Another very important Field Training exercise was – safe travel in the field, especially the Vestfold Hills. The first part of this training was to fly to Trajer Ridge which is around 21km east of Davis Station
One of the most exciting things to do in Antarctica is to get a flight in a helicopter.
When taking a helicopter flight from Davis – We bring our survival pack and other cargo to the Heli-hut. This is the “arrival/departure lounge” at Davis. It is made up out of four containers that have been fitted out. This building was at Davis when I was at this station in the summer of 2005/06. Inside you will find drawings and the names of many of the expeditioners that have passed through this wonderful station.
The following is a short video – departing Davis for Trajer Ridge.
The flight route – departed Davis to East-Northeast following a string of lakes – Dingle Lake, Lake Stinear and then across Deep Lake.
Deep Lake is a hypersaline lake which is 27% salt, making it 10 times saltier then the ocean. Because of its salt content it never freezes, even when the temperature of the air above drops to -30℃ to -40℃ (-22℉ to -40℉). The surface temperature of the lake can drop to -20℃ in winter. Surprisingly the lake harbours a unique flora of salt-loving Archaea that survive at temperatures way below freezing.
After Deep Lake we proceeded east towards the Plateau and Trajer Ridge.
We passed over Trajer Ridge and the snow filled narrow valley to the south of the ridge. We then flew a tight curve around a high (124 metres above sea level) hill to approach the Trajer Melon (refuge) across Pauk Lake.
The following is video of the approach to Trajer Melon (refuge)
After landing on the snow, we crouched down with our packs just in front of the helicopter. After the helicopter disappeared to the west, we gathered our packs and decided to go to the hut and have some lunch. We got to the rapidly moving melt stream just below the hut. From our side it looked as though the stream was to wide.
Our FTO, Nick, decided we would go for a walk, carrying our survival pack up the high hill just the west then approach the hut from the slope.
The Vestfold Hills is home to many snow petrels. Where there are snow petrels there are also Antarctic skuas. Snow petrels are hunted by the skuas, so all through the hills you will find body parts and bones of the victims. In many cases all you find of the petrels is their wings.
After descending the gentler eastern slope of the hill we finally made it to the Trajer Melon. We stopped here for lunch and a cup of tea.
The Trajer Melon was removed and replaced by a newer larger structure during the summer. We were some of the last expeditioners to take advantage of its comforts.
After lunch we packed up and left Trajer Ridge Melon. This time we successfully crossed the snow melt rapids.
After safely crossing the melt stream we set off to the west on the next part of our field training.
Another part of our training for the wintering group was to “Sleep Out” overnight in the field. 12 of the wintering team set out for Brookes Hut. The logistics of this involved being transported by helicopter to the hut. This was done in four flights.
The short flight from Davis to Brookes takes you over the amazing landscape of the Vestfold Hills
As we approached Brookes Hut – we could see two FTO’s (Field Training Officer) standing on the snow and ice next to the hut. Their job was to guide the helicopter pilot (Toby) in and once it landed they unloaded the cargo panniers and guide the passengers.
Now that we were all at the hut, the FTO’s, Psycho (Chris) and Gideon gave us a talk on Map reading and compass use. I must say this is one of the most amazing classroom’s.
After a group photo we did some practical training out on the snow. How to use a ‘throw bag’. As the name implies it is a bag that contains rope and should be part of everyone’s survival pack.
If a fellow expeditioner falls through the ice – the rescuer, while holding on to the rope end and then throws the bag towards the person in trouble, who grabs the bag and then holds onto the rope or ties himself to it, while the other person or persons pull the stricken expeditioner out of the water or across the thin ice.
As we had 24 hours of daylight – we participated in another practical excercise.
At 6pm we set off on a hike. We split into 2 groups each with a group leader. We were to navigate using map, compass and dead reckoning to make our way to a high point to the Southeast of Brookes Hut.
Once we reached our desired destination we had further lessons in navigation. We also had a lesson in radio protocol and how to carry out a scheduled radio call (SITREP) back to the Station. These scheds occur at a pre-determined time – usually 7pm and sometimes also in the morning. A group or party in the field also has to radio in, when leaving or arriving at a destination.
The SITREP is as follows
Alpha: Position information – can be a Lat and Long, Grid reference points, Feature or Hut name.
Bravo: Number and Health of the party.
Charlie: Conditions of vehicles – mechanical or otherwise.
Delta: Intentions – describe intentions for the next 24 hours, including intended routes and departure and arrival times.
Echo: Weather – Provide a weather observation.
Foxtrot: State of the track or route.
Golf: Other info or requests.
Just after 7pm we headed back along a different route towards Brookes Hut.
We arrived back at the hut just before 8pm. We were all very hungry, but first we had another training session in the use of fuel stoves.
It was time to prepare and cook our evening meal using the newly acquired skills of using the fuel stove. Before leaving station, we had each selected freeze dried or dehydrated food packs which we now re-hydrated and heated.
I had an army ration pack of dehydrated beef stew, which I re-hydrated and cooked in it’s own pack, using water boiled up from melting snow and ice in a saucepan. It was quite tasty, though that may have been because of being quite hungry.
After dinner it was time to prepare our sleeping quarters? Most opted for the idea of digging a hole in the snow and ice. The hole was dug to a depth of around 50cm (2ft) and 75cm wide and 180 to 200 cm’s long. The advantage of sleeping in this ice ‘coffin’ was that it was out of the wind and quite well insulated.
I, along with 4 fellow expeditioners opted for sleeping in a bivvy bag (essentially a tent without poles). I found a position on the hill behind the hut, that was reasonably flat and sandy and preferably behind a rock or boulder to provide some protection from the wind.
One person set up a polar tent, which probably was the most comfortable option.
Before going to bed and I went to the hut (heated) and had a nice hot cuppa. Then it was off to brave the elements.
Several things happened overnight…..
Firstly – trying to get comfortable on a narrow, 1 cm foam mattress on rocky ground isn’t ideal. Surprisingly I was quite warm, probably because of the several layers of clothing and the down sleeping bag.
I did wear ear plugs, though they didn’t seem to help that much – the slightest breeze made the bivvy bag flap around and when the wind picked up occasionally the noise is likened to ‘sleeping inside a potato chip packet’.
The next problem is light – at the time of the year (December) we were already experiencing 24 hours of daylight. I wore the headband over my eyes so that alleviated that problem.
During the night i came to realise that the bivvy bag doesn’t breath very well. Once I did get to sleep, it was short lived as I woke up with the strange sensation of snow falling on me. My breathing resulted in moisture condensing on the inside of the bag, then quickly freezing and flaking off with the slightest waft of breeze. Hence my exposed face was covered in ice and snow crystals.
Despite all of this it was an amazing experience and I woke at around 7am feeling quite refreshed. After packing everything away it was time for breakfast – Gideon had prepared a large pot of hot porridge.
By 8:30am we were all watered fed and packed. The two groups that were formed yesterday were to stay the same and we would depart Brookes Hut 20 minutes apart. I was in the first group and over breakfast we had marked or intended route on our maps, including land marks that would confirm we were on the right path.
We left for Davis around 9am.
After reaching the island we decided to cut across some low hills and intersect the valley. This didn’t work to well. Although we came into a valley it wasn’t the right one – so again we decided to go cross country on a compass bearing – this required us to climb a steep ridge.
After reaching the top of the ridge – the plan was to follow the shallow valleys that generally were on a heading to the Southwest – the only disadvantage of travelling in valleys that the snow melt found its way into them forming little tarns which we had to make our way around. Also many sections of the ground were soggy under foot.
We came to a valley that was at 90º to the one we were travelling in. It was heading south and we could see a large lake at the end. Realising that it was Lake Stinear, we decided to change our plan – head to the lake and turn west and follow the northern shore.
After reaching the western end of Lake Stinear we travelled across and open wide valley that lie between Lake Stinear and Dingle Lake. As with a lot of the Vestfold Hills it was strewn with rocks and boulders. One has to be constantly aware of the next foot placement in this landscape.
Finally we came to Dingle Road – it was now just a case of following the road for around 3.5 km to Davis.
Dingle road was a nice change to walking over the stone and boulder strewn landscape. As we got closer to the station the road deteriorated – There was still a lot of last winters snow and ice across sections of the road. Other sections were under water and we had to go off-road to avoid getting bogged down in the mud.
We got back to Station at 2:15 pm. It was a successful Field Trip – a good preparation for the year ahead.
During the Winter months at Davis the main mode of transport, besides walking, is quad bike travel. So before the sea ice disappeared in December the summer Field Training officers took 16 of the wintering expeditioners, including myself, on a day of quad bike training.
Before we actually get to ride we have know our way around the bike. They are fitted with high floatation tyres, surprisingly only inflated to max of 3 to 4 psi.
Another important factor is wearing of warm clothing and a special cold weather helmet.
After we were fuelled and ready to go we drove down to the edge of the sea ice.
It is difficult to transfer the bikes across the threshold of where the ice meets the land. Although the ice has little movement horizontally it does move vertically with the rise and fall of the tides.
Once on the ice it is quite easy travelling, but the rider must be vigilant for thin ice and sastrugi . When travelling over ice it is wise to check the thickness of the ice. On one of the quad bikes was a ice auger for drilling so as to measure the thickness. A safe thickness for quad bike travel is 20cm (8 inches).
We travelled on a pre-determined route which had been installed on a GPS unit. We each had with us a hand held GPS, but 2 of the quad bikes had a GPS unit mounted onto the front. One of these bikes led the way. The maximum speed of travel is 30kph.
We turned right after Anchorage Island then headed parallel to the coast for around 6 km before heading right again into Long Fjord. At narrow sections of the fjord the ice tends to be slushy and not so stable. These narrow sections need to be negotiated very slowly and with great care. Two of the bikes went ahead to drill the ice of the ‘narrows’ to check for thickness.
After negotiating the Narrows we entered Shirokaya Bay and could see the bright red colour of Brookes Hut across the bay. We stopped at the hut for lunch.
Brookes Hut was built in the early 70’s and is named after the person who built it. It is nestled on the shore of Shirokaya Bay. Originally and still at times today it is used for a base for science projects, including research on Deep Lake, which lies 1.3km to the south. Today it is mostly used for recreation by expeditioners wanting to have a break from Davis Station.
Brookes Hut is the closest of the recreational huts to Davis Station – the distance (if walking is around 13km and is usually via the shore of Lakes Dingle, Stinear and Deep.
After a pleasant lunch at Brookes Hut we gathered at the quad bikes on the ice and carried out some training – setting up a bivvy between 2 quad bikes plus becoming familiar with the quad recovery kit. This included the use of ice screws as anchor points.
We made our way along the designated GPS route across Shirokaya Bay then turned right and made our way along a narrow frozen channel towards Long Fjord.
We turned left into Long Fjord and along a wider section of the fjord we encountered a wide ‘creek’ or crack in the ice. Here we learned the technique of walking the quad bikes across this crack.
We eventually made our way into a little bay off Long Fjord and at the head of this bay, up a small rise was Ace Lake Apple – another small refuge, mostly used for science projects.
Here we learned another quad bike skill – riding up a slope covered with snow and ice. The quad bike is a ‘rider active’ vehicle so the body is used to counter- weight inclines.
We had a short break at Ace Lake Apple.
Whilst heading out from Ace Lake Apple we spotted something on the opposite side of the bay. As we got closer we realised it was a few seals. A few of us parked our bikes about 200 metres away and walked across the ice. Kirsten (our station leader and a biologist) identified them as weddell seals.
With the weather system approaching, the wind started to increase and the temperature drop. It was decided to make our way back to station. We took a slightly different route back, which took us close to some embedded ice bergs.
One of the features of the quad bikes here in the Antarctic is that the handlebars and throttle are heated -plus as you can see in the photo below there are insulated sleeves that also fit over the handlebars.
There are tide cracks around all the ice bergs – so one of our last lessons was probing the ice near the bergs, using our ice axe.
Once we arrived back on station – a final part of the training was to re-fuel the bikes and carry out a final check on the bikes so they are ready for the next use.
This is a short post about an ongoing project of drilling and monitoring the sea ice off Davis Station.
Every week during the winter, the sea ice thickness is measured at seven waypoints as part of an ongoing monitoring programme (AAS #2500) with Dr Petra Heil at the University of Tasmania as the projects leader. This information is fed into a larger study of the sea ice characteristics around the Antarctic.
This winter the Weather Bureau wants this project to be part of our duties. So both Daleen (Bureau of Meteorology Technical engineer/observer) and I (Senior Bureau of Meteorology Observer) went out with Ladge (Senior Science engineer) and Lotter (this winters Science Engineer) to learn the method of drilling and monitoring of sea ice.
To have consistency in the project – 7 drill sites have been determined and several measurements are taken at each of these sites every week.
The auger (drill) is 2 metres long, though more sections can be added. Once a hole is drilled right through the ice – a string with an attachment is lowered down the hole and once it is through the attachment is opened and anchors at the bottom of the ice. The depth of the ice is then measure off the string. A second string tied to the attachment is pulled so it folds and can be pulled up through the hole.
When the ice returns in late March or early April we start the measurements and monitoring. The 7 waypoints (measuring sites) are found by their GPS coordinates. A cane is then embedded in the ice so the site is easily located for the next reading in a week’s time.
All the measurements were fairly consistent with the ice thickness between 1.4 metres to 1.7 metres thick.
On route to the waypoints we passed close by some beautiful ice bergs embedded in the ice.
The sea ice was breaking out several kilometres from Station. As we drove further out we could not see the outer marker and we knew that the open water would not be to far ahead. So we stopped and Lotter climbed on top of the hägglund to try and spot the last waypoint cane.
Lotter couldn’t locate the cane, but he could see the open water so it was considered that the last waypoint was in the ocean. During the months of November and December the sea ice eventually breaks out completely.
We turned around and headed back to station.
Apart from the measurements a long term record of the sea ice depth and consistency -it is also vital for operational and recreational safe travel over the winter months as well as use of heavy equipment during the station re-supply.
With re-supply over the station was still a hive of activity. The wintering crew of the 69th ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition were on their final day on station. While the new incoming 70th ANARE were already busy organising their busy program for the up-coming summer.
We had a handover ceremony – with the out going station leader handing over the ‘keys to the station’ to Kirsten, the incoming SL. More or less after the ceremony the outgoing crew boarded the two hägglunds and made their way out across the sea ice to the Aurora Australis.
The next day the Aurora Australis slowly turned around in the ice and then sailed down the path she had made a over a week earlier.
The busy summer had begun – It was going to be a hectic time on station in the up-coming weeks with many projects and programs to commence.
One of the first things to put in place is the fire and emergency response team. So in the first week we had training sessions in fire response as well as the medical team (Lay Surgical Assistants) having a training session. The winter expeditioners were split into two Fire/ER teams.
Meanwhile the trades started their work programs.
Because of extensive daylight hours – there was plenty of opportunity to explore the station and surrounds (Station Limits). On the 24th of November the sun set at 1:18am then rise again at 1:49am. Then it wouldn’t set again until the 19th of January.
One of my favourite tricks in photography is to take a picture of a reflection, particularly in small puddles of water. Some examples of this to follow.
As mentioned in a previous post – I am the Post Master on Station. We have a building which is the Post Office. This small building has an amazing history – originally it was built on Heard Island in 1953 and housed the radio theodolite for tracking balloons. It was from a World War II design and prefabricated for easy construction at Heard Island. It was moved to Davis in 1959 after a brief stay at Mawson Station.
According to Davis Station Heritage Study (Rando & Davies 1996), this small, hexagonal shaped building was constructed of eight timber-framed, plywood-clad panels, filled with ‘Dufaylite’ insulation. It was used as a radio theodolite hut until 1962 and was then used mainly to store paint and clothing. When I was here in 2005 it was being used as the music/band hut.
There are also other old buildings around station – one of which is a remnant of the old Davis Station. It is now used as the ‘hobby’ hut and is stocked with tools and machinery for expeditioners to construct their hobby projects.
Once again I took out my Nikkor Micro 105mm f2.8 lens with the following result.
After re-supply many of the containers and equipment was stored in various places around the station until a place could be found for them. This included the beach in front of the station.
Included in the cargo to arrive on station were two work boats, which will be used to survey the surrounding shipping channel and ocean floor in the local area of Prydz Bay.
Geo Science Australia owned a yellow boat called the Howard Burton. The second, red boat called the Wyatt Earp is owned and operated by the Royal Australian Navy.
One evening after work a group of 8, including myself, went on a walk around the Station Limits to the northwest of the station. We came back along the shore of Heidemann Bay.
There are some amazing rocks and rock formations out in the Vestfold Hills
One of the jobs at the beginning of summer was to clean the windows while the temperatures were mostly above 0℃ (32℉). You would have thought that some of the external windows (double glazed) were inaccessible.
My job at Davis is to do weather observations. Part of the job is the release of weather balloons – this happens twice daily at 0615 and 1815 local Davis time which is 2315 UTC and 1115 UTC. At these times weather balloons are released and tracked all over the world, with the data fed into supercomputers to produce model profiles snapshots of the entire Earth’s atmosphere.
Beneath the balloon is attached a radiosonde – a instrument that transmits pressure, temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and wind direction as it makes its way up through the atmosphere. It transmits this information back to base every second until the balloon bursts at anywhere between 25,000 and 37,000 metres (this takes between 1.25 and 2.5 hours).
On Wednesdays we send a bigger balloon with ozone senses.
Just after arriving at Davis and while the ice was still ‘in’ we had an opportunity to walk out to Gardiner Island and have a look at the large adélie penguin colony. We were taken out by Jen and Vas who had just completed a winter at the base and were field trained.
It is a 4 km walk across the sea ice to Gardiner Island. Long before we got to the island we could hear and smell the adélie penguins.
Adélie penguins live all around the Antarctic coast and on the sea ice. They come to their breeding grounds in October or November. The male builds a nest made of rocks. The female will lay one or two eggs.
The eggs are incubated for 32 – 34 days with both parents taking shifts on the nest. The shifts are usually around 12 days with the brooding parent not eating during that time, while the other parent is out foraging for food.
All the while skuas gather at vantage points awaiting an opportunistic meal. Penguins that are distracted lose their eggs or young chicks to these skuas.
Based on a 2014 analysis (Wikipedia) there were 3.79 million breeding pairs of adélie penguins in 251 breeding colonies around Antarctica.
Always on the periphery of the breeding colony are many young adult penguins and/or breeding penguins that have lost their eggs. They look for opportunities to steal a nest.
The skua’s also hunt snow petrels, sometimes taking them in mid-air. When they catch a snow petrel they will eat everything except the bones and the wings. It is not uncommon to find pairs of snow petrel ‘angel wings’ around the Vestfold Hills.
The chicks start to hatch just before Christmas. Once hatched they stay in the nest for around 22days then leave and join other chicks in crèches. The chicks then moult into their juvenile plumage and go out to sea after 50 to 60 days – some time in March. All the while the adult parents take turns feeding – going out and fishing, feeding themselves and adding reserves to feed the chick or chicks.
The next time I was at Gardiner Island was early February when the chicks were 5 to 6 weeks old and in their crèches.
Penguins in general are a hardy lot and show amazing agility, strength and ingenuity to traverse their harsh and extreme environment. They are truly one of the wonders of nature.
The following photographs of adélie penguins were taken (by me) when I spent a summer as a weather forecaster at Casey Station in 2007/08.
After arriving at Davis Station – one of the most amazing sights is to see the Aurora Australis parked in the ice.
The Davis re-supply takes place over the sea ice. At the 3 other Australian Antarctic bases the re-supply takes place over water.
As mentioned in previous posts – the AA finally made it through the fast ice to a location at which it was safe to carry out the re-supply of cargo and fuel.
As there was not enough beds on station – some people were still sleeping on the AA and coming ashore for ‘day trips’. A couple of days after arriving at Davis I was fortunate enough to get a ride to the ship in a hägglund to bring a couple of day trippers back.
The Aurora was parked around 3.5 km off Davis – re-supply was in full swing and they had run the fuel line from the ship to the station fuel tanks.
At the stern of the ship was an open channel – the ships path through the fast ice. There were many adélie penguins resting on the ice alongside this channel.
Over 3 days around 830,000 litres of diesel was transferred from the AA to the station fuel tanks.
I managed to go out to the Aurora Australis a second time, but this time a group of us walked out across the sea ice on under a beautiful, clear and sunny sky.
On the way out to the ship we came across a group of adélie penguins. in their myopic state they come towards us – thinking that we are also penguins. Then they suddenly realise that we are not what we seem.
As we got nearer to the AA – one of the crew came out towards us. It turned out to be the captain Gerry O’ – it was great to see him.
I got a ride back to the station in ‘Opal’ the pink hägglund – I had to be back to open the Post Office. The mail bag would depart with the Aurora Australis.
Later the same evening I had one last trip out to the ship – this time I brought along all the postal stuff (first day covers, stamp packs, and post cards) for the crew to purchase and send.