Halley VI, Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica 75°36'36"S 26°16'14"W
Wind Speed: 18.0 kts ENE
After an exceptionally busy relief period, the Shackleton has now gone leaving just the two winter teams and the summer crew.
The weather has been remarkably kind with sunny skies for at least part of the day, each and every day since I arrived, with relatively low winds and high temperatures. Today marks a slight change from this pattern, whilst it is still exceptionally warm, the wind has picked up and reached up to 25 knots earlier in the day, kicking up plenty of loose snow and blowing it across the ground, resulting in almost zero contrast and relatively poor visibility.
For us incoming winterers, we will be heading off to Creek 3, which is one of the usual relief sites, for our winter training on Friday where we will spend the weekend improving on the skills we learnt at the training week back in the UK.
This will not be my first opportunity to spend off-base as we were fortunate enough to spend Sunday at Creek 3 doing a bit of ice climbing.
This is not something I would normally think was a good idea given my inherent fear of heights however given the locale I simply could not let this opportunity pass, although there will be many more like it in the year to follow.
The journey out to the creek took two and a half hours on the Snocat travelling at a miserable 14 kph. The wait however was definitely worth it. When we arrived to the creek we were presented with a vista of untouched snow, ice cliffs, icebergs and sea ice, but sadly no penguins. The journey there was spent listening to a rather random mix of Alanis Morissette and Bob Dylan courtesy of Matt "Denzel" Washington and discussing the finer points of whether the view on the horizon was in fact real or a mirage - something which the outgoing winter team seemed to have continued throughout the year, never reaching a conclusive answer - I must admit it is incredibly difficult to tell when the horizon is completely flat and featureless.
Upon arriving we donned our climbing harnesses, helmets and crampons and set off down the slope towards the ice cliffs where the two field GA's had already set up some snow anchors and bottom ropes.
The site they had chosen was in a snow scoop, meaning that although the temperature was -9°C and the winds were in the mid-teens, it was excruciatingly warm at times and was causing a lot of the snow to melt, it did mean however that we were kept warm throughout.
At the top of the cliffs were enormous icicles hanging down like crystal chandeliers above a marine-blue melt pool, ready to snap off at a moment's notice - fortunately for us they did not, but we were keen to ensure that we gave them a wide berth all the same.
I was pleasantly surprised that my fear of heights was considerably diminished whilst climbing the ice cliffs, probably in part due to the relatively soft snow/ice below and the gentle incline that started the climb, meaning any vertical fall would have been caught by the incline resulting in simply sliding down to the bottom. However any falls were immediately caught by the person belaying at the bottom which was reassuring.
Climbing the ice wall was incredibly difficult work, the beating sun melted away the top layer of snow resulting in very fragile ice that had the consistency of a slush puppy. This wasn't too much of an issue for the placement of the ice axe as it was easy to dig into the strong ice below, but it did result in a face full of slushy ice flakes heading downwards!
The act of holding onto the axes was pure agony on the fingers even after a relatively short period of time whilst the calves and quads were burning due to being constantly on your tip-toes or supporting your weight in a squatting position.
I was quite impressed with myself with my ability to get to the top of one climb of about 15-20m and a reasonable way up the more difficult ascent which was a vertical ascent with several overhanging ledges.
We took a small break after lunch to venture onto the sea ice, which was approximately 2-2.5m thick and extremely hard. Apparently according to Ian one of the field GA's, the iceberg which was only a few miles into the distance had moved considerably overnight from just in view on the horizon to its current position and was one of the dominant features on the landscape.
We were fortunate at this time to have a visit from an Emperor, although it was more intent on resting than venturing over to see us which is unusual since they are such curious creatures, although it is also highly unusual to see one this far south given the distance to open water. It was likely a new adolescent judging by looking at it - it had likely ventured off course as adults would have been at the colony and other adolescents would have been out to sea.
Around mid-afternoon it was time to head back only this time myself and Stuart the comms manager had the luxury of learning some essential skills for wintering, namely skidoo travel across crevassed terrain. Although the route we were using was known to be free of crevassing, it was a useful exercise to practice travelling roped up with a Nansen sled in-between the two skidoos. The other advantage of using a skidoo meant that the return journey took just 40 minutes and we had the opportunity to relax before dinner which was very welcomed after a long and tiring day out - an exceptionally fun and memorable experience - memories of which will last for years to come.