Antarctica is never as easy as you think it will be and despite endless planning, not everything goes to plan. So this week we take a look back at the last three weeks where we have endeavoured to recover winterised equipment from the Antarctic plateau and return it to station.
Each summer, before the sea ice melts out, we transfer two snow groomers and some other equipment about 50km inland to the Antarctic plateau to operate the Davis Plateau Ski Landing Area (DPSLA), more affectionately known as Whoop Whoop. This means that every winter, after the sea ice regrows to a safe consistent thickness of over one metre, we travel to Whoop Whoop and recover the plant. On a good day and a low snow year this could be done in about 48 hours and be a nice little weekend away from station.
The A Factor
Of course, being 2020 luck was not on our side and we have had considerably more snow and a run of bad weather, meaning that we made three attempts to recover the equipment. This is the story of the men who set out to recover that equipment:
The forecast was okay, but not amazing to make a run for it, but we prepared ourselves well and made an early start for a drive up on a cloudy but clearing Sunday morning. Simply enough, the weather never cleared and we didn’t even make it to the plateau, returning to station empty handed. “Better to save your Hägglunds than push a bad position” – Viper from Top Gun (probably)
This time we were better prepared after the dress rehearsal the weekend before. The weather was looking better already, however, it was forecast to deteriorate in a few days so we had time to get it done but had to be efficient. (Side note: the Antarctic weather is never predictable so you are always prepared for a blizzard, and if you wait for perfect conditions, you’ll often be waiting a long time!).
The good news - we made it to Whoop Whoop and started digging to free the groomers from months of snow accumulation. The bad news? We soon discovered that the snow had compressed into solid ice and we were left shovelling long into the night to free the groomers! We got there in the end and were looking good to have a night's rest and drive back to station in the morning.
We awoke to poorer conditions than expected, but we were still able to get going to start the drive down to station, when the trusty blue Hägg lost power and was clearly not going to make it home. Luckily we were prepared for such a situation and the red Hägg was there to rescue the blue Hägg’s occupants. We decided to abandon the blue Hägg until we could return to complete repairs in better conditions. The weather was now a full on blizzard and the decision was made to leave the groomers at a safe location and ensure all expeditioners were safe from the weather. This meant two out of the six man team would need to take refuge in a field hut for a few days, while the four others could drive safely home in the red Hägg. Bandit’s Hut was the place and all field huts are well stocked for such situations. The two “Stranded Bandits” enjoyed a few days of cards, scrabble and 1980s literature until the weather cleared to pick them up.
Third time’s the charm:
We now had equipment spread halfway from Davis to Whoop Whoop, and the addition of a broken down Hägg in need of mechanical diagnosis and repair. So we bumped up the number of expeditioners to eight and added the search and rescue pink Hägg into the plan to ensure we had a range of contingencies covered and were ready for anything with the range of skills, equipment and spare parts loaded into the convoy.
The weather this time was forecast to be amazing, but yet again started out bleak and snowy, so it was an ominous start as we headed off from station at 0700 Saturday morning… and to the credit of the Bureau of Meteorology, the weather cleared into an amazing blue sky afternoon as we fixed the Blue Hägg, dug out the groomers (again), and set a course south through the icebergs and back to station. The “VLZ (Davis) Convoy” arrived just in time for spaghetti night and was a welcome sight with all vehicles back on station.
Special thank you for the amazing work of the mechanical team of Cam and Steve, preparing the vehicles and getting them running after being left exposed to a harsh Antarctic winter (and Dylan for the spaghetti). Also to Tom, Jase, and Wayne for their commitment from the start, thanks to Dan B and Steve for rescuing the “Stranded Bandits” and then Johnny and Pete for jumping on the convoy bandwagon for trip three and all the glory! Truly a trip to remember and an Antarctic adventure like no other….but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.