Thursday, 29 March 2007

Winter trip in The Hinge Zone, Thomas's Rave

Thursday 22nd March 07

It was that pre - winter trip time of year. The chance to experience the "Real" Antarctica. The highest, coldest and windiest continent. Below zero temperatures, freezing fingers & toes, the winds, unforgiving & unpredictable weather, crevassed terrain, man food, life under canvas, my camping buddies. But also, lets not forget, the sheer beauty and excitement of exploring an uninhabited continent 1.4 times larger than America and 54 times bigger than the United Kingdom. Where famous explorers have risked, failed and given up their lives to the challenges of "Mother Antarctica". A place so desolate on earth, very few people have ever laid their footprints. A place, whose entire surface is constantly moving, twisting & grinding, so that those footprints which have already been laid, and those footprints of future generations will never be in the same place again. Swallowed up in crevasses or shunted upside down under the flowing ice shelf or wright now, floating on a huge Tabular iceberg, far out to sea. This is a place, probably most of the worlds entire population, will never get to see.

After a postponement of a couple of days due to bad weather - typical, and refresher demonstrations on various rope techniques for crevasse rescue. The weather cleared, the contrast was as far as the eye could see, perfect skidoo travelling weather. With the chores of lashing sledges, packing our "P" bags, warm clothes and the essential camping and fuel supplies, we were finally linked to our sledges via rope and skidoo, first gear all the way and "Sledge Dingle" was finally underway, heading South in "dingle" weather. Dingle meaning clear perfect conditions, which the heavens couldn't have made any better for us, the sun was shining with clear blue skies, the temperature was a reasonable minus 16.1 degrees C and the ice was as hard as a bitumen runway - perfect.

For the first part of our 2.5 hour journey we were unlinked to the skidoo and sledge in front, crevasse territory was marked by crossed black flags, like spiked skulls on sticks on a dessert island, warning, enter at your own life threatening risk - this is heavy crevasse territory.

"Desperation Gulch", with the "High Street" on the top.

There are two golden rules to linked skidooing, don't let the other skidoo drag you along, straining the front skidoo engine, which will make the back skidoo and sledge jolt and jerk around like an awkward child being pulled along in a sledge by a patient parent. Also, making it consume drastically more fuel. The other more obvious rule, don't run over the rope and dongla (black tubing running approx. 2 feet from the 30 metre rope links) get wrapped around the skidoo tracks and possibly flipping you over - not a good thing. So off we went, linked in pairs, skidoo, rope, sledge, rope, skidoo, rope, sledge.

After a further 1 hour of linked skidoo travel, we stopped for lunch at one of the few places in Antarctica where rocks and stones can be seen. A huge iceberg which was once part of the continent, that has slid down and flipped upside down some 18km onto the ice shelf. Revealing the underneath terrain of Antarctica, before the formation of ice arrived.

Me at Stony Berg.

Views from Stony Berg.

The vast flat openness, on top of Stony Berg, with our skidoos and sledges in the background.

A quick tracker bar or two later, a few slurps from my coffee flask and the all important photos taken, then we were off again. The decision to travel to uncharted, unnavigated sites for camp, took the chore of linked skidoo travel away. After various house sized hills were conquered in our linked skidoo formation, we were advised once again when going up a hill, the last skidoo speeds up and when coming down the last skidoo again eases off a touch, ( which can have your heart in your mouth when you see your sledge side by side, racing you in a match it should no way win).
The largest hill yet, was insight, and with my linked partner taking a wide birth to straighten up his sledge to hit the hill head on, i was committed too. His skidoo disappeared over the hill followed by his sledge, then, with no warning from anything, my rear fell heavy, the skidoo turned to the point of no return, on one ski and i jumped off, before watching my sledge rope come hurtling towards me, very nearly scraping my scalp like a mohawk indian. The result, an upturned sledge and skidoo. With Sune on the scene probing for crevasses before anyone could move, a quick assess of the situation rendered the sledge rolled upright and turned straight, which took all four of us, and again a heavy roll by all to wright en the skidoo from its windshield to its skis. A look under the bonnet to relieve the engine of loose snow and the inspection of the steering and skis revealed the only damage was a slightly cracked plastic rim to the right wing mirror - phew i got away with it. The situation wasn't over, due to me being linked to the skidoo and sledge over the hill and me just upon it, we needed to link one of the other skidoos to the skidoo rope already over the hill, to aid in the extra pull the hill would make. On Sunes command we all rev ed the engines and within minutes i was over the hill. All that was needed now was to relink the skidoo and sledge back to the others behind us.

Getting me over the hill, with the two skidoos linked in front, after my misdemeanor.

We finally arrived at our campsite, 62.72km or "as the crow flies", 39.75km away from Halley, after about 4.5 hours of travelling, on a GPS reading of S 75 degrees 52.662' W 025 degrees 54.116'. With at least 2 hours ahead of us setting up camp, there wasn't a moment to loose. The digging in of the tent, unloading the sledges, refueling the skidoos, covering the skidoos under canvas in case of a blow, sorting out the inside of the tent with man food, Tilley lamp, Primus stove and HF radio assembly, P bags laid out and finally the all important "Poo" tent and reasonably well dug hole, in which to harbour all the nasties. A wooden slab with a loo seat cut out covered in foam and two manfood boxes, to place it on, ensured a good aeration and drop from human natures bowel movements. After this it was an early night all round in the minus 23.1 degree camp, but not before the 9pm "sched" time, a check in with base to say all is well and weather updates. Fingers crossed for more "Dingle" weather.

The dot marking Brunt Ice Shelf / Halley V, is where i am in Antarctica. The Ronnie ice shelf (the inlet, on the map) is approx. the same size as Spain, and the Ross ice shelf is approx. the same size as France.

The Brunt Ice Shelf. A constantly shifting mass of ice, with varying degrees of movement, but averaging 1-2 metres a day, approx 500 metres in a year. The ice sheet overlaying the continent represents about 70% of all the worlds fresh water frozen as ice, and 90% of the worlds glacial ice. Approx. half of the surrounding ocean freezes in winter, more than doubling the size of the continent.

The size of Antarctica in relation to the rest of the world, Asia, North America, Africa, South America, Australia and Europe.

Views around sledge Dingle camp, with the never before seen or explored blue ice hills.

The palace that was mine and Sune's tent.

9am sched time. We could all see from peering out of our canvas hideaway that the weather was pleasant enough, but the contrast was poor. Enabling you to see very little in comparison from our arrival day. Our thoughts were supported by the radio conversation with base, of the days weather and cloud cover. We were going nowhere, an extra hour or two lie in, before the tingling cold was the que for the Primus and Tilley to be lit. Bags of sugar sized lumps of snow were collected for the mornings water supply. Tea, coffee and general hot water for your flask in case we did venture out, and also, the snow melts better with some water already in the pan.

Poor contrast around camp.

And so, this was how it was from waking up Friday morning to late afternoon on Sunday. Late mornings, plenty of tea and calorie induced "Man Food", "Biscuit Browns" and Biscuit fruit", piled high with peanut butter and jam or marmite spread with "real" Dutch tinned butter, became the staple diet for breakfast and lunch, with a quite pleasant vegetable and bean curry or chicken balti. Just add boiling water, stew for 8 minutes, then eat straight out of the bag. We often took it in turn to visit each others tents and have dinner, and entertain ourselves with card games. Bringing a whole new meaning to the social event of "inviting your friends over for tea". On occasions we would huddle outside like Emperor penguins, practicing rope techniques and anchors, just in case one of us was lucky (i mean unlucky) to fall down a crevasse, just to break the day up of tent life.

Me and Sune sharing tasty, man food snacks.

Sledge Dingle group photo, with the blue ice hills in the distance.

Sune, (field GA), opted for a daring move to pack, what we both thought was a good idea. A larger tent, more spacious living quarters for us both to share, ideal for unpacking and getting your kit ready. Not so good at keeping it warm. It was more of a palace, a kingdom within itself, you almost needed a map and compass to find things or more importantly, at Sune's concern, he may loose his tent buddy somewhere amongst the corners of the canvas - me.
It didn't seem to sit wright either, the valance skirt that you dig snow onto which helps keep the tent where you erected it in a blow, just about touched the floor, (which should really be at least a foot in width), aerated the tent from underneath and in places you'd rather keep warm. I'd like to explain further the importance of the valance. These tents are literally "TP" / "Wigwam"style tents, there is no flooring attached to them. The only flooring comes from a ground sheet you place inside the tent once its erected. They are also made out of Egyptian Ventile cotton, the most breathable cotton on the planet. So you can now see my displeasure of a poorly mounted valance that barely touched the floor?
Due to these aspects, we seldom invited our guests into our palace, but chose to crawl inside the cramp, neck and back aching, but very warm and cosy tent of our companions.

Our neighbours, Kirsty and Jules.

It was on one of our tea drinking afternoons on Sunday that the contrast would miraculously improve, as if the weather new our time was running out to explore. We donned our warm outdoor clothing, packed our rucksacks of all necessary life support items, flasks of steaming hot beverages, additional warm clothes, cameras, mars, and the mandatory ice anchors and axes. After roping up in pairs and checking each others knots and securing our crampons we were trudging towards the blue ice hills that had eluded us from our peering tents.

The elusive blue ice hills.

There was a crisp breeze dwelling in the air. The kind that took your body a moment to warm before entering your lungs. With brilliant blue sky and contrast like on our arrival, the blue hills were to be our stomping ground. The light covering of snow soon turned into hard blue ice, which would have to be at least 50 years old in order to change into blue ice.

Climbing up the blue ice.

The crunch of 24 inch daggers on the ice from our crampons (12 on each foot) seemed to complement their respecting roles within the surroundings, as we ascended the summit. Finding the best accessible route with the time we had in the afternoon, nearly evening light, took us for a brisk walk around the blue hills, until a suitable gap in the ice, glistened in the descending sun as it shone through the stream of clouds just above the horizon. We reached the peak wright on "Mother Natures" que, a brilliant, dazzling array of bursting beams of light twinkling and danceing on the horizon, lighting up every cavern, crevasse, gully and sustrugi around us. All of which, we'd been blinded to in the past few days, was now lit up with oranges, reds and yellows, like fairies lighting their homes in the ice, for the cold night ahead.

Conquering the elusive blue ice hills.

View from the top of the ridge, over looking our camp.

Working out the best route down. Guinea pig first.

This was a glimpse of what i'd come to see. The real beauty of Antarctica. Something so vast and white, yet so many shades of rainbow colours in the shimmering sun. We all sat mezmerised at the sunset. Folowed, quickly by the same chilling temperature of minus 19 degrees C, which had gained volume and crispness, since our stomp begun. This was the call, to make our way back to camp, and settle in for body warming man food.

Light writing with the cosy warmth of the tents glow behind.

The clear Antarctic skies offer many stars, planets and satelittes to gaze upon. We were lucky enough to have Jupiter , overlooking us, which can be seen in the middle of this picture.

An early start on our last day in the Antarctic wilderness, with the daunting thoughts of what got unpacked, to make camp, had to be repacked, to leave camp. With conditions suspect from our sched report, we really wanted to get going as soon as possible. Sure enough, the moment we started our journey back to base, the contrast slowly diminished, making you squint and blink at every turn of the rope and skidoo in front of you. This was the hardest i've concentrated for as long as i can remember, my life depended on it along with my fellow camping buddies. "Don't run over the rope, don't run over the rope, don't run over the rope, where is the rope?" Seriously staring at a white rope on a white background, whilst going at speed, in poor contrast is no easy feat. I think we done well only to turn one sledge over - damn that was mine.

Me geared up, halfway home.

You could see the base on the horizon some 30km, before it resembled anything, such as home. A familiar figure standing on the ice, just off the platform, made for a welcoming heading, like a lighthouse coaxing ships into a bay. It was Pete, our Base Commander, "All back, safe and well, have a good time? " After a quick cuppa and a chance to thaw our weathered limbs, the unpacking of personal gear and man food boxes from the sldeges and refueling the skidoos, in readiness for the next trip, our time in the Antarctic wilderness was over - for know anyway.

The last event to end March was the Well organised "Rave" for Thomas's B'day. With all the charicteristics of a Los Angeles night club, queus, doormen, press photographers and special guest DJs. It all ended in the conclusion that everyone on base has two left feet and most practice the familiar waddle of our nearest neighbours - The Emperors.

Doorman Jim checking for names on the list.

The usual peskey press after a celebrity shot of Kirsty.

Like any normal club, no entry for the pressman Dave!

Me and special guest DJ Tom, mixing the decks.

March Statistics:

Max Temp. -2.9 degrees C on 21st March
Min Temp. -31.9 degrees C on 29th March
Average Temp. -16.6 degrees
Max Gust. 64.4 knots