Planet Antarctica

The Nanook took the ice pressure on the hull as well as we hoped she would, large blocks grinding down both sides with sickening scrapes like fingernails across a blackboard. The bumps and grinds stressed all four of us. We looked for open water leads as we nudged our way through the pack ice protecting Cierva Cove. Occasional blissful open water stretches were interspersed with dense ice slurries that tested our seamanship to find a way through. The entry into an Ice field so far south, so early in the spring season, with so little options if hull or propeller damage occurred creates a tension that few wilderness environments can challenge. As skipper I felt the hull could handle it, but ice damage to our prop was my major concern as we nudged ever closer to a potential drop off point.

After hours of careful navigation we managed to drop anchor in a pool of ice free water adjacent to the glacial foot and Kit and Crusty ran a line to shore to secure our position. With bergs as large as apartment blocks moving in on our position, we knew a mere wind shift would make this a dangerous place very quickly. Within an hour Kit and I had skis, sleds, packs, ropes, climbing gear, kites, food and fuel stowed on a tiny ice peninsula below the enormous glacier above. All our frenetic activity watched by a group of 5 curious Gentoo Penguins close by, their animated conversations matching our energies as we prepared for the arduous challenge ahead.

Nanook weaving through a light pack en route to Cierva Cove.

We prepared a 100 day cache of food and fuel and buried it along the shoreline, our final fail safe in case the Nanook could not make it back to us or heaven forbid, was sunk during our absence on the glacier above. A hug of goodbye and Jordan and Crusty returned to Nanook and headed her out into safer waters. It was heart wrenching as Kit and I watched our safety net sail away, our hearts only stilled by the oncoming excitement of the challenge ahead.

The first slope was steep , its gradient close to 45 degrees, well beyond what we could safely ski and haul sleds up. Kit climbed up and created an anchor in the snow, when I joined him we used our combined strength to haul the sleds upslope to our position. Over the next few hours we repeated this process until we finally got to a gradient that we could ski. The main glacier was far to our right, with terrible broken chunks of ice the size of houses tumbling into the sea, the tributary on which we skied seemed to be solid safe ice. By midday we had traversed a mere two kilometres and came to a downslope into a terrifying maze of cracked and broken ice, our first real crevasse field of the journey. The rents and tears were enormous, large enough to swallow a small house, with minor tears alongside and then the real traps adjacent, the hidden tears under the recent snowfall.

Roping up we took it in turns to lead through this boneyard like maze… picking a line that would put our rope across an ice ridge if the snow bridge the leader was on did collapse. It was stressful work and relied upon years of understanding how ice moves, reading the snow and praying that visibility and snow bridges behaved. Two hours later we finally crossed the area of tortured ice back onto a runway of snow leading upwards at a significant gradient, but safe ice once more. With deep snow making hauling taxing, we inched forward slowly, rising steadily into colder and colder dense air.

Roped up and with extreme effort we managed a mere 8 km that day, both surprised at how sapped we were. Was it the snow, the gradient, the crevasse tension or had we just had no recovery from the southern ocean sail and recent Patagonian ice cap crossing? With a last look at the vastness of Antarctica all around us we crawled into our tiny little red tent and prepared our evening meal. A feeling of fragility or insignificance forced upon us by the remoteness and wildness of our position.

An intimidating crevasse at the foot of the Glacier. This photo was taken by Kit as he crossed the bridge to the other side.

The following days all began to morph into a maelstrom of navigation, hauling, decision making, conversations to ensure we both agreed on route selection, bridge choices and measured risk taking. The wind remained either in our faces or non-existent meaning our kites were useless to us, so we shouldered the weight and climbed ever higher towards the plateau above.

On every Antarctic expedition I am always amazed at how quickly life disappears as you head into the interior. The Antarctic coast is vibrant, alive and full of interesting, even odd species, but as the life-giving krill and warmer temperatures are left behind the environment becomes sterile, devoid of life, not even capable of sustaining mere bacteria. This stark, unblinking lifelessness amongst the vast glaciers and mountains of the Antarctic Plateau was not lost on us both as we struggled upwards, feeling very small, like a pair of ants crossing a huge white table. To have Kit alongside, and to not be solo was a pure joy for me. To be able to share my excitement, my love for this incredible place, to share decisions, to mull over risky courses of action, was simply magical. To see Kit’s face as he framed grand shots, grasping the enormity of the landscape, to see him understand why this place draws me in, why this place has robbed us of family time, why I had taken such great risks here…seemed important for me to see.

Camp on Day Two. We were incredibly careful moving around camp as we were surrounded by crevassing.

The avalanches started lightly on day 2, but then by day 3 there was an almost constant occurrence around us. Large booming explosions of sound, and palpable vibrations through the ice at our feet, followed by dust clouds rolling in from the sides of the glacier. These seemed most active at the end of the day and initially we dismissed them as overhanging cornices discharging their overladen snow into the valley below, but as we progressed we watched in horror as simple snow slopes discharged spontaneously with no obvious trigger all around us. Late on day 3 we set camp, our visibility gone, exhausted and with visible crevasses very close and at what we felt was a safe distance from a side couloir or corridor. With an enormous boom and rumble the entire side valley collapsed and raced downwards, for a moment looking all the world like it would engulf us, swallow us whole. It was hard to judge in the whiteout if our time had come, in fact the avalanche delivered a mere light dusting of snow on our camp, thankfully it’s energy spent before it reached us. Weighing up the risk of moving fatigued through the crevasse field we were camped in or staying put, we elected to hunker down and not move till morning.

As we climbed we navigated ongoing crevasse fields, in fact we remained roped together continuously, probing bridges and making sure our route selection was sound. Staying as far from the side walls of the glacial valley as possible, we made steady progress despite the continual avalanches on either side of our track. Late on day 4 we reached the base of the last 2 km climb to the plateau above. Our greatest fear on the climb up had been realised, the track we needed to climb had evidence of multiple avalanche scars across it. The final 2 km passed beneath a snow laden, cornice clad cliff face then up a steep gradient to a final kicker ledge that accessed the plateau above. We both knew that once we reached the plateau the kites would come out and within a matter of hours we would reach the eastern side of the plateau. From the eastern side of the plateau we would look down upon the mighty frozen Weddel sea, the sea that claimed the Endurance, Shackleton’s mighty ship. To do this with my son, would be a life’s dream achieved, but could it be done with the instability we could see, feel and hear in the ice pack above?

As we discussed the risks, and the current snowpack, a huge roar filled the air. Our eardrums bending and vibrating as the sound reverberated around the valley. Looking to the southeast, we watched an enormous avalanche race downwards then outwards across the glacier. Like a thousand white stallions galloping across the snow, the ice beneath our feet vibrated with force of it, as if the very glacier itself was warning us to flee.

Kit dug a snow pit, to try and assess the snow pack’s stability. It seemed as if the recent unseasonal snow falls had just not set to the Ice beneath as he found clear fracture or “ball bearing” snow lines at 9 cm and 90 cm below the snow's surface. The science backed up our gut feel, and we both felt heartsick but delayed a decision hoping for a change of fortune.

We set up camp and prepared for the night ahead. I fired up the Pivotel Satellite link and downloaded a weather report from our meteorologist in South America. As the report came through, I struggled to grasp what I was reading. Sitting at 1700 metres above sea level, close to -20 C below zero, with Ice and snow falling all around us, our position was fragile at best. This forecast warned of an incoming low pressure cell, this of itself was not alarming or surprising, what created shock and instant respect was the words in bold…”Polar Hurricane ''. What Marc meant was that this could be a storm not survivable in a tent if it behaved as predicted. I showed Kit the forecast and as we ate our evening ration we discussed our wisest course of action ahead. Do we hunker down and try to survive the incoming gale? or make an enormous push back to the coast?

We delayed the decision as we ate in silence and digested all that was at stake. Over 100 days of sailing through some of the most formidable oceans on earth, miles of man hauling through crevassed ice, years of planning just to get here, one easy pitch to go, weighed against sudden death by avalanche both roped together, or death by exposure due to a tent failure in the oncoming “hurricane”. The worst case scenarios looming large and spinning around our combined brains as we fought to see fact, not letting anxiety or Imagined failures cloud our decisions… Do we stay, do we run for cover, do we climb ? As we pondered our next move, the tent began to shudder as the wind began to scream outside. The first icy fingers of the oncoming tempest reaching our isolated position…