Trip to Browning Peninsula

View across Browning Peninsula towards the offshore islands.
View across Browning Peninsula towards the offshore islands. (Photo: J Smith)
The Hägglunds parked on Browning Peninsula.An elephant seal moulting in the snow.

27th February 2005

Jeremy Smith, Station Leader

I wasn't expecting to go there, but a need developed for two people to spend a couple of days at Browning Peninsula to provide weather observations to help the flight of two aircraft coming to Casey from Davis before returning to Australia.

There is an automatic weather station in that area but its information has become suspect, and it requires maintenance which so far we have been unable to undertake. The area is some 25 km south of Casey, near the Vanderford Glacier which is located in a trench that generates different weather patterns to those at the station, and at our two landing sites on the ice dome inland. The aircraft would need to approach the landing sites across the Vanderford area, and would need to be assured of good visibility there before committing themselves to the flight. Last week they flew halfway and had to turn back because of our uncertain and changing weather and we didn't want that to happen again.

Lance was going as professional meteorologist to make the required observations, but no-one can travel alone. It was mid-week and there was a shortage of others able to take off two days. So it was me, an unexpected job that involved some juggling of duties and arrangements, but a pleasant one. It is always a pleasure driving out into the Antarctic wilderness to take a break from the routine of the office and the occasionally claustrophobic, confined social environment of the station.

We took a Hägglunds, a tracked vehicle made in Sweden originally for military applications, used for over-snow transport all around the colder regions of the world. We left in mid-afternoon and took three hours to reach the cosy hut. The journey is twice the straight-line distance as it goes up on to the ice dome behind Casey, then south and finally back northwest, passing safely wide of known crevassed areas. The way is marked here and there by bamboo canes, with markers made from old fuel drums at corners in the route, but navigation once we left the beaten track to the ice runway was mainly by using GPS.

We were uncertain to what extent our services would be needed over the next couple of days. If aircraft were in the air, or if they were at Davis still assessing their options, weather reports were required hourly and we would have to remain close to the hut. But if any idea of flying was abandoned for that day, we could go walkabout in the local area. I particularly hoped that we would get a chance to visit one of the beaches on the peninsula where elephant seals haul out at this season to moult their skin.

We went through the usual procedures upon reaching the hut that evening:

  • radio to Casey to announce our safe arrival
  • turn on the gas and get the heater going
  • open the hut vents to prevent build-up of deadly carbon monoxide
  • ensure that the toilet was lined with a double layer of plastic bags (for solids)
  • place the new 'grey water' drum in the small cold porch (for liquids)
  • put out sleeping bags
  • take off and hang outer garments and put on warm dry indoor clothing
  • take out reading materials to while away the coming hours.

I opened a couple of cans of Guinness. Lance had organised the food, and heated the spiced fish, vegetables and mashed potato he had brought from the Casey kitchen. We retired early because the first weather observation needed to be made at 6.00 am next morning.

The morning was not promising for flying. Our hourly reports confirmed a general deterioration and by midday the decision was made by the chief pilot to not attempt the crossing that day. So we had the afternoon off. After lunch we fired up the trusty Hägglunds to move a few kilometres closer to one of the best seal beaches, from where we could walk the rest of the way. As we left, the snow that had been in the air all morning began falling more heavily and our visibility was cut to a hundred metres or so. Rocky outcrops loomed out of the gloom as we followed a GPS route between them, keeping to the snow until we got to a bay and had to take to our own feet.

The snow continued to fall heavily, and already lay up to half a metre deep on the ground. Tentatively we made our way around the bay, along a strip of sloping snow between rocky cliffs to our left and heaved-up shore ice on our right. The snow concealed cracks and holes which we probed for with our ice axes. Once Lance put one leg into a gap up to his thigh, and we were both constantly floundering. The flat light meant the white surface was hard to see, except where a wide crack had not been entirely covered by the snow.

We passed two groups of disconsolate looking Adélie penguins, in their own moult now that their breeding season is over. They looked scruffy and purposeless; they have to stand around in whatever the weather throws at them for about a month, hungry and miserable-looking, until their battered old plumage is replaced by a gleaming new waterproof suit and they can return to the sea and food.

Beyond the bay we climbed a low ridge and started to hear the snorts of seals. On the other side we saw them, in groups with a few larger ones on their own, making filthy, dark brown islands in the virginally white snow. I counted 36 in all. Most were asleep between rocks above the cove. Every now and then one would wake, shift position, disturb its neighbours, and there would be a general shuffling and snorting. One was swimming in the sea, but most had not moved from their lying places since the latest snow had fallen. Downslope of the biggest concentration, a slimy heap of thirteen, a river of ordure flowed across the white surface. To me they are old friends: I have seen them at their breeding grounds on subantarctic islands, as well as moulting on the beach at Davis. I find them engagingly gross!

The snow did not ease until after we got back to the hut, to keep the regular evening radio schedule with Casey and have dinner. But by next morning the weather was much brighter and as the hours passed it seemed that not only at Browning Peninsula but generally across the region the clouds were clearing. Only the ice runway had low cloud. This is where one of the two aircraft had to land because it had no skis to allow it to use the snow strip nearer Casey. But even there things looked increasingly promising and the decision was made to attempt the flight.

So on our second day, as the sun broke through the thinning veil of cloud, the wind dropped to nothing and the snow-covered views extended out through tens of kilometres of clear visibility, we were tied to the hut and its meteorological instruments and radio. But that did not preclude climbing a hillock nearby to take in the all-round scene. It was magnificent. To the east and south the ice dome loomed like a white cloud high across the horizon. Southwest the ice flowed into the Vanderford Glacier which itself poured out on to the sea forming high white cliffs a few kilometres west of us, looming over a dark sea littered with floating ice. Northwest and north we looked over snow-covered rocky hills to similarly whitened islands which I could identify and in many cases recall visiting during recent boat trips. The bright clarity was astonishing, especially contrasted with the murk and gloom of the day before.

The planes made it safely. By 7.00 pm we were on our way back, soon passing another group coming to the hut for the weekend. We could then follow their tracks, making navigation simple. As we crested the last rise we saw in the gathering gloom Casey's lights clustered below us on the coast. Home! For the next several days there would be eight new faces to add variety to our little community, now 41 strong but soon to shrink to 14 when the last ship comes in three weeks' time to take away our summering expeditioners.