One big perk of wintering for the British Antarctic Survey is that they offer winter trips to their wintering staff. This means everybody gets a fieldguide assigned, packs a sledge, jumps on a skidoo and gets to bugger off into the white heart of Antarctica exploring the surrounding mountains and live in a tent for a week. While this is of course pure unadulterated fun, it is also meant as a training exercise for potentially being able to help out at some of the deep field sites next summer season.
So after I’ve spent the summer being (- how should I put this -) minimalistic positive about the limited ability to get off base, I was very much excited for my winter trip. I knew exactly that I wanted to do all of the climbing and skiing possible. I made the, admittedly for an ecologist, unexpected decision to disregard a potential visit to the Southern coast to see more abundant wildlife (I had enough of wildlife – all this wildlife has constantly kept me out of the water during summer – I would argue we have too much wildlife here already) for the opportunity to stay closer to base but within easy traveling distance to many, many climb and skiable peaks. Three sledge parties went out before us and they all came back with brilliant stories of fun filled adventures ranging from climbing icy waterfalls to building igloos. So by the time my trip finally came around I was absolutely buzzing with expectations of a brilliant week ahead.
There are many things to consider when packing for a week in the snow – again – you don’t pack lightly in Antarctica. Luckily my fieldguide took care of most of the list (mostly fluffy warm things, camping equipment and radios) and seeing as it’s more my area of expertise I was responsible for upgrading our food box a bit. Most of it consisted of freeze dried ready meals and a lot of chocolate. So I added some fresh frozen food and extra treats and about a years supply of peppermint tea.
All of this gets packed into customised boxes and stacked and lashed onto a big Nansen sledge. A trimmed down version of the same equipment gets lashed onto another sledge – the half unit – to take out on day trips, in case it is not possible to return to camp the same day – which would mean you are having a really bad day.
When all of this is sorted you set off in linked travel which means skidoo attached to a sledge attached to a skidoo towing a sledge. When being on the skidoo you are also tied to the skidoo. All of this is in case one of you falls into a crevasse. About an hour after leaving base we reached our site – Tridont East. Here we set-up camp, which involves erecting the pyramid tent, toilet tent, building a little parking bay for the skidoos and cutting snow for making water. And after finishing all the immediately important tasks which help you to stay alive with great comfort, the rest of the day was ours to explore the surrounding mountains. Well – daylight availability allowed us to scramble up one mountain which probably can only be classified as a hill in the normal world. A venture during which I discovered, that not only did I pick boots that are too big for me – because I was terrified of having cold feet for a week – but I also managed to break them straight away. This of course didn’t help my bumbling scientist reputation which is already pretty established at base. My inability to walk properly in my self-made misery aside, it was a lovely short climb with a couple steep slopes over icy and snowy terrain and the view on top gave outlook over the extending mountain range during sunset allowing us to make plans for the coming days.
However we soon learnt that the universe had a different plan. After return to camp and a quick dinner it was time for evening Scheds – a short radio chat with base to ensure we are all still alive and give field parties an update on the weather. And the weather is a funny thing in Antarctica – if I wouldn’t know it better I’d say we definitely angered the weather gods as the outlook for the coming week was bleak to put it mildly. In lieu of a first-born to sacrifice we made our peace with the situation and resigned ourselves to spending a couple days in the tent with the hope that it would improve during the days to come – the weather forecasts down here are seldom accurate. This time, however they were. One could say they were even annoyingly accurate. And if they weren’t accurate you could bank on the fact that the reality would be even worse than the already bad forecast.
It wasn’t all bad, I had plenty of time to perfect making pancakes for breakfast on the Primer stove, the pizza went fairly well too. And there is something incredibly apt about reading the worst journey in the world while stuck in a pyramid tent in an Antarctic blizzard. It was incredibly comforting to know, that at least they had it worse than us. So, we spent a very tranquil week, sleeping (apparently my fieldguide was worried about the tent ripping during the 70 mile winds – since he only shared his concerns in the morning, I slept noticeable better than him), reading, cooking (a lot of melting snow to make water), with the occasional weather window, which we spent digging out our sledges, tents and skidoos. Since we seldom went outside we spent all day in the nice warm orange glow of the pyramid tent and didn’t even realise how quickly the days have become shorter. I also didn’t realise that myself and everything I own that was in that tent has started to smell of Kerosin. I don’t want to say that we stank, but I think we did. The price that you pay for keeping a Tiley lamp going all day to keep you warm.
However, once we finally had a weather window and made it back to base, I lay in my warm comfortable, clean bed at night – longing for a pyramid tent being rattled by the wind, a down sleeping bag and the infinite white vastness of Antarctica.