Last sunshine (Platcha hut trip)

If I remember correctly, my next post was going to be about how we are all slowly (or not so slowly) going nuts, isolated in the confines of a winterised Antarctic station. Well thankfully such an eventuality (along with associated blog post) has been put on hold (for now at least) by a much appreciated trip off station in the last couple of days before our final winter sunset. Our resident comms ninja Rich left Mark at the helm (ever vigilantly monitoring the radio for our witty and hopefully somewhat informative transmissions) to lead a party of four into the wilderness that is Platcha hut (and surrounds). With us was Paul the musician slash plumber and Bob the avid collector of nicknames who I shall simply refer to as the crazy scientist.

Navigating ice rafting not far from Davis, taken at solar noon, 1 June 2013

Navigating ice rafting not far from Davis, taken at solar noon, 1 June 2013

Our three day trip included several walks but was based around quad bikes, a sensational way to get around and explore now that the sea ice has finally been opened for travel.

Our departure from Davis was delayed somewhat by some engineering black magic on the helmet visor heaters and general faffing about after a hearty bacon and eggs breakfast and packing enough food for a small army. Nevertheless we made time to make a couple of sightseeing stops on the way to Platcha hut. First we had a quick look at the Ace lake “apple” (a fibreglass dome with two beds inside). And then we parked the quads by a lump known as Lied Bluff, which we walked up (most of the way) for a great view of the surrounding Vestfold hills.

Heading up towards Lied bluff (spot the ninja)

Heading up towards Lied bluff (spot the ninja)

Nearing Platcha hut I found a gap in the snowdrift with my right quad wheels. All I needed was a simple push of assistance but it seems my bystanders were far more interested in taking photos! A little further on we found a good example of why travel in poor visibility or poor surface definition conditions can be a very bad idea.

Visibility during our trip was great, although the gopro struggled with the winter afternoon light

Visibility during our trip was great, although the gopro struggled with the winter afternoon light

We spent the night at Platcha hut, a small and very cosy hut and a great place to play five hundred (cards) and drink Pernod (although Rich mightn’t agree about the Pernod).

The next day in the late morning I fired up the quads, using the pull start to see how they fared after a night of minus twenty five celcius or so. They did very well, needing only a few pulls (and the next day after an hours walk I started mine on the first pull. Just saying). To shorten our day walk we parked our quads on a frozen inlet near the snow bridge and walked the second half of the route to Stalker hill. A fantastic viewpoint, and we summitted on solar noon to catch some sun. Only the tip brushed over the horizon, and now we won’t see it again until about 9th July.

[PS: At solar noon on the 4th of June, before I managed to hit the “Publish” button, I did see the sun again, albeit briefly. We weren’t supposed to see it! I blame refraction.]

Watching our last sunset (2 June) on Stalker hill

Watching our last sunset (2 June) on Stalker hill

Despite the brisk northeasterly breeze on the summit we were so impressed that we spent a good twenty minutes or so taking photos, filling out the summit log book, soaking up views and glorious, glorious sunshine. We also looked back the way we had come and planned an alternate route back, via Lake Bisernoye.

Northern tip of Lake Zvezda from Stalker hill, ice plateau in the distance.

Northern tip of Lake Zvezda from Stalker hill, ice plateau in the distance.

These fresh water lakes are one of the features of the Vestfold hills and certainly captured my attention.

Ice cracks and bubbles in Lake Bisernoye

Ice cracks and bubbles in Lake Bisernoye

Sometimes you can see cracks to a depth of a few metres. Often there is no gap, other times powder snow fills them up. Bubbles form in a vertical alignment, apparently due to a biological process releasing gases from the lake floor (maybe??), presumably trapped on the lower surface as the ice freezes (top down). They often make walls of bubbles, sometimes in the distinct shape of a rock, and sometimes in perfectly straight lines metres long.

Looking back to Stalker hill from Lake Bisernoye

Looking back to Stalker hill from Lake Bisernoye

Most ice is perfectly smooth, although the Sorel boots have great grip (my first use was this trip). But other sections are rippled, the proffered explanation of “wind” leaves me rather perplexed and I definitely want to spend more time here as so far more questions have been raised than answers.

Aurora australis at Platcha hut (evening of 2 June)

Aurora australis at Platcha hut (evening of 2 June)

We spent a second night at Platcha hut, each somehow finishing an enormous serve of rice / lamb / chorizo, vacuum packed by our artisan chef back at Davis. After dinner during my trip to the outhouse to deliver a swift-to-be-frozen turd or three I noted an impressive aurora and we subsequently got to work with the cameras.

The timing was pretty good, as within an hour a strong wind arrived and soon blowing snow reduced visibility to under five hundred metres. This was evidently a very local wind, not observed at Davis (a maximum gust for the day of 16 knots) and not enough at nearby Whoop Whoop to fire up the (solar / wind powered) weather station. Where we were it would have been gale force at least. I must remember not to look upwind without snow goggles next time!

Another very late winter sleep in (especially for a Monday morning) followed. We spent some time packing our gear on the quads and cleaning the hut before departing some time after 1pm.

Dwarfed by the landscape - ice plateau cliffs near Platcha hut

Dwarfed by the landscape – ice plateau cliffs near Platcha hut

We did some sight seeing of the amazing ice cliffs marking the edge of the ice plateau. A decade or so in the past there was a route onto the ice plateau from near Platcha hut but this has since become impassable and the route now lies quite some distance to the north.

Steep bluffs on the northern side of Long Fiord

Steep bluffs on the northern side of Long Fiord

One other feature of the Vestfold hills is the cliffs, generally south facing due to the grain of the rocks. Many of the nice little miniature valleys we walk down have alluvial rocks making a nice flat bed, formed with tide action as far as I can tell, backfilling the steep cliffs to make us a convenient platform to walk on. They are now above sea level since the Vestfolds have bounced back after the weight of the ice sheet has been removed – this is why many of the old fiords have now become isolated lakes.

The final descent to Deep lake, 51 metres below sea level

The final descent to Deep lake, 51 metres below sea level

Speaking of isolated lakes, one of Rich’s jobs is to do a monthly check of the level of Deep lake. This lake has been steadily evaporating since it was cut off from the ocean and is now ten times as salty as sea water. It was a beautiful place to sit and enjoy the pastel colours, away from the fiords the wind was almost calm. But we were running out of light so we had to keep moving and return to Davis.

Right when my hands were the coldest they’d been all trip (I’d accidentally turned off the hand heaters on the quad bike), I saw my first polar stratospheric cloud. With my tripod strapped on the front I volunteered to take a photo, my little effort for science (these clouds are quite rare). Since they are much higher than other clouds (even cirrus) they stay illuminated much later into the evening, which can run for quite some time at these latitudes. Of course, the next day I saw much better examples of these clouds and even managed to get the focus right that time!

Polar stratospheric clouds

Polar stratospheric clouds

My hands almost stopped working but I took as many photos as I could and then saddled up again – but had to ask Bob to secure my helmet chin strap as my fingers had had enough! We continued back and soon enough we arrived at Davis. The stars had come out by the time we’d refuelled and put the bikes away but we even had time for a hot shower before dinner. I can’t wait to get out again…

Rich used his ninja skills to produce this map of our trip

Rich used his ninja skills to produce this map of our trip

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