August 20th, 2006

It is cold here today, and has been for a few weeks. Mind you, living here gives you a whole new set of meanings to the terms “warm” and “cold” – a “warm day” is anything above about -5! Yesterday we had the lowest temperature recorded this year, -30 Celcius, but it was a glorious sunny day with little or no wind, so four of us (Jamie, Mark S, Agnieszka and myself) decided to ski over to Lagoon Island as a day out. You might remember that I went to Lagoon at the start of my winter trip two weeks ago, but we weren’t supposed to have gone, given the sea ice situation. Well, in the last fortnight a lot more ice has formed, so we can now travel to Lagoon whenever the weather permits.
We skied out over a soft snowy surface on the sea-ice, making it much easier than it was last time, and reached the hut for lunch. It was bone-chillingly cold inside, as without either sunshine or exercise to keep you warm we were all pretty chilly even in down jackets. At these low temperatures your breath tends to freeze on the clothing and hair around your face, and those with beards (which currently includes me) find that they get ticklish icy lumps in them and then freeze to your balaclava, which is most uncomfy. Here we all are looking iced-up:

Agnieszka the meteorologist


Mark the builder / carpenter


Jamie the generator mechanic


I don’t seem so badly affected by facial ice – I think this is because I’m careful with my breathing to avoid fogging my spectacles

There are other fun things you can do in low temperatures – check out what -20 does to soap bubbles in this little video

In other news, this week Riet (our erstwhile Chef) has been on nightwatch duty, so it’s been a succession of volunteer cooks for the whole week. There became something of a competition over the week to produce interesting puddings, culminating in me making a Baked Alaska – which is sponge cake and ice cream covered in meringue and then baked at a very high temperature to brown the meringue without melting the ice cream.

baked alaska

Mmm…baked alaska!

Freezing bubbles!

August 20th, 2006

Check out what -20 does to soap bubbles in this little video


Winter tripping

August 15th, 2006

I’m back enjoying the home comforts of Rothera after a few days away – here’s what I’ve been up to:

Tom Marshall (my GA for this trip) and I were due to leave last Tuesday, and hoped that the settled weather we’d had over the weekend before would continue. The plan was to drive north to camp close to Bond Nunatak and if possible climb Mount Reeves (2100m) which is one of the taller mountains on Adelaide Island.
Tuesday itself, however, brought us low cloud and poor contrast, so rather than head out and camp we decided on a change of tack and skied over the sea ice to Lagoon Island, which is about 6km from Rothera. Lagoon has a very comfortable little hut, which I’ve visited before on a boat trip last summer.
Four of us (Tom and I, plus Soup and Jade) skied out and back, which took all day!
On our return to Rothera, we discovered that Tim (the Winter BC) had made a mistake – we shouldn’t have been allowed to go at all, given the state of the sea ice – so it may be a while before anyone else makes that journey. However, readers at home can enjoy my little video of the trip! This is the usual video format – you’ll need QuickTime, Media Player Classic or Nero ShowTime to play it (it’s MPEG-4 H.264).

On Wednesday morning we had thick fog at Rothera, but Tom reckoned that we’d get above it once we made our way up to McCallum’s Pass. This proved to be the case, but looking over the pass we could see that the Shambles Glacier beyond (which is heavily crevassed) was still fogged in, so we abandoned plans to head north, and climbed Mt Gwendoline instead. Gwendoline overlooks the Pass, and is one of the few places where you can see the relatively mountainous Wright Peninsula (where Rothera is) and the much flatter main part of the island, the greater part of which is just a big ice sheet.

Tom on top of Gwendoline
Tom on top of Mt Gwendoline – with the Antarctic Peninsula in the background

Thursday was also plagued with low cloud, so we abandoned any idea of driving north and went climbing on Stork Ridge instead. This was alpine-type climbing – climbing up steep snowy gullies with crampons and ice axes – and we climbed up the classic “Anatomy of a Dog” route (climbing routes usually have funny names – this one has a dog-leg in it, hence the name) onto North Stork and then walked along the ridge to Middle Stork and then went back to base for tea. I’ve previously been somewhat prone to vertigo, although I’ve found that I’m a lot happier walking on narrow ridges and steep slopes on mountains than climbing masts and towers.

Anyway, on Friday, after thinking that my winter trip was going to be all day-trips (no bad thing in itself) the weather cleared, and we headed over McCallum’s and down into the Shambles beyond. At this point we found (as Tom had predicted) that the flags marking the safe route through the crevasses had blown away, and so we left the doos and walked, roped-up, up the glacier whilst Tom probed for crevasses with his bog chisel. Having walked up safely and found a couple of slots that were well bridged, we then walked back and got the doos and sledges and drove on up to Bond Nunatak, which is a small snow-covered outcrop dwarfed by it’s too massive neighbours – Mts Reeves and Bouvier. We camped on the ice piedmont about 2km from the nunatak in our pyramid tent.

tent and Bond Nunatak
Pyramid tent and Bond Nunatak behind. The green lump is our skidoos, covered in a tarpaulain to keep them warm overnight

Saturday morning brought more low cloud, so climbing Reeves was out, but we strolled up Bond Nunatak instead. The top of the nunatak was in cloud, which deposited rime ice on everything. At one stage I had to stop and remove my glasses, which were covered with a thin layer of ice anyway, as I could feel the rime ice forming on my eyelashes attempting to bridge across to the ice forming on the spectacle frames. Cleaning the glasses off and then wearing my ski goggles over the top prevent any further facial ice formations! We got back to the camp at about 3pm and spent the afternoon reading, playing Scrabble and cooking dinner. That evening on our nightly radio chat with Rothera, we learned that forecast was good for the following day.

And indeed it was – Sunday dawned bright and clear, and we got on the doos and took the half-unit (two doos plus one sledge full of emergency gear) up some extremely exciting and crevassed glaciers to the bowl between the two summits of Mt Reeves – about 1500m above sea level, and around 15km from our camp site. From here we put on skis and skins and made our way slowly up to the col between the two summits, and paused at the south side of the col to have a cup of tea and take our skis off.

Reeves col
The col between the two summits of Reeves

Walking on from here the mountain got steeper and the snow slopes much harder. At one stage we traversed around a very steep section, with Tom cutting steps with his ice axe. I have to say that I find the slow-plodding-up-mountains part of mountaineering very tiring (although this is probably to do with doing virtually no cardiovascular exercise!) and was very glad to reach the summit, particularly after two rather convincing false ones on the way. The view from the summit is, quite frankly, magnificent. You can see almost the whole of Adelaide Island and a large chunk of the Antarctic Peninsula, and all the little islands and fjords in between.

view from summit, looking SE
View from the summit, looking south-east. Rothera is on the extreme right of the picture, hidden behind Stokes Peaks

me on summit

Me on the summit, looking almost like a real polar explorer

By the time we reached the summit it was quarter-to-three, and with sunset currently being at around 5pm, we couldn’t stay very long (not even long enough for a cup of tea!) before we had to head back down to the doos and drive back to camp. Walking down the mountain was quite straightforward, and then we got back to our skis. Having worn myself out climbing to the top, my legs were somewhat reluctant to do anything other than Extreme Snowplough down the steep section to the col (Tom was making elegant sweeping turns behind me) and because I’d been slow we had to walk the skis, cross-country style, across the flat bit on the col before getting to another steeper section. This time, with a more gentle slope, soft powdery snow and more confidence, I skied back down to the doos with rather more grace, to be joined shortly afterwards by Tom, who’d had lots of fun skiing in the soft powder. Then it was skis off, and down jackets back on, and a spectacular drive down the glacier to camp.
Agnieszka spoke to us on the sched to give us the forecast- good in the morning, but getting worse in the afternoon – so we set our watches for a 7am start and had the sledges loaded by about nine-thirty. Then it was an hour’s drive through the chilly air (I reckon it was about -20, as I was wearing five layers of clothing, including a down jacket, and three layers of gloves, and had the electric handlebar warmers on and still wasn’t that warm) blasting over the hard snow and sastrugi at 30km/h in a cloud of flying snow and two-stroke exhaust fumes back to the Shambles Glacier. The promised bad weather never materialised, and we drove through the Shambles and McCallum’s Pass in glorious sunshine and got back to base by half-past-one. After a shower and lunch we unloaded the doos and sledges – a great trip, thoroughly exhausted, but with no wasted days “lying up” waiting for the weather to improve. I’ve been very fortunate with the weather on both my trips, for which I’m very grateful. I’d like to thank Tom for putting up with my general ineptitude at fieldcraft for the last week, and for encouraging me up and down various large mountains I wouldn’t otherwise have gone near!

Skiing to Lagoon Island

August 15th, 2006

Four of us (Jade, Tom, Soup and I) skied across the sea ice the 6km to Lagoon Island. Join us from the comfort of your own home!

skiing to lagoon

Life’s always better in the Sun

August 5th, 2006

Well, the day after I wrote that last post (about standing in the snow failing to see the sunrise), we woke to a beautiful dingle (i.e. clear, bright and calm) day, and we saw the Sun for the first time in about 7 weeks. It was very strange seeing the base lit up in glorious Technicolor again, after over a month of considering grey twilight to be “daylight”. Everyone’s mood improved dramatically, and there was a mass exodus to the hills to go and play in the snow!
Since then we’ve seen our day length come on by leaps and bounds, and the general mood of people on base is much better. The sea ice has come back (although it’s by no means here to stay for the rest of the winter) and we’ve been out on it, walking and Nordic skiing. Helen’s even managed to do a CTD cast through a hole in the ice, so the science programme’s getting back on track. The wind that blew out our previous load of sea ice also brought us some new icebergs to look at, including the five-arched monster berg just off East Beach.
big iceberg
Now that’s what I call a big iceberg – with Tom and Dickie

Every now and then you have to rediscover some old crafts down here – mostly because if the base doesn’t have it, you have to life without it. My socks have taken quite a punishing, particularly where they rub on the inside of my rigger boots, and so I’ve had to engage in a spot of darning in order to keep some of them in active service. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I found that you can use an ordinary lightbulb to hold your sock in shape whilst you darn, and here are the results:

darned socks
The top sock has gone threadbare – the bottom one has been repaired. Note the lightbulb and large needle!

Today I have “skinned up” to the caboose – that is, skied with furry skins on my skis to make them go uphill – which always feels like a bit of an epic when you do it on your own – and done a little bit of downhill skiing. I’m now pretty tired, and looking forward to the big Chinese meal that Ags and Kirk are cooking for Saturday dinner.

Rothera from the traverse

Rothera from the Traverse – look at the sea ice!


Self-portrait, whilst skinning up

Next week I’ll be off base on my second winter trip – Tom Marshall and will hopefully be off to Bond Nunatak and Mount Reeves on the north of Adelaide Island, but if the weather’s not good we’ll stay closer to the base and climb some of the mountains on the Wright Peninsula.

Comments are back!

August 1st, 2006

Thanks to Mike A for pointing out that the comments system was still broken. I’ve fixed it now, so please let me have your comments on my ramblings and videos!