It was dark outside Davis living quarters on Sunday morning as we made the final preparations for departure on our traverse to the Rauer island group. A small handful of dedicated fellow expeditioners had gathered to send us off, somehow making things seem serious. We are only going for five days, right? Nevertheless the six of us, three in each vehicle, were going to have to be completely sufficient for our trip as we would be too far away from the skeleton crew left at station for them to be of any help. This trip was in many ways the climax of the winter season. My best day of the Antarctic experience was the helicopter trip to the Rauer islands in the summer. This Rauers traverse trip was to be the best week.
The Vestfold hills is naturally bound by sea ice to the west and north, the ice plateau to the east, and the Sorsdal glacier to the south. The Rauer’s by air is close but the route by Hagglund is comically indirect. We cannot drive straight there as the sea ice in front of the glacier is never fast ice for long – not to mention the hazard of icebergs calving from the glacier. The access routes to the ice plateau are at the north end of the Vestfolds and the south end of the Rauers which seals the deal on a long overland trip.
Sunrise saw us on the ice plateau. Most of the time we were only about a thousand feet above sea level, but with the rocks of the Vestfolds and Rauers far below us our views were as if from the sky. There is a surprising amount of variety in the ice sheet, although most of it was blue ice with some wind blown humps of hard packed snow sitting on top. Only a week before our trip a strong and prolonged blizzard added to the mountains of snow around Davis, left the ice plateau squeaky clean, and sent much of the outlying sea ice on its way.
It was an amazing thing to see the grease ice form before our eyes, something which is surely rarely witnessed – the next day it had settled into a placid unmoving slick.
The lack of snow meant it was possible to pick our route over the crevasse fields without needing to get out and probe for Hagg track swallowing slots whilst roped up. We followed the old route, marked occasionally by 44 gallon drums which had cemented themselves in the blue ice and were slowly being carried off downhill.
There was a brisk breeze blowing a consistent 20 knots which is to be expected at the best of times on the plateau. The gorgeous sun brought out a crystal like sparkle in the ice and encouraged us to jump out and enjoy the view from time to time. But mostly it was like a long road trip with a solid twelve hour drive.
In contrast to the Vestfolds which is mostly rock with lakes and fiords, the Rauers is mostly smooth, flat, sea ice with some rocky islands. The last few kilometres to Filla hut were a fleeting pleasure.
The main hut is located on nearby Hop island but it was impossible to access without driving over rocks as the sea ice on the ocean side of Hop was no longer there. Filla hut is in a fantastic spot though and while it has only two beds, with the Rinit van (2+2 bunks) and beautiful weather we made it our base for the trip. I even slept in my bivvy bag (which I’ve been meaning to field trial) with the AAD (One Planet) double layer winter sleeping bag and my eXped inflatable. The weather was so good that we sat out on the ice until late, Aussie barbecue style.
The next morning our first mission (after bacon breakfast) was to establish the route – or note the lack thereof – to Hop island hut. We parked at the end of a valley and walked up. It would be a comfy place to spend a few days but with our great weather we had no need to cart our gear here. We took our time to take in the views as we walked back along the coast.
Next we drove east and north towards the Sorsdal glacier for an iceberg tour.
Using all the daylight at our disposal, we returned at 8:30pm for radio sched, beers and a brew. One trick to note is that food – particularly cheese – is quite tasteless when cold. Having said that, the Annie’s Lane Shiraz still tastes damn good even as it gets mushy in the bottle.
The next morning we had another breakfast walk followed by a Hagglund mission, this time to get a closer look at the glaciers to the south. There was plenty of time for posing.
Undue popularity was given to the first Weddell seal we spotted, but of course the more we saw the less we photographed.
With weather this good I didn’t have to work very hard to convince everyone to come for a walk up Torckler island. Very pleasant indeed.
Before sunset we visited another tide crack complete with Weddell seals. Listening carefully we heard their sonar like calls reverberate from under the ice – a special moment.
Given the weather window we’d been gifted we’d decided not to push our luck with a third day in the Rauers. Therefore it was another full day of sightseeing before we returned to Filla. I agreed to rise in the morning if they changed the rooster call to a kookaburra. We spent another evening talking under the moonlight about how fantastic our luck had been. Keith amused us by asking for more, saying that we just need a cloud to move in front of that full moon so we can see the aurora better (and only five minutes later…!).
Improving my experience each time, my third night in the bivvy bag was warm and comfortable. The initial de-robe is bracing but by the time you’ve wriggled into the snug sleeping bag you’ve expended enough energy to have warmed up again.
Next morning we were on our way. Still calm at camp we met the wind at its old stomping ground, the ice plateau. Send it down Huey! With no drifting snow on the ice plateau you could not see the wind until the Haggs broke through the windpack and sent it hurtling off downhill. I measured 40 knots gusting 50 with the handheld anemometer.
Bandits afforded us a social evening in a relatively spacious hut, a superb way to conclude the trip. The next morning began at a leisurely pace after the usual bacon reviver.
Our award winning trip leader Tim spotted the Emperor penguins. I’d said that I couldn’t think of a single way in which this trip could have turned out better – but now even Keith was happy!
The icing on the cake. Having the cake and eating it too. And now, eating the ice. Our final mission was to tow back a piece of Antarctica to drop in a glass of scotch later on. Ice drills, snatch straps, and a chainsaw (why not?).
I spent so much time with my head out the pop top that Rich made sure that the radar was turned off – I thought it was warm! In fact that day we reached the highest temperatures since the summer, -1.1 degrees Celcius.
It was a hazardous journey for the brittle ice chunks back to Davis. Just like the sharks devouring the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea, the berg we brought back was just a shadow of its former self.
Yet still something to drink to – a superb trip with the best of mates.