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The day the email arrives confirming the trip, I haven’t yet told my children that I’m going — partly because it will mean three weeks away but also because I can’t quite believe it will happen.
A sense of disbelief has pervaded throughout the planning stages: as the FT’s then-environment correspondent Pilita Clark and I have been examined by doctors, tested sub-zero clothing and discussed the itinerary. I’ve even had to have root canal surgery to pass the medical. Now it’s real: we’re going to Antarctica.
Arriving at Heathrow a few weeks later, in late January, I feel a rising sense of excitement. I travel a lot for work but this is something else. We meet Sarah from the British Antarctic Survey and Rob, a marine geophysicist who carries a travel guitar and talks in terms of millennia.
From London, we’re crossing the Atlantic to São Paulo, hopping over the Andes to Santiago, then following the spine of Chile as far south as is possible.
Punta Arenas is a frontier town down on its luck. The southernmost populated place in Chile is a haven for explorers and a gateway to Patagonia. The fishing industry is not what it once was and the place feels a little ragged round the edges. As we arrive, a heavy metal festival blares away on the seafront and a few teenagers fight away their angst.
We kiss the toe of a bronze statue of an indigenous Patagonian for safe voyage, as is customary, and go for pisco sours in the Shackleton bar. Later I look at a dilapidated pier and think of the great Anglo-Irish explorer setting off to rescue his men just over a century ago. I realise it is midnight and still light. During dinner I had noticed a sign on the wall of a haunt favoured by backpackers, celebrating reaching the end of the world. We, however, still have a long way to go.
The Dash is an aircraft with most of the seating removed to hold the cargo, just a few seats screwed to the floor remain at the rear of the cabin. “If you want a drink, go right to the back of the plane and Aaron the flight engineer will show you how to use the kettle,” the pilot helpfully explains.
The passengers are a group of world-class scientists with Pilita and I tagging along. Places on this flight are as rare as hen’s teeth. For most of the five-hour journey, we are surrounded by clouds but as we approach the continent a weather front gives way to reveal Antarctica below. It is breathtaking. Mountainous spires stretch to the horizon. The continent is a swirl of pastel hues. I can feel my heart in my chest.
As we near our destination, the BAS base of Rothera, I’m invited to join the pilots in the cabin to film the landing. Ahead of me, mountain ranges rise straight out of the blue waters. It’s all I can do to compose myself and remember to take pictures.
The landing is gracefully executed but I’m quite glad to touch the ground. Jess Walkup, who will lead the base over the coming winter, greets us and takes us over to the main building. Planes do occasionally apparently just turn up, so we are advised to look left and right before we cross the runway. Rothera is basically a collection of long cabins along a gravel airstrip but it’s much larger and more comfortable than I expected.
Pilita is delighted to see a gang of elephant seals lazing in the sun just yards from the runway. In water, they glide effortlessly to depths of up to 900m. On land, though, they are cumbersome, restrained by a mattress of fat. One lets out a sound somewhere between a belch and a roar that echoes against the mountains around us. The effect is primeval, as is the stench.
Our first few days are packed full of training. There are many different sessions. One of the pilots advises us on safety around the plane (don’t walk into a propeller, it won’t end well). A meteorologist explains how to report the different types of clouds back to base (everyone is obsessed with the weather).
We are told to wear factor 50 sunscreen the moment we step outside and carry enough clothes to withstand a nuclear winter. This is an extreme place. The unexpected comforts are welcome: a well-stocked library, a bar and yoga lessons on the veranda.
The next day I make my first trip away from base. Graham Stuart, a professor of seismology from the University of Leeds is heading out into the field to retrieve two seismometers. This will involve a two hour flight to a small refuelling station called Fossil Bluff, where a couple of field assistants will attempt to dig out the sensor from the ice. We will travel by Twin Otter, a legendary aircraft known as the Land Rover of the skies, and land on skis.
Joining me on the trip to Fossil Bluff along with Graham will be Ian the pilot and Choccy and Zak, two field guides who will retrieve the instrument. Ian is trying to bolt extra seats into the plane for the passengers and loading fuel barrels into the back of the cabin. The Bluff, as it is known, is primarily a refuelling station and the only way to transport fuel there is by plane, so any spare space must be utilised.
We all clamber aboard. I’m co-pilot apparently, with my main responsibility being to keep Ian company. To give you a sense of the geography: imagine Rothera is London. Fossil Bluff would be Düsseldorf and along the two-hour flight there will be no other human life until we see the two people temporarily based at the hut. At that point, our nearest neighbours will be 360km away.
As we leave the base behind, the remoteness of the continent materialises. Normal metrics don’t apply here. Journalists often describe scale in terms of football pitches, but what should we use here? Belgiums?
I was told back in the UK, at BAS’s leafy headquarters, that the window of the Otter plane can be opened mid-flight to take pictures, but when it comes to it, it seems ridiculous to ask. Eventually I broach the subject with Ian and he agrees. So, at 10,000ft I open the window of the cockpit and stick my elbow out. It is childish but, as we dive in and out of the clouds, I can’t speak for laughing.
I’d been told to look out for a place called George VI sound, an area of ice that separates Alexander Island, where the Bluff is, from the Antarctic Peninsula. During the winter, the ice is thick and strong, then, as the continent warms up for summer, pools of meltwater appear on its surface.
The weather is closing in when we get close and we have to abandon our first planned landing place — and the seismometer that was buried there. Instead, we head straight for the airstrip at Fossil Bluff. As we get close, Ian gets us under the cloud cover at 1,000ft. Suddenly, the ice appears below. Strips of iridescent blue meltwater converge at the horizon. Ian weaves in and out of the patterns. It’s exhilarating. I’m keen to photograph as much as possible but we need to get on the ground, so we leave the sound behind and head for one side of the valley. All I can see is white but Ian has spotted the oil barrels that mark out the well-used airstrip.
The Twin Otter is surprisingly nimble. We touch down and slide from side to side, quickly coming to a halt. Two figures emerge from the snow, the current inhabitants of the hut: Jake, who is normally stationed at Rothera, and Jenny, one of the base doctors. They seem pleased to have visitors.
The hut at Fossil Bluff is legendary. A mile from the airstrip, it takes a while to trek there through the melting snow. It was built in 1961 when BAS staff were venturing further inland. It’s hardly changed since. A wood-burner flickers away in the corner. Books from a bygone age decorate the shelves. Fossils that have been collected over the years litter the hut (this land used to be tropical). The snow tractor that dragged the materials across the ice when it was thick enough to take heavy machinery is still in a garage nearby. It will never leave.
The field assistants Choccy and Zak get ready to go and retrieve the second seismometer. I would like to follow to take pictures but the ice is weak and dangerous and I get the impression my presence would make their job harder, so I readily agree to stay behind. They will attempt to ski in tandem towards the seismometer, although there is a real danger of crevasses.
Once at the site of the instrument, they will attempt to dig it out using shovels. We watch from the balcony of the hut. Should they fall through the ice it would be up to us to mount a rescue. All five of us watch as they ski out, eventually disappearing from view. We go back into the hut and follow their progress via radio.
There is some tension in the air. Jake gives hourly weather updates to Rothera as we drink tea and occasionally make contact with the guides. Initially, they have to turn back as the ice is too thin. Trying another route, climbing along the mountain side, they reach the site of the seismometer. But it has sunk into the ice during the last summer season and refrozen deep in the ice. It is lost and the whole expedition is in vain.
A few days later, Pilita and I finally get out on a trip together. We are joining Professor Matt Davey on a visit to nearby Lagoon Island, where he will attempt to measure snow algae. The island is a 40-minute boat ride from the base at Rothera. It is from a different age. Packs of elephant seals protest as we traipse across their home.
Matt clambers on to the ice and removes some of the lying snow to reveal tiles of green matting underneath. His colleague Adam is strolling about with equipment in a backpack that makes him look like a character from Ghostbusters. As we approach the site of the algae, we are attacked by a swarm of skuas — a piratical kind of seabird. They are nesting and are very wary of visitors. We are advised to wave flag poles to ward them off. It works up to a point but their divebombing is terrifying. I find myself adopting a kind of crawling/running/ducking jig. It must look ridiculous.
After a couple of hours, it is time to head back to base — the forecast has changed. Ritchie, our effervescent captain, encourages us all on board a small dinghy and we head towards Rothera. I’m filming the waves but as we escape the sanctuary of the lagoon and into the open water, the weather reveals itself. I’m soaked quickly.
I try to dry the cameras and get them into a waterproof bag but there isn’t one to hand and the waves are too rough for me to navigate the small boat, so I chuck them into the nearest bag and lie my body against it. All joking has stopped. Ritchie regularly checks on each of the passengers. “Are you OK?”, he asks Pilita. “Yes, I’m fine, why do you keep asking?” she replies. “You’ve gone a little blue,” he says — only half-joking.
Some salient facts whirl round my mind. In this water we would last “a couple of minutes” in the sea; with the immersion suits we are wearing that creeps up to maybe 10 minutes. But we are at least 30 minutes from the base. Every few seconds our boat lurches up at a vertiginous angle and then violently down again, slapping the freezing water.
This is not bad weather by any means but as I’m clinging on, the fragility of our situation apparent. In the bar later, Pete Convey, one of BAS’s most experienced scientists tells me: “It may feel comfortable but the Antarctic has a way of soon letting you know that you are just a guest”.
I’m starting to become familiar with the place now. Sarah suggests I give a talk about photography to the staff. It’s well-attended and it’s a good opportunity to explain why we’re here. We are keen to feel like part of the gang. One of our duties is to help clean the base, along with every other member of staff here. The rota for this is the only thing on the entire island that is locked. Pilita and I join in.
A couple of hours peeling and chopping onions seems appreciated. Later in the week, we comb the runway for pieces of metal that could damage aircraft. We also join in the socialising. I play board games in the evening and watch as people use the airstrip for a jog.
The Sheldon glacier has been dumping its ice into Ryder Bay for thousands of years. For a long time, the front of the glacier was stable but it began to retreat in the early 1990s. Peter Fretwell, a mapping expert who is using satellite imagery to record the changing landscape of the continent, joins us on a dinghy as we make a trip to the current face of the glacier.
It’s fractured front is a kaleidoscope of riveting blue. We float around for some time taking it in. I can’t stop giggling. Some seals float by on an iceberg, curious about the new visitors. If there has been a better day at work, I can’t remember it.
By now the end of our stay is coming into view. One of our objectives was to try and explain what it is like to live in a place like this for up to 18 months, by getting to know some of the people who work here.
Jess, the bundle of energy who first welcomed us to Rothera and who is running the base over the coming winter, is a whirlwind of efficiency. She describes how when she first arrived at Rothera and saw the 20 or so people around her she knew that these people would be her colleagues, her social life, her emergency support and her family for the next 18 months.
It’s quite a sobering thought. It’s hard to imagine the pressures on such a small community in such isolation but the recruitment process is rigorous and selects people with temperaments suited to these conditions. I wouldn’t last five minutes and am quite glad that I will soon be home.
One of the scientists takes great delight in teasing me — “What is the largest land animal in Antarctica??” “I don’t know. Er, a seal?” “No that’s marine. It’s a 3mm long fly!” Surviving on the ice is nigh-on impossible but less so under the water. A team of divers are collecting samples from the vibrant waters near the base. I’ve constructed a makeshift studio in their aquarium to photograph their specimens.
The range of creatures are fantastical. But the star of the show is Lesley, a handsome octopus, who hitched a lift to the surface on one of the team’s underwater drones. He seems to love the attention and performs a beautiful routine as I take photographs. I could swear the creature is smirking at me.
And so it goes — our time here is fast disappearing. I can understand why people become so attached to this place. It’s otherworldliness is addictive, and because there is no one else here, for a little while, it’s yours.
We start to think about how we will present the story. Understanding the Antarctic is critical to the future of our species. But working here is treacherous and the science by necessity needs to be long term — perhaps longer than the grants on offer. I’m glad that it is Pilita’s job to untangle it all.
All photographs Charlie Bibby/FT
Read Pilita Clark’s feature: Inside Antarctica: the continent whose fate will affect millions