Shortly after the departure of the RRS Ernest Shackleton, the first winter trip kicked off. I was lucky to go as the second group (called Sledge Bravo), consisting of Mat the Field Guide and myself, and we went to where the Precious Bay meets the Hinge Zone.
Winter Trip Day 1 – Monday, 14 March 2016
Weather: overcast, 10-15kt wind; sun halo and sun pillar visible in the afternoon.
We left Halley on Monday around 10:30 in the morning. We took two Skidoos and two Nansen Sledges (the two sledges together are referred to as a Full Unit, and contain the primary as well as emergency camping gear, food, fuel, radio, skidoo spares, as well as some spare clothes) and headed west, towards the coast. As we were traveling in the same direction as wind, it was a very pleasant journey – not too cold, and relatively quiet save for the noise of the Skidoo engine.
Once we got to the coast, we stopped for a quick tea break and then turned south, driving along the edge of the Ice Shelf and admiring the view. By that stage we were driving across the wind and also across the sastrugi (wind tails), so it felt significantly colder and less comfortable. We covered another 30 km or so driving South until we arrived to a spot which was to become our home away from home away from home. Located just 800m from the edge of the Ice Shelf and some 1500m from the first land mark / feature of the Hinge Zone, it was a perfect combination of relative safety and close proximity to interesting things.
We pitched the two Pyramid tents – one to live in, and the other one to be used as a comfortable toilet. We also set up the HF radio, as well as the aerial and parked the Nansen sledges and Skidoos on the line for snow management. We then went towards the coast to investigate what’s over the edge. We noticed that there was some ice piled up right at the edge of the ice shelf, and decided it looked like it was an impact mark – possibly an ice berg collided with the ice shelf leaving that mark!
Finally, we retired to the tent, made some tea and melted a lot of snow for water, cooked a dinner, played cards, drank some port, had a long chat and hit the hay. Plans for next day: explore the way to the Hinge Zone and see how far we can go!
Winter Trip Day 2 – Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Weather: initially a sunny day, quickly turned into windy with drifting and then blowing snow, very little to no contrast.
We woke up before 09:00 for tea, coffee and some breakfast, after which we decided to head out into the Hinge Zone. We left the camp at 10:30, taking with us one Nansen sledge (referred to as Half Unit and containing emergency camping kit, some food and fuel, spares, etc).
Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get far, as the wind picked up and the visibility and more importantly the contrast dropped significantly to next to nothing, making it extremely risky to proceed on skidoos into an unknown terrain, with lots of slots and crevasses on the way. We made the only decision we could given the circumstances and turned back. We stopped on the way back to the camp at a big feature we saw earlier on, a frozen in iceberg with a large blue ice field on its side and went to explore on foot. It was very pretty, it felt as if we were standing on this giant sapphire buried in snow. Absolutely fantastic!
After some time exploring, we made it back to the camp for lunch and some tea and to wait out the weather. As the afternoon came it became apparent the weather would not improve, so we decided to go back to the edge of the ice shelf again and this time we set up anchors (using the Skidoo as the main one and some snow stakes to back it up) and abseiled down off the ice shelf onto the newly forming sea ice, one at a time. It wasn’t possible to stand on the sea ice as it really only started forming and was more like a slush, so each of us kept our weight on the rope fully at all times.
It was back to the tent for dinner and tea and some more cards and chatting.
Winter Trip Day 3 – Wednesday, 16 March 2016
Weather: calm and partially sunny / partially overcast; good contrast, not too cold – in the region of -15°C; no wind.
We left the camp in the morning and retraced our track from yesterday with an idea to push further towards and into the Hinge Zone. We stopped a few times when the terrain was a bit dubious to explore a possible route on foot, making sure there’s no hidden crevasses that would swallow a skidoo. The route took us between frozen in bergs, looking almost like dunes. We had to watch out when approaching tops of those, as typically they would have a gentle slope on one side and a very sharp, often corniced, drop on the other. At one stage, to proceed further, we had to drive over a snow bridge that linked the top of the berg with a base below spanning across a sharp edge of the berg – it was quite exciting, but thanks to Mat’s field skills we knew we were safe.
After a few hours of driving, exploring and route finding, we got to within 1-2km from the continent rise, which meant we were right in the Hinge Zone. We only had one major feature (read crevasse) between us and the continent, but decided that the only way to safely negotiate it would be on foot. It would take another couple of hours and as it was already an afternoon, we decided to just stop there for a while, have a quick lunch consisting of Biscuit Browns and tinned cheese with some coffee and then start heading back to the camp.
On the way back we stopped near one of the crevasses we had seen earlier, where I spotted what looked potentially like an entrance to an ice cave. We roped up and went into the crevasse over a snow slope and explored it looking for the entrance. At the bottom of the crevasse we spotted what looked like some rock or some animal’s poo and decided to take a closer look (when you live on the ice shelf, anything else than ice or snow becomes really interesting and unusual!). Mat decided to climb down 3 or so meters of the last drop over a steep-ish blue ice wall and tried to establish how solid the ice at the bottom was when it collapsed and he went in waist deep into the sea water! Luckily his ice axes were still solid on the ice slope and the two of us were linked up, so with a little assistance he was able to quickly climb back up and we made a dash for the Nansen sledge so he could change into dry clothes.
We drove back to the camp, made some tea and dinner, drank some more Port, talked some more shite, and hit the hay!
Winter Trip Day 4 – Thursday, 17 March 2016
Weather: calm, fully overcast with low stratus cloud, no contrast, slight snowfall.
We woke up a bit later than usual to a calm but heavily overcast day, with flat light and no contrast. That meant the conditions are not suitable at all for any skidoo travel into an unknown terrain, and therefore we decided to stay in the tent and just relax.
I’ve heard a single shout of an Emperor Penguin and based on that we decided to head out to the edge of the ice shelf, to just look over it and onto the sea ice below, hoping to spot some penguins. I practiced setting up anchors and we moved to the edge of the ice shelf, but unfortunately weren’t able to spot any wild life other than a skua and a snow petrel. The view was still stunning though!
After coming back to the tent we basically wrote the day off, played some more cards, made some dinner, and just enjoyed the downtime.
Happy St Patricks Day Everyone!
Winter Trip Day 5 – Friday, 18 March 2016
Weather: as luck would have it, Friday was the best day of the whole trip, but also the coldest. Temperature in the region of -25°C to -29°C, very clear skies, almost no wind.
After getting up, coffee and a breakfast we made some hot water for our thermal flasks, packed our stuff and folded the camp. Everything packed on the Nansen sledges, we proceeded on our way back towards the base.
We arrived back to Hally, after driving 50km on the Ice Shelf, just before lunch time. It was time to unpack the sledges, hang the tent and sleeping bags in the workshop to dry them out, refuel the skidoos and top up the oil.
Back on base I had a nice long shower (in Antarctic terms, 5 minutes is a long shower!), washed my clothes as they were all stinking of exhausts and kerosene, did some housekeeping and settled back in. It was now time to go through several hundred pictures I took during the trip!
Mat – thanks a lot for a brilliant trip, good fun and your company!