POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA

Winter trip – Part 2

The Antarctic is a very humbling place, especially for us, anthropocene creatures pumped full of hubris. Down here no amount of technology will allow you to escape the weather for very long, it dictates what you can or cannot do. Ignore it at your peril. Luckily the Antarctic gods are smiling benignly at us today and the whole ice sheet is glistening, a resplendant array of pale blue washes slashed by long white streaks of snow with cerulean mountains arrayed around us like remparts carved out of the sky. The simple fact of standing there, amidst such grandiose and extravagant beauty, is absolutely exhilarating – and we haven’t even climbed a mountain yet! Hannah, my guide for this adventure, is itching to do just that and her childlike delight in the open air and the physical exertion inherent to mountaineering makes her a delightful companion. She is not just fit, she is an athlete and I’m worried my middle-aged self might not be able to keep up with her – besides I’m always dropping one thing or another: skis, gloves, camera, take your pick because I’ve lost them all. At one point we climbed “Meredith”, a round boulder covered in ice when, having reached the top and preparing to descend Hannah realised that I was missing a crampon. I’d dropped it right at the bottom of the climb and done the whole route without even noticing. I also managed to drive over the tow-rope with my skidoo, completely mangling the rope and forcing the garage to send a mechanic with a spare – that was before we’d even left the flagline and didn’t strike me as the most auspicious of starts. Later that day, upon reaching our camp base at Trident I belatedly realised that I’d left my sleeping bag behind, the long-suffering Hannah had to skidoo all the way back to base to get it for me. I did try to convince her that I’d be fine just bundled in various fleeces we had with us but she wouldn’t hear any of it, a stubborn obstinacy I turned out to be exceedingly thankful for as the temperature dropped to -10c inside the tent at night.

That tent-living business is probably the closest one can get to traveling like a Shackleton or an Amundsen. It is cramped, noisy (the primus makes a hell of a racket and when the wind is blowing it gets a lot worse), one is forever melting ice and drinking tea with your socks and underpants drying above your head. In the evening the tent gets all warm and moist but make sure any temperature sensitive piece of equipment – like batteries for your camera – is tucked inside your sleeping bag because by the time you wake up the following morning it will be as cold inside as it is outside. The sleeping system consists of piled up layers, first you lay down a plank of wood on top of which goes a ground mat, then an inflatable mattress, then a thick woollen fleece and then your sleeping bag, itself encased in a fireproof cover (the sleeping bag is always at risk of catching fire from the fierce naked flame of the primus – Hannah lectures me sternly on the fact that A: I wouldn’t want to be out in the middle of the ice-sheet without my sleeping bag, especially as she’s been to all the trouble of driving to Rothera and back to get it and B: They cost over £1000). It strikes me that the common view that camping is a fun, laid-back, relaxing way to spend a holiday doesn’t quite fit in with the Antarctic model where the smallest things seems to require inordinate amounts of snow shovelling as well as endless fiddling with kit, usually in the shape of strapping, followed by un-strapping before re-strapping it all over again. Surely some of this must qualify for one of Dante’s circles of Hell and if not it must be a mighty close call.

However, once you reach the top of any of the peaks on offer at Trident all trifling concerns and paltry niggles suddenly evaporate as the Antarctic peninsula’s long, sinuous spine stretches away under your eyes, revealed in all its grandiose scale and primeval beauty. Sea, sky and mountain blend and interweave; large baroque bergs set alight by the blinding sun. It is a scenery of such magnitude and such brutal unscarred beauty as to bring tears of joy and ectasy to your eyes. Hannah is dancing on the mountain top.

POLE POSITION

UN CHEF PAS MANCHOT

Expedition d’Hiver – Chapitre 2

Je ne me souviens pas avoir jamais ete adepte du camping, j’imagine qu’une enfance passee en basse-Normandie ne doit pas tant cultiver une affinite pour la tente que pour les bottes en caoutchouc. Enfin campeur ou pas me voici bien oblige de developper sur le tard d’hypothetiques talents de boy-scout. Il est raisonable de dire que l’aventure ne debuta pas sous les meilleurs auspices. Non seulement devons nous etre en permanence encordes lorsque nous quittons le perimetre de la base mais nos skidoos sont soumis aux memes contraintes. Notre equipage se presente donc de la facon suivante, avec, en file indienne, Hannah sur son skidoo, un traineau, moi sur mon skidoo et enfin un deuxieme et dernier traineau, le tout relie par une grosse corde dont il faut en permanence verifier et ajuster la tension. C’est un concept qui au premier abord a du m’echapper puisque ma premiere initiative est de rouler sur la corde tant et si bien que le cable vient s’emberlificote dans les chenilles de mon skidoo forcant notre petit convoi qui venait juste de s’ebranler a un arret impromptu. La base est obligee de depecher un garagiste avec un cable de rechange, si bien que ce n’est que deux heures plus tard que nous demarrons enfin pour nous enfoncer dans un desert blanc et bleu en direction de Trident, une vallee glaciaire ceinturee par de nombreux pics que nous esperons bien parvenir a escalader. La nous installons notre campement et je m’appercois que j’ai oublie mon sac de couchage. Je propose de dormir enroule dans les grosses couettes que nous avons apportees mais Hanna, mon guide, refuse d’en entendre parler et remonte sur son skidoo pour rentrer a la base recuperer le sac manquant. Je lui en serais plus tard reconnaissant quand la temperature sous la tente descendra a -10c pendant la nuit. Ceci-dit on dort tres bien sous la tente, mon lit se compose d’un systeme de couches destinees a isoler mon petit corps tout chaud du bloc de glace sur lequel je repose. D’abord une planche de bois, pour eviter de faire fondre la glace et de se retrouver avec une surface pleine de creux, ensuite un mat en mousse suivi d’un fin matelas gonflable que l’on recouvre finalement d’une peau de mouton a grosse laine. Par dessus tout ca deroulez le fameux sac de couchage (attention a ne pas l’oublier) que l’on recouvre d’une couverture inifugee pour le proteger de la flamme feroce du Primus. Vous avez aussi l’option de deux couettes interieures supplementaires, une legere l’autre epaisse mais il ne faisait pas assez froid pour justifier la premiere et encore moins la seconde.

Etant finalement parvenu a rallier Trident, dresser la tente et organiser le campement nous etions enfin prets a partir a l’aventure. Mon guide, Hannah, est une athlete qui ne connait ni la peur ni la fatigue mais s’ennuie des qu’elle reste immobile plus de deux minutes d’affilee. Cinq jours durant ell va me hisser sur autant de pics enneiges, a pied, a ski, avec crampons et pics a glace que je le veuille ou non. Je realise l’exploit mineure et non premedite d’escalader un pic avec un seul crampon, ayant perdu l’autre au pied de la montagne. Ce n’est qu’une fois parvenus au sommet qu’ Hannah realise soudain mon deficite cote cordonnerie. “Olivier, ou est ton crampon?!” s’exclame-t’elle avec alarme – alors que je realise immediatement la nature du truc jaune que j’avais vu tomber au depart de l’escalade. Enfin, pas de bobo et je recupere le crampon manquant sur le chemin du retour. Non pas que je me sois confine a un simple crampon; j’ai perdu, lache ou fait tomber a peu pres chaque piece de mon harnachement: appareil photo, gants, batons de ski, casque, carabiniers j’ai tout perdu a un moment ou un autre. Je ne dois pas avoir une vocation de montagnard.

Vocation ou pas Hannah est parvenue a nous piloter jusqu’au sommet de Mouse, Max, Biff Meredith et Reptile. Tout d’un coup je comprends l’energie exhuberante qui semble s’emparer d’elle sur les sommets. La peninsule Antarctique s’etend et se morcelle a nos pieds, parcelles de glace a flanc de montagne et brisures d’icebergs que balafrent de longues plaies bleutees. C’est un decor pratiquement grandiloquent ou la demesure semble etre la base de tout. Perche sur notre sommet nous grignotons un morceau de gateau et je benis le ciel de m’avoir comble de cinq jours de beau temps.

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

  1. Stephane+Servin avatar
    Stephane+Servin

    Genial.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Olivier-these blogs are almost as good as being there ourselves. And, on behalf of all your chums wherever they may be, thank you to Hannah for keeping you ‘sorted’!!

    We were thinking of you particularly last night while watching the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant when highland dancers in a mass of kilts and bare knees brought back happy memories of the personal display you gave us just before you went south last time.

    A la prochain,

    John and Kerry

    ________________________________

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    1. Dear John & Kerry, I am so glad that you are enjoying the blog, I should have a little bit more time to devote to it now that winter is on the way, hope you’re both well, missing you a lot! Olivier

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  3. Bonjour Olivier,

    Am forwarding these photos on behalf of Angela, Josh’s (and Sandy’s) gardener. She thought you’d like to see them. The bulbs she mentions are the acidanthera ones I gave you. I asked after them as ours are just coming through and thought yours might be, too. Hopefully, the warm weather we’re experiencing at the moment will bring them on soon.

    With love from all the gang,

    Kerry x ________________________________

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    1. Thank you so much Kerry, I do miss gardening and it’s great to see some colourful flowers. I’m really looking forward to seeing the acidenthera in bloom when I get back. Thanks for your posts and letters and love to you all,
      Olivier

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