The winter trip is part holiday, part Antarctic training camp. It is an opportunity for us to get off base for a bit and see the sights, but also pick up a bit of experience about how to survive in the field. There are plenty of options available for us and part of the excitement earlier on in the winter was to pore over the maps and read previous trip reports to decide where to go and how to get there.
I picked manhauling as my mode of travel, and Sighing Peak as the destination (see previous blog entry ‘Manhauling‘). There would be two of us going, me and my Field Assistant for the week, Ash. Luckily, he bore me no ill-will for landing him with an unavoidable week of gruelling exercise – he was looking forward to the new experience, a change from motoring up and down Adelaide Island on skidoos.
The day before we headed out we spent a couple of hours packing the pulks, making sure that we had not forgotten anything (Tent? Tick. Sleeping bag? Tick. Food? Tick). Having then spent a few minutes marvelling at the sheer size and weight of our loads, we wrestled them into the back of the Sno-cat and dropped them off at the top of the hill. I had my own private doubts about the ethics of this, but these were largely cast aside when I discovered that I couldn’t lift the sledge on my own, let alone single-handedly tow it up a steep ramp of ice.
Finally, we went through a few basic crevasse-rescue drills. Ash would be leading and our route took us over potentially crevassed ground – he wanted to be sure that I could pull him out of a hole in the ground if the need arose. Help would be a long time in coming if we got ourselves into any trouble.
With everything packed and ready, we went over to dinner for some much-needed energy.
The moment I looked out of my window I knew that we would be going. The stars were twinkling in a clear sky, and there was barely a breath of wind. I headed over for breakfast and watched the sun rise over the icebergs, before meeting up with Ash for a few final preparations.
Before long, we were ready to go, and caught a lift up to the pulks. First we donned our mountaineering harnesses and crevasse-rescue gear, then roped ourselves together, then put on skis and skins, and finally hooked ourselves up to the pulks and took the first tentative steps. In fact, it took some enormous tugs on the belly-band with all of my body-weight, plus a few helpful pulls on the rope from Ash to free my pulk from the snowdrift that had built up around it. Fortunately, once clear it started moving more easily. If I ever donate my kidneys to anyone they’ll be flat enough for me to pop them into an envelope and post them.
We hauled for an hour before stopping for a drink and taking stock. The snow conditions weren’t too bad, with a decent icy crust on the surface helping the sledges to glide along. Even as midday approached, the sun was so low in the sky that it barely cleared the tops of the hills, and our shadows stretched far out over the snow. Our objective for the day was to reach Trident, a lone peak that sits in front of the Stokes range, about 15km to the North of base. Here we would camp, and hope for a favourable forecast that would allow us to push on to the trickier ground en-route to our ultimate destination, Sighing Peak.
It didn’t take long to get into a rhythm. Head down, pushing one foot forward after the other and watching the ski tips leapfrog their way along. The only sounds were the squeak of the snow underfoot and jingle-jangle of the gear on my harness. It was hard work, but sustainable, and oddly relaxing – I found my thoughts wandering far and wide, and spent a good proportion of the first hour daydreaming that I was amongst the warm air and spicy scents of Morocco.
After a while, the route turned uphill and the snow conditions deteriorated, with the crusty ice surface giving way to softer snow underneath. There was no time for daydreaming now, and I had to focus on the effort of pushing each foot forward to keep up with Ash, who was pulling the lighter of the two pulks (which was fair enough as, being in the lead, he was more likely to fall down a crevasse). The wind started to pick up as well, forming little rivulets of spindrift over the snow-surface and blowing through our clothing, now damp with sweat. Stopping for a quick snack was a recipe for getting cold, so we kept breaks to a minimum and pressed on to find a spot that was sheltered enough to camp for the evening.
Soon enough we found a crevasse-free patch of hard snow in the lee of Trident and leapt into action to get the pyramid tent up before the wind picked up any more. One of the joys of manhauling is that setting up camp is a nice quick job, unencumbered as you are with the usual heavy gear taken on skidoo trips. Once the tent was up, I dug enormous snow blocks to weigh down the valances, while Ash set up the radio in preparation for the evening sched with the team back at Rothera. With everything shipshape and anchored down outside, we moved into the tent, started melting snow for a cup of tea and set out our roll mats and sleeping bags. After a brief confusion, during which I was convinced that I’d accidentally left my sleeping bag back at Rothera, I was delighted to find that Ash had decided not to bring his sheepskin rug in an effort to cut down the weight on his pulk. For the rest of the evening he was forced to look enviously over at me, wallowing in warm comfort amongst the deep fleecy pile.
Time moves remarkably quickly in a small tent in Antarctica, with every little job requiring thought and patience. Making a cup of tea means putting on your warm clothes and heading outside to cut snow-blocks for water, before even starting the slow process of melting them over the primus. Answering the call of nature requires a Herculean effort for which you have to steadily build enthusiasm over the course of a few hours, and takes considerable fortitude during its execution (we had opted not to take the usual poo-tent as a weight-saving measure, so the gusting spindrift made for a remarkably refreshing experience). We sat and chatted for the evening, discussing the pros and cons of manhauling – our experience that day had turned us both into die-hard manhauling advocates. Eventually our allotted time for the evening sched with Rothera came around, and I enjoyed the experience of being on the other end of the radio by way of a change. The guys and girls back on base gave us the normal cheery banter and information – Rosey passed the weather forecast to aid our planning, George noted down our location and intentions for the rest of the week and Tom gave us one of his notoriously appalling ‘jokes of the day’.
As the evening settled in, the katabatic winds, streams of cold air racing down the glacier, picked up steadily until we were being hit by gusts of 40 or 50 knots – enough to buffet the canvas, but of no threat to the sturdy little tent and the humans inside it. A well-erected pyramid tent can easily withstand winds of 80+ knots – on one notorious winter trip last year, the skidoos blew away but the tent remained robustly in place, albeit with the residents turning a little pale as they rode out the storm inside. As the winds whistled outside we rehydrated our daily ration of manfood and swallowed down the gloopy mixture while trying to forget what real food tasted like.
Eventually it was time to call it a day, and I settled down into my thick down sleeping bag with the sound of the wind screaming and battering the canvas by my head. As with every other time I’ve slept in one of the BAS sleeping bags, I was far too hot and ended up sprawled half-out of the bag until the early morning chill crept through the tent and I was forced to retreat.
With the crashes, whistles and rumbles of the tent being battered by wind all night, sleep only came intermittently. The weather hadn’t relented by first light, and as soon as we had stuck our heads out of the door it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere.
Thus started my first full day of lie-up, as much part of the experience of Antarctic travel as snow and skidoos. There are legendary tales of field parties getting condemned to their tents for weeks on end by vicious storms. This is not a problem in its own right, as BAS travel regulations stipulate that we have to carry vast reserves of food and fuel for such occurrences – the major battle is the fight against boredom and mental decay. However, this was no concern to me, as I eagerly started reading my first book – a cheap thriller that kept me entertained for a few hours. By early afternoon, I had finished the book and was reluctantly forced to pull out the next one. This was David Crane’s almighty tome of a biography of Robert Scott, which turned out to have reassuringly small writing – this, I thought, would keep me going.
The rest of the day passed in a haze of reading, tea-drinking, conversation and careful testing of our sleeping arrangements. Occasionally, one or other of us would venture outside to check that the pulks hadn’t blown away. On one such trip outside, long after the darkness had closed back in, I was stunned to get my first view of Aurora Australis, the southern lights. Despite the strong winds, the sky was crystal clear, and the vast undulating waves of light swept across the sky. Unfortunately, having set up my camera to take the ultimate killer Antarctic photo, I found that the focus ring had frozen and the best I could achieve was a picture of a sort of hazy orange blob, which I assumed must be the tent.
Better weather when we woke up, but the forecast passed to us during the previous night’s radio sched promised further heavy winds to come, so we were reluctant to strike camp and make a break for Sighing Peak. Instead, we opted to abandon the pulks and attempt to ski around Trident with just basic equipment and spare clothes in rucksacks. As we headed out west towards McCallum’s Pass, gaps opened up in the low cloud to reveal a stunning panorama of mountains around us. However, we were only a few kilometres away from camp before the wind blew up again, whipping the dusty snow a few metres off the ground and dramatically reducing the visibility. Oddly, the tops of the distant mountains were still visible over the top of the haze, but everything at eye-level was obscured. This put us in the intriguing situation of being able to navigate back to the rough area of the tent, but not actually being able to see it until we were a couple of hundred metres away (for those readers with faint dispositions [you know who you are] this wasn’t actually as bad as it sounded – Ash had the location of the tent marked on his GPS unit, which, had we chosen to use it, could have guided us back to within a few tens of metres of accuracy).
Once back in the tent, we celebrated with yet more tea and settled down for more lie-up. The tome was still going strong, but in the interest of not running short of reading material, I was now deliberately reading every paragraph twice and mulling over the text with more than the usual absorption.
The forecast for today was good, but with more rubbish weather predicted after that. This was borne out by the lovely morning that greeted us as we left the tent, with the lack of wind feeling strange after the blustery previous few days. We therefore decided that the sensible decision was to head for the caboose, a small cabin in the hills just above Rothera, rather than potentially getting stuck out in the wilderness for another week (not so bad in its own right, but the constant manfood was already taking its toll!, and this would mean missing Saturday night dinner, when Justin the chef always pulled out the stops).
Packing the pulks was a reasonably quick job, but our exit was delayed by the time taken to dig the tent out of the large snowdrift that had already formed around it. Inevitably, the wind was already starting to pick up again and we feared that we might have a day of hauling with a stiff breeze on our backs. Once on the move, however, the weather settled again into almost perfect conditions, with the added bonus that the wind had blown away all of the soft snow, and the surface was hard enough to support the skis and the pulk without giving way. The downside was that there were now a lot more sastrugi – low, wind-sculpted ridges that caught the pulks and required a couple of hard tugs to clear, and threatened to flip the sledge over if you caught them at the wrong angle.
The uneven ground meant that it was difficult to get into a rhythm – if Ash slowed down to negotiate an obstacle, then the safety rope linking us would slacken and get caught on my skis; if I slowed down, then it would tighten, jerking him back. The whole journey therefore took a lot more concentration and I reluctantly abandoned my previous manhauling Moroccan dreamscape to focus on the job at hand.
As we moved onto the known safe ground nearer the caboose, we abandoned the rope and were able to push a lot harder. Some might even say that an element of competition had a hand as we raced for the finish. It was therefore two substantially sweaty, hungry and tired people who arrived an hour or two later. However, the weather was still holding out, so we changed into dry clothing and headed out with climbing gear to do a quick ridge-walk along the western end of Reptile Ridge. At the summit, the wind once more blew in earnest, and we had an exhilarating clamber along the loose rock of the ridgeline, hit by 30-knot gusts funnelled up the couloirs. As we descended, a grey wall of cloud enveloped the local area and large snowflakes were falling by the time we reached the caboose.
Extreme hunger, and more room to manoeuvre, gave us the incentive to break away from the manfood diet – a giant bowl of spaghetti with red pesto and tinned cheese never tasted so good. As the night closed in, the weather continued to batter the caboose, at times startling us with its ferocity. When I headed outside to brush my teeth, the little cabin, with yellow light spilling from the windows, looked like a lonely sanctuary and I was grateful to head back inside to bed.
Not the greatest night’s sleep. I rapidly abandoned the down sleeping bag for a thin fleece blanket to avoid the risk of self-combusting, but then spent a frustrating period some hours later trying to find my way back into the sleeping bag as hypothermia threatened to kick in. In between, there was howling from the wind coming down the stove-pipe, clanking from various bits of metalwork on the outside of the hut, and various other indescribable loud noises keeping sleep at bay.
I gave up and got out of bed once the first grey light started to filter in through the windows. We had hoped to go and do some climbing from the caboose, but once again the weather foiled us. More strong winds and low cloud greeted us, and together with a poor forecast for the rest of the day we opted to head back to base in time for the Saturday night feast.
It didn’t take long to pack our things, but I piled on plenty of layers for the 4km ski back to base. Usually, the short journey would require skins on the skis and a bit of effort to cover the flat ground. Not today, however; the strong northerly wind was enough to push us virtually all the way back with barely a muscle twitched. The last few hundred metres are a steepish hill of ice, currently scoured of all loose snow by the winds. Ash bravely opted to ski down, but having got this far and survived, I thought it would be prudent to remove the skis and trudge down on foot.
Crossing the runway back into base was a strange feeling – I’ve lived at Rothera for over 6 months now, but this is only the second time that I’ve been away. Strange to think how welcoming a lonely lump of rock on the edge of the great whiteness can be. Saturday night dinner was everything we had hoped for – Justin had created three types of curry, onion bhajis and poppadoms.