Traveling in Antarctica is difficult. Most of the continent is covered by snow and ice layers that have accumulated over 1000s of years and are reaching hundreds of meters depths, so much so that the weight of it actually pushes the continent down. On the coast we also have glaciers slowly edging their way through mountain valleys. Hence, the ground is often unpredictable and unreliable. Crevasses and avalanches are some of the major concerns when leaving the relative safety of base. Another aspect of this is the weather that can – not very unlike the British weather – change from one second to another. This means that generally people cannot leave the station without the assistance of an experienced mountaineer and alpinist – one of our field guides.
At Rothera we are lucky in the sense that an area that has been deemed safe has been marked by flags (the flag line) and can be used for recreational activities such as downhill or Nordic skiing or just going for a walk. However after being used to freely
roam the countryside (British or Franconian) whenever and for how long I please, those 4 km up the hill can quickly start to feel claustrophobic. For the last month most of our field guides were deployed in the deep field to help out on scientific missions or prepare for next years projects. With only very few field guides on base opportunities to leave the flag line have been far and few between. As part of the marine team I am lucky – as I do get to go on the boats and leave the station behind on a regular basis as part of my job. I also get to experience the surprisingly rich and colourful underwater world of Antarctica and am very much aware what a rare opportunity and an incredible privilege that is.
Yet, with the return of our field guides the possibility to explore the icy realms of Adelaide Islands re-appeared. As part of the wintering team most of us will have to complete different field training modules, such as basic mountaineering (or how to walk with crampons and not hurt yourself), avalanche recovery (how to use a long stick) and crevasse rescue training (lets just all not fall in). The best part of this is when training can be combined with an exploration of our wider surroundings. So last week I had been badgering one of our field guides long enough for him to take me and our meteorologist to hike along the traverse of Stork’s ridge, right next to Sheldon glacier in Ryder Bay. A small snowy mountain chain consisting of 3 hills, it looks extremely innocent and small from the southerly site visible to us. Yet once we had scrambled up the first hill, we got an idea of how steep those benign looking snowy slopes actually were and what the northerly side looked like. Sheer brown craggy rock cliffs bend around Sheldon Glacier several hundred meters below. The ridge we were walking along sometimes was widened by snow scoops and sometimes narrowed to about 1 m in width, leaving us to balance along what mostly consisted of loose rubble. We descended steep snowy slopes (slowly and backwards using our ice axes and crampons) and ascended the craggy cliffs (gaining a faint impression of what climbing in Antarctica is like – a lot of loose rock).
Our path provided a perfect window into the heart of Adelaide Islands and made my feet tickle with the longing to go and explore more of it. On reaching the highest mountain we had snow petrels flying about us. As they came duck diving at us we suspected that they had a nest close by and we tried to give them as much space as possible without endangering ourselves. Yet for the blink of a second there was a moment almost frozen in time when our field guide stood on a small ridge, steep ragged slopes dropping off to either side of him with the image of the background of the mountain cliff in front of him and a snow petrel was hovering right beside him, both just looking at each other. – One of the incredible memories that will stay with me and that make living in this place so special.
Although Rothera station wasn’t far behind us this little exploit felt dramatically more serious and adventurous than just going skiing on one of the slopes available to us. It also provided a much clearer picture of the risks and dangers associated with life in Antarctica and gave a very small indication (a whiff if you like) of the length polar explorers of bygone days must have gone to in their Antarctic quests, and how much more hardship they had to experience. To be completely honest hopping on a skidoo and ambling back to base for a nice hot shower and some hot chocolate at the end of the day does not quite get you the polar hero glow, but here is to hoping that this is still to come in the next few months.