Flying!

A while ago I got the chance to go out into the field in a BAS Twin Otter. This is a pretty rare treat for us at Halley but for me it was a bit odd. I’m not too fond of flying (in fact it freaks me out completely) but there was no way I wanted to pass up the chance to fly across Antarctica!

So, setting aside my nerves I got ready to head out and see my first bit of solid land for over a year. A field party was on the way out to the Shackleton range of mountains about two hours by plane further into the continent. Two Twin Otter aicraft were set up to do a couple of rotations out to the site taking out all the kit for the camp, skidoos and sledges and the kit needed for research. The journey out would be with passengers and then the trip back would need an extra person as a co-pilot – me!

antarctic twin otter pilot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The take off and quick flight up to around eight thousand feet gave fantastic views of the area surrounding base with some of the features I’ve been out to visit such as The Gatekeeper immediately obvious from the air. We flew off to the east and the views down onto the continent were spectacular. Glaciers spilling down to become ice shelf and huge areas of crevassing many kilometres long were all clearly visible. Some of the areas of ice, with long dark rents in the surface looked like an image taken by an electron microscope.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, after a few hours flying I spotted land, actual land, away in the distance!

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shackleton mountains, where the group of scientists we were dropping off were staying in pyramid tents for the next few weeks. They were taking rock samples from the exposed slopes of these mountains. Most of the mountains were buried under two thousand metres of ice,  with another two thousand feet left sticking out above.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the mountains had peaks and valleys with small glaciers flowing downhill. Also dotted around the landscape were smaller, more isolated Nunataks. Then in some areas of the range were huge plateaus, themselves covered with ice, like a miniature version of the Antarctic plateau itself, rising another few hundred metres above the rock.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far so good but now the journey gets cooler. For the trip back I was the co-pilot. This meant I actually got to fly the plane back to Halley!  Mark, the pilot, put me at my ease and was quick to point out that there wasn’t anything I could do that he couldn’t take care of immediately, gave me a quick lesson and handed over the controls. Now, I’m not going to pretend I was doing anything complicated, I was just keeping the aircraft at the right height, right speed, flying in the right direction (most of the time) and was the right way up in the sky but bloody hell – flying  a plane over Antarctica! That’s not something you get to do everyday is it?

On the way back we flew closer to the coast on our approach to Halley so I managed to get a good view of the rumples and the creeks before coming down into Halley and seeing the base and the surrounding area once again.

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

antarctica from the air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you go, another anecdote that I’ll be telling over and over when I get back because it’s  bloody awesome – “this one time, I piloted a twin otter across Antarctica….”

 

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Winter Trips. The Sequel. Part Five.

Yes. Yes it is this Blue!

 

Didn’t bother with the symbol.

Yay, it’s the fifth and final part of my winter trip tale. Dragged it out a bit I suppose! As is traditional I’ll leave my favourite bit till last – though you may not agree (penguin chicks are hard to beat).

After a layup in the tent we awoke to a fairly reasonable day – not perfect by any means, with a cloudy sky and a touch of wind. But good enough to get out of bed and get outside. About a kilometre away from the tent heading down into one of the creeks was an ice cliff with a huge wind scoop in front, quite far back from the tide crack between sea ice and shelf.  This was a good spot for a bit of ice climbing.  It was also a perfect place to practice using our crampons and axes., climbing up the steep but not vertical walls of the wind scoop using the different techniques, with Al providing tips and instructions on the correct use. Some of these were pretty basic such as how to use the toes of the crampons to dig into the ice and how to descend back down again with your feet in different positions and angles to the ice. We also practiced fall arrest techniques using ice axes. It was a good place to get a feel for the ice itself – some of which is solid, some really brittle and the different methods you would use when dealing with each type – some will let you smash the axe or your crampons straight in and give a good solid hold, other bits will shatter and huge chunks will fall off and skitter downwards. We also used some ice screws, long threaded bits of steel that from anchors in the ice for you to rope on to.  After quite a while down in the wind scoop and on some of it’s gentle sides – where we learned loads, we set up the ropes and began climbing the cliff.  I mentioned it before after the last time I did a spot of ice climbing but you use muscles that don’t often get a workout. Your forearms quickly end up exhausted. This, coupled with the fact that your arms are always above your head (and heart), you are gripping the axes tightly and the extreme cold mean it can quickly become very difficult. The blood flow and circulation in your arms and hands is limited by all of the above factors.  About six feet away from the top and I could no longer feel my hands at all – which is a bit of a disadvantage when trying to hold your bodyweight on the handle of an axe. I did manage to get to the top though! Upon reaching the top Al asked how my arms were to which I replied “numb”.  His answer – “You’ll feel em in a minute”

 

Feel em I did. From being held above me, working hard and freezing to the point of numbness your muscles then fill back up with blood, getting pumped up in the way muscles do after a hard workout. Let me tell you. This really hurts!  The hot aches or screaming barfies as they are known in North America (because they make you want to scream and barf at the same time) are a bit like when you are a kid and you’ve been playing out in the snow, making snowballs and then you come back inside and your fingers warm up too quickly giving you a painful pins and needles type of feeling. Well, like that but times a thousand. I was, a bit pathetically, on my knees at the top of the climb trying to “find a happy place” for about five minutes afterwards.

 

I didn’t take any photos of all this climbing malarkey because I was either having too much fun or  a hundred foot up an ice wall (or both). So you’ll just have to imagine that bit.

Once we’d packed up our gear though we decided to have another little jaunt out onto the sea ice and head off in a new direction to see what we could see. As I mentioned the weather wasn’t bad but it was really cloudy. The sun was attempting to shine through but it was really overcast. This made the whole place spectacular. Monumentally spectacular.  Everything you could see, from the cliffs to the ice to the cloudy sky was a shade of blue. A few people have said that the pictures I’ve posted don’t look real – well the ones I took here are even more so. I wish I could post up the high quality photos but the bandwidth just wont let me!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

Yes. Yes it was this blue.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

Travelling round this lot just takes your breath away. I got all excited about the sea ice as I travelled through on the ship coming down and I’ve been blown away by it’s other-worldliness  each and everytime I’ve been out for a look around but this is just something else.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

I could try and explain how I was just walking around in a trance staring at all this but the words wouldnt do it justice – the pictures are better but they are still a long way from what it feels like to stand out on the sea looking at all this.

You can see the colour but it was o much more than the pictures show – like thye blueness was was coming from everywhere at once. Then you add the immense scale and the eerie scilence and words don’t stand a chance.

 

So loads more piccies then!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

In the words of Rutger Hauer “I’ve seen things you people wouldnt believe” Unlike the Blade Runner replicant though – I took pictures.

 

And lastly – just a little hint of penguin.

sea ice antarctica

 

Well, that was all about my latest excursion out into the great blue yonder!  I’ve been pretty lucky – the two pairs before us didnt really get much of a trip out to speak of and the two after me have only got a few days at windy caboose. Fingers crossed for the next lot. Hope they get to see what I’ve seen!

 

 

WTSQ.P4.

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Four. I’m going with initials in the title now, you know – to keep things fresh. Like N.K.O.T.B..  Next one’s just gonna be a symbol.

Anyway, back at the base camp it’s another fine morning. Not too bad temps and little wind with good sun and great contrast – just what’s needed to visit the Rumples.

The Rumples, or The McDonald Ice Rumples to give the area its correct name is a spot on the Brunt ice shelf where the shelf flows over a sea rise, grounding itself. This causes the surrounding floating ice to flow around it faster than the stuck ice in the middle. This causes all sorts of pressures and the ice ends up riddled with huge faults, tears and cracks in it. It creates spectacular features but also fairly treacherous ground.

Here are a few pictures from the air (not mine):

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDoMcDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

These are some old shots on the drive at base, not sure who took them and they seem to be taken some time apart from each other. You can see the ice pulling itself to pieces though. These are quite high altitude photos too it has to be pointed out – the area we are looking at is many miles across!

So. The Rumples. You need a good clear day to visit  because it’s easier to see the tell-tale signs of something not quite right below the surface! We skidooed in as far as we dared – and very carefully at that, with regular stops, inspecting the ice in front with a bog-chisel (big stick) and then proceeding slowly on. We got to the approximate location of last years camp and looked down a long canyon stretching towards the centre of the rumples. The plan was to find a likely spot and abseil down into this canyon and have a bit of an explore.  The first bad sign was the occasional deep sounding thump. It seemed to be the sound of cornices or overhangs just melting a touch in the bright sun and slumping down under there own weight.  We were now off the doos in a relatively safe place where we promptly roped up. We set off walking with  the rope kept very tight between us – to minimise any fall should one of us disappear downwards. Al knocked some anchors into the ice and set about trying to find a way down.

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

Al’s statements on the first slot he found started out like “hey this looks good” to “oh aye, this looks interesting” progressing to “it’s a bit gnarly mind” then to “bloody hell, we’re not getting down there”  I reckon a few more minutes and he might have been telling us to run for our lives!

We walked around and tried to find another entry point, Al looked at the various crevasses leading into the main one and again,  they all seemed to be in the range of proper gnarly to “we’ll die down here”.

It seems that, like Gatekeeper, there has been a huge amount of movement of the ice in a few short months. Flags and markers that had been left were now gone, ice features that were once there were now obliterated and crevasses had popped open in areas that were previously relatively stable.

Now, I can’t really describe in words the sound millions of tonnes of ice makes as it moves or breaks but what I can tell you is that it is a noise that tightens sphincters. Something you feel rather than hear. The sound seem to come from everywhere at once and reverberates up through your feet. The whole area felt very dodgy!  Edging across the ice, putting one tentative cramponed boot in front of the other, expecting each step to open up an abyss beneath your feet.  Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic perhaps but it does get the heart going! We have trained in crevasse rescue, are roped and harnessed up nice and tight, have all the right gear to climb back out or rescue each other with us and of course Al is experienced and really knows his stuff but it’s a freaky place. The number of visible slots – just bits of the ice that look slightly different rather than visible open cracks, as well as the knowledge of the ones you can’t even see – it all certainly makes you focus on what you’re doing!  We never did find a way down unfortunately but it was good to visit and see even just a bit of the place. Not too many photos because my mind was on other things, but this one’s a good un!

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

We slowly got back to the doos and then rode out – though even this was a pain-staking experience with us having to do about-turns a number of time to avoid danger.  Even Al, who was obviously a bit more relaxed about things than me said the place was pretty hairy.

So back to base camp, still a nice night so I managed to get a nice picture of the sunset over they pyramid tent.

Sunset over Antarctic pyramid tent

The following day was a bit of a non-event. The weather turned and the wind speed increased leaving us with no choice but to ride things out inside the tent. Having a day holed up in a tent, reading, playing cards, chatting and drinking brews whilst the wind howls around outside is actually fairly nice. You’re away from base, you’ve been exerting yourself for a good few days now and you can actually get fairly snug despite the outside temps. Though on this it has to be said that this is not as straightforward as it could be. In Antarctica you are often having to make choices between two things – and normally one of these is temperature related. When walking around, or even more so riding around, you will have to make the decision of whether to  keep your face nice and warm or have nice clear vision. Wrap your head up too much and your goggles, helmet or specs will steam up and then freeze. Go for clear sight and your nose and eyes will go numb. Your extra thick down sleeping bag provides another one of these dilemmas. You can go for warmth, snuggle up deep down inside and be perfectly warm, but this results in your bag filling with the moisture from your breath and the inside of your bag feeling  about as comfortable to sleep in as a sauna. Or, you can elect to keep your face pointing out of the bag and it will be nice and dry. But your eyeballs will freeze. Decisions decisions. I tried to make a little tunnel out through the top of the bag but kept waking up every hour, sticking my head in and then swapping an hour later. This is only really a problem when it’s lower than -30c though. It’s  fine above that. Whilst on the subject of sleeping bags. Inside your bag is pretty much the only place in the tent where liquid will remain liquid. Anything, from water to contact lenses to camera batteries – anything that has to be kept even slightly warm needs to be in your bag with you. It does become a bit like sleeping in a cutlery draw. I tried getting some pictures of inside the tent but it’s a bit hard when the primus and tilley lamp are on as it quickly gets a bit foggy in there. Cool fact: our primus stoves are made by Optimus. Optimus Primus.

While I’m rambling on, please forgive any spelling mistakes or sentences that erm, don’t make sense. I write stuff out and then by the time I notice a mistake it takes about a day to re-load the page and correct it – so plenty get through!

 

No penguins in this post. Final one coming up next!

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Three.

Next installment!

After a night in the sweat-box Windy Caboose we had breakfast, tidied up and made plans for the day. John, my partner on this trip had missed his last one and still (after being south a few times)  had still not seen the Hinge zone on any of his trips.  Hinge zone it was then!

We set off on the long journey that would take us back up to the base and then beyond. The route from windy to base is a well-travelled one and we were riding the doos un-roped. Once past base and away southwards towards the continent we stopped, harnesses up and roped all our sledges and skidoos together. This form of travel is a lot less relaxed for a few reasons.

Firstly you need to concentrate a lot more – you don’t want the rope too slack or it will be pointless (if a skidoo fell through into a crevasse it would fall further, meaning more shock-loading) or it can get tangled up in the skidoo itself. Too taut a rope and you end up getting a tow from the doo in front – pulling all that extra weight will quickly damage it.  It’s a fine line between the two and you have to constantly match you speed to the doo in front, something that’s easy on a flat road, slightly harder on a sastrugi laden ice shelf.

The second reason this method of travel is not as relaxed is the actual reason we have to rope up – crevasses. Huge slots in the ice that can be covered over with just enough snow to be hidden, or be completely open yet still impossible to see until you’re right on top of them!

The first big feature you come to when travelling to the hinge zone is Gatekeeper. A known large crevasse  with a section in the middle that narrows and has a very large and stable snow bridge across. Well, that was the last description of gatekeeper from the last visit there about five months ago. Things change!

gatekeeper crevasse

We got within ten or twenty metres of where the crossing was, Al stopped and did a bit of a recce. I sat about twenty metres or so back and really couldn’t tell what he was looking at all.  He turned back with a funny look on his face, waving his arms…

 

 

I roped up and walked down towards whatever Al was looking at, tied to a skidoo.

gatekeeper crevasse

 

From the pic above you can tell that there’s not much to see right?

gatekeeper crevasse

This was the view once I looked in. The photo is deceptive – this thing was deep!  Also, the bottom is definitely not the bottom and could be just one of numerous false floors going down.

 

gatekeeper crevasse

This is the view straight across, I couldn’t see any of this  from less than ten metres away! The far crevasse is where the bridge used to be. This has now slumped in as the gap widened. Another slot has opened up in front leaving an island in the centre. The whole thing is a good fifty metres wide!

gatekeeper crevasse

Above is the view to the right.

gatekeeper crevasse

And to the left!

 

The photos just don’t look that impressive compared to the real thing. This whole feature was stretching out for kilometres making it virtually impassable.

Late last year Al had been down with one of the previous years wintering crew and abseiled down in to Gatekeeper. They had thrown in eighty metres of rope and still not even been able to see any bottom!

So sadly the Hinge was not to be for John. The whole area will have to be looked at in the summer and a new route found to get to the hinge.

We turned around (very carefully!) and set off back down towards the coast. Time was moving on and we decided to get back down to the creeks area, set up a base camp and venture out from there to other destinations.

Setting up camp takes a few hours and this then left us a bit of time to once again venture out onto the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

A small crevasse from the side (still big enough for a human to disappear and die in mind you).  Small cracks can quickly turn into something the size of a valley given the forces that are acting on the ice – moving along at a rate of four hundred metres a year, with trillions of tonnes pushing it.

 

antarctic sea ice

All this ice will of course break off when it reaches the calving face and any weakness or lines of stress in the ice will be right where it breaks. Sometimes this will lead to icebergs as big as small countries breaking off in one go – something that could well have left the old Halley V base floating away on a berg if a known fault line had actually split (this is one of the reasons BAS needed a new Halley). In other cases the ice might just get to the front and just break apart in small pieces and drop down on to the sea ice like a landslip or rockfall. Of course when I say small you have to bear in mind that some of the “little” blocks of ice that fall off will weigh thousands of tonnes!

antarctic sea ice

 

antarctic sea ice

The shelf ice breaking off in winter will fall down onto the sea ice. Some of the huge falls will then smash into the sea ice, either causing it to break and then reform or send out shock waves across it making huge cracks – like someone hitting safety glass with a hammer.

antarctic sea ice

These cracks can be pretty big too. They can pull apart and re-freeze like this. Or, the ice can be smashed back together again Leaving great chunks sticking up.

antarctic sea ice

 

Some of the ice though looks more like volcanic rock and seems to flow  rather than fall into the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

DSC_0767

Some areas look like they’ve been whipped up like ice cream.

antarctic sea ice

or been chipped away an shaped with a giant chisel or adze.

antarctic sea ice

 

Then there’s the merangue-like over-hangs (overhangues?) Some of these are thirty metres tall – made of just blown snow and ice sticking together. Sticking out quite a way from the cliff tops these must end up weight huge amounts, some of them actually look impossible – like that are defying gravity. ALthough they look quite fluffly when your trying to get through one from below when climbing, or trying to break one from above looking for a place to abseil they actually seem more like concrete!

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

And lastly of course…. more of the locals.

antarctic sea ice

 

 

 

After a trip out eastwards on the sea ice we still had explore the west. And also fancied a trip to the Rumples!

That’s all coming up next in the winter trip sequel!!

 

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part One.

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice 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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

 

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

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.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

This wind formation on one of the cliffs reminded me of the Simbas Dad in the Lion King.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

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!

 

Winter Trip. Cold, Cold Weather and a Psychedelic Sky.

Sun halo

This week was my turn to get out and about down here on the ice. Winter trips are a good chance to see more of the sights a bit further away from base. Halley 6 is built on an ice shelf. Now you would think a floating shelf of ice would be fairly flat and regular but not so, and for my winter trip I went off closer to the continent proper to get a better look.

The ice that builds up on the Antarctic continent is a vast sheet that contains most of the earths fresh water. The snow falls and never melts, building up sheets over hundreds of thousands of years, in some places the ice can be five kilometres thick. This ice flows outwards to the coast, spilling out onto the surrounding sea and floating (mostly) off for sometimes hundreds of miles. As the ice leaves the continent it speeds up and the stresses placed on it lead to huge geological features, with cracks and eruptions occurring all over the place. The edge of the continenet, where the ic sheet floats off and becomes an ice shelf is called “The Hinge Zone” . Which is prett cool because I can now talk of my “adventures in the Hinge Zone” when I get back. Not only is the ice moving off the continent it will also move up and down as it sits in the ice.

Halley 6 is built on a part of the ice that is relatively stable and flat, but not too far away from base and all this changes, indeed as we are moving at around a metre a day the new Halley 6 base has replaced the old Halley 5 that was on the wrong side of an opening-up fault line that could break off at any moment.  Anyway, as you get away from base it becomes a lot more dangerous out there, with the area riddled with crevasses hidden under the accumulated snow. Also this week, the temperature dropped down to around thirty below with the wind chill taking things down to near fifty, raising the fun factor a bit more.  Away in the field this cold can be pretty tough, it makes getting anything done ridiculously hard and often pain is only a moment away. Just putting your boots on in the morning without the comfort of a nice dry boot room can quickly be a bit of a mission that ends up with you whirling your arms about like a windmill (to get some warm blood in em – not just for the laugh) with your fingers screaming for warmth.  The rewards of being out in such conditions though were with us all week. The whole week the cold air was laden with ice crystals that not only dance and flash in front of your face but lead to amazing atmospheric displays like the one above. From morning till night (and sometimes on into that) the sky was full of beams of light going up, light going down and going sideways, surrounded by halos, rainbows and arches as we wandered, climbed and absailed into the frozen landscape.

Antarctic Sun halo

Our band of three set off from base on Monday ready for our week away. The winter trips provide a bit of a holiday away from base but also, more importantly allow us to train and hone our skills out in the field. With me were Gerrard our chef and Al the field assistant. Al is the expert in the field, the man with the skills to keep us alive and the skills to teach and Gerrard has been south many times and hence knows a good bit too, so as the newbie ice-boy I knew I was in for a good week.

We travel by skidoo with Nansen sledges towed behind loaded up with tents, food and anything we might need in an emergency- and enough to keep us going should the weather prevent us from getting back for quite a while, something that often happens down here. We do so roped together so that if the worst occurred and one of us did go into a slot in the ice the results wouldn’t be too horrific. Our fist major feature is The Gatekeeper. A huge depression in the ice surrounded by smaller crevasses. Gatekeeper is a crack in the ice that has widened out into a bit of a canyon that then narrows in the middle. In this middle section the two outer walls are near enough together for snow to build up forming a bridge. It was this bridge that we crossed. Now, despite Al’s assurance that the bridge was bomb-proof I still confess to holding my breath as we went over.  All done safely we then made our way on to Aladdins – a huge chunk of ice that has detached from the sheet and got turned and thrust up by the movement of the ice. This was to be the location of our base camp.

Antarctic base camp, pyramid tent

antarctic pyramid tent base camp

We set up camp with the pyramid tent as our new home for the week, covered the skidoos with a tarp, set up the radio array and got ready to have a quick explore of our immediate vicinity (after a cup of tea).  The cold, as long as you were properly dressed (it’s the getting properly dressed that hurts) was not too bad so we geared up, with crampons, harness and tonnes of other gear and set off for a quick wander. The area we had camped in was a kilometre wide depression in the surrounding ice, with huge strips of ice that looked like levees or dykes surrounding our little valley floor.  In this valley floor is Alladins. A huge chunk of ice pointing upwards above the surrounding area with what seems like a moat around it. The moat is an area where the sections of ice are separated and the wind has gouged out huge channels in these areas of weakness, leaving a labyrinth of passages and gulleys that are walled on either side by cornices of snow that look set to collapse under their own weight. The wind sculpts the snow and ice giving some of it the look of a gigantic dessert like ice cream or merengue, whilst other areas are hard, almost stone like but still with something organic looking about them, like huge walls that seem to be made out of glowing blue fish scales.

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The next few days are spent exploring this odd canyon surrounding Alladins, which winds its way round and round. Some of it is walkable, some not so much. There are many parts where the ropes and harnesses are made use of and we climb down or up to get further in. Although this can be quite painful- removing your thick, outer gloves to un-screw carabiners or feed ropes into belays, the destinations really are worth it. Scooped out of the ice in one area is what appears to be a frozen lake. A smooth surface of blue ice that occasionally shows cracks forced up by the pressure of the surrounding ice, like a miniature version of plate tectonics, or indeed a miniature version of what is going on all around us with the actual ice sheets and shelves. Smashed onto this frozen lake is the debris of cornices and over-hangs that have gotten too big and fallen down, leaving stone-like blue chunks sat on top of the clear surface.

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The frozen lake is obviously nothing of the sort but rather ice that is harder than what was above it. This has been then been scoured by the brutal winds coming off the continent. To me though, cresting the ridge and seeing it, you straight away think of a mountain lake frozen for the winter instead of snow that has been compacted over millennia.

After skirting round the many channels and passages created by the wind we climbed to the top of the huge central block of ice, where there is a kind of plateau. Here you can see for miles in every direction and see all the smaller features dotted all around. On and around this plateau you can see similar wind features that we see back at base, Sastrugi, to give them their proper name, are the hard-ice ridges and windtails formed as the ice is at turns blown together and then eroded away again. But, amongst the familiar windtails and mini-waves of ice are long, flat strips of smoother, whiter ice. These are the tell-tale signs that underneath is something other than just older, solid ice. Instead, this is what a crevasse with fresh snow filling in the very top of the gap looks like. The three of us were now roped together as we travelled – in the same way the skidoos were, so that, were one of us to slip into a slot we could be pulled out again. My foot slipped into one of the smaller, more well hidden ones and it was a bit of a heart stopping moment, seeing the empty space under your boot that was once seemingly solid. In the centre of the plateau was a wider crevasse running from one end to the other. This we had christened Al’s crack. Peering down into it you couldn’t see the bottom, just progressively deeper and deeper blue. Into this chasm I went – along with all my climbing gear and a couple of ice axes attached to my harness (but unfortunately no camera). Being down in a crevasse is quite surreal. There is no sound and all hint of wind is gone, leaving you feeling relatively warm and almost serene.  After plunging down into the ice as far as the rope would allow I wedged myself between the two walls and just sat for a bit, having a little think. It’s something to behold sat there, way down in this deep blue interior. If it wasn’t for the climb back out I would have been feeling very relaxed when I got back to the surface. Instead I was a bit knackered -to get out I had to climb out with crampons and axes. Now I’ve been climbing before, I’m relatively fit and had assumed Ice climbing to be the same or maybe even slightly easier than other climbing – after all you have two big handles to grab onto. As it happens though, climbing with axes uses muscles in the arms that I wasn’t even aware of having. By the time I made it out I had burning in my arms like I’d never felt before. It took a bit of laying flat on the ice making slightly pathetic noises until I felt able to sling my rucksack back on again.

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After climbing and walking around various features for a few days we decided to head down to what is known as Stony Berg. This is a large chunk of ice that has separated from the main sheet and been flipped completely over. The top of it is now covered in stone that has been gouged out of the Antarctic continent as the ice sheet flowed downwards toward the sea. Rocks of all different colours from black basalt to whiter quartz type ones, from huge boulders to smaller pebbles are now visible in the ice. The snow then piles on top of these stones and boulders. When the sun passes through the first few inches of snow above these though, the darker objects below absorb more heat creating a void above them. This means that when you walk on stony berg your feet sink through to the rocks below in the same way you would if you stepped onto the top of a crevasse, a pretty freaky experience. Seeing as this is probably the closet I’ll get to terra-firma for quite a while I was keen to go. This was a place a few of the other people on base had been to. They, however, had gone on skidoos.  We would be different. Gerrard is quite keen on nordic skiing and Al fancied  a bit of a ski too, so I agreed, probably without really knowing what I was letting myself in for.  A bit back I posted about doing a Marathon. Well, I never managed to get that done due to technical issues on base, I did carry on training though and I’m keen to do it next year. But despite being in fairly good nick this was a bit of a shock. I’ve been downhill skiing a few times but I’m not what you’d call good at it and as far as skiing on the flat goes I really didn’t have a clue. The first half an hour I was wondering how the skis actually made this form of travel better, instead they just seemed to be a way of making walking harder. By about five kilometres in I was begining to get the hang of it though, it’s kind of like a grown up version of sliding on a polished floor with just your socks on. But colder. And with really long feet.

It took us six hours of travel across crusty ice and sastrugi carrying full rucksacks of emergency supplies, ropes and fully laden climbing harnesses. Like ice-climbing, this type of exercise used muscles I didn’t even know I had. I’m still sore now but those back on base were fairly impressed with our efforts. I reckon a marathon will be a doddle now, especially in the relatively tropical heat of next summer.

 

I’ve rambled enough for now so I’ll just post a load of pictures, not really in any order, just some of the cool stuff I’ve seen out and about in the Antarctic wilderness when I could face the pain of getting my fingers just naked enough to operate the camera.

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Sun halo

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Yeah, I know there’s a lot of em but everyone likes photos don’t they?

I’m absolutely knackered but I cant wait for my next trip out. In the mean time I’ll be practising my ski-touring and ice-climbing.  As always, forgive any mistakes for a few days till i get the post and the pics ironed out! Especially ones with the letter P in them- the P button has seized up on my computer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration:Roald Amundsen.

Once I’m at Halley I’ll be using this blog to keep people up to date with what I’m doing and also post some great photos of the place. I’ve not put my photography skills to the test yet but I get the feeling that in such a beautiful place it will be hard to not at least get some good shots.

In the meantime I’ll be posting about my training (more to come on that later) and about the Antarctic continent itself. This post is about the men who set off to discover the place, if only very briefly. The most famous are Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Mawson. A lot has been written about them over the years and opinion has changed in that time.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

Probably the most uncontroversial of them is Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. Although not entirely without difficulty, Roald Amundsen’s attempt to be the first man to reach the South pole was without major incident and easy when compared to the harrowing stories of tragedy and endurance that typified the journeys of his contemporaries, and indeed his achievement was overshadowed by their heroic failures. This is a testament to the planning, preparation and single mindedness of  Amundsen as opposed to simple good fortune.

In the words of the man himself:

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

An accomplished polar explorer who had already become the first man to traverse the northwest passage Amundsen had made plans to be the first to reach the North pole but, upon hearing that Frederick Cook and then Robert Peary had taken that honour, decided to head south instead.  To avoid losing financial backing he kept this quiet and later informed Robert Falcon Scott about his intentions whilst en-route with the following sent in a telegram:

"Beg to inform you-fram proceeding Antarctic-Amundsen"

Whilst Scott and Shackleton did surveying and scientific work on their attempts (with Scott carrying thirty pounds of rock collected on the way to the pole) Amundsen had the single aim of being the first to the pole, taking only two photographs on the way.  Amundsen took dog and sled teams with him, and, importantly, men experienced in their use, these would be the principle method of travel. Dogs, as well as having a history of polar travel in the Arctic had the added benefit of being able to provide both meat for the men and for the other dogs. Of the 45 dogs who set off to the pole, only 18 would arrive, with the rest killed for food. Unlike the ponies favoured by Scott they would require no fodder and could be fed on food caught in the Antarctic such as seal and penguin.

As well as sled teams the men would also use skis. the team was at least proficient in there use, with some members being world-class skiers.

The equipment he used was the best available including boots that had been tested for years in the Arctic and clothes similar to those used by the Inuit. Sledges and ski’s were of the best design and the primus stove Amundsen used is similar to those used today. The tents were described as the best and most practical that had ever been used.

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Amundsen on the ice.

Amundsen’s journey to the pole and back took ninety nine days and he reached the pole on the 14 December 1911, planting flag poles and leaving a tent that Scott would later find on his ill-fated attempt.

Amundsen at the South Pole December 1911

Amundsen at the South Pole December 1911

Amundsen was respected amongst explorers and although he was hailed as a hero this was somewhat muted. In Britain, it was thought that his preparation, use of dogs as opposed to man-hauling the sleds and his general approach to his attempt were somehow not in keeping with the spirit of the age – that he was too professional, something that would be considered ludicrous today.  Amundsen reached the pole because of excellent planning, the vast experience of a squad of men picked for their skills and physical capabilities and because he used both tried and tested means of transport and modern equipment. He focussed on a single goal and was unsentimental about his source of food. Despite a false start to the attempt and some disagreements with team members the journey was an example of how polar expeditions should be accomplished.

The U.S. Antarctic base at the pole bears his name, along with that of Scott and Roald Amundsen is remembered as a giant of the era and a true Antarctic hero.