The nitty-gritty of working in Antarctica
In the third in her series of blog posts about life at Damoy Hut, field guide Jo Bradshaw gets into the practical details of working in one of the most remote parts of the world.
Jo outside the mess tent (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Base camp: ply sheets, tent pegs and digging deep
As soon as we arrived at Damoy, we marked out a large area for our sleeping and mess tents and began to dig down to give us some protection from the wind. Additionally, when the snow melted, we wouldn’t find ourselves high up slopes on snow islands.
The snow was very wet and heavy, very different to the dry snow I had experienced whilst climbing Vinson in the Antarctic interior a few years ago. This meant that you sank into the snow very easily and pitching a tent on this very loose base would have meant we actually would end up in a soggy pit lower than the tent itself. Martin had spotted some ply sheets at Port Lockroy so we brought them over on the first wave of kit so we had a solid base on which to pitch the tents.
Setting up base camp (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Our sleeping tents were low profile and very strong so withstood the extreme winds we regularly encountered. It was helped by roping them together, to snow stakes and to shovels buried at the back of our tents. Ballast was everything. I was continually either digging the tents into the snow or digging them out of the snow> Needless to say, there was a lot of shovelling at Damoy!
The Marmot Lair mess tent needed a little more help to stay upright. With a lot of TLC, it lasted well and was nicknamed ‘home’. It was our kitchen, living room, dining room and office.
Sleeping: sheep skins, single tents and roping up
As we know, sleep is essential, especially when you have 24-hour daylight and you’re never sure when night starts or the day ends as it all looks the same. We had individual three-person Terra Nova Hyperspace tents which, if you are my size, means you have loads of room. At both over six feet, Sven and Martin didn’t have the same luxury!
Inside our tents, we had a variety of mats to protect us from the cold and wet snow below and to give us a comfy night under canvas. First up was a foam matt followed by a super thick Thermarest. On top of that was a sheep skin which added a soft layer of warmth and then we had our Snugpak Softie Antarctica sleeping bags. I am used to sleeping in extremely cold temperatures in high and dry environments so usually use a down sleeping bag however in the moisture of the Antarctic peninsula down would have become soggy and useless pretty quickly so our sleeping bags were synthetic and worked well.
Chilly conditions! (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
On the non-sleeping side of the tent, we had another foam matt which our kit bags lived on which also acted as added insulation. I kept my kit in my Osprey Transporter kit bag to keep everything dry and in one place. We didn’t have much ‘stuff’ so keeping your tent tidy was relatively easy.
Sleeping bags heat up from the warmth of your body so you need to go to bed warm, strip off down to socks, underwear, a t-shirt and a woolly hat so that your legs and body become a radiator which heats up the insulation of your sleeping bag and keeps you warm. It’s a tried and tested method which seems counter-intuitive. If you usually go to sleep in a sleeping bag fully clothed and are then cold in your sleeping bag, try it!
With 24 hours of daylight almost throughout our stay, keeping the light out of your eyes was essential. You need to trick your brain into thinking it needs to sleep. On the first day, we were visited by two Hurtigruten cruise ships. In the morning we welcomed the MS Roald Amundsen. Yibo, the Expedition Leader, asked if we needed anything so I asked if they had any spare woolly hats in lost property. We had our fabulous Port Lockroy hats but with lots of rain and snow, everything became wet and was hard to dry so having a spare to sleep in was important. He said “Leave it with me” and just before they left, he turned up with three brand new crew hats which were gratefully received. This fleece-lined dark grey beanie was long enough to go over my head and down to my nose so acted as my eye mask too.
Going for a ‘walk’
We always get asked about the toilet situation! Essentially, it was a bucket with a seat on top. Human waste went into the bucket and paper went into a bin liner which was double-bagged before being disposed of on ships. We had two buckets so when one was a third full, we would swap it out for the empty one. Once that was third full we would go for a ‘walk’.
We stroll down to the shoreline with the buckets and the grey water jerry can where the current is strong and we can safely release the human waste. At UKAHT, the conservation of the environment is always at the forefront of all our Antarctic operations so we strictly follow the Environment Protocol advice on waste disposal we receive from the Antarctic Treaty.
Oddly you would think that this would be our least favourite job but it gave us some time and space: down at the shore; check out the penguins as they went about their own business; wander past a Weddel seal or two sleeping on the spit; whale spotting in the bay; gaze at the icebergs drift by; birdwatching.
A skua enjoys the view from across the bay towards Damoy (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Safety is key
We were living and working in an extreme environment with basic tools, scaffolding and a lot of wind. While the chances of anything traumatic happening were relatively low, the consequences of an accident were significant. It was not only essential to have comprehensive medical equipment but also an emergency kit if we had to decamp, which happened on our second night!
Working with scaffolding in Antarctica (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
An unused medical kit is the best one but having the right medical equipment in such an environment is essential. Once I had put together our four med kits, I hoped we wouldn’t have to open any of them. Four may sound excessive but they were split into a small ‘home’ kit for general use kit kept in our kitchen; another general kit for ‘work’ which also housed the seal bite kit (not a med kit I thought I would ever have to carry and fortunately didn’t need to use); and a big red bag which housed the more serious kit for breaks, burns and bleeds.
Fortunately, the most serious injury we encountered was split skin on Sven’s fingers due to the conditions. If we ever did have a medical emergency we had a reliable backup through UKAHT, our medical emergency hotline via the satellite phone and we could ‘call ships’ on the VHF radio for support if required.
Fortunately, this was as close as we got to a medical emergency (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
We also had an emergency box containing essentials to keep us going for a day or two if we had to abandon our tents. This included stoves, dehydrated meals, bivvy bags and three more Snugpak sleeping bags, snacks, tea (always an essential!) and a few other items to keep us going while awaiting rescue. In such an emergency, we could decamp to the Argentine refuge, built in 1953 as an emergency refuge for ships and yachts. It doesn’t contain anything but would have been fine to hang out in for a day or two if needed.
On the menu: cooking for three in Antarctica
When I arrived at Port Lockroy, I had a list of tinned and dried food to put together and wondered what 26 days of eating out of tins would be like as I boxed up tagine, veggie bolognese and baked beans. I’m happy to say, it was better than I had hoped!
Our larder (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
We were regularly supplied essentials like onions, garlic and ginger by ships as well as some fresh veggies when they had spare. We were also given a stock of eggs and cheese by our colleagues at Port Lockroy as well as some other goodies which they got from visiting ships.
At times, it felt like ships were competing to give us the best treats! From oranges to fresh veggies to soya sauce and the most delicious black sugar. However, the best gift was a box of La Linda Malbec which was very kindly left by cruise ship Hondius after their some of their passengers and the expedition team camped at Damoy during our first week.
I tried to mix our menu up each day depending on our provisions. We were mostly veggie during our time down south and had curry nights, Mexican nights and a Moroccan night. Fajitas were also on the menu after we were given wraps and peppers by a ship.
Organising our drinking water (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
The guys cooked breakfast which was either porridge or some style of eggs with plenty of proper coffee. Elevenses was more coffee and biscuits or chocolate. Lunches were a mixture of cheese and crackers and often tuna.
More tea and biscuits late afternoon were consumed before I made dinner. I have never had to cook for many people for a long period of time and despite my apprehension, we all survived!
Staying warm and dry: the kit and the clobber
As an outdoor guide, I have plenty of tried and tested kit so I didn’t need to add much to my packing. However, I was also given a UKAHT fleece, t-shirt and hoody plus a waterproof jacket and trousers. I had so much conservation kit to take out, I didn’t have much room for much so left out my fabulous Paramo salopettes which have seen me through many a mountain adventure. I was asked by Ellen Piercy on social media which piece of kit I hadn’t taken but wish I had and it was these warm wonders along with my Sealskinz socks.
Wrapped up warm (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
When I heard Camilla Johns, Head of Development at UKAHT, was on her way down to spend two weeks with the Port Lockroy team, I pinged her a desperate “do you have space for my salopettes” email. When she replied with a yes I sent a desperate “Mum, can you whizz around to mine, find my salopettes and socks and post them to Camilla”. Fortunately, my wonderful mum came through and 10 days later, my parcel of joy arrived.
I also brought my much loved and used Primaloft skirt which was an essential purchase in Sweden last year before I took part in a long-distance Arctic race. It has also now been around the world on treks to cold climbs to keep my behind nice and warm! It’s a well-known fact that women lose a lot of heat through their bums and thighs so why not give them a little extra insulation?
Jo's much-loved Primaloft skirt and er, La Linda wine (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Equipment: working with basic tools in an extreme environment
In order to do our jobs safely we needed reliable kit. Much of the equipment was already at Port Lockroy including the scaffolding and ladders and the rest was shipped down from the Falkland Islands on HMS Protector. The scaffolding was different to the type you see on buildings in the UK. It came in sections, clipped together with custom poles and we had pre-formed boards with hooks on rather than the traditional scaffolding boards.
The old ways are the best ways (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Another popular question is about the tools we used. When I said that we used human muscle-powered scrapers the reply was often, “Why didn’t we use heat guns or electric sanders?”.
We had two small generators which kept our environmental footprint low, one was kept as a spare. The generator charged our radios, satellite phones, laptop, comms unit, power drill, hand vacuum cleaner and cell phones. A heat gun would have required a larger generator plus, with all the wind and very low temperatures, wouldn’t have actually made any difference to the ease of scraping the paint off the hut.
Power sanders again would have required a larger power source and would have put a huge amount of dust into the atmosphere, even if they had an internal collection system. We had the tools and we were the power!
The specialist Tikkurila orange paint (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
The paint was donated to the project by Tikkurila, a Finnish company that made this paint specifically to match the colour needed and to also deal with the extreme environment we were working in. It worked really well and I hope you’ll agree that the hut looked very smart when the job was completed.
Vital support from cruise ships
The ship scheduler gave us an indication of which ships were likely to land passengers at Damoy. This list was emailed to us three times and contained a spreadsheet of who was going where and at what time. The cruise ships fill this in online on a central platform so that everyone knows who is going where and when. It’s super helpful for us to know when we could fill water, offload waste and potentially grab a shower!
In order to stay healthy, we also needed to drink plenty of water. Melting and snow is not an efficient method environmentally or time-wise so our jerry cans were filled up by cruise ships when they landed passengers with us. They have desalination plants on board and we were drinking good old Antarctic water that had been sterilised.
We were regularly visited by cruise ships (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
We were very careful about the waste we created, from the aforementioned toilet variety mentioned to packaging, hut debris and food waste. It all had to be split out into different sacks which were double-bagged before ships kindly took them off our hands.
Once we had cooked and eaten, we scraped our plates and pans into a food sack so that food waste didn’t end up in the sea. This sack was marked accordingly, as were other waste bags and recycling. These were disseminated into the ships’ various digesters and waste bins and logged by us to keep tabs on who had taken delivery of what and when.
Fresh supplies arriving! (Credit: Jo Bradshaw/UKAHT)
Ships also helped us with laundry and showers which were both gratefully received. We collected our grubby kit, bagged it up and when one of us went on board for a shower, which was maybe twice a week, our washing would come back smelling fresh and clean. Opening our dry bags to fresh clothes was always a highlight of the week as was access to shower.
Once again, I could have written a whole blog about clothing alone but I hope I have given you an insight into our life at Damoy. In my final blog, I will recount tales of the many wonderful people we met from cruise ship skippers to those who were part of the history of Damoy Hut.
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