Antarctica: on thin ice

Posted by Alex Messenger on 30/11/2011
On thin ice in Antarctica. Photo: Olly Metherell.

The first stage of seasickness is thinking you are going to die. The second stage is wishing you were actually dead. I was close to the second, crammed into a tiny bunk at the front of the boat, catching airtime on every wave. Grimacing into the ceiling a couple of inches above my nose, my stomach churned as my mind whirled. What was I doing here? Would I never learn? One thing was for sure: I was never sailing again.

The Drake Passage in the Southern Ocean is the roughest expanse of water on the planet. According to the Antarctic Cruising Guide, it's where the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current, bottlenecked between land masses, moves 130million cubic metres of water per second; according to sailors it’s a rite of passage for anyone heading to the Antarctic – they call it 'paying the Drake tax'.

Since 2005 I'd been on a personal climbing challenge to make a first ascent on each of the seven continents and the Alpine Club Antarctica Expedition 2010 gave me a unique chance to head to Antarctica with some real climbing veterans. It was never going to be easy: the Antarctic mountains may not be the highest but they are remote, unclimbed and challenging. Accessed by hazardous small-boat navigation in iceberg-strewn waters, and self-rescue the only option if things went wrong, this would be a trip to remember.

To get down south, we'd teamed up with two expert ice skippers: Darrel Day and Cath Hew. They'd been sailing their fast yacht in these hazardous waters since 2003; it was their dream to run a Tilman-esque expedition to Antarctica and they were hugely enthusiastic about teaming up. And this was no ordinary vessel, this was the Spirit of Sydney: 60 ft of hand-crafted ocean-going perfection, constructed in an era when the need for lightness was tempered by respect for the ocean. She was more than capable of making the journey south – we were the only ones in doubt.

We didn't see land for days. The sea was angry, squadrons of mountainous waves marching relentlessly towards us. Every time a wave hit – about two a minute – the snout of the boat would shudder with the impact, before punching violently into the oncoming wall of water. At nine tones overweight (seven climbers, two skippers, 1,400 litres of diesel, 52 bottles of red wine and a blush-inducing quantity of beer), most of the front half of the boat would bury itself face first, then a couple of hundred gallons of water would break over the bows, with persistent icy drops forcing their way through our cabin skylight seals.

With tons of white water smothering her bows the yacht would pause, quivering. Would she rise again? She always did, water streaming from the gunnels and powerful sails wrenching the hull out of the water in a violent corkscrew. Anyone who'd forgotten the sailor's rule – "a hand for the boat and a hand for yourself" – would be hurled across the cabin with malevolent force.

On the hill the character building continued. I was sharing a tent with Richmond McIntyre – a semi-retired engineer and seven-summiteer from South Africa – and our snow camping skills had room for improvement. I remembered how hard snow camping was from my time in Alaska: on top of all the usual hard graft of living in a tiny tent you have the challenges of constantly melting snow. Back then we had unlimited supplies of food and gas, a big comfy tent and a snow-hole mansion. Now we were living on 1,400 calories per day (I’d made the rookie mistake of buying insufficient food in Ushuia, Tierra del Fuego; everyone else had shipped freeze-dried foods over from the UK) with a borrowed stove that we couldn't make work correctly. On our first day we used a whole canister of gas so we took drastic emergency measures: cold food only and no hot drinks.

The other five team member were, of course, all super-experienced ski-tourers and masters of the black art of snow camping: Mike Fletcher (IBM guru), Derek Buckle (retired chemist and Vice President of The Alpine Club), Phil Wickens (expedition leader), Dave Wynne Jones and Stuart Gallagher (both retired teachers).

The weather spooked me out. Following no set pattern, it could be eerily still, with not a breath of wind, until, out of nowhere, the wind would blow up – with frost injuries on exposed hands just seconds away. It would build to a howling crescendo, feeling like a tent-flattening storm was guaranteed then – just as suddenly – stop. After 20 minutes of silence the cycle would begin once more.

And the climbing? That was different to anything I'd ever experienced. I realised that even if you're a competent mixed climber it counts for almost nothing when you are attempting to summit big, scary, snowy mountains. All my previous routes had been technical routes on faces or ridges, often with excellent protection, but this mixed climbing had left a huge hole in my climbing CV – and its name was ski mountaineering.

No one had been this much out of their depth since Captain Nemo got his foot stuck in a submarine, but just I couldn't throw in the towel. I considered it but the words of Margaret Thatcher would ring in my ears. "It's easy to start things. But are you a finisher?" And then Lance Armstrong would chime in: "Pain is temporary. Failure is permanent." There was also, of course, the small matter of the eye-watering cost of going to Antarctica – this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

By day four, the entire team (apart from me) had made a successful ascent of Nygren 1,454m). And, back in basecamp after bailing on False Shackleton, I was learning about the bitter taste of humble pie – without any pie to eat. Still on our starvation diet to save fuel, I was so hungry that I raided the bin, opened the foil wrappers for the compo rations and licked them clean. And then sucked clean the porridge scourer. Dejected and hungry, I thought things couldn't get any worse when the news came over the radio from The Spirit of Sydney – our pick up was in doubt, ice was choking the bay. We could be on our own for some time. The next day as the rest of the team summitted on Mount Matin (at 2,415m, possibly the highest summit on the northern Peninsula mainland), I stayed at base camp, feeling emotionally and physically drained.

"It was just like this on McKinley," said Rich, "it's always the youngest who fail first." At 35 I was the youngest on this trip by half a decade. Phil and Mike were in their 40s and most of the rest of the team were expedition veterans in their 60s. But I had a secret weapon – a book by Ernest Shackleton. And, as I surveyed our remaining supplies of food and gas, his wise words rang in my ears: "In trouble, danger and disappointment never give up hope. The worst can always be got over."

We'd put in a lot of hard work to rein in our food consumption, and we'd created solar sills for water. Now we had a decent amount of food and gas left and we could start to "buy forward" as Rich put it. I wrote in my diary, "Tomorrow I will climb Mt Cloos," and for the first time in six days had a decent night's sleep. Tomorrow came and went, stormbound, but the next day it looked like we had a weather window. I started to eat more – a decadent 2,500 calories. The food put fire in my veins and molten fuel in my belly. I felt light, strong and stoked; I knew that I would climb well.

By midday I was standing on top of an unclimbed summit, Cape Cloos. There was only one slight problem, according to Derek: "It ain't the highest point." He was right, but the true summit was guarded by a shield of large seracs. Rich headed back to base, leaving me, Phil, Derek and Mike up for the route – and what a route it was: a real climber's mountain, shaped like a sphinx and flanked with steep rock buttresses.

Once through the ominous silent seracs, we flew, this is a day that will be burned in my memories forever. Pitch two traversed us across the face; pitch three featured some spicy vertical ice, and then the summit slopes. A white Petrel shared the summit with us – "A good omen for the descent," reckoned Mike – and then it was time for a laser-like focus on getting safely down. We decided to downclimb the top two pitches – it didn't make sense to abseil with the traverse above the seracs. Derek went first, then Phil, then Mike. Soon I was alone on he summit slopes with a final exam in mountaineering waiting below me.

I had to downclimb the crux of the route that I'd struggled to climb about an hour ago. It was Scottish V and trying to call for a back-rope above the roaring wind would just cause problems. "You can do this," I whispered. Shaking with cold – and a dash of fear, I made it down. The wind howled like a squadron of 747s and the bitter cold snarled my layers of clothing like a wild animal.

Derek had already set the abseil for the ice pitch up, but we were running late. The radio crackled into life: "Everything OK up there?" asked basecamp. Derek’s response is short and simple : "it's hard". We rap the final pitch, coil the ropes and then we're cruising on ski's back down to camp and – oh my god – it felt good.

The next morning we learn that we're still out on a limb. We may have to wait on the shore and make Shackleton-style improvisations until we can get out of here. Still buzzing from the route, I think on the bright side. None of us are injured. We still have radio and Iridium contact with the yacht. We can make liquid using solar stills. Our emergency food barrel will probably still be there. We can fish. We might even be able to kill some penguins or seals if we really get hungry. I look at the landscape around me – hauntingly beautiful and quiet, but maybe this was where the real adventure begins?

We decide to try for a pick up elsewhere and head towards the Lemaire Channel. I limped behind the team on blistered feet and wrong-sized skis. Half-a-kilometer away, things weren't looking good – the channel was choked with ice. I stood up straight and resolved to keep forging on, to just enjoy every moment of whatever was to come, to make Shackleton proud. I rounded the corner and did a double-take. There, like a mirage in a desert of white ice, was the Spirit of Sydney with her flared bowsprit and low, clean lines. She was tugging at her anchor, looking for all the world like an ocean-going Maserati. I blinked tears out of my eyes and, manfully, refrained from blowing her a kiss. Forget mountaineering, I couldn't wait to get back to the sailing life.

Olly Metherell was the leader of Super7 Climbing: an attempt to pioneer a first ascent on each of the seven continents. The project was completed in Feb 2011.



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