Post-winter trip I: Ropes and Rumples
So, I’m back! Fully rested and relaxed, we had a great time away: a lot
of playing, a bit of learning, lots of new sights and a refreshing time off
base. A break for them and us! It’s difficult to know where to begin really
as I have a kaleidoscope of images and memories flying around my head in antarctic
technicolour (white, white and white). We started at the Rumples, big rumply
ice, and spent the week gently moving around the coast. A seaside holiday indeed!
Like mountains and ocean at home, I am still happiest at the sea, even if the
water is all still frozen. The Rumples were bergs and blocks, cracks and slots,
chaos, cubes and jumble. Smooth smooth ice flowing to the coast, pulled in towards
this anchor point, CRACK! Standing on the cliff top I see ruptures, crevasses,
sea ice, cliffs, boulders. Past the rumply ice is the ocean flat with steam
rising off it. Next to the grey pancake ice it looks exactly like rolling waves
approaching a flat sandy beach.
Down in the creek there are faces in the ice smiling gently while we explore.
“Do you see the face?”, I call to my companions? “No, it’s
obscured, just around the corner”, Ed replies. No, the face the face.
The beautiful moonface of a woman in the icecliffs. We all see something different
here I’m sure. I thank her for allowing us to visit and pay my respects
to the canyon people.
This is the place where the photos I sent last week were from. The faces and
ice cubes, the lovely long abseil down a cliff. In the sky you see black and
white: dark water-sky reflecting open water over the ocean, white reflecting
the ice. Even at Halley we are aware of our peninsula position and read the
changing coastline in the sky. On the ground, white, white, flat and dull. There
are crevasses between this point and the tent but you can’t see them.
It is amzing, the loss of contrast comes in so quickly, within minutes, and
suddenly you realise how dangerous this place could potentially be.
What I learn at the Rumples, however, wasn’t a fear of crevasses and
ice, but rather a delight in them, confidence in and respect for the the safety
techniques used. Walking gently, roping up, being ever ready to catch your fall
with an ice axe. Proudly, I found more cracks than anyone else. Notably, this
wasn’t the purpose of the walk!
So our first day at the Rumples we explored a newly forming creek. On our
second day we went for a walk. The contrast was poor again so we couldn’t
go as far as we’d hoped but it was still an adventure for me since I hadn’t
needed to walk linked by a rope before. Until now, it had only been a rehearsal.
Experienced mountaineers reading this might laugh at my naivety but it’s
the new things you learn which are filled with wonder and for me, this was knots
and ropes, crampons, ice axes and crevasses… and the places these things
can then take you to.
Now is the time to record that newness since from now on, a figure of eight
will be a useful knot for me rather than an amusing snake coiling around itself
before eating its own tail. And I’ll tell you something else though it’ll
start up more arguments, a half hitch is just an overhand but back upon itself…
and two half hitches is a clove hitch. It’s true, whatever they might
tell you. The alternative way of tying a clove hitch, if conditions allow, is
loop, loop, behind… whereas an Italian hitch, useful for descending and
belaying, is loop, loop and fold. An Italian Prussik, now, is through and through
again but a French Prussik is round and round. Ok? An alpine butterfly is used
for shortening, or putting a loop in, a long bit of rope without reducing its
strength. That’s three loops around your hand, alpha over beta and charlie,
beta over charlie and alpha and then under both, all the way back to the beginning
again. A dolly hitch looks like a butterfly but is used for putting a loop that
can slip in the middle of a rope and is easily undone. A truckers hitch does
the same job but is apparrantly “much more crude”. It’s easy
though: bite, twist, twist, twist and pull the dead end through the loop. (For
a dolly hitch you lay the bite across the live end to create a butterfly, twist
one side of the left wing around the right wing a couple of times, twist the
left wing and pull some dead rope through it. Takes a bit of practice but useful
when lashing sledges.) Descenders are used for going down a rope with a French
Prussik below, jumars are used for coming up the rope and an Italian Prussik
is tied to the rope in front of you when walking linked up.
If your buddy falls down a hole, you (obviously!) stop the fall by throwing
your weight, and an ice axe, in the other direction and hook said prussik over
the axe. Naturally confident that this will at least temporarily hold your dangling
friend, you stamp two ice stakes in the ground (tricky when you’re lying
down), connect them with a sling, clamp a jumar on the rope and, using a caribener,
clip it into the slings. All these janglies, along with four pullies and a few
ice screws, are hanging off your belt in an apparently obvious and unentangled
easy-access way. While your increased heart-rate is melting a new hole in the
ice shelf. Tightening the jumar ‘takes you out of the system’ and
voila, your friend is safe(r). If he (or she) can’t get himself out, you
set up a Z-pulley with the rest of your jingles and pull him out. And you wonder
why I was nervous before setting out?!
So anyway, as a joke after enquiring if you roped up any differently if you
were leading or following (ALL of this stuff is new to me), I said “alright
then boys, follow me” to which Ed, tied to me, said “ok, off you
go, mind those first two crevasses and then navigate us around to the view.”
What he called a crevasse, I call a canyon, or at least a huge gaping slot,
and had no intention of crossing. It thankfully narrowed and we eventually jumped
it, and the next, and the ones after that. The initial adrenalin rush, and pride
in myself, was regularly tempered by my foot slipping through yet another crack.
‘Ankle-biters’ he calls them. “I’ve found one”,
I’d call with a huge grin on my face. Simon, Craig and I would knock away
the edges and peer inside at the blue, blue ice.
Ed, it seemed, had other ideas about what crossing a crevassed slab of ice
was all about. You mean we’re not actually meant to find them, rather
avoid them?!! Ridiclious! After 20 minutes of leading, the fear of the unknown
had been replaced by excitement of the unknown. It was like a challenge in the
crystal maze: you never really knew which bit was going to give way beneath
you. But fun! Not scary. We never really fell far as the slots were either fairly
narrow (well, the width of my bum as I found out when two legs went in the same
slot) or heavily bridged by snow.
Wandering along the top of the ice cliff, staring at the open sea in the distance
with steam coming off it and dark clouds above, hearing the ice beneath us moan
and shift… all that practicing at last had a purpose and I was seeing this
stuff with my own eyes. It was a very special day.
It was still fairly early when we returned but the weather was closing in
so while Ed made tea in the tent, the three of us played in a thin crevasse
about 20m from the campsite. What an odd place to camp,- certainly not a place
for playing frisbee or kicking around the football we had brought! The photos
is of this slot, narrow and blue, two ropes so we could take photos of each
other and explore together. Poor old Simon ended up having to go down and up
three times. It was a safe slot to play in, we could almost climb out without
a rope by pushing with our back on one wall and feet on the other. But it was
gorgeous too, blue cobwebs of ice at the top, globules down the walls, and my
confidence soared. When you finally feel you have mastered the techniques, that’s
when you can truly enjoy the scenery!
Post-winter trip II: Creek Two and Beyond
As you know, we decided to head for the Hinge Zone but never made it. The weather
Wednesday morning was flat and misty so we continued our holiday at the coast
instead. More than anything, we just wanted to make sure we spent as much time
off base as possible.
The McDonald Ice Rumples are a point where the continental shelf underwater
meets the ice shelf and anchors the smooth ice that is slowly flowing out to
sea. The result is that the cliffs are broken up into creeks and the creeks,
with time, move along the coast, as new crevasses break open to form new creeks.
These are called the Gin Bottle Creeks and are numbered one to five, with Creek
One being the eldest and farthest from the Rumples. Beyond the Creeks lies Windy
Cove, a large protected area of sea ice that the Emperor penguins make the most
of as a breeding site year after year.
There are two drumlines that leave Halley: one leads to Creek Two and the
other to Windy Cove. Both have a caboose at the end. The drum-line marks a well-travelled
route that has been checked out for dangers such as crevasses. Once established,
we can travel there by skidoo or snow-cat unlinked. This is most important during
Relief when the ship arrives at one of the Gin Bottle Creeks and has to offload
its cargo on us.
So, back to the holiday. We drove to Creek Two, warmed up the caboose and
put up a tent. For four of us and two nights, this would be the most comfortable.
Craig was keen to stay in the caboose while I, no surprise, was keen on the
tent. I still love those tents, so familiar, it’s like I was never away!
The warm orange glow through ventile, the comforting hiss of the tilly lamp
and primus stove, the slight chill at night. Even setting up when it’s
cold. There is something immensely satisfying about dipping a burning match
into liquid meths and watching it fizzle out. The stingy eyes from fuel vapour
when you first start up, flasks, boxes, un rolling the p-bags….and big
down tent boots, I love our spaceboots! As close to being barefoot as you get
here, that wonderful sensual feeling of snow munching under your feet. As soon
as the fires are off, the tent cools down rapidly. It might be summer, but it’s
It was funny to think I hadn’t been back to Creek Two since relief last
year. That all seems so recent and vivid. This time, however, there were just
four of us, there was no mission, there was no chaos. The evening we arrived
we wandered down the creek just to check it out. It was so quiet and interesting
to see how the coastline had changed, overhangs drooped, crumpled ice blown
in and frozen. The dramatic front between perennial fast ice and areas that
might have been open water only a few weeks ago. Penguins have obviously been
here recently as the ice edge is covered in their shit… so we can only assume
that there was water here too. Good news for the ship coming in as it hopefully
shouldn’t have too much trouble reaching us. Perhaps in a few weeks some
seals will come here to pup.
There is a crevasse at the edge of the ice shelf that I’ve had my eye
on since February. Drove past it four times a day then and always wanted to
look inside. It was out of bounds, dangerous, not even to be thought about.
This time around, four of us chilling, we wondered up to it, played on the slope
at its approach practicing ice axe arrests and talked about returning with crampons
and ropes to explore inside. A completely different feeling: like this is where
we live now, this is our piece of ice shelf and ok to explore. This is our home.
The next day was delicious. We started off roped up, Ed and Simon, Craig and
me, wandering towards Creek One. A bit like some weddings I’ve been to
of friends, I wasn’t sure if this was a dress-rehearsal or the real thing.
The ropes seemed like overkill and therefore bureaucratic. Closer to the cliff
edge, however, feet started slipping, though we never fell far. Mainly ankle-biters
but it was nonetheless reassurring to be tied to someone who could break a fall
Creek One was like rolling hills of ice. Climbing up and over, learning new
ways to use the ice axe and crampons, the view obscured over the last ridge.
When we got there, it stretched out in all directions. The sea cliffs, the frozen
ocean. I love the coast, always have and always will. Open water was still miles
away from us but you could see the dark stripe and steam rising off it on the
horizon. Not so far that it would be unreachable. Summer is coming and we won’t
be frozen in, locked in by ice, for much longer. It’s an honour to watch
the landscape altering like this.
We abseiled down to the sea ice and went for a stroll. Ice, real ice underfoot
as opposed to snow. The hard crunching of crampons on ice felt solid and good.
There was also a sense of freedom and carefree-ness wandering around since we’re
not roped up on sea ice (for fear of it breaking up and us having to leg it!)
despite a few cracks. I was reminded of mudflats and marshland, silent and flat,
though we saw only one bird the whole time. Craig said salt-flats. The feeling
of walking on a sea bed, though this wasn’t, away from a long, long coastline
and towards a very low tide.
I was reminded of the first
time I saw Antarctica, the white cliffs, far on the horizon, and how happy
it made me. Now again I was looking back at those cliffs having lived on them
through all the seasons. They still hold a magical quality.
We walked further and further out, away from the protection of the cliffs,
beyond the flat ice and towards the chossed up stuff. This has obviously beeen
blown in from elsewhere and is now frozen in. After the next strong storm it
may well be gone again. Mesmerising never-ending coastline. But so relaxed,
it felt like a walk on the coast at home. It’s nice to not only notice
confidence increase but also the dissappearrance of trepidation. To focus once
again on place over activity.
Instead of pulling ourselves back up the cliff on a rope, we climbed out,
still tied for safety, with ice axes and crampons. Another new experience, the
initial learning curve with all this stuff is fast and satisfyingly steep. Back
onto the shelf and off home, via crevasses which, as ever, I was still expert
at discovering! We took the long way home via the coastline and Creek Two and
decided to explore that alluring crevasse. What a perfect way to end the day.
It was truly beautiful inside. Blue cavern, delicate icicles made of snow, crystals
adorning the walls. Snow bridges, hollows, speak as quietly as the blue is gentle
lest you upset the structure. Magical. And then we popped out the top! Home
via more slots and back in time for tea.
On Saturday morning we packed up leisurely and moved on to Windy Cove. As
an extra bonus, Ed let me drive as lead skidoo, linked up across the ice cliffs,
navigating by compass bearing and distance (244°, 14.4km) instead of GPS.
It is surprisingly hard to skidoo to a bearing when there is seemingly nothing
to head for. Clouds move, shadows move, in the end I took approximate sightings
on patches of sastrugi. When the caboose came into sight I wasn’t too
far off, and maybe half a km short… but that would make all the difference
in poor visibility. The driving itself though, well, what can I say? White and
undriven stretching out in front of me. Driving across Antarctica.
We visited the penguins in the afternoon and then again the following day.
As ever, they entertained us for hours. I cannot grasp how many there are, or
how lucky I am to see them like this. For us, it was like returning to see old
friends. Craig took a frisbee, we say hello to the greeting party and are dissappointed
when they aren’t waiting for us immediately as we arrive. They are apparrently
getting used to our visits too! There is now a steady stream of belly pushers
in the distance returning from, or to, the open water. The chicks are much bigger
but still fluffy and grey and their high peepsing call trills loudly. The huddle
is completely broken up and penguins are now everywhere, loosley bunched.
We only had one night at Windy before our holiday was over. Putting up a tent
would, I knew, take a lot of unecessary time and the boys were all happy to
stay in the caboose. My last night off base, I wasn’t. Instead, I dug
myself a ‘snow channel’ that night while the boys made tea and had
a radio sched, climbed inside my bivvy bag and experienced the warmest night
yet! All in all, a most wonderful way to end a most wonderful trip.