The final push. Everyone is feeling the strain now, it has been a busy season and there are still lots of tasks to complete. There is also the fact that we have been extremely lucky with the weather thus far which could break at any minute, (although the met scientists reliably inform us that January was the coldest on record at Halley).
We press on with installing the protective tents, taking every opportunity to erect one as soon as the wind drops. This is no mean feat, considering these particular tents weight over a tonne and would make for some interesting kite-skiing. Thankfully by the middle of Feb we have all of the tents installed and the final anchoring down can take place – a big hurdle crossed.
Around this time (14th Feb) the sun dips below the horizon for the first time in 100 days. This is a significant sign on base, and we are reminded that the ship would be sailing north by now if this were a regular season (the ship is due to sail on 5 March!)
On 16 Feb we are treated to another morale boost with a 'Folk night' on base. This takes place in the ski-doo tent behind the garage, but a few heaters and some extra alcohol make for a warm and very entertaining evening.
The following day is a day off to recover..…that is unless you have promised to complete a few laps of the base perimeter (5km each) in aid of charity. There are a few sore heads but everyone is in high spirits as we 'race for the pole'. The idea is that everyone on base completes a few laps of the perimeter until we have collectively accrued 1602km.
This is significant as it is the distance from base to the South Pole. Most people take part either skiing (cross-country), kite-skiing, running, man-hauling or simply enjoying a brisk walk. By the end of the day all were buoyant and many thousands had been raised for the RNLI. One of the fitter scientists completed a breath-taking 85km, an outstanding achievement in any environment but hugely impressive on the Brunt Ice Shelf.
The cladding of one of the modules is completed by the end of February – and we can finally see the modules as they were intended, with the Antarctic as a backdrop. Everyone agrees that they look stunning, and this is a real boost for all involved in the project.
By the end of February the temperature drops as the nights draw-in, and seeing the moon and stars for the first time is another reminder that we should be heading home soon. A three day blow, with winds gusting at 50 knots means we spend a few days indoors, but with the construction work largely complete this provides some welcome rest.
Following the blow we discover that one of the tents is a little loose but the ratchets are buried in ice. Luckily these unique buildings have hydraulic legs, and so a few moments later we have raised the building and tightened the tent.
And then, before we know it the DC3 arrives and we are whisked away and back to reality. The return journey is as interesting at the inbound one, initially the DC3 takes us to the Russian base, stopping briefly at the South African base to take on fuel. The scenery is stunning! The final leg to South Africa is on a Russian Ilyushin aircraft, basic – but interesting. Some strange looks from the South African passport controllers as we arrive in Cape Town wearing full Antarctic clothing.
It has been a fantastic experience, both personally and professionally, and it is extremely satisfying seeing everything fit together as intended, and is a reflection of the hard work in the two years prior to this season. It is always satisfying to see plans become reality, but it has been amazing seeing your designs coming to life being towed around an ice shelf and jacked up and down.