Z or Dead
March at Halley is renowned as the month of storms. The storms are unleashed as the sun's heating over the summer leaves the south causing the atmosphere to thrash about a bit until balance is restored later in the winter. Usually these little spurts of weather last for three or four days, dump a few inches of snow, bury the odd skidoo, then clear for a run of blue skies and shiny snow.
My trip, sledge Bravo, formed by Myself, Tom, Dave and Sune, were lucky enough to have a departure date set that conincided with a patch of good weather.
Before heading out we prepare our provisions and load them onto a Nansen sledge. The picture above shows roughly what we need to survive in the field. At the bottom is the sledge. Built from wood and rope and knots, it's light, easy to fix and flexible enough to ride over the lumps and bumps in the surface without tearing itself to pieces. The next layer of boxes and jerries holds, from the left: a blue pots box (stove, lamp & spares), two wooden manfood boxes (twenty days of something like food), six jerries of petrol for skidoos, two jerries of parafin for the stoves, a white inside food box (frozen real meals, fruit tea, chocolate, treats), a red radio box (HF field radio) and finally a yellow tent box (plates, torches, flasks, assorted pens and games). Above that lot lie two sleeping boards, a bag of spare clothes, the tent stakes and on top of everything the pyramid tent. We also add on a tarpaulin and a full sleeping roll, and also carry a bag full of climbing gear on our skidoos. This is carefully and tightly lashed together using a couple of knots and some heaving, then we're ready to go...
We set off the next morning, delayed by a few hours as a bank of fog disolved as the sun slowly burnt it away. We could feel the clear skies were due to break as streaks of cirrus haunted the edge of our view, and moved to cover more of the sky as we sledged closer to the continent. Behind us shadows were cast over the base we'd just left, but ahead the sun played over the ridges of the hinge zone, making it easy for us to see our way through the hills and crevasses that crossed our route.
We made good time to Chasm II camp, the site of my first trip last year, still carrying the traces of the last group to stay the week there, but as the day was still looking good we refueled and set off further into more technical terrain. The slopes here steeper, once or twice a soft spot would stop a single skidoo half way up a hill and tip its trailing sledge onto its side. A bit of a faff follows as we tie ourselves onto our towing lines and edge carefully towards the turned Nansen. The fully loaded sledges are heavy; two could tip them back with some struggling but a team of four can right them fairly easily. Once everything is restored to its proper orientation another skidoo is tied to the lead machine and this double-powered train provides enough power to pull the sledge to the top of the slope and permit further progress.
These little incidents eat into our traveling time and allow the clouds to catch up on our position. We speed down the final slope as the last of the shadows depart, making it to our camp at Stony Berg just as heavy snowflakes started to flutter down. Building camp took another couple of hours, holes need to be dug for tents, sleeping bags rolled out, food unpacked and the toilet tent put up. Eventually we can retreat into our warm red havens for a cup of tea and some well deserved sleep.
Overnight the weather worsened. We woke to see very little outside. White was all around, a stiff breeze shifted snow along the ground and dumped drifts all round the camp. The only punctuation in the view was the vague edge of the berg above us, grey blue against the dirty white of the sky, and the small seam of black rocks poking from the ice. We decided to make the most of a bad day and carefully explored the berg in the murk. Deciding it was solid we then used its edge for a spot of abseiling and to practice the techniques we'd use to rescue one another after a crevasse fall. It was chilly work as spits of snow rushed through the air and slammed into my skin as pinpricks of cold, but good to dangle on the end of the rope, and fun to jam back up again, driving my crampons into the shear face in front of me for purchase.
The next couple of days were more windy and more snowy. Travel beyond the tents was impossible, even going to the toilet required a wade through thigh deep drifts of soft snow. Inside, though, the tents are pleasant places. Warmed by the Tilly lamp, reclining on rolled up sleeping bags and coats, reading a book or two, chatting, eating, drinking tea and thinking. It's a simple life, and entirely relaxing.
Finally the weather cleared and we were blessed with a bright day. We woke early and finally went out for a walk about the valley that opened up around us as the clouds scurried away. The berg now a deep milky blue, the snow brilliant in the sun, the sky a clean dark blue, with small puffs of clouds forming, shifting and dissolving. Walking in the newly fallen snow was hard work, and the covering made it harder to discover the edges of any slots waiting to eat us, but we made good progress and reached the cliffs at the edge of the rift we were camped in. A landscape formed from melt pools at different levels, crammed in between confused blocks of ice or edged by drifted snow lying like icy flames. The clear blocks of ice shift the light, drink it in, pass it through fractures and past bubbles of ancient air, until releasing it again as a cold blue. A sheen of just melted water rings a hole in a plate of ice, throwing sharp spears of light to play on the flat surface of the frozen pools beyond. It's like nowhere else on earth, a theatre of ice and light, where sun and shadow play on the sculpted sides of compacted snow and frozen sea.
Our final night passed with a soft toilet-paper-pink sunset followed by a windless night and a good clear day to pack up and travel back. Waking at eight we finished striking camp at eleven and arrived at Halley just after three in the afternoon. Another good holiday with a nice mix of relaxation and adventure, leaving me totally exhausted and excited.
Back on base I've enjoyed the odd shower or two, the feeling of standing up, of siting on chairs, and the wonder of toilets that flush. We've had some days of good weather, some blowy. The evenings have grown darker, and although there's still a gentle glow on the horizon at local midnight we've had our first view of the milky way and Orion upside-down in the north. To the south we've seen our first aurora. Bright enough to snake against the remnants of daylight beyond, a show of colour from the heavens that reminds me why I've stayed at Halley.
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