|WEEK 5: JANUARY 27, 2008 - February 2, 2008|
SMART CHICKENS January 28, 2008 Port Lockroy|
Sometime around 10 p.m., Rodrigo started shouting from the rear, "Strong like bull. Smart like chicken!" Each in our team of five, although separated by 100-foot lengths of climbing rope for crevasse safety, heard our Chilean climbing guru perfectly. And we all quietly agreed. The conditions for our evening climb were awful. Dangerous even. But we all kept slogging through the wet, thigh-deep rotten snow, like smart chickens.
We had somewhat spontaneously decided to climb Jabed Peak, an easy looking peak with its summit just 1500 above Port Lockroy, around 6 P.M. A small break in the steady rain we had seen for a week led to itchy feet and some eagerness to stay to our original plan of climbing something, anything, despite the rain. So we sorted our harnesses, crampons, ropes, warm gear and a few sleeping bags and by 8 P.M. started our slog - just about the time it started raining again.
Leading our posse through a complete whiteout, Rodrigo broke trail down a long flat ridge narrowly avoiding a few covered crevasses. When we reached the incline of our goal, Rodrigo "the Commodore" wisely let the younger chickens break trail. By the time we all agreed that breaking a waist deep trail in what our Kiwi Antarctica addict Graham Charles called "the worst snow I think I have ever seen", Sean Farrell, "The Atomic Bunny" scampered straight upwards to a rock outcropping. Being smart chickens, we followed. There we put on our crampons, worked our way further up a short couloir to a spiny ridge and continued upward. Just a few hundred feet below the summit, where a large slab of icy snow perilously hung, we collectively agreed the avalanche danger was indeed too great to continue.
But to our delight, sometime around midnight, the rain and snow stopped. For a fleeting moment our whiteout cleared and we enjoyed an Antarctica sunset - purple and reddish hues and misty peaks surrounded us. Below the Neumayer Channel and Port Lockroy shimmered. Our soggy slog offered a fine perspective of much of the Peninsula we had only explored from sea level.
By headlamp we descended quickly, wallowing down our trough. Then Rodrigo and Graham retreated back to the comfort of their bunks in the "Pelagic Australis" (Nancy boys!!!) leaving the three of us younger bulls - myself, Sean and the ships third-mate Olly Hicks - to sleep in the Damoy Hut, built in 1973 for the British Antarctic Survey. It functioned yearly until 1993 and now serves as a refuge for climbers opting to wade through wet snow. A rookery of Adelie penguins and their ubiquitous fragrance greeted us at the door to our little green shack. To my surprise, the hut was well stocked with "emergency" rations of liquor and a cupboard labeled "Man Food" full of rice and beans. With three simple rooms and bunks for 15, one pillow even, we enjoyed our first sleep in weeks with total darkness thanks to the windowless sleeping quarters. - Pete McBride
ON TOURISM January 29, 2008 Port Lockroy|
I think more than anything what surprised us most this season along the Antarctic Peninsula - more than the stories of climate changing, more than the two weeks of blue skies followed by a week of rain, more than even the incredible beauty of the place - was the number of visitors. I have lost count of how many big tourist ships we saw during one month, but somewhere around 15. The biggest was the "Marco Polo," which carries 500 passengers and is very controversial down here since the company that owns the ship refuses to join IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators), thus follow its voluntary guidelines. Which means that at certain highly visited stops along the Peninsula, the "Marco Polo" and its passengers are persona non grata. It anchored offshore near us on one windy night and its crew was up early motoring it closer to shore to keep it better protected.
We certainly weren't the only private sailing boat plying these waters either. I remember my first trips along the Peninsula ten and twelve years ago: if you saw one private sailboat here it was amazing. Today at a couple of our anchorages there were six other boats vying for the best tie-ups. We actually befriended a couple of the boats - the "Discoverer" filled with British Army and Navy officers on a "training" mission, and the "Spirit of Sydney," which both Graham and our skipper Stew were quite familiar with and helped pull us off a tricky situation on some rocks early one morning near Cuverville Island.
The question of whether all this increase in tourism is good or bad for Antarctica is up in the air. Apparently more than 40,000 will visit this 2007-2008 season. Most of those are on big boats and will never put a foot on Antarctic soil. The smaller ships, most carrying 100-200 passengers, offload in groups of 50 at a time and at many of the more popular sites their footsteps are well-monitored by local scientists, to try and assess tourism's impact on both the continent and its wildlife. - JB
The Worst Journey in the World|
Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote a book called The Worst Journey in the World to tell the story of Robert Scott's early Antarctic explorers, but the title could have described any number of early attempts to explore the coldest, windiest, driest, highest, and most remote continent on earth. Early explorers suffered from scurvy, frostbite, hypothermia, starvation, and snow blindness. They fell through crevasses, plunged through thin ice, were chased by leopard seals, had their ships stuck in pack ice and crushed, were stranded on remote spits of inhospitable beaches, and had other misadventures. Antarctic exploration produced some of the most spectacular stories ever told of human endurance and desperate survival.
A visit to Antarctica has become far more safe and comfortable than it was for the early explorers, but travel to the southern continent still has its hazards. In 1979 an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight crashed into the side of Antarctica's Mount Erebus, killing all 257 people aboard. In November 2007 the passenger cruise ship Explorer struck an ice berg of the coast of Antarctica's Shetland Islands and sank. Luckily the 150 passengers and crew were rescued by a Norwegian ship and no one was killed. - Elizabeth K. Andre
PENGUINS AT RISK January 29, 2008|
After two-plus weeks of beautiful-if-unusual weather for Antarctica - blue skies, temperatures during the day that often reached into the 30s (F) - we are now paying a price. For seven days we've endured rain, including yesterday. The rain makes paddling less fun and climbing nearly impossible, thanks to the knee-deep slush now lining much of the Peninsula.
But we are lucky. We have Conduit and Goretex to protect us. The big losers are the penguin chicks, who are now about two months old, readying to leave the nest within the next few weeks. Many will not make it for a simple reason: They are covered with down. And what happens to down when it gets wet? It is soaked, difficult to dry. Today at Port Lockroy we walked among a penguin rookery home to several thousand. Many of the chicks were shivering, even as their parents attempted to feed them. Too big to be warmed beneath their parents, they are now subject to the changing weather. If it gets cold tomorrow, or the next day, as it invariably will, the number of dead penguin chicks will mount.
For us, this is a clear example of how warming temperatures are not impacting just the ice - though the glaciers are melted even faster thanks to the pounding rain - but on wildlife too.
CROSSING THE DRAKE PASSAGE, PART 1|
We left anchor off Pt. Lockroy at 6 a.m., everything on the boat tightly secured with the expectation that at least some of the four days ahead would be rough and windy. Our 22-foot-long kayaks would not make the trip with us; lashed to the foredeck of the "Pelagic Australis" in the pounding seas to come they would be a liability to sailing and most likely be badly damaged during the crossing. Last night we carried them ashore at Lockroy, tied them securely to rocks and left them in the safe care of several hundred gentoo penguins and their chicks - my friends on the "National Geographic Endeavor" will pick them up in a week's time and deliver them to port at Ushuaia, Argentina.
Sailing south of Anvers Island and headed out to the Drake Passage our last glimpse of Antarctica is the sun glinting off a bank of glaciers two-dozen miles long. Sometimes during our month here it has been easy to take all this incredible beauty - miles of snowcapped rocky peaks lining the Peninsula, dramatically sculpted icebergs floating by, penguins by the hundreds porpoising alongside our kayaks - for granted but as we sail away knowing it will be our last view of Antarctica for awhile, it is with a mixture of joy and sadness.
That sadness is increased during our first 24 hours into the Drake, renowned for its ferocious winds and tricky seas, when the first wave of nauseousness washes over virtually everyone. The worst thing about feeling this bad during the first day is that you know it will last for several days to come. In order to cross the 600 miles back to Puerto Williams we'll have to sail mostly north but tack occasionally to the west in order to beat back against the winds. I don't think I've ever met anyone who describes crossing the Drake as a joy, or pleasurable. But it's the only way home. And to a certain degree it is a limiting factor to too much tourism growth down south; there are a high percentage of people who, though curious to see the seventh continent, will never come due to the Drake's reputation.
DRAKE PASSAGE, PART 2|
Day three of our crossing of the Drake, an overview of the ship's interior: Fiona and Pete completely prone, moaning, she in her bunk, he sprawled on the couch in the saloon. Jon in the same condition, moving between the two locations. Rodrigo, Graham and Juanito keeping stiff upper lips, pretending to read during our mandatory four-hour watches, but aching to either throw-up or go back to bed, or both. Even Jess, the ships first mate, admits to having vomited early on during the rocking and rolling as the boat nudges slowly northwards across one of the world's windiest places. Only Sean, Olly and Stew seem truly to be withstanding the motion of the ocean, a credit either to physiology or sheer manliness.
By day four it seems like the ride will never end; each of us - either out loud or to ourselves - has sworn never to step on a sailboat again. Even when you feel well enough to stand and move from bunk to pilot house to saloon, it takes every effort to physically manage the walk up the short set of stairs and down the next without being thrown violently across the ship. Generally, once that move has been achieved the only thing to do ... is lie down again, wherever you find yourself.
That said, roughly four days and six hours after leaving Port Lockroy we come into sight of one of the marquees of the sailing world, Cape Horn. Simultaneously the seas slow to a mellow roll and we coast in towards the gray-green-brownscape of the southernmost tip of Chile. It is a shock on so many levels. First, and thankfully most, the seas have stopped tossing us about the ship like rag dolls allowing our inner-ears to stop pounding. Second, the colors are so different from the stark blue and white of the seventh continent. Graham stands up on the back deck in a t-shirt. He's been in Antarctica for the past three months and relishes in his first warm breeze in as many.
I've been around Cape Horn a few times but for most on the ship this is a first look at the historic turning spot. A simple lighthouse and a statue of an albatross are the only man-made symbols on the rocky point, the closest point of land to Antarctica.
We are escorted past the Horn by a most incredible scene: Five hundred black-browed albatross soar all around us, fishing, coasting on seven-to-eight foot wingspans. Even our albatross expert, Fiona, is stunned into reverie. It is a beautiful welcome home from the ice.