|Rumples, Cracks and Creaks|
Since the return of the sun, the coming back of the days, and the slow climb out of the cold that started back in August I've been looking forward to the last two weeks. From September 'til mid-November a group of us gets to go on holiday and experience the great Antarctic outdoors. My group was the last to go out, gaining the advantage of a warmer climate, no constraints from falling darkness, and, perhaps, a little longer to pack my bag full of goodies to chew on.
We did, of course, still have the teasing weather ready to delay our departure. Off work since a week last Sunday but kept on base, if not indoors, by clouds draped low from one end of the sky to the other. Plenty of light came though, but light without direction, light without any shadow, stealing form from the curving curling shapes in the snow. Smearing out even the sharp edge of the horizon and softening the sharp cracks that could swallow our skidoos.
The weather remained indifferent but finally cleared late on Wednesday. As we ate another tea from a table rather than a tent a break in the clouds grew and admitted texture once again. Eager to get elsewhere we set about setting off straight away and made good our escape with 'doos and sledges that were as ready to head out as we were. We headed off slowly towards the only landmark visible from the station. A jagged jumble of peaks cut low on the horizon to the East, a familiar view from my lab and now awaiting our approach.
The hole in the clouds lasted until we drove up to our campsite amongst the the crevasses and hills that form the McDonald Ice Rumples. As we unloaded the sun disappeared again and once again cloaked in us in nothingness. The contoured slopes cut with sharp crevasses and strewn with boulders of ice disappeared again even as they surrounded our newly pitched camp. After the exertions of digging in tents, unpacking bags and boxes and protecting our transport under a tarpaulin we were ready for sleep. The following morning I was secretly pleased as the conditions remained flat and I could keep to my sleeping bag without feeling guilty for not getting up.
Late on Thursday, after a few hours with a book and many cups of tea while lazing on my warm sheepskin rug, the clouds broke up and blew away revealing a brilliant blue sky and a landscape inviting us to step out and exert ourselves. We kitted up, putting on as few thermals as we dared, covering those with windproof tops and trousers, wrapping our heads in fluffy black tubes and forcing our feet into unfamiliar climbing boots. Cold hands struggled to adjust harnesses and tie ourselves onto the rope that's essential for our protection. An hour after deciding to go for a walk we set out in a chain, following the rope stretched ahead to Simon our field assistant, leaving behind four sets of footsteps in the fresh snow. The tracks like those of some beast from legend as our crampons claw out sharp points and the rope drags along between us like a tail.
We marched for about an hour, passing over many crevasses, most large enough to notice and leap over, some hidden beneath weak bridges of snow and ready to swallow a ankle or a leg. The rope between us jerking tight from time to time as the unfortunate faller had to extricate themselves amidst the laughter of the others. The first few moments after the world disappears beneath my feet give just enough time to realise that I'm falling before I'm stopped just as suddenly. Thankfully such moments are rare as Simon picks a good route and points out the places where caution (or a burst of speed) forms the best approach. We each have to look out for ourselves, and balance the temptation to take in the sights around us with keeping a close watch on the path we're about to walk.
Hot now from the sun beating down upon us we reached the high point of the rumples. A solid mound of hard ice forced into the sky, split by gaping gashes that flash in the light. We can see back to the base, a series of thin lines stretched along the horizon, not quite in the sky, not quite on the land. To the East and West the coast stretches away, the faces of headlands pushing proudly into the frozen face of the sea like the prows of a fleet of ships. The sea ice spreads South but reveals a dark blue ribbon of water somewhere between us and the ice on the horizon, the start of the breakup, another sign of the approaching summer. After a rest and a welcome drink from our flasks we return to camp sometime around eleven and again try to sleep in the red surroundings of our tents.
The terrain around us is formed as the flat ice shelf forces its way over a submerged mountain. Pressure from behind and below crumples it up and out in concentric mounds centered on the high point. Like the drop and rise in a river as it rushes over a weir, the terrific forces mould the shelf into a standing wave, its shape fixed for fifty years at least but the ice that forms it flowing through at a meter or so each day. This constant change motors on in a series of small slips. The night was punctuated by loud snaps and cracks, thumps pushing up through the base of our tent, sometimes preceeded by a soft slithering like a silk sheet running off a banister.
The noise, the light, the cold and the confinement of a sleeping bag make for a night of little sleep. Next morning the contrast is good again, the unsetting sun the master of the sky. We make ready for an early start and follow it with a long day. Walking inland to skirt a wide crack which we cross using a bridge we can see clear beneath, we keep the rope pulled tight and don't linger long as we pass over the yawning abyss. Safely accross we make for the coast and a crack that has had the time to open further and split to free a large triangular iceberg. Using a ramp of snow blown in by the storms of the winter we reach the bottom then pick our way around great blocks freed as the berg broke off and make our way onto the ice. The 'berg has tilted and exposed the solid blue ice that was once underwater. On its face we find small stones and keep one or two as souvenirs. We explore further along the coast, following scattered penguin tracks in the snow hoping to find a patch of open water, but disappointed as the tracks wonder into a creak between two headlands, execute a U-turn, then follow back the way they came. Penguins, we conclude, not the brightest of birds.
Over dinner Andy and I play chess on a board drawn on the back of a bisuit tin, nursing our aching calves and blistered feet, drinking welcome cups of tea and eating rehydrated food. We leave the tent door open and the lamps off, letting the cool breeze blow through as we let our exhaustion fade away into the evening. We spend a few hours in the other tent, talking all sort of rubbish and enjoying a slug of vodka, chilled after being burried in the snow while we walked.
Next morning, even though the sun is up, we decide our legs have had enough after the epic adventure of the day before and reward ourselves with a slightly later start. We head off at midday back towards high point. Today we have more time and pass over it and beyond it, approaching the coast until we reach the point where the whole shelf just collapses into the sea as a chaotic carnage of blocks of ice. We sit in the sun for an hour, still tied to our rope secured to anchors in the snow, and drink in the unique view. A landscape made this year and ready to be swallowed by the sea in the weeks to come. Refreshed we return to the high point, passing a weathered wall of ice flaking off in giant plates, flowing lines broken apart by blue shadows. Corrugations like a monstrous Victorian radiator turned on its side, an organic architecture sprung fresh from the mind of Gaudi but carved by time, finding form only because we're there to stop and wonder at its wrinkled face.
At high point a smoother cliff, freshly formed, provides us with a chance to have a go at ice climbing. A precarious way to ascend, axes on each wrist penetrate perhaps a centimeter into the transparent surface, crampons kicked in beneath me feel ready to slip out, but with each placement I gain a little height, a little further to fall, until eventually I hack my way up to the top of the pitch and abseil back down to safety. It was fun, exhilarating, but exhausting - both physically as my arms strained to hold my weight, and mentally as I imagined my feet slipping out from their holds just as I levered an axe out of the ice. By the end of that I was well on my way to bed but still had a good hours walking through soft sticking snow before I could sit myself down to recover and let my feet breath again.
Thanks to Frances for the loan of her camera. The second half of the trip will follow in the next update.
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