Welcome to winter. This week at Davis our newly arrived expeditioners undertake survival training, our team of plumbers, electricians and general trades solve big problems in medium sized pipes and ,when time permitted, some trooped off into the hills, to be seen again, later…

Survival training

Field training is normally something that is completed in the warmth of summer under the guidance of a field training officer or FTO, however when you arrive on the last ship of the season and all the FTOs are heading home, you have to still carry out these necessary requirements to be able to go into the field. This task is now undertaken by someone whom the station leader and senior FTO deem to have the experience and qualities to be able to train and guide others. These tasks were given to me (David Brett) as this is my third winter and I’m old (ish).

So the story begins.

After trawling through countless files, documents and procedural related sites on the Davis server under FTO, I found enough documents to put fear into the hardiest mountaineer let alone one Greg Bird, Senior Communications Technical Officer, and his shipmate from V3 (voyage three), Alex Rogers, Bureau Of Meteorology tech. First test of their abilities was to meet on Sunday in the field store,a place of all things shiny and warm, to be fitted with the standard kit including sleeping bag, bivvy bag, compass, maps and so on, but most important of all was selecting an appetizing dehydrated meal they were going to take and prepare for the evening’s feast. Monday morning started with training on map, compass and navigation skills in the operations conference room, a place of warmth, with little wind or other elements inhibiting the abilities of Greg and Alex to take in the volumes of information presented to them. Preparation of food for the two days and what to wear, in the now −15°C temperature — not the balmy −5°C that the rest of the winter crew did their training in — were now the areas to concentrate on prior to morning tea, the best time to take in all the required protein and energy intake to last the next few days.

We started the walk in typical Davis conditions: bright sun, no wind and a cooling temp of −17°C. We were possibly a bit overdressed for the conditions as it wasn’t long before the two layers of gloves were reduced to one, the neck warmers was placed into jacket pockets and jacket zips started to be loosened from around our necks. Navigation and other relevant new skills were put to the test on route to our first point of call, a very calm Deep Lake, to carry out reading the water level, a job that should be done every month so detailed variations in the water levels can be monitored. This was followed by more navigation, more on what to do and how to do it prior to arriving at Brookes Hut for the night.

At the hut more was taught on what to do, when to do it, how to do it and what not to do, all before the evening meal of Teriyaki chicken, spaghetti bolognaise and rice. Apparently this was enough food for six people but was consumed with gusto by the three of us, followed by a desert of berry cobbler that could have used an extra hour to cook the cake mix into something that wasn’t the consistency of clag. (Thanks Greg.)

As night fell and the temperature plummeted it seemed a good idea to try the guys out on the art of bivvying under the stars/ snow clouds. (This means camping outside, in Antarctica. In a bag.) Alex rejoiced in the idea and settled in for the night like a pea in a pod. As for Greg, trying to fit someone 17’3” in to a bivvy bag was more of a challenge (it was like trying to fit an emu into a budgie cage — going with the bird theme here) but to his credit he stuck it out for a while before returning to the hut where I was still awake, diligently keeping the heaters going and hot water boiling, as part of my responsibilities for the guy’s safety and wellbeing.

All in all, we survived the night, the walk to the hut and the return trip home as well as the berry cobbler, so job done.

Tracing the heat

The site services here were at their temperamental best during the week. The electricians needed assistance in locating a fault in the potable water heat trace. Whilst opening the insulation, the plumbers located a faulty valve that was passing a very small amount of water and causing the issues. This needed to be cut out and replaced and then the heat trace was reinstated.

Another job here at Davis well done, and a good introduction for Mark D to the world of site services.

Weather at Davis

The challenging and changing face of mother nature has been on display here this week. We've had sea ice come, go, and come again. We've had our first big dump of snow for the winter season making getting around a little more interesting. We've also had stunning sunrises and sunsets, and during the night some breathtaking aurora activity.

A walk in the Vestfold Hills

Three of our expeditioners, Aaron C (electrician), Ducky G (plumber) and Mark P (carpenter), recently spent five days hiking in the around Davis station area known as the Vestfold Hills. The Vestfolds Hills is the largest ice free area in Antarctica covering approximately 100,000 acres of land. The landscape is quite Mars except for the 300 odd lakes and ponds which are nestled amongst the many small hills in the area.

After a team of ‘senior’ expeditioners recently completed the same journey some three or four weeks earlier, the three boys (all in their 20s) felt it was their duty as the ‘young blokes’ to give it a go as well.

The team set off from Davis station carrying everything required for the five day journey in their backpacks, including nappy rash cream and bulk supplies of talcum powder, essential items for survival in the Antarctic.

The guys walked an average of 15 kms per day, staying in field huts each night which are scattered throughout the area. Meals consisted of vacuum packed toasted sandwiches for lunch and army style dehydrated meals for dinner. The vacuum packed toasted sandwiches copped a large amount of criticism during the preparation phase on station, however they proved to be a real winner in the field, getting better with each day that passed, except for Ducky’s sandwiches that were vacuumed packed so much that they had thinned out like biscuits and actually became transparent in the sunlight.

One of the goals of the trip was to search for a capsule that a friend of Aaron’s had placed on top of Stalker Hill back in the late 90s. Stalker Hill is one of the larger hills in the area. Whilst only reaching 144 m above sea level, it is a prominent landmark of the area. On their third day, with only an old photo and a vague description to go off, the team headed up Stalker Hill in search of the small copper capsule. After ten or 15 minutes of moving rocks around at the summit the search was called off. The copper capsule had long since been replaced with a large yellow wooden box containing a visitor book dating back some 15 years. It did however contain some laminated entries from the old capsule including a note from Aaron’s friend. 

The three enjoyed beautiful weather for the trip with calm sunny days and temperatures from −10°C to −4°C. The freshwater lakes dotted through the area have all re-frozen now and the mixture of snow, ice and rock made for spectacular scenery.

After five days and around 75 kms of walking the three ‘young blokes’ returned to station for a hard-earned shower and warm meal.

For Mark P, one of our summer carpenters, this trip was his last for the season before boarding the Aurora Australis and heading back to his life in Australia. 

“The Chux wipe, tea towel and talcom powder ‘bird bath’ we shared together on our last night was definitely a highlight of the trip for me.” Mark P

“We all bonded like brothers on the trip. I reckon we laughed for about 80% of the time we were out. The scenery was amazing, especially the further away from station we got. I’m sure this will go down as one of the highlights of my year down here.” Aaron C

Doc’s Dozen

Kenny S, Davis summer engineering services supervisor (ESS) and Indian motorcycle aficionado

Kenny how many trips, and years, have you done to Antarctica and what brings you back here?

My first trip was to Casey in 1991 and was part of the old tunnel demolition team. Let’s just say I've been back a couple times after that.

What is it like being the ESS here Kenny?

Sensational! Fantastic people and talented trades group, but the phrase “organised chaos” springs to mind some days. It’s fun because it doesn’t matter how carefully you plan, when, and I mean when the “A” factor hits and things go to custard, time to look at the problem another way to find another solution. The best gig as ESS though is smoko (morning tea break) and building.

Can you single out your best experience in Antarctica?

All of it, but two spring to mind: a traverse to Depot Peak out of Mawson stands out and Auster (emperor penguin) rookery around August time.

Kenny what do you love about Antarctica?

The people, wildlife, smoko, scenery, the isolation. Did I mention smoko?

(Kenny this interview has a bit of déjà vu about it when I look back to my last ESS interview with your good mate Joe.)

Do you have a favourite station?

No, they are all special. Casey has history across the bay with Wilkes, Davis has choppers and the Vestfolds, Mawson has sea ice, plateau and mountains on the back doorstep, and Macca is rich in wildlife, great walking and field huts.

Who inspires you?

The providers of smoko.

If not the ESS what job would you do?

Chippie of course — I love building (…and smoko it appears)

What have you learned living in a small community and what is the ‘must have’ item that you packed for Antarctica?

That no one can eat ice cream like Junior (see Doc’s Dozen 20 Feb 2015) and shutting a door quietly is not a common skill! Always pack a corkscrew.

If you were a car, what car would you be? Or would that be a motorcycle Kenny?

1965 Mustang or 2014 Indian vintage. (Very YOU Kenny, classic and classy.)

What is the most amazing thing you have ever seen a tradie do on the job?

You may have to classify amazing as amazingly good or amazingly stupid: seen both.

Now I know that slow drivers in the right hand lane drive you crazy, but what else pushes your buttons?

Writing reports, anything to do with computers. (So I’m guessing your computer is not your favourite bit of kit?)

What is in store when you return to home Kenny?

Build a mate’s deck, ride motorcycles, catch up with friends and family, travel somewhere (don’t know where yet) and go barrack the Hawthorn Football Club onto another premiership.

Only one word for it Kenny, sensational interview. Enjoy your time back home, especially when you hit the road on the bike. (No hooning up and down Mt Wellington though!)