Unsupported polar travel

Now that the busy summer season is over and we have a little breathing space, a few of us have been itching to get out and go on a walk somewhere. Our station leader, new on the scene, has told us to hold our horses! – we need to build up our SAR (search and rescue) capabilities first. This is a fair enough call, now the ship has taken away those quite useful machines known as helicopters, and with no sea ice the rocky terrain limits us to walking. I imagine that long distance stretcher carrying starts to lose its novelty after a while!

Unsupported polar travel: returning from our first winter trip in the Vestfolds

Unsupported polar travel: returning from our first winter trip in the Vestfolds

While I would never complain about taking a free helicopter flight, I do value the “walk-in”. Which reminds me of a trip a few years ago, when some Aussie mates wanted to climb (and fly off!) Mt Aspiring in New Zealand. While I still haven’t gotten a chance to get up that (3003 metre glaciated) bump, I do know the area very well, and with respect to mountains I found myself the most experienced in our group of three. My companions were loaded up with heavy rock, ice, and snow gear for every possible scenario, plus we had several wings between us. The younger one (Josh) was jumping out of his boots keen and the older one (Peter) was experienced enough to know that the walk in would probably hurt!

Looking back down French ridge at dawn, enroute to Mt Aspiring

Looking back down French ridge at dawn, enroute to Mt Aspiring, New Zealand

Peter had the initial idea of climbing Aspiring, with a couple of previous attempts hardening his resolve. Josh had his usual irrepressible energy… a few weeks later he noted that he was happily surprised that we’d been able to keep up with him, it’s apparently an unusual thing for him to not exhaust his companions. As an example, he would be dozing in the back of the van until he realised we’d started going downhill, when he’d spring into life and want to fly down! With two guys absolutely set on this Aspiring mission, I was happy to note that the weather forecast backed my recommended course of action. What better way to pass a couple of days of rain than to walk up valley and climb through the bush to the hut enroute to our mountain?

Josh, Peter, and me on the Quarterdeck, Mt Aspiring behind

Josh, Peter, and me on the Quarterdeck, Mt Aspiring behind

I just didn’t think exiting a helicopter in the middle of a glacier neve’ with bags of heavy equipment was a good idea. With the access march we would get to know each other better, develop systems for keeping warm, dry, fed, and being organised with gear, develop an appreciation for our level of fitness, estimating distances, times and monitoring energy levels, understand the geography and realise where we were, and sharpen our navigation skills (Josh amused me by thinking anything with snow on top had to be Aspiring… a little like the Marmolada on our X-Alps road trip). Of course it is also a beautiful walk in its own right, and I always appreciate mountain views more as I build up a better appreciation of what I’m looking at – getting to know an area is a rewarding process.

* * *

On that note, whilst wintering here at Davis station I hope to explore every nook and cranny of the Vestfold hills, and get to know the place. This first trip, on the last weekend of summer (23-24 Feb) would take us to Watts hut. I have been there before, but it was a helicopter drop off, and we returned via the sea ice in Ellis Fiord. Therefore this trip was over new terrain for me – walking out via the standard Portals route, and returning with a dog leg towards Brookes hut, joining that route back from Deep Lake. While I have just expounded the value of walking in, following a road offers little value for me so we were all happy to do the first few kilometres in a ute – our station leader Jason dropped us off.

Our route this trip (red) and December's survival training (yellow)

Our route this trip (red) and last December (yellow)

Each of us had our mandatory survival kit in our backpacks. This includes warm and windproof clothing including spare layers, a sleeping bag and bivouac sack with a foam mat, sunglasses and goggles, whistle, signal mirror, compass, and maps. We brought dry food and plenty of water, although both are available at the hut. Perhaps not pertinent to late summer we had a throwbag (for pulling your mate who’s fallen through sea ice), and ice axe and crampons. As a group we had to carry VHF radios, GPS with local waypoints, a PLB (emergency satellite beacon), first aid kit, pee bottles and poo bags, and a Carbon Monoxide detector for the hut. All this is detailed in the AAD field manual (which we have to carry as well!), which is actually quite a good little handbook. I may have complained about the weight of all this gear they’ve issued us, but to their credit, they do, on page 10, say to “consider taking appropriate personal.. clothing as well”! For me my goose down vest comes into its own, offering a lot of bang for buck as far as warmth to weight goes.

Checking the route to the Portals; Lake Dingle and the icebergs in the bay behind

Checking the route to the Portals; Lake Dingle and the icebergs in the bay behind

In the days leading up to the walk, I had a little organising to do with the party. Tim has wintered previously and has trip leader status, but he was happy for me to do the groundwork in organising the troops, gear, and plan the finer details. Among these arrangements, one I was keen to get right (as the met representative) was the weather. I’m normally much happier to be underway early in the morning, so as to have a few hours up our sleeve, but with the weather forecast I was happy to opt for a 10am depart. This was timed so the completely overcast morning bank of stratocumulus would start breaking up and clear as we embarked. The remainder of the day saw easterly katabatic winds drop off progressively, as low and mid level cloud became scattered and offered great photo opportunities. Just like our last trip to Watts hut, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the iridescence in the clouds, quite spectacular.

Iridescence. And the Vestfold hills looking deceptively mountainous

Iridescence. And the Vestfold hills looking deceptively mountainous

Navigation is always interesting in the Vestfolds, as the lumps and bumps are so small and the map contours cannot really capture the subtlety of the features. As usual the rule is to cross check your reckoning with as many references as possible, getting a feel for the area rather than giving in to using GPS. The route through the Portals was a fast going valley and we found ourselves at Scale Lake for lunch. While it was very pleasant walking, just a light breeze and sunshine, when we stopped a cloud put itself in an inconvenient position in front of the sun and it was cold – after a bit to eat we carried the packs half way up Jackson hill, which helped us warm back up.

Looking across Ellis fiord towards Watts hut and the Sorsdal glacier from Jackson hill

Looking across Ellis fiord towards Watts hut and the Sorsdal glacier from Jackson hill

We saw that the remainder of the route to Watts was through a jumble of hillocks. Following valley features east we made great progress – albeit not in the right direction. Eventually we had to push over some hills before following the bank of Ellis fiord to the hut. The last few hours of the day, being slower going, were quite tiring. We had to be mindful of the serious consequences of a rolled ankle in this awkward rocky terrain so far from a doctor. Except for the fact that we had our station doctor with us – Mal did really well and was a great companion, despite his obvious weariness, no doubt attributable partly to his steel cap work boots requiring some extra effort to walk in. He surprised us at the hut by presenting a cheese platter complete with a bottle of red wine he had carried.

New ice forming on a sheltered inlet of Ellis fiord

New ice forming on a sheltered inlet of Ellis fiord

Frozen lumps locked in new ice

Frozen lumps locked in new ice

Frozen spray from the blow the day before our walk

Frozen spray from the blow the day before our walk

Petrified seaweed - the fiord used to extend here

Petrified seaweed – the fiord used to extend here

Keith, Tim, and myself are probably the three biggest eaters on station, but there was more sleeping than eating on the menu that evening at Watts hut. Everyone was content but quite exhausted. We decided to stick with our (slightly longer) variant return route though as we would be fresh in the morning. We confirmed this at the 1900hrs radio sched with Mark on station before he went off for Indian curry night – we were satiated with a more modest cup-o-soup and noodles.

Watts hut - the 20kt breeze direct from the ice plateau changed my mind about a departure group photo

Watts hut – the 20kt breeze direct from the ice plateau changed my mind about a departure group photo

The next morning was cloudless, and cold – wandering down to the fiord you could hear the creaking of the ice as the tide went out underneath it. Since we were all up early we left the hut at 8:30am. I wore shorts, knowing that I’d have to endure a chilly katabatic breeze while crossing the fiord, but once in the hilly country we’d be in sheltered terrain. This trick worked a treat and the rest of the day I was very comfortable in full sun and calm or light air.

Leaving Watts hut (shown) - note the old waterline on Watts lake, formerly part of the fiord

Leaving Watts hut (shown) – note the old waterline on Watts lake, formerly part of the fiord

The basic idea behind the geography of the Vestfold hills is that it is slowly rising up, over say 10,000 years or so, as the weight of ice sheets has been removed. This means some lakes, such as Watts lake by the hut, have been cut off from the fiord. Watts lake has been progressively diluted by snow melt and is now one tenth as salty as sea water. Deep lake, where we passed by before lunch, has become more salty over the years due to evaporation. It is now so salty (10 times that of sea water) that it never freezes, even in mid winter, and the surface is 51 metres below sea level. Swimming is not recommended!

Traversing high ground on the south shore of Deep Lake

Traversing high ground on the south shore of Deep Lake

Deep Lake: don't drink the water!

Deep Lake: don’t drink the water!

Once at Deep lake the going was straight forward as we joined the standard route to Brookes hut, along the shores of Lake Stinear and Dingle Lake. These lakes are also hypersaline, and looking at the map you can see that this series of lakes has been formed by a fiord which has been completely cut off from the ocean as the Vestfold hills have risen up. This was named by the Russians and known as Death Valley for many years.

I didn't know the Incas visited Antarctica!?

I didn’t know the Incas visited Antarctica!?

With the superb weather, great company, and avoidance of technical terrain, it was a straight forward trip which did not require a lot of problem solving or “adventure”, so to speak. This is certainly not a bad thing though.

Many of my paraglider mates have asked if I brought my wing down. Besides the fact that it is explicitly banned in the AAD field recreation policy, there are also the practical considerations – Antarctica is cold, windy, flat, and stable. Although the Vestfold convergence common in early summer indicates convective lift, the hills are low and basically indistinguishable and nothing I’ve seen looks promising as a soarable launch. Generally the terrain isn’t the most friendly for landing or kiting a wing.. in fact it reminds me of trying to find a place to fly in Newfoundland, a low undulating place frequented by awful weather. You tend to spend a lot of time chasing your tail, in the unlikely expectation that several variables will line up and make a flight possible – so in that respect, it is nice to not have to worry about it at all and just enjoy the walk.

The placid shores of Lake Dingle

The placid shores of Lake Dingle

After a second afternoon of walking (around six hours each day), we were tired and it felt good to get back to the road. For the first time the others weren’t in a hurry to push on and I could have a good lay down, at least until Jason turned up with the ute!

Looking back along the lakes route to the ice plateau, from Dingle road

Looking back along the lakes route to the ice plateau, from Dingle road

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