Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Winter trip II and new faces

Having not had an entirely successful first winter trip back in March, although we did get a couple of days away in a caboose, I was hopeful for better luck when the second round of trips came along. The second trip is usually longer, at about 10 days, which gives more opportunity for exploring and also more leeway in the event of bad weather. Luckily this time the weather was good enough to get away on day one. Simon and Vicki headed out to do some GPS work at the new Halley VI site in the morning, and in the afternoon we headed out. Taking four people on holiday for 10 days here involves a bit more than packing a couple of suitcases. We had four skidoos loaded up with bags containing rescue gear and spare clothes, and spades, ice axes and snow stakes all bungeed on to the back. We also had four sledges carrying tents, stoves, cooking equipment, food, p-bags (consisting of sleeping bag and liner, sleepmat, sheepskin), radios, fuel, utensils, medical supplies, and enough rope to keep Houdini busy for weeks. We had decided initially to go to the Rumples and set up camp there. The Rumples is an area near the coast where the ice shelf flows over ridges in the sea bed causing it to rise up and break apart causing a, well, rumpled effect. This is a favourite trip destination as you get to see some scenery other than the flat white vista we have become used to.

The trip out was about an hour ride by skidoo, initially just towing a sledge each, but as we got nearer to the Rumples and the risk of crevasses increased, we roped the skidoos up in pairs, the theory being that if one disappears down a big hole the second should prevent it from being completely unrecoverable. Skidoos are a great way to travel down here and will happily pull a loaded sledge at about 20kph, but can be a bit chilly as you're open to the elements. I'm always grateful for heated handlebar grips when I'm out on the bike in winter in the UK, but they're definitely an essential item down here. I suppose in a way it would be nice to have the romanticism of travelling with dogs like in the old days, but this may be outweighed by the hassle of carrying several hundred tins of Pedigree Chum instead of a couple of jerries of fuel.

Simon picked a path through the crevasses to the camp site and we spent a couple of hours setting up. The pyramid tents we use are pretty rugged and fairly easy to set up, but positioning needs to be thought about so it doesn't get snow blown straight through the door or end up acting as a giant sail in the first high wind. Once you've got all your sleeping gear, primus stove, tilly lamp, pots box, food box and tent box all set up inside the accomodation is pretty compact, but there's still room to move about, do your cooking, and hang clothes up to dry. The camp consisted of two tents with two people per tent, but in the evenings you tend to all end up in one tent playing cards or chatting. With the tents up we made sure all the other gear was easily to hand outside, covered over the skidoos and looked forward to a first night camping out on the wilderness.

Camp site with the Rumples in the background

Day 2 broke with a very cold tent and ice everywhere. Most people sleep with just a tiny hole in the top of the sleeping bag to breathe through and everything else well covered. There then commences a battle of wills, or a battle of bladders, to see who will break first and emerge from their cocoon to get the stove lit and put some snow on to melt. Once the primus and the Tilly are on the tent warms up pretty quickly and breakfast can be considered. We opted for a fairly leisurely morning, then went out for a stroll after lunch in the vicinity of the camp site. We found a crevasse so took the opportunity to explore it. First Simon cleared a couple of man sized holes in the top of the crevasse, then we set up the ropes and abseil point to head in. I'm not great with heights and all this abseiling malarkey still involves a fair bit of trepidation, but nevertheless I was determined to go in and have look. This involves a normal abseil down, but as there is no guarantee of a floor to stand on once inside, you then have to change from abseil equipment to jumar equipment to enable you to climb back up, all the while dangling on the rope hoping fervently that you did your harness up properly. It's all worthwhile though as the crevasse was beautiful inside. All of a sudden you're out of the wind blowing on the surface, and everything turns very blue. Looking down I couldn't see the bottom of the crevasse, so I didn't look down for very long, but all around were wonderful crystals and formations in the ice, and silence apart from the faint tinkling of ice falling below, or the puffing and swearing of the person on the other rope trying to climb back out. As we've all had a bit of jumaring experience by now on penguin trips the climb out wasn't too bad, especially with the addition of crampons to get a good grip on the ice wall. Having explored the crevasse we headed back to camp for tea and medals.

Mark disappearing into a crevasse (on purpose)

Vicki heading back up

You may remember my midwinter present was a patchwork wall hanging
depicting the view out from a crevasse. Turns out it was pretty accurate.

Me trying to look relaxed. Photo from Vicki.

Day 3 brought with it lousy contrast so we weren't able to go out, instead content to sit in the tent reading, eating and dozing, just like a holiday back home really. When field parties go out on trips like these there are always daily pre-arranged times for radio contact with base to ensure everyone is safe and well and catch up on any news and gossip. On this occasion there was an event going on in the UK to mark the 50th Anniversary of the building of the first Halley base, so there was a big posh dinner going on back at base with a video link up to the UK to let all the old FIDs who've been down here before say hello, reminisce, and tell us all how it was much harder in their day. We contented ourselves with vodka and cards.

Day 4 had better weather so we decided to go and explore the Rumples, which had been sitting there looking invitingly interesting for a couple of days. We found a route in and walked up to the aptly named High Point from where we could see Halley in the distance. I don't think it was actually that high at all but when you're used to a complete lack of geographical features you take what you can get. We then headed further out towards the coast, seeing some incredible formations in the ice and peering in to a couple more crevasses. All the walking on the ice shelf is done as an alpine four, with all of us attached to the same rope, again so that if one person falls down a hole the others can haul them out. Luckily we didn't have to test this theory, but as you walk you are always looking around trying to see features in the snow which might indicate the presence of a crevasse underneath. Anytime your footsteps start to sound unusually hollow you wonder if it would have been a good idea not to have that extra bit of chocolate for breakfast. We explored another crevasse on the way back. This time my prussic device, which is supposed to act as a sort of handbrake while abseiling, decided not to be very effective, so I had a slightly nervy time changing over to jumars but managed to get out unscathed.

Mark and Vicki at High Point

Simon and Vicki

Me doing my invisible man impression

Sledge Happy looking gnarly. Photo from Simon

The plan for Day5 was to head out in the opposite direction and explore some larger cracks in the ice with a view to abseiling down to the sea ice and having a wander about. We walked quite a way, investigating a few potential abseil points before Simon found one he was happy with. Unfortunately on the way down I was so busy concentrating on my prussic, hoping it would work this time, that I managed to get my abseil device caught on the cornice at the edge of the drop, which then flipped over the wrong way trapping the rope and leaving me hanging, unable to go up or own. Luckily for me Mark and Vicki were still at the top so after my vain attempts to extricate myself had failed, they managed with superhuman effort to haul me back up. By this time we'd walked further than anticipated and were all a bit knackered so we decided discretion was the order of the day and headed back to camp.

Me at the beginning of the abseil. Photo from Simon.

Day6 arrived with no contrast in the morning, so we made a plan to break camp and head over to Creek 2 caboose in the afternoon and stay there for the remaining days. Having spent a couple of hours packing up it was a short skidoo ride over to the caboose, during which we had a petrel flying alongside us for a while and then were treated to a very impressive display of the sun complete with sun dogs, a halo, and a circumzenithal arc (I think.....). Setting up at the caboose is much easer and quicker as there are no tents to erect so we were soon settling down to dinner and a book for the evening.

Day7 was my birthday! This will definitely be one to remember, it's not often you get to celebrate a birthday in a place like this. The day started very well as I managed to abseil down to the sea ice without getting anything wrong. We walked along the sea ice for a few kilometres looking in at the various creeks as we passed. It was very strange to think that last December we were in the same place, but on the ship looking for a place to moor up for relief. We found a few leads or cracks in the ice but none of them went down to water so it was obviously very thick. We also met a couple of penguins who had wandered away from the main colony, causing much speculation as to wether they were heading somewhere specific or just looking for open water. Eventually the contrast disappeared again so we headed back up onto the ice shelf and walked back along the top of the cliffs to the caboose. In the evening I was treated to everyone at base singing Happy Birthday to me over the radio, with Kirsty even giving a rendition in Spanish.

Penguins on a search for open water

Sledge Happy on the sea ice

On Day8 we were hoping to go over to Windy caboose and see the main penguin colony, but unfortunately the weather turned against us on the way over so we headed back to Creek2 and spent the afternoon learning to play Backgammon and reading.

We got up on Day9 hoping for an improvement in the weather to get to Windy but it never came so we packed up and headed back to base after lunch for a much needed shower!

All in all a fantastic holiday. It's always nice to get off base for a while, but to have the opportunity to do all these things is one of the real perks of being down here, and it's an incredible privilege to have seen places that very few others have seen.

We got back just in time for the weekend, and on the Saturday Nic cooked a wonderful spread of tapas for my birthday meal, just what was needed after my somewhat dubious attempts as making Pina Coladas in the bar beforehand. I also received what is probably the largest chocolate cake ever created in the Antarctic, but I was very good and shared it with everyone else.

Antarctic birthday cake

The other big news is that we've had our first visitors since March. Much as we all get along very well down here, we were all very excited at the prospect of seeing some new faces, and had been looking forward to the arrival of the BASLER plane for some time. It also heralded the arrival of fresh fruit and vegetables which is something that is definitely missed at the end of winter. After a couple of false starts due to weather, the plane left King George Island at the top of the peninsular at midnight, which meant I was up all night flight following until it arrived here at 5 in the morning. We laid on a cooked breakfast for the 3 Canadian crew and their 3 Russian passengers, who were on their way over to Novo, a Russian base on the Dronning Maud Land coast. The plane is a DC3, which looks a little out of place here when you're used to seeing the little Twin Otters, but they were only here to drop of the freshies and take on fuel, so after a brief tour of the base they were off again. One of the crew got a nasty shock when he came back to the Laws to pick up a coat he'd left behind, only to find 6 of us in the kitchen staring at the fresh veg and giggling insanely to ourselves. I never thought lettuce would have that effect on me.

Green things!

DC3 refuelling at the skiway

Now that the excitement of the first plane is over we start gearing up for the coming summer season and the influx of people in December. Meanwhile I've got another week of nights starting tomorrow so it's back to baking and cleaning for me.