the challenge and embraced their Welsh mining heritage. We wonder whether this is Welsh coal?  – not unlikely as Wales has a long connection with the Antarctic dating back to the Scott's Terra Nova. The 'rocket fuel' of the day played a major part in supporting Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole and many other early expeditions and on Scott's expedition was given to the Terra Nova by the businessmen of Cardiff.  For this reason Scott chose Cardiff as Terra Nova's home port and it was from here that Terra Nova departed the UK on 13th June 1910.

Conversely, shortage of coal was one of the major contributing factors to the demise of Detaille in 1957. The scow which was resupplying the base one year capsized with a whole season's supply of coal on it. The coal now found on base and causing the major distress to the structure of the emergency hut was resupplied by helicopter during the last month of the base's occupation when sea ice prevented access and relief by the ship. Once we had cleared the floor and removed the added weight of coal Michael repaired and propped up the damaged floor joists and we all started work on securing the foundations of the hut. This again meant more concrete work and following two days of preparatory work we again made quick progress completing the concreting in just three hours. Another big job involved repairing and re-boarding the north end of the hut  - temporary repairs were carried out two years ago following the staving in of the wall by strong gales. Over a number of days we have managed to make this small hut on the northern part of the island weatherproof and secure including installing new guy wires over the hut and repainting the roof. All in all it was a strenuous but satisfying few days work accompanied by the occasional spell of good weather, the screeching of the nearby nesting gulls and their young and fantastic surrounding views of Weddell seals and spectacular icebergs.

The main hut is mostly structurally secure with the timbers in sound condition. However, the concrete footings have been eroding away (quite variably) due to the combined efforts of wind, ice and cold over the many years the base has been uninhabited. From the base reports we know that at time of construction, aggregate was to be sourced locally but due to the precipitous nature of the coastline it was in short supply and the men had to trawl the surrounding area (including the penguin colony at the Beacon – about 600 metres away) for any available material. This must have been a gruelling task and we are staggered by the amount of work that was involved in building a place such as this by a small group of men in the harshest of conditions at the onset of winter. When mixing the concrete using local aggregate they had difficulties making it set probably due to impurities in it such as salt and penguin guano!

We have over the last few days been industriously clearing fifty years of ice build up from around the external damaged piers -  trying to make enough space to allow forms and shuttering to be placed in situ in which to pour new concrete (with aggregate sourced from the UK!). This is a slow, laborious and thankless task involving a combination of hatchet, cold chisel, drill and propane fuelled blow torch in pretty lousy weather and in very cramped conditions. Tudor just about fits under the building in some places and even Anna being much smaller didn't find it an easy task either. It's an ongoing job and we hope with a few more good weather days to complete it by next week – watch this space! 

Chipping Ice from the Main Hut Foundations ... and More Concrete Work

In a brief spell of good weather we took advantage and completed a few smaller jobs including painting  the pup pen roof, re-glazing 13 window casements and treating the rusting shackles on the aerial mast. When the weather was too bad to allow any outdoor works Anna was able to complete cataloguing of all the objects in the meteorology and radio rooms.

What a productive week it has been! It has included four ship visits which have been a welcome distraction from our normal work routine. Ten days after  being dropped off by the National Geographic Explorer we were again looking forward to welcoming them back to the island. The ship had anchored just north of the island in a thick fog and although we could not see the ship we could certainly hear the heavy sounds of the anchor being lowered. Bud, the expedition leader called us on the radio and invited us onboard for a quick shower and lunch after the visit. Following the offer of doing laundry during the visit he then asked if it was ready to be collected with the first boat. This sent us into a flurry of activity stripping our dirty smelly clothes and changing into clean clothes (for the first time since arrival!) to make sure everything that could be washed would be washed. Throughout the morning the weather improved and we enjoyed explaining the work that we do and the history of the base to a very interested group of passengers and of course once again operated the 'W' post office.  Words cannot describe how much we enjoyed our very first and only showers so far!

A number of days later we welcomed Fram to the base and all enjoyed seeing familiar faces amongst the expedition team and crew (with whom we had sailed almost a month ago). Karin, the expedition leader and other staff members had not visited since the the Trust has become custodian and were overwhelmed with the improvements that have been made in recent years. The fantastic weather during the landing seemed to make the passengers lose their minds (or so we thought) when they were seen on the sub-island plunging joyfully into the freezing Antarctic waters – all part of the many curious ways to celebrate crossing the Antarctic Circle. Needless to say we did not feel inclined to join them. We did however very much appreciate the wonderful selection of fresh food personally delivered by the Fram's head chef Eirick which was a welcome change from our normal tinned food and chocolate diet!

Michael, Anna and Tudor at the Sub-IslandIn the footsteps of Base W's original inhabitants we decided to have our own excursions but in a perhaps more sedate fashion. We set off to the low lying sub-island which, although connected at low tide, required use of a ladder to access because of the snow banks which have yet to thaw. The islet is now frequented by large numbers of Weddell seals which we went to look at at closer quarters one early evening. Although these days we take shots of the seals with our cameras, back in the day these seals would have been a mainstay of dog food for a sledging base such as this with up to forty working dogs. We have read with interest that the shortage of local available seals for dog food during the occupation of the base was a constant problem in maintaining their main mode of transport needed to complete the essential surveying of the Peninsula.

Travelling to the BeaconWhen the availability of seals was too scarce dog food was occasionally supplemented by penguins from the 'Beacon' colony, once easily accessible by the base. Although the permanent ice bridge to the 'Beacon' has since melted we were confident following Tudor's evaluation (as an experienced former British Antarctic Survey field guide) that we could descend the snow slope to the beach and safely ascend the cliff on the other side with the use of a rope and ladder.

 Anna and Tudor at the Beacon


It was wonderful to be here amongst the Adelie penguins and chicks in varying stages of development from little fluff balls to large, moulting fledglings. Whilst here we were thrilled to discover the actual wooden beacon (now collapsed) which stood on the NW point. We thought we had a hard task of moving our materials and equipment in the proximity of the base but whoever had the hard task of taking the drum of cable the 600 or so metres from the base all the way up to this magnificent view point has our utmost respect - as do all those that lived here.

Tudor, Michael and Anna