|84 Degrees South|
Along with the many instruments on the station, we maintain a set of automatic magnetometers and riometers located on a line between Halley and the magnetic south pole. These instruments measure small short term changes in the intensity and direction of the Earth's magnetic field. These changes occur as particles ejected from the sun, both during its normal activity and after solar flares, interact with the Earth's own magnetic field. The instruments are, for the most part, black boxes. They sit out on the ice for a year, power themselves from solar cells and wind turbines, and record what happens. Every now and then, though, someone has to head out to check they're all ok, and to remove the data they've collected for analysis. This year that job was done by me and Julius, one of the radar engineers on the Piggott.
Like any activity at Halley, flying operations happen when the weather gets good enough. We need clear conditions at the station to take off safely and have somewhere to go if something goes wrong, and a good chance of good conditions where we're going. Satelite pictures and weather models help a lot with this, but often you just have to get up early in the morning and look out the window to see if the weather is good or bad.
Today things were fine, with few clouds expected anywhere on our route, mild winds blowing at Halley and only slight cloud cover along the coast. After waiting a bit for the satelite images we get a "go" and scramble to pack bags, fetch survival gear, find our warm clothes and grab the instruments and tools for installation. Then it's down to the skiway to load everything into the plane. As we plan to fly a long way, further than the fuel tanks of the plane allow, we carry three barrels of fuel with us, pushing them onto the plane up a couple of ramps and lashing them down in the hold. With everything safely stowed I climb into the co-pilot seat and strap myself in, keeping my hands well out of the way while Ian, our pilot this season, goes through his pre-flight checks. After fiddling with levers and switches, twiddling gauges and knobs, and a final exchange of cryptic messages over the radio, he pushes on the power and we surge forwards.
The plane rocks gently as Ian taxis over the rolling snow to line up along the skiway. Another surge of power, a whining roar from the engines, a slight shudder from the controls and we leap forwards into the wind and shoot upwards. "Halley. Halley. Victor Bravo Bravo. Airborne!"
Ian keeps to a steep climb and Halley quickly shrinks to a collection of dots and smudges, the station that seems so large when I walk around it is suddenly overwhelmed by the scale of the ice shelf. We turn away and head due South, steering on 180 towards and over the massive ice falls that crash and grind giant blocks of blue white ice into the sea. A wrinkled nightmare of slots and cliffs, a route that would take days to pick a way through, now ignored as we soar overhead and towards the flatter, higher ground beyond.
After the interest of the coast we enter the flat nothingness of the plateau. Below white, here and there marked by thumbprint folds. Regions of crevassing where the sheet is pulled apart and open, larger than a town, but quickly merging back into the constant solid surface. The snow isn't so sure as it looks. Scattered pinpricks of blue darkness show where snow bridges have recently collapsed into thin canyons that plummet deep into the ice. The sky around is a bright but deep blue, becoming pale and milky until it merges with the bright white ice.
An hour or so of unchanging ice passes softly below then a part of the horizon develops a patch of dirty blue and black. This smudge grows and spreads as we advance, ghostly forms looming at the edge of our view finally resolve into certain but small cliffs of rock and ice. A small range, the Therons, a dam holding back the crushing force of the ice piled up on the plateau behind. Once overhead the range disappears but already another dark stretch appears across the horizon.
The second set, the Shackletons, are more mountainous. Dark brown and black with sharp shards forcing their way up as islands floating on an ocean of ice. The scaly backbone of some ancient reptile laying half burried by the snows that slowly crawl along its length. If this was Europe the mountains would be famous, brothers to the Alps, frequently skiied, climbed mined and photographed. Here they're remote, alone and unknown, but their barren isolation makes them somehow more spectacular.
After that rocky interlude, my first sight of hills for over a year, the continent reverted to its sterile streches of ice, riven with slots or rolling slowly as giant waves of pressure form and mould the frozen heights. The ripples sweeping and curving over the plain for hundreds of miles, patches of roughness that pick up the steady sun and glint brilliantly against the bright background. We're flying at 9,000 feet, now only 3,000 feet above the surface that has been slowly rising as we've progressed further south. Two kilometers of ice rising into the sky, stretching ahead to the edge of sight. It's an amount of water that's impossible to grasp. Like standing on cliff by the ocean and looking out, the clear sky is empty, easy to hold in the mind, but the crushing mass of water below escapes the human scale and evades the imagination.
Six hundred miles from Halley we descend, homing in on a GPS position, a virtual flag to guide us to the small site on the snow below. At a hundred feet we circle, scanning the ground for the clump of barrels that marks the depot. I spot them, half burried in the snow, and Ian circles back round. We're landing without a runway at a site that's not been visited for a year, so we don't land straight away. Instead Ian feints at the ground, touches down with the skis but powers up and pulls away and up. We look back to examine our tracks, seeing that no holes have opened up we turn once more and dart at the ground, this time staying on the deck. As we taxi towards the drums I see signs of small crevasses, cracks that have closed up and frozen over, but all small, enough to trap an ankle but not to swallow an airplane.
The instruments are a couple of hundred meters from the fuel dump, so Julius and I walk out, pulling our tools and the podules in a pulk sledge as we tread carefully to the sensitive site. Thin clouds high in the sky throw a halo around the sun and a biting wind gives life to fierce snakes of snow that swirl about our legs. It's cold, colder than Halley, six hundred miles and six thousand feet have dropped the temperature by twenty degrees, and the wind saps the feeling from fingers that work quickly to untie knots or unscrew cables before retreating into mittens for a while to warm.
We swap the first podule and turn it on, but nothing happens. We wait for a few minutes, watching and hoping, but nothing we try can bring it to life. We swap to a spare which lights up first time and lets us escape the biting cold as we retreat to the plane. Then up and away. An hour or so spent at the furthest south I'm likely to achieve. 84 degrees and 22 minutes, a mere 400 miles further to the geographic pole, but then fewer people have visited A84. The three of us were probably the only people for 400 miles, in whatever direction.
After A84 we visit M83, which is much the same but a little to the north, although with no drums at the site it took a few minutes to spot the instrument against the snow. M83 installs smoothly and we're soon heading back towards the Shackletons to A80. This site is around twenty miles to the south of the range, and was warm with no wind. The most scenic instrument I've visted, ringed around with the mountains scratching their way above the snow. I could happily have stayed for days, but time was pressing on so we took off once more and made our way to M79 where time finally ran out.
It was about ten by the time we'd sorted out the instrument so we decided to stay the night and return to Halley in the morning. We emptied the plane of the used barrels we'd picked up at A84, made a brew, ate a few biscuits brown and some packs of manfood, then rolled the sleeping bags out in the belly of the plane. As I drifted into sleep I couldn't help but marvel at where I was. Sleeping in a plane at -20, sat on a kilometer thick plate of ice, the sun still shining in the sky and nothing or no one but the three of us for over two hundred miles. Antarctica's a special place, and on days like this I feel very lucky to be here.
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