|The frozen face of the deep|
...the winter trip continues. After a few punishing days in the Rumples we decided to strike camp early the next morning and make a move along the coast. Heading west to pay a visit to our colony of penguins, and enjoy an easy day or two based in a caboose.
Antarctic camping is a heavyweight affair. A fully loaded sledge takes more than one person to push it. Food, of sorts, for over forty days, parafin for forty cold nights, and enough petrol to drive pretty much all the way to the pole, if we could cope with the boredom of the journey. Add to that bags full of clothes that would be the envy of any high street outdoors shop, boots for any purpose (I had four pairs, but could probably have made do with three), and a tent with poles as thick as fenceposts. And that's just the half of it. We travel everywhere with two of everything, a whole spare campsite remains packed up but dragged around with us, ready for the unlikely loss of a sledge.
It takes a good two hours to find all the bits and pieces, roll up sleeping bags and pack away stoves, then carefully arrange each jerrycan, box and bag on the sledge in a way that keeps it balanced, and keeps the tent poles from getting bent or broken. After that a complicated arrangement of ropes is threaded through hooks or bound around eyes, then tightened using the fiendishly difficult highwayman's hitch (or the easier knot-with-no-name), the tension bearing down on the tarp is enough to hold the sledge together as our skidoos drag them over thick icy sastrugi. Each ridge bends the frame and strains the ropes and lashings but the flexibility of the sledge is the source of its strength. I find traveling with skidoos a little boring, slow progress is made over the ice shelf, the view always the same. The ride is lumpy, bouncing like a horse but without a rythym, jarring and jolting every few yards as another raised patch of snow is ridden over. My arms get stiff fighting the twisting in the steering, my thumb tires after hours held in the same position on the throttle and my neck aches from the weight of my helmet. Still, it's sunny a day, my feet are warm, and there's plenty of time to think.
We break the journey part way through to investigate a couple of the creaks. Here, a little way away from the seamount that forces the Rumples into the air, the coast slowly opens out. Small cracks grow into wide creaks that, in a few years, will form the edge of icebergs. Still connected to the shelf these valleys by the sea fill in with snow which forms a gentle slope down onto the sea ice. As this makes for a good site for the ship to dock at during relief, we investigated a couple and took some pictures to send back to the planners in Cambridge.
The shelter from the wind and the sun high in the south provided a warm spot to stop for lunch. Surrounded by shear cliffs of pure white snow, cornices hanging from their tops like sugar icing, impossible flowing shapes floating and ready to fall. A couple of penguins passed by, on the way to who-knows-where. They saw us in the distance and came closer to investigate, sliding slowly on their bellies until close enough to touch, then, realising we were red and not black, and a little tall to be their fellows, they sounded a less than confident croak before sliding away again, off on their unfathomed mission.
After a nice long stretch of our legs we climbed back up another creak and found our way to our transport. Another couple of hours driving led us eventually to the caboose at Windy Cove. As we unpacked one or two items from our sledges, an airplane flew out of the distance and made a tight turn above our heads. Something interesting obviously happening back at the base, but for the time being nothing for us to bother about, far away on our holidays.
As the weather was good, the sun out and the wind as still as the air in a cave, we harnessed up again and headed down onto the ice once more. This time needing a rope to protect our approach down a steep slope. We had two objectives. First to see the penguins a little further along in their development, and secondly to find a way out to the open water we could clearly see from the cliffs. Our estimates of its distance varied from a couple of miles to many more than that, so we headed out from the coast and over the wrinkled surface of the sea.
The penguins clearly had the same idea as us, the whole top surface was scoured by tracks all headed due south, running in parallel lines like thin furrows on a white field. We got tired after we'd gone a mile or two and clambered up onto a high fold. The cliffs were now small and distant, our abseil point indistinct and impossible to pinpoint, but still all we could see ahead was more ice. Down on the surface it's only possible to see a short way, a mile or two perhaps, but the sea clearly wasn't so close as we'd thought, so we wandered back inland to take a look at the hardy citizens of the colony.
Their numbers, swelled by their offspring, are now spread thinly along the cliffs. More like bathers in the sea; all in the same place, for the same reason, but keeping a little distance from one another. They were clearly feeling the heat, with adults and chicks alike slumping against the snow, spreading their bodies along the ice in the attitude of a teenager slumbering on a sofa. Others stand close to the cliffs shaded from the sun but risking oblivion should any lose snow fall (a rare event, I've never seen any lumps break off).
The chicks are now nearing the size of some adults but retain their puffy grey feathers and inquisitive white heads. Their calls for food and attention shriek in the air amidst a contented babbling from the adults that know their work is nearly complete. We sat watching a small creche of young ones for hours, and could have stayed longer if we'd had more water with us. Each returning adult pressed through the gaggle of waiting infants, testing each in turn, calling out with a distinctive chuckle. Eventually answered they make their way towards their chick and greet it with a swooping, graceful dance of their heads.
We had to leave their company and made the walk back to the caboose carefully, making sure not to block the path of any adults returning from their spells feeding in the nearby sea. On regaining the caboose we fed ourselves and chatted about the world. Outside the window the sun beat down and a pure white snow petrel rode the currents created as the rising wind played against the walls of our remote home. The next day the wind was blowing enough to prohibit travel onto the sea ice, so we spent our time wisely: sat very still, drinking tea, eating biscuits and reading a good book or three. The morning melted into the evening and soon we were sleeping once more. Finally we woke, packed up, cleaned out, and returned to Halley. Smelling strongly of parafin, glad to be back and full of stories to tell.
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