In Antarctica, the ultimate currency is fuel. It is the resource that constrains all activities in the field, be it driving vehicles, flying aircraft, melting snow for water, cooking rations, or heating tents – they all depend on fuel. Unsurprisingly, most of the logistics of Antarctic field operations centre around getting fuel to the right place for the right time.
Moving fuel is difficult: it’s heavy, bulky, and for any given mode of transport, there’s a weight limit as to how much one can carry. Quite quickly, one starts to get into unpalatable tradeoffs between fuel (extra range/endurance) and scientific payload (getting the biggest return for the fuel).
Since the Heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the vast majority of expeditions have ameliorated this problem by establishing depots of food and fuel, each one incrementally further south than the previous depot.1 Often established years in advance of their actual use, the careful planning of fuel depots allows field parties to move efficiently during the narrow window of opportunity that the Austral summer affords for fieldwork.
As the logistics hub for BAS field parties, Rothera Station sits at 68º south, with the majority of the continent lying south of 75º – 850km from Rothera as the crow flies; a long way to lug fuel. During the summer, BAS opens up two forward operating bases (FOBs) along the Antarctic Peninsula: Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu, which lie conveniently at around 71º and 75º south respectively.
Each season, these FOBs are manned by a series of rotations of folk from Rothera, with the tasks of manning the depot, refuelling passing Twin Otters as they work their way north and south along the peninsula, and providing hourly weather observations to Operations in Rothera over HF radio.
A couple of days before New Year, it was my turn for a trip out to the Bluff. In contrast to the flight to Antarctica, this would be in a Twin Otter: a twin-engined aircraft with wheeled-skis on, allowing it to use runways or skiways. Just as my flight into Rothera had been an experience, the journey to Fossil Bluff was to prove equally spectacular.
Whilst the Dash-7 always flies with two pilots, the majority of BAS’s flying in Antarctica in Twin Otters is single-pilot work. The upshot of this is that there are regular opportunities for co-pilot flights, where folk on base tag along on a flight to act as a “pilot’s assistant” in the right-hand seat.
After taxiing to the end of the runway at Rothera, the Twin Otter seemed to use only a fraction of the 900m runway before we were airborne and climbing into the blue morning sky. Around five minutes into the flight, the pilot, Andy, tells me – to my surprise – “You have control”, and the next thing I know, I’m flying the aircraft: attempting to maintain a climb to 9,000ft.
Andy kindly lets me fly the climb and the cruise, taking control around 90 minutes later for the descent and landing into Fossil Bluff, having travelled around 420km south from Rothera. Unused to the view one gets from the flight deck, and with near perfect weather as we fly over the spectacular terrain of the Antarctic Peninsula, the scenery was simply staggering: an untouched wilderness of undulating snowy whiteness with sharp peaks poking through the ice, belying their true height.
We’re met at the skiway by the two outgoing folks, and quickly offload the four drums of Jet-A1 we’ve flown in and add it to the nearby depot. After a 30 minute handover, the aircraft taxies for departure, and soon Pete and I are left watching it turn into a small dot in the sky. As the faint drone of its engines fade away, silence descends over the King George VI Sound – we’re the only two people for over 400km.
Fossil Bluff lies on the eastern edge of Alexander Island, another of the many islands that lie just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The King George VI Sound separates the island from the mainland, around 25km away, but is permanently covered by an ice-sheet some 300m thick.
The eastern side of Alexander Island is notable for its beds of sedimentary rocks, laid down during the Jurassic era, and have a striking pattern of coloured bands, clearly visible from the air. The sedimentary geology of the island is strikingly different to the igneous rocks of the mainland.
The few small huts that make up the station are nestled at the bottom of a corrie, with peaks rising up over 700m behind the station. The sides of the peaks are covered in steep slopes of scree, forming a uniform bed of freeze-shattered rock, occasionally punctuated by rocky outcrops and bluffs.
Fossil Bluff was established by air in 1961 and was initially a wintering station for the years of 1961, 1962, and 1969-75, with research mainly focussing on the local geology and meteorology.2 Since 1975, Fossil Bluff has remained a summer-only station, open from October to early March each year.
The main building is a 10x5m hut, generously named Bluebell Cottage by it’s original wintering team. Inside, it’s modestly appointed with 4 bunks against one end wall, a table with four chairs, a Refleks stove for heating, a small corner devoted to comms, and a kitchen area complete with sink and melt-tank.
Life is relatively basic: water is obtained either by melting snow blocks, or by filling jerries at a nearby meltwater stream, cooking is done either over a Primus or Refleks stove, and light (rarely required in the summer) comes from either Tilley lamps or a couple of overhead electric lights.
As a field station, food was often just ‘manfood’.3 However, Fossil Bluff remains relatively well provisioned, and with ample time to experiment, most recipes can be creatively modified to work within the constraints imposed by the basic cooking facilities! I baked several loaves of bread using an improvised double-pot oven (with mixed results), and on one evening when we had a visiting plane staying the night, we even managed Hawaiian pizzas from scratch.
The daily routine could vary dramatically according to the weather and the flying programme. Most days would start with providing a weather observation to Rothera at 7am, and then usually hourly thereafter if flights were ongoing, and if aircraft were flying via Fossil Bluff, we’d be required to man the fuel depot by the skiway to assist with refuelling operations.
If no flights were occurring in the vicinity, we’d usually be stood down to less frequent radio contact (every 3 hours), which meant our time was our own to occupy. Given the abundance of peaks literally outside the back door, a common pastime was walking/climbing – often involving scrambling up slopes of loose scree. When a more sedate activity appealed, the nearby Belemnite Valley – around 2km away – provided an interesting walk, with an abundance of fossilised belmnites easily found in the surrounding rocks.
Fossil Bluff occupies a special place among BAS’s various research stations: living and working there, one feels very much part of a continuing tradition, having changed very little over the preceding 50 years. Its historical importance aside, Fossil Bluff remains a functional and necessary part of BAS’s field operations, providing a vital depot for Twin Otters travelling further south. It was a privilege to spend a fortnight at the Bluff and hopefully it won’t be my last.
Given that the total cost of fuel increases exponentially with each degree of latitude south, Antarctic operators are understandably a little cagey about the locations of their fuel depots. ↩
Cliff Pearce, one of the original three winterers in 1961, has published a well-written account of his time at Fossil Bluff called The Silent Sound. I was in the fortunate position to be able to read it whilst staying at the place that inspired the book. ↩
BAS terminology for dehydrated rations, dating back to the days of dog-sledging, coined to distinguish manfood from dogfood. ↩