It was 1.30 am and I was awoken by my tent thrashing around. Inside my cosy sleeping bag, I peeked out my circular door watching the wind blow over the ground sending snow flying everywhere! The visibility had dropped but there was still enough to see the surrounding tents. During our daily radio sked, we were informed of the current weather situation at Scott Base which was heading in our direction. Overnight the forecast predicted Restricted Visibility with winds ranging up to 60kts. In Antarctica the weather is categorised into three conditions.
– Condition 3 – Wind ranging between 0 – 45 knots with unrestricted visibility.
– Condition 2 – Sustained Winds of 45-50 knots with visibility less than 300 metres and wind chill between -60 to -73 degrees.
– Condition 1 – Wind speeds over 50 knots, Visibility less than 30 meters and wind chill lower than -73 degrees.
The weather was fluctuating between Condition 1 and 2, gale force winds, blowing snow, and reduced visibility suspending all transport from Scott Base and delaying our transfer to Cape Royds 7kms NW. I was secretly really happy, as it meant I could spend another day in the field and witness a blizzard. The day was filled with many card games, good yarns and speed scrabble. We all took turns at guessing how strong the wind was by using the trusty wind indicator in our field manual – watching the bamboo flags bend of to determine the speed. I also checked on my penguin friend ‘Charlie’ who was still alright and was huddled behind some snow in front of our camp.
The next morning the weather eased slightly and the Hägglund was on route, due for a pick up at 10 am. We packed up our tents, finished the last jobs in the hut and jumped in riding shot gun. Along the way out to Royds we were checking the sea ice conditions, measuring the pressure cracks to determine the strength of the ice as the crack are areas of weakness for transport. From all the newly fallen snow the cracks weren’t as obvious and harder to predict the thickness of the ice.The road had been previously closed off from parts of the Barne Glacier carving off from the warmer temperatures rising. Once arrived the others unpacked on the sea ice using the sledge to drag our gear up the hill.
Cape Royds exceeded all expectations! What happened next is hard to describe, but it’s something I’ll never forget. As I walked over the hill, I looked down at Shackleton’s Hut nestled into the hill with the Adelie penguin rookery extending out over the cape and the dry valleys in the background. It was a scene that was taken straight out of a BBC documentary. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I stood there in awe.
In 1907, Ernest Shackleton lead the British Antarctic Nimrod Expedition in hope to reach the South Pole. Thick sea ice prevented Shackleton’s ship from reaching their original destination and forced him into McMurdo Sound, landing at Cape Royds. Shackleton strategically placed his hut between natural wind brakes of the hills with minimal snow cover to minimise snow loading and brake the relentless Antarctic winds. The penguin rookery also provided a brilliant food source for the men. The hut itself was prefabricated in London and was constructed in 10 days on the volcanic rock.
Compared to Scott’s Hut, Shackletons’ is more open with only one room constructed for accommodation. There was much more of an open communal feeling with shared space reflecting the teams structure. If you look closely enough on one of the boxes on the left above the bed, you can see Shackleton’s signature written on it. On the north side of the hut there were stables to house four ponies and a garage for the continents first car, an Arrol Johnston. At the time Shackleton had reached the furthest south within 97 nautical miles of reaching the Geographic South Pole and his hut was subsequently occupied by other heroic-era expeditions.
Stepping outside one can see the Adelie Penguin rookery spanning 180 degrees in front. This area is cornered off as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), and you can only enter with a permit. We walked around the edges and up to the cliff that overlooks the colony and gives you a fantastic view of McMudro Sound and the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. Many of the penguins had eggs on their nest while their partners were walking out of the sea ice in search of food. Adelie penguins will travel hundreds of miles from their nests to find the edge of the sea ice, as they don’t like to swim in the pressure ridges in case it freezes over. I loved watching them waddle around. They weren’t the only birds on the Cape. A couple of South Polar Skuas were nesting above the rookery. These birds are pretty amazing too! They migrate across the equator during the Antarctica winter, reaching as far as Greenland before returning in summer.
Further up the hill is the campsite where the teams pitched their tents. Lizzie, Sue and Ciaran are staying in the field for another week while I am heading back to join the rest of the team back at Scott Base. The asbestos air samples have come back clean, meaning we can now enter the build and start working inside. Once the others settled in, we waved them goodbye and set off back to Scott Base. It has been an incredible journey so far and I have already learnt so much! I don’t want to leave although I am really excited to head back to base and have a shower after 6 days.
BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2016