Facing the Elements
4th January 2010 - Steven Goderis looks worried. We are leaving him behind, and who knows what awaits him in the surreal world into which he finds himself. We give him cheese for extra sustenance. He will go looking for meteorites in a horribly uncomfortable place. We tease him a little, but promise to be back in a month to pick them up. He is amazed to learn we will need only two days to return to the station. He imagines a route full of delays and difficulties, and is apprehensive that we might feel reluctant to undertake it again to come fetch him.
The tents are packed again. It is becoming more and more difficult by the day to force them into a space smaller than nature intended for a tent to occupy.
The ski-doo is lashed to the top of the fuel reservoirs, and we take one more in an endless stream of group photos. The snow drift covers everything from the knee down. Jesko gives us some of his supplies, as does Tsuchiya San. We exchange Iridium numbers, and promise to write (Fumi, the Japanese journalist, has a satellite connection). "Geological Survey" Geoff looks like he might say something but he doesn't, preferring instead to smile from behind his ski mask.
Finally, we clamber aboard our gypsum caravan and wave for the umpteenth time. We're off. The Prinoth is in good fettle, and before long we are crossing Heskenoten, rounding the Austhameren, and slipping out towards the Byrdbreen Glacier. We see the glacier wall much as you see it in the Fjord at Fredheim near Longyearbyen, only without a polar bear in sight. We see the petrified mass of ice flowing in ultra-slow motion around the rocky obstacles. We set a new heading and aim across the Byrdbreen at a point slightly south of our previous crossing point. The crossing begins next to Hjelmkalven. The mouth of the glacier is very wide and we can barely make out the other side over the drifting snow. The going is good; the blue ice looks healthy with only a few thermal cracks. The snow covering is sparse, allowing us to detect any potential problems in advance. The contours of the landscape are difficult to judge in the flying snow drift, and so it is with surprise that we suddenly find that we are climbing for what seems like a very long time. The problem, as usual, is what goes up must come down. What is on the other side of the slope? Nothing very new, as it transpires.
The other side of the Byrdbreen has a series of Haugan nunataks with a very long and sparse moraine. We decide to call it the Starburst Moraine. Very little here has a name. The surface of the very old, hard ice is pitted with a honeycomb structure. It has no name as far as I know, but it has our little caravan pitching and rolling as we climb over it. We start referring to the bumps along the way as "snow turtle backs" or "turtles". The sastrugi also come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have the same name. It is really a very bizarre landscape, and we have it all to ourselves. The only road is the one we are making, and which will be effaced by the drifting snow, maybe even before we get back to the station.
As evening approaches, we cross a really fierce snowdrift and head towards Austkampen, imagining that it will afford a protection from the relentless persecution of the katabatic winds. But it is not to be. Austkampen is an uncompromising place. The frozen blue ice underfoot gives precious little in the way of a natural haven. We find an isolated patch of snow about ten cetimetres deep on the almost violet ice, and pull the Prinoth alongside. We are on an island of snow in a vast, barren ocean of ice, as if we were on a cloud floating in a clear cerulean sky. Without crampons, leaving the patch of ice becomes a perilous journey. The wind rocks the vehicle in an alarming way. We are a little unsure as we stand on the snow island, and Alain briskly starts to give orders. Find stones! The snow is not deep enough to pitch a tent, so we anchor them using ice screws and small boulders dotting the terrain. René finds some red thread in the tent bags and makes some anchorings. We are still uncertain and linger in the kitchen, worrying about what the wind could do to these fragile little shelters. The katabatic wind appears to pick up force and comes screaming out of the mountains via the gorge on the east side of the Austkampen. Like an express train entering a sleepy station, it suddenly falls on you, howling like a banshee, and then just as suddenly is gone. We try to time our actions so as to avoid the heavy gusts, but they are too random, giving you only a small window of time in which to grab your tent before it flies off.
After delaying going to bed, we decide to brave the wind and crawl exhausted into our tents to sleep.
Heading Back to the Station
5th January 2010 - The night is short, with endless moments where you wake up with the wind trying to flatten the tent onto your face. In the morning, Alain notices his bag's gone. We resolve to track it down and finally find it back some time after breakfast.
The advance towards Bratnipene is not as straightforward as it might appear. We cross the moraine and the blue ice and seem to be moving for a long time without getting any closer to Bratnipane resembles from outer space. We finally reach the first tip on the blue surface and end up having to climb out onto the snow above.
As we advance over unknown terrain, we have to keep the speed down for unknown hazards. Moving at about ten kilometres per hour, everything takes a long time. From the level of the second point (there are four) we set a new heading for the rock-with-no-name. This brings us out onto the level of Vesthaugan around lunchtime and from there it is smooth sailing. The compass heading is entered, and the snow underfoot is fresh and covers the worst of the sastrugi, so the ride is not too bumpy. From ten kilometres away. we finally spot the station. From that distance is looks like a small shiny dot against the dark backdrop of the Tanngarden, perched on what looks like an eyelash, which in reality is the ridge. The wind has fallen away as if by magic and we enter the Utsteinen on as straight a line as possible, swinging between the nunatak and the ridge.
Although everyone is busy working on the station, they approach us in small groups to exchange stories and wish us a happy new decade.
The Eastern Sør Rondane Traverse has just explored virgin territory, opening up exciting new prospects for those foolhardy enough to venture here and seek answers to questions of millennial significance about the nature of the world we inhabit.
Princess Elisabeth Antarctica now promises the worldly delights of hot water!
Picture: International Polar Foundation - © International Polar Foundation