A Trip to the Old-Old Base


Mick "Mix" Dixon; 1984-1985

In 1984, I was enjoying a first winter at Halley 4, the new curvy wooden building that was everything one could wish for, in a comfortable Antarctic Ice Shelf Base building.

Some 6 miles away to the northwest was "Old Base" the 1973 building, then 70 feet below snow level. We often went over there exploring and rummaging about the building, recovering items of interest by the sled load ! We were able to start the small Genset, (by its own battery), and switch on the lights. Quite amazing considering that once Bob Bowler had switched off the Gensets for the last time in February 84, clomped up the ladders/ stairs in darkness and silence and closed the door, the whole building cooled and stabilised out at -11C.

The rate of deformation of the Shelf Ice about the building ceased once the heating was off, and even up until late 1985, no visible deterioration was noted.

It was on one of these Saturday afternoon trips, having hauled my booty to the top of the access stairs, that I looked over toward the sea and noticed the odd shape of a steel post some 200 metres away on the snow. " I wonder if that could be the 1969 Base?"*

Some research had revealed the history of Halley Base buildings. The house erected in 1956 for IGY, rapidly buried over the first winters, and becoming the "Warren" was replaced by the 1969* building, purpose designed for the Shelf, with snow burial in mind. For various reasons, this did not last as long as expected, and was in a serious state of collapse from snow pressure by 1973, when the steel Armco tube building was completed.

This structure served well for its 10 years, despite some weird and wonderful deformation and misalignment, and roof timbers shattering in the night !, but continued to be habitable when Halley4, the revolutionary wooden Tube structure was erected.

We moved in and took up residence in January 1984, after the builders over-wintered, completing it internally. This building was our very comfortable home for two years, and despite technical difficulties survived until it too suffered snow pressure and deformation and was replaced by the Shelf Top buildings Halley 5, of today.

Back to Old Base, we decided that the steel post was worth investigating and a very short spell of digging about the steel post showed results. The snow actually began falling into a hidden opening. We lay down and peered into the odd dark spot in our shallow diggings, and got quite a fright. We were digging energetically upon a thin crust with a bit of canvas, over the top of a pitch black vertical 70 ft shaft, an access to Old Old Base!

Some weeks later, in a Kat loaded with gear, we set off on a thrilling and illicit expedition, Pinky, Mick Daley, Nick Q and I. Anchoring ropes to the Kat, we descended into the shaft, going back in history. At the bottom, a pile of snow blocked the regular doorway access, but a melt cavern over the roof/ ceiling, allowed us onto the "attic". One of the first things I recall seeing on the plywood, was cat poo! Through the ceiling hatch and down onto the floor. The place was wide open, no collapse, no deformation. Magic.

Exploring the spaces, we found pit rooms with photos still up, old stores, Fid Gear 1950 style, an Eliason Skidoo, the Lancing Snoplane, the white piano, etc, etc.

The Genshed was blocked by a snowfall at the entrance, and we intended returning another day to make entrance, but never did.

The Skidoo was still apparently operable but obsolete by the more modern Alpines, etc. We took the single cylinder engine, to use on the Hovercraft lift Fan.

The piano still played, though somewhat out of tune. We considered the logistics of recovering it !

The Lancing Snoplane remained intact, without its Lycoming engine and propeller. (who has it??)

We found a perfectly intact access shaft with landings/ ladders, and climbed to the closed top hatch, with a Bog Chisel. On spearing the Chisel upward through the hatch and 3 ft of snow, someone outside located the point, and we had our ladder access to the building.

Later visitors found a length of 3" brass bar some 8 ft long. A challenge to recover, for material for all those Midwinter presents !

The trick was to attach a hauling rope about its slippery surface. On hoisting it vertically up the ladder shaft by Kat, the rope slipped off. The brass bar of some 100 Kg ? speared downward through two or more plywood landings, before impaling itself in the third. They got it out though, and its remnant is probably still being shaved away, at Halley 5.

What is most interesting, is that Shelf ice deformation appears to cease almost entirely, once a buried Base building cools to ambient. That building was allowed cool in c. 1973, and there we were wandering about in it some 12 years later.

By the way, if buried bases are to be sealed, the best way is to open all access hatches, and blown drift snow or machine show would fill the shafts impenetrably. Wouldn't be any fun tho!

Regards to all, Mix. July 2005.

PS: The Halley Hovercraft? sin sceal eile ["That's another story" Ed.]

[30 July 2005]

The photos taken on this trip are here.

* Here "Old Base" = Halley-III and "Old-Old Base"= Halley-II, otherwise known as "Grillage Village".
The latter was actually built in 1967 not 1969. Ed.

See also, report by Keith Yearby.

24 November 2013
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