Emails from Antarctica (2)
Email Fiona at Fcottam@hotmail.com
So my first attempt to dial up the network and send you all an email has failed. Never mind, it tells me that the network is busy and I can try again later. Let's hope…
An interesting day. Paul Woodgate from Antarctica New Zealand met three NZ Airforce guys and me at Christchurch airport, and bundled us down the road to their base where we were kitted out for Antarctica. Wow. What a load of stuff! The notice on the wall of the dressing room was headed What You Will Wear. I suspect they did not use 'shall' only because they are not aware of the subtle extra emphasis it would give to the cognoscenti. Then the list included masses of large downy items, the differences among which at first made no sense to me - what could be the difference between one set of salopettes and another? (For the non-skiers, salopettes are a kind of padded overall without sleeves.) However, it was explained that you wear polar fleece salopettes over your long johns, then the bulky survival fleece over those. The other pair of salopettes is slightly thinner than the survival pair, but has the sometimes-imperative quality of being windproof. It was explained that if the wind chill were below -30˚C, we'd have to wear all three sets. (Ooooh, I thought, hope not!). All of this had been laid out in 'my' cubicle, along with the top half equivalents, plus the biggest selection of hats and gloves you've ever seen. And boy, do they look warm. Very comforting. Thanks to conversations with the wives of the expedition organisers, I knew to ask for waterproof trousers and rubber fisherman's gloves as well. Then the feet! Wow, the feet! Mukluks are HUGE. They have 3cm thick soles and are padded around your feet and all the way up to your knee. Inside the mukluks, you wear a pair of felt booties. I had also been told to request an extra pair, which I did - that way, you can alternate them each day, so that one pair dries out as you wear the other. You also get a rubber-soled pair of big boots for wetter conditions.
Oh, and discreetly placed amongst my gear was the 'urinary diverter (females only)' which I was told I would not need on the plane. Good - they must have updated those Hercules a bit then.
Now, while all this sounds very comforting for the depths of Antarctica, it was no fun trying it all on in the 22-degree heat of Christchurch's lovely day. We were all perspiring at the end of our session.
A video showed us how important it is to keep the pristine environment of Antarctica as protected as possible from the impact of human colonisation. Rubbish in, rubbish out is the strict policy. No bits of plants or animals may be removed, and to my disappointment, we are not allowed to approach animals. (However, I do know that if you sit still long enough, the penguins will come to you, and there is no rule forbidding that!).
We were all dropped at a nearby motel with strict instructions to be ready at 5.50 am tomorrow morning. What? Does this mean I have a whole afternoon and evening with no responsibilities or duties or obligations? The military guys were used to such things and not at all fazed. I was giddy with excitement, and began to plan furiously how to do nothing for all that time. Sadly, I did not have a bathing costume as there was a pool with water at a quite swimmable temperature. However, I hopped on a bus and wandered into town. How different Christchurch is! How spacious and uncluttered compared with Auckland! How green and full of parks with youngsters playing cricket. How pleasant. I sat by the Avon and quietly drank a nice cool lager before catching the extraordinarily reliable bus back to the motel.
Time to get serious now, and I lay out all the clothing I would need for the trip on the Hercules in the morning. We'd need all but the windproof layers, but we should not put on the top layers to start with as we shall be an hour or two after pick-up enjoying the Christchurch morning temperatures. I noticed that there are plenty of pockets on the inside layers so I can store my spare contact lenses to prevent their freezing on the flight down.
All organised, off to dinner. I wonder if my military buddies will be around.
Check in at 6am at the USA Antarctica Passenger Base was smooth, but did involve a lot of heaving of bags. With all the Extreme Weather Clothing (EWC), each passenger had a minimum of four bags, most of which were pretty bulky. So check in was a laborious process of moving your clutter a metre at a time towards the desk where an Air Force person in camouflage took our passports and gave us a plastic boarding pass on a chain that was slung around our necks. Our check in bags were weighed, then we got weighed with our own hand luggage, including EWC. Unlike in Fiji, your total weight was not announced to the assembled crowds. Fifty one of us were checked in, and after breakfast, shown a video on safety in Antarctica.
The video showed how there are three weather codes. Level 3 is the normal - good visibility, not too much wind, normal Antarctic travel precautions apply; level two is when visibility is reduced to less than 300 metres with winds of 89 - 100 km/hr or wind chill of -60 deg C to -73 deg C; level one is very dangerous as visibility is less than 30 metres with winds over 100 km/hr and wind chill lower than -73 deg C. There are severe restrictions on movements at levels two and one. But even at level three, you must always travel with another person and a radio, unless going only to McMurdo Station on the road (3 km), or walking to the top of the hill behind Scott Base. We were shown indications of frostbite, hypothermia, snow blindness and various other problems we are likely to encounter if proper care is not taken.
Boarding the Hercules was as slow as boarding a commercial flight. Once inside you are overwhelmed by a jungle of red webbing weaving its way to about half a metre above head height; on top of that are metal bars loaded with black or green soft bags. Passengers cram along the red nylon seats and plonk themselves on to a seat, after removing the large brown paper bag containing a vast quantity of lunch. Your row of seats faces another row of seats at such an intimate distance that you touch feet and knees all the way to Antarctica. Ear plugs are handed out, the roar begins and we glide off. The take-off is so gentle, I could not tell when we actually left the ground. The guy next to me, a US Air Force person, went to the loo, and I asked exactly what there was in the way of facilities. His reply was, "There's nothing luxurious or private about it, but you can sit down - actually, it's a tin can." I decided to hold on, not just because of his description, but because of the climbing feats needed to get over everyone to get there. The flight was not as cold as I was expecting, but I gather this was because there were so many of us on board. Temperatures varied so much that at one stage I had strip down to only short sleeves and at other times, don my heavy down jacket along with the layers of fleece below. It is controlled by vents that blast either cold or hot air at you. I made a mental note to try, on the way home, to sit somewhere less directly under a vent.
Our estimated flying time was six hours 58 minutes and we were pretty close, landing at McMurdo Station just after 4pm.
Now if the flight left one feeling a little jaded, the exhilaration felt on seeing the stunningly beautiful white and pale blue landscape made you want to dance. It is just magnificent. You are surrounded by a ring of mountains, presided over by Mt Erebus which sits grandly smoking in the distance (about 40km away, but looking much closer). Dancing, by the way, would not be recommended - the ice is very hard and slippery. The short drive to Scott base was simply glorious. The peace and whiteness of that landscape is hardly imaginable back in the hustle of daily Auckland life.
Scott Base is a series of pale green metal huts, which were introduced to us before dinner by one of the permanent staff, called Chet. Certain things are worth noting. For example, never wear a hat in the bar, or the bell will ring and you will be fined a round of drinks for everyone present. Americans it was explained, can never resist putting on hats, so on certain nights when the Americans tend to come visiting, several hats are left around the bar, and the bell rings continuously. An attempt was made to ease our consciences by explaining that $US20 equals about $NZ400! I could see the US guys at their briefing being told never to pick up a hat from the table in the bar at Scott Base!
I learned that the rest of our expedition, Science event K012, including Chris, will return on Sunday, which is when I get back from my Antarctic Field Training (AFT). We shall be going to Cape Roberts, two days' trek away by skidoo, so one of my directives was to make sure I achieve my skidoo licence while on AFT.
It's about 5pm and I've come in from watching the Scott Base guys play rugby against the US guys out in the snow. There was a great deal of thudding of bodies, and I think the Americans won. The players wore running shoes, long thermal underwear and shorts and T-shirts, some wore hats and most wore gloves. It was a fairly static game, as running in the deep, dry snow was hard work. I've never seen guys come off a rugby field as clean as these ones.
We finished our Antarctic Field Training (AFT) today - wow, what an experience! For someone as unused to snow and ice as I am, there was heaps to learn. We started yesterday with a briefing after breakfast, then fitted ourselves with harnesses and crampons and went out into the field. First stop was at the glorious, pristine Windless Bight. It would have been a beach if it were a few dozen degrees further north, but as it was, it was an arc of white hills, flowing down to a flat white shelf (the Ross Ice Shelf). We climbed the nearest hill, and learned how to walk up it, not slide down it, and how to self-arrest using your ice axe if you had the bad luck to fall down an ice slope. We roped ourselves together and learned how to cross crevasses. To do this, you actually have to cross a couple of crevasses, and the landscape kindly obliged by providing them. They are truly spectacular to look down, but I would not recommend you do it unless you are roped to a good few solid people !! In fact the shapes in the ice up there were just beautiful - swirls and holes where the wind has sculpted the snow and ice into smoothness. Occasionally, there were long icicles in sheltered spots where the sun has melted ice and it has dripped and refrozen. These were up to a metre long and were a gentle bottle green colour.
The best part of our AFT was building and then sleeping in a snow cave. We put all our gear into a heap and shovelled snow on top of it. You have to shovel for quite a while to thickly cover everything with enough of the dry, powdery snow that you can dig out a hollow that will sleep all three in the team, and house your gear. You pat down the snow and add layers until digging out time. Then you dig in and haul out the gear, and begin excavating. To strengthen the entrance, we sawed out pillars, stood them up and put another big block of snow across as a lintel. We were rather pleased with our iglooish-looking thing! Dinner was easy - just boil water on the primus and add it to the dehyrated food. At one stage the wind blew up, and we got a taste of what life could really be like if the weather were not as simply glorious as it has been. The ice blew stingingly into our faces, and it was hard to see. The temperature dropped dramatically from the rather pleasant -6 to about -16, which felt a whole lot colder! It did not last long and of course the sun continued shining and Mt Erebus sat benignly steaming over us. The scenery was truly fantastic. Oh, and it was soooo quiet! (The sun continued to shine all night and I was glad to have a mask to wear over my face so that I could sleep.)
I was a bit sad to leave behind our wee house when we left in the morning, but we had to move on to learn about sea ice - very important for me as I shall be out on it at Cape Roberts living on it for two weeks. We drilled down using a drill with a brace and bit, just as my father used and now my husband uses. This one is a bit bigger, and a whole lot longer - we drilled down 1.5 metres for the first hole and 1.3 m for the second. The sea is underneath and it is important to know how thick the ice is, in case you want to drive a vehicle over it. To my astonishment, I learned that you only need 1.5 m of ice to land a Hercules!!
The great discovery of the morning was seal pooh on the ice. If you have ever been to Africa, you know that finding a pile of elephant pooh is about the surest sign that an elephant has passed. Well, it's pretty much the same with seals. They have jaws that gnaw through the ice in any area that seems to have a natural weakness and heave themselves up on to it. They have to be on ice to have their young, but mostly they are just coming up for air. Unfortunately the seal did not reappear before we had to end our safari.
Back at Scott Base, we were shown the contents of and how to use the survival kits. They contain a tent, lots of food, fuel and a primus, and things you need to keep warm, and of course a first aid kit, with everything except malaria pills, as far as I could make out.
This may be my last letter for a while, as John Macdonald and team are due home tonight and we are then to turn around and leave for Cape Roberts tomorrow.
Last night I went over to McMurdo Station (aka Mac Town) for a lecture on meteorites. It was fascinating. The best bit was actually getting to hold one - a big piece of one, in fact. It was really heavy - solid iron. I gather they fly into our atmosphere at 20 miles per second. The burning at that speed explains the blackening on the surface, up to about 1mm thick on the meteorites that are not solid iron.
McMurdo is a lot bigger than Scott Base. Someone said that their laboratory would fit Scott base into it twice over! It is laid out in street formation, with buildings up to three storeys high. Because the 'streets' are kept clear of snow it is very dusty. It makes you realise that the advantage of being as small as we are at Scott base is that we don't have to venture outside to go to the dining room, or the radio operator or the store etc.
As the rest of the team had a lot of organising to do today, our departure for Cape Roberts will be tomorrow. That meant I had a whole day of choosing what to do. How delightful! After writing about a dozen postcards and doing some housekeeping, I set off for Observation Hill, the 700metre high pile of shingle and scoria above McMurdo station. Superficially, it is not unlike Mt Ngauruahoe. It is one of the very few places you are allowed to go alone. Even so, you still have to sign out stating your destination, mode of transport, whether or not you have a radio, and your estimated time of return, then sign in again when you get back. Just like a tramping expedition in New Zealand, but rather more strictly enforced here.
The day was clear and beautiful, and the view from the top was magnificent. You could easily see the glaciers flowing down the valleys in the range of mountains around the western coast of the Ross Sea. Of course 'Sea' seems a strange term for a flat plane of white ice. But of course, as we discovered yesterday when we drilled down, the sea is only a couple of metres under the ice. At the top of Observation Hill is a large wooden cross to commemorate Captain Scott and his men who perished in his 1912 expedition.
As I walked along the road between the two bases, several vehicles passed and every one of them stopped to ask if I would like a lift. Both the Kiwis and the Americans are all so friendly and cheerful here.
In the evening, another Hercules brought in a new group of people who will be here for various lengths of time, doing different things. One of the exciting things about Antarctica is the interesting people you meet. Mind you, we did all have a laugh at the expense of one bemused scientist who managed to be passionate about the prospect of coming here to watch and see how fast glaciers move. She did not agree that it was as exciting as watching paint dry, at all. A group I met last night was flying 700miles into the Dry Valleys to look at rock samples to see if they could determine how fast changes occur in continental drift. Graeme Dingle was one of the group. He was their 'dedicated mountaineer' - a necessity on such a trip. They will fly to the South Pole, then go in stages the rest of the way in. Planes drop supplies at depots along the way, as one plane could not carry the amount of gear they need for the expedition. They will be out there for a month. The woman I shared my ice cave with is an artist, here with the Artists to Antarctica scheme. She has been busily drawing ice formations from the pressure ridges in the ice right outside the base. She is keenly interested in depicting aspects of survival in extreme situations. Our other ice cave buddy was a biology teacher from Nelson who applied for this trip, but instead got a Royal Society fellowship, and has a year to study things that interest him. He will be here for eight weeks and departs for Cape Bird tomorrow to study penguins, then next year, will spend his time in South Island national parks studying kea.
Time to go and pack for our great trek.
We started our Cape Roberts adventure after lunch on Tuesday 4th. The morning was spent packing the sledges. The sledges are surprisingly traditional in construction. I think I had been expecting something made of fibreglass or steel, but they are made of wood with wooden runners with a Teflon ski underneath. Luggage is held on by canvas and rope - and there was plenty of luggage! With food for five for a fortnight, thermoses for five, sleeping kit (two down sleeping bags, bivouac cover and a mattress each), two sleeping tents, a laboratory tent, personal gear, ECWs and a great deal of laboratory equipment, some of which was very weighty, the sledges were high and heavy. We decided that it would be more efficient to have lunch at Base rather than set off and have to stop to unpack the sledge to boil the primus for lunch an hour down the track. (This meant that those who had picked after lunch as their bet in the sweepstake on the time we left were in the money. Anyone who picked 1.25 pm exactly would have won outright.)
We warmed up the three skidoos; John drove one with Mary on the back, Michael drove the skidoo with the fixed sledge, and Jocasta the skidoo with me standing on the back. We set off away from Mt Erebus, towards Mt Discovery and soon were out of sight of Scott Base. We rounded the point in front of McMurdo Station and could see the runway out on the ice where we had originally landed. The route was flat and well used, and we could fly along at about 20 km/hr. We stopped to pick up some rubbish left on the ice. The surface just at that point was hard, slippery ice, so the skidoo I was behind refused to pick up enough traction to overcome the inertia of the giant sledge; we had to make it move by reversing the skidoo and yanking on the rope until the sledge moved, then pick up on that momentum to keep the sledge moving. Jocasta decided she'd had enough of driving the skidoo, so handed it to me at that point, which was rather intimidating, as I had only learnt how to drive it that morning. However, the going was easy just then and it was not hard to get the feel of how the machine reacted to my manoeuvring and the conditions under the runners. We picked up speed and soon discovered that if we went 30km/hr, the sledge began to swing wildly from one side to the other. Poor Jocasta got rather a rough ride when that happened. The only way to get the sledge to behave was to slow right down until the fishtailing stopped, then gradually increase speed again. We worked out that 25km/hr was the optimal speed.
Eventually, evidence of human existence dropped below the horizon and we were surrounded by pale blue sky, distant mountains whose hue was generally shades between white and dark blue, and a huge white ice sheet spreading out before us. We kept fairly close to the coast on our left, as the middle of the ice sheet is plagued with large lumps of ice and occasional holes that make skidooing difficult and even dangerous.
We stopped fairly frequently at first to check that loads were secure and to pick occasional pieces of rubbish (a petrol tin for example) off the ice. At one stage we had a shock stop, when Michael was towing what became known as 'the bastard sledge' as it tended to swing much more easily than the others. Somehow he managed to tip the sledge and throw poor Mary into the packed snow. She hurt her hip and shoulder. Michael was humbled enough to say that he should be a passenger rather than a driver, so Mary was given the opportunity to take her revenge(which she never did!).
At about 5pm, we met a skidoo and Haaglund returning to Scott Base from Marble Point, our destination for the night. They told us it was about two and a half hours away, and pointed out its dark mound in the distance. I figured we'd be getting there at about 8.30 or 9pm.
How wrong I was!
Permanent daylight deceives our usual sensory systems and even though the hours were passing, it did not feel like evening. At one stage I looked at my watch and was very surprised to notice that it was almost 8pm. I thought of my husband and old school friends who were having dinner together this evening, and was quite certain that they could have no idea of the trek we were undertaking. This was so very different from anything I had ever done. It was also beginning to feel a little daunting.
We stopped by an iceberg at 9pm, and decided that the fuel depot we had been looking for was about an hour behind us. John said he would go back. So we emptied all the fuel containers into the petrol tanks, and John took the empty containers on his skidoo. We unhitched his sledge, made sure he had ECWs, food and the radio, and watched him disappear back the way we had come. We had arranged that he and Michael would keep in radio contact on a local wavelength every half an hour. Michael, meantime, would take a sledge and negotiate a path ahead over the ice to find a campsite near Marble Point. We three women were to wait with the extra sledge. Once the men had taken off, we got out the thermoses and poured hot water over the instant meal and ate a hearty Nasi Goreng each. While we waited for the water to mix in, we examined Mary's leg and were pleased not to find a huge bruise. As we dined, we tasted the thin slivers of ice that were melting beside us. They were a little soft - you could just taste salt on your lips after you had sucked it.
When Michael returned about 10pm, he was a bit concerned that he had not heard from John over the radio. We decided, however, to go ahead to the area ahead where Michael had left his sledge and at least gather all the gear together. I managed to tip poor Mary off the sledge again when I hit a lump of ice on one side and soft snow on the other. She was very good-humoured about this fall, which she had anticipated, and therefore minimised the damage by jumping off. We righted the sledge using the other skidoo with a rope attached, and carried on.
Once at his sledge, Michael decided to go off to find John. We kept the radio, and were to try to contact John occasionally, but not too often, so that we did not alarm anyone listening in on our radio band. Because we really had no idea why John had not contacted us, we arranged that if Michael had not returned by 1am, and we could not see him, we were to radio Scott Base and inform them of the situation. He had said that if he could not see John, he would turn around at midnight and come back to us. Luckily, just as Michael was about to get on his skidoo, Mary cried out that she could see a dot moving between the two icebergs in the distance. Yes, we could see it too! It only took a short while for John to return, complete with full tanks. He had tried to radio us, but we were out of range. There were nervous jokes about trying to find a campsite before night fell and the rain came, and we moved on.
The frequency of seals on the ice was increasing, and we would often pass a mother and pup or a big daddy lounging lethargically.
Eventually, we found Marble Point and set up camp on a flat bit of snow near an iceberg. I suddenly realised why this kind of camping is so infinitely preferable to camping at home. There is not a lot to be allergic to, here: only water in its various forms and air! No grasses and pollens, no flies, no mud. However, although we were incredibly lucky with the unusually fine weather, I could not deny that it was cold. An ample demonstration was my toothbrush, which froze about a minute after I had poured the final rinse over it. Naturally, just like when camping on farmland at home, you brush your teeth using a little water in the bottom of a mug, spitting randomly away from your tent site. I walked the 30 seconds back to the tent and put the toothbrush in my mouth to free my hand to open my pack. I got a mouthful of bristly ice! And the water bottle in my daypack now contained ice, having contained near-boiling water when we left Scott Base.
The advantage of this is that you never get wet. I had been afraid, when my gloves got snow on them, that they would get wet and then make my hands cold. Not at all! It is so cold here that everything freezes, so therefore the atmosphere is incredibly dry. It actually means that there is one fewer reason to get cold. If you are wearing the right clothes, you are not cold as often as at home!
We piled snow around the skirt of the tent and put on the primus. A cup of hot water was very welcome. The lack of darkness is both a boon and a bane. I was glad that we were not putting up the tents in the dark, but did think that, once in our bags, the descent of darkness would have been restful. I took a picture in the broad daylight just before crawling into my sack at 1.30am.
We managed to sleep until nearly nine, and made a slow start to the day. It takes a long time to collect snow and boil it, and also pack the sledges. It was about 1pm when we took off for Cape Roberts. Michael was our trailblazer, going a fair distance ahead to find a clear way through the ice. The main hazard was ice cracks wider than half a metre. Taking the skidoo, with its small front ski, over those is tempting fate. The other problem is lengthy tracts of hard ice where the skidoos without ice cleats lose traction and grind to a halt. It is quite hard going when we encounter lumpy ice; avoiding tipping the sledge requires some concentration.
We were now in a much more open environment, with Mt Erebus well behind us and a wide expanse of flat sea ice to our right. We hugged the coast to our left, but not too tightly, as the sea ice is more crumbly around the edges. The presence of seals told us that there must have been plenty of holes for them to come up from the sea beneath.
When we stopped for lunch at about 4pm, Jocasta and I wandered over to some seals lying quietly on the ice. They seemed unfazed by our presence, although we did have to observe the Antarctic rules regarding not approaching an animal closer than 10 metres. To my delight, the odd suckling noise turned out to be exactly that! A seal pup was feeding from its mother on the ice. More delights were in store a little further ahead when we stopped to look at another seal and, hearing a sploshing noise, looked behind to see a seal pup thrust its head up through the surface of the water in an ice hole! I jumped about a foot in the air when, as I drooled over this cute wee fellow its enormous mother came honking up at me! It was a good thing the ice behind me was quite firm!
The next delight along the way was a penguin! One lone wee penguin sitting at the base of an iceberg with a seal and some skuas. The general consensus was that this penguin was rather exceptional. The ice this year is rather thick and it is unlikely that the penguins are going to get down here very quickly. This little fellow had shuffled between 75 and 100 km on its three-inch legs and a completely empty stomach. Apparently, the male penguins at Cape Bird have given up waiting for their mates to arrive and have abandoned their nests. The forsaken nests are so abundant that even the predatory skuas have such an excess that eggs are being left sitting.
We realised at some point along the way that we could see Cape Roberts, which was quite comforting! All we had to do was aim for it.
The beauty of the icebergs was unfailingly breathtaking. The pure whiteness of them, their size and the idea that they have been stuck here maybe for many, many years combine to make them quite mystical. Out on the ice at Cape Roberts were two gigantic, white bergs, quite magnificent.
I had been told that the hut at Cape Roberts would be pink, and all along the way, I was scanning the land for a pink hut. To my disappointment, it was a pale green! However, it was pink on the inside - phew! The hut was nestled in a rocky depression, at least partially sheltered from the Southerly wind. Cape Roberts was the site of a major international drilling project in 1996 -1999 (approx). Scientists from the US, Italy, Australia, Britain, Germany and of course New Zealand were trying to determine the timing of climate change by drilling through rock deposited 30 - 100 million years ago. This means that the hut is relatively well supplied. We drove the sledges up the slope and began to offload gear. There was a rocky walk over to the hut, carrying all the heavy boxes. Jocasta started making corn fritters and a tuna casserole, while we dragged in all the gear and put up the tents for the men to sleep in. The women opted to sleep in the hut where there were two sets of bunks and plenty of room to stow our packs. Dinner was consumed with some celebratory red wine, which I was rather surprised and delighted to discover in one of the boxes referred to as 'Mary's formalin' (i.e. to avoid their being frozen). Bed was at about 11.30 pm, still in the glaring sun.
We radioed Scott Base with our regular call at 0830.
"Scott Base, Scott Base, this is K012 on channel five, do you read me? ".
"K012, this is Scott Base. Over"
" Scott Base, all is well with K012, do you have anything to tell us? Over."
"Not really, we'll let you know if there is any gossip. Do you have anything for us?"
"No. Great weather. Thanks very much. Over."
"Scott Base signing out. Have a good day."
After breakfast, we went down on to the sea ice to find last year's drill holes for the fishing spots. While John and Michael used their Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems to look around, Jocasta, Mary and I went to find clean ice for water. (By 'clean' we mean non-salt). It was harder than we had figured. We took the skidoo to the edge of the glacier, where there was plenty of fallen ice. This, it was assumed would be good, clean ice for melting for water. It turned out that quite a lot of it was salty. We could not understand it, and could only assume that amongst the ice fallen from the glacier, there was sea ice that had pushed itself up and wedged itself amongst the fresh water ice. We did a taste test on each lump of ice, discarding those that were saline. Further along the coast, we found more clean ice and quickly filled our sledge with lumps.
Once back at the hut, we brought the ice across the stones to the hut and put it into the huge pots to melt. Then we celebrated the great weather, the fresh water and the absence of the men by having a good wash. Out of the wind, it was extraordinarily warm and we took photos of each other frolicking in the snow wearing only boots. We did not stay undressed for long, it has to be said!
When the men got back, Michael radioed Scott Base to tell the seal people that there is a dead seal on the ice with a tag on it. We expect to get a reply from them telling us what to do with it (e.g. whether or not to remove the tags and bring them back to base) in the morning when we make our daily report.
A nauseating stink began to permeate the hut and it dawned on us that Michael might have got too close to the seal! We inspected his boots and hands, and our noses led us eventually to his coat. His coat was duly rushed outside and left there.
Washing up is more complicated than at home. All grey water goes into a large bucket that gets emptied into an ice crack. This and the fact that obtaining water requires serious effort mean that the absolute minimum of water is used, and dirty water is passed from one bowl/pot/cup to the next as they are washed, then each is rinsed in a bowl of clean water. Similarly, the lavatory arrangements need a little more thought. There are two buckets in the long drop (which is actually a short drop). One is for solids, and one for liquids (as far as possible, anyway). The liquids froze easily the first night, but with the continued 'warm' weather (out of the wind, in the hollow where the hut is, during the day, we are sure it was well over zero) and increasing volume, the liquids tended to stay liquid. This is the first such lavatory I have used that does not have flies or a smell. Bliss.
We do have some rather luxurious mod cons. Because Cape Roberts was once the site of an international drilling project, the hut has the remains of much of the gear used here. Therefore it has cooking utensils, propane gas to cook with and a sophisticated (in a cast iron sort of way) kind of heater onto which we could place the very large pots where the ice was left to melt.
Other sophistications included the solar panel John erected in the snow outside the hut with four batteries attached. This was the source of power for our laptops, the radios, John's shaver, the fish-weighing scales, Jocasta's video camera and the water aerator for the fish tanks.
That night I had to crawl out of my cosy bag to go outside. It was about 2.30am. It was of course still daylight. It was overcast, and therefore the darkest I have seen it. The sky was roughly equivalent to early afternoon on a winter's day in Auckland, but the landscape was brighter with the whiteness of the snow. Not very dark at all!
More drilling holes and collecting fresh ice for water.
I got my chance to drill a hole when Michael got diverted by a baby seal who was crying out, presumably for its mother. He stayed and kept it company for a while, so John and I got the auger going and drilled down into the ice. The auger is about 25 cm in diameter. There are several extensions to it, and in the end, we had to use all but one, so the ice was about 3m deep.
Quite thick. It is hard work pulling the auger out, filled, as it is, with ice chips. You pull it up to empty it reasonably often. But when you get very deep, getting the auger out is very heavy work, and when you have to haul it over your head, it gets to be rather heavy work. However, once you get through to the water, it comes slooshing up, covering your boots and ankles if you are not careful. This causes much rejoicing, as it means we can move on to the next hole. The holes are then reamed out to remove extra ice.
Jocasta and I went back to the glacier end and found a lovely source of fresh ice. It was a little more hairy collecting it this time, as there was a sloshy hole just in front of it, around which we had to use our ice axes to make our way.
Later that after noon, we called Scott Base again.
"Scott Base, Scott Base, this is K012, can you hear us?"
"Loud and clear, K012"
"Scott Base, we have two queries."
"Go ahead K012"
"Michael Taler left a message asking what to do about a tagged seal he found on the ice. Do you have any instructions?"
"Yes, thank him for taking the number, and they ask that you leave it where it is."
"Thank you. Is there a fax for Fiona Cottam? Over."
They read it to me and I discovered that we had bought the house we wanted at auction. Yay!
The other piece of news though, was that Peter Blake had been murdered in the Amazon.
We got operations for Mary's research set up this morning. It involved driving across the ice a bit further into the current. The very large (and very beautiful) iceberg was thought to be an indication that the water must be quite deep - icebergs have about 7/8 of their mass below the surface and this one had an enormous amount above the surface. We found an ice crack and used the depth sounder to gauge that the water was about 57 metres deep -perfect. Anyhow, we did drive a little further out to see if there was as convenient a crack further out into the current. While out there, we sidled up to the magnificent iceberg to take some photographs. On one side was a fabulous ice grotto carved out by the wind. It was pale turquoise in colour, with long stalactites of ice glistening in the sun. I was sure the White Witch was about to glide out on her sleigh and offer us Turkish Delight. It was truly magical.
We returned to the ice crack and dropped down Mary's net and umbrella-shaped device for catching plankton. We did this three times, each time capturing the last bit of water in plastic containers. These would be preserved in formalin and taken back to the university where she could study the plankton. Included, whether we wanted them or not were various other livestock. Tiny things that looked like drops of blood are pterypods, so-called because of the their wings, invisible to the eye. Wings and all, they are still molluscs, with an internal shell, which I could not see. Mary said that their wings make them look like little angels when under a microscope. The biggest beasties were some little amphipods - amber-coloured, about 3 -8 mm long, with black eyes and a digestive tract visible through its transparent body. They seemed fluffy to start with, but on closer inspection, are the same shape as shrimps. I was hoping they might be krill, but it transpires that krill are bigger and too smart to get caught in a net. Mary told the story of some people in the Arctic Circle who survived some weeks because they made amphipod soup. The only one to die was a fellow who was shot by the others for trying to take more than his fair share. Apparently, all these crustaceans have a common stage at the beginning of their life cycle. They are called nauplii, and have three pairs of legs and a medial eye. Everything from crayfish to crabs to these amphipods share this common stage; this makes scientists think that these creatures have developed from a common ancestor.
After lunch we did some fishing on the ice. Each of us sat by one of the holes we had drilled, and put down a fishing line on an ordinary reel. Michael managed to reel them in quite quickly. Although his were mostly Trematomus pinellii, there were sufficient Trematomus bernacchii to keep John happy. I only achieved one fish, and only one other bite in the four hours I was there. As we fished, John processed our catches. They were put into a bucket of seawater with a little anaesthetic in it, so that they would not be too traumatised by the experience. They were then weighed, measured and tagged. There was great rejoicing when Mike pulled up one that had been tagged last year.
Sitting on the ice for so long gave one the opportunity to contemplate several things about Antarctica. Its simplicity is something I love. My senses feel refreshed. There is so little to assault them. Under a vast, pale blue sky, there are only ice and snow and rock, only white and blue and grey, only seals and skuas and our one penguin. There is a wide and peaceful silence that is tranquil instead of intimidating. It is interrupted by the call of skuas and the crying or depth sounding of seals; the wind whistles when it blows. At home, look in front of you to see how many items are contained within your view, how many sounds are tumbling one on top of the other so that often, individual sounds are indistinguishable. Here, it is easy on the eyes and the mind. It is uncluttered. I don't carry keys or money. I am unavailable to the world. There are no demands except those of the climate and the projects. Of course, it is simplistic to believe all of this at face value. It has taken months of planning and thousands of dollars to achieve this simplicity. It will only last until the food runs out and the bad weather comes. However, in the meantime, it is indeed a pleasure for the senses.
Another fabulous day in Cape Roberts! I can hardly believe our luck with the weather. We have had clear, blue skies and sunshine and little wind for the entire time I have been here. I notice that in the wee hollow where our hut is, the snow has started to melt and for the first time, I am seeing water outside a building in Antarctica. Our faces are very burnt and peeling, and have an ugly dark yellow-brown tan across the middle between our goggles and the top of our balaclavas. Yeuch.
The days start slowly, as everything that we normally take for granted (hot water out of taps, a flush lavatory etc) takes much longer. Morning chores include emptying the various buckets, refuelling the skidoos, sweeping out the hut etc. This morning, Mary and I did another trip over to the foot of the Wilson Piedmont glacier to get more ice for water.
Fishing began after lunch again, and in 250 minutes, I caught two bernacchii for John to tag, and a little pinellii, as well as a monster Trematomus nicolai. However, the others have a greater rate of catching them, and Mary and Michael keep John busy in his lab tent, measuring and weighing.
The saga of the seal pup goes on. The little fellow who spent all day crying on the ice a few days ago, had his mother return, only to leave him again. He howled all day again yesterday and half the morning today. Happily, at lunchtime, there was a joyful reunion, when mother popped up out of the ice to give him suck. The only question is who is the other baby seal, and where is his mother? The other baby seal arrived yesterday and has kept company with the wee howler for a day. Now, he has been alone all afternoon on the ice while the cry-baby has been comforted.
Steak for dinner tonight. Yum.
Today started rather well. We listened to the radio 'scheds' at 8.30 and were told that a helo would be coming our way later today. If there was anything we wanted, we should let them know. Yes! We asked for fresh fruit and the mailbag, as well as a sieve for the grey water.
There was a lot of banter amongst the various 'events' out in the field as everyone joined in, marvelling at the terrific weather (Scott Base said it was minus 7.9 deg), and the paucity of penguins. I discovered that my recently discovered friend, Malcolm, was having a good time out at Cape Bird with the team of penguin people.
A possible reason for fewer penguins down at Cape Bird is the enormous iceberg (being called 'B15') jamming up the Ross Sea. B15 is about 100 km long and 30 km wide, stretching from Cape Crozier, past Beaufort Island and up near the Drygalski Glacier which 'flows' down into the Ross Sea. The effect is to minimise the gap through which the sea ice can flow. The ice therefore is jammed and unable to escape to the sea, so the Ross Sea is remaining frozen up. The penguins, instead of having to walk only a few km to their breeding places, (and swimming and eating along the way) have to walk for about 75 km, with nothing to eat. Only a few are making it, and one of the scientists, Kerry Barton (my room mate at Scott Base) says that there are only about half the breeding couples of the previous year (1403 this year).
Mary and I went off to collect ice, while Mike helped Jocasta erect her tent. Out there, we heard the whir of the helo and saw it approach and take off again. When we got to the hut, there was a wonderful bag of 'freshies': fresh kiwifruit, apples, pears, strawberries, and lo and behold, strawberries!!!
That afternoon, we had a taste of Antarctica. The wind came up and sitting at the fishing holes was rather a cold business. My hands lost feeling; however, it was easy enough to get it back by making them into fists inside my gloves, warming up my hands rather the way mittens work. I caught five bernacchii and one nicolai. The last hour or more of fishing was very unproductive, not one of us receiving a bite. At one stage, we heard a seal depth-sounding under one of the holes, and decided that the presence of the seal may well be the origin of our scarcity of fish. We packed up the lines, John processed the last fish caught, he and Michael reamed out the holes, and we went up for dinner. We were rather pleased that there was a good possibility that we might be able to join in the 9pm fun session on the radio tonight - we had been too late every other night. Apparently, someone at Cape Bird had started up a quiz.
Unfortunately, when we turned on the radio at 9pm, there was a message saying someone on one of the field events had received a private fax, and requested we all turn off our radios for five minutes so that it could be read to the intended recipient. When we turned them on again, everyone seemed to have tuned out for the night.
The bad news was that Jocasta's camera had refused to work for the past hour. She had tried the connections on the surface, but run out of ideas, and was waiting for Mike to come and help figure out what was wrong. While the asparagus cooked, Mike and Jocasta went off to pull up the underwater camera. They returned just before ten and spent the rest of the evening fiddling with bits of wire and soldering equipment.
The good news for Jocasta was that there was to be a helo arriving today with some geologists. They would be able to bring with them the piece of tubing that would, we all hoped, fix the problem with her camera.
The day had started beautifully. When I first got up at 5.30, I could actually feel the sun on my back as I scrunched my way to the lavatory. There was no wind, and, as usual, it was bright and cloudless. In the afternoon, we were relaxed by our fishing holes thinking that Antarctica was the best holiday resort in the world - there was no wind, and the sun was warm enough that we could fish with only thermal underwear and a fleece shirt on. (I did still have all the layers on my bottom half, just because taking them off over one's boots is such a chore). The scenery of course is always dramatically beautiful. It was bliss.
We finished up just after 8pm and went back for dinner - roast lamb that Jocasta had put on some time earlier.
The evening conversations are rather fun. We cover everything from CS Lewis to methods of taxonomy to the areas of specialty of my erudite expedition members (Mary is a world expert on sea cucumbers - sea cucumbers, of all things!). We did manage to join in the quiz this evening and raced off to an early lead, but failed to transmit our answers so that they could hear them on the last couple of questions, so lost out to a team up near the Taylor glacier. Darn!
Ooh! A wind blew up in the night and howled around the hut for several hours before we got up. When we radioed in for our 'sched' at 8.30, we said that all was well here, if rather colder and windier. Scott Base said it was the same there. Someone else radioed in from the field saying that it was very windy with them as well, and would the helos be flying? Scott base said that they would not be flying today, so far. About half an hour later, the snow started to fly in horizontally at an enormous speed. It began to look a bit grim. Well, Antarctic weather at last.
Somehow, everyone found something to do that required that they be in the hut that morning - writing up field notes, data collection, reading and doing dishes. Mary and I went out to get her plankton sample and found that, although it was a very cold wind, the ECWs were excellent protection. It had not snowed for a while, but the snow was flying in the wind, and was quite spectacular the way it flew down off the surface of the glacier, causing a cloud in front of the Trans-Antarctic Range.
Later in the afternoon, we braved the wind and went fishing. It was warm inside the huge heap of ECWs I was wearing, but after three hours, my feet were cold, as were my hands. I had caught only one bernacchii, which died because the water in my bucket kept freezing, and it ingested ice. However, when I wondered why I had had no bites for half an hour, I pulled up my line and found a brittle star attached. It had a round body a bit bigger than a 50 cent piece, and five long thin legs. I took it back to the hut at dinner time, as a gift for Mary, who has a passion for echinoderms! She was delighted and took photographs.
In place of being able to photograph her fish in their natural environment, Jocasta was to construct a replacement environment, so a chilly bin was set up, and she and Mike went fishing. They very quickly caught three bernacchii with different markings, and left them in the chilly bin overnight for acclimation.
Went to our spot at the base of the Wilson Piedmont Glacier, to collect the next couple of days' ice. It is always rather a pleasant trip, I think. In the interests of efficiency, when we delivered the ice to the hut, we also packed up a lunch and took it down to the lab tent. Mike was helping catch more fish for Jocasta as her pump had frozen up overnight and two of her fish had died.
An hour's fishing later, we decided it was time for lunch. A companionable meal was had by Mary, John and I in the yellow lab tent, where it was warm enough to sit. We had been watching the deep white cloud coming our way, and thinking that snow was due. When we emerged from the tent, it was indeed snowing very lightly. Part of me wanted it to keep snowing till we had a good couple of centimetres of it just because it's so pretty, but the other part of me realised that that would make the return journey even more hazardous than it already seemed to be, as we would not be able to see what we were sledging over.
There were not a lot of fish around and we were glad when 8pm came and we could slope off back up the hill to the hut for sweet and sour pork. Around the dinner table, we discussed the idea of touring to Granite House tomorrow. Granite House is a natural fissure in the granite, which is blocked by more granite at the South end and partially blocked at the other end. Around 1912 Griffith-Taylor's party covered it with seal skins and made it cosy and used it to cook in. It is about 20 km away, and would be a day's journey there and back. We planned the usual emergency kit that we would have to take - sleeping bags and mattresses, food and the primus stove, and a tent. We retired to bed, hoping the weather would be good.
The wind howled all night and it did not take long to realise that the trip to Granite Harbour would not be taking place. We decided to pack up today and contemplate the possibility of going to Granite Harbour tomorrow if the weather is good. If not, we could return early to Scott Base.
Mike and Jocasta worked on her fish and John fixed the sledges that had been damaged in the rough ice conditions of the last fortnight. Mary and I did the inventory in the hut and began to think about the journey home. We thought that it would be easier if there were only one sledge to unpack when we make camp along the way, so made a list of items we would need to go on the unpackable sledge.
We did another water run out to the glacier, so that the incomers would have water left here for them.
Jocasta had decided that it would be fun to go back on the helicopter that was to bring the Americans to the hut on Saturday, so went about arranging it with Scott Base. Plan C was arranged: if it is fine tomorrow, we'll go to Granite Harbour, and Jocasta would take the helo at 3.45, and we'll start the return to Scott base on Sunday. Plan D was that if the weather is bad tomorrow, the helo would be cancelled, we'd pack up, and attempt to leave either tomorrow afternoon, or Sunday morning.
The evening quiz was rather fun, especially as we won it easily. The interchange also informed us that the winds were 45 - 55 knots, and temperatures of -5C. This made the wind chill about minus 17 or 18C.
The morning weather was no improvement on yesterday. The morning 'sched' told us that it was Condition One at Scott Base - ooh! Snowing, little visibility, high winds, definitely not helo weather. We had some discussion about what would be the best course of action, given that Scott Base said that this weather was expected to continue until Tuesday. My inexpert feeling was that we should get under way today, as the weather is only going to get worse, and we'd be better to travel as far as possible while the weather out this way has good visibility, and there is no snow. Mike felt we should wait here, as we should not travel in bad weather. John in his wise and quiet way knew very well that the question was academic as we spent the rest of the day packing.
We did have another penguin moment. Another errant penguin had wandered our way. The general opinion was that it was not in good form and was likely to become skua food any time. This in fact came to pass and later in the day, we watched the skuas devouring the poor little penguin. They made short work of it, and in a few hours there were only bones and a few feathers left. A change of diet from the seal they'd been working away on all week, just a bit further out on the ice.
We spent much of the morning cleaning up, doing final packing of sledges and getting the grey water, the pee and pooh buckets emptied. After a final cup of tea, we gently eased the loaded sledges down the slope from the rocks where we'd been parking them as we travelled between the hut and the ice all week. Two things today made it all a bit more hazardous than it had been -the weight of the sledges when packed with our phenomenal amount of gear made them inclined to slide, and it was important that we stick very closely to the defined pathway, as to slide sideways meant going down an ice hole; the other thing was that the spring tides had flooded the transition between the land and the sea ice, making our snow soft and slushy, and widening the gap we had to take the skidoos and sledges over. We achieved the crossing by using two skidoos on each sledge - one towing from the front and one pulling and steadying from behind. We were rather pleased with our success.
A couple of hours into the journey, the weather cleared up and the sun shone, if weakly. The great thing is, though, that when the sun shines, there is much greater definition in the snow. When it is overcast, it is very difficult to make out contour, and therefore rather easy to hit a lump of snow and turn over the sledge. Even though he was going very slowly, Mike managed it once, but luckily Jocasta saw it coming, and at that low speed, could jump free, uninjured. There seemed plenty of snow and I began to feel that all my worries about the melting of the sea ice causing hazards were unfounded.
Early in the trip, seven snow petrels flew over us. Mary had pointed some out to me the day before. They are truly elegant birds - clean, bright white, and very streamlined. A serious contrast to the skuas we had had for company all around the hut all week. However, there is something a little ominous about the presence of snow petrels when you are about to undertake a two-day journey over sea ice. If these birds are here, it means the sea ice has opened sufficiently in places for them to feed. Great for the snow petrels, not so great if you want to get the load safely home. Mmmm. My nerves were a bit jangly.
Around 7pm, we stopped for a snack and a brief rest. (Not too long - the wind was too chilly for standing around!). We were astonished by the cheek of the skuas, who flew around us, hovering and gliding in the wind only a metre or so from us. We tested their experience by holding out a hand, and in they dived! Clearly these birds knew that people would give them food! Mike was intent on capturing this on film, and lay in the snow with his camera to his eye, waiting for his moment. He was so engrossed in his camera that he totally missed the skua that flew to the snow right next to his arm and flew off with the last of the salami roll!
At about an hour earlier, we had started to hit the broken up sea ice. There were dark patches indicating water underneath. There were surface melt pools which had refrozen and looked okay on top but had water under them. This was not the end of the world as John said the water would only be up to waist deep, but we did not fancy trying to tow a sledge or skidoo out of them. And of course there were the usual problems with wide cracks in the ice, going straight down to seal land; we had to follow the cracks along until they petered out, before continuing in the desired direction. It was very hard work concentrating on avoiding tipping the sledge, and we persisted until we reached Gneiss Point at about half past midnight. We set up camp, ate dinner and gloried in the fabulous scenery. We had parked next to a gorgeous iceberg. They always have pretty blue grottos, carved out by the wind. Beautiful. I took some photos at about 2am before snuggling into my bag.
Waking up next to an iceberg in the middle of Antarctica is something I hope I never forget. The peace, the brightness, its size, its hidden caverns, the sheer difference of it is magnificent! As each of us awoke, he or she quietly made a pilgrimage over the inevitable frozen pools and slippery bits to a spot to take a photo, to stand mesmerised or, rather more prosaically, to perform personal ablutions.
Mike had the primus going and breakfast was had by all, then tents were packed, and reloaded. We were off again. When we did our scheduled call to Scott Base at 8.30am, they insisted that as we were travelling on sea ice, we had to call them every hour. Michael commented sotto voce "A bit late now", and he was right - last night was the really tricky bit. There was more sea ice, but the nasty bits lasted only a couple of hours until we hit the 'road' near Marble Point. How you know it is a road is hard to explain. There are no white or yellow lines, no signposts and no friendly markers, not even a flat bit to drive upon. However, there are parallel tracks about 5 metres apart indicating that this has been achieved on purpose. Eventually, the road did have green flags at intervals of several kilometres, and it even flattened out a bit so that driving became very straightforward. There had been masses of snow since we came along this part nearly a fortnight ago, and everywhere was bright white (as opposed to the grey and greenish of the sea ice). In the lee of icebergs there would often be large drifts of snow, and the sledges would glide happily over the top of them, then bump horribly over the little ledge that inevitably ended them! Poor Mary was complaining with every justification about the roughness of the ride.
We drove for some happy hours between the glaciers and mountains of the Royal Society Range on one side and Mt Erebus on the other. It was breathtaking. About four or five hours before we actually got back to Scott Base, we could see the black cone of Observation Hill (which rises between Scott Base and McMurdo Station). It got larger and larger until we could make out the buildings of 'Mac Town'. My heart sank a little as we were about to re-enter the noise and busyness of life at the Base. (And people have the gall to call it 'civilisation'!! - Oh for the icebergs).
How do you describe the delights of one's first shower in two weeks? Suffice to say that I did indulge myself for a little longer than the three minutes insisted on at McMurdo Station!! Oooh, it was goooood!
It was elevenish by the time we ate dinner and the buzz was all about who would-be taking which flight and when. With the whiteout conditions they had had at Scott Base for several days, there had been no Hercules flying back to NZ for five days. There was, therefore, a backlog of frustrated potential escapees wondering if their number would be up soon, or whether they would be at Scott Base for Christmas. There was only one thing for sure - the flight scheduled for Wednesday when we should be on it, would definitely not have us on board. Oh well. We sloped off to bed - the sledges could be unpacked tomorrow.