I’ve just returned from a few days out in the field, myself, Josh and Dom took four days out to combine a bit of operational work with some recreational ‘non-work’ and visit some of the huts around the Vestfold hills.
The work side of things was to replace the tired solar panel on the roof at Brooks hut, this had been giving us some problems for a while as the old cable had rubbed on the roof, worn through the insulation and shorted itself on the aluminium flashing – The panel was still trying to charge the batteries in the hut and didn’t do them too many favours so we took some replacement batteries too.
We wouldn’t have fitted all the tools and equipment required on the quads alone so I towed a ‘sled’, we were going to take the sled just to Brooks, leave it there and pick it up on the way past at the end of our trip but it was so useful that we dumped some of the tools at Brooks and just took it along for the ride anyway.
I think the ‘word’ of the trip would have to be sastrugi as there was plenty of it built up in certain areas which slowed us down a lot, we always seemed to be going across it rather that with it, whether that was bad planning or bad luck I’ve yet to work out, either way towing the sled made for a few amusing moments of getting stuck and having to be assisted over some built up snow lumps…
We arrived at Brooks and got straight into the work while we had a bit of light, the old solar panel was replaced and siliconed / bolted to the roof – In order to get the silicone warm enough to use we brought a heat gun that ran off the generator in the hut, we pre-heated the roof surface and that seemed to work OK, the cable was already replaced during a previous trip so I didn’t need to do too much there, fortunate really as it was getting pretty cold and my hands were starting to feel it when we got off the roof.
The huts have some gas heaters inside and when you first arrive the process is to check the hut is well ventilated, place a ‘gas tester’ inside and give it a few minutes to breath. Once we were inside we tried to light the stove and there appeared to be no gas, checked the bottles outside and they were quite empty – We’d resigned ourselves to the fact that it was going to be a very cold night in the hut, we were already wearing everything we’d brought with us and were sat around the heat gun that was still plugged in to the generator to try and give us some warmth – Josh had bought a couple of beers which when they were poored out froze in the cups, this provided mild amusement……I would have taken a photo but my camera was frozen along with my hands..
We received a radio sched later form station and they were insistent that one of the bottles did have gas in it so we went and rechecked them. They would normally have been replaced by helicopter at the end of the Summer but due to the heli crash this was unable to happen. We checked the bottles and through a process of unscrewing, hitting, clearing of ice and refitting the gas then seemed to want to start to flow again, I think the regulator had just frozen up to be honest but we didn’t care once it was working….It was a joyous moment that was celebrated with some crackers and a bit of unfrozen Baileys!
After some bacon sandwiches for breakfast (Oh yes!) we shuffled some of the kit around on the sled and headed out for Platcha Hut, a group had been through part of that route recently and a quick radio call confirmed that all the recent drills in the area were of a good depth which meant we didn’t need to drill quite as much as the area was already proven safe – Personally I’m still fairly cautious anyway and narrow areas that could have a greater tidal flow I would tend to drill just to be sure.
The area from Pioneer crossing and into Breid Basin had some really lumpy areas of Sastrugi which seemed to take ages to get through, however, just as we would stop and free a bogged bike from yet another hole and think it would be a long day the area seemed to level out again and allow us to move on. Some areas had no snow cover at all and the ice was like glass, trying to drive a bike on this was interesting to say the least, sometimes you would just hit a patch of ice and the bike would do whatever it wanted, quite often the sled would try and overtake me and require a bit of power and opposite lock to get myself pointing the right way again – The AAD is pretty strict on quad bike safety which is fair enough – As tempting as it is to start pulling doughnuts and spins we didn’t and I’m proud of the fact that my ‘colleagues’ honored my request not to as it must have been pretty tempting for them.
Platcha hut is in an amazing location, it’s right at the foot of the glacier, the glacier being the Antarctic ice sheet that spans 4500km to the other side of the continent – Standing, looking at the wall of ice is quite amazing, it’s an impressive place to be. We had a clear night and a bright moon at the end of the second day so it was good to head outside and get some long exposure shots of the bay and do some experimental photography.
After a long nights sleep at Platcha we got going just before first light – I say first light but you really don’t see much before about 1100 hours so anything before that is done in the dark with headlights on. Driving in the dark with headlights on is actually way better than trying to drive during day light when there is cloud cover, the lack of definition in the ground features means that you can be driving along and not see a drop in the sastrugi until you hit it – There were a couple of times that the bike dropped it’s front wheels into a hole and I nearly went over the handlebars and that was with me towing a sled and usually only doing speeds of between 10 to 20 kmph.
We generally don’t cross land on the quads as this can cause environmental damage however it is allowed at certain points – Pioneer crossing is one of those points (Between waypoints BA10 and BA11) and takes a few minutes to inspect where the tide cracks meet the land and find a safe path between the two so as not to fall into any cracks or holes.
The sastrugi between waypoints BA07 and BA08 was getting a bit ridiculous, I honestly thought we were going to be there for hours as I looked in the direction of where we were headed but just as I was getting the quad out of yet another hole it seemed to level out again and allow us through. There were a few random bergs to negotiate our way around along with the worlds loneliest Weddell seal who sat and watched us we briefly entered his world – We got to Bandits hut in good time.
Bandits hut sits on top of a small island which during summer is only accessible by helicopter, the view, on a nice day, must be amazing – The view for us was not so good however. the last two days of clear skies was replaced with low cloud, light snow and poor visibility which gave us the strangest of sunrises / sunsets in the form of an odd red glow in the distance… the hut itself has a nicer layout than the others, much more room to move about and hang up your clothing without feeling that you’re constantly in someone elses way. I think the toll of the past few days finally caught up with me, Dom cooked us up some steak sandwiches and I blacked out on my bunk at about 6pm for a couple of hours…. The evening was a quiet one, we sat around reading some of the literature in the hut that has accumulated over the many years of it’s existence as it seemed like the thing to do. I found a 1978 copy of Penthouse magazine and despite the expected ‘colour photographs’ from slightly ‘hairier’ times past I managed to find fascination in an article about the ‘state of the art’ HiFi components from back in the day…
Day four was always going to be a long day, along with driving all the way back to station we also had to stop in at Brooks hut again and load up the tools we’d left behind. We were up pretty early and were obviously getting more efficient as managed to have breakfast, clean the hut and load the bikes for about 0900hrs.
The bikes get left outside overnight obviously, when you consider that they are sitting in temps between minus twenty five to minus thirty five they do an amazing job of holding the charge in their batteries, the fact that they start at all is a miracle quite frankly. They do need a few cranks to get going and not always with success before the battery runs out, we have some heavy duty jumper leads that will allow you to connect the bikes together via a socket – The trick is to get one bike going first and then try the others so that you don’t wear down all your batteries at once – If all else fails there is the start cord to get your arms warmed up in the morning…
There was a small patch of difficult sastrugi on the way out of Bandits but once we were past that it was easy going on exposed sea ice all the way back – The drive into Brooks seemed to take less time than before and we managed to follow some of our prior tracks which makes it a little easier. Given I was towing the sled still we’d not really managed to get above about 25kmph to date but I noticed myself being able to get up to 30kmph on some of the flatter bits back to station, whilst that’s great to be moving so well the cold was starting to take effect on my toes and on my face – The heated visor I had on my crash helmet was broken so I had to keep it open in order to see, that was OK for the most part of the day as we seemed to be travelling with the wind but once we made the turn East to head towards station it really hit me, I think another two or three minutes of that and I would have had to work out some way of keeping warmth around my face…It took me a good few hours to recover from that!
Anyway, back safe with all the kit unloaded and thawing out – I should add that it’s a good idea to not leave a bottle of wine on the sled overnight as Merlot isn’t quite as good as an ice lolly. But all is good, a quick bite to eat and some rum and cokes whilst watching the rugby in the bar..A good trip all round…