Some of the field projects being run over the Antarctic winter are based at camps deep in the heart of the continent, many hundreds of miles South of Rothera. BAS therefore run a couple of forward operating bases at points down the peninsula – these are basically just small camps manned by a couple of people whose job it is to look after the Twin Otters on their way through, keeping the airstrips open and refuelling the planes when required.
Sky Blu is one such camp, and I was lucky enough to be sent down there on my ‘summer break’ for a couple of weeks. Sky Blu is notorious amongst BAS staff as being something of an Antarctic gulag. It is cold and unforgiving, with the inmates there forced to spend long hours shovelling snow from the runway in the biting wind. I suspect that my posting there was something to do with a conversation I’d had in the bar one night with the Ops Manager, during which I’d explained to him at length how much I loved digging.
The flight south took a couple of hours, for most of which the landscape below us was hidden by a thick layer of cloud. However, as we neared Sky Blu, the cloud disappeared and a beautiful, clear day emerged. The camp is located on an unusual part of the plateau where any falling snow is immediately scoured off the surface by the fierce winds, leaving a vast area of blue ice. This surface is solid enough to land wheeled aircraft on, which allows BAS to operate both the ski/wheel equipped Twin Otters and the wheels-only Dash-7 from the site.
On landing, I was greeted by Ian, the base commander, with the words ‘Welcome to God’s own country’. He was right – the blue ice runway sparkled in the sunshine, the neatly ordered camp perched on a mound nearby, and the elegant massif of Mount Lanzarote towered above everything. Despite the bright sunlight, the thermometer read about -15 Celsius, a temperature at which even the slightest breeze knifed through clothing and nipped any exposed skin.
Life at Sky Blu was pleasantly simple and dominated by manual labour. For every incoming plane, we dug drums of fuel out of underground depots and hauled them by skidoo to to the apron for refuelling. If there was any snowfall (not surprisingly, a regular occurrence in this part of the world) and the wind wasn’t strong enough to blow it away, then we headed out in thick duvet jackets and fur hats, to spend hours driving the chilly, open-cabbed snowplough up and down the runway to clear it for the next aircraft. Even when no planes were due in, there was still the neverending job of clearing the drifts away from the huts and the depots with a shovel and some grunt. After a couple of hours of work we would head inside to warm our hands and make hot tea. Even this was no simple task – all of our water came from snow that had to be laboriously dug up and melted on the stove.
The accommodation was basic, but suited me perfectly. We had one melon hut for sleeping, which contained a couple of bunks and very little else. The temperature in this hut rarely rose above zero, so I was grateful for my BAS-issue down sleeping bag (my track record continues of only ever being too hot in this bag). A second hut provided living space, with a bench for cooking, a table and all of the radio and comms gear for keeping in touch with Rothera.
For a couple of my days down there, the weather was bad enough that we avoided going outside too much. Given the cramped conditions in our living area there wasn’t too much we could do, other than read books and work our way through the enormous pile of tractor magazines (Ian is a fanatic classic tractor owner and fan). This was also an opportunity to try out my currently-dormant cooking skills, experimenting with exciting new ways of presenting tinned potatoes and spam (I failed).
The highlight of the trip came on a quiet, calm evening when all flying for the day had finished and a couple of us took the opportunity to skidoo half-way up Mt Lanzarote, and then trek the rest of the way to the top. The steep climb had me breathing heavily in the thin air, and the moisture from my breath crystallised in the bitter cold. Once at the summit we were met with stunning views over the endless, bleak plateau. To the South, occasional small nunataks poked above the snow, but to the North was flat, blue ice as far as the eye could see.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end, and later that week Rothera came up on the radio to inform me that I must get on board the next northbound aircraft. The flight home was uneventful, but I spent most of the journey looking forward to my first shower in a fortnight, and a clean change of clothes. Sadly though, once we’d touched down at Rothera and climbed out of the plane, we were told that the base was in the middle of a scheduled power outage and that the water supply had been temporarily cut off. I was desperate to go and have a ‘welcome back’ drink in the bar, but couldn’t really inflict my odour on my colleagues. Desperate measures were called for, so I decided to have a wash with the contents of my water bottle, which I had carefully filled that morning with Ribena. My summer holiday therefore ended with a pleasant evening in the Rothera bar, accompanied by a slight stickiness and a gentle odour of berries.