On The Plateau.
Moisture dripped off our tent roof onto the sleeping bags all night. It was uncomfortably warm within the tent, close to 5°C which sounds cold but when camping on snow it is a nightmare to manage. Not cold enough to create ice which is easily brushed out of the tent, but it is cold enough for the moisture from two human bodies within to create a damp unmanageable mess. The gear gets wetter, it gets heavier and as moisture content rises the thermal properties of clothing and sleeping gear drops, sometimes to a dangerous level. We turned the stove on and tried to dry socks and gloves for the day, even the strong aroma of coffee could not solve the damp, morale sapping conditions.
Outside the day looked promising, with good visibility and despite the lack of wind we felt optimistic that we could make good mileage. Sleds packed we agreed that the snow was sticky (owing to the warm conditions) and going would be slow, however the crevasse risk seemed minimal so we began the day unroped, cautious nonetheless. A day of hard marching followed, heading roughly north, northeast. To our left lay the edge of the plateau and the terrible crevassing and ridges that led down to sea level. To our right a majestic range, scoured by grand glaciers and huge crevasse complexes. We marvelled at the complexity of the ramps, couliours, gulleys, glaciers and distressed ice, sure that very few had explored those dangerous looking slopes.
Four kilometres done and we both felt strong. Another four and I began to ache in my lower back and ski boots but still felt strong. Halfway through the third set of four kilometres we passed a random crevasse complex on flat ice, it yawned like a dark series of shark gills breathing out of the ice sheet, and reminded us that the ice we travelled on was in fact a conveyor belt moving relatively quickly towards sea level. Cautiously we pressed on and as visibility deteriorated we entered our last set of 4 kilometres. Coming to the edge of what looked like a ravine at the base of a brooding dark mountain, we realised we had come across what can only be described as a “sinkhole”. The size of a metropolitan football stadium, it was an unusual ice feature, one I have never seen before. A deep recessed hole, 100 metres deep and at least 300 metres across, ran for 500 metres to our left and the same distance to our right. We met as a duo at the edge and discussed our options. We agreed immediately to rope up, and chose to explore to the left hand edge as the right seemed more convoluted and crevassed. Visibility was poor and made it very hard for the human eye to grasp what dangers lay ahead. Kit lead ably as we separated ourselves by 30 metres connected by an umbilicus in the climbing rope. Occasionally the thick fog lifted then resettled down upon the ice, giving us rare glimpses of the abyss to our right side, but no real grip as to when we would be clear of it. As I began to understand its form, I felt like an ant at the edge of an ‘ant lion’s trap’ in the African bush. As a boy I would spend hours watching ants fall into these deadly sand traps, now I felt I was in one. This obstacle was like a giant frozen funnel, oblong in shape, with sloping sides of ever increasing steepness leading to a solid floor. It unnerved me in a way I was unfamiliar with, it was new to me and I didn’t understand its creation, and therefore was dark to its risks and secrets. We agreed to do some extra mileage and give it a very wide berth. An hour later the gaping hole was in our rear view, but that unsettled feeling remained. This ice formation was unnatural, it was in the very heart ice of the Pio XI glacier, like a sink hole or deep scar. I am no glaciologist, but in over 10,000 kilometres skied across ice, I have never seen a feature like this, it gave me a chill down my spine.
At the 16 kilometre mark, we both felt the effect of heavy sleds on sticky warm snow and decided to make camp, conveniently at the base of the pass that we would have to climb the following day to head eastwards towards Cerro Torre and the very edge of the ice sheet.