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Ski Mountaineering & Sailing Expedition on the Antarctic Peninsula 2015/6

An account of a 30 day voyage January 2016

A long term ambition of mine has been to sail and ski in Antarctica. To find a team, suitable yacht and put them all together is not straightforward; realistically you need to be able to take a month off as well as commit substantial resources to the project. The planets finally aligned in December 2015 for me and the rest of the team - Mike (who actually chartered the yacht), Pam, Ian, Jim, Paul and Rob (who was literally a ‘last minute addition’).

 

After a lead in of a few years for some, and a couple of weeks for others the team met at London Heathrow, anticipation heavy in the air.

 

The flight to Buenos Aries is long but not too bad (only a 3 hour time difference) as it’s overnight. Most of the team stayed there on arrival whilst Paul and I became the ‘forward party’ transferring via the domestic airport straight to Ushuaia and a relatively modest hostel or ‘hosteria’.

 

Over the next couple of days we shopped for a few supplies (the white gas for the stoves in particular proved a challenge) and I picked up the first blister I’ve had for a few years walking up and down the high street! We also went to the jetty where all the yachts moor in between their various charters, resupplying and doing the never ending maintenance that yachts seem to need (particularly Southern Ocean going ones). Here we met Tobias, who informed us he was one of the skippers and that we should return with the full team to start the loading process; the weather was good for a crossing of the Drake Passage and they wished to get away as soon as possible.

 

This we did, though I think we were a bit unnerved as the yacht was clearly still very much getting prepared. We also met Cathy (the owner and Skipper) and Greg (1st Mate/Engineer). After a final visit to Argentinean immigration we were clear to leave and cast off into the Beagle Channel.

 

The crossing of the Drake Passage is a big part of a sailing trip to Antarctica and one which I think many of us were a little worried by. A big challenge in fact is fighting the nausea and also the boredom of long periods of time spent in confinement. I’m happy to confess I was first to be sick the next morning, kneeling in a not very hygienic, dirty heads, regurgitating a recently eaten peach. I did feel better afterwards but quickly applied a sea sickness ‘patch’ which works, though leaves you feeling bit flu like? During the crossing we kept to a 3 hour on, 6 hour off, watch pattern and it took 4 days and nights to reach the continent of Antarctica.

 

Our first landfall was Portal Point (on the continental land mass itself – many of the landings are actually on islands). We went for a quick poke about towards Jaques Peaks and skied some quite terrible snow! I think we were all probably having similar thoughts on how the month might pan out but happily for us things improved. The next day we set off with Harris Peak (1000m) as our objective. It was a long, tiring approach under a sweltering sun; the line weaves through impressive glacial scenery with crevasses and seracs in abundance. We finally summited and enjoyed an exciting ski back to the shore where we were met by the RIB and beer for the short ride back to the anchorage.

 

Our general plan from here was to head south as far as we could. Originally we had hoped to reach Rothera research station (both Mike and I had worked here in the past) but apparently this was a poor season for ice and early on it was discounted.

 

We stopped by the Chilean base Gonzales Videla (there is a Gentoo penguin colony here) and Mike, Jim, Paul and Rob kayaked from here all the way to Paradise Cove and the base of Almirante Brown (Argentinian). The anchorage here was spectacular, hemmed in by towering and sometimes calving glaciers. We skied a few peaks near to Almirante Brown (above Leith Cove) which I thought was probably some of the nicest skiing we had. Smooth spring snow and nice slopes of around 300m meant we bagged a few that day.

 

My memory merges days together but it was around this period that we ‘lost’ Tobias. Cath had identified him as someone who could skipper the next trip for her but as he had never sailed in Antarctica before it was to be a familiarisation voyage for him. Unfortunately he had complained of stomach ache since the off and antibiotics weren’t helping. We met with another private yacht so all the medics could confer (we had two amongst our team; a urologist and a psychiatrist. Neither, I think were used on our team!). The view was that perhaps he could be medevaced to a passing cruise liner. This all took a day or two and perhaps it was as well that we had some poorer weather. In any event we did manage to ask a French cruise liner to take him which they were happy to do (he was back in Ushuaia within a couple of days).

 

Our next stop was Port Lockroy. This is probably one of the most visited sites on the Peninsula and site of an old British base. It is now run by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and home to a few hardy girls who run the shop for visiting cruise liners and their passengers. We skied Jabet Peak starting from the glacier behind Port Lockroy and descended to Dorian Bay where we stayed for a day or two. This anchorage was one of the most pleasant and relaxing (we had lifted the keel to get in so it felt very safe). During this time we skied the south facing slopes of Jabet again (getting a little powder), trained a little with the stoves, tents and pulks and sat out a passing front.

 

Finally we decided to go away from the yacht and spend a night or two camping. We accessed Anvers Island from Canty Point after a long RIB crossing in two separate journeys (there was a lot of ice making travel difficult). The views from here are stupendous. Mont Francais dominates at nearly 2500m, its neighbour Mount Agamemnon slightly lower. We were interested in the peaks between Mount William at the northern end and Mount Shewry at the southern end of what I have always called the ‘Minaret ridge’. We set up a base camp after some hard pulk pulling close by to Mount Shewry and enjoyed the solitude and space of this Antarctic island. After a night’s sleep where we again found out who the snorers were, who had invested wisely in their sleeping bags and who had not, we set forth.

 

The route of ascent was steep in places, crevassed and at times it was unclear whether we would find a way through which added to the experience. We eventually took a rising traverse underneath the unnamed peak to the SW of Mount Shewry and then to a prominent col, again to the SW of the unnamed peak. Here we peered over to the ice cap leading to Palmer station (American) and stashed our skis. We split into two rope teams, donned crampons and set off up the SW ridge. The climbing was fun, probably Scottish II (Alpine PD +) and we threw in the odd wobbly ice screw and buried an axe or two. We again came up against a small vertical ice wall but managed to outflank it via a Patagonian type couloir (Andean ice flutings and tricky to protect) which finally led to the summit. Knowing we had a base camp meant that we enjoyed the climbing and weren’t pressed for time or tied to a yacht’s sailing itinerary. In descent we took a more direct line and lowered/abseiled from a bollard over the vertical wall and back to our skis.

 

The descent by ski was through some great scenery (and we picked a less crevassed line than our ascent) though the snow had crusted slightly in the afternoon sun. It was a happy team that arrived back in camp however and Paul, Rob and I whizzed out again for an evening’s ski down towards Canty point and back again.

 

The next morning we were picked up by the yacht and we headed South once again. This was also a turning point in the weather we experienced. From now on we often had lower cloud and some precipitation at times – the low cloud (and visibility) is a major factor when navigating safely on large, crevassed glaciers.

 

We decided to ski a lovely island (Bruce) which I had climbed on a previous trip. This island rises out of the sea where it is hundreds of metres deep next to the drop off. We were also treated to a couple of Humpback feeding on krill in the channel. This time however the wind had hardened the snow and it needed couteaux to bite and make our skinning safe. Mike and Pam snowshoed to the top ahead of us (their more direct ascent quicker than a skin line) and they passed us on their descent. We dumped skis again just short of the summit and quickly climbed the last few metres. We then all climbed into a crevasse (!) that a cornice had made to get out of the wind before an icy, quick descent to the sea and RIB pick up.

 

That afternoon we sailed the much photographed Lemaire Channel. Again a lone humpback performed for us and the sun shone again and allowed us to sit on deck in comfort, a rarity. We finally sailed all the way to Vernadsky base where we manged to break some sea ice for a very secure anchor near the small ancient base of Wordie House, one of the original ‘operation Tabarin’ bases.

 

Vernadsky proved to be a good place to rest and replenish. Over a few days we kayaked through the bergs and playful penguins, ice climbed on the glacial headwall and socialised with the Ukranians and their ‘bar’. They were particularly welcoming to Mike who had wintered at Rothera and presented us with a calendar in thanks.

 

We also managed to get fresh water from the base. This had been a constant worry as the water maker was severely underperforming (the plankton beating its filters) and meant showers were at a premium (I managed 4 I think during the voyage, Pam probably one or two more). As well as showers a source of contention (apart from body hair appearing everywhere!) was the heating and in hindsight I can giggle as the situation deteriorated to ‘someone’ taping the thermostat to a low or off position and others pulling it off immediately.

 

During this phase we skied the striking Mount Demaria. This diminutive peak is only 650m but is continuously steep and is well seen from the entrance of the Lemaire and all around. We really enjoyed being on top of the striking ridge and soaked up the atmosphere before heading down what was sure to be a steep ski. I set off on a different line I had spotted but quickly hit glacial (?) ice underneath and then almost immediately dropped a ski into a crevasse which sent me sliding head first downwards. Thankfully I recovered though it meant we skied our line of ascent which had some steep sections of at least 40 degrees.

 

Finally we were off again but this time we headed north, Vernadsky was to be our southernmost point. We had a worrying moment as the yacht was motored straight into a submerged rock at some speed (Mike and Jim landing awkwardly as they were flung across the saloon) but all seemed ok thankfully (on the yacht at least, Mike probably fractured a rib).

 

We anchored at Petermann Island (of Charcot and Porquoi Pas fame) and enjoyed some great wildlife here; elephant seals and penguins. I saw a pair of skuas take a penguin chick here to remind us of nature’s ‘red in tooth and claw’ and it took some restraint not to intervene. Interestingly they seemed only to be interested in the skin (fat?) much like a grizzly eating only a salmon’s skin? Paul (along with Rob and Jim) also dived here (he was overjoyed to log a dive at ‘Circumcision Cove’) twice, firstly for pleasure and then for over an hour to clear the prop of fishing nets picked up in Uruguay when the yacht was travelling down to Ushuaia.

 

Mount Scott dominates as you sail underneath it through the Lemaire channel and we had spotted what we thought was a good access point (the face above the channel being too steep and slightly melted out). We were dropped there and headed out into the large glacial comb. The crevasses here stretched across the entire width of the glacier and we had plenty of rope out between us. We made good progress though the weather made better, finally enveloping us as we neared the col. We dumped the skis nearby and decided to carry on in the hope that it may clear and mountaineered along the ridge again at about PD. One large crevasse had to be negotiated and it was hard to tell how steep the ridge was (we experienced almost total whiteout) so I cut slots into the frozen cornices and used slings for runners before finally summiting. In descent we skied the skin track almost magnetically, terrified of skiing into one of the looming crevasses we had seen in ascent. Radio contact with the team back on the yacht however gave us confidence that soon enough we would break through the cloud and so we did, allowing us a few hundred metres of pleasure.

 

Finally we anchored in a tight channel next to Hovgaard Island. This island is fairly lightly crevassed and easy to navigate so I was happy to get out with the team in yet another day of intermittent visibility. We summited without incident and again skied conservatively back along the ridge towards our anchorage. What was obvious is that two large lumps of sea ice had drifted in and looked like they may threaten our exit. And so they did.

 

In fact we were stuck for 48 hours. The first 24 hours we were happy to let things develop and hope for a wind change but it became increasingly obvious that something had to happen or we would be well and truly stuck for the foreseeable future. Much ramming at full revs, a few snapped anchor lines (trying to winch off them) and even a tow from a passing yacht failed to budge us. We had all resigned ourselves to another day in the anchor when Paul noted that it was the highest tide we had seen and surely we should give it a further go? So, at around 11pm we tried again and the tide must have just lifted the ice off the rocks it had been resting on, as we managed to break free to a collective sigh of relief. We anchored around the corner (next to Pelagic Australis which had anchored nearby) and went to bed in preparation for the crossing of the Drake again.

 

This time the wind was not so in our favour and we had it ‘on the nose’ at about 20 or 25 knots. We were able to sail however and we set up the now familiar watch system. I had just got up for my watch when the seemingly impossible happened before my eyes. The bow crashed down and a wave hit at the same time as we were hit by a squall and I saw the furler (the mechanism which winds a sail in and out) snap from the boom and fly wildly out of control, the jib sail cracking and snapping wildly. I immediately ran to my bunk and changed, got out on deck, clipped on and attempted to catch the furler, (which was damaging the boom and main sail). This I did before it decapitated one of us and managed to get it fast to a cleat. Jim, Greg, Cath and Paul soon joined me out on the wave washed deck. The jib by now was destroying itself before our eyes. Parts of the foil had come away and were tearing into the main sail as well as the jib and threatened to do us some serious injury. We tried to bring down the jib but almost immediately it jammed up high, the lines and rigging resembling spaghetti. At times Paul and I were thrown around the deck as the wind caught the remaining exposed sail and it felt like our shoulders were in very real danger of dislocation as we straddled the sail on deck. The final solution was to leave it tied down as best we could and drop the main as it had been damaged badly. The rig did not sail without both sails functioning. This left us reliant on the engine. We were now in a real life metaphor, quite literally in the Drake without sails.

 

During the night the steel cable of the forestay eventually snapped as the constant flying around took its toll. The catastrophic failure was caused by a combination of factors. Firstly, the furler had been causing problems from before our charter, apparently it had ‘play’ in it. I could see it had been repaired to some extent but what I also saw was the total failure of one bearing (no longer even there) and the partial failure of the other (still in place). This movement had weakened both the attachment to the boom (where it had snapped) but also somehow had wound itself off the forestay. The end result in the short term was a bruised shoulder for me where the forestay had hit me, a good smack on the head for both Paul and Greg (Greg had been on the boom desperately trying to catch the deadly flying wire forestay) and, in Paul’s own words, a bruised penis where he claims I grabbed it in extremis whilst being thrown about the deck; any port in a storm.

 

So, all there was left to do was set a more direct course to the Cape and hope the motor held out. And in fact it did admirably, though it was a tedious 6 day crossing before we limped into the harbour in Ushuaia, under the watchful eyes of all the other skippers who could only imagine what had caused the destruction of both sails.

 

I am still very much reflecting on the trip and am sure my feelings will evolve somewhat. What I am proud of is the way we, as a team performed together. I can’t remember a bad word between us and in fact the humour with which most things were dealt with still makes me burst out laughing now. I do appreciate hot water a bit more now, as well as a clean bath mat.

The Team: Mike, Pam, Ian, Jim, Paul & Rob.

Skipper & Crew: Cath & Greg

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