Well here we are on the first stretch of our homeward leg. We are sat in the airport at Santiago waiting for our next flight connection. It has all happened very quickly and it’s hard to imagine that just a few days ago we were sat in Antarctica not knowing when we would be able to leave. It is quite strange being back in normal civilisation. It’s also quite strange being in a 32 degree Santiago after the cold weather that we have been experiencing! It’s quite a shock to the system. We are doing well at putting back the weight lost by the team. We have just finished a four course buffet complete with waffles. We will go straight down to Portsmouth University from Heathrow to complete our physiological testing. It will be interesting to see what effect Antarctica has had on our bodies. We had a fan at Santiago airport who got me to sign an autograph for him. He has been following our blog from Chile.
After 39 days on the ice we finally arrived back in Punta Arenas late last night. It was a close call as I woke to strong winds which blew snow over my footsteps in a matter of minutes. I got up to take a call at 5.30am from the Leicester Mercury and reported back that the atmosphere was tense in the mess tent but that they were hopeful for a flight. People were pacing up and down, running fingers through their hair and watching as anyone came through the door – waiting for the crucial decision. At 9.30am we were told that the Ilyushin was in the air with an ETA of 13.05. Hurray!! It’s just so good to think that we will spend Christmas at home, even if it isn’t a white Christmas. However, it was also very sad leaving such an amazing continent, and the people of Patriot Hills Base Camp, who we’ve got to know very well in the last eight days of delay. Their wonderful stories of adventure around the world, and of course the excellent food, will be sorely missed.
Back in southern Chile our first port of call was a nice hot shower, and the use of some welcome toilet facilities. Finally! Now we are faced with the task of packing. Some gear will go back on the boat while the rest needs to fit onto the plane with us. This will probably take me up until we leave for the UK, arriving in Heathrow on Friday. The adventure is not over…
We have now been stranded in Antarctica for a week due to the weather. It’s hard to think of too many other places in the world where it is impossible to get any form of transport in to rescue you within seven days. It’s a little bit like being in Big Brother. We are confined to a pretty small place with the same people and each day we have tasks to do to try and keep people entertained. We even have video diaries to video how we are doing. I guess it is all part of the ‘polar experience’. At least we have comfortable tents, a warm mess tent to go to and delicious food to eat (thanks to ALE!). There could be worse places to be stranded. At least I don’t have to eat any more Chilli con Carne.
Our latest travel news is that there is a possible weather window on Tuesday when they could get a plane in if they manage to clear the runway of more than 6000 tonnes of snow in time. If that doesn’t work out we will most likely be here another week on top of that. That means that for the first time the possibility of Christmas in Antarctica is looming. At least we would get a white Christmas. It will be very difficult to be away from friends and family at Christmas though. We are feeling a little depressed about the prospect so any jokes or stories to cheer us up will be gratefully received!
Today I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the background support that is needed to carry out science research in Antarctica. Whilst we have been here at Patriot Hills we have been helping out the staff here a little and it gives me a better idea of all the effort that is needed to run a basecamp. The tents have been drifted in with up to six feet of snow and we have spent a lot of the day shovelling snow. We’ve had the help of a Sno-Cat – a big snow tractor that Chris, the driver, is amazing at manipulating so he can move the plough at the front in and out of tent guy ropes. There has been such a thick layer of snow on top of the tents which has started to melt. This means that it has been raining inside the tents for most of the day and there has been lots of mopping and buckets out to catch drips.
There are so many different jobs that need to be done here, cooking, mechanics, communications, guides, builders… The staff need to be able to be really inventive about all that they do. Using minimal equipment it is amazing what they are able to achieve. You certainly need to have lots of creative enterprise skills if you want to work in Antarctica. It would be virtually impossible to carry out a long term science project in Antarctica without all of this support. I’d like to say a big thank you to all the staff at Patriot Hills for all their hard work in supporting our expedition.
I’m just about to start on my first chilli con carne dinner. We will be eating this for the next four days. It is such a disgusting meal that we all left it right to the end hoping we would never have to eat it. What a mistake to make! But camp rules state that we have to eat six days worth of our own left over food before we can enjoy the camp’s mouthwatering three cooked meals a day. We were due to fly out two days ago but are currently experiencing a huge Antarctic storm. Snow, wind and very low visibility. The weather forecast for the next few days is not looking good. The peak of the storm is expected to arrive on Friday. If this isn’t the peak I don’t know what the peak is going to be like. Our tent is starting to look a little bit bedraggled.
It’s now become a waiting game and it is a little bit like being in prison. There is very little to do and we are wondering how long it will be before we start to go mad. We are in good company here though. Our inmates at Patriot Hills include a famous film director and a TV presenter from Kazakhstan (not Borat).
Today we strung together some aviation nets and played a game of volleyball at -10 degrees. It was quite difficult to stay on your feet but was a really fun way to spend some time. We are all now nursing hand injuries from using a frozen ball though. These injuries add to the catalogue of other minor injuries that we have endured. Sunburn, chilblains, blisters, bruises, coldsores, split thumbs and Ian has a minor cold injury on his nose. I’m sure there will be some injuries as a result of eating the chilli too. I’ve only had two spoonfuls and my mouth is already on fire!
I’m writing this update listening to the wind whistling past the tent. As I look out of the small window I can’t see another tent which is little more than 100 metres away. The wind is swirling at the door and every so often we get up and shovel snow to allow us in and out. As I mentioned we are back in Patriot Hills after 30 days on the ice. We were due to leave Antarctica today but as I have come to learn over the past 5 weeks, nothing here is certain. The current prediction is for better weather on Thursday, 4 days away so we have been (and will be) looking for ways to entertain ourselves. I was hoping to do more science but the weather has prevented that. Instead, last night we earned our dinner by giving a presentation about our expedition to other clients at Patriot Hills. It was really well received. Today we have occupied ourselves with the game Balderdash, a lecture about Scuba Diving in Antarctica and Die Hard 4 on a rather small laptop screen! Now it is a question of waiting and keep our fingers crossed we will be home for Xmas!
Yesterday evening we set up camp knowing that it would be very brief. The fine weather and continuous daylight giving us the opportunity to reach Patriot Hills before the unpredictable Antarctic weather changed again, perhaps trapping us for yet another day on the Glacier. We ate and drank as much as we could and bedded down for about two and a half hours before striking camp and setting off towards the still-distant line of Patriot Hills at about 11.50 (just before midnight). This time we walked in Mukluks, rather than using the skis on our sore and blistered feet. Of course the weather did deteriorate. A phenomenon of low contrast – sometimes described as being in the inside of a ping-pong ball – causes difficulties seeing any features on the glacier. Heaving heavy pulks over sastrugi that you can’t see until you fall over them is a pain. However, we had the incentive of the end of our journey and pushed on through the night, leading in turn through the murk, until at last we got our first clear view of Patriot Hills camp when we were about 5 km away. Eventually, we all walked into camp at about 5.00 am. We had dragged the laden pulks over 32 km in 17 hours (including our break for food and sleep). We all now have an enormous sense of achievement and relief. In spite of fearing that weather and terrain would not allow us to do it, we did indeed walk all the way back to the base.
After lots of hot drinks, we all caught up on a few hours sleep. As I type this (in a large tent that we have been given permission to use) the team are working away packing up the gear that will need to be flown back to Punta Arenas. We have all been weighed by Phil for his project and have (nearly all of us) lost some weight; Phil most of all. We are now trying hard to put it back on!
Tonight the staff of A.L.E. at Patriot Hills have asked us to tell them all about our expedition, so preparing that will be our next job.
In some ways this marks the end of the main part of our expedition but there is still a huge amount to do – and some time to go before we will make it back to the UK. Ruth will try to carry out some further research on the blue ice near Patriot Hills tomorrow and, in spite of our scheduled departure being tomorrow too, the weather is unlikely to allow this. Carl has just pointed out that this could be our home for the next ten days (groan!) but we are all dreaming of a proper wash and the flight home. Let’s hope that the weather is good to us.
Well we’re on the move again! After 7 hours of hauling we have set our tents up 15km from Patriot Hills. The weather this morning was pretty bad. There was no contrast, which means it was very difficult to tell the difference between the land and the sky. It made it difficult to see any features in the snow. So we kept tripping over the sastrugi (hills in the snow formed by the wind). The hauling wasn’t too bad today as it has been mostly flat. We are having a quick dinner and a nap now and then in a couple of hours (midnight) we will set off again to walk through the night. After doing 7 hours already today it’s going to be pretty tough to carry on through the night as well. Still, it will be great to finally get there!
Yesterday we had another great day of progress, managing to walk 15.4km. This put us within 32.5km of Patriot Hills, and by our reckoning, just two days more of travel. This was of course if the weather would be kind to us, and unfortunately today it hasn’t. We’ve recorded temperatures of -30 deg C with wind chill, and with drifting snow the chances of exposed skin getting frostnip is too high. So we’ve been forced to stay in the tents today. It’s a real shame because we were feeling really proud of ourselves. Team spirit has been really high lately. We have a feeling that we can achieve anything, especially after our gruelling marathon over the top of Connell Canyon, and the progress we’ve made since. We originally planned to take seven days to walk back from there, and so far it’s looked as if we could do it in four! Now though, it’s looking like we will have to be picked up tomorrow, as we need a spare day to finish off our science projects, ready to fly out on Monday.
After the last few days of utterly exhausting physical effort, today was a real pleasure. Not what most people would call a rest but a wonderful lightening of the burden after our multi-stage 500+ metre pull up a 30 degree slope (or worse!).
This morning we set off from our high camp on our journey back to the Patriot Hills Base Camp. We even managed to collect a couple of lichen samples (yes, they even grow up here) before we reached the lip of the pass that drops down onto the top of the Horseshoe glacier. This glacier is an enormous plain of snow and ice covering thousands of square kilometres and ringed by splendid mountains. In the distance we can see Patriot Hills but it is actually still 60 kilometres away. Antarctic distances are notoriously difficult to judge. The crystal clear air means that from a high vantage point you can see to the horizon and perhaps as far as 200 kilometres. With no human objects or growing things (houses, people, trees etc) there is nothing to give you perspective. From the lip we had to lower our pulks on a rope for the first few metres and then we were able to toboggan down. Then we walked for over six hours, and we still counted it a rest after the previous few days. We have just calculated that today we have each consumed at least 3500 Calories – or 17000 kilojoules – which is close to twice the energy that we would expect to eat in the UK on a normal day. Keeping warm and working hard both need lots of energy.
Our aim on this long haul was originally to walk all the way back to Patriot Hills but the long climb out of Connell Canyon means that we’re running out of time. We may have to call on the Twin Otter to pick us up. Stay tuned to find out what happens next.
Phew! A gruelling 48 hours but we are back online. My blisters are covered with duct tape, as nothing else seems to stick, my chilblains are still giving me trouble on my fingers, I’ve had my leg down a crevasse and I’ve never felt quite so exhausted. Still we have made it. We now have 6 sledges and our poo sledge at the top of the mountain pass. The view from our tents has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. It’s certainly the most amazing place I have ever camped. 1562m high with views across a mountain range on to the polar plateau. It is almost worth the effort it took to get us up here! We must have 4-500 kilos of kit that we have hauled to a point higher than Ben Nevis. Over the last two days we have dragged heavy sledges uphill for about 9 hours. Most sledges have involved at least 3 people pulling one sledge and some have involved all 6 of us. I can’t think how many times we have been up and down this mountain! Our bodies have taken an absolute battering. At some points our strides were just 10cm as we inched our way up, clinging on to each centimetre with our crampons.
Last night we got to the top at about 11pm. I could hardly walk and as soon as we stopped our sweat froze so it was freezing cold. We then had to pitch tents at a bitterly cold -20 degrees. Believe me at that stage it was the last thing I wanted to do! We were all covered with frost with frozen hair and barely functioning hands. Ruth and I could hardly think and we kept putting the poles into the wrong places. Part of pitching our tents is to cover the side valances with snow to ‘dig them in’ in order to keep the tents secure in the wind. Digging snow up here on this pass was like digging concrete. It was brutal. After a 6 hour uphill haul with no dinner it was a real test to get our tent safely dug in. At one stage I was practically on my knees! I’m feeling really proud of what we’ve achieved as a team over the last few days. It has been a huge feat to haul everything out of the canyon. To start with we didn’t think it was going to be possible, it really shows what can happen when you have 6 people who aren’t going to give up! Our guides were great motivational sources and Carolyn was on a personal mission with our poo sledge, dragging it up the mountain single handed. It was an inspiration to all of us!
It was after midnight when we finally had dinner and didn’t get to bed until 2.30am as we were scraping ice from our boots and defrosting our clothes. Then it was a 6.15am wake up call for satellite phone conversations with radio stations and some of our schools. I got the chance to speak to my Year 10 pupils at Higham Lane School in Nuneaton. It was absolutely fantastic hearing their voices and some of their questions. It really brought home why we are here and it made me really look forward to getting back and seeing them. Thank you Year 10 for your messages of support and fantastic questions. After 48 hours of hell it was a real breath of fresh air. It means a lot to know that people back home are keeping updated with our progress. Particularly on days like the ones we have just had. It is hard to express how much those questions, best wishes and messages of support mean. Thank you and keep them coming!