Here follows a tale of mountaineering. Real mountaineering. With ice axes and crampons. And rope. I don't have many of these....
BAS policy dictates that we are not allowed to do glacial travel due to the technical nature of the traverse, and the associated risks if you dont know your ice axe from your snow bridge. The same rule also dictates, however, that we are allowed to do such things if accompanied by a BAS field assistant / mountaineer.
By a sheer streak of luck, this years base commander, Mr James Wake, is an ex BAS field assistant with a number of Antarctic field seasons to his name, as well as a history of miriad mountain climbs since he was a child. Therefore, glacier travel has become a possibility this year.
There are a number of large, heavily crevassed and active glaciers in the area. The Nordenskjold is arguably to most impressive in the immediate vicinity of base (though, they are all simply stunning) but the Neaumayer glacier in Cumberland west bay is the most active. It calves enormous chunks of ice in to the sea almost on a daily basis, and measurements taken (some by me) have confirmed the ice face is retreating back in to the Allardyce mountain range at a rate of 1 meter per day - or around 360 meters per year.
We opted to go and explore a less often seen feature on the Barff Peninsula however - the Scielasko Ice Cap.
Being an Ice Cap, its nature is similar to that of a glacier. In fact, it once was a glacier proper, flowing down in to reindeer valley and no doubt contributing to a larger glacier as it went. Today, it has retreated in to a rift up in the mountain range on the Barff peninsula, and has become a stable, and smooth feature, devoid of crevasses. At the head of the ice cap lies the highest mountain summit in our travel area - Black Peak mountain.
Black Peak summit is recorded at 812m (2,664 feet) high, and on a good day allows for simply spectacular views of the surrounding area, including the Nordenskjold Glacier and Mount Paget - the highest mountain in South Georgia (which stands at a lofty 9,629 feet high) as well as the beautiful scarred coastline, and of course the endless expanse of the Southern Ocean, stretching literally infinitely about the southern hemisphere of Earth.
Day one, we were deployed at Sandebugten bay and we loaded our packs, and a miriad of gear in to the pulk which James would be carrying behind him on skis.
A tough trudge through deep snow (even the snow shoes were sinking 3 or more feet in places) finally allowed us some altitude, which with it, reduced the temperature and made the footing more solid. Eventually we made it over a col and in to Reindeer Valley. The valley runs East West and offers one of the few easier passages to the far side of the peninsula overland. At this time of year, in the depths of winter, the valley floor is totally snow covered and the lake and streams which striate the landscape in the summer, are all frozen and seem to have disappeared all together.
A few hours later, we eventually worked our way out of the valley floor and up in the hills in the vicinity of the Ice Cap. We found a suitable spot at the foot of the cap, which was not even visible in its entirety, partly due to the scud and poor visibility in the area when we arrived.
We camped the night on what we believed to be a frozen lochen. I think we were all thankful of the goose down sleeping bags as the temperature dropped to double minus figures over night.
Early AM on day 2, and we had breakfasted on hot porridge and tea. The camp was to stay in situ, so all unnecessary gear and supplies was depoted in the tent or pulk. Unfortunately most of the weight saved was then put back on in the form of our climbing racks (ice screws, carrabinas, prussicks, strops, cam clamps, pullys etc) which are worn on harnesses, plus ice axe and crampons (spiked metal shoes which fit to your boots and allow you to walk / climb on ice.)
The trek up the ice cap was simply stunning. The low scud and overcast dreariness of the previous day had cleared entirely, and to coin a well known (though less often used) FID phrase - we had a dingle day. We quickly got used to being roped up as a group and we made quick progress up to the base of the ridge line leading to black peak.
The view opened up to the east coast once we got to the top of the ridge. The view from around 2,200 feet up was just spectacular, but in places the ridge drops vertically in some places for what looked like a good 1500 feet sheer drop. We remained roped up.
The summit came a hour later, and the view, as well as an enormous sense of achievement, was incredible.
Day 3 we struck camp and trekked back in to reindeer valley, making our way further east to a col at the top of a picturesque bay and natural harbour called Godthul.
Dropping steeply in to Godthul, down some steep gullys, we made camp on some rolling foot hills very near the disused whaling industry depot, surrounded by reindeer. We spent a wonderful evening on the beach, watching the gentoo penguins, which form a large colony at Godthul, return full-bellied from their day at sea, and scramble frantically back ashore, as the sun quietly set behind.
An unforgettable journey, and without doubt a superb way of spending the only sunny days we have had for a long while!