Deep Down into the Antarctic Ice

31 August, 2009

It’s early Sunday morning at Halley Research Station, Antarctica. The sun is rising quickly on the horizon, the wind is low and the temperature outside is a modest −18 degrees C. Conditions look perfect. As I look across the dining room at my friends and colleagues Niv and Colin I see two smiling faces nodding back at me. Today we are going to head out to the coast and attempt to explore a large crevasse at a point on the Ice shelf known as Creek Five.

Halley Research Station sits on the Brunt Ice Shelf 15km in from the edge of the shelf. It is the British Antarctic Surveys most southerly and remote research station. I am lucky enough to be a member of the eleven strong wintering team working as the chef on Station. With the impending arrival of 24 hour darkness we are all keen to make the most of the remaining daylight, taking every opportunity to make the most of our time in this amazing place.

Soon it is time for the off, laden with climbing equipment, crampons, ice axes and emergency equipment we head out to our skidoos. Soon we arrive at the caboose situated on the ice cliffs above the sea ice at Creek Four. We dismount the skidoos and put on our crampons. The equipment that just a few months ago felt so clumsy and uncomfortable to me now feels natural and purposeful. Roped together we head out down a ramp in the ice cliff onto the sea ice. The hard packed snow is covered with a foot thick layer of soft powdery snow which makes every step difficult and zips are being opened, layers of clothing removed as our bodies warm after the chilling drive. Following in each other’s footsteps, keeping the rope between us tight we crunch our way over the sea ice. The ice is littered with tide cracks and small crevasses that can at best lead to twisted ankles and at worst lead to a potentially fatal fall through the ice into the freezing water below. Niv, our Field Assistant leads the way. He is an experienced Alpine Guide and is well skilled in ice climbing techniques and sea ice travel. Colin and I follow in his wake. The sea ice creaks and groans under our feet and Niv probes areas in front of him with an ice axe before striding onwards. Looking out to sea we can see large icebergs trapped in the sea ice, frozen in for the winter. Niv then turns towards the ice cliffs and we see for the first time the entrance to the crevasse. From this distance (about 200m) it looks little more than a small hole in the ice shelf. Close up, that’s exactly what it is.

Niv explains how we will enter the crevasse roped together, one at a time through a tunnel. When he reaches the end of the tunnel and the vertical drop into the floor of the crevasse he will place ice screws into the wall. There we will group together at the edge and abseil down one at a time. We travel up and down in the tunnel as it threads its way into the ice shelf, squeezing under pillars of ice and stepping over deep cracks in the floor. Soon we arrive at the vertical descent to the bottom of the crevasse. I look at the ice screws in the ice wall and remind myself that they will more than hold my weight. Colin and I in turn clip ourselves into the rope and descend into the darkness below.

Gone now is the soft snow of the tunnel above and the hard compacted ice squeaks as my crampons dig into the floor. Head torches light our way as we follow the crevasse deeper into the ice shelf. As we wind our way forward the size of the ice crystals increases, becoming more and more spectacular. Torch beams flash through the air and the moisture on my breath freezes and sparkles as it falls. We are now approximately 500m into the ice shelf. The sides of the crevasse are narrowing and in front of us is a large pillar of ice seemingly blocking our path. “This is as far as I’ve been” says Niv. He looks at us and almost without hesitation knows that this won’t be the end of our exploration today.

Keen to see more Colin and I slide on our fronts squeezing our way under the pillar of ice which opens up in front of us to reveal more spectacular ice formations. We push onwards and downwards into the ice. Crossing large cracks in the floor, climbing over loose boulders of solid ice. Soon we reach the end of the road. Probing in front of us Colin finds the floor of the crevasse is slushy and soft. A taste test of the ice reveals to me that the slush is the sea below us. We have reached the bottom of the ice shelf. Taking a moment to rest we turn off our head torches and experienced total darkness. It’s amazing. Our eyes are so used to having even a tiny amount of light to work with when emerged in total darkness the brain sends impulses to the eyes which appear as flashes and sparks in the darkness.

As we crawled, walked and climbed through the crevasse back to the surface the colours were spectacular. Blues, pinks, purples and oranges until we blinked our way back into the light and out onto the sea ice. As we headed for home we reflected that the things we had just seen may never be seen again. The ice is constantly moving and changing, re shaping and falling into the sea. A wonderful never to be forgotten day.

Written by John Eager
Halley winter chef
British Antarctic Survey