POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA

First Winter Expedition

Hi all, I am only too aware that I haven’t posted anything for a while; I suspect the daily discipline of keeping a diary might not be the best means for me to try and share with you this polar venture, I am therefore going to change tack and rather than be bound by a strict chronological narrative I have decided to post vignettes of Antarctic life instead. And how better to start with than Winter trips, surely one of the the highlights of any season at Rothera.

“Winter trip” is a euphemism for a week long expedition in the heart of Adelaide Island, among snow covered mountains and crevasse-ridden slopes of empty wilderness and unheartly beauty. As winterers we get two trips each, one on either side of Midwinter. The closer you are to Midwinter the colder and darker it becomes but the weather can and will pin you inside your tent for days on end any time of year. Having said that I got stupendously lucky on my first trip where we enjoyed five days of good – sometimes even amazingly good weather that enabled us to climb five peaks, do a traverse and some field skiing (If you’re an experienced mountaineer you probably do that kind of thing before breakfast but bear in mind I am a complete novice when it comes to climbing anything other than a (not too tall) ladder.

The concept is simple, you team up with a field guide – whose job it is to bring you back alive – and set off on a pair of skidoos, each of you pulling a wooden Nansen sledge packed with everything you need to survive on the ice. It is not camping as we understand it in warmer climes nor does it bear much ressemblance to bivouacking at high altitude. To the Himalayan climber weight is crucial and every piece of equipment strives to be as lightweight as possible without compromising on strenght. Polar camping is all about resilience in the teeth of the worse weather on earth and cares nothing for weight. For one thing, we don’t have to haul or carry anything, our skidoos do all the pulling. Thus the tent, made of thick, extremely tough canvas and metal poles is ready assembled, takes two men to carry and put up before being held in position by 3 foot long metal pegs. Incidentally these are the same tents that Scott used on his polar trips (we even call them “Scott Tents”), they look like a Native Indian tepee and once properly erected will withsand anything the Antarctic cares to throw at them. This is because, on top of the 20 odd pegs you’ve already hammered into the ice the tent is fitted with a wide valence that you weigh down with blocks of ice and anything heavy you have at hand (jerrycans of fuel, food boxes, etc.) soon the whole lot will freeze over and your tent will be secure.

The Scott tent is by no means the only 19th century technology still in daily use at the pole, I’ve already mentioned the Nansen sledge, that splendid piece of engineering designed by the famous Norwegian polar explorer of the same name. It is long, narrow, fairly high and entirely made of wood lashed together with rope, giving it the unparalelled flexibility required to survive the sastrugi ridden surface of the ice. Every piece of equipment fits on the sledge according to a specific order, and there is al lot of it: Food boxes, spare cothing, jerrycans, tent, Pbags (our sleeping bags + kit), radio, first aid box, mountaineering equipment etc. The wooden runners will freeze into the ground overnight which means that the sledge needs to be “cracked” by pushing against its side with your back before you attend to pull it with your skidoo (otherwise you’ll bury your skidoo in the ice – a skill I seem to possess naturally)

Two other notable relics from the heroic age of exploration are the Primus stove and the Tilly lamp. The primus is a beautiful brass implement that burns pressurised kerosene and the tilly performs the dual functions of lamp and heater (you can even toast cheese on top of it for an impromptu fondue). It is somewhat quaint yet also sobering to realise that things as vital for your survival in the frozen wilds as your tent, your heater, your cooker and your sledge are exactly the same as those that explorers would have known and used almost 150 years ago. We haven’t come with anything better since and their greatest asset, quite apart from their proven track record, is that all those things can be mended. There must be a moral tale there somewhere. Modern technologies are also present, the new cohabiting with the old, from the skidoo to the iridium radio or the vacpac bags in which we carry and reheat our food. I suppose that one the greatest improvement to polar exploration lies in the marvellous range of fabrics and materials we now have at our disposal. You only have to read any of the early explorers’ tales of misery as they sometimes literally froze in their sleeping bags, having to “crack them” open to get out to realise how lucky we are, ensconced in our gore-tex and our featherdown. Our sleeping bags were so good that I left out the thick inner lining and slept in standard pyjamas – most comfortably, despite overnight temperatures of -10c. The mornings are a little bracing as everything inside the tent will freeze solid apart from your whisky and the kerosene but my guide woke me up every morning with a delicious cup of tea, what more could a man want?

Right, as I now need to write for my French audience I shall bid you farewell but I’ll soon be back for part 2 of this chapter. Bye!

Pole Position – Un cuisiner en Antarctique

Aujourd’hui je voudrais vous parler de ma premiere expedition. En tant que “Winterer” c’est a dire l’un des 24 membres de l’equipe a passer l’hiver coupe du monde a Rothera, je beneficie de deux semaines ou, accompagne d’un guide, nous partons explorer les montagnes et les glaciers qui recouvrent le coeur de l’ile. C’est une experience extraordinaire, qui, comme toute activite sous ces latitudes est entierement a la merci des elements. Cinq jours de tempete et vous risquez de passer une semaine sous la tente, sans autre escapade qu’un hatif autant que tonique aller-retour aux toilettes. A l’inverse, si par chance les divinites polaires daignent vous sourire un univers entierement vierge s’ouvre a vous. C’est precisement le bonheur qui m’echut sous la forme de ce que l’on designe ici par l’adjectif “dingle” – dingle weather c’est un magnifique temps ensoleille sans vent ni neige. Grace a cela nous avons pu skier, faire de l’escalade, traverser des cols pris dans les glaces et nous avons meme construi un igloo – bien que le terme igloo soit probablement quelque peu exagere; il me semble effectivement que les inuits les construisent generalement sans pilier central.

Nous partons donc en expedition, le principe est simple, un skidoo au train duquel vous arrimez un traineau en bois charge de tout le necessaire pour votre survie dans les glaces. Ce qui est interressant c’est que la plupart des elements cles de tout cet equipage n’a pas evolue – ni meme change depuis l’epoque heroique de l’exploration polaire a la fin du 19eme siecle. Le traineau a ete concu et mis au point par Fridtjof Nansen, le celebre explorateur Norvegien, il est constitue de differentes essences de bois ligotees avec des cordes ce qui lui donne la souplesse et la flexibilite necessaires pour couvrir de longues distances sur des surfaces qui sont rarement planes. La tente – ou “Scott tent” est un grand tipee en grosse toile pour deux ou trois personnes qui se transporte tout assemble; il ya aussi le “Primus” – un camping gaz en laiton qui fonctionne au kerosene sous pression et la “Tilly lamp” – une lampe-tempete qui sert tant a chauffer qu’a eclairer, on peut meme la coiffer d’une boite de camembert afin de mitonner une fondue de fortune apres une longue journee en plein air. La vie sous la tente par -10c s’avere tres agreable, meme si l’on passe la plupart de son temps a quatre pattes. Une fois la “Tilly” lancee et le Primus a plein gaz la temperature devient tout a fait comfortable et l’occupation principale semble etre de faire fondre de la glace pour boire et cuisiner. Au petit matin par contre l’interieur de la tente aura de nouveau gele a l’exception du kerosene et du whisky – ce qui facilite grandement la tache quand au choix de petit-dejeuner.

Si vous vous demandez pourquoi nous utilisons le meme equipement que Scott ou Amundsen pres de 150 ans plus tard la reponse est en partie due au fait que personne n’a reussi a trouver mieux. L’autre critere en faveur de ces anciennes technologies est qu’un traineau Nansen tout comme une tente Scott ou un rechaud Primus sont non seulement extremement fiables mais aussi eminement reparables. En Antarctique ou l’approvisionement est aussi onereux qu’il est delicat on ne jette rien. On repare, on entretient, on recycle et on reutilise; une bonne fable pour nos temps modernes. Evidement tout ne date pas du siecle dernier, les vetements en particulier sont infiniment superieurs a leurs ancetres: plus legers, plus chauds, et de couleurs charmantes si vous aimez l’orange electrique, le jaune acidule ou le vert fluorescent. Une autre amelioration releve de ma specialite puisqu’il s’agit des rations. Nous transportons avec nous des rations polaires communement appelees “Man Food” (terme qui remonte aux expeditions en traineaux tires par des chiens, il y avait alors des paquets de “Man Food” pour les humains et de “Dog food” pour les chiens – les chiens ont disparu mais l’appellation a survecue) – c’est mangeable sans etre particulierement agreable meme si de nos jours il ne s’agit plus de pemmican. Heureusement la base est depuis peu euipee d’une machine sous-vide, je prepare donc des plats en sachet qu’il suffit de plonger tout congeles dans la marmite et le diner est pret! Voila comment on deguste un agneau de sept heures sous une tente au fin fond de l’Antarctique!

Sur ce l’heure du diner approchant je vais devoir vous abandonner mais je serais tres bientot de retour pour le deuxieme episode. A bientot!

3 responses to “POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA”

  1. So happy to see the additional activities you can experience, not only being atuck in the kitchen cooking for a tribe and hungry men.
    I cant wait to find out what you guys do during the winter period, being only 24 as I understand, it will be a very close community with limited time out.
    Have fun and stay safe

    Like

  2. Thank you for such an interesting account of your adventures. I am about to arrive at the other end of the world on Spitsbergen for adventures on a snow mobile, hoping to see a polar bear but not too close! Looking forward to reading more.

    Like

    1. Hi Siri, polar bears sound terriffic, have a great time in Spitzbergen, looking forward to hear your skidoo stories! Olivier

      Like

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