A winter field trip

Riding quads on the flat sea ice of Long Fjord, July 2003.
Riding quads on the flat sea ice of Long Fjord, July 2003. (Photo: J Smith)
Replacing the radio battery in Bandits Hut, July 2003.In the iceberg maze in Tryne Bay, July 2003.Refuelling the quads at Platcha, July 2003.Packing up to leave Brookes, with the sun almost rising above the northern horizon, July 2003.First glimpse of the new sun, two days early, July 2003.

11 July 2003

Travel in the Davis area is in many ways easier in winter than in summer, because of the road network provided by the sea ice round the coast and up the fjords. The biggest drawback in the middle of winter is the short day length.

This trip was to start two weeks after midwinter, and four days before the official return of the sun. Daylight was already beginning to increase even without the sun clearing the horizon, but six hours is still not long when you're trying to get things done out of doors.

Weather delayed it a day, but on Monday the wind eased and four of us set off riding quads. We left at 11.00 am as soon as it was half-light, initially to Brookes Hut, our base for the next three days.

Brookes is the nearest field hut, 20 km and less than an hour by quad from the station. Leaving our gear there, we then explored further up Long Fjord. The flat ice surface, crusty with snow, led between snow-streaked rocky hills, cliffs and islands. Looming ahead was the great ice plateau that covers most of Antarctica, from which katabatic winds bring clouds of powdery snow. We could see those clouds rising above the icy horizon.

Our aim was to check the condition of a snow ramp leading up to the plateau from the end of the fjord, needed for journeys beyond the Vestfold Hills in the spring. On this day there was no way through. As the fjord narrowed, it appeared we were at the gates of hell itself: a frigid gale thick with snow funnelled past, obscuring the view ahead.

The evening passed with a dinner of re-heated curry brought from Davis, a bottle of wine, and games of liar dice. With the generator running outside and gas heaters hissing it was light and warm, even if the hut was trembling in the rising wind.

We slept late next morning, waiting for the dawn. After a hot breakfast we set out again into calmer weather. We headed initially along the same route, then turned left along a short roadway over a low pass connecting Long Fjord with Tryne Fjord to the north.

Another hour saw us at Bandits hut where we exchanged a battery and replaced a medical kit. It took several minutes to dig our way into the hut. The door was completely buried by drifted snow, and would have been quite impossible to open from inside (which is why field huts are generally fitted with roof hatches as well as doors).

Our work there done, it was time to check on another possible plateau ramp, above Tryne Bay. Setting out in the right direction proved hopeless, as it led into a maze of icebergs that would have taken us hours to find a way through. We rode out to sea and tried coming around the back of the maze, but even this was no good. Instead of grounded icebergs, we found ourselves bumping over jumbled floes frozen into a solid, very rough surface. Our small allotment of daylight was fading, so we abandoned the attempt and returned to Brookes.

After more curry, dice, sleep, toast and coffee, we ventured out on the last day to try to reach the head of Long Fjord once more, this time in good weather. We were soon at the foot of the ramp, a slope of hard snow rising from the fjord. Though steep it looked firm, and will probably be navigable by a Hägglunds towing a sled.

Next stop was across the fjord to check the location and condition of a rusted gas cylinder, evidently lost years ago, then rediscovered last summer and now to be removed by Hägglunds. Finally we investigated another possible plateau access route, marked by old drum beacons, but the snow was insufficient to cover the last rock outcrops so this route can be crossed off the list unless much more snow accumulates in coming weeks.

We refuelled the quads at nearby Platcha hut. The run home was quick and easy. A bright patch in the northern sky told us the sun was not far from rising again after an absence of 38 days.

We stopped at Brookes for a hot drink, to clean the hut and pack the gear, then paused to look more closely at a dead seal pup noted in passing three days before. It was newborn, probably stillborn, and frozen solid. A few metres away an adult Weddell seal's nose appeared at a breathing hole through the ice. The normal pupping time for these animals is in spring, so this animal was attempting to breed three months early.

Pondering this biological oddity we returned to Davis in the gathering twilight. A hot shower was bliss, and sleeping between sheets was a delightful prospect. We returned to news that the sun had been glimpsed that afternoon, briefly peeping over the horizon between two offshore icebergs. It had been seen from a roof through a combination of elevation, refraction and luck, two days early.