Last week it was my turn to head back out into the field on my winter trip. Winter trips are one of the great privileges of working for BAS. They provide valuable training in the techniques used whilst living, travelling and working out in the field and at the same time give us a chance to get away from base. From my point of view though, they are the chance to get out into the wild and see Antarctica in all its glory. It’s sometimes very easy to forget just where you are living. Often the weather can be so extreme that you are stuck inside or that busy with work that you focus entirely on it. Once out into the field though, travelling through the craziest landscapes on the planet, sleeping in a tent in temperatures about five times lower than that of your freezer back home and doing the sort of things you might see in an energy drink commercial then you start to realise, once again, just how few people get to see this place. Lots of people are now visiting the continent and its surrounding ocean, mainly on the peninsula, in the short summer months but I think more people have been to the top of Mount Everest than have over wintered in Antarctica – and fewer still have the chance to be actually out in the wild in winter. Whilst travelling across the sea ice, which reached its maximum extent over the last few weeks, Al, the base field GA commented that the two of us could well be the most isolated people on the planet at that moment in time. This may or may not be true but I’d bet we were up there!
As with anything and everything down here excursions are subject to the whims of the weather. We head out in threes for a week or so at a time. The trips are planned so that those who go first on the first round of trips at the end of summer, when they have the best chance of nicest weather, will then go first again at the beginning of winter – when the chances are higher that they may have harsher conditions. this hopefully spread out the chances of everyone getting a chance to get out over the year. Last time I managed to get away for almost a full week and had an amazing time – though it was incredibly cold (to the pre-winter me, I’m a bit hardier now, post winter). Those that went after me last time out were not so lucky, having either a truncated stay out or not really getting away at all. This time out Mike and Octavian went first and suffered a week sat in base with the wind howling around us, unable to get out. The next pair, Kev and Rich, did manage to get off base but were caboose bound for a good few days in bad weather. As my time approached I looked at the forecast with disappointment as heavy winds were predicted. The day before the trip though the forecast changed to a more positive one and James, the base Doc and I got ready to head out with Al. Things didn’t quite work out as straightforward as that though with James having to stay on base for medical reasons – someone else’s, not his. So for the first day me and Al decided to have a short trip out down to creek three. The creeks are a feature down at the coast nearest Halley. The ice Shelf moves out onto the sea after flowing off the continent and is stretched, squashed and bent out of shape in various different places. One of those places is the Rumples – a sea mount on which the ice shelf is grounded – leaving the non-grounded ice to flow around it, this causes huge pressures and changes the flat ice shelf further down the coast into an undulating rollercoaster of peaks and troughs. These peaks and troughs will then become headlands and creeks as they break off at the ice edge.
Because of this the creeks are often one of the best places to get down onto the sea ice and are often used for relief – depending on the thickness of the sea ice. The creek three area has been used for relief a number of times and this year again had a nice ramp down onto the sea ice, no climbing required – though we were fully roped up and very carefully across the transition for shelf to sea ice, watching out for tide cracks caused by the rising and falling of the sea ice against the heavier, more immovable shelf.
Once down onto the ice you are surrounded by weirdness. Blue and white are the only colours to be seen and the landscape everywhere is of a grand scale, from the towering cliffs and headlands to the seemingly endless expanse of the sea ice itself.
The sea ice itself is far from flat. As it forms it breaks apart and then comes together again and reforms, pushing large pieces up into the air as the ice crushes back together with enough force to smash the hull of many a ship. These chunks of ice can weigh many tens of tonnes and form a large part fo the bizarre landscape we travelled across.
The ice cliffs of the ice shelf jut out onto the sea ice, splintering and cracking and finally calving off small, large and monumental sized chunks of themselves into the sea – or on to it at this time of year.
Other-worldly looking chunks of blue ice scatter the whole place, as they stand up above the sea ice the wind further adds to their strangeness, either adding tails and mounds nearby or scooping out channels or moats around them.
A trip to the Antarctic seaside wouldn’t be complete without bumping into a few of these chaps. As ever they were inquisitive and wandered right over as soon as they saw us. Returning from a fishing expedition that may have been hundreds of kilometres away to bring food home for the kids they seemed chuffed to bits to see us. We had to walk off and get away from them eventually before they forgot entirely that they had mouths to feed.
This wind formation on one of the cliffs reminded me of the Simbas Dad in the Lion King.
From the other side though it’s a bit more melted Homer Simpson.
After this all too brief wander out we headed back to base to see how things were. The bonus of this day trip in the field was a night in a nice warm bed and a kitchen cooked meal, luxuries we would forego over the next week.
Next up is Part 2 “The Return to Windy”. I warn you though, the next post might just take youwell over your recommended amount of cuteness for the entire year!