Theron Mountains

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Along with the radars, thermometers and twirly wind measuring devices that live at the base all year, Halley is also used to support experiments scattered over the sector of Antarctica between us and the Pole. Magnetic and weather measurements are made by automated stations that need to be serviced during the summer. To reach these remote outposts airplanes have to burn a lot of fuel, so we also maintain a few depots of barrels to allow longer flights, and to allow flights with less weight in the airplane. These depots are nothing more than a bunch of drums left on the snow and a GPS position, so each year someone has to go out to check they haven't moved and dig them back up onto the surface.

On what I thought would be my last day at Halley I was grabbed at breakfast and told to have a shovel ready at the skiway in thirty minutes. Packing that, and some lunch and coffee, I headed out for a little adventure in our big red taxi. Actually quite small by the standards of, say, a DC3 or the monster Hercules transports the USAP use, our Twin Otters are closer to being a transit van with wings bolted on, but they can land anywhere, and usually only need about a hundred meters of clear ground to do so, so we like them.

While we call these "co-pilot" flights, I'm not really there to fly, but to be an extra person in the event of some problem with the aircraft as camping in the Antarctic on your own is a somewhat foolish thing to be doing. Also, no one wants to dig holes by themselves. Despite my mostly advisory role, I do get to sit next to the pilot and this time, after take off at least, I got to fly the plane. It's tricky to both maintain altitude and direction against wind drift, and still harder not to fall asleep with the gentle rocking of the machine and the heat of the sun through the scratched cockpit glass. Close by Halley during our ascent there are lots of features in the ice as it falls off the continent, so it's easy to gain a feel of motion and to place myself in the space above the ground. Further out there's nothing but ice forever, with a milky blur at its edge smudging the brilliant white snow into the deep blue sky, so even the horizon is hard to hold, and I have a go at instrument flying to keep us on course.

Antarctica gives you wings
Antarctica gives you wings

Approaching the Theron range
Approaching the Theron range

Avtur for the depot
Avtur for the depot

I managed to not do too badly, after an hour of nothing much, we first spot a dirty blue bump on the horizon, still over a hundred and fifty miles before the GPS position of the depot (ok, so I had a GPS to tell me where to go, this isn't cheating anymore), this slowly expands over the next hour of flying and resolves into a line of black dots, stretches along the horizon as black smears then balloons into hard hills, like the jawbone and teeth of some enormous predator, tearing a shred out of the edge of space.

Closer still I start to descend (you do this by turning the engines off, almost) and the range reveals layer upon layer of multicoloured rocks, stacked perfectly level, running from one peak of the range to the next, lines laid down in an ancient era alternate ordered stripes with the chaos of ice falls filling the valleys. Towering buttresses wear skirts of scree, each holding the same angles and lines, like architecture, making the whole look like some crumbling cathedral.

I hand back over to Mark, the real pilot, and he lands beneath the mountains by our barrels and we step out and dig for a bit, swinging our pickaxe in the sun, stopping between barrels to admire the view. After an hour or so we're done and stop for a picnic with the most breathtaking view in the world. The range is small, with only a handful of peaks, but we can see every outcrop. The scale though is immense, nothing else can distract from the simple forms on display, no views off down valleys beneath us, no foothills rolling of into the distance, no dark ranges to draw the eye. Somehow this sums up the Antarctic: it isolates things, people, thoughts. Throws them into contrast by surrounding them with nothingness, letting each stand only for itself without being wound in with anything that might diminish it.

Digging out the drums
Digging out the drums

Ice falls
Ice falls

The edge of the Theron range
The edge of the Theron range

Layers of colour
Layers of colour

We fly back to Halley, taking one last pass along the range before banking left into the half white half blue ahead. Later we descend towards the coast, then fly low along the cliffs at the edge of the ocean, clean white ice plunging into the shimmering blue sea. Here and there fast ice clings in the coves, penguins stand in clusters waiting to dive into the deep, flocks of white birds dance above the dark ocean then disappear as they flit over the ice.

Further along the coast we see the Shackleton has arrived, perched against the shore I surveyed the day before. We buzz the crew then circle back to base, where I'm told I should get packing and be ready to leave for the ship as soon as possible.

A hectic hour passes as I cram drawers and cupboards into bags, scan every shelf for discarded possessions, and hunt around tying up loose ends of work. Then I leave Halley as I arrived, sat on the back of a sledge in the sunshine.

Penguins cluster at the coast
Penguins cluster at the coast

RRS Ernest Shackleton moors up at Halley
RRS Ernest Shackleton moors up at Halley

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