Letters from Antarctica

Adelaide Island

January 30, 2021
min read
Alec and Jan Forman
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British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
21st January 1974

Dear All

Quite a while since I sat and wrote to you, it must have been around the same time as the one you wrote to me, which I received for Xmas. I expect you’ve received the first mail from me by now, pity it couldn’t have gone out in November as planned. Probably, Jan has explained what happened, about the ship not being able to get to the Argentine Islands Base where we air dropped the outgoing mail to be picked up. This was after the ship had dropped off the incoming mail at Doumer Island along with 6 Scientists. Due to bad weather the A/C (aircraft) couldn’t meet the ship while it was there. Outgoing mail wasn’t picked up until Christmas time when the other ship came down with more mail. No one expected a ship here until January, because of ice conditions, least of all me who hadn’t a letter ready to send to you. Then the ship, RRS Bransfield arrived, whilst I was away at Fossil Bluff base 250miles south with Dave one of the pilots and the aircraft of course! Where we were every few days moving some glaciologists around, this was to have gone on for 2 weeks, but after a week because the ship came in this project was postponed and we all came back here, to be kept busy unloading the ship.

We arrived back at Adelaide about midday 23rd Dec and worked through till 6am Christmas Eve unloading 750 x 45 gallon drums of Aircraft fuel. Being pretty shattered slept all day till evening to wake up and read my letters, several from Jan of course, her Mum and Dad, yours, pay slip from the army and a receipt for my rented TV in Omagh which had gone, Stirling (Scotland)-Omagh-Leicester (REME records) — De Havilland’s Toronto — BAS London — Stanley — to me! Best surprise of all, a message tape from Jan, I managed to send one back to her as I was a little behind with her letters as I’d planned to do all my letter writing during my 2nd week at Fossil Bluff.

First I’ll describe Xmas day here, I woke up at 8 o’clock and opened all my cards and presents, I had a real good laugh over the Penguins as I mentioned in the air letter they looked great on the Christmas Cake next to Santa! From Jan in the parcel I brought down with me, a super jumper dark purple with light purple and grey stripes around the chest! Also a pair of cufflinks engraved AJ. Also in the parcel with the tape was a pair of leather gloves and a pair of gaudy paisley ‘shreddies’! Had cards from Jan’s Mum & Dad and one of her Aunt and Uncle. Then getting up I thought I was on ‘Gash’ (duty housewife) so did someone else, so to make it easier we both did it! Kept busy during the morning with gash duties and reading a book Jan also sent me ‘Human Zoo’ sequel to ‘The Naked Ape’ Desmond Morris. Retired then to the bar for a glass of sherry before dinner. Roger the cook kept us hanging on increasing our appetites, but reducing our thirsts! Well worth waiting for, Mushroom Soup (Special), Fish course, turkey and etc. Xmas Pud with wines, coffee and liquors, plus cigars for those that wished. You commented in your letter that me having long hair and beard I would look like a Viking, well when I put my party hat on from a cracker they all said I looked like King Canute! After that feast no one did much during the afternoon, at 8 in the evening Rog laid out a buffet supper, excellent, turkey, sausage, crab pastries, celery, tomatoes. First fresh vegetables, some of the lads had seen for a year.

Boxing Day was fine, so it meant work, moving cargo brought by the ship to the airstrip to be flown to Fossil Bluff base, that’s only accessible by air and sledge. Apart from the last few days it’s been all go during an incredible spell of clear blue skies. Routine for most days has been up at 8 take off at 9, last flight back in between 11pm and midnight. While the aircraft are away we keep busy bringing cargo up from the base for the next flight. Odd days I’ve had the A/C for servicing to make a change.

On the 4th January we had a break from cargo moving, both aircraft with me in one, for the ride! Went off on a “visit the sledges day” — first stop at Sledge Romeo at Boomerang Ridge (named from its shape) to pick up 5 cwts of rocks, samples, from the geologists. From them who were sitting under a cloudy patch of sky we flew up into the sunshine again and continued South to Mount Andrew Jackson. In a snowfield under this majestic peak were 2 tents, 4 FIDs and 36 bouncing fluffy huskies! One pair in particular, brothers, completely white and very hairy, a real picture, one of my many! About 550 photos now! Having had tea and biscuits with the FIDS, we took one of them to a survey station called St Pancreas, (no trains called there!) to measure the earth’s gravity to see if it had changed since last time he was there! This was my furthest point south so far 71’45’. From here north again to do the same at the South Eland Mountains — gravity felt the same to me at both places! Back to Mount Andrew Jackson where we found the other A/C had arrived, to move 2 of the FIDs, 18 of the huskies and all their kit to a new location in the Mount Edgell area, Spider Nunatak. So with both A/C loaded we took off for Mount Edgell, a really beautiful area, made more so by the fact it was by this time evening, casting long shadows on the snow. To the north was the massif of Mount Edgell a giant snow covered peak, to the east a long ridge descending to the ice plateau, to the south stretching as far as the eye could see. To quote the maps, a featureless plateau of snow and ice dotted with the occasional Nunatak (mountain peak protruding through the snow), to the south west an unusual rock ridge with shear walls and rounded tops, to the west George VI Sound a permanently frozen strip of water about 15 miles wide between Graham Land Peninsula and Alexander Island, a large island completely mountainous, some rising to 10,000ft. The clearness of the air and the mountains’ size, make them look close enough to touch.

This is just one of many flights I’ve been on, one never ceases to be impressed by the wild beauty of the scenery down here.

Another trip which I mentioned in an air letter was a ‘camping’ trip. This was on the East Coast flying surveyors from one place to another. Usually they move by dog team, but as it was on the coast they asked to be moved by aircraft. They wanted to measure the distance between survey stations on the various Capes along the coast. The system that’s used is, two teams (pairs) of surveyors work it. Team A is taken to Point 1, team B to point 2 measure the ‘line’ then Team A ‘leapfrogs’ team B to point 3 then measures back to point 2, then Team B leapfrogs Team A to point 4 and so on. We went along to move them about by A/C but also to help carry their equipment on the snow — very heavy too some of it is, the ‘tellurometer’ that measures the distances weighs 90lbs! How it does it, it’s basically a radio transmitter / receiver, sends out a signal which the other team receive on theirs, which on a dial shows the distance the signal has come, then to check they send a signal back to read on the other tellurometer. The distance each instrument measures is normally within 10cm (4ins) of what the other measures over a distance of 30–40 miles, quicker than a tape measure. This trip lasted 3 days so we camped out, but different to camping in Europe but most enjoyable.

The 10 days I spent at Fossil Bluff I passed doing a variety of things, one day we climbed two peaks near the hut. Sphinx (named for its shape) commanded an excellent view of George VI Sound and the Peninsula along a ridge to Pyramid (again named after its shape) which overlooked the Uranus Glacier and part of the interior of Alexander Island which we were on. Other days were spent reading, writing and cooking, we took it in turns (cooking). I even tried by hand at bread making, tasted OK even if I do say so myself. Why we were there was the two glaciologists who normally live there had to work on Wilkins Sound on the other side of the island then the Bach Ice Shelf, so rather than fly from Adelaide to move them, we stayed at Fossil Bluff.

Working with Glaciologists this last week as well, on Thursday Dave the pilot, myself and the glacio’s flew out to Charcot Island in the Bellingshausen Sea to dig a hole! This hole was 10’ by 6’ by 6’ deep, then in the bottom of this hole we drilled down a further 30ft with a coring Drill. Samples of each core which came up were put in plastic bags to be sent back to Copenhagen to measure the Oxygen Isotopes in them. From this they can tell what the temperature was when that snow fell! When the hole was finished a thermometer was lowered to the bottom and the temperature there is within ½ ‘C the average annual temperature at that point! Clever ay! Interesting point, only two people (at same time) had set foot on this island before — as I was first out of the aircraft I was the third, but the first English man to set foot there. How about that then!!

Again yesterday I was out with the glacio’s this time on the Fleming Glacier (fastest moving on Graham Land Peninsula ) They had spent 2 weeks at this spot on the glacier, returning a week ago. Before they left, they had driven stakes into the glacier so we took them back to see how much the stakes had moved since then. This is done by measuring how much the angle between the stake and a nearby mountain peak has changed. The glacier is moving at a rate of 40cm, 16 ins a day, so in the time we spent there we moved almost 2.5 ins!! It was a beautiful afternoon with clear skies, visibility perfect. In true British style we had a cup of tea there with sardine and dried onion on biscuits during our sunbathing!

I hope my descriptions give you some idea of what I’ve been doing, reading it through seems a bit confusing in places taking it for granted you know what I’m talking about! Hope you do.

Oh one thing I didn’t tell you about, my second trip to Avian Island to see the penguin chicks, which were almost the size of their parents but covered in dark grey down. Many other birds nest here for example, Giant Petrels, big birds with a 4 foot 6 inch wingspan — we sat and watched one of their chicks hatch, none of the birds have any fear of humans. Also skuas which attack you, look like a brown seagull, if you go anywhere near their nest they dive bomb you to within inches — Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ in real life. Keep them off by carrying a ski stick above your head with a beer can on the point. Dominican Gulls nest there too, these provided us with a remarkable sight. We disturbed the large chicks which the skuas tried to catch, equally determined they shouldn’t, the gulls attacked the skuas in the air, the sky was a mass of hundreds of these birds. Then the two chicks stopped and sat in the middle of a patch of snow, immediately about 30 gulls landed and surrounded them forming a protective barrier from the skuas — remarkable sight ! Cormorants also nest here, a black and white bird with blue eyes, but with the most ugly chicks, look like pterodactyls!

I’m writing this in my bunk room by the window, out of which the view is quite something. Looks out to sea, which is a mass of activity. Giant IceBergs float by, rolling majestically, all with their own unique shape, some rising to sharp points, hundreds of feet high, others long and flat, yet others with archways in them looking like floating bridges. Amongst the bergs ice flows with their ‘passengers’, groups of penguins swaying as their ‘boat’ bobs up and down. The occasional seal surfaces, together with groups of penguins porpoising through the water.

Glad to hear everyone is enjoying life at home in their respective jobs despite all the crisis, don’t have strikes or go slows here!

Well I look forward to seeing you all sometime in March probably not long after this arrives. This letter will be flown to Halley Bay from here to meet the ship.

Hope you can get my car organized OK, don’t know if the fuel crisis will affect anything, we hear very little news down here, can receive the world service BBC but no one listens very often, so depressing!

Hope you like the included slide and picture and I cadged. Slide was taken on the East Coast Survey, that’s a tellurometer, I’m nearest the camera. Picture of some of the lads digging my aeroplane out of a snowdrift after a ‘blow’ (I’m not on picture)

Love to all, Alec x

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