Camping on an Antarctic glacier during a blizzard is perhaps not everyone’s idea of a happy birthday. Yet this is what I found myself waking to on my 37th lap of the sun. Attempts for the summit were thwarted for the second day running and we seemed to have lost radio contact with our ship. You might say we were up a glacier without a sailing boat.
We had headed out for Kershaw Peaks two days earlier. We were part of an Antarctic Peninsula sailing and climbing expedition, spending a month getting as close to the many amazing unique opportunities available in Antarctica. Kershaw Peaks, located on Graham Land contained, to this point, an unclimbed summit and we were attempting to make the first ascent! Our sailing ship the Icebird dropped us on shore with some meagre provisions should they not be able to easily access shore when we were ready for a pickup. With the ever-present risk of sea-ice building up, this sea-ice can block access for ships getting to shore, leaving few options but to hope the sea-ice melts.
The climb thus far had us haul up some makeshift sleds, using dry bags, on a very crevassed glacier. We had hiked for a few hours and even with snowshoes on we’d often sink to our thighs in snow. It was fine weather with patchy clouds and we zig-zagged up the steep crevasse to make the hike a little less arduous, particularly dragging the sleds which rolled around aimlessly behind each of us.
Our mountaineering guide Phil, very experienced in the Antarctic and also mountaineering, chose a site for our overnight camp below the more technical aspect of the climb that we were to attempt the next morning. I had done a spot of camping on snow before but this was quite unique. As we began to dig out a level campsite in the snow, more than once I nearly lost the shovel, and myself for that matter, down a crevasse! The gaping holes appearing as I dug through the looser surface snow.
After a few adjustments of position on the glacier, away from crevasses, we eventually found a solid base and made ice bricks around the tent to protect it from the common gusty winds. Phil and I shared one tent and fellow climbing couple Jackie and Neville the other. The next task was building the bathroom services. With an afternoon to kill and with perpetual daylight, Phil and I designed a rather ornate walk-in bathroom within a snow cave, the deep blue glow that comes from the glacial ice gave it an eerie ambience to complete one’s ablutions.
Our glacial campsite overlooked yet another, larger glacier called Meithe glacier which served as the local iceberg factory. Every 10 minutes or so a loud rumbling could be heard echoing across the bay as another giant block of ice broke away into the sea and floated slowly outwards. The sheer enormity of this glacier would be impressive on its own, then add the successive glaciers that are in nearly every single valley and you get a full understanding of just how much snow and ice is in Antarctica.
After a peaceful nights sleep, we awoke to a tent semi-submerged in fresh powder snow. Perfect of course if we were to be skiing to the bottom, except we were instead hiking to the top! Phil took a test on the surrounding snow to see how well the overnight snow had bonded to the glacier. The test failed, meaning the chance of avalanche further up the mountain was too great. We would not be climbing Kershaw Peaks today.
Not a whole lot of extracurricular activities to do on a glacier. You can’t stray too far for risk of a crevasse gobbling you up, there is no campfire to attend to and even the penguins don’t bother waddling up this high. So we bunkered down in the tents playing cards, melting snow for tea and chatted about anything and everything. It was bitterly cold and the chilled air eventually seeped through the many layers I had on. Requiring me to often warm up in my sleeping bag between meals.
The next morning, although in an Antarctic summer it never really got dark, I awoke on my birthday to more snow that had fallen in a blizzard while we slept. The skies were now clearer and an attempt looked likely. All rested on the now familiar avalanche test. A square metre of snow was isolated and pressure applied to see at what point it would fail. Alas, the snow was still a little too unstable for our liking to climb today and as we’d used up our mountain provisions, sadly it was time to leave.
Apart from fellow climbing mate Jackie falling to her armpits in a crevasse, the descent was uneventful! We had tried unsuccessfully to summon the Icebird on the radio the past few days. Now on the beach, we located our emergency provisions, enough for 30 days, should our worst fears be realised. Not many ships pass by this way, and they get less and less as the winter quickly closes in. As nice as this location was it wasn’t a pleasant thought to imagine seeing out our few remaining days here as some early Antarctic explorers often faced in reality.
It turns out my over-reactive imagination was for naught as the Icebird crackled on the radio and soon afterwards we saw it’s distinctive mast on the horizon. Back on board I had a hot chocolate to warm my hands and looked back at the elusive Kershaw peaks disappearing as we sailed away. The summit had escaped us yet the waking up on my birthday camped out on a glacier is enough of a memorable experience to take away, and now share.
Useful Antarctic Sailing Links
Travelling to Antarctica on a sailboat is a unique experience and only a few operators offer this type of expedition style adventure. For reference this trip included:
- Adventure Consultants – This trip was booked through Adventure Consultants on their Antarctic Peninsula Expedition. Read dispatches from my 2014 trip
- Icebird Expeditions – The sailboat referenced built specifically for Antarctic sailing. Icebird Expeditions themselves offer a variety of trips south from Ushuaia, Argentina