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January 2012

Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary

Posted by John Rowlands on 3 January 2012
The Dry Valleys
The Dry Valleys
Scott's expedition hut
Scott's expedition hut
Inside Scott's Hut
Inside Scott's Hut

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Overnight we sailed across McMurdo Sound and pushed into the fast ice along the coast of the mainland. It was a beautiful day today, except where we wanted to be - in the mountains.

There, low cloud meant the helicopters couldn’t fly. So instead we spent the morning walking on the ice around the ship. Our presence attracted the attention of a group of Emperor penguins who were just as interested in us as we were in them. They were definitely there to have their pictures taken! They leapt in and out of the water, waddled back and forth, stood, posed and almost smiled for our cameras.

By early afternoon the weather showed signs of improvement, so we flew across the fast ice and into the Taylor Valley, one of the Dry Valleys. These are remarkable features, the largest ice-free area in the continent. Taylor Valley was discovered by Scott on his first expedition while returning from a sledging trip to explore the Polar Plateau with Edgar Evans from Rhossili on Gower.

The Dry Valleys are a polar desert where the rocks are smoothed and sculpted by sand blown by katabatic winds which hurtle down from the Antarctic ice sheet at speeds of up to 200 mph. They attract a lot of scientific attention, especially from NASA, as this is probably the closest we have to a Martian landscape and climate. It was a real thrill to experience this incredible landscape.

The valley is strewn with moraines with huge variety of rock types. Two geologists from Scott’s last expedition, Frank Debenham and Griffith Taylor, explored this valley and collected from these moraines. This gave them samples of rocks from deeper into the Transantarctic Mountains which they did not have time to explore.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

After a bright sunny night, we awoke to find ourselves back in the fast ice of Ross Island, this time offshore of Cape Evans. Visiting Shackleton’s Hut was wonderful, the Dry Valleys exceptional, but today was very much the icing on the Ross Sea cake, and for most of us, the whole reason for this trip - a visit to Captain Scott’s hut, the hut from which he left for the South Pole and to which he never returned.

Almost buried in snowdrifts, the hut has a powerful presence, seeped as it is in Antarctic history. Stepping through the door was a strange experience. In front of me was a large room that I knew well, but I was seeing it for the first time in colour. I know this hut from the famous photographs of Scott’s expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting.

I was standing where he stood, at the end of the long table, when he took the picture of Scott’s birthday. I stood between the sleeping bags of Teddy Evans and Edward Wilson, from where Ponting photographed Scott sitting at his desk. I saw the empty Tenements, the bunks of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Birdie Bowers, and Captain Oates, and could visualise them there, as in Ponting’s photograph. Above Oates’ bunk - his pinups: pictures of horses and dogs. Atkinson’s laboratory, his test tubes and equipment still on the bench; the Geologists’ Cubicle, with rocks on the floor beneath Frank Debenham’s bunk; Ponting’s darkroom, still smelling of developer and fixer; the Stables where Oates cared for the ponies, and the stove he used to heat their chaff; Clissold the cook’s galley with its stove, utensils, and canned foodstuffs; and, dividing the hut, a wall of crates of Coleman’s mustard, Fry’s chocolate and other supplies. All of these are still where Ponting photographed them a century ago.

Of course, a feeling of sadness and tragedy pervades this hut; it is almost tangible. Almost exactly 100 years ago, Scott, Oates, Bowers, Wilson and Edgar Evans left this building and set out for the South Pole and a frozen death.

Less well known is that this hut was used by Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party who were laying the depots for his doomed crossing of the continent in 1916. Three of their number lost their lives on the ice near here. A forlorn, poignant pencilled scribble beside a bunk records “Loses to date Hayward, Mack, Smith”. In their memory, their colleagues erected a wooden cross on Wind Vane Hill near the hut.

The setting of the hut was enhanced by some suitable weather today; kind enough at times to allow our helicopters in, but showing how quickly the weather can change here. Snow showers, fine spindrift, a driving wind and windchill of -10oC reminded us what conditions here can be like, even less than a month from midsummer.

December 2011

Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary

Posted by John Rowlands on 22 December 2011
Mount Erberus
Mount Erberus
Landing at McMurdo Sound
Landing at McMurdo Sound

Monday 21 November

We've continued to push south, although by a rather round about route to avoid the thickest pack ice, and passed 77o south latitude.

On the western horizon we had an incredible view of the Victoria Land coast of mainland Antarctica and the Transantarctic Mountains. To the south we could see Ross Island and Mount Erebus, the most southerly active volcano on earth.

We eventually broke through into a large area of open water as we entered McMurdo Sound. As we sailed along the west coast of Ross Island, we headed for a small bay at Cape Royds and ran the ship up onto the fast ice - thick sea ice attached to the land. From there it was a short helicopter ride ashore.

A walk of a few hundred metres took us to a sheltered little cove where, protected from the winds by a ridge of glacial moraine, there stood a small wooden building. This was the base hut of Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909. A major conservation project by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust has recently completed work on the hut and its contents, and they've done a magnificent job. Tins of food are still stacked on the shelves, sledges rest on the rafters, clothing and sleeping bags lie on the beds, and crates of supplies are piled against the outside wall. To stand in this hut is awe inspiring.

On this expedition, Shackleton pioneered a route which Scott would later follow through the Transantarctic Mountains, and got within 97 nautical miles of the South Pole. Although he knew he could be the first to reach the South Pole, he turned back. He realised that if they continued they would not have enough food to make it back alive.

Shackleton took several scientists with him, one of whom was a St Fagan's born geologist, T.W. Edgeworth David, then Professor of Geology in Sydney. Based at this hut, David led the first ascent of Mount Erebus, 3795 metres high, and also led another team on a long sledging journey up onto the Polar Plateau to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

We had time to see the hut and take a walk to the most southerly penguin colony in the world, on the coast around Shackleton's hut. The Adelie penguins here provided an extra source of food for the expedition.

Instead of flying back to the ship, I opted to hike back across the fast ice to retrieve some marker flags we had laid out as a walking route in case the weather turned. This is perfectly safe as long as you keep a look out for tide cracks - fissures in the ice caused by tidal movement.

Their dangers were demonstrated when my hiking companion immediately fell into one. Luckily he went down only a couple of feet. It was just as well, as he had the rescue line.

Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary

Posted by John Rowlands on 15 December 2011
The Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Ross Sea pack ice
The Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Ross Sea pack ice

Saturday 19 November

Today began grey, overcast and cold, with light snow falling on the ship. We’ve now been breaking our way through the pack ice of the Ross Sea for three days, picking our way south through whatever open leads or thin ice present themselves.

On the southern horizon, in places, open water shows up as dark reflections on the underside of the cloud - a ‘water sky’. In other places, we see ice blink, where the clouds are brightened by the presence of the sea ice beneath. Our navigation through the pack is aided by satellite positioning; Scott relied upon dead reckoning and the sun to chart his progress.

This afternoon we sighted land for the first time in five days. Away to the west we’ve had our first glimpse of the continent of Antarctica. The faint, white, distant mountains rise to over 3500 metres. Appropriately, one of the first we see, Mount Murchison, is named after a geologist who worked in Wales 180 years ago.

We set course for the mainland, a point called Cape Washington, but the pack ice is too thick, even for our icebreaker. Instead, we’re continuing south, deeper into the Ross Sea, in the hope of breaking out of the pack and into a polynya, which satellite pictures show lies to the south of us.

Sunday 20 November

It’s been slow getting through the pack ice, but we’ve finally made it to Franklin Island, at 76o south.

The ice is thick around the island, but we got within 5 miles of it, so we took the helicopters and landed on the sea ice at the foot of steep black cliffs. From there we hiked about a mile and half south across the ice to a large colony of Emperor penguins at the southeastern end of the island. These are the stars of the movies March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. They walk long distances across the ice to breed, and after the egg is laid it is transferred to the male who then stands on the ice through the severe Antarctic winter holding it on his feet.

The males in the colony huddle together against the cold. The march of the penguins was first observed by Captain Scott on his first expedition. Their chicks are some of the cutest things on the planet and infitinely photogenic. We have a couple of examples of Emperor penguins in our collections in Cardiff, including one presented to us by Lt Teddy Evans of Scott’s last expedition, and that will be in January.

Tom Sharpe's Antarctic Diary

Posted by John Rowlands on 6 December 2011
Icebergs in the Ross sea, pack ice
Pack ice in the Ross sea
Tom Sharpe in Antarctica
Tom Sharpe in Antarctica

Friday 18 November

It’s just over a hundred years since Captain Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, sailed from Cardiff for Antarctica.

Scott designated Cardiff the home port of his ship because of the support his expedition received from Cardiff and South Wales. Last year we put together a little exhibition bringing together a range of objects from our collections to commemorate the departure of the expedition on 15 June 1910.

On 17 January 1912, Scott and his four companions reached the South Pole only to find that he had been beaten, by a month, by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. The fate of Scott’s Polar Party is well-known: all five died on the return journey. But there was much more to Scott’s expedition than the attempt on the Pole. It was a major scientific expedition, studying the geology, biology, meteorology and physics of Antarctica and its glaciers.

We’re planning another exhibition, , opening in January 2012, to look at the Welsh links with Scott’s expedition and the scientific work undertaken on it. We’re part of a national series of exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the expedition. I’ve been working on this exhibition for some months now, but about four weeks ago my preparations took an exciting turn when I was invited to join a trip to the Ross Sea in Antarctica, with the intention of visiting Scott’s expedition base hut.

We sailed a week ago from Lyttleton in the South Island of New Zealand, the same port from which Scott sailed in 1910. Two days ago, we entered the pack ice of the Ross Sea. Each winter, the continent of Antarctica doubles in size as the sea around it freezes. I’m on a Russian icebreaker. We’ve been following leads - strips of open water between the ice floes - and where necessary forcing our way through the thicker floes. We do this by ramming into the ice, then reversing a few hundred metres before ploughing full ahead into the floe and hopefully breaking through. Breaking our way through the ice feels very much like being in the central seats of a 747 in bad turbulence, but much noisier.

We’ve been making good progress, initially through thin first year ice (formed this last winter) and then into an area of open water called a polynya. But today we’ve slowed. The pack ice we’re in now is much thicker, over a metre thick in places. This is multi-year ice, built up over several winters. At 70oS, we’re now well south of the Antarctic Circle and in continuous daylight. Here the sun will not set for some months.

Some of the ice floes are forced together by the pressure of tides and currents and today we found ourselves caught between two floes. This pressure caused the floes to close behind us, and for a while we were trapped in the ice. Even with all engines on full power, we could neither advance or reverse. But just as we were beginning to decide who we would eat first, the ice floes parted and we were released from their grip!

All around us there is nothing but sea ice to the horizon in all directions. The ice surface is not smooth, but broken by the jagged lines of pressure ridges and the occasional enormous tabular iceberg frozen into the pack ice. It looks lifeless. There are no other human beings as far as the eye can see. But life is here. This morning an orca, a killer whale, popped up to take a look at us; minke whales show their fins through the open water of the leads; and crabeater seals bask on the ice floes. Clusters of Adelie penguins rush around on the ice while, in contrast, a stately Emperor penguin stands tall and imperious on the edge of a floe.

There is no environment on earth to compare.

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