26 days of ‘summer’ at Damoy Hut
In the second in her series of blog posts about working at Damoy Hut, field guide Jo Bradshaw reveals that Antarctica has its own ideas about ‘summer’.
We were dropped off on the Antarctic Peninsula in early January, supposedly the Antarctic summer, and it’s snowing and freezing cold. Antarctica has clearly its own ideas about ‘summer’.
My Damoy colleagues, Martin and Sven, and I were based at Port Lockroy for 10 days before HMS Protector was due to pick us up and move us and our stores around to Damoy, less than a mile in distance and around a 10-minute Zodiac ride away. We had a great deal of work to do before the move to our project site and as Port Lockroy is a protected heritage site and home to over 1,000 Gentoo penguins, there were, quite rightly, a number of restrictions in place from working with a protected monument to manoeuvring around the colony and mass of stinky guano they produce!
Martin and Sven at Port Lockroy (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
While Martin and Sven cracked on with various conservation tasks on the island as well as pulling together the last of our equipment, I tried to get my head around the operation manuals, sorting and logging our extensive first aid kit and getting to grips with the numerous spreadsheets from satellite phone logs to waste management and ship schedules. I also spent a couple of rather chilly days in the Boat Shed filling crates of dried and tinned food for our stores at Damoy and planning our menus.
Our 10 days at Port Lockroy with the 22/23 season team of Lucy, Natalie, Mairi and Clare flew by and before we knew it we were greeting HMS Protector’s crew for our first run to the ship to sort out the conservation equipment which they had brought down from the Falkland Islands.
Our pick-up and drop-off were due to take place over two days. However, when the weather took a turn for the worse during the morning of day two while we had only completed two Zodiac runs, the plug was pulled for safety reasons and the three of us were brought on board for our one-and-only night aboard a Royal Navy ship.
Welcome to Damoy
Bright and early the following day, we began our final commute to our home for the next three and a half weeks. Soon after, we waved goodbye to the marines who had helped to bring our stores and equipment ashore.
That was that, we were on our own for the first time in nearly two weeks and it felt so good. Just us, Damoy Hut, the Argentine Refuge and a throng of Gentoo penguins. With our sleeping tents and mess tent pitched and safely secured, there was barely a breath of wind and all we could hear was the call of the Gentoos in the distance.
Our first night at Damoy (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
That evening, I went down to the hut to close it down for the night after dinner and as I came out through the front door I was greeted by Pepe, a very bold Gentoo who had wandered up to the hut to see what was going on. I think we were both a bit surprised to see each other but it didn’t phase him as he waddled down the snow slope to the bottom of the hut stairs, had a sniff around and called out to his mates as if to say “Yup, this lot are okay, guys” before waddling back to his colony by the beach. What a first night!
‘Work’ and ‘Home’
As alluded to in my first blog, my job title was Field Guide. However, once we were settled in, I took on the role of Field Camp Manager, making sure that everything worked smoothly at our site so that Martin and Sven could concentrate on their jobs.
During our first full day on-site, whilst Martin and Sven were sorting out their equipment and starting to strip the south gable end wall, I busied myself with sorting out our mess tent, to be known as ‘home’ as well as chatting to passengers from the Hurtigruten ships who were making landings during the morning and afternoon.
Work and home (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
I had set up a rope cordon the night before to discourage anyone from coming into our work area but realised very quickly that it was too close to the hut as we were being sucked into conversations with very interested guests too often. As lovely as it was to chat with the passengers and expedition team, time was tight for our project so that night, I extended our work zone.
Our first day had been a busy and windy one. Loads to get sorted, solving what worked and what didn’t. However, we were in for a big welcome to Antarctica that evening. The forecast suggested a 30-knot wind was due that night.
Weather watch (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
With a gusty night ahead, we battened down the hatches at both home and work. It was due to hit around midnight and as we sat having our dinner, the porch on our mess tent started to buckle. I went outside and hung onto it for dear life, calling out to Martin and Sven to help me take the poles out and tie it all down. We were gonna find out what our mess tent was made of!
Necessity is the mother of invention
We hunkered down in our own tents and spent a sleepless night being battered by the winds. As I lay against the side of my tent, trying to help it stay upright, all I could hear was the roar of the wind which sounded like a freight train. I kept sticking my head out of my tent during the night to make sure the mess tent was still with us and as battered and flattened as it looked, it was still there.
Early morning, I radioed the guys to see how they were doing. Martin’s tent, at the far end of our line, was taking the brunt of the wind so I made the call to abandon our tents and head to the hut. We had been in the best place until then as our weight held down our tents but with the wind still strengthening and Martin’s tent starting to be buried, enough was enough.
The flattened mess tent (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
We sat in Damoy Hut until midday, keeping an eye out of the window to see if our tents were surviving. Eventually, the wind dropped and we walked back up to ‘home’ to assess the damage. It didn’t look good. The mess tent had collapsed, the poles were bent beyond what was normally their breaking point and our sleeping tents were all at undignified angles. It was chaos. The three of us stood there and thought that our season was over before it had begun. Our mess tent we had no ability to cook and our season would be in jeopardy.
We couldn’t sleep in Damoy Hut as it’s a historical monument and site so living and cooking in the building was a no-go from the start. We also had a great deal of kit which took up the floor space of the bunk room, the bunks were laid out with historical items from original sleeping bags and mats to snowshoes and woolly jumpers so there was no room for us. Our tents were our little havens and we were quite happy to shut the door on work at the end of a long day and head home.
Looking better! (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
As we removed the water which was holding down the mess tent, remarkably, the poles sprang back and the dome popped back up. Necessity is the mother of invention and while Martin and Sven got to work strengthening the mess tent, adding bracing bars, extra poles and extra rope, I bailed out the inside and put everything back where it was meant to be. Martin then constructed a wind and snow break next to his tent for some shelter, we dug in our tents again, sorted out any debris at the hut and then we all promptly crashed out. It had been quite the 24 hours. Welcome to Antarctica!
Finding our rhythm
That storm, with recorded maximum wind gusts of 70 knots, was a big learning curve for the team. Over the next few days, we began to get into the rhythm of life. The weather forecast invariably erred on the milder side so we were constantly prepared for harsher conditions and developed a good routine for ‘home’ and ‘work’.
Our daily routine was a simple one. We would wake up around 6.30am, having been awake for a while listening to the penguins and I would open up the mess tent and put the kettle on. We soon realised that in order for Martin and Sven to spend maximum time on the hut, I needed to be in charge of cooking lunch and dinner plus sorting elevenses and afternoon tea.
Life in the mess tent (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Martin and Sven would take it in turns to cook breakfast and whoever wasn’t cooking would do the washing up. When the guys went off to work, I would clean up at ‘home’, send out a daily proof of life email to the office via our satellite system, welcome any ships who were landing their passengers at our site or go on board and do a talk about our project.
Elevenses would come around quickly and then I would prepare lunch which was usually soup, cheese and crackers or some sort of couscous dish. After a few more hours of work, the kettle would be on again for our afternoon cuppa and biscuits. I would usually start dinner to be served between 7.30pm and 8pm when the guys would finish up. They were long days but we knew we were chasing time and also had to work around the weather.
While I was working through my mess tent duties, I would also fill in various spreadsheets, send off reports, sort through emails, dig out the tents if it was snowing heavily and dig in the tents if it was raining or sunny – ensuring that they were secure either way!
Stripping paint (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
When a rip appeared in the top of Martin’s tent, I superglued a patch in place as my first attempt with tape did not work due to the damp and cold conditions. If something didn’t work the first time – which was quite often – we tried an alternative and carried on until the problem was solved. The creative side of our brains were certainly being put to good use!
Martin and Sven also had a work rhythm of their own. The south gable wall end was stripped of the old blue paint within the first few days and with the primer on and dry, it was time for the first coat of orange paint to go on. We were completely at the mercy of the weather. Too wet and we couldn’t paint; too windy and we couldn’t strip the hut or paint; snow was ok for stripping old paint but not for new coats; too much sun and the paint dried too quickly; too cold and it didn’t dry quickly enough. We were working in tough conditions and did worry that we wouldn’t get all four coats onto the hut by the time we were due to be picked up in mid-February.
Making progress (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
I was also happy to muck in and soon picked up one of the scrapers and became a third conservator. It was hard work – the ease at which the paint came off was weather dependent. Too cold and it was like concrete; wet or warm and it would peel off nicely. Each side of the hut was different as it was battered by different strengths of wind and was either more sheltered from moisture or had the full force of snow and rain.
We loved being at the hut and the life we carved out during this unique project. On a rare day of good weather, we would go for a walk up to the top of Tombstone Hill and spend a little time taking it all in. What a special place to be.
Time cracked on as did our progress. The final paint stripping was quite a moment and we were pleased to have finished that part of the project. Antarctica is tightly protected, so it was essential for us to collect as many of the paint flakes as possible. When the guys set up the scaffolding they also set up a tarpaulin bib for the paint flakes to drop into. Once we had finished a panel, we would then go around with the handheld vacuum cleaner and would literally hoover up the rest and then go around picking up any rogues pieces.
A beautiful evening at Damoy (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
The wildlife around us was incredible and we were very aware that we were living on their island and in their territory. We regularly had visits from penguins, had some resident skua pairs who became used to our comings and goings, watched Weddell seals sleep on the snow spit across from the hut and marvelled as a fur seal bounced its way up towards the hut, had a mooch about, then hot-flippered its way back to the bay. I really miss the sound of the penguins, it was a constant of our time in Antarctica. All though, their smell is quite something: acrid and strong. Fortunately, we could only smell them when the wind blew in a certain direction!
Some might expect life down there to be mundane but every day was different. We were totally focused on completing the job as there was no way we could come back.
Despite the hard work, we had a great time. Martin and Sven are fascinating people with interesting lives. I soon learnt their backstories, what makes them tick and what makes them grumpy – we are all human! I don’t think I have laughed so much on any expedition in the past and it was a joy being in their company.
Before we knew it, the last coat of paint went on and our time at Damoy, this special place, was over. We were now experts at wind speeds, had joined a whole new industry, met some wonderful people and drank some superb Malbec.
Orange is the new blue (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
After 26 days at Damoy, it was time to get some walking into my legs. I loved being part of Damoy's history in this truly extreme environment.
I could have written twice as much about our time at Damoy. However, I will be delving into the nitty gritty of it all in my next blog. I’ll be taking you through our food and other daily routines, clothing and gear and what I wished I had taken with me before my final blog recounts a few tales about the wonderful people we met.
Thank you! (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
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