The first ascent of Mount Barbeque

Back in the last ice age, Antarctica was covered in even more ice than it is now. The ice was heavy enough to depress the continent down by hundreds of metres. Although we've been out of the ice age for nigh on ten thousand years, it takes a jolly long time for the continent to slowly bounce back up now that most of the weight of the ice has gone. The process is called isostatic rebound, if you want the technical term, and a chap at BAS (called Ed, if it's important to you) would quite like to know just how fast it's going on on the Antarctic peninsula. It's expected to be of the order of a few millimetres a year, which is just measurable if you pay enough money for a fancy GPS and leave it out on a icy rock in the middle of nowhere for a few years to collect enough data.

Someone had to get the job of installing this GPS, and with a PhD in a numerate discipline, it was decided that I was sufficiently competent to bolt the thing to a suitable rock and press the 'on' button. Although the GPS itself is the size of a car radio, and probably more energy efficient, BAS had also built a power supply to run it through the winter. This weighed the best part of a tonne, and was festooned with little wind generators, solar panels, and complicated bits of electronics. But luckily, it came with an engineer, Matt, to get it running.

So shortly after our Christmas turkeys had been digested, we set off in one of the little Twin Otter planes on a day trip to the Brennecke Nunataks, 200 miles south of Rothera towards the Eastern side of the Peninsula. We gawped out the windows to begin with as we left Adelaide Island, rose over the sea ice, closed with the rocky mountains that form the western coast of the peninsula and swept over the heavily crevassed glaciers that drain down from the ice cap above. Flying over the ice cap itself is less interesting - it's pretty much flat and white in all directions - but the odd nunatak poked its head through the snow to provide some interest.

We landed where the ice cap begins to drain to the eastern side of the peninsula, the scenery getting pretty awesome once again. More and more bits of mountain were showing between the rivers of ice, and the ice itself was crevassed in places. Although it would have been nice to climb one of the bigger mountains to attach the GPS to the top, we reluctantly decided to pick a slightly tamer piece of rock - so tame in fact that it only poked about 6 feet above the surrounding snow. We could park the plane within a hundred yards of the summit. Still, I don't imagine anyone has ever set foot on that particular nunatak, so we can legitimately claim the first ascent.

I had a little mast to erect to fix the GPS aerial to, which came with three guys and some rawlbolts. Thoughtfully, Ed had provided a 24V hammer drill and some masonry bits - but the rock proved to be exceptionally tough granite and rather a beast to drill into. We managed a hole about half an inch deep before the drill began to make battery-dying noises.

Luckily, I had brought an inverter and a mains drill as a backup, which we could power from the lead-acid batteries for the power supply. It fared slightly better, but even then the masonry bits were only good for widening out existing cracks in the rock to make them big enough for the rawlbolts. Still, we managed to make it pretty secure in the end.

In the meantime Matt was struggling with the power supply. Having bolted it all together, and attempted to unbend all the wind turbines, which had been knocked about a bit, he turned it on. There was a slight smell of singed circuit board, and it stopped working.

We held a council of war. The complicated circuitry in the junction box was fried, but I reckoned it should be possible to bypass most of it, so that we could run the GPS directly off the 6 large lead acid-batteries contained in the power supply. There was enough power in them to keep the instrument going for two or three months, and that would at least give some useful data; in fact if they got the same length of data the following year it should be all that was needed to get the rate of the isostatic rebound.

We took the toasted circuit board back to the plane and Matt and I spent a happy hour hacking it to pieces with the limited tools at our disposal, soldering a few wires back together again so that we could at least supply 12 volts to the GPS. It should have been easy enough to bypass most of the regulation circuits for the wind turbines too, so that they could still provide some charge to the batteries, but this was frustrated when Matt revealed that there was even more complicated circuitry in each of the battery boxes that could tell what we were trying to do and wouldn't allow it. I was all for hacking those circuits to bits too, but the pilots had already been patiently waiting around for several hours now, so we agreed to get it running just off the batteries; if the opportunity arose later in the season Matt would fly out again from Rothera with a spare junction box and have a go at replacing the barbequed bits with some nice fresh ones.

With our bodged wiring the GPS was soon fired up and giving us a postion to far more decimal places than is natural to a sailor, and we flew away over the snow and rocks back to Rothera.