The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Day 16 – A rare opportunity

Posted by Ben - 23 December 2013

It’s pretty rare, but sometimes in life you get given a chance, an opportunity that won’t come around again. I’d suggest that these types of opportunities are often going to involve letting go of something, and taking a risk.  I’d also suggest that these types of opportunities may have few guarantees and hold the possibility of leading you down an unanticipated path.  For me, this trip was one such trip.

It was about 32 degrees Celsius in Darwin when I opened the AAE email offering me a last minute place on Leg 1 of the trip.  I replied and said “yes” without hesitation, and then pondered how best to get out of the contract I’d just started.  Whilst still not quite believing that it was unfolding, I made sure to ring and speak to Chris T, even though he was in London.  I had to scramble to get back home to south-west Victoria, unpack from work in the tropics, re-pack for an expedition to the sub-Antarctic islands and get myself over to New Zealand.   I, in contrast bought a pair of gum boots and a spare beanie.

Leg 1 was a brilliant trip and gave me the chance to get a feel for the ship and expedition life.  My whole approach from day 1 of Leg 1 was that I wanted to get to know people, that I wanted to see and do as much as I could, that I wanted to pull my weight, and wanted to contribute and be useful within the science program, the logistics and as part of the team.  I was blown away to be approached in the last couple of days of Leg 1, and asked to stay on for Leg 2.  Again I accepted without hesitation, (then worked creatively to organise existing commitments at home), and had a bit over 24 hours to get what I needed in Invercargil to be prepared for a trip to Antarctica.  From that moment I realized how significant this opportunity was, and have been humbled to be part of the team, and part of this experience, from there-on in.

I was incredibly fortunate to be included as part of the 6-person team attempting the initial 70 km trip across the sea ice to Cape Denison.  This part of the expedition was undertaken with a sense of optimism balanced by an awareness of the hazards we might face.  My perception was that the team felt prepared but cautious.  Chris F and Eleanor had done a brilliant job of preparing the supplies and emergency gear for the trip, putting in many long nights in order to be sure that everything was in place.  I’m sure they were tired but excited on the morning we left.  Jon and Ian brought many years of Antarctic and cold climate experience as well as a detailed historical understanding and a brilliant sense of humor.  Chris T, as always, brought his infectious enthusiasm, passion for science and “can do attitude”.

I’m sure we each had our own approach to preparing, practically and mentally, the night before our departure.   As part of getting myself ready, I’d been running through “what if” scenarios in my head and realised that some contingencies could be planned for but others could not simply because this type of trip had not be done before.  Still, I couldn’t help thinking through what I might be required to do medically, or logistically, if something happened out there.  I was completely aware that I wasn’t alone in managing an emergency while we were out there, and that within the group that I had the least polar experience.  However I reminded myself of the experience I did have, and remembered the lessons I’d learnt from various roles in the past.  I also knew that others within the group had first aid or medical training, but I still felt the sense of responsibility I’ve at times been daunted by, when thinking through the worst case scenario and complexities of keeping a badly injured person alive in an unforgiving environment.  I reminded myself not to dwell on whether or not something might happen.  I’d been very fortunate over the weeks and then days leading up to our departure to have some quite chats with Greg that left me in no doubt of the seriousness of the undertaking.  What I did know was that we needed to be confident but tempered, optimistic but balanced, and above all else respectful of the landscape we were travelling through.

The in-bound journey involved route finding across firm snow and ice, sastrugi and meltwater.  The two Argos did their job, and the towing system worked well to enable us to travel consistently across sections where the un-tracked vehicle would stray in the drifts and become bogged.  The ice bergs we travelled past, stuck firm in the fast ice appeared as mountain ranges and isolated peaks.  The presence of penguins and seals in areas that were at least 30 kms from either the continent or the edge of the sea ice still amazes me.  The low light and cold air of the early morning added to the sense of scale.  I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing sunlight on the edge of the plateau, trying to estimate how far away it was and how long it would take before we were overheating in the sun like we’d been in previous days.  I remember Jon sighting Cape Hunter and excitedly telling us that we’d soon see Cape Denison.  It dawned on all of us that we might actually get there.

The time we spent in Commonwealth Bay was busy, warm and unforgettable.  From the moment we arrived I constantly reminded myself to absorb the history of the place, to treasure each moment I had there and to be grateful of where I was and who I was with.  I was impressed by everyone’s efforts and professionalism, and was happy to provide manual labour and support wherever needed.  Above all else I wanted to make sure that I was a valuable contributor, knowing how unique the experience was and how privileged I was to be part of this team.  I still find it difficult to describe how it felt to stand inside Mawson’s Hut.  It left me with a deep respect for those who suffered and survived there, those who did not come home and those who now choose to work and explore in Antarctica.

The return trip, departing under a midnight sun was surreal and inspiring.  The soft apricot glow on the horizon, the pale blue sky, the full moon and the sun, the icebergs standing like sentinels… the knowledge that there were just four of us travelling out there, with two members back at Sorenson’s and the rest on the ship… the sense of wonder, respect, appreciation and peace… the reassuring Russian voice on channel 73 who co-ordinated our pickup, the warm handshakes, hugs and breakfast when safely back on the Shokalsky… my new friends …these moments and impressions will stay with me forever.

Being asked to be part of the team who travelled to Mawson’s Hut has been an honour and a privilege for which I’ll be eternally grateful.  The landscape that we travelled through, the camaraderie of the team, the history of the location and pure adventure of an unknown and untested route to the Hut have given me something that I will always carry.  The challenges, dynamics and incredibly steep learning curve on this expedition have been the catalyst for reminding me that whatever life we choose to lead, a life that embraces adventure and risk is sure to bring great and unexpected rewards.  “…one ought not to live in safety..”

(To my family.. Mum, Nat, Craig, Seamus, Fergus, Mahalia-Rose.. Erin and Dave, Sophia and Annabelle, to Ian.. to Cookie, Lach, Jimbo, Dave and Soph, Jock, Jenko and the swim the HH’s…to Phoebe and the Thomson gang.. thinking of you all!!  Have a safe and happy Christmas and can’t wait to see you in 2015!)