Nathan Hambrook-Skinner Blog: Delayed in Punta

26th November 2013, 05:58pm

Last time I updated my blog was on the evening of our scheduled departure for Union Glacier in Antarctica. Sadly, as I write now we’re still on Chilean soil. Sitting in my hotel room in Punta Arenas, I have yet to set sight on the icy shores of Antarctica except in my mind’s eye.

Our delay is due to poor weather. As everyone who launches ambitious wilderness expeditions knows – there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about that. We’re at the mercy of mother nature.

We will only fly when the pilots of our Russian Ilyushin IL76 aircraft say it is safe to do so. They need exactly the right weather conditions to enable them to land safely on the blue ice runway at Union Glacier. The pilot needs light headwinds (but nothing in excess of 35 kilometres per hour) and upon landing he will fire reverse thrusters to bring the aircraft to a standstill. In the mind of a nervous flyer such as myself, landing on a frozen runway is a miracle in itself. But I take a little comfort in the knowledge that these Siberian pilots have a great deal of experience flying planes in difficult conditions and landing on snow and ice runways – including floating ice runways in the Arctic Circle.

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Frustrating as it is – because we’re all anxious to get underway – the delay has afforded us the opportunity to complete some essential tasks before entering the freezer. We would have had to do these jobs before departing from Union Glacier for our continental crossing in any case. Rather than trying to complete them in the confines of our truck as it bounces it’s way across Antarctica during the scientific phase of the expedition, we’ve been able to complete them in the relative comfort of a hangar in Punta. A little more time to strengthen the bonds of friendship that will be so integral to the success of this expedition is no bad thing either.

Even before the team starts collecting samples from the snow we have had to overcome some bureaucratic hurdles given the unique status of Antarctica and its immeasurable scientific importance to the world. It has been a pleasure to witness how maturely and patiently Parker has handled this delicate situation. I find myself learning from him as he deftly cuts his way through the red tape. And his passion for science is infectious.

Another remarkable thing about Parker – put aside the fact that he’s already a seasoned polar explorer at the tender age of nineteen – is his dedication and commitment to the scientific programme. He feels a strong sense of duty towards the academic institutions that have supported his expedition and are counting on the samples that we will help him gather in Antarctica. His unswerving commitment to the integrity of the programme is inspiring for us all.

With that said – given our lay-over in Punta – the team is happy to pull together and help Parker label hundreds of sampling bottles and carefully pack them away in protective Pelican cases. We also use the extra time to construct – in a controlled environment – the special weather station that Parker plans to test in Antarctica. Who knows what kind of weather conditions we’ll be facing the next time we put this thing together? We could be standing in howling winds, several degrees below freezing. So it’s a good thing we’ve had a chance to check everything fits like it’s supposed to.

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The delay has delivered another bonus for one of the team members in particular. Paddy Scott – our expedition cameraman – had the chance to catch up with a personal hero of his, BBC wildlife cameraman and veteran polar explorer Doug Allan during a chance meeting. Paddy – who has ambitions of his own to break into wildlife documentaries – was overjoyed to spend an evening chatting with Doug after a weather update from our mutual tour operators, Antarctic Expeditions and Logistics (ALE).

I won’t jinx the end of this blog by saying anything as stupid as where I’ll be the next time I write. I’ve learnt that lesson the hard way. All there is to do now is to make every effort to ensure we are primed and ready to go and to reflect on how lucky we are to be here as we say our prayers each night for good weather and safe passage.