|"Here too it rapidly
became apparent that the snow and ice conditions, at least at this early stage of the
season were not going to allow a safe ascent, let alone descent (which in mountaineering
is very often the more dangerous procedure) to or from the Forbidden Plateau.
Childrens scribbles spring to
mind as I look at John Laings track of the last 24 hours on the computer screen. The
superb superb Navmaster programme kindly donated by Plymouth based PC Maritime, coupled
with the UK Hydrographic Offices generous licence to use their electronic (ARCS)
charts allow us to faithfully and accurately record the path of the Expedition yacht John
Laing for posterity. From UK to Antarctic the line follows a predominantly straight path
with only minor deviations as the yachts course was altered to avoid weather systems
or to make the most of prevailing winds and currents. But to look at the recent track
alone one would think that either crew or skipper were heavily inebriated or simply lost.
The missing ingredient, not shown on the chart of course, is ice.
Having decided to backtrack away from the ice
choke wed sat been penned by waiting patiently for clear water to open ahead of us
and present a way into Paradise Bay to the south, our revised plans determined to survey
Andvord Bay further to the north to look for suitable landing sites where it might be
possible to disembark one or more teams of climbers to strike inland in search of a route to the elusive Forbidden Plateau.
Even from the yacht however, it was clear that this was not to be. Within the bay, ice
walls like the crumbling ramparts of an old fortification rise vertically hundreds of feet
from the sea; periodically carving (collapsing) spectacularly into the bay below causing a
tidal wave effect that pulses many miles across the otherwise flat sea. The volume and
power of the snow and ice that crashes into the water on these occasions must be
tremendous because the noise is like thunder and, despite keeping our distance, watching
the rapid spread of the fallen ice, massive blocks and new bergs punctuated by smaller
brash and slush, seems like inescapably waiting for an advancing landslide to engulf all
in its path. In reality, although suddenly beset by a significant swell, John Laing merely
rises to the new water level and like some naturally occurring wave pool the sea returns
to its previously flat calm state pending the next fall.
Climbing these tumbling ice walls was
obviously a non-starter so Plan B was initiated; to sail west across the Gerlache Strait
to the Antarctic Heritage site of Port Lockroy. There, the site of the first British base
in the Antarctic, we agreed we would wait for the sea ice to clear, take the opportunity
for some local mountaineering practice to hone and rehearse skills and drills and to
prepare for a return north to the Reclus Peninsula. The plan tacitly acknowledged that,
even if it were possible to reach the Forbidden Plateau later in the Expedition, it might
not prove possible to link the trip with a separate descent route further south.
But as ever with the best laid plans
It rapidly became apparent that the rising southerly wind was at last starting to push
north the choked sea ice that had previously prevented our movement south from Waterboat
Point and our route to Lockroy too was not going to be viable with the volume of ice on
the move. And so we altered course once again following every lead of open water as if in
a maze of monumental proportions and ended up back in Paradise Bay; ironically, at last further south than Waterboat Point from where we
had departed northwards 18 hours earlier for the very reason that we could get no further
Here too it rapidly became apparent that the
snow and ice conditions, at least at this early stage of the season were not going to
allow a safe ascent, let alone descent (which in mountaineering is very often the more
dangerous procedure) to or from the Forbidden Plateau. Disappointment perhaps, but no more
so than earlier in the day when the same conclusion had been reached in Andvord Bay.
Instead, not wishing to miss the chance to exploit our presence in the area, our thoughts
turned for the moment to our data collection in support of the research and scientific
programmes we have been asked to assist. The two large inflatable dinghies we have carried
with us since the Falklands were pumped up, and engines and safety equipment installed. In
this harsh environment each dinghy (themselves specially strengthened and borrowed from
the Royal Marines (good luck in Kabul chaps)) carries two engines in case of mechanical
failure and we have a practice of not allowing either inflatable away from the yacht alone
or without a full overnight safety kit - radio communications, handheld GPS receiver,
flare packs, bivouac bags, cookers, emergency rations and so on (not forgetting of course
a puncture repair kit, paddles and pumps). So even a
short trip along the shore line can become a minor expedition in its own right. Loaded
additionally with geology hammers, inclinometers compasses and sample jars, two teams
therefore set out this morning for the cliffs surrounding and overlooking Paradise Bay to
see what they might find.
Later despatches will report the success (or
not) of their forays. Suffice it to say that Jim, our scientific programme coordinator,
can now give first hand advice on the capture of Springtails - small invertebrates named
appropriately after their ability to jump using their tails as a means of propulsion and
therefore not easy to coerce into a sample bottle!
In the meantime it is with considerable
excitement that we can report close encounters at the other end of the evolutionary scale
- with Killer whales! Not a distant glance either but sliding along the side of the yacht
and shadowing the dinghies deploying our field studies teams. Brave blokes scientists! I
for one was grateful for the steel security of John Laings hull as a vantage point
while admiring their lazy but impressive progress. All the penguins and seals seemed to
have vacated the water too for some reason! Which reminds me (my, we have become blasÚ)
we are of course also inundated by penguins (mainly Gentoo and Chinstraps), Crabeater
seals float by on passing ice floes, Elephant seals bedeck the rocky coast, Snowy Sheathbills peck at (and make a terrible
mess of) the deck and sails and "Dave" the Skua has decided to make home on the
satellite dome (he will make himself sterile if not careful but the message loses
something in the telling!). The uninhabited continent is far from uninhabited.