Nathan Hambrook-Skinner Blog: Acclimatizing to Life in Antartica

3rd December 2013, 04:47pm


Nathan Hambrook-Skinner, Communications Director for Willis Global, reports from Antarctica as the Willis Resilience Expedition gets underway. 

The last time I wrote this blog, I was sitting in the comfort of a four star hotel in Punta Arenas. I was feeling very well prepared for my adventure, but in reality virtually oblivious to the real life issues and day to day challenges of an ambitious continental crossing of Antarctica. After my first week in this icy desert that naivety has been completely dispelled.

We’ve done a lot in a week. Certainly more than normal. And as I write from the bumpy back seat of the Ice Broker trundling its way over the Trans Antarctic Mountains, that burning sense of adventure that I started out with refuses to die. It just burns a little less brightly sometimes, particularly in the relentless cold and at the end of 24 hours without sleep.

To update you on the story so far, we touched down at Union Glacier in the early hours of Friday November 29, having received a call on the Thursday evening, telling us a weather window had opened up and our flight would be departing.

There was never much hope of getting to sleep on the flight, packaged as we were in a noisy old Russian military aircraft with our bags crammed in around us, our backs against the aircraft’s hull and our feet resting out in front of us on Ice Broker’s oversized wheels.

And we always knew that we’d be up against it when we touched down at Union Glacier to try and catch-up following our seven day delay in Punta. That said there was plenty to do when we arrived, including rigging the communications network on Ice Broker for a second time after it had been dismantled for the flight.

But first we are invited to join a safety briefing with ALE, the tour operator that staffs and runs the base camp at Union Glacier and the people who will be responsible for evacuating us in an emergency.

One of the first things we were shown was a shocking video of a snow plough being swallowed by an eight metre wide crevasse (the incident happened recently and, coincidentally, we saw the snow plough under repair in a workshop in Punta Arenas).

The machine was being used to clear snow in a known crevasse area about five kilometres from the Union Glacier base camp when, suddenly, a snow bridge collapsed. The stricken vehicle tumbled backwards into the deep hole, but miraculously the crew escaped without injury.

Our safety instructor went on to explain that, whilst almost 50% of our route from Union to the South Pole has been heavily scanned (with ground penetrating radar) some of the ice sheets in our area are travelling at an estimated two metres per day, which increases the stress on the ice and the chances of crevasses forming. He told us: “Resist the urge to cut corners – it’s a bit like Swiss cheese out there.”

Following the briefing and once we’d erected our two Iridium domes and camera rig on top of the truck, we set out at 6pm local time (we’re using the Chilean clock, GMT -3, since that’s where we arrived in Antarctica from).

Following a sleepless night on the plane, our driver Eyjo put in a heroic effort but, by 12am (Saturday morning) we were all ready to collapse. So we pitched our tent in the safest spot we can find with minimal visibility and quickly prepared dinner before passing out, thoroughly exhausted, but glad to be on the move at last.

Another early start affords us the opportunity to conduct our first scientific sample using the ice core drill that Parker managed to acquire from Chilean Antarctic researchers. The drill makes digging a two metre ice core simpler, but it can still be a challenge if the conditions aren’t right. It takes us a few hours to drill our first hole with the hand drill and measure depth readings for 20 snow and ice samples. But by working together we get it done and, at about midday, we are on our way again.

Disaster strikes mid-way through our second day on the ice when, suddenly, the truck loses power, cutting off our communications network. Eyjo quickly discovers the problem. Our on-board power inverter – needed to boost the voltage supplied by the engine so we can run a computer and satellite communications network – has packed in. We carry a spare but its our only one. Eyjo gets a chance to install it later in the day when we stop for a second ice core sample.

All in all, it has been a gruelling start to the Willis Resilience Expedition. But we didn’t expect anything else. When it does get tough Eyjo plays another Icelandic folk music album on the stereo andI try to focus on our end goal or something good which I know is coming up soon. Usually pitching the tent at the end of the day and falling asleep inside a warm sleeping bag!

Already, after some long days, we are making good progress towards the South Pole, which we will pass on route to the Leverett Glacier and the start of the second phase of the expedition. And we’ve conducted our first live TV broadcast from Antarctica – which might even be a world first. So as I sit back, take another sip of my lukewarm hot chocolate and admire the stunning, other worldly, vistas outside the window, I reflect on these successes and the many great experiences that are still ahead.