We’ve had an exhilarating couple of days and I’m just taking stock of all that has taken place. The last time I wrote was in the early hours of the 19th making final preparations for our attempt to reach Cape Denison. During the previous day, we had arrived in Commonwealth Bay and secured the Shokalskiy against the sea ice edge, some 65 kilometres from our goal. Over the next 12 hours, two reconnaissance trips were made using an eclectic choice of transport: quad bikes, all terrain vehicles and skis. The plan was to find a route over the ice towards Cape Denison while the science team continued their work around the ship. Unfortunately both recce teams returned with tales of a chaotically jumbled surface. The wheeled vehicles struggled in the ice and the prospect of finding a route through to Cape Denison did not look good. But one of the real finds of this expedition has been the ATVs we call Argos. Looking like a tank, these eight-wheeled boats on wheels are the ultimate craft for these parts – ideal for crossing sea ice with the ever present risk of breaking through to the ocean below. The ATVs are good on tyres, but on caterpillar tracks they’re fantastic. Fortunately we have one Argo on tracks. Nothing seems to get in its way.
During some of the exploration work, we spotted a smoother surface to the west. The ice seemed younger – possibly as recent as last winter’s ice – raising the prospect of a navigable route towards the continent and on to Mawson’s Hut. Although the prospective starting point took us further away from Cape Denison, the new location offered some scope for getting all the vehicles across the surface. We wanted to get a team in to the site to do meaningful work and also keep a vehicle back in reserve just in case of of problems en route. We made the decision to relocate and take a team of six people out for 24 hours – a blend of scientists, medic and conservators; all with experience in ice travel and also capable of getting crucial work done on the site if we managed to get through.
The weather forecast was excellent. We were between two low pressure system circulating the continent, promising fine, stable weather for at least the following two days. Unfortunately this is something of a double edged sword. We have been having extraordinary warm weather; so much so the fast ice – purportedly meaning the sea ice is locked ‘fast’ to the land – can spectacularly break out along the edge at any time. A timely reminder was during the evening we relocated. The Shokalskiy suddenly found it was in a mass breakout of ice. In just half an hour, an extensive area of ice (some of which we had been using for the Hangout on Air earlier that day) had broken up and was moving away from Commonwealth Bay with haste. Large pieces of ice, in the shape of shattered glass fragments – albeit large pieces – surrounded our vessel. There was no danger to the ship but it was a timely reminder how quickly things can change in this environment. You can never take anything for granted in the Antarctic!
We set off at 0630 on the morning of the 19 December with excitement and some trepidation. Would we make it to Mawson’s Hut? I dared to hope but knew we faced all manner of challenges. We had some 65 kilometres of uncharted sea ice to navigate, with jumbled surfaces and tidal cracks to negotiate. The sky was cloudy and promised no warmth. And yet morale was high. We were giving it a go. With Greg waving us off, we took off with the tracked Argo in the lead, the vehicles packed with the team members and gear. Before departing we agreed to mark waypoints in our GPSs and regularly check in with one another using hand signals, VHF radios and satellite phones. We had two scheduled calls with the Shokalskiy at 1200 and 2000 to keep the team on board up to date on our progress and that we were safe. We were as ready as we would ever be.
The journey was the most exhilarating I have ever taken. For the first three hours we were not sure we were going to make it. We met many potential barriers that could have turned us back at any moment. Massive icebergs towered above us, frozen in time on their way to the ocean, a labyrinth for us to navigate through. Tidal cracks, meltwater ponds, deep snow, and wind-blown surfaces – better known as sastrugi – all had their moments but none prevented our progress. Seals dozing on the surface, barely glancing up at us as we drove past, testified to the presence of tidal cracks but we were able to drive over the few we met. Sometimes deep snow and surface meltwater ponds meant we had to tow the wheeled Argo but this was only for short durations. At one point we drove into a dead end, hemmed in by ice bergs and blocked by pressure ridges; but reversing out we soon found another route round. It was a nerve racking journey but exhilarating. No one had ever seen this ice scape before. I was reminded of Shackleton’s wonderful prose on his way through the Transantarctic Mountains to the South Geographic Pole which he described in the Heart of the Antarctic: ‘It falls to the lot of few men to view l and not previously seen by human eyes, and it was with feelings of keen curiosity, not unmingled with awe, that we watched the new mountains rise from the great unknown that lay ahead of us. Mighty peaks they were, the eternal snows at their bases, and their rough-hewn forms rising high towards the sky.’ I felt very small. But during the brief breaks we took to swap drivers and warm up, we found ourselves increasingly excited by the prospect of getting to Mawson’s Hut. I sent regular SPOT reports of our progress (which showed our satellite position and gave short message to followers on Facebook and Twitter) and recorded Vine clips for everyone at home to watch when we made it online later.
Three hours on the journey and we caught sight of a small promontory of rock known as Cape Hunter, named during the original AAE. We were close. An hour later, Cape Denison became clearly visible. I suddenly realised we were going to make it! We pushed through the meltwater ponds we came across – probably formed by the recent spell of warm weather – and saw the Mackeller Islets that were purportedly offshore from the AAE base. It was surreal driving to the site, through Boat Harbour, and up alongside the Hut, tens of kilometres from open water. It felt like we were in the interior of the continent, not at its edge. The features in the landscape seemed so familiar but so different to what I had expected. The area was much smaller; the hut tiny against the surrounding slopes, half buried by snow; the cross dedicated to Ninnis and Mertz appearing like a matchstick on the top of Azimuth Hill to the west; the plateau of ice behind Cape Denison so close. We had made it. The hut was all I dared hope for; the original wooden structure battered but holding strong, moulded by the wind, forming intricate designs and patterns.
Amazingly there was no wind. It was remarkably calm and as the day progressed, the clouds cleared and we found ourselves in glorious sunshine. We were incredibly fortunate. Cape Denison is in the Guinness Book of Records as the windiest place in the world, with average speeds of 70 kilometres per hour, the result of cold, dry katabatic winds flowing off the plateau. But today they were all spent. We were visiting on one of the rare occasions when the wind was taking a break. After Ian and Jon of the Mawson Hut Foundation gave us a tour of the site, we got onto our work. Chris and Eleanor set out to collect geological samples to reconstruct the former shape and extent of the ice sheet, Ben F and I worked on the Automatic Weather Station which had stopped transmitting in 2011. Ian and Jon struck into clearing the Hut’s entrance of snow and ice, ably helped by Ben F. After a couple of hours the door and inner chamber had been cleared and we were able to enter. It was like entering a time capsule. The air smelt strongly of wood, but even in the dim light we could make out the stove, the bunks with initials of their occupants painted on the side, and books on the shelves. In one corner was the small darkroom used by Hurley to develop his wonderful images of the expedition, with the statement ‘Close enough is not good enough’ pencilled into a panel, while at the far end of the chamber was Mawson’s private space, empty save for a bed, chair, a few oddments scattered round the room. Measuring some seven metres square, it is incredible to think a team of eighteen men stayed and worked in such close confines for so long.
During the rest of the afternoon we worked hard to get as much out of the day as possible. Samples were collected, observations made, ice was cored. But the conditions were so good, it seemed a shame to keep Cape Denison to ourselves. At 2000, I made the call and asked Greg to arrange for a second team to head out the following morning. We had to be back before 0700 but could not leave straight away. There was work to do and the warmth of the day meant surface water was a real issue. We left Ian and Jon for another day’s work and after the Sun dipped, four of us headed back to the Shokalskiy around midnight. The rapidly cooling air helped refreeze the melt on the surface. Temperatures plummeted and we soon found we were driving in -10˚C with the most stunning pink sky I have ever witnessed. It made the landscape look like a painting. Our only company was the occasional group of Adelie penguins walking in single file – and sometimes gliding on their stomachs – with a single mindedness that indicated they had a destination in mind, but what it was, was not immediately apparent. Most of the time they simply passed us by as if we were not there. It was like strangers passing in the night.
Shattered we reached the sea ice edge around 0400. The cooler surface had calved an hour off our return journey. Shorty after we were back on board and enjoying a warm meal and well earned sleep. We had made it.