May - Sledge Oscar
BAS are one of the few, if not the only, Antarctic operators to offer their employees the opportunity to go out into the field during the winter to experience the ‘real’ Antarctic, up close and personal. These excursions are known as winter trips and not only are a welcome break from the day to day life of the base but provide excellent training for all wintering personal. Each winterer is given the chance to go on two six-day winter trips, one before and one after midwinter. In order to go on a winter trip, you need a winterer, which in this case was me, Ian Heffernan, boatman and all round nice guy. You also need a field assistant, which was Rich Burt, outdoor mountaineer type, helper, and a dab hand at rustling up fantastic first class gourmet delicacies out of freeze dried stuff on that well-known culinary bit of kit: the primus stove.
Our trip started in slightly dubious weather on Friday the 9th of May. An intensive refresher-training day preceded this. Training involved learning all about link travel with skidoos. Rich and I burned around the Local Travel Area with a pair of skidoos and a sledge all connected with some fairly substantial rope. The idea of this being that if Rich, out infront, should go plummeting down a crevasse then I would be able to stop and laugh at him – in safety – before giving him a hand out of the offending hole. Having completed this, we then moved on to a form of mountaineering origami, involving ropes and harnesses. This again is much the same idea as the link travel, if Rich disappears off the side of some mountain I should be quite capable of safely rescuing him but not, of course, before I got a few choice photographs with which to bring ridicule and despair down on him from his fellow field GA’s. Fortunately I never got the chance to practice any of these skills for real.
The first day was a bit of a nightmare. There was lots and lots of soft snow about, which proved to be a real pain for the poor, struggling doos. It wasn’t much of a laugh for the poor travellers either. We kept having to dig the doos out and work up a sweat, which is not the kind of thing one expects on the first day of one’s holiday. A bit of perseverance and experience on the behalf of Rich and a lot of sitting on my arse thinking 'oh no, not again' on my behalf eventually saw us past Trident, through McCallum's and the dreaded (cue scary music) Shambles Glacier and on into the much more forgiving snow on the far side of Adelaide island.
Rich assured me the views were stunning, I had to take his word for it because I couldn’t see a thing, low cloud and the infamous Antarctic mank lay a nice thick blanket over everything. Not to fear though, Rich had been down this neck of the woods before and besides some odd driving when he was trying to look at map, compass, GPS and the way ahead all at the same, we made it safe and sound to the foot of “The Myth”. It took us all day because we kept stopping every so often to wait for a bits of low cloud to get out of our way but just as the light was fading on the first day we had our tent up and Rich was busy making sure everything was secure outside while I fought with the groundsheet, sleeping bags, boxes, food, radio and other assorted bits of klatch that live inside the tent.
The next morning was absolutely stunning, words could never do justice to the view I was treated to when I stuck my head out the door so I won’t even try to describe it; you’ll just have to take my word for it. Rich, being a keen bean, kicked me out of bed before it was bright, determined to make the most of the day. I must admit that my breath was taken away as I stood outside answering the morning call of nature. The sky was still a blanket of stars but there was enough light coming from the rising sun in the east to silhouette the mountains with a striking blue border.
It wasn' t long before Rich and I were slogging our way up one of those very mountains. It was tough enough going but the views more than made up for it, to top it all off we were the first people this season to reach the summit of the Myth! I'll never forget the sight from the top with Adelaide Island spread out before us, a blue sky above us and the sun just creeping around the mountains to the north. It didn’t take us long to reach top and was even quicker to come back down – helped by me slipping twice. First slip was right at the very top, just remember Rich saying 'you want to be careful thhhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeer' Didn't go anywhere as my fearless GA was hanging on to me via a bit of rope, handy that. Next fall was on the completely flat - too busy looking at the stunning scenery and got my crampons all mixed up in each other,
It was such a good day that, once we were off the mountain, we had a quick bit of lunch and headed off to the Chilean base 'Carvajal' on the Southern tip of the island. This used to be an old BAS base before they moved up to the posh base at Rothera. Fantastic to see the old base but makes you appreciate how good we have it at Rothera. Carvajal isn't used much anymore, and only as a summer only place so when we were there, there were only fur seals for company but hundreds of them.
Rich somehow managed to out-do last night's chapattis and chilli with a fantastic tuna and olive quiche. How he managed it on a one-burner kero stove is beyond me but it tasted great. A quiet night was followed by a quiet Sunday morning. We considered popping out for the papers but the weather was after taking a turn for the worse. Much book reading and cooking ensued followed by an afternoon ski to work up and appetite. The weather went from bad to worse on our small sojourn so we beat a hasty retreat to the tent. Great experience being out there in bad weather - now I have some idea how Scott or Amundson must have felt battling away to the pole, absolutely crazy fools.
A seriously windy night followed but the midnight feast of locally made steamed pudding helped me nod off despite the fact that it was like being inside a drum with the howling winds crashing into us. Not exactly the best nights sleep ever but Rich never uttered a word so I assumed everything was just fine. It wasn’t until the morning when he casually remarked that it was probably the windiest that he had ever been out camping in Antarctica that I realized that the weather was now utter pants. So on Monday, discretion got the better part of valour, and we opted to stay in the warm cosy tent reading books. Turned out to be a most enjoyable and relaxing day.
Wish I could say the same for Tuesday. Reasonable winds and a hint of a clear sky had Rich kicking me out of bed early to begin the awful digging out operation. We were going to make a break for it, don't let this conjure up images of leaping onto the skidoos and high-tailing it out of there. Three hours of heart breaking digging followed to free the tent and the skidoos from the mounds of snow that had built up around us in the blow. Eventually we got under way. The Weather Gods must have taken pity on me because the sky cleared and the going was good. I even got to see more of this fantastic scenery Rich had promised on the way down. The next couple of hours passed without a care in world completely absorbed in the stunning views all round me, before I knew it we were back through the Shambles and McCallum's pass.
John Withers, the dive officer was camped at the bottom of Trident with Ed McGough another field assistant. We stopped in briefly to say hello but after the soul destroying digging out session earlier in the day there wasn’t a hope in hell I was going through the whole putting up a tent operation just to take it down the next day, we waved goodbye to John and Ed and headed for the caboose at Vals. A fine night was spent there in the comfort of the caboose, not quite back home yet but far enough removed to be still on my holidays! Here Rich pulled of a culinary coup by using up loads of the old powdered milk, sugar and camping butter to make the biggest mound of fudge you have ever seen. We had all sorts, from coffee flavour to strawberry flavour, and it is addictively good.
The last day of my trip was spent tackling a peak known as Orca. It's a bit smaller than the Myth but more technically challenging. My lack of mountaineering experience and increasing winds meant that we had to take our hats off to Orca about two thirds of the way to the top, I’ll have to wait for a finer day to take that one on again. Superb views and some sheer drops ensured a fantastic, if a little scary at times day ended my winter trip in fine style. Big thanks to Rich B my field GA.
Ian Heffernan - Rothera Boatman
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'A trip to the very borders of insanity '
The cold air had our breath streaming from our mouths in great plumes but rather than being two, slightly demented, dragons we modelled ourselves more on St. George.
In the half light of an Antarctic predawn we mounted our trusty steeds, two snowmobiles lovingly prepared by Chrissy J and Iain. Towing all that we would require for our week long trip, plus an extra sledge loaded with reserve kit, we departed Rothera.
The team comprised of Baz Freeman (known as Paul to his dear Mother), generator mechanic of some extraordinariness, and myself, humble Field Assistant and old (some would say ancient) hand, Dave Routledge.
In a winter of mixed weather we were blessed with a week of fine weather, which was just as well, the days are short at this time of year. An hour’s driving brought us to the encampment of Sledges Papa and Quebec, where Baz was able to cast a magic spell on one of their ailing snowmobiles. Where once there had been darkness and despair he brought forth light and happiness. I wiped away a tear as we departed our companion’s camp.
Our destination lay across the aptly named Shambles Glacier and a further three hours of travelling brought us to a campsite under Snake Ridge, an elegant ribbon of rock which runs its way up the shapely peak of Mt. Bouvier.
Over the following few days we had excursions to a col between Mts. Reeves and Bouvier, a drive to the top of The Wall and a day climbing the lower half of Snake Ridge.
All these took place in a magical landscape lit by a sun barely above the horizon. There are not adjectives powerful enough to describe the sublime magnificence of the scenery. The wonder of this landscape would have brought tears to the eyes of the most jaded cynic.
Not only were the precipitous peaks being picked out in all their glory but even areas of relatively flat ice piedmont, being lit in such a subtle way, now took on a different form. The windblown snow, formed into sastrugi and barcans, produced a pattern that inspired that sense of awe one might experience standing, alone, in front of ones favourite painting. A huge sense of calm and 'rightness' descended on us. The landscape was part of us; and we were part of it.
At the end of our week our return to base was a mixture of emotions. We were glad to be returning to the warmth and friendliness of our companions but this feeling was tinged with the sadness of leaving behind something that had profoundly moved us. It had been a great privilege.
Dave Routledge - Field Assistant
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