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Tris’s Blog – a day in the life of an ice camper

A day in the life of Camp Black & Bloom

It’s pretty bright outside, the tent walls glow hues of the orange flysheet. Time to get the day rolling; on fieldwork, time is the valuable commodity. So, it is a case of putting on the trusted base layers and windproof shell to fend off the early morning cool breeze from the east, and emerging from the porch to crunch over the remaining weathered honeycomb ice on the way to the bathroom. I say “bathroom” – which it is – but perhaps some might not be as generous with their terminology for two perpendicular, upturned freight palettes, some plyboard and a sturdy bamboo cane with a duct-tape ‘occupied flag’ atop. But it does its job, providing some degree of privacy, keeping toileting away from camp and the study site, and shields the partially declothed gore-tex or fleece clad user from those icy breezes. Then it is crunching over the ice again, minding the more slick patches (or the water-logged lows) that have developed overnight while the sun-induced melt has been at its lowest. It doesn’t get dark: camp sees daylight for at least 18hrs a day, with the remaining 6hrs best described as twilight that provides some spectacular “sun-sets” or vivid bands of purples, auburns and siennas that are reflected as striking tints in places on the barren moonscape that the ice sheet surface resembles.

Arriving at the “mess tent” after the short morning trudge, the first two slightly bleary eyed scientists set about collecting clear freshwater from the nearby azure blue supraglacial stream and getting the two kettles going on the cast iron camp stove to fill the array of thermos flasks ready for teas and coffees. Mind you, the whistling kettles… which develop searingly hot handles when boiled – these need careful tea-towel handling and ear plugs! And then on goes the pot of porridge, loaded with sultanas and a good slug of powdered milk, and some slightly energetic stirring kicks in – after all, burning porridge to a pan isn’t ideal in the absence of many mod cons all-too-frequently taken for granted. And then everyone in camp is there – rummaging around for jam or honey to put on the porridge, trying to find the “right” tea bags, working out which carton of UHT milk is already open, or looking for the filters for the AeroPress coffee maker. Conversation starts a little slow as the morning’s wake up kicks in, but quickly picks up and the standing jokes are pretty soon being revisited, punctuated with brief comments like “what are you going to do science-wise today?”. As the “put-in-group” was a selection of seven strangers (well, nearly), chatter freely flowed and everyone had their various camp roles – a well-oiled machine really, even within just a few days on the ice. And there we sit, waiting for the daily scheduled call to report the camp’s status – the routine way to support remote field camps by ensuring that in the event of any accident or problems help can be called for quickly.

Satellite phone call over – smiles around the bowl-strewn table, because everything is “mega” and everyone is given lots of “love” for doing a good job. Warm water into the washing up bowl, some scrubbing, and camp scatters to their various initial ports of call – the bathroom, the personal tents to don salopettes, the science tent to check batteries are charged or sampling kit is ready. And once the factor-50 sunscreen has been applied to noses, ears and cheeks, the kick-off whistle blows for the day’s science. The group is focused on the area just to the north of camp – a rugged, empty portion of ice affectionately called “the pixel”. Well, the area is around 500 x 500 m – which corresponds to the scale (and equivalent area) recorded (or averaged out) by one or two individual pixels in many digital satellite sensor images. Our pixel is a varied place: sloping gradually up and to the north-east, dissected by a number of 1 m wide meandering streams making up a dendritic network flowing towards a small supraglacial pond and its outlet stream gorge, pockmarked by cryoconite holes varying from less than a centimetre to more than a metre. The frigid terrain is characterised by white and more greyed glacier ice regions (or at least dusty, brownish, pinkish or yellowish areas – depending on the sun angle and the colour or polarisation of your sunglass lenses) and our area of interest is littered with ‘wind sails’ – these ice features shaped like slightly asymmetric Aztec temples, around 1 m high, with bright white ice at the top, and slightly rounded by the dominant westerly wind.

The glaciologists (the “pixel monkeys”) head out to collect measurements of how much sunlight different ice surface types return back to the atmosphere – this is surface reflectance, and the amount of the Sun’s energy sent back towards space varies if the ice is cerulean blue, steely grey, snow white, cloudy muddled tones when waterlogged or umber-coloured when covered in cryoconite or blooming microbial life. Mind you, the pixel monkeys also make observations of ice structure from shallow ice cores or take profiles of the wind sails to look for variations in the number of air bubbles in glacier ice, or simply go about measuring the rates at which the ice surface is melting using nothing more sophisticated than a tape-measure and some drainpipe drilled into the ice. Meanwhile the biologists are busy sampling the cryoconite, supraglacial waters, and the algae responsible for the greyed ice surface colour – and then scurrying back to the science tent to process, treat, store or analyse material. It is amazing how much scientific equipment you can run on a set of solar panels linked to large rechargeable batteries. And our aerosol sampler – a pole resembling a swimming-pool shower configuration surrounded by solar panels which hoovers in samples of the local air to see what might be deposited from the atmosphere to the ice surface – demands lots of attention and seemingly endless tweaks and modifications with zip-ties, duct tape and USB 5V battery packs to ensure it can run effectively and unattended. The hard work is paying off, and the clear wintry air is being sampled on to little 5 cm filter discs.

Lunch somehow fits into this unordered suite of activities. With no regularity of timing or attending personnel there is some marginally chaotic early afternoon feast. In the eternally cool environment, scientists get hungry: tins of mackerel in oil, entire jars of peanut butter, packets of Wasa crisp bread (a little like Ryvita), and tubes of ‘squeezy cheese’ with ham or chive add-ins don’t last long in the tangerine and white chequered dome mess tent. Combinations of taste sensations to the outsider might seem unwieldy or a little strange, but calorie, carb and protein needs outweigh any Michelin rated menu standards. And then there are the biscuits; the seemingly endless supply of biscuits. The camp is like a pack of hyenas, ravenous but quickly satisfied and plates and knives stacked in the washing up bowl. But there is little let up from the eagle-eyed focus of the day: the name of the game is data collection, and pretty soon camp is back into the routine set of experiments, sample collections, observation making and on site data analyses. There is even a small ivory white quadcopter drone flying around the pixel – apparently unattended, busily taking images of the ice surface from its position 70 m up in the air. It is all go, all day every day on the ice sheet – or at least, over our underrated but well-explored pixel.

Then as evening approaches, and the citron sun drops toward the horizon line and takes a more amber tone, there is some checking of the tents. The daily melting surface means the bamboo poles used as tent-pegs can melt out; the tents themselves can shade the ice and slowly tents become almost stranded on icy pinnacles several 10s of centimetres above the ice surface. This is the case too with the mess and science tents. And more frustratingly, the consistent breeze (and occasional gusty wind) coupled with the day’s ice melt seems to leave sleeping tent porches flapping like untrimmed spinnakers. So, all hands on deck, and tightening all pitching loops or complete re-pitching of tents is a regular activity. Everyone is involved with planning the order of moving items and the tent, as well as scoping out suitable sites that are sufficiently flat (or can be modified with some exuberant ice axe swinging) and that are necessarily isolated from streams to avoid flooding the tent when melt peaks in the daytime. Then a frenzy of activity – the team working once again like a rally-tuned race-car engine – efficiently moving bags or boxes, modifying the ice surface with enthusiastic ice axe blows, replacing plyboard flooring, re-drilling holes with our trusted cordless drill and Kovacs ice auger flight to slot the 1 m bamboo tent pegs into, and generally securing the tents against the elements.

Tents secured, attention turns to dinner. The air temperature drops quickly once the sun starts to descend to the white horizon, and everyone needs sustenance. Camp congregates in the warm mess tent – and there is debate over what culinary masterpiece can be concocted from a wide array of (slightly random) ingredients, condiments, herbs and spices. As with lunch, there’s no room for the selectable or sensitive palette. Debates rage over how to use jars of anchovies, capers, or dried mushrooms, consultations over whether corned beef goes well with Thai curry paste are employed and drawn out dialogue surrounds the dried pulses (which even have their own stainless steel “soaker” – not that a total of 72hrs immersion seems to soften even the least robust kidney bean or chick pea). The carbohydrates do rather dictate the nature of the final creation, but we all eat well and camp compliments always go to the varied chefs. Convivial dinner-time conversation drops to a still quiet, interspersed with the clink of forks and spoons on the tin plates. And within 2 minutes, cleared plates are scattered over the mess tent table, more teas and coffees are made, more biscuits are devoured, and conversation takes a more flippant turn, rather than some longwinded yet eloquent discussion of the day’s scientific progress – although deviatory lines such as “in Python does anyone know…” or “if I’m in R, how do I…” are tragically common interruptions to subjects such as brave pilots, Yorkshire, and hipster trends. Amidst this, it is a little like a “rock-paper-scissors” approach to determining the evening “washer-uper”. But no matter what, the plates see the suds, and the day in Camp Black & Bloom ends. Time to prepare for the next 15hr or more work day. Temperatures keep falling, and pretty soon the impending arctic cold and approaching sunset (as near midnight the sun just dips below the horizon for an hour or two) triggers trips to our urbane bathroom, a flurry of low-light photography, and purposeful, determined retreats to personal tents in search of the warmth and security of sleeping bags and Thermarests.



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