Thursday, 16 February 2012

A warm breeze

A warm breeze

The Astrolabe, IPEV's workhorse ship that shuttles between Hobart and DDU, is relatively small for these waters -
65metres long by about 13 - and when moored up in Hobart alongside the big ex-soviet icebreakers that also lie up
there, she is absolutely dwarfed. It was originally designed as a supply vessel for the oil industry and its sister
ship operates in the north sea. It is flat bottomed, and that's why IPEV use it as the sea around DDU is shallow and
difficult to manoeuvre. A lot of the open deck has had accommodation built onto it, but it has kept the heli-pad. She
carries about ten crew, and forty passengers. Having seen and heard of this ship for so long, it seemed very familiar
when I saw it moored at DDU the day we visited. The pack ice had been broken back just enough at the quayside, and
the ship's bow was only a couple of metres away from the ice. There was a steady procession of Adelie penguins
walking past her bow as they toiled between sea and nests. They didn't take much notice of her but eight emperor
penguins in a tight huddle at the water's edge stared and stared at the ship, clearly fascinated by it.

After two more very pleasant days at Prud'homme we got taken by the helicopter to board the ship, just a couple of
hours before her departure. Myself and three others from the Prudhomme station. The pilot knew the others well so he
pulled a couple of fun moves as he flew up, I had my heart in my mouth for a moment.

The ship was ready to depart a couple of hours early so the decision was made to use it to break the pack towards a
meteo station on one of the small islands between DDU and Cap Prud'homme. With all cargo and passengers embarked – at
least half of the passengers worked at Concordia this summer, so I know them very well - it sailed round into the bay
and as close to the station as possible. It took runs at the ice, the nose riding up onto the pack and then sinking
down, breaking the ice underneath it. It only made about 30 metres each time as the metre thick ice was about the
ship's limit. But this time it got the job done. Then, turning its nose out of the bay, we left Antarctica.

That evening sailing away from DDU the whole sea, as far as I could see, was completely white covered, white with
fragments of pack ice from very small up to tens of metres across. And the horizon was completely hidden from view in
all directions by icebergs, some near, some very distant, some relatively small but formed into fantastical shapes,
the really large ones - tabular and regular shaped - further off usually. We did pass close to one that was 10km long
and therefore as long as my home town and the next village, and the 5 km of road between them all taken together.
I stood on the heli-pad at the back of the boat, but I found I couldn't stay there. The boat was rolling and pitching
quite hard, not because of ocean swell. The sea was flat calm, there was no breeze at all. The boat's strong lurches
movements were because she was making frequent hard turns as she negotiated the ice. The ship can bash lumps of pack
ice out of the way but we get slowed down by the impact, often from her cruising speed to almost a standstill. So to
keep speed up it's better to steer a weaving course through the broken pack and keep the impacts to a minimum. But
impacts are frequent, and on that first evening I got several bruises from bumping into cabins' forward walls when the
ship got slowed by heavy pieces of pack. Deep rumbling impacts would vibrate through the ship's hull.

The continent disappeared from view too quickly, hidden by this towering icy seascape of bergs. But Antarctica still
had one last little surprise for me, which I'm quite sure I'll never forget. As the sky greyed over and the wind
rose, it started to snow, just as I was thinking about getting inside. And each snowflake landing on my jacket was a
perfectly sharp, unique, six pointed symmetrical shape. Just like I've heard described all my life, but I've never,
ever seen before. Farewell to you too, Antarctica.

The sea was calm, as usual, until the ship cleared the ice and there we ran into a pretty large swell. The twenty
four hours after that almost all the passengers were confined to their bunks by sea sickness and even three of the
ship's crew were incapacitated. Both Yves-Marie, the official ship's doctor and I have been given bunks in the ship's
medical room. Boxes and bags of hospital material were throwing themselves around and several times one or other of us
got up in the night to put it all back again and resecure the restraints. I took a look out the door leading to the
rear deck just to see waves which I knew would be enormous. It was quite something to see the stern of the boat
pitched far back down, squirming in the trough of a very big wave then rising on the face of a cross-wave, rolling
heavily to one side. I shut the door, don't want to watch too much of that, that's for sure. They flung our not-
so-light boat around with such ease. Over the following days the weather and the sea state gradually settled but me,
I was hardly able to get off my bunk for two days.

Finally, today, I have my sea legs, the nystagmus is gone, and I've been able to see, eat and drink normally. I can
sit quite comfortably in the hospital writing as the ship continues to roll around. As I type this my chair
periodically slides two feet backwards leaving my fingers momentarily typing thin air. Then a moment later it slides
considerately back to where I started. Our hospital door is two metres away from the exit out to the rear deck. It's
kept open all day to get some fresh air in, and today there is a warm breeze flowing in from outside. I went outside
to take a look and some water poured off the deck above and over my legs and shoes. It was warm. Warm, flowing
water. The swell has eased off quite a bit. The sea is blue, reflecting a clear sky and our progress toward
Australia. We should make it to Hobart tomorrow night. There are three or four albatrosses following us.

It's warm, at last. At long last.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica.

Arrived at the coast Feb 7th
The long round coast at the grid south to south-east of Antarctica is
broken in many places by tongues of glacial ice protruding from the coast
out to sea, where areas of the vast sheets of ice sweeping down from the
domes get corralled and accelerated by subglacial fjords and forced to out
into the water. The astrolabe glacier, in Terre Adelie, is one such
place, the valley forming it 1500m below the level of the sea. The
coastline here is formed by rolling hills of ice sloping down to the sea.
They end as far as I can see in both directions in vertical cliffs of ten
to twenty metres which join, seamlessly at their base, the flat shelf of
sea-formed ice that gets called the pack. The Astrolabe glacier gets
forced out to sea beyond the coastline, and in doing so creates a bay on
either side of it. It disintegrates into icebergs the size of villages as
fast as it is renewed by the flow of ice behind it. So, it retains it's
size, while at the same time casting a dense flow of bergs into the
westward current flowing round the coast. This side of the glacier,
amongst the confusion of cliffs, pack, icebergs and sea are a few little
rocky outcrops. Some are on the coast, left uncovered by deflected areas
of ice sheet, and others are out beyond the cliffs, small islands in the
sea. This year, thanks to the unusually calm coastal weather, the pack
ice has never been broken up and so it is still possible to walk out to
them. Today in the space of four or five hours, however, we saw the pack
fracture and half of the entire shelf, several square kilometres of ice,
drift out into the melee of floating ice and effectively vanish.
In this bay is the French base of DDU – Dumond D'Urville, named after the
French explorer. Actually it is in two parts. The main base is made of
quite a few buildings built in a loose ring around the top of the largest
of the islands close to the edge of the glacier, with a dock for the
Astrolabe ship on an adjacent island.
Five kilometers across the other side of the bay, on what surely must be
the smallest piece of bare rock ever to be called a cap, is Cap
Prud'homme. This small building is the base for the mainland operations.
The raid has its headquarters here and the airstrip is here. All material
and people arriving on the boat, to be taken up to Dome C, have to be
ferried by helicopter over to Prud'homme. Or, wait until the summer is
over and the pack ice returns, and when it is thick enough heavy material
can be transported over the ice and stored ready for the next summer.

To Anthony, Patrice and Alex there was no excitement to have arrived here
– this is what the job is, this is their base, returning simply means
different work for the next few days. For Michele, He'd seen DDU before,
it was nice to be back, nothing more. So I kept the sheer, overwhelming
relief to be somewhere else, somewhere more normal, to myself. More
normal, I thought it over again, as I looked at a yellow moon rising over
a bay full of icebergs the size of towns, coloured red by the setting sun.
We drove in a fifteen tonne tractor down a glistening ice slope to a
French station we would call home for the next five days. A helicopter
buzzed past, skimming the ice, certainly no more than thirty metres behind
us. The VHF radio crackling with the voices of strangers kilometres away.

Cap Prud'Homme Feb 9th
I was offered me the choice of staying at Prud'homme or at DDU for the few
days we wait here for astrolabe to depart. Without hesitation I chose to
stay here, it's a very nice place to be while I wait for the ship. The
base at Cap Prud'homme is very small, right now there are only about
fifteen guys working here. Plus another ten or so usually here but who are
right now driving back toward the base on the last logistic raid of the
year, having departed Concordia about two days ago. They are mechanics
mostly, working on the raid and the airstrip and ready to offload any
boats bringing material across. That won't be happening this year,
however, judging by how much pack ice lies between the base and open sea.
The base is small, warm, comfortable and airy. It's only around minus
five degrees here, so the doors can be opened and air let in. The
furnishings are wooden and homely. At it's centre is a large room where
the crew cook and eat. The single long dining table runs almost the
whole length of the room. At one end is the small kitchenette, and at the
other four wide and tall glass doors doors let us look out onto the bay of
sea and ice and across to DDU, about five kilometres away. It's painted
and furnished in a very homely way. There are a few bedrooms, some
workshops, some stores, some yards for tractor maintenance. That's it.
The guys are very friendly and welcoming despite mostly depending on my
still extremely limited spoken French for communication. But we still
manage to have a joke frequently and I am really enjoying the easy
company. A couple of days after I arrived Yves-Marie, the doctor here
took the opportunity of the extra cover to go back to DDU to tie up some
work left from the winterover. So I have a role as the station doctor by
default, albeit with nothing actually to do. The hospital room is tiny,
with a small desk for consulting and the doctor's bed less than a metre
away. Simple DIY cupboards contain a small but pretty comprehensive stock
of equipment. The window also looks over the bay and I find it's a very
warm, comfortable place to sit, enjoy the view and write my winterover
report. Jean-Louis will get here from Dome C tomorrow and he is widely
recognised as the best chef in Antarctica. This is a fabulous place to
be, in fact.

There is a team of glaciologists here who has been coming each summer for
seven years, observing the movements of the ice with solar powered GPS
sensors fixed at certain points on the glacier. They invited me to go
along with them one day, and I found myself in DDU's little squirrel
helicopter flying daringly close to the ice to stay out of the katabatic
winds, up to check on their stations. From the first station we hiked to
the second and third, roped together as we were crossing crevassed ice.
It's a long time since I did any improvised roped rescue practice and as I
walked I thought about the gear they had given me, I had to think a bit to
remember which way round you clip a ropeman when rigging a z-pull, how to
release ascenders to pay out rope, the way to get down on the axe to
arrest a leader's fall into a crevasse, the best knots to tie into the
rope with, and all the complications that can come up to catch the
unpractised rescuer. It's a natural extension of my climbing safety skills
and I quite liked thinking around the problems again. But of course no
such eventuality occurred. Mostly, it was just great to walk for so long,
on solid footing as we crossed the glacier past, and occasionally stepping
over gaping open crevasses.

Then yesterday we walked to DDU for a visit, five km across the pack ice
filling the bay. The rule is you go in threes at least carrying a radio.
Whilst one of the guys did some GPS work, his pHD student Cyril and I
wandered around the base, meeting lots at Dome C people who had flown down
that day. It was strange to find good friends, who I only knew as working
very hard, to be wandering around with nothing to do. Tourists just like
me. We'd been there an hour or so when we got approached by a stranger
who said, 'You are the Scottish doctor.' Just like that. Like the Highland
villages I grew up in, everyone knows who you are, how you got here. And
I like that. He is the district Mayor. Whereas Concordia is an
expeditionary base, DDU is treated as a French territory and you are
essentially in France here. After a brief chat the mayor put his shades
back on and went back to directing the helicopter by handheld radio, as he
watched it carry supplies on a wire from the docked ship to the storehouse
door he stood in front of. DDU is sixty years old now, established I've
been told when an older base round the coast burned one summer and the
crew retreated to a scientific hut that had been built here. It is very
close to the glacier and huge icebergs drift close by. Apparently there
are around a hundred people on the base at the moment. It is an
accumulation of low, large huts of various ages in a ring around the top
of the largest outcrop in the area. There is a post office hut, a hospital
building, a seventy five metre tall VHF radio mast, various scientific
buildings, amongst others. We had our dinner there – eating out, I joked.
Again, a friendly place, you just have to speak what French you can for a
few minutes and you always find people ready to chat and have a laugh in

The base is built on a rock that is home to thousands of Adelie penguins.
They nest right around the buildings and, much more densely, down the
sides of the outcrop. Their chicks are full grown now, fully adult height
and some look bigger than their parents, less than six weeks after
hatching. But they still have their brown downy feathers and are unable
to swim, so they depend on their parents for food. It's quite comical,
and common, to see chicks chasing their parents around the rocks demanding
food, and the parent quite determinedly running away. There are
penguin-made paths on the ice all round DDU as parents leave their nests
to walk across the pack to the sea for more food. There are so many of
them that there is a more or less continuous procession of them going
out, and coming back. They are less than a meter tall yet they walk
kilometers to get to the sea. I have missed most of the emperors, they
have already passed through on their way to the sea and I will leave
before their return. The colony will face the long, long winter, with
winds as high as 300km/hour and absolute temperatures of minus 35, just
half a kilometre from the base. There are a few around the base, however,
slow moving and somehow seeming mournful compared to the boisterous,
clumsy, busy Adelies.
On our return across the ice we climbed a small iceberg that was frozen
into the pack ice, 10m high cliffs at either end and sloping flanks in
between, perhaps a kilometre or so from the ice sheet, several more to the
sea. Weddell seals were lazing around at the foot of it, having found or
made a hole in the ice to climb up through. They don't bother much when
humans pass close by. To them I guess danger is Orca-sized, we don't look
so scary. At the top of the iceberg there was glassy ice, flat and
smooth enough to skate on, and it was almost cobalt-blue coloured, even
under a darkening grey sky. It was a very strange discovery.
Occasionally a solitary Adelie would cross our paths, several kilometres
out of the way of their nests or the sea. Just wandering, apparently.

Time, at last, to leave Antarctica. Feb 11th
So the Astrolabe will depart tomorrow. We'll go by helicopter in the
morning to join her and she'll cast off at midday. This time there
should not be any postponements.
My time, although I am in the semi-designated position of medical
responsible for the Prud'homme base, has really been a vacation. In the
six days I've been here I've prescribed a bottle of Maalox. That's it.
This afternoon I took a walk down to the edge of the pack ice today, to
explore the curling crests of the ice cliffs, like breaking waves. Blue,
white, or red where mixed with the earth. I thought it would be time to
pause and reflect on the raid and on departing Concordia, write a little
about it.

But really, I find I don't have much to say really. Job done, now looking
ahead to the next step. But at the same time I find I can't see at all
more than the next step ahead. At Dome C, in the last few days I could
only see ahead to the raid, on the raid, ahead to some rest at Prud'homme,
now tonight, only as far as the helicopter ride to the astrolabe tomorrow.
That really is as far as I can see. Hobart? Holiday? UK? Work?
Haven't a clue, can't even imagine these things. Besides, it really
doesn't feel like goodybye, more like au revoir. Patrice has asked me if
I would like to come back to be the doctor for raids in the future, and I
would. I think I might find myself back here sometime.

Sounds like the guys have got out the guitars and beers, and have started
playing tunes in the workshop. I think I'm just going to go join them,
worry about all that later. See you.

By the way, the wind is getting up, shaking the base tonight. And this
afternoon I noticed that there was a swell in the bay for the first time.
Looks like the weather is not going to be kind for us.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Raid day 9 - On arrive

Arrived at DDU

Tired, aching shoulders and arms, and now quite happily drunk.
Bonne nuit

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Raid day 8

Position 67 degrees 32.780 South 138 degrees 00.750 East
Distance to DDU 120km

We have finished another straightforward day, pitching and rolling down
the snow track.
And now as I type I'm looking out on a beautifully coloured sunset. It's
lovely to see twilight again, after three months.
The wind is high, the caravan, already leaned a little to one side as the
snow we're parked on is uneven, rocking a little in a strong wind.
Trails of snow are snaking over the deep blue snow, like sand does on a
windy beach. All the colours of the rainbow light the sky just above the
horizon. Otherwise our little disc of white world is just the same as
it has been every night of our journey.

Tomorrow we'll get to the coast, although not quite to DDU. The last few
kilometers are quite steep and so the train will need re-arranging, and
that takes a bit of extra time.

As long as we have good weather, we'll see the sea tomorrow. I can't
begin to express how much I'm looking forward to it.

And, the day after we arrive, the last planes of the year leaving
Concordia should land at DDU as the next winterover, DC8, begins.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Raid day 7

Position 68 degrees 17.740 south 135 degrees 40.321 east
Distance travelled today 120km

Today felt long, after last night's repairs. Still, we put in a full day
and we're now just about two days drive away from DDU. Maybe two days and
a couple of hours, frustratingly.
The ski repair has been good and we've had no more problems today.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Raid day 6

Position 69 degrees 34.964 south, 134 degrees 20.039 east
distance travelled today 120km

We travelled slowly this afternoon, and when we stopped we discovered why.
One of the skis had broken off the generator trailer - one of of the
4-trailer caravan at the rear of the raid - and was wedged underneath.

In 2 hours we dug out under the ski to get it out, replaced the
axle-mount, craned up the several tonne trailer and refitted it. Patrice,
Anthony and Alex are seriously, seriously good at what they do. It's
going to be a later start tomorrow as we finished at almost midnight, so
we've left the routine maintenance until tomorrow.

We estimate we have three days left to go.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Raid day 5

Position 70 degrees 25.486 south, 134 degrees 08.660 east
Distance from DC 630 km
Distance from DDU 478 km

I realised yesterday I put down the wrong distance. The position was
correct but someone had been messing with the GPS waypoints and so the
distance showing was actually the drive left to do to DDU. But now we are
definitely more than half way there.

Tonight we have arrived at D85 and have descended to an altitude of around
2,600. My oxygen saturations - my own personal altimeter - are up at 93
percent, the highest in a year.
And another special treat - we have caught up with night-time. The sun
set just a half hour ago, which was a complete surprise. Right now there
is a fabulous red sky over the snow plain.

Tomorrow will be just like today - another 11 hours of driving. Our
little crew of five is great. When we passed the logistic raid we swapped
David, who is now with them en route back to DC, for Patrice Godon, the
antarctic adventurer who developed the whole French traverse from nothing
more than an idea, and first ventured into the interior looking for Dome C
fifteen years ago with a single challenger, a pisten bully and a hand held
GPS. He's a great guy and very interesting to talk to.

Four days more to go and we should be at Cap Prudomme, on the coast, next
to DDU.