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.

DDU
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
English.

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.

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