Climbing one of Antarctica’s highest towers … in darkness in -96 Celsius windchill

On Saturday, we made one of own ‘worst journeys in the world’ to ‘American Tower’, one of Antarctica’s highest towers- also in the name of science.

Seb, our French Glaciologist, had to make repairs to scientific instruments – one of which had broken at the top- so we would also be climbing it also.  Myself, Erick (station leader), Guillaume (astronomer/ astrophysicist), and Seb set out hiking out to the tower – the farthest point from the station.

The weather was -75C (with -96C windchill).

We arrived at the tower.  The wind had picked up somewhat.  3 of us set upon the tower, whilst Guillaume remained at the bottom in a shelter, in radio contact with ourselves and the remaining crew at the base.

It is a precarious climb even in the summer.  But this trip was necessary and Erick was sure to make it as safe as he could, and like any good leader, joined us to monitor the climb himself.

Erick went first, followed by myself and Seb following behind, checking and cleaning the tower’s precious instruments as he went.

On a previous trip I had been half way up and in taking off my outer mitt to fiddle with my camera, had the wind blow it away over the side.  Then followed a rush to descend the tower to save my frozen hand and retrieve my stolen glove.  Antarctica had played its dirty tricks, but this time I wouldn’t be fooled.  I tied my gloves together with string, so like the old polar explorer’s gauntlets, hung them around my neck when needing to fiddle.

The wind was unforgiving.  Step by step, floor by floor, we eventually hit the top.  It would be all too easy to topple over one of the sideless floors, every step had to be placed precisely.  There was a faint glow on the horizon, only really clear with a 30 second exposure on the camera.  The sun lay well below the horizon and will do so for another month.

I will never forget standing on the top of the tower, in the eternal darkness, with the wind biting and howling.  The most magnificent feeling arrived – being completely alone in the universe.  There was just the three of us… Standing on the top of the bottom of our world.

I looked up – a satellite screamed across the sky.  Then another.  They were physically closer to us than any other human settlement.  What a thought.  We felt very alone again.

My face mask had frozen to my face.  Having a moustache did not help – it stuck to my face mask – any movement was joined by an excruciating pang with each movement, taring each hair from off my face.

I had radioed back to base, ‘all safe, we are at the top. Please turn the base lights on.’  Mattia, our Italian Glaciologist kindly obliged my call and Concordia’s twin towers lit up in the background of the Antarctic winter night.  A warm artificial distant glow bore strong on the horizon.  The only living entity for 1000km in most directions.  A continuous stream of steam bellowed out from the station – as alien to the ice environment as we were.  The station was very much alive.  Like us, its lungs were the engines of its very being, producing heat deep within the interior, protected from the cold, heartless unforgiving environment.

My hands started to freeze.  I started the slow and careful descent first.

The walk back, for me, was just a drunken oxygen deprived stupor.  I trailed the others glow from their head-torches, like a moth to an oil lamp.   It was lucky there were no mermaids in Antarctica – I would have just as easily followed a false light out onto the plateau alone.  A great hypoxic euphoria passed on the way back went a very long way indeed.  I could have been bounding over the surface of the moon, but I wasn’t, I may as well have been crawling.

I got back, exhausted and with a pounding high altitude headache, fell into bed in a stupor.  I was as dry and  parched as a prune left out to dry on a southern moroccan rooftop and missed dinner.  There was a first.  My head thumped as I lay, bleached and beached, unable to surmount the little energy to turn out the bright glare of my room’s industrial light.  I craved the darkness once again.

God only knows how Dr Wilson and his team would have felt on their ‘Worst Journey in the World’ 100 years ago… sucking ice, tears frozen to their faces searching for the tent which too had been stolen by Antarctica’s timeless wind-ridden dirty, underhand rotten tricks.

 

Song of the day: 

Cold cold heart by Hank Williams

 

Today’s weather report:

16/07/2012, 02:29

Temperature -75.5 °C Pressure 631.6 hPa
Windchill -75.5 °C Relative Humidity 25 %
Wind Direction 164° Dewpoint -84.6 °C
Wind Speed 0.2 m/s 0.3 knots

 

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