Monday 7 August 2017

The Return of the Sun

The sun peaks over the horizon for the first time in a month and a half. 

Although still in the depths of the Antarctic winter, over the last few weeks the days have been getting longer, and the opportunity to get off base to go climbing and skiing has increased. It was a about three weeks ago now, the 14th of July to be exact, that I saw the sun for first time since May. A group of six or seven of us headed toVals, the local ski slope above Rothera, with the hope of catching a glimpse of the sun.
At first out chances did not look good, a dense cold fog reduced visibility to a hundred metres or so. We sat around in the caboose (we small hut on skis which is parked up there) drinking tea and blethering. Then slowly but undeniably it started to thin, around 11.30am a hint of blue could be seen above, by midday the top of the slope was clear, and half an hour later it had all gone.  The sun then caught the top of the hills off to the right, and started inching it's way leftwards along the ridge above. I had just completed a run when I saw this happening, and after a rapid skin up the hill, and I joined the others up on the ridge above as the sun was appearing between a gap in the hills to the North. For the next half an hour or so our little group sat, mesmerised by the direct sunlight, the very faint warmth, and the colour. For weeks the world had been black, white and shades of grey, and then suddenly colour returned. It was quite profound to suddenly realise how much I had missed it. 
Zoe speaks about the winter. 
For the next few days the weather was poor, the world was once again bleached of colour. However, in terms of daylight, things start to change quite rapidly at this time of year. About a week after my first view of the sun from above Vals, the sun got high enough that, on a clear day it would be able to peek to over the hills to the North, so that Rothera itself would glimpse direct sunlight. This was marked by the flag up ceremony. In a previous post I wrote about how the oldest person on base (Trev the chef) lowered the flag when the sun disappeared in late May. The flag up is carried out by the youngest person on base, who this year is Zoe, the marine assistant.
Zoe leads interpretive sun up dance (although Zac in yellow looks
like he is going for the "I'm a little tea pot" dance). 
The weather had cleared, and around 1 o'clock on Thursday the 20th everybody gathered up at the flag. Initially the station leader Paul Samways said his bit about the dark period. He then handed over to Zoe who read out some thoughts about feeling of community which has developed on base since the ship had left. In the days before flag up people had joking suggested that she marked the occasion with interpretive dance. After her words she then surprised people by  getting a small set of speakers out of her jacket pocket, putting on some tunes, and doing an interpretive sun up dance before actually raising the flag.
Group shot after the flag up.
The following weekend, the weather forecast for the Sunday was good, and fellow field guide Bradley was keen to get out for a bit of climbing. We were both aware of an obvious unclimbed corner line on N2, one of the local peaks. We headed out at first light, and after a 30 minute skidoo ride and gentle downhill stroll we were standing below the line. It looked good but hard with a very thin line of snow ice stuck right to the back of the corner.  I offered to give it a go, and was soon engrossed in the intricacies of mixed climbing. It was thin, with lots of technical 6 and 7 climbing, and at times bold, but the squeaky snow ice kept beckoning me on wards. Eventually I ran of of rope, but was fortunate to find reasonable belay and slightly cramped stance. Bradley came up, muttering things like "thin", "no ice" and "how did you do this bit". 
Myself on the crux pitch of myself and Bradley's new and as yet unnamed route on N2. 
I took my opportunity ans hinted that perhaps it would be easier if I led the next pitch due to the way that belay suggested, and Bradley happily agreed to this. I continue up the gully above over a steep chockstone and up the up easier ground to behind the pinnacle. After that a few more pitches of easier ground led to the top, and a stroll back downhill to the skidoos.  The route, unnamed as yet, was about Scottish VII,7. 
Zoe emerging from the South Face of Wolf into the sunshine.
A week after that and it was time for the first of my second round of winter trips. For this trip I was   teamed up with Zoe. Zoe is keen, fit, is a quick learner, and doesn't complain much, so is a good person to get lots of mountaineering done with. We headed out a couple of days early, and came back a day late so as to maximise the opportunity to get things done. The weather was pretty mixed, with some a couple of big storms which dumped a lot of snow, but some cold and clear conditions as well.
In the end we managed  an ascent of Wolf and Trident on foot, a grade IV and a grade V ice route, and ascents of the peaks of Mouse and Gwendolyn on skis. Mouse and Gwendolyn were particularly good efforts given that Zoe had never been ski touring before, and her downhill experience had been a few days at Vals.