|Antarctic Camping, Emperor Penguins|
Z or Dead
Antarctic camping can be very, very, very, very, very cold. I've just got back from my last field trip, in some ways the start of the end of my time here. As we got out first before midwinter, we had to go first this time. Temperatures started at -30 as we skidooed off the base, which even my hardened Antarctic skin thinks is nippy. We arrived quickly, after dodging one or two gaping crevasses, circled a likely looking spot without falling into the abyss, then unpacked and whipped up our tents. Well, I say whipped up, but building a camp here is an exercise in logistics, patience and digging. Lots of digging. First you dig a big square hole, shifting about a tonne of snow, then you stretch out the tent by placing its poles into even deeper holes that are just a tiny bit too far apart. The tent is forced further into the soft snow by pulling eight guy ropes taut, each wound round two foot poles, then jumping up and down to get them a tiny bit tighter. Eventually all the snow that was in the hole the tent is pitched in gets dug back to cover the wide valance. An hour after you arrive you pick apart your sledge and pass the various boxes and sleeping rolls inside, sort out fuel for stoves and unroll sleeping bags. The sledge gets tidied up and the fuel lugged over to a safe dump, a toilet tent is dug in near the camp, and finally the skidoos are wrapped in thier own canvas cover to keep as much snow out of their workings as possible. Then you cover those with snow to stop them blowing open.
As we arrived before lunchtime and had the camp ready by about four we decided to make the best of the good sunny weather and go for our first walk. Tied onto a 50m rope, clinking and clanking with pullies, spikes and other climbing gubbins, we headed as directly as possible for the bigest thing around; the high point of the Rumples. Before the last person in the party had left the side of his tent, Sune, our leader in the field, found the edge of the first crevasse. Leaping over we continued, crossing most without incident, and one or two with the loss of the odd ankle. Crevasses here are unlike those you'd encounter on an alpine glacier. They spread open slowly as the ice shelf flows along and the constant fall of snow covers over their tops making bridges that meet in the middle. Sometimes hiding all signs of the drop below, sometimes showing the smallest hint of a rift. Usually these bridges are strong enough to hold the weight of a man, and the hidden ones stronger still, but sometimes they're not. Rather than avoiding them altogether, an attitude which would leave us all stuck huddled safely back in England, we try to predict their direction, looking for suspicious parallel lines on the snow and thinking about the ways that mounds and slopes will try to reduce their stress by cracking. We then walk at 90 degrees to the slots so that when we do drop in only one of us falls at once.
We found our way to the high point of the Rumples, a set of sharp cupped ridges like a smaller version of Sydney Opera House, and paused for a drink and the inevitable Mars bar. We returned to our camp exhausted but glad of the chance to be away from the base at last. We melted water, ate rehydrated meals, and hid deep inside our sleeping bags. Complete silent darkness fills the tent once the hissing Tilley lamp is extinguished, punctuated from time to time by thuds and creaks as cracks opened around us. My understanding of ice shelf theory is that fresh cracks rip open the ice to only two or three inches at the surface, thinning as they descend. The hard judders I felt as I dozed into sleep shouldn't turn into holes that swallow the tent, but sometimes no amount of theory is enough for complete comfort.
Overnight the wind outside the tents increased as the temperature dropped to -37. To keep my nose from freezing as I slept in my sleeping bag I left a hole no wider than a tea bag which collected the moisture from by breath in fine fronds of ice. I woke to the sound of snow scraping along the ventile outer of the tent, looking at the orange glow of the walls through a cavern fringed with tiny trees of ice. I didn't need to leave the warmth of my cacoon to know we'd not be going anywhere, so put off the inevitable emergence into the cold until my bladder got the better of me.
Water, and its careful management, forms the crucial activity of tent life. Mornings see a horrible few minutes of activity priming and lighting stoves. We burn meths to bring them to temperature, so need to keep a close eye and a ready match to light them properly the moment the blue flame dies away. Then flasks of water are put onto the roaring flame while we retreat to our sleeping bags until the pot of water is boiling for our tea and bags of Alpen. As the tent warms a little, we start to melt fresh snow to restock our flasks and ourselves, taking about an hour to finish with breakfast. By then the tent is warmer, but even a stove and a Tilley cannot compete with air outside at -37, so for the rest of the day we hide in our bags, reading for twenty minutes before our fingers freeze, then snoozing for a while to warm back up, or exchanging jokes over a pan of water. We avoid venturing outside where the wind and snow chill instantly, carefully collecting urine in "P"-bottles, gambling between overfilling them and opening the door one moment earlier than essential.
It really was hideously cold. Ice coated the inside of the tent, I slept in the same kit I usually wear when spending the whole day working. Inside the sleeping bag it's ok, but outside it's always cold. Some part of my body would always be numb and need heating back up, my toes or my hands or my nose. Usually activity is the best cure for this, but the weather outside prohibited a quick run around the camp and the cramped tent and roaring stoves makes vigourous star jumps as dangerous as they are ridiculous. If you've not been this cold, you'll have no idea how miserable it can be. Until this trip I'd never, really, been so cold for so long. Back in the UK the worst I'd felt was on a winter afternoon kayaking on the upper reaches of the Wye with the ice forming inside my boat as I paddled, but that was nothing on this. I've walked about for hours at -45 at the base, but there you can always pop back inside, here in the field you never get warm to start with. Some people claim to enjoy this, but for me the cold was a trial to put up with, made worthwhile by the trips out, and the warmer days later.
We natter away the afternoon, eating biscuits with cheese or paté, sipping fruit teas, reading and listening to Dave's sometimes challenging choices of music. Eventually dinner time comes around and we bundle ourselves out and into the tent next door, to discover that they've spent much of their time perfecting the art of blowing smoke rings with their instantly condensing breath.
After the second night it did warm up a few degrees, and the tents became fairly comfortable once we'd warmed them with the stove. It became possible to sit outside of the sleeping bags and read or write, but outside the wind kept blowing and clouds covered the sky, reducing contrast to unworkable levels and forcing us to stay holed up. Late in the afternoon things cleared up a little and we decided it was high time to head out and do something. As we knew there was a crack near the camp, we walked over to that and dug out the snow bridge to reveal a shear slot. We abseiled in and discovered that it ran in a direction we weren't expecting, narrowly missing the area where we'd left our sledges and skidoos. We decided to be a bit more careful when walking around the tents, and moved our P flag a bit nearer the tents, just in case.
Having reassured ourselves we could escape back out using rope ascenders, we headed back for a hearty meal of defrosted food stolen and frozen from the base before we set off. The next day provided simillar weather, with thankfully less wind, so we returned to the crevasse for a spot of ice climbing, dropping in to the bottom then hacking our way back up using axes, crampons and a great deal of bad language. Ice climbing on ice is fairly straight forward as axes and the points on our feet easily dig into the face and feel like they'll support my weight. Even shear walls are no problem. Overhangs are more difficult, as you need to place more weight on the axes and its harder to lift your feet over the hard lumps of ice below. Overhangs with soft snow above are really not fun at all. Axes slip out and snow falls into your face and coat, minutes of effort go into jamming the shaft of an axe into the crumbling snow, hoping all the while that your feet stay stuck where they are, then lots of shouting erupts as you haul and hope. It's good exercise, though, and looking back I quite enjoyed it...
The next couple of days were better still, with some sun in the afternoon allowing us to get back into the chaos of the Rumples. Walking here is interesting. It's formed from huge piles of blocks of ice, like car sized lego bricks thrown on the floor, then very soft snow is scattered into the gaps where it forms tenuous paths over unknown chasms. Every step seems to bring forth a groan or creak from the ice around, and snow that supported the three people ahead of you suddenly gives way as you sink a little into its softness. Usually this is just soft snow, but sometimes it's soft snow with nothing underneath, which is more alarming. The frights are fun and the scenery is unique.
We were now ready to leave the camp, and started waiting on better weather. The Antarctic being what it is, though, the next morning rewarded us with clouds and no contrast, so we sat tight. Later it got better, so we made the best of it and walked to the edge of the ice shelf before setting up an abseil over the sea ice below. Although the fall is the same, dropping into a crevasse seems less scary, less exposed, than stepping back over the edge of a cornice with only two long bits of metal driven into the snow to hold you up. Half way down, though, the view is impressive. The setting sun lights up the cliff with a gentle orange glow, and throws my shadow out alongside me. Below the wind it's peaceful, surrounded only by pure clean snow as I drop slowly past the lines of the seasons etched into the face of the ice shelf. I climb back up the rope, enjoying the easy rythym of the ascenders and warming myself up with the effort, then I lead us back to the camp, towards the jumble of the Rumples lit by the last red rays of the sun.
The clouds stayed away overnight. As we prepared to turn in for the night we popped our heads out for a quick look and saw the edge of an aurora. We decided it was worth seeing if anything would develop and threw on some clothes. A dazzling dance of green and yellow ripped across the stars and rippled over our tents, glowing orange as our lamps purred away inside. I saw my first aurora over a tent in the hinge zone a year and a half ago, and probably saw my last from a tent in the Rumples. Standing so far from anything, isolated even from the safety of the base, surrounded by a harsh landscape and seeing the tendrils of the sun stroking the night over our heads. I feel small before the scale of nature, fragile in its freezing hands, and full of wonder at the powerful forces that shape the ice and shake the sky.
We got away the next day, reversing all the digging done to build the camp, and made our way to Windy caboose. Easier and warmer to live in, equiped with a real stove and beds with mattresses. We had a little walk around the cliff edge and spied the colony of penguins crowing away in the distance. After eating and sleeping well we woke early but waited until after lunch for the wind to drop enough to permit travel onto the sea ice. The penguins were as magical as ever. The chicks are all hatched and the colony is probably at its largest size as both parents will spend some time here looking after their offspring. Most birds had a baby to look after, but a few were lonesome, evidenced by the fallen corpses gathering small drifts of snow. Here and there the parents who'd lost their children would try to take over other wondering chicks, with unseemly rugby scrums forming over the contested child, itself crying with confusion.
In the distance we could see open water, with great plates of ice behind so it's unlikely the adults have to walk far to get any food. Most looked fat and healthy even as they catered for their ravenous chirping charges. I enjoy the penguins a great deal. They're so unfussed by humans, so free from any predators, that they'll let you sit right in their midst watching them feeding, preening, fighting and flirting. Surrounded by their gobbling clucks and the hungry shrill cries of the chicks, following the ritual of demand followed by feeding. Seeing parents exchange chicks, prodding their new charge into place then stroking the neck of their partner, their chests leaning heavily on one another. You can't get that anywhere else...
(All photographs in this post are by Dave or Tom.)
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