Winter holiday

winter trip

An amazing place to camp. The beautiful face behind the tents is the western side of ‘Legend’, with the neat triangular peak of ‘Myth’ to the left. The tent on the right is our living tent, and the one on the left the poo tent. You may as well live in luxury, even in the Antarctic.

With midwinter now long gone and the first plane of the summer due in just over a month, it was high-time for me to get away from the base again and go on my second winter trip. Despite really enjoying the manhauling that I tried a few months ago, this time I wanted to go and see some of the sights at the south of Adelaide Island, too far to travel to on foot. I therefore elected to have a skidoo trip, which was guided by our hugely experienced, hugely respected, Polar Medal carrying Antarctic hero, Dave Routledge.

Skidoo travel in Antarctica is not quite as simple as just chucking your bags on the back and setting off. Due to the ever-present threat of horrendous weather, vast amounts of equipment must be carried – effectively enough to set up two completely separate camps, each with its own tent, primus, and enough food and fuel to last for several weeks. The idea is that if one camping ‘unit’ gets blown away or falls down a crevasse, there will still be a backup available for survival.

winter trip

Skidoo and a Nansen sledge, loaded with a full set of camping gear – tent, sleeping gear, primus, food and fuel.

The huge pile of boxes, tents and other equipment is loaded onto a pair of old-fashioned wooden Nansen sledges that are then hitched up in a long line to the two skidoos. The riders themselves are harnessed onto the skidoos, so if a crevasse snow-bridge does collapse beneath you, then both the rider and the skidoo itself are recoverable. It’s not unheard-of for this to happen, on one occasion not far from the place where we were planning to camp.

So it was that on a sunny morning Dave and I set off from Rothera, heading north towards the McCallum Pass, a low col in the ring of mountains that barricade the Wright Peninsula. The snow was hard and windblown, with enough sastrugi to make the skidoo feel a bit like a speedboat bouncing through a moderate swell. We reached the McCallum Pass after about an hour of steady driving and immediately a combination of fresh powder snow on the ground and steep slopes heading up to the col meant that the skidoos started to struggle a bit. We therefore resorted to relaying the sledges up one at a time, using the combined power of the two ‘doos to overcome the tricky conditions.

winter trip

Dave on his skidoo as we travel towards the Shambles Glacier. The slope on the right shows some heavy crevassing.

We rode on for about another 40km through patchy mist which hid a lot of the impressive mountain scenery. These long journeys on skidoo are good fun, except for the cramp which slowly builds in the muscle in the ball of your thumb which you use to control the throttle lever. However smoothly the lead skidoo drives, the person in the rear has to constantly feather the throttle to keep some slack in the link-rope, but avoid running it over and getting it tangled in the skis. A brief loss of concentration while you turn to admire the scenery is all it takes to foul the rope!

We reached our spectacular destination on the west of the island by the early afternoon. It is in a sheltered nook at the foot of the mountains that run north-south along Adelaide Island. To the east is the vast face of The Legend, a peak that would be world-famous if it were in the Alps or anywhere more accessible. To the west is the Fuchs Ice Piedmont, a great flat ice-sheet stretching the 15km from the mountains to the Southern Ocean beyond. Just to the south is the Sloman Glacier, cracking and breaking its way down onto the ice-shelf. I’ve camped in some pretty awesome places in the past, but this one won the prize hands-down.

winter trip

The Fuchs Ice Piedmont, an ice-shelf that covers the whole of the western side of Adelaide Island, sloping from the mountains down to the Southern Ocean. Sastrugi-tastic. Can you spot our campsite? Hint – look harder.

It took us a couple of hours to erect the sleeping tent and the poo tent (I was quite excited about the latter, as it was a luxury that we regretfully omitted during my previous lightweight manhauling expedition) and get them well dug into the snow. We parked and tarped the skidoos, and just as the ominous-looking snow-clouds closed in, we headed inside for a well-earned cup of tea and made plans for the rest of the week.

That’s that for this entry – in due course, I’ll write more about the brilliant week that followed.

winter trip

Skidoo tracks as we skirted the mountains. This is the standard setup for travel, with skidoo-sledge-skidoo linked by ropes. The camp is already set up, but if we were carrying that equipment as well then it would be towed on a sledge behind the second skidoo.

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3 Responses to Winter holiday

  1. MichB says:

    When you say you’re harnessed onto the skidoo, I get that if you fall down a crevasse you stay attached to it (and therefore are dangling rather than dead at the bottom) but wouldn’t the weight of it just drag everything else down too? Or do the sleds counter-weight you? I would have thought they would be really good at sliding down after you, being sleds and all 🙂

    • Adam says:

      Hi Michelle, there are apparently a couple of reasons why the rear skidoo and sled don’t get dragged down. First, the rope coming from the falling lead skidoo tends to cheesewire through the snow and ice at the edge of a crevasse, so provides quite a lot of friction. This, combined with the person on the rear skidoo slamming on the brakes as soon as they see the lead skidoo disappearing, usually provides enough drag to counter the weight of the falling skidoo.

      The result is that the Nansen sledge roped in between the ‘doos usually gets dragged to the edge of the crevasse, but holds there without going down. The person on the rear skidoo then has to carefully dismount and build an anchor in the snow with whatever they can grab hold of to make sure that everything is completely secure, before going to the rescue. Recovering the fallen skidoo is doable (and we carry hand-winches for that purpose) but is a massive job.

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