Blog 7: 18/12/18

The last words of this blog are written from 37.000 feet altitude in definitely the most comfortable airplane I have ever been in. It’s a Boeing 757 which is normally used to transfer big artists such as U2, the Rolling Stones,… Yet another unique experience but a welcome chance from the vehicle I spent the last week on Antarctica in; the Toyota Hilux.

Wednesday we departed towards the coast to collect our final samples there and install a new site as well. The plan was straightforward. 3 days, 3 locations, 1 day driving up and 1 day driving back, staying in tents, be light, fast and autonomous. We would drive to a location 150 km away from the station were we set up a central camp and work on the samples, each day departing from the camp with the Hilux. Going to the coast meant we were to pass the fearsome sastrugi fields (rough icy terrain) we encountered on the Romnoes trip again. (Small disclaimer; due to abnormal snow accumulation past winter, the terrain really is much rougher than normal.) Luckily for us, Jean-Louis and his team of glaciologists were also planning to stay at a central base camp near the coast for a few days since they wanted to go to the drilling site of last year before starting with the ice coring on a new location. As they have living and storage containers, which have to be dragged to the site on sledges using two Prinoth tractors, the convoy will clear the road for us. Big downside; the Prinoths average around 10 kph, thus the trip took us 16 hours including the refueling stop. Furthermore, due to the bad weather and the ice desert around us the only thing to see was the back of the container in front of us. It was a long day.

On the upside, it did give Manu more than enough time to brief us on the conditions, how to stay warm, how to use your tent (yes, you can use a tent in a wrong way), sleeping bag, food rations and so on. Arriving on the location we encountered some of the best coastal Antarctic weather you will find; heavy winds and almost white out. Challenging conditions to set up a tent, but eventually with some helping hands here and there everyone got his/hers erected and quickly went to sleep. At first, I thought I would never be able to sleep in the tent as the wind makes the tent’s sails move as if someone is physically shaking the tent, but it proved no problem. In fact, I had great nights and learned to sleep everywhere in Antarctica.

The next day the troublesome weather made place for a stunning bright sunshine and a slight sea breeze, perfect! In the morning, we helped Jean-Louis settle and organize a bit after which we departed to the site where they drilled ice cores last year. The glaciologists remained there as we drove on to our most northern (at that moment) sample site. After having had some “technical” issues on which I cannot elaborate but it involves removing the backseat of the car with very little tools (oops) and a little detour, we arrived at our familiar three-pole set-up. It is a stunning location! 15 km from the coastline, with the nice weather, we had a clear view on the ocean and the icebergs. Amazing! Filter exchange again went without issues but the drive and technical problems cost us a lot of time, in the end we made it back to basecamp around midnight.

Next day we scheduled to go for Breid Bay, were we will install our samplers only 2 km from the sea ice. Taking into account the previous troubles, we prepared the Hilux early and departed at 9 am. It was an easy drive and Alain picked us a perfect spot. The weather was even better than the day before! Antarctica at its best! We took plenty of time to install the three poles and spent some more near the location for lunch and to enjoy the surroundings. Coming back early to the base camp also meant we had the kitchen container for ourselves so, take things easy, relax and make a short call home on satellite phone.

Saturday was a special one! The last day of field operations on Antarctica for us. It proved to be a challenge as we had to find the last location in a total whiteout with visibility less than 5 meters. The GPS coordinates however, were perfect! No trouble finding the station and with all the experience we build up last weeks, no problems to efficiently service it in high winds. Our work is done here! And it is a perfect 7/7 as we found back every sample and did everything which was in our program.

There was a lot of euphoria but also some sadness because this incredible experience is about to end very soon. As we will be flying back to Cape Town on Tuesday, only Monday was left to finish some final stuff in the measurement shelter at the station and to prepare samples and hardware for shipment back. It was a busy and emotional final day but it was finished in the best way possible; A reverse wind scoop. The little tour around the neighboring mountain proved to be more challenging in the reverse direction and Daniel let us play around a bit on the big ice blocks and slopes. Under the low standing sun, it certainly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then Tuesday, after a lot of hugs, farewells and saying goodbye to everyone and the station which has been our home for more than a month, it was time to go. A bright red Twin Otter took 5 of us back to Novo Airbase where we immediately boarded the luxury Boeing were I’m sitting in right now. Thank you so much to everyone in the station, all the supporting personnel home, the university and Belspo to make such an amazing field trip possible. I come back with so many unforgettable moments and laughs! An extra big thank you to Manu and Henri with whom we worked very hard to achieve all our objectives here! It has been a pleasure and an experience never to forget. Finally thank you for reading the blogs, I hope you enjoyed them all. See you!

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