A week of reflection and adventure at Mawson station.

A week of reflection

This week has been a week of reflection for many of us as we celebrated ANZAC Day. Jens Steenbach (Jens served with the Royal Australian Navy for 17 years including active duty during The Gulf War) led the dawn service with several readings he shared with Garry. Lydia and Craig tended to the flags and Steve laid a wreath (prepared by Lydia). Jens explained the origins of the ANZAC Day commemoration which he has included in his reflection below.

Our forays into the Antarctic wilderness continue, and below are a few excerpts from a couple of expeditioners writing about their recent experiences.

Position filled: Mt Henderson sherpa

Last Sunday, the Mawson Kiwis kindly invited me to be their sherpa on a trip to Mt Henderson. At 951m with a short grade six pitch to the summit, it’s the kind of mountain that might be tackled while carrying a can of Coke and sporting a pair of thongs, if you were in Australia. The challenge here is in the conditions and the isolation. It was around −20°C at Mawson and as the temperature drops about a degree for every hundred metres of elevation, the temperature at the summit was calculated to be around −30°C. But it was also blowing about 25 knots at the summit, introducing a wind chill of approximately −50°C. Note that standing in an ambient temperature of −30°C with a wind chill of −50°C, your body’s temperature will never actually get below −30°C, but it will get there a whole lot faster as the wind chill sucks the heat straight out of you. Since your body’s core temperature is normally tightly maintained around 37°C, the damage will be done long before you get anywhere near −20°C, let alone −50°C. I digress.

We set out on the quads at 0930, heading out over the plateau towards Mt Henderson (nickname: Hendo). The route was pre-programmed into our GPSs which were tucked into the front of our transparent map cases and strapped onto the front of our quads. Once the route is set (ie Mawson - Hendo) you can just follow the arrow on your GPS all the way to Hendo. The Antarctic plateau is exceptionally beautiful and it is an enormous privilege to experience it. As you get up onto the plateau the mountain ranges appear and you can’t help but smile. It’s just incredible. The morning katabatics were blowing straight at us and they were chilly enough that I had to stop and put on my new homemade ski mask under my helmet. It worked a treat and I believe that Heidi is working on the patent right now. In just over an hour, we were at Hendo hut.

We radioed in to Mawson to announce our arrival at the hut and warmed up with a brew. Instant coffee has never tasted so good! We then divvied up the gear and somehow I ended up with the rope and all the natural pro gear (cams, nuts and other heavy metal stuff). I knew these Kiwis invited me along for a reason.

It’s only a 370 m ascent to the summit from the hut. But again, it’s the conditions that make this a challenge. I was wearing thermals, fleece pants, heavy Carhartt overalls, two fleece jackets, a big down jacket, a beanie, a buff (neck warmer), goggles, gloves and Teflon coated Baffin boots. Dressed like the Michelin Man with 20 kilograms of gear on my back — and the world’s slipperiest boots — we set off for the summit. Much of the rock and snow-covered slope up to the final pitch was sheltered from the wind, so I cycled between sweating profusely and pulling a buff frozen solid from my breath over my cheeks to shield the biting wind that intermittently appeared. Wind or no wind, I couldn’t feel my toes until we reached the final pitch (about 45 minutes after we had set out from the hut).

We took a few photos from the bottom of the final pitch and then started the scramble up the crack that leads to the summit. Half way up we decided to use a rope for the next section. I looked out over the plateau that dwarfs the surrounding mountain ranges as it rolls on towards the South Pole. No harm in roping up out here! Good to get all that gear off my back too. It was then a fairly easy, though cumbersome and anything but graceful, scramble to the summit. As I photographed the two Kiwis on the summit holding up their flag with the wrong coloured stars (another of the apprentice sherpa’s duties) I saw their eyes widen. Apparently my right cheek had very suddenly turned white with frost nip. I abandoned the next photo and pulled my jacket over my cheek and blew into it and dropped back into the crack out of the wind. The blood flow quickly returned and no harm was done. But it shows you have to be vigilant, and it shows the importance of looking out for each other. You just can’t mess around out here.

Back at the hut we had worked up an appetite. I pulled out my roast pork and coleslaw roll. It had frozen solid. I tried to take a bite but quickly switched it for a block of Caramello chocolate. We all thought it was pretty funny. It seems even the Kiwis think frozen sandwiches are a novelty (I guess electricity has finally made it across the Tasman Sea).

Not long after 3pm we got back on the quads and headed for Mawson. I had to stop after about 10 minutes to remove some plaster tape from around my thumb. I think the sweat under my gloves had soaked into the plaster and frozen it solid when I had taken my gloves off for 30 seconds before leaving Hendo hut to change the batteries in my GPS. The plaster was constricted tight and frozen around my thumb and my thumb felt like I had hit it with a hammer until I took the plaster off and got it warm in my gloves against the electric handlebar warmers.

We got back into Mawson as the sun was setting to refuel the quads and pack up our gear. After a regulation two minute shower, we enjoyed some of Rocket’s top notch leftover tucker with a glass of red wine. Smiling and contented, we began to plan our next trip. I’m still on probation, but the Kiwis have decided to extend my trial period as their ‘Antarctic sherpa’!

James Chappell, Doctor


On 28th April, a crew of four expeditioners hit the road on their quad bikes for an overnight stay at Rumdoodle hut. It was the first overnighter in a field hut for the 2014 Mawson team. The entire crew consisted of Chris (Chippy), Heidi (FTO), Rocket (Chef) and Garry (CTO).

Arriving at Rumdoodle hut, and after a quick bite to eat, field trainer Heidi lead the way with some map/compass training outside the hut before taking part in a practical team exercise which led us to Fearn Hill before settling for the night at Rumdoodle hut. The next day bright and early, well, before lunch anyway, we left for Fang hut. The journey over proved quite a challenge to all battling through the sastrugi, katabatic winds and fogging helmet visors but all was worth it when we arrived. Wasting no time we headed up the hill behind Fang hut taking in the view of Fang Peak, Mt Parsons with the sea ice in the distance from approx 850m above sea level.

Of course this was no jolly, the purpose of this trip was to gain experience out in the field (and yes enjoy the scenery at the same time), as all but 1 (maybe 2) of the entire 2014 Mawson crew require several days/nights experience out in the field at this stage in order to gain their trip leader status or at least field travel trained for the privilege to spend time off station whether it be for work, science or just a bit of respite from the daily grind of station life.

Chris Hill, Carpenter


April 25th 1915 marks a significant date in Australian history: it was the day Australia lost her innocence, the day tens of thousands of young men from all corners of this great country landed on a beach in a faraway country called Turkey. It was 1918 in a small city called Albany in Western Australia where the local church priest and 150 local town folks first gathered at the Cenotaph at dawn to a wreath laying, and then two minutes silence in respect to the fallen.

Since that day in 1918, the dawn service has grown from strength to strength. It is commemorated by Australians and New Zealanders alike, in cities all over the country and overseas.

At Mawson on this day the sun doesn’t like to show itself until much later in the day, 0855. So our dawn service was later than everywhere else. The station turned out to pay their respect to the fallen, even with the wind blowing at 35 knots and increasing as the service progressed.

The service was commemorated with a reading by Garry and then the ode was followed by one minute’s silence. Craig and Lydia tendered to the flags and Steve laid a wreath. At the end of the service all that attended retired to the mess for a nice hot ‘gunfire’ breakfast prepared by Dan and Rocket. The remainder of the day was spent mainly indoors reflecting and relaxing, watching the snow flying by the windows as the wind increased steadily throughout the afternoon and evening.

It is special to be able to say that you have commemorated an ANZAC Day in as remote a location as Antarctica, and more so to have the honour of being at Mawson station.

Jens Steenbach, Senior Mechanical Supervisor