Antarctica '09: Patriot Hills

Part 1 of our Antarctica Experience


Tuesday, 30 December

Good-to-fly Day!

Boarding IL-76 from side

Weather is clement and we can finally board the Ilyushin.


20:30 is take off. The flight might be expensive, but our seats are aircraft seating true cattle class: there is “aircraft-style seating”, but only for less than 50 passengers. The rest of us sit along the side IlyuCargo (like paratroopers) squeezed besides the cargo. (We do hope ours is there too...) The comfort level there is definitely “basic”, but we each have a seat belt, a life vest (at least we think that's what that packet is) and there are oxygen tubes everywhere (but the cabin is pressurised). Gernot has scored the rearmost occupied seat, meaning he can stretch out over the unoccupied ones and try to catch up on a bit of sleep...

Navigator's cockpit Navigator's view Trudy, meanwhile, spends most of her time either standing near the two available windows (in the aircraft doors) or, preferably, crouching in the navigators cockpit, which is at the tip of the aircraft nose underneath the pilot's cockpit—best view in the house!!!

Long chats to Nicholas, the navigator, keep Trudy entertained during the unfortunately almost completely cloudy Antarctic Peninsula flight. At least for a short period, she can see along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, some pack ice and icebergs and nearby a mountain range.

A little later, our camera starts playing up and refuses to take more pictures. As you can imagine, this is a <expletive deleted> annoyance and, for the time being, we just don't know how terminal a blow to our travel records this is going to be.

The flight takes 4.5 hours.


Wednesday, 31 December

We land on Antarctica in the early morning hours of the last day of the year

Patriot Hills base camp (PH, 80°18'0"S, 81°20'34"W, 806 m elevation) is located just North of the small Patriot Hills range at the southernmost end of the Heritage Range, part of the Ellsworth Mountains in West Antarctica.

The landing is impressive. Sitting inside the plane, wearing seatbelts, we see nothing of the outside (the one window each side in the passenger area is too high up to look out when seated). So we all sit there, waiting. At some stage we hear the flaps being extended, so it's only a few minutes to go. Then we hear the landing gear being lowered—maybe a minute to go. Eventually a (very soft) touchdown, a few bounces, and then the plane rolls for what seems ages over the bumpy blue-ice runway, using only thrust reversion to break, until it comes to a stop after a few km. It then turns and taxis back for at least another 10 minutes. Finally, we stop and the engines cut out. We're in Antarctica!!!!

On arrival in the early morning hour of 1:00 (PH uses Chilean time), the weather is calm and sunny, with only few clouds and very good visibility. We walk across to the Patriot Hills camp site, which will become our PH: camp base camp for the next few days. The walk is about 2km, a fair bit of it on blank ice. PH: main tent Fortunately, the surface is fairly uneven, otherwise it'd be a real challenge (doesn't prevent plenty of people slipping and falling). The camp has one large main tent (blue and white), which holds the camp kitchen. This is also the dining and day-use common area for the (guided) ANI guests (like us). Nearby is a communication shed, PH: guest tents a few other service tents, some 20 dual-occupancy ANI guest tents (white, blue and red) and 20 one-person staff tents (yellow). Further away is the camping area for the self-supported groups, who only use ALE for overall logistics. Most of these are climbers bound for the nearby mountain range that includes Mount Vinson, the “highest” peak on Antarctica, a matter which is currently under dispute. smile

While nominally the middle of the night, they serve for all newcomers a dinner of Gulash and mashed potatoes. After a quick briefing, we are being led to our tent at 3:00, where we are re-united with our baggage, just as the Ilyushin takes off for her return flight.

PH:ourTent1 PH:ourTent2 Our tent is roomy, has a table and is tall enough to allow us to stand up. The two beds are made from a double layer of mattresses and are very comfortable. We sleep well in the cool air, although the insight of the double-layer tent is as well-lit from the never-setting sun as a house at mid-day. This poses a bit of a challenge for Gernot, whose eye shades don't block out the light well enough. Trudy is lucky not to have this problem—she'll have others...

The “night”, however, is rather short, since breakfast is served at 9 am (a one-hour concession to the normal schedule, given that we arrived in the middle of the night). They treat us very well with the meals; for example, breakfast is always a buffet with several cooked and fresh dishes to choose from. Today, it is frittata with beans, other days, it might be scrambled eggs with bacon, and always freshly-baked bread.

Miraculously, our camera starts working again after swapping and re-charging the battery (even though low battery charge didn't seem to be the problem). Fortunately, it keeps serving faithfully for the remainder of the trip, without giving us any trouble whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the weather is deteriorating, with wind starting to pick up again, snow, a low cloud cover and visibility dropping to 3km. This means no-fly weather, including the small Twin Otter turboprop aircrafts, which are used to transport people within Antarctica. While wind is less of an issue for them (their skiway at PH is aligned with the wind, and elsewhere they land into the wind on any flat surface), they need 10km visibility and several 100 metres clear airspace below the clouds. And the forecast is that this will hold for 3–5 days. This means, we won't fly out immediately to 89°S to start our Last-Degree skiing expedition.

We explore the camp a little and find out that a “snow-track-train” is being PH:T set up for the twice-a-season fuel run to Thiel Mountains, the refuelling stop at around 86°S for the Twin Otters on their way to the South Pole.

PH:T We now also meet our guide, Rob. He is one of the most experienced and senior people in the camp. He certainly doesn't lack experience, and seems to be relaxed enough to be a good companion for a week on the trek. What we didn't know then was that he would become known to us as “Rob the Slave Master”. smile

In the afternoon, we catch up with a little sleep to be ready for the New Years Eve party in Antarctica!

Apart from a sit-down three course dinner, they also serve fairly alcoholic punch from a specially carved ice-bowl, and PH:NYE1 PH:NYE2 PH:NYEfoutnain PH:NYEbowl for the adventurous there was the “iced alcohol fountain”. By the way, the blonde woman in the pink top in the rightmost picture is Hannah McKeand, who for the previous two years held the record for the fastest trip from the coast to the pole: 10° (i.e. 1,111 km) solo in less than 40 days. Only after our own trip would we appreciate what an incredible achievement that is!


Thursday, 1 January 2009
A new day, a new year—our first full day in Antarctica

PH: medium to high winds, low hanging snow-clouds continuing to last for another couple of days, poor to mediocre visibility
In short: No-fly day.

PH temperatures during our time there are generally between -10°C and -6°C. This feels quite balmy in the sun, especially with only little wind. It can be chilly without sun and moving into the wind.

After a late breakfast, we do an equipment check with Rob, our guide. In the afternoon, we collect the final pieces of gear: skis, poles, sledge (or “pulk”), harness, shovel, tent with add ons like extra insulating tent floor, stoves, fuel, and food for ten days (at 6000 calories per day!).

We test-run the skis around the camp and are quite happy with them. They are “back-country” style, i.e. a sturdy version of cross-country skis and have half-length skins permanently mounted. After a short while, we also get the hang of the bindings, which consist of a flexible plastic plate screwed to the ski at the toe-end (no hinges!) and a metal frame at the heel coming off the plate, with straps to tie the boot in. This style is needed to allow us to wear our thick, heavily-insulated boots, which would not fit any normal bindings.

We take all the equipment to our tent and start fully loading the pulk, PH:pulk including all our own clothes and gear. The photo shows our skis and pulks in front of our tent named Johansen, see board to the right of the tent. (Each tent is named after an Antarctic explorer; the claim to fame of our Norwegian is to have been a member of Amundsen's initial 8-person party to the South Pole that had to turn back, only to then being left out of the subsequent 5-person, successful expedition by Amundsen a month later, due to Johansen's criticism of Amundsen.)

DC-6 In the afternoon we embark on our first training run and overnight snow camp. The place we are aiming for is the wreck of a DC-6 plane which crashed in poor weather in 1992, some 9km S of PH. It is by now almost completely covered in snow, the top 1m of the tail fin is all that remains visible. GPS notwithstanding, we're impressed that Rob can actually find it in the present condition—a 1m piece of white metal in the snow with visibility by then down to a few hundred metres, and very poor contrast.

As we pull away from PH camp, it is snowing, quite windy and the skipractice1 clouds are very low, resulting in poor contrast. Visibility is initially good (we see the Patriot Hills behind us and another range in front of us) but deteriorates towards the end, and there are no more land marks.

This overnight trip is meant to give us an opportunity to get to know the Does and Don'ts of snow camping and to get a feel for skiing with our sledges (which is why we packed them with the full load for the Last-Degree trek).

skipractice2 As it turns out, we really need some practice with the actual skiing equipment, especially how to best pull the pulk smoothly while negotiating terrain that we can hardly make out due to mentioned lack of contrast: everything was just a beautiful variation play of white on white with some white. smile It feels very strange to ski into the white, contourless void for hours with no landmarks whatsoever.

cooking And Trudy finds unexpected pleasure in a new camping experience: cooking inside the tent under our conveniently large vestibule—we will have to experiment with this back home when it is raining!



Friday, 2 January 2009
Our first morning on out alone, away from any support

tenting After a breakfast of hot porridge, we pack up everything and make our way back to PH. The 4-person tent is generous for the three of us (G+T+Rob), yet is keeping Trudy warm enough. Of course, an outside temperature of around -10°C and above freezing inside is not anywhere near as challenging as the anticipated -20 to -30°C conditions near the pole.

The skiing today is easier than the evening before, partially due to a PH:return little bit more practice, but also because we are fresh in the morning and for the last hour, contrast and visibility improved markedly. With ca. 45 min yet to go, we can spot PH camp: it is amazing, how uplifting it feels to have something definable on the horizon, a place to go to, where people are, where we can find warmth and food.

After a late lunch (the ultra-friendly kitchen staff kept food warm for us) we treat ourselves to an afternoon snooze and relax for the rest of the evening.

Weather forecasts:
PH:camp2 PH:camp1     3 Jan 09: No-fly day
    4 Jan 09: possibly a window for flying

Nevertheless, we get to see the sun for a short moment before dinner, allowing us to shoot some nice camp photos.


Saturday, 3 January 2009
No-fly day

PH:TwinOtter PH: Still around -10°
. . . still snowing
. . . and the Twin Otters are still sitting idly.

PH:clotheslines Knowing the forecast, we sleep in a bit and take it easy in the morning. Partly through the morning, Gernot finds in his luggage a PhD thesis he needs to examine and while Trudy participates in a GPS intro-session. Others attend to good old-fashioned household chores: laundry.

Whatever the activity, we have a good appetite built up for yet once more a fabulous lunch of great variety.

Just after lunch, the two of us decide to go off on our own for some more practice in man-hauling, along the Patriot Hills and towards the Horseshoe Valley. Visibility is not great, but at least, we can see the mountain range to our South providing us a bit of orientation. The three-hour round trip of approximately 8 km gives us further familiarity with all our equipment.

On this outing we come to the conclusion that our new wind jackets are not suitable for conditions here: They are just not breathable enough (even though that was the primary criterion—poor advise at REI) and they completely ice up on the inside. This is serious, as it will significantly reduce insulation against the cold. As a general rule, in Antarctica it is critical to wear clothes that prevent the buildup of moisture that would freeze and bring the cold closer to your body. “You sweat – you die” is the old saying.

We talk to Rob, he now ponders over a possible solution.


Sunday, 4 January 2009
...more waiting...

Still no-fly day, but at least, the weather is developing according to the forecast of Marc, PH's resident meteorologist, who has been predicting for several days that things should improve around 4/5 Jan.

NeedleAll Nevertheless, we take it easy this morning. NeedleT Gernot continues to struggle with his incredibly boring thesis and Trudy finds an other leisurely activity, this time an improvised needle-craft session with Hannah: sewing face masks made from fleece onto the goggles. It turns out a fun communal activity as well as a highly appreciated improvement to our gear!

In regard to the jackets, Rob had brought it up at the morning's staff meeting, and plenty were offered. Trudy in the end had two to choose from owned by Fran (who is in charge of looking after the guests in camp and is a PH veteran of over ten years). Gernot also had a pick of two, both from Svend, the camp doctor (an expert in cold injuries who normally works in a Norwegian winter resort). We each test-drive one of them in the afternoon—with great success. This removes our biggest worry, and we now feel well-equipped.

PH:skiingwhilesnowing The afternoon's training run (this time with Rob) is quite enjoyable, with some good visibility of around 2 km, just not quite enough for the Otters. At times, the clouds move in and it is snowing, but at other times we can see the disk of the sun through a thin layer of clouds.

The terrain is interesting and quite varied as we ski PH:icytrack along the Patriot Hills towards the east. We cross the jet runway, which normally is clear blue ice, but at the moment it is almost completely covered with 10–30 cm of deep, fresh powder snow, which leave only patches of ice exposed. (Btw, in the photo, the item you can see in the background is an empty fuel drum used as a marker of the runway; we'll comment on this again below.) We keep skiing slightly uphill where ice flow from the pole to the sea piles up and flows around the hills. From the crest we can look down (well, not that far with the current limited visibility) on the other side over the plain stretching further to the east.

PH:moraine PH:rock The ridge has the hallmarks of a moraine with rocks ranging in size from tiny pebbles to almost a metre across. Some of these rocks have quite an intriguing surface structure, leaving an image of the surface covered in veins.

PH:floodlights Our return track takes us along the approach to the blue-ice runway, marked not with spot lights, but with pairs of empty fuel drums. This gives us some appreciation of the visibility requirements...

PH:camp6 PH:camp5 PH:camp4 As we get back to PH, we feel invigorated and upbeat, the camp looks fresh and lively in the light has been a good afternoon!

This afternoon's trip further improves our confidence regarding skiing over ice, layering of clothes, and generally being outside facing the Antarctic weather. Now we feel ready, and are keen to fly South!


Monday, 5 January 2009
The day of logistic nightmare

Still cloudy in the morning, but excellent visibility to the East, while still poor to the West, meaning towards Mount Vinson (MV). This means that we are good to fly, at least locally and for the South Pole, but certainly not for MV.

ALE management has now the following dilemma to resolve:

  1. 3 sets of Twin Otter crews, but only 2 aircrafts operable (and the pilots are getting awfully restless...);
  2. 1 large last-two-degrees (L2D) group (almost 20 people, broken up into two separately-lead teams), who by now have decided to do only one degree as they are running out of time; the whole group would just fit into two planes as they are, but they are actually still waiting for a guide, Jürg, who is to return from MV;
  3. 1 tiny LD group (that is the two of us plus guide), which is also waiting for a person, a client, Ramon, to join from MV;
  4. 2 plane loads of people to fly directly to SP and back;
  5. 4 plane loads of people to go to MV;
  6. many plane loads of people piled up at SP and MV waiting to return;
  7. the round trip to SP including refuelling at Thiel Mountains is about 10 h, meaning that any one crew can only fly once a day;
  8. MV is about 3–4 h return, so at least twice as many people could be accommodated per day for MV than on SP trips.

ALE's preference is to do the MV flights first, as this gets the largest number of people sorted out, plus gets the guide Jürg and TO1 TO2 TO3 the client Ramon united with their respective teams. However, since the weather at MV is still bad, the first plane is dispatched with one L2D team, holding the second plane in the hope of MV clearing. A few hours later, the decision is made to cancel MV for the day and instead send the second plane the SP-ways—unfortunately, it is the second L2D team and not us that gets to go. Apparently, they will start their trek without Jürg, who is to catch up with them later, whenever MV flights are on.

For us, this means an other day of waiting...

So far, the delay and wait in PH worked to our benefit. Gernot had been really run down. His last three weeks before departure from Sydney had been very hectic, and his normal exercise regime of daily cycling had to be jettisoned. He had also a sleep deficit (not helped by working on that paper in Punta Arenas) and was struggling with a slight cold. Actually, he had been in exactly the sort of shape one shouldn't be in when skiing to the pole. (And we really do not recommend to try!)

By now, however, we are all rested, relaxed, acclimatised to the cold weather (as preparation for the serious cold near the SP), feel comfortable with our equipment, sorted out our gear deficiencies, feel comfortable skiing while pulling the 35 kg pulk, got our fitness restored—in short, we are ready, and eager to go. Any extra delay appears to not bring any side benefits. Yet, it can't be helped, we won't fly until tomorrow the earliest!

Also, by now, we are very likely to miss our return domestic flight from PA to Santiago, where we are booked on the 12th, assuming to leave Antarctica on the Ilyushin on the 10th. The best we can hope for now is to fly to 89°S tomorrow, ski a few kilometres on the same day, then keep up with Rob's plan of reaching the pole in 7 days on the 13th, fly back to PH on the 14th. With great luck, we could get on a suitably delayed Ilyushin on the 15th, or the next scheduled Ilyushin flight on the 16th.

While changing a domestic reservation should be possible even (as we are) in high season, time is now also running out for making our booked flight out of Santiago on the 16th. That flight only goes three or four times a week, and getting a new reservation on short notice seems doubtful. But there isn't really anything we can do about it. At least we warned people at home and work that we could show up a week or so late. Que sera, sera, sera, ...

Since it's out of our control, there is no point worrying too much, so we focus on enjoying the day's training run. Today's one goes East to Windy Pass, a crossing of the Patriot Hills. Conditions are absolutely wonderful—sunny sky and deep powder!

We decide to toughen it and pull the sledge up the pass, which turns out a challenge indeed. We herring-bone all the way up, about 150 m elevation, while pulling the sleds. The view from the top is rewarding, we can look down the other side into the valley that stretches out between the Patriot Hills and the Liberty Range. The view is simply breath-taking: The mountains are all covered in fresh snow, the valley looks virgin, covered with a sun-glittering snow-blanket...


The descent on the S side of the pass into the valley is much gentler, and the valley itself drops even more gently down to the level of the surrounding plane at the W end of the Patriot Hills, from where we ski back along the hills to base camp. In the end, we are happy having been rewarded for the extra day at base camp by a truly magic day of skiing in fantastic weather conditions!


Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Our last full day in Patriot Hills?

A clear sky with the sun out all day makes itself felt: in the morning, we enjoy -7.5°C increasing to a balmy -5°C by the end of the day.

Though, bad news for us: we are being bumped to the very end of the queue. While the weather is still bad at MV base camp, this is expected to clear. If it doesn't, we go earlier... In the meantime, one plane is under way to pick up a party that moved to the back side of MV, where the weather is satisfactory for landing. After this trip, both planes will then be used to fly the large group of (mostly Japanese) that is going straight to SP and back, which completes the flying schedule for the day. We'll have to wait another day.

One bit of good news is that the third Otter is repaired. It had been damaged at a rough landing (before our arrival to Antarctica) and the resident mechanics had repaired it, except they were missing a small part (some bolt, a triviality in most places, but a show-stopper in Antarctica). It had been ordered and is waiting in Punta Arenas for the next Ilyushin flight, but who knows when that will be?

However, they had a Plan B, and shipped another one from Christchurch to McMurdo station, and from there onward to SP. The Otter that dropped off the first L2D group had gone on to the pole to pick up the first of the many people waiting there, and brought back that crucial part as well. Within hours the repaired Otter took off for its first test flight, which was successful. ALE now has three planes at their disposal again.

The wind picks up again, which rules out an Ilyushin flight. However, it wouldn't be able to land anyway, as the ice runway is covered in snow. Clearing that only makes sense if there is enough wind to blow the snow away, so weather conditions are actually favourable. It still takes about 24h (and they really work around the clock) to get the runway cleared. After that it's the old waiting game for calm conditions...

To make the best of the further delay, we plan another local trip, this time around the E end of the Patriot Hills, returning via Windy Pass. As this is a reasonably long trip and includes a fair climb, we decide to leave the sledges behind.

We team up with John and Guy, who are waiting to fly out to MV, and, of course, Rob. PHr:JGRTg EnteringMiddleValofPH Starting off along the same route as two days earlier, we have to battle the wind a fair bit, with gusts around 30 knots. As soon as we turn the corner and make our way into the valley between the ranges, it becomes calm, and we get to enjoy easy skiing on deep powder in sunny weather.

Skiing down the steep slope from Windy Pass is an experience of its own: downhill on narrow slats with skins! And it doesn't help that the wind has blown much of the fresh snow away from that slope, leaving behind a patchwork of some fresh snow, some old, hard packed snow and some icy areas. Any attempts at telemarking are quickly abandoned, in favour of skiing straight diagonals with rather pedestrian turns at the points. Down in the plain we ski over a fair bit of blue ice again (which augurs well for the blue-ice runway).

FromWP:HorseShoeVal The picture on the left shows the view down from Windy Pass across the W end of the blue-ice runway and into the Horseshoe Valley. The ratrak tracks in the foreground are from a group of people who went to Windy Pass the easy way on the previous day.

FromWP:RunwCamp The picture on the right shows the view from Windy Pass towards the base camp (at the left), clearly showing the runway (and some equipment near its eastern end).

Overall, it was an other day of great skiing, second only to yesterday.

Skiing tally so far:
1 Jan:   8.5 km base camp to DC-6
2 Jan:   8.5 km DC-6 to base camp
3 Jan:   8.0 km westbound and back
4 Jan:   7.0 km eastbound and back
5 Jan:   14 km around western part of Patriot Hills
6 Jan:   20 km around eastern part of Patriot Hills

In total 66 km, most of which pulling an almost fully packed sledge. We definitely think we are now as ready as we will ever be for our South Pole expedition.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009
Pole-bound at last!

Cloudless sky greets us as we get up in the morning. Finally, after all the wait, we are scheduled to fly at noon. Our party of four will comprise of Rob, our guide, Ramon, the Spaniard who returned the day before from climbing MV, and the two of us.

There is plenty of time to enjoy one last leasurely breakie, a bit of reading and some final housekeeping chores, such as charging Trudy's phone to write down a few of the most important phone numbers (we are travelling as light as possible and are not going to carry a mobile phone with us when there is guaranteed to be no reception) and to confirm that we indeed unfortunately, but inadvertently, left our LAN Chile flight details behind in Punta Arenas (maybe a bit of over-zealous light packing!). That's going to be a bit of a pain when trying to change flight reservations...

At 10:30, we start packing pulks and rearranging our gear. On our test camp we shared one tent amongst three. As we will now be four, we'll have to double up on cooking and camping gear and back-up tent, stove etc.

G+T:ready By 12:00, our sleds are neatly packed for the air lift, including skiing gear, and our red duffel bag is packed with everything we are leaving behind at PH. While all the gear is sitting outside the main tent, we enjoy our last culinary meal for a little while. smile

TO:loading G+Monica+T We then load everything into the plane and take a few last shots on the ground. Our captain is Monica (see picture on the left), the head of the group of Canadian pilots flying the Twin Otters.

TO:cargo 14:50: Finally, airborne!!!   This plane has “cargo class” at the front, and “economy” at the back. We can communicate with the pilots only with sign language...

PH:bird's-eye Monica takes the plane around the East end of the Patriot Hills, giving us a great bird's-eye view of PH base camp. It's amazing how, after only one week, this feels like leaving home. Maybe because those seven days have been so intense, both physically as well as with respect to all those new impressions.

We then turn south towards the Thiel Mountains refuelling stop. Mountainrange3 Mountainrange3 Mountainrange2 Mountainrange1 The sky is cloudless and visibility nearly unlimited, making for an impressive flight. The route takes us across a vast expanse of ice punctured by the occasional ranges of mountain tips, like islands in the ocean. We can also clearly see the way the ice flows around those mountains on its way from the polar region to the sea. There is a clear drop of ice level from the southern to the northern side of any ranges, with rivers of ice making their way around the edges.

The Thiel Mountains fuel depot (85°11.927'S, 87°52.687'W, 1,583 m elev.) is a surprisingly busy place. TM:1 TM:2 The snow-track train with fuel supplies had arrived a day or two earlier, and a few people (normally based at PH) are still busy swapping empty fuel drums for full ones, and doing general maintenance. That supply train had actually been somewhat ill-fated too: the ratrak pulling it broke down half-way from PH to Thiel. A second one had to be dispatched to get the train all the way to the depot (picking up the damaged vehicle on the way back). For that reason the number of people and activities at the depot is unusually large.

TM:3 A particular attraction (for us) at Thiel is the new weather station. It was built and installed there only a few weeks earlier by our friend Ron, an engineer based in Sydney.

At 19:45, after a good 4 hour flight (net of the 45-min stop at Thiel Drop-off2 Drop-off1 Mountains) we are dropped off right in the middle of absolutely nowhere—88°59.716'S and 82°13.882'W and 2,734 m above sea level to be precise—112 km from the South Pole. The air temperature is definitely on the fresh side at around -27°C and notably colder than at PH: we are wearing our thicker thermals for good reason.

However, it is sunny and the wind is moderate, so conditions are good.

Trudy & Gernot

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