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!

One Response to “Winter tripping”

  1. kate Says:

    Crikey Mike, you have seen some fabulous places. Your view on the world in general must be decided augmented from the narrow vista presented in UK. Um. Thousand yard stare without going to the moon?

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