As wintering expeditioners (yes, sounds serious and perhaps over the top, but that’s what they call us) we do a three day field training course with an FTO (field training officer). Since this season is short and we are already late it was a bit tricky to coordinate things so the sea ice was, er, still there. Of the three groups, the first was dropped off at Bandits hut and spent their first day trying to get away – the tide crack around the island had opened up leaving them more or less stranded. But they eventually managed to get in a good trip. The second group reportedly spent most of their time pushing quad bikes through soft snow. Our group was the third and final group, and we were told that it was looking like quad bikes were out and we’d be walking.
In the end our morning departure turned into a 1 or 2pm flight out to the end of Trajer ridge, where the Vestfold hills meet the ice plateau. First we set up our accommodation, erecting simple Polar Pyramid tents of proven design, and making a table out of sun softened snow. Then, after going through our kit, we saddled up on the quad bikes and took them for a spin. Partly to familiarise with the bikes (I almost forgot where the accelerator was, the training course in Tassie was quite a while ago now!), and partly to assess whether maybe the snow / ice condition was ok for travel after all. We went through our kit, and refuelled the bikes with absorbent pads at the ready in case of spills. There is an effort made to reduce our impact – we know not to use our orange water bottles for anything but urine, which gets brought back to station or dumped in a tide crack.
Later Jeff the (diesel mechanic) chef cooked us a feed. Reheating sealed plastic cryo-vac bags of a meaty stew, chops, and ravioli – a mans way of cooking. Meanwhile the layer of stratocumulus that had made things look pretty gloomy back at Davis earlier in the morning had little effect on us and we enjoyed an evening stroll, exploring a wind scour. Lots of water from solar melt pours over the top of the ice plateau, in fact in the afternoon a gushing increase in flow (caused by a snow dam breaking upstream?) caused a little excitement. Also sun and wind around the rocks assists to make these moat surrounded cliffs.
During our 1700 radio sked (scheduled call) back to base, our FTO proffered our intentions to the station leader. We would leave very early on the quads, following the ice plateau waypoints before cutting due west and descending off route to Platcha hut. Normally the route goes the long way around via the sea ice, but this is no longer possible due to the seasonal melt. Our FTO also mentioned the gushing surface water in his sched, “right, sounds dangerous, back to base” our station leader quipped – er, no, um we’re ok thanks!
Some of us slept better in the tents than others, but the next morning I called out “it’s 4am and the sky is clear”. This wasn’t my idea to get up this early, but I played along with it anyway. Although my surprised reaction at the agreed (?) starting time was interpreted as protest by some, I really don’t mind getting up early when you can share the pleasure with others! While the sun never set, it did disappear behind the hill for a while. This meant the soft afternoon snow had now frozen rock solid. My fairly new semi-rigid leather mountaineering boots came in handy to kick the “concrete” off the tent flaps so we could pack up and get going. In an hour camp was packed and we set ourselves up on the quads before departing around 6am.
With a firm frozen surface we made fast time up to the ice plateau. Antarctic climate is dominated by winds. High pressure systems with their dry descending air over the continent are reinforced with katabatic wind effects due to the local terrain. Katabatic winds are those that result when shady ground produces a colder denser layer of air that, being heavier, flows down hill. As these winds flow from the higher parts of the ice plateau to the coast, they tend to get deflected to the left due to the Coriolis effect. The result for us was a rather chilly northeasterly wind, evident at 2am but thankfully absent when we packed our camp, it was well and truly back again when we stopped high on the ice plateau to make a radio sked at 0700. We agreed that it was the first time so far that we’d felt the cold we might expect from Antarctica. I suggested we try the quad bivvy.
The quad bivvy is a windproof cocoon without poles or a base that you simply climb up into – half a dozen can lean outwards and well, get cosy. It is simple and effective. For the rest of our traverse any time we wanted to stop for more than 5 minutes we would get the bivvy and jump straight in. For a shorter stop we would just pull up the quad bikes alongside. As we left the waypoint route and descended toward Platcha hut we stopped more often, viewing the route ahead and negotiating the wetter boggy sections of the ice, where slight depressions attract surface water that hadn’t quite frozen solid again. We did break through the surface by half a foot or more in places but managed to power on through without getting wet or bogged.
Without too much trouble we arrived at Platcha hut and established ourselves there with packed lunch and a hot brew. Platcha hut was established in the 1960’s to make meteorological observations of hydraulic jump phenomena with katabatic winds. There was also some information displayed there about observing nacreous and noctilucent clouds.
We did a ice axe self arrest drill on a nearby slope, now soft again in the full midday sun. Meanwhile I’d been looking at the map – and decided that Stalker hill was the best viewpoint in our vicinity. At 144 metres it is one of the highest points in the Vestfold hills! It was still cold in the wind but the sky was perfectly clear and it would have been a shame to stay in the hut for the rest of the day. Myself and the Simon’s set off for a few hours round trip.
Out of the wind it was hot in the sun, but as we climbed up the ridge towards Stalker hill we felt the windchill again. It was blowing around 30 knots plus gusts on the summit, and snow petrels were darting back and forth in the leeside of the hill. They must enjoy testing their reaction times. The Simon’s struggled hold the pages of the summit log book together in the wind, noting that this place is less frequently visited than Everest. That’s true folks, but to be fair, Mt Everest is 8704 metres higher!
Back at Platcha we were pretty happy with a relatively early night, with another early start planned. We would ride the quad bikes back to the original gear cache at Trajer ridge, departing at a slightly more leisurely 6am. We were given instructions to rise at such a time as to suit our own pace of getting ready, and again eyes were on me to not be last! What? No, you must be thinking of someone else, I never keep anyone waiting! In the end I trailed by a few steps as we departed but to be fair we were six minutes ahead of our agreed 6am departure!
It was another great day, this time the wind wasn’t so strong. We returned to Trajer ridge without incident and spent a few hours lazing around the rocks, hiding from the breeze, before being choppered back to Davis for Christmas Eve festivities. What a way to travel.