Many moons ago, possibly on the edge of true Antarctic exploration (back when men were still real men who had a pretty good chance of losing their life in Antarctica), a small hut was set up on Alexander Island – Fossil Bluff. Its erection was a triumph to the first use of air planes in the Antarctic and to the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey (the predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey) which had aimed to establish a base there for several years.
Three men were left to winter for the very first time in an incredibly remote location. No ship would be able to reach them as George VI Sound (the stretch of sea between Alexander Island and the Antarctic Peninsula) remains eternally frozen and the use of air planes was limited to a very short season and extremely good weather. Their mission was to gain geological and metrological data from this area. As the name suggests, Fossil Bluff is rich on fossils especially fossils of little marine critters from the Cretaceous period and their work provided the basis for a collection that is still ongoing.
60 years later – that hut is still there and is now serving as a summer field station and small airport for the British Antarctic Survey. From October to March the small hut also known as Bluebell Cottage is generally manned with two people providing weather forecasts and managing the refuelling of the Twin Otter planes on their way to field sites.
Often, one of those people is a previous winterer on holiday from Rothera and towards the end of January it was my turn. Because flight operations are so weather dependent nothing is for sure, ever – and so in true field operations manager style I got told that I was scheduled to leave for Fossil Bluff the night before my departure. This meant I spent the evening frantically packing and unpacking and packing again (completely unnecessarily might I add – I changed my t-shirt once) and raiding the field kit store and sneaking treats out of the kitchen and trying to remember all the things I’ve forgotten during a sleepless night. Fossil Bluff is a 90 min flight away from Rothera along one of the most stunning parts of Antarctica. Rather than the perpetual flat whiteness of most of the Antarctic continent the West Antarctic Peninsula dressed up for the occasion. Razor sharp black mountain ranges grow out of a snowy blanket, interrupted, only, by the creases of tumbling glaciers and the deep turquoise melt pools which invite you to take a dip that you would – most certainly – immediately regret.
Bluebell cottage is nestled just on the edge of the sound and below Giza Peak, one of the scree covered mountains that mark the landscape. Although planes used to be able to land right next to the hut, changes in condition mean that planes now have to land on a skiway approximately a 15 min walk away. Far away from the buzzle of the ant hill which Rothera sometimes resembles, life at Fossil Bluff is simple and our daily routine seemed to me serenely tranquil. The person on weather duty would get up at 6.30, put the kettle on the refleks stove, turn the iridium on to download any emails (this can take a while) and go outside for the first weather observation. Generally still in their pyjamas and barefooted. Few things have felt so good than feeling the warmth of the sun soaked wood on your feet – especially after a year of wearing boots outside. By the time the other person woke up they, generally, had a nice cup of tea beside the bed and Rothera operations had sent through an initial plan of aircrafts that might come through.
If we had planes stopping by, we would walk up to the skiway, carrying anything that we wanted to send back to Rothera on our backs. Dealing with the planes was easy: We would prepare the requested amount of drums of fuel and inform the approaching aircraft of any aerial winds via VHF. Once landed we refuelled the Twin Otters, had a chat and sometimes a cup of tea with the pilots and as soon as they had left, life would return to benign equanimity. Needless to say, all the work that I had brought with me remained untouched. I am not sure I’ll ever make a good academic as I seem to lack dedication and my long-suffering supervisor has resigned himself to the fact that I enjoy skiing more than writing papers.
We filled our days with reading, walking up along the scree slopes – looking for more fossils and general house hold chores: Water was sourced from nearby melt streams, filled into jerry cans and carried to the hut where they were emptied into our reservoir tank; Cooking was an important part of our day – possibly because we both enjoyed eating – a lot! Because of the frequent air traffic we had fresh produce and meat and dairy products most of the time – yes, even on one of the most remote places on the planet, our snowflakedom was insured and we did not have to miss out on avocado toast or parmesan cheese. Our way of cooking, however, was limited to primer and refleks stoves. Yet, as it turns out, you can do quite a bit on these with a lot of patience and so we usually scrounged together a pretty good feast. I even managed to produce a brownie cake – which is what a smart chef calls a chocolate cake which has emulated the Roman Empire, by rising tremendously and subsequently falling pretty badly. At the peak of my culinary audaciousness I created our own pet in form of a sourdough starter (named Bluffy). Upon reaching maturity Bluffy produced a very respectable loaf – after baking for 6 hours that is.
In as big and as busy a station as Rothera certain aspects of your life are, necessarily, governed for you. Food is made for you at certain times, walking/skiing/climbing outside a small travel area is only possible with an experienced field guide, recreation time is set by station management, specific tasks can only be done during certain times to not interfere with station life. Turns out, being transferred from practically having your life run for you to complete autonomy in 90 min can be fairly confusing. On my first solitary walk to Belemnite Valley I felt like I was missing a limb and I constantly turned around to check whether I’ve lost something. It appears you get used to being kept on a leash by a fieldguide who, arguably completely justified, has no trust in your ability not to traipse straight into a crevasse. Yet, who would have thought that freedom smells like onions, that you can cut when you want, where you want and if you want!
P.S.: I’ve also just realised that I have completely neglected to take any photographs of the many fossils that have been found and can be found in the area – but here is a link to some lovely fossils that have been found in Antarctica.