Blizzed in at Colbeck

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This week at Mawson: 12 July 2013

Lighting a Tilly lamp (lantern).

Check the kerosene level.

Check the mantle condition.

Pressurise the fuel by pumping the nozzle 30-50 times.

Light metho soaked mantle warmer.

Place the lit mantle warmer under the mantle.

Realise there is a problem with the pump. Take everything apart. Put it all back together and start again.

As I write this little piece I’m hoofing down two packets  of pork flavored 2-minute noodles from a large cream coloured mixing bowl that’s more than likely been here since the hut was established  back in 1988, judging by the scratches and discolouration. Colbeck has been used as a base for scientific research for decades. An on-going study of the nearby Taylor Glacier Emperor rookery is the reason for our presence here at this time of the year. Photographs are taken of the boys incubating eggs whilst scrumming down in subzero conditions. Head counts are done using these photos and the colony size is established for the year. A few more sets of photos will be taken later in the year to give an idea of mortality over the season. I could write pages and pages on the program and use data freely available online to give stats that will show the changes taking place down here amongst the wildlife. Instead I thought I’d give an insight into hut life.

The Heroic Era has well and truly faded into myth and mystery. Antarctic legends still walk amongst us though, and tell tales of a time when environmental restrictions and recreational desires were open to interpretation. Running with the dogs, traverses and solo expeditions just happened. Stories of survival from the extremes because of accidents or mechanical failures run parallel with the telling of ostentatious pantomimes, guns and patting penguins. There are some great people who still call Antarctica their work place. Some make it down and work beside us, some work at head office and help facilitate our programs, and some just have their fingers in various pies associated with the great white continent.

So, when it comes time for the new generation of expeditioners to create their own stories it’s done with a bit less spontaneity, a bit less of the unknown, and a lot less of the hardships endured by our comrades of the past. We create our stories now through tried and tested safety policies, learnt lessons of the years gone by, and all with digital photos to back it up. There are still discoveries to be made down here. There are still lots of places to be found and gazed upon by human eyes for the first time. Our stories, the ones we create now, will pale in comparison to any written throughout the age of discovery. But none the less we will still have many stories to tell that will keep our loved ones and friends engaged long enough to make it all seem worthwhile.

One type of story, from the new age, is about getting ‘blizzed in’. The idea is that you take an excursion away from station to a hut, for either recreation or worked related guises, and then have to spend longer away because bad weather prevents you from getting back to station on your due return date.

I’ve moved on from my 2 minute noodles, having drunk the sediment that remained from the bowl, as if taking communion. I now sit hunched over the small table with a blend 43 steaming away just next to my laptop. Illumination comes from the Tilly lamp perched on a shelf just above me, and chillout sounds are coming out of a pair of speakers attached to an ipod.

Getting out to a hut is a time for us to unwind, to leave our jobs on station behind, and for our minds to wander onto any subject that our poisons take us to. The journey to a hut is more than likely just as enchanting as the relaxing stays that are found at the roads end. Huts are dotted all over the continent. Around our three Antarctic stations huts are located within easy reach, and offer refuge to inquisitive expeditioners or scientists doing field work. Other huts are located strategically around the place either from past scientific work, or ongoing studies that take place during only the summer months.

When undertaking a hut excursion things are organised on station such as the food and water to be taken, sleeping bags, tools, safety equipment urine (grey water) containers, radios, sat phones etc...

The people who intend to go out into the field make sure that their work is covered by somebody else, any observations also, and that if on the current fire team, that a replacement is found for the duration. Refer to last weeks article by John Burgess for a more in-depth list of resources needed.

Anyway so here we are, in Colbeck hut. At 2x3x2 meters plus an outside toilet come fuel store at 2x1x2, this makes for a very cozy residence. When first established the hut was perched on solid rock, with very little snow surrounding. Now years later the accumulation of snow and ice has caused the annual melt to flood the hut. From the outside a quarter of the hut is submerged in ice and now surrounded completely by snow. Inside 150mm of solid ice covers a mottled grey, delaminated linoleum floor. There are four bunk beds running down the north and east sides. Practically only two people can sleep here but should the need arise if everybody curls into a fetal positions, four can squeeze in. Three tubs of 16 day ration packs sit on top of drawers that contain frozen cutlery, candles, matches, tea towels, toilet paper, rubbish bags and hut log books. Moving along to the south comes the oven and stove top. On the western side we have a sink under which cups, glasses and bowls are kept. A small gas heater is nestled under these, and just to the side, the step up to the hut entrance.

Throughout history candles have given character and charm to various locations. Stuck in an old wine bottle with years of melted wax accumulated on the sides... well, welcome to the new age of evaporating candles. Charmless and quick burning these candles do add charm to a hut with yellowing tones of flickering light, but not the romantic portrayals of years gone by. Anyway, we have efficient generators that pump 240 vaults straight into the hut and allow our eco conscious energy saving light bulbs to radiate the soft tones as described on the box. Colbeck hut also has a light bulb in the toilet which many other huts don’t offer. Often I’d be sitting on the throne with a national geographic open on my lap, being illuminated by the light coming through open air, as I would have jammed the door open so I could see both what I’m reading and also the Antarctic landscape.

But back to Colbeck, the toilet here consists of a bucket placed under a shelf with a large hole cut out. On top of the hole is a hand crafted seat made of foam. Two black plastic bags line the bucket. An alcohol based antibacterial hand pump acts as the wash basin. An orange oil acts as the air freshener, and Johnsons and Johnsons baby talc acts as the flush cycle. A generator is stored in here along with Jerry Cans of SAB (Special Antarctic Blend diesel), unleaded petrol, small bottles of metho and ATK (Aviation Turbine Kerosene). Ice crystals line the room like vogue wallpaper. The ground is covered in snow from the blizzard outside. Hooks hang power cables, rope and bits of wire. A shelf holds four old-style torches whose empty handles relegate the objects into the ornament category. Rubbish bags and toilet paper sit atop 20 year old magazines such as new idea and national geographic whose pages are now all faded along with the fashion styles and perms contained within. There is a shovel outside that gets used to clear both the toilet door and also the hut entrance. On our arrival to the hut we ran out of gas fairly early on. In order to change the gas bottles out (we brought two replacements along) a lot of ice was chiseled away form the base of each cylinder and metres of snow shoveled away to gain access. Water is boiled in a large pot from which noodles, coffee and wash up water can be taken. A bucket under the sink collects the used water and once filled, is taken down to the waters edge (tide crack) and poured into the ocean. Vents are opened in the hut to allow toxic fumes to escape, this means that when the heater is turned off at the end of the night, temperatures plummet to subzero very quickly. There is a CO2 monitor located on the wall just above the table. A green light flashes away during the night telling us all is safe and that we will wake up in the morning.

Cheese, smoked oysters, tabasco and crackers form the usual fare. Tang, coffee and green tea now quenches our thirst. Books are read, cards played and banter echoed through the valley. Hut life is an escape from the rest of the world. No internet, no surprises, no telephones and no expectations. Hanging in a hut is a chance to relive the camping trips of our youth, we get to eat anytime we wish, play games with friends and drink to the future. A lot of things have been lost to the past. Thankfully our use of huts isn’t one of them. So as I write this by the light of a Tilly lamp, the winds that swirl snow now covering the hut, have also brought along with them a story for me to share. I’m stuck in a hut in the Antarctic. I’m blizzed in. I can’t get back to station. I’m loving it.

Ice floor Colbeck hut
Breaking ice to open a cupboard

(Photo: Cliff Simpson Davis)

Colbeck Hut completely covered in snow and ice except for the roof and the door.
Home sweet home

(Photo: Justin Chambers)

Jeremy Little at Colbeck HUt looking through boxes in a small hut.
Jeremy rummages for utensils

(Photo: Cliff Simpson Davis)

A Hagg is pulled up at Colbeck hut and a tent is pitched nearby.
Making camp

(Photo: Justin Chambers)

Darron Lehmann wearing thermals by the door inside the hut.
Darron heading out to take photos

(Photo: Cliff Simpson Davis)

Justin Chambers pouring water into a saucepan.
Justin can't stay away from the stove.

(Photo: Cliff Simpson Davis)

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This page was last modified on 12 July 2013.