So close but so far away

(A quick note of explanation from Felix: sea ice has blown back towards

Halley, and where it meets the sea ice which never detached itself in the first

place, there’s a five-foot crack which precludes moving heavy equipment off

the boat and onto the base. So the RSS Ernest Shackleton is trying to crunch

its way through the ice until it reaches the crack and can start unloading.)

I will try and describe what I see before me when standing out on deck. Firstly,

it is not that cold, especially not with Antarctic gear on. Minus a few perhaps,

sometimes even up to plus one. Secondly, there is a lot of white. And a lot

of white on white. Without sunglasses, you can’t see much at all; it’s too white

and too bright. With sunglasses, the picture gradually emerges, like one of

those computer-generated posters that first looks like nonsense until an elephant

appears in 3D. Once you see the elephant, you will never see the nonsense again.

So it is with the ice cliffs.

But first, the immediate surroundings. We have barged and bashed a channel

through the sea ice that is 1-2 km long, a couple of ship-widths wide and has

a bend in. It took three days to do this. The motion of the ship was worse than

Biscay when ramming at top

energy – we back up, speed up, ram ram ram, brace brace brace, the ship

hull slides over the sea ice and crashes down: thump. Often one whole side of

the ship points worryingly to the sky. And then we sink down again, anxiously

scanning the ice for any sign of a crack that we can pursue. Usually there is

none, the result being more of a nibbling than a munching. So we’ve now stopped.

It’s stalemate0

It could take weeks for to reach the crack between us and Halley. Maybe Halley

can find an alternative route for us. I’m glad I have no role in the decision

making right now. After making such good time here we might end up with a significant

delay in arrival. For winterers expecting a handover and no more, that’s no

calamity, yet, but for folk here for the summer only, time is already pushed

in a six week season. At some point, we’ll have to start prioritising tasks.

The good news is that we can cross the crack by skidoo and some people have

gone up to base already. The bad news is that none of our heavy cargo will make

it as things currently stand.

Back to the scenery. Around us is a channel of ice porridge, slushy, on the

cusp of freezing and thawing. It looks like Lux flakes, I don’t know why. Above

the surface is the sea ice we’re trying to break up. This is perhaps 2-3m thick

at its worst, easily 1m thick in most places. This is ice that formed last winter

and hasn’t melted or been blown out to sea yet. On top of the ice therefore

is a years accumulation of snow,- at least another metre and heavy. So we’re

driving through porridge, trying to break up a heavy, soggy, very stable wall

of ice. And when it does break up, it falls into the porridge and stays there.

We need wind. Usually there has been a strong burst of wind by this time of

year that creates a large swell and breaks up the winter ice. This year’s winter

was particularly cold but the summer has been amazingly calm. Nice for the residents,

not for the ship.

On top of the sea ice is sastrugi, beautiful sastrugi, and penguins. Sastrugi

forms when the wind blows snow about,- it is the formations of snow on the top

layer. It’s all the vertical structure I have to feast on, maybe only 5cm high,

but to my eyes, as beautiful as a forest. In a very different way. The penguins

are emperors, large and elegant, yellow collar, head held high, proud. I hadn’t

seen them swim before; they are more like seals than dolphins in the water,

unlike their littler cousins. Adelies, gentoos, chinstraps – they fly

out of the water, following a parabola with their entire bodies, completely

air-borne at the top of the jump. This is called porpoising and makes you giggle

every time you see it. Emperors are larger, sleeker and, I imagine, heavier.

When they swim, their backs emerge but not their whole selves. Watching them,

they are less playful but just as much fun. Only when following an emperor swim

deep, do I realise how clear this seemingly black water really is. Deeper and

deeper they twirl, then they dissappear. A minuter later, flying, flying, they

fly out of the water and onto the ice, slip slide, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee on their

bellies, brace with their wings, stand up, shake off and walk away as though

that wasn’t really the best thing they could imagine doing ever.

There is about 10km of sea ice between us and the ice shelf. Half way between

the two is this damned five foot wide crack. Everywhere else, the sea ice is

thick and strong, perfect for relief of the ship. The ice shelf however, that’s

what calls me. The cliffs are about 50m high and, when the sky’s clear, endless

in both directions. They look a bit like Beachy Head or the Seven Sisters except

they’re white all over. That is the edge of the ice shelf which is the edge

of the continent, miles and miles away, that is Antarctica. The pedant in me

knows that although this place is known as ‘The Real Antarctic’, it’s not –

one day I’d like to feel the Land under my feet as well. Perhaps in the Dry

Valleys or the South Pole. I’m not picky! For now, however, I’ve arrived, I’ve

come home to Halley. I don’t know why this place makes me tick but it does.

It’s just so huge, and so white, and there’s so much ice.

5 thoughts on “So close but so far away

  1. All very adventurous R. We’re just sitting here watching “Champion Poker” on TV. The mind reels.

    Good luck slicing through the ice.

  2. hey rh. lovely to read you. …brings thoughts of crystals (ice and others) and their reflection of continuous light, and what is “white” anyway, and being grounded in That. your journeying, all journeying, feeling “it” all around and beneath us, holding us in and up and moving forward, though it may be tricky and slow, and involve much bumping and grinding(!), anticipation and patience. laughter and penguins of all kinds being essential to the task.

    i am at woodbrooke for new year, and seem to be dancing almost all the time. when i was home briefly after christmas my computer didn’t work so haven’t accessed email since then (and cant do it here because i have no clue what my webmail password might be!) so haven’t got any that youve sent since last i sent you one, if you have, but i will hopefully get computer, and life, sorted out soon when i get back home.

    Abi sends her love. She came to stay for a night. She’s well.

    me sending love too, much.

    x R

  3. Dearest Rhian, I am staying with Clive and Sue while your mum and dad are in Scotland. I like it here as I get a lot of attention, especially now that Benjamin (aged 4 months) has gone home. He was very demanding and between you and me a great nuisance as Clive and Sue obviously like him very much. But hey-ho however many strokes I get it’s never enough. I am being very good, exploring the garden but not going into the road, and in the evenings I am allowed to sit on a lap in front of the fire. I miss you. With purrs and miaows, Whiskey.

  4. R, I’m a friend of Felix and Miche –

    I’ve been reading your posts for awhile, and I must say – good on you. very fine writing and i’ve jsut delved into your archive a bit and the balance between your wandering and Felix’ rooted Newyawrkness is fantastic. i love the blog and your contributions to it are top notch. thanks for reminding me of the world out there – i used to go see it once in awhile. probably should again soon, while i can still stretch the legs.

    btw is there still any funding of the shorn dread/save dread hospital wing? i’d be in for a contribution. that whole episode is quite amusing when read archivally – wish i had caught it ‘live’.


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