First winter trip

I had worked the last two weekends so was glad of the Monday off following the start of winter. I finally moved into my own room and packed for my first winter trip. I was delighted to be the first team on winter trip because we were Sledge Alpha, which is traditionally the Met team. The weather the next day was warmish (-12 °C) with 15 kts wind. We prepared all the sledges and skidoos and set off in the morning. My trip companion didn’t have a good start to the day after oversleeping and then managing to flip the doo on a snow bank where the cargo line used to be, i.e. before even leaving the station perimeter. Once that was sorted and I added another down jacket to the mix – perpendicular winds cut through all your layers on a skidoo – we managed to get to our camping site a few km away from the Hinge Zone to the Antarctic continent and next to Chasm 2. We pitched our heavy ventile pyramid tents, unpacked and got some water boiling. That evening we didn’t venture out, but set up the HF radio for our evening sched (i.e. the daily radio call back to base). The sleeping systems are fantastic starting with a wooden board, two therma-rests and a lambskin plus a down sleeping bag. Dinner was freeze dried meals from the manfood box – 2007 turned out to be a good vintage.

The next day we had the most spectacular weather and ventured down into the chasm. We were met by flat blue ice at the bottom and sharp jagged spikes of ice on one side formed by the wind and the sun. After a quick game of rucksack curling we climbed out the other side and found a couple of crevasses to abseil into. Both were very different, one being smooth and blue, whereas the second one was wider, full of powdery snow and huge snow crystals the size of my hand! Lunch consisted of a can of frozen tuna with sweetcorn and mayo (2009 vintage) carved onto biscuit browns washed down with some tea. We stomped around the higher points of ice protruding from the chasm looking down onto our camp on the other side and the continent off in the distance. That evening we enjoyed a bottle of wine in the sun with some more manfood. That night Halley was due to talk to astronaut Tim Peake currently on the ISS after our evening sched. They noted down some of our questions (including “how often do you see the aurora from the ISS” and most importantly “are there cookies on the station”?) and were kind enough to press transmit on the HF radio for us to listen in to their phone call! Our station leader told him about us out in the field to which Tim was very keen to know what it was like and gave us a few mentions during the 30 min conversation. So there we were, three people sat in a pyramid tent out in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica having a phone call with an astronaut on the ISS. Not something I ever would have thought I would find myself doing.

That night I slept like a log and didn’t even have a chance to peek outside at the stars. I needed the sleep though, as the following morning we set off on the skidoos for the Hinge zone to see how far we could get. Again the weather was perfect with no wind and good contrast. We stopped our doos at the bottom of a hill and ventured on foot to see what lay on the other side. Sadly the descent was too steep for the vehicles, so after a few photos we returned and tried a different route around. Again we got to a ledge and decided to climb down it on foot. The rear team member on the last skidoo roped up to the tow lines and moved to the front where they promptly fell into about 3 crevasses on the way. It turns out that I had parked my doo about a meter behind a rather large crevasse. We all made it to Mat (our field GA) at the front and placed some ice screws for an anchor to abseil down the hillside. At the bottom we found another flat blue ice rink with a bit of a slide on one side. For some reason we hadn’t brought our crampons down with us so we cut steps into the solid ice and went for a wander round. After a good slide we climbed back up, had some more frozen tuna, reversed our doos and returned to a small iceberg in the shelf called Stony Berg. There, for the first time since leaving Cape Town 4 months ago, I saw rocks! After sitting in an ice scoop out of the wind with our faces in the sun and caressing rocks for a while we packed up and headed back to camp. Driving linked-up by skidoo is fairly challenging when the terrain is rough. We had a few tangled tow lines around the front skis which bent the rod designed to keep the tow rope off the ground, but thankfully we always have spares. The evening was spent playing scopa and the more refined game called “shithead” accompanied by good single malt whisky, more manfood and tea.

On our last day the weather turned a bit as low clouds came in and a fresh wind picked up. We headed off for Stony Berg from the day before to go ice climbing, but we had a bit of a delay when one of the track wheels of my skidoo lost a bolt and came off. Sadly, we were missing a spare washer large enough for the screw and after calling the mechanic back at base it was decided to cannibalise one of the less essential jaune wheels. At Stony Berg we stopped for biscuit browns and tea before setting up some top ropes to climb on. The wall was stunning, completely solid blue ice scooping up to a small overhanging lip at the top. My sharp crampons stuck wonderfully after a short kick with each step. Both routes were climbed quickly, so we set up another with a tougher overhang, which the two lads both bested eventually. The other side of the berg had a gentler slope and allowed for some soloing and sliding. A soft snow bank at the bottom cushioned the impact, unless you slowed down from one of the hidden bumps in the ice, which I had the joy of discovering. Quite late we headed back to camp where we enjoyed our second bottle of wine and defrosted some goodies over the Tilly lamp, such as pâté, camembert cheese on biscuit browns, and fried bacon sarnies. The skies cleared one last time to see a few stars in the evening dusk.

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The following morning we packed up camp, loaded the sledges and linked up the doos for our journey back. Low contrast and some 18 kts of wind required a lot of concentration on the drive back, but once we reached the snow stakes just outside of Halley, where I normally do my weekly measuring, the sight of home through the blowing snow was very welcoming. Once on base we packed away the vehicles and kit. Finally I could settle into my new room for the year.

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