Aurora and Diamond Dust

Since my last blog, I have been out and about on my winter trip, and we have had amazing weather conditions - our coldest, most beautiful period with amazing sun haloes and dogs during the day and wild aurora at night. Blessed are we to be here. I'll get onto the weather in a bit after I tell you about my winter trip.

In brief, we all get a holiday away from the base at either end of the winter - these serve partly to allow us to experience a little bit of Antarctica in the raw, and to get some experience of looking after ourselves out there in the big white. For this first round of trips, which typically take us away for four nights under canvass in lovely old, heavy but stable Scott tents. They are called pyramids now, but I prefer Scott. One major advantage for a tall person like me is that they are quite high - the upper portions are therefore handy for drying out kit above the primus stove we use for cooking and the tilly lamp that we use for light. There are two - and three - man tents, and as we were three men we had the latter.

In order to travel away from the security of our base, we first have to pack a lot of gear - mostly this is tentage and fuel, survival-related things like food, medical boxes and extra jingly janglies - ropes, climbing gear and so forth. We take a sledge with a complete set of gear on - known as a full unit, and a half unit for day travel away from our camp site. A third sledge carries things like ski, personal gear, extra food ( we took a lot of food!). It's quite a caravan by the time we are all packed up

Another, rather challenging (for me) aspect of travel away from base is that we travel on skidoos all linked together with strong ropes, and we ourselves are attached to the skidoos with a kill chord that will stop the engine if we happen to fall off. Given the landscape locally is pretty flat, that is only likely to happen if we drive too fast over a sastrugi, which in my case would be unlikely as I struggle to see where I am going most of the time. It's not just because I need glasses - ice forming on the inside of the helmet is my main problem causing me to need to stop regularly to scrape it off. The whole skidoo thing is in many way laborious and time consuming, but it is necessary if we want to travel any significant distance.

Anyway, onto what we do on our trips. First, we leave the base here, all linked up in a 100m line of skidoos and ropes and sledges. Al, our field guide and general good egg, drives out front navigating and we follow - trying at ALL TIMES not to drive over the rope. Yes, AT ALL TIMES GERARD

Luckily I didn't. Quite. I did, though, eventually give up on my helmet and open the visor to prevent ice build up. Im clearly going to have to work on this skidoo malarky.

From the base here, we skirt around the clean air space laboratory and head south towards a giant crevasse called the Gatekeeper. Hmm. A giant crevasse. A GIANT BLOODY BUGGERY CREVASSE!

I need to scrape the ice of my helmet just thinking about it. Usually we drive about 20 km an hour on a skidoo. When we cross the snow bridge over Gatekeeper - which is stable, safe and all that - we go a lot faster. Al pumps his hand in the air to signal us to speed up and away we go - stopping when we are safely over and on the other side.

We briefly regroup and carry on to our camp site a few km further on which is adjacent to a large ice feature known as Alladdin's cave. It's not a cave, but a ridge of ice (everything here is ice apart from the sea we are floating on a couple of hundred metres below us) and surrounding the ridge is an impressive windscoop a few hundred metres long. The ridge is on the north side, and we camp on the south side where we have good views all around. The landscape is far from featureless, but it is not varied. To the south of our site, a large shallow bowl feature runs a few km to what appear to be ridges of ice further into the hinge zone. Hinge zone? This is the point at which the ice shelf we live on drops over the edge of continental Antarctica and becomes an ice shelf. We don't live on land, you see, we float. Not away though. Not yet.

Making camp is hot work - we are working fully suited and booted in our winter best - down jackets covering windy layers made of finely woven Ventile fabric, fleece sallopettes and thermals. Working at temperatures into the low minus 20's with even a breath of wind soon sends you into the minus 30's and below, so fingers soon freeze up, as do faces and toes, so we remain vigilant against cold injury to ourselves and each other. As long as my core is warm, I am generally happy and I am allocated work inside the tent - sorting out our personal sleeping kit (P-bags) that consist of sleeping boards, mats, thermarests, fleecy inner and finally down sleeping bags. From the doorway across to the opposite side of the tent I follow the time honoured plan and lay out a series of boxes - one for food, one for stove parts and so forth - cooking gear and the radio. Comms with base are essential to our safety, so a large twin antenna radio is set up to catch the airwaves. 17 metres each side of the tent. We have good comms and Al is careful to ensure that we keep it that way. Outside, we erect our loo tent, cover and protect our skidoos and tidy up the camp so it looks like someone lives here.

Once our camp is set up, we go for a wander along the ridge. Tied together with ropes - one man out in front (Al), then a reasonably taut rope to me, with Anton my mate in the rear. We all carry an ice axe and have our climbing harnesses on. The idea being that if one of us does drop into a hole of any kind, the others can drop to the ground and dig in with the axes, braking any fall. That is why the topes remain fairly tight.

A walk is followed by dinner and a dram. Or two. We chat away to Kevin, our comms manager at our appointed time and pass news to a fro, what little there is. The talk is of safety, travel plans and so forth. The next day we wake to a sky filled with diamond dust - its hard to explain but the effect is that each and every molecule of air shimmers like diamond as it flashes by. It's not at all disorienting, just magical. We gaze about in the early morning light, feeling the bite of minus 40C on our faces. Warmed by our morning porridge and lots of coffee, we rope up and abseil into the windscoop we are camped near.

After an hour or two of climbing up and about to see some crevasses, we turn to see that the sun has risen above the ridge and is refracted through the veil of diamond dust into brilliant circles of light, double haloes, reflected to the left and right, and above the sun to create an almost honeycomb effect of light. Where the circles meet, the light appears strongest so that above the sun it appears that there are a pair of horns, and to either side a second, and third sun mirages out of the diamonds. We are agog and laugh and chuckle at our luck. I have my manual camera with me, and take a few shots on slide film. Anton snaps away with his digital SLR. My images will be locked away on film for a year or more until I can see the results. I don't mind the wait.

The magical sky does nothing to increase the temperature, however, and we move on eventually, exploring the weird ice features of the windscoop. To the eastern end there appears to be a lake, hemmed in on one side by a cliff of fish scale ice rising perhaps 30 feet before joining the main ridge. To the south blowing snow has caused giant overhanging forms that are rather like breaking waves. We can see where some debris has fallen recently. We stay clear.

Overnight the wind dies and we are faced with the prospect of a cold but dingle day - minus 28 or so and no wind. We are keen to make on, and pack early in the morning bags filled with coffee and chocolate to support our ski tour. The plan is to head off to stoney berg. Not an iceberg as such, but a mass of ice pocked with stones and rock some 10km away. Its a good six hour round trip, but we make it without the weather changing and have the best time. Again, we are spread out and talk very little. Each man has his own thoughts. Even faced with such beauty there is often little to say, little one can say. Arriving back at camp we are exhausted but happy to have been farther on ski than anyone else here this winter. Feels good.

Returning to base we find that the weather continues to cool. Some days are clear and mirages in every direction sparkle and confuse the eye and orientation. Icebergs appear to float to the north above the horizon, while to the south one third of the horizon shimmers and appears to move east or west. Although our landscape is featureless, the air around us provides plenty of diversity. One's attention shifts and becomes far more focused on the minor changes.

On other days, we have a mist of fine snow crystals adding layer upon layer of new surface to the ice around the base. Good ski surfaces, that the wind has begun to sculpt into small hills to the west of us. I manage to get a few runs down them on my days off, waving usually to the man in the kitchen who is cooking in my stead.

Last night we had our first aurora of the winter. A large portion of the sky to the south lit up in pale green with splashes of red and white. As you might imagine, we were all out of our beds as soon as the news began to spread - footsteps up and down alerting us that something was happening. Fully dressed in our down gear, we stood to a man marvelling at the sight. We hope for more occasions to do that. Again and again please.

We are just 11 weeks away from the shortest day, and our midwinter. Lots of plans. Cakes, presents, other bits and bobs to make and play with. I have made a start on my midwinter present, and have a design that I like. We all make a present for one named person, and give them on mid winter's day. I'll tell you more about that as time goes on - there's lots to talk about between now and then. I am going to put my photos on Facebook as our internet speed is too slow to get them on here for the moment…working on that.

Take care and stay warm up there. Gerardx