Expedition Blog

The 2015-16 Expedition to Mawson's Huts is blogging live from Antarctica and you can read daily updates right here.

Michelle Berry – Conservator – Icicles in Mawson’s Cubicle

The 18 men of the AAE Main Base slept on bunks lining the walls of the living hut but Douglas Mawson had his own separate room. Each year when we open the hut for the first time and enter his room we find the beautiful icicles that have formed on his shelving in the intervening years.

 

Blizz Days at Cape Denison Part 2 – Dave Killick

This is my fifth trip to Cape Denison with the Mawson’s Huts Foundation since 1997. I’m the expedition journalist, sending my stories back for News Corp papers and websites and the Mawson’s Huts Foundation blog. I also take the photos which appear on social media and which will form part of the record of the expedition and its work.

Part of my role is as the communications person, a job that has changed a lot since the wireless operator of Mawson’s time. I make sure we always have voice and data communications via satellite back to the world and backups for whatever emergency might occur. Keeping in touch is vital not just for our work but also morale and making sure everything is working fine is a great responsibility. Several times each day I hook up with the satellite and upload and download the expedition’s correspondence. Phone calls are possible via a couple of telephone handsets I have rigged up in the Sorensen Hut. I double up as the expedition’s IT guy, helping people troubleshoot problems with their computers and cameras or sending emails or connecting to the network, problems which never seem in short supply.

In a small group, everyone has to take on other jobs. This time around I’ve also been conducting weather observations. We’ve mounted a small weather monitor on a stake near the hut and it takes hourly measurements which are supplemented by my three hourly observations. We send the resulting data to the Bureau of Meteorology once a day to help them improve forecasting. Getting out to retrieve the unit can sometimes be a bit of a challenge in the wind, but it’s a useful record of conditions during our time here.

I also run the Sorensen Hut’s power system – making sure we have power around the clock to charge computers and cameras and the like – and look after water collection. Every few days our doctor Sally and I venture out to Long Lake about 600 metres away on quad bikes and replenish our supplies. I doubt there’s much better water about. In the gaps between my other jobs I help the professionals working on the hut by carting snow and ice out the door in tubs and dumping it nearby. It’s tiring – but very satisfying to see the progress that’s being made and to play some small part in that.

I first became involved with the Foundation’s expedition because of my experience as a cook. Ironically I can barely get a foot in the kitchen now as we have a surplus of keen cooks on this trip. Fine cooks they are too, so I’m not complaining.

The days can be long and challenging but we are all acutely conscious of how lucky we are to be living and working in Antarctica, in a place so redolent with the memories of Mawson and his men. Like Marty, I’m staying in a tent and at the end of a long hard day there’s no better place to lie tired and warm and snug and listening to the wind. It’s one thing that hasn’t changed at all in the last hundred-plus years.

 

Dr Ian Godfrey – MHF Chief Conservator

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At the time of my first Antarctic trip I was employed as Curator of Conservation in the Western Australian Museum, working primarily with the conservation of shipwreck objects, a somewhat unusual occupation to lead to an involvement with Antarctic research. I travelled to Davis Station in the summer of 1992/93 as part of a project team, led by Wal Ambrose of the ANU. The Davis freeze-drying project used a venturi system to draw dry Antarctic air through a buried chamber that contained waterlogged archaeological wood. The system worked very well, using the natural environment to passively dry the archaeological wood. This led to a second project in which an upgraded venturi system was used to passively remove snow and ice from an ice-filled building at the abandoned Wilkes Station, a short distance from Casey Station. After 6 trips to Casey/Wilkes I was fortunate enough to become involved with the MFH and their efforts to preserve the iconic buildings associated with Sir Douglas Mawson’s AAE expedition of 1911-1914.

Since the summer of 2000/01, I have worked at Cape Denison seven times. This project is one of the most interesting and exciting that I have worked on, not just because of the location, but also because of its significance, the challenges, both personal and professional, and the adventure associated with working in such an extreme and isolated environment.

One of the main challenges has been to find the best ways to preserve the intact buildings without compromising their nature. After many years of discussion it was eventually decided that the snow and ice that had filled the Main Hut at Cape Denison was not, as put forward by some, a benign protector of the building and its contents. Rather it directly damaged interior structures and accelerated the deterioration of artefacts contained within this building. As a result, decisions were made to seal the roofs of the Main Hut and, more recently, to remove the snow and ice from the interior of the Main Hut.

The workshop roof was over-clad in 1998, with the Living Quarters over-clad in 2006. I was the Leader of the MHF team (Ted Bugg, Marty Passingham, Christian ‘Psycho’ Gallagher and Simon Mossman) that completed the latter task. It was a monumental task as when we arrived at the site, the only visible part of the building was the apex of the roof of the Living Quarters. Despite the additional work caused by the more than 80 cubic metres of snow that had to be removed from the roof of the building, the job was completed as planned, a tribute to the hard work done by all of the team.

The 2015/16 MHF team is a beauty, with a wealth of Antarctic experience and with personalities that gel – a recipe for a successful expedition, both professionally and personally. One of the main foci of the trip is the removal of approximately 35 cubic metres of compressed snow and hard ice from the floors and shelves of the Main Hut. It is an honour to be part of the team, very well led by Marty Passingham, that will be revealing spaces and some artefacts not seen for decades.

Each day is exciting as buried artefacts are exposed and the interior opened up to more fully show the nature of the place as it was when Sir Douglas Mawson left it in 1914. While it is only early days in the expedition, I am optimistic that we have a red-hot chance of completing this work before we are picked up the L’Astrolabe and returned to Australia in mid-January. More to follow.

 

Blizz Days at Cape Denison Part 1 – Dave Killick

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The blizzard rolled in early on Sunday. We woke to a world of blowing snow and strong winds. For those of us in tents it was a rude awakening, out the door and into the maelstrom before finding out feet and heading for the hut. Working outdoors isn’t an option in conditions like this.

Sensibly we decide to have a rest day. We have everything we need inside the Sorensen. We spend that day tapping away at emails or working, reading and resting. After lunch we settle in and watch a movie. Sally and Marty prepare an excellent dinner of pizza which would do any pizza shop proud.

The winds drop off mid-afternoon. The blizzard wasn’t quite as powerful as we’d expected but it has given everything a lovely fresh coating of snow without burying it so deeply that we face a big effort to dig it out. It looks like we will be back at work in the Main Hut without any problems. We are so encouraged by our progress so far we’re straining at the leash to get on with the job.

Monday is the anniversary of the death of Belgrave Ninnis during Mawson’s expedition and we discuss how to commemorate his passing.

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Marty Passingham  – Expedition Leader, Heritage Carpenter.

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Today lets you know where your are, a blizzard has rolled in and kept us cabin bound. Wind is blowing consistently at 35 knots but gusts are coming through much higher, the shake of our humble cabin lets you know this. To work here means to live here, it’s a package deal!

I have chosen to bed down in a tent, not just any tent but a Polar Pyramid. It is set it up with a view looking North across the sea ice and toward the Mackellar Islands. You couldn’t buy a view like this normally, Adelie penguins waddling in across the sea ice after a fishing session, Icebergs trapped in the frozen ocean and not about to move anytime soon. This tent is a great place to wake up, look out the flap and get the feel of the day. I chose a tent to sleep in partly because its nice to have some solitude at the end of a day and part nostalgia. The first time I came here in 2002 I lived in a tent and it seems the right thing to do, somehow I link Cape Denison to this memory of a noisily flapping cocoon and to be here without that nightly experience wouldn’t be the same. I could liken the tent to being my bedroom just as the Sorensen Hut is our kitchen-dining room, it may be small but has everything we need. A gas stove and oven to produce daily meals including bread, a small bench we can rack our computers along and do things like check email and write blogs, and a communal table big enough to sit 8 people comfortably. The question of the toilet comes up a lot when talking to people about our little camp here on the ice, and so it should, it’s a really important part of ones day. Well this toilet is attached to the back of Sorensen Hut and is constructed from ply sheets, not real big but how much room does one need? The most important feature of the toilet (besides the toilet) is the strategically placed window, this allows a great view of Antarctica while sitting on the most important seat we have.

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My role over the years of coming to these Historic Huts has been as Heritage Carpenter, a role I very much enjoy, this could explain why I keep returning. As a Carpenter the Works Program on these Huts is always a great challenge, it involves work on the inside as well as the outside of the buildings. Weather is the usual dictator of where you will work on any given day and those clear, windless days need to be treated with much respect, they are few.

In the season of 2006/07 the main focus was on over cladding the Main Hut roof, this was to halt the ingress of snow and ice that continually crept in through the many cracks, gaps and holes. This has been a success and negligible ice now enters either Hut, this has allowed us to continue making repairs and removing decades worth of ice from the interior. This season we are focused on ice removal that will expose the floor of both Main Hut and Workshop, this ice, in some sections, will contain artefacts that haven’t been seen since the 50’s. It could be fair to say that some of these artefacts are not immediately identifiable upon extraction and we all deliberate on these particular objects, a common question we use is “What would they have used this for” and this kicks off some great discussion… not always ending up with a clear answer.

All who come to Cape Denison to work on these Huts bring with them a great deal of respect, not only for the Buildings but also the amazing story of the AAE 1911/13 expedition lead by Douglas Mawson. Which is why it might seem a little unusual to find chainsaws as part of the Carpenters’ main Tool Kit. These saws are one of the most useful tools for ice excavation and when wielded with respect and care are extremely efficient at removing large quantities of ice, both hard and soft. This season alone we expect to remove more than 30 cubic meters of ice from both the Main Hut and Workshop. The chainsaws we use in the interior are electric and very quiet with little maintenance required to keep them going.

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Antarctica for me is a place like no other, a last frontier you could say. The things you see here you will not find anywhere else, but like most good things, it takes an effort. An effort I am happy to make to enjoy this place and to be able to take part in the conservation of these special buildings and the story they tell.

 

Arrival – Setting Foot on the Antarctic Continent by Dr Sally Hildred

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We woke to clear blue skies, only a light wind and a gleaming, stark, beautiful landscape. Today was the day for us to leave the ship and be helicoptered the 20kms over the sea ice to Mawson’s Huts and Sorensen, where we would live. I was excited, a little apprehensive. I was wearing all this bulky warm gear, great big snow boots on my feet, which makes movements quite clumsy and twice as much effort. Once we landed on the ice snow chains would be added to the boots. The ship was driven into the ice so that her nose rested on the ice shelf allowing us to disembark safely. We climbed down a rope ladder over the bow and scrunched out onto the snow. We were standing on Antarctica, surrounded by miles of shining ice as far as the eye could see. The local emperor penguins came over to see us, so human in their gestures and manner. Such a magnificant introduction to this place . A short wait and two helicopters arrived, and whisked us off to land 15 minutes later on the hillside above Mawson’s hut. My first impression of the hut was that it was so small, a tiny capsule of human habitation in the middle of such a harsh landscape. I thought of Mawson and his expeditioners living here through the winter, totally isolated, climbing out through the roof hatch in the winter, snow drift up to the roof. The only way home a long journey by boat, and impassable in winter.

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The helicopters dropped our gear on the hillside, and then disappeared over the horizon. We six were now on our own. We walked over two small ridges and down the valley towards Sorensen hut, which would be our home for six weeks. Another lunar view – a small structure perched on the rocks, battened down by strong wires, the red apple beside it, sea ice stretching out into the distance beyond. Our first task was to dig out the drift of snow and hard ice which filled the verandah in order to get into the door.

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My First View of Antarctica – Dr Sally Hildred, Expedition Doctor

We have been travelling through the sea ice for the past 36 hours, the sun shining, ice glistening. It’s a surreal world. I wonder what the early explorers must have made of it. It is unlike any part of the world that I have seen before. This cold environment, seas full of icy shapes, beautiful, but for man such a deadly environment, and yet there are mammals and birds that thrive here. In fact the further south we go the more likely we are to see them. Eventually we break out into clear water north west of Commonwealth Bay and steam past the enormous iceberg B9B, towards the fast ice edge which is about 20kms from Boat Harbour and our destination. Several hours later we approach the ice edge, the sun has disappeared below the horizon, it is midnight.

In the grey half light the landscape is lunar, a vast expanse of ice from east to west. The sea ice edge is irregular with pressure ridges, refrozen cracks, and occasional icebergs. A small group of emperor penguins form a welcoming committee, calling in the gloom; we pass a lone seal. This is the land I will be living in for the next six weeks.

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Meet the team: Peter Maxwell and the apple

I am a Materials Conservator working at Cape Denison for the second season. The difference this season is my sleeping quarters. Previously in Antarctica I have slept in dome and polar tents, bunk houses and bivouacs but this time I am sleeping in the Apple. Not an ordinary apple like a pink lady snow in summer or a granny smith this is the Sorenson Apple. Some may think of New York as another Apple. However the Sorenson Apple has been in its current site since 1997and has been the home of many expeditioners working on the preservation of Mawsons Huts. I feel very privileged this season for my sleeping quarters to be in the Apple, even though I am sharing the space with all the medical supplies and spare bedding. Although it creaks and whistle and may shudder and occasionally groan in high winds it is home for me. I call it Pete’s Place. Work wise this season I will be working in the workshop of Mawsons Hut on ice removal from the North and East sides. In two days we have made good progress and have removed over half the ice on the east side. In my previous season I removed ice from the workshop to reveal the workbench and scattered objects which had previously been excavated in the 70’s. We have a great team this season who worked hard together to set up our base in just over two days and are now concentrating our efforts on the Hut.

Another day of full sunshine at Cape Denison, little cloud to be seen and the wind backed off this afternoon to a couple of knots. Temperature this morning was minus 8, with the 15 to 20 knots of wind it felt a little cooler.

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Today we made good headway into ice removal, all 6 expeditioners were in the Huts playing a role in the excavation. We were spread between both the Main Hut and Workshop uncovering several corners of the building. One never knows what will be uncovered from this long term ice build up, boxes and drums were seen to day for the first time in many decades. Michelle excavated a Skua which has sparked a discussion on how it got there, we are deliberating over that as we speak. This phase of ice removal will uncover a great many artefacts that will continue to tell the story of the 1911 to 1913 habitation of these Huts.  Dave shot some great footage of todays’ works in-between hauling bins of ice out the front door, Sally also was working on the chain gang dragging out bin after bin of historic ice.

Things may slow a little this weekend with strong winds predicted tomorrow followed by a blizzard on Sunday and Monday bringing 70 knots of wind. Could be time to catchup on paper work and look out the window.  Regards,  Marty

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Peter chips away steadily exposing artifacts.

Hunkering down for the weekend.

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We have celebrated the end of our first week at Cape Denison and are quite chuffed with our progress so far. Having established camp quickly, the entire team has been able to focus our efforts inside Mawson’s Hut. Our conservators Ian Godfrey, Peter Maxwell and Michelle Berry are making great progress removing the buildup of snow and ice inside. Michelle spent the entire day working near the centre of the living section, uncovering the top of a hundred-year-old boot and a skua encased in the ice. Ian worked near Mawson’s cubicle, chipping hoar frost off the shelves in Mawson’s sleeping area and removing ice down to the floorboards just outside the door – a level not seen perhaps since the 1930s. In the workshop section, Peter made astonishing progress clearing snow and ice from around a heater and some wooden boxes. Expedition leader Marty Passingham wielded a chainsaw and hammer drill with precision to help remove some of the bigger chunks of compacted snow. David and Sally were kept busy working as labourers, carting plastic bins full of ice and snow out through the entrance, taking care to duck their heads clear of the notorious low external door frame on all but one or two occasions. It is the rare expeditioner who has not experienced its tender touch. After a long day at work, there are still camp chores to be done. One group sets off of to collect water from Long Lake a little way distant from our camp, the clearest, cleanest glacial lake water we’ve ever seen from a source probably untouched by humans ever before. It is Ian’s night to cook and he produces a fine stir-fry. Soon after dinner the dishes are squared away and it’s time to relax, writing emails to friends and family and looking through our photos. Bedtime beckons.
The Bureau of Meteorology has kindly been supplying us with forecasts specific to Cape Denison and we are assisting their effort with three-hourly weather observations. The forecast for the next few days isn’t great – with blowing snow tomorrow and a 60-knot blizzard forecast for Sunday. We’re battening down the camp and stocking up on supplies. Marty has cached gas and petrol near the Sorensen Hut, we are well stocked for food and water and we’re preparing to ride it out for a couple of days. Tomorrow will be spent making sure everything that can possibly move is tied down, from tents to quad bikes. It promises to be an interesting weekend.

Wednesday December 9 from Dave Killick

Tuesday turned out to be a windy day so we concentrated on tasks around camp. Expedition doctor Sally Hildred gave us an excellent rundown of the extensive emergency kit we have with us and how some of the equipment is used – in particular the defibrillator. Afterwards we worked through a couple of contingency plans for other possible emergencies we might face, with a lengthy discussion on the risk of fire and how we might manage it in a place where finding liquid water can be a bit of a challenge. In the afternoon, David ventured out on the quad bike, discovering a meltwater stream had formed in the middle of our little valley, before heading up to the area where our stores were placed by the helicopters. With so much cargo and so many boxes, there always seems to be one item which can’t be found.  Today has proved to be warmer and less windy so expedition leader Marty Passingham and conservators Ian Godfrey, Michelle Berry and Peter Maxwell have been hard at work on the hut. First the skylight covers were taken off to admit light into the living section, then the door opened up. Venturing inside the hut after it has been sealed for any length of time is a treat – delicate hoar frost can be seen hanging from any of the fixtures and fittings. With the bright sunlight streaming in from above the room is lit beautifully and revealed a wealth of artefacts from Mawson’s expedition more than 100 years ago. The first order of business is rigorously documenting the condition of the inside of the hut. Michelle works quickly to take photos which will record the condition we find everything in and provide an idea of how much snow and ice has entered the hut since the last expedition. Fortunately it seems that the maintenance of previous visits has done its job and the amount of snow and ice getting in is small.

AMC FORECAST: Cape Denison

Cape Denison – Mawson’s Huts Forecast Issued: 14:50 Casey local time (05:50 UTC), Thursday 10th December 2015  Valid: Friday 11th December to Monday 14th December 2015  Weather Situation: Patchy high cloud is expected to thicken tomorrow with a continental outflow continuing to enhance the morning katabatics. Winds are expected to strengthen further on Saturday as the outflow is enhanced by a deep low pressure system to the northeast, with cloud increasing during the day. Blizzard conditions are likely to develop by Sunday and continuing throughout Monday though easing slightly.

Tomorrow, Friday 11th December High cloud increasing. Drifting snow with blowing snow at times.  Winds: S/SE 25/35 knots, easing to 20/25 knots for a period during the afternoon. Saturday 12th December Cloud increasing. Drifting snow with blowing snow developing.  Winds: S/SE 25/35 knots increasing to 35/45 knots by evening.

Sunday 13th December  Blizzard conditions likely. Blowing and falling snow. Winds: S/SE 40/60 knots.

Monday 14th December Blizzard conditions likely. Blowing and falling snow. Winds: Gusty SE 30/50 knots.

Sitrep 9.12.15

Weather today was in our favor, winds backed off mid-morning and allowed us to have a full day in the field. Temperatures were minus 7 this morning and rose to around 0 degrees this afternoon but dropped again quickly as the day drew to and end. Winds were blowing around 25 knots this morning and backed off to light and variable early afternoon but have returned this evening.  A great days work today, Ian and Michelle began removing hoar frost and some floor ice in the main hut, they documented the state of the inside ice conditions and planned future works for this season.  Pete and myself organised equipment and materials to ready our selves for the works plan. Skylight covers were removed and natural light reached the inside of the huts for the first time in some years revealing the state of the artefacts and building fixtures, always an impressive sight to ponder on. All the amazing things to see trapped in time for over one hundred years, this could only happen in this way in Antarctica! Dr Sally flew her kite for the first time today preparing for some amazing images that will be shot from the photography rig that will be attached.  Dave established the second communication platform to allow for redundancy and took photos and video of the teams day at work. Just in case you wonder how hard we are doing it, for dinner we had tender lamb back strap with vegetable korma and dahl! Weather in the up coming days looks to go down hill a bit with the weekend bringing the first blizzard for our summer stay… we are, however, at the ‘Home of the Blizzard’ so no surprise!  Regards,  Marty

Sitrep 8.12.15

Today at Cape Denison the wind blew….  Last night was calm but at 7.00 am this morning the katabatic wind kicked in and we have had 25 to 30 knots gusting a little higher at times all day. Temperature today ranged from -7 to around 0 degrees with wind chill taking it down to about -15, clear skies persisted throughout the day.  We took the opportunity today to catchup on some chores around the camp, this included consolidating stores and supplies in Sorenson Hut.  Doctor Sally took a session on our medical equipment, what we have, how to use it and where to find it. We discussed our vulnerabilities in regards to injury and accidents and how we would respond to certain scenarios. A very important part of being in a remote situation is to manage risk of injury and accident and for all team members to have an understanding of our lack of medical response in Antarctica. On a lighter note, we had a discussion on how to attack the ice removal from the main hut and what our expectations would be for the conservation program for this season and generally plan for the next weeks work. Dave Killick took GPS locations around Cape Denison to compare to Spot Tracker data so as to help the Australian Antarctic Division determine the accuracy of this system at our position.  Weather tomorrow is looking good! Regards, Marty

 

Blog 5: Tuesday 8 December 2015 by Dave Killick

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We have been blessed by the weather for the first few days of our stay at Cape Denison. The warm, still conditions allow us to work quickly to establish our camp. The manhauling of the first day is a memory once we got our three quad bikes commissioned and we are kept busy finding, shifting and stowing boxes of gear. At the end of the day we are all extremely tired from the concentrated effort. Expedition doctor Sally Hildred takes on the role of stores person, sorting out our little kitchen and organising our stores so they can be found when needed.
Our daily routine is becoming established. Given the 24 hour daylight we are able to work with the weather. The typical morning winds mean we work around the Sorensen Hut, writing and sending emails about expedition business and to loved ones back home. By 11am or so the wind has dropped and we are able to work outside comfortably.
Yesterday, expedition leader Marty Passingham carved a large meat locker in a snowbank with a chainsaw and our frozen food supplies were placed inside. Later the conservation team started work at Mawson’s Hut. The first order of business is gaining access to the inside to see how the work of previous expeditions has slowed the ingress of snow and ice to the living quarters.
The afternoon turned out warm and still. We are conducting regular weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology so we are keeping a keen eye on clouds and the wind and the temperature in particular, carrying out three-hourly observations. Weather observations were an important part of Mawson’s expedition too and we hope that our work can contribute in some small way to better understanding and forecasting the weather at Cape Denison.
Another tent arose yesterday at our living site. We now have two expeditioners in tents, one in an Apple hut and three in the comfort of the bunkroom. While they’re a bit cooler and tend to flap a little in the wind, the big polar pyramid tents provided by the Australian Antarctic Division make for a lovely living space and a great adventure for those who prefer camping out. A thin mattress and self-inflating pad topped with a sheepskin rug make for a comfortable bed and a double sleeping bag and fleece liner means expeditioners stay toasty in the coldest of conditions. Earplugs are a must to block out the sound of the wind – or the penguins nearby when it is still, as is pulling a beanie down over the eyes to block out the ever-present daylight.