Twas on the 12th Dec amidst a heavy running sea that Rachel and I climbed aboard the Polar Pioneer on a voyage that would take us southwards from Port Lockroy towards Wordie House on the Argentine Islands, a journey of a mere 60 – 70km from historic hut to hut. Overlooked by the mountain peaks of the Peninsula, the Polar Pioneer navigated it's way south through the proudly named channels and straits or around Islands discovered and named by the explorers of a time not so long past. Neumayer, Bismarck, Wauwermans, Penola, Lemaire* and the like duly expelled their stunning beauty upon us. It was whilst going through the picturesque Lemaire Channel that we encountered a pod of Killer whales circling a bergy bit on which a crabeater and leopard seal were taking refuge. Fortunately for the seals on this occasion the whales departed but not before we were given a front seat view of the adult male with its large dorsal fin careering around with the other pod members. Conditions in the state of the sea started to change quickly south of the Lemaire channel, for soon open water gave way to floes of loose brash ice which in turn began to consolidate into thick rotten first year pack ice until ahead all one could see was 10/10ths ice with bergs interspersed. The Polar Pioneer barged, pushed, broke or carved the ice away making good progress under the skillful eyes of Captain Sasha, ably assisted by his officers and Tomas the expedition leader. There were some anxious faces to been seen on the bridge as they delved deeper southwards. Off Galindez Island (one of the Argentine Islands) a "puddle" of water was observed just large enough to launch the zodiacs and it was to be here that Rachel, four Ukrainian scientists and I were hastily put ashore to be left clambering over the rocks to gather our gear, it was not a graceful landing but nevertheless it was safe and we had made it. Hardly was there time to say our thanks or wave goodbye to the Captain, Tomas and the other staff before the Polar Pioneer was gone for the ice closed in all around the ship.
Personnel from the Ukrainian Station Vernadsky helped us move our gear the 1.5km to the base, we were given a pair of snow shoes to help us escape being "sucked under" by the soft snow as we pulled the sledge and very thankful indeed we were for them. The Ukrainians welcomed us warmly into their "home", their station leader Eugeny raised a glass of Vodka making a toast of friendship and to signal the end of winter. Rachel, the first lady they had seen for 8 months, made a toast on behalf of the trust in gratitude for all the help they give the Trust and for the warm hospitable welcome we had received, thus the tone of the evening was cast in Vodka.
Wordie House on Winter Island stands on the footings of the old British Graham Land Expedition hut of 1934-1937, the original hut of the BGLE was possibly washed away by a wave in 1946. The new hut built in 1947 stands in line of sight with Vernadsky just over 1km away. Commuting between the two via Stella Creek was possible this season over the sea ice which was standing firm from last winter. Being escorted across the ice for the first two days by the Ukrainians gave us an understanding of local conditions and a feel for what was underfoot. Depending on the time of day and temperature, the surface of the ice varied from a crisp white firm base speeding the sledge along to those where it was grey and slushy acting more as a drag then. It was as a precaution whilst travelling from station to hut, we always went together wearing life jackets, carrying throw ropes, wearing the snow shoes and whoever pulled the sledge led the way testing the ice with six firm blows of the bog chisel.
This past winter northerly blizzards had formed a snow barricade around the southern side of the hut up to roof level in places. Once this snow had been dug away Rachel was able to open the door letting in the summer light thus heralding the start to a new season. The hut had stood up well against another winter, there were some signs of moisture penetration but repairs later deemed them good. From last year’s visit a comprehensive list of maintenance tasks were recorded, this job list varied from photographing artefacts, bolstering up the British Crown land sign, scraping paint, tidying up the generator shed, painting the exterior, cleaning walls, finding the lost waste, cataloguing of artefacts and investigating rotten floors and walls, plus any other little jobs of which could be done. Rachel quickly got stuck in, first and foremost she hoisted the Union flag, and thereafter she could be seen or heard tidying up the hut before undertaking some scraping or cleaning. I concentrated on the carpentry tasks taking up the old lino before lifting the floorboards in the hallway and lounge to investigate the sagging appearances of the floors thus able to make a survey of their condition and calculate the materials needed to do repairs in the forthcoming seasons. The size of the repairs needed soon became apparent, nearly half of the lounge floor was found to be totally rotten clean right down to the rocky ground. Appropriate repairs were made with temporary joists and floorboards set in place before it was onto the next task. A set of new steps (copied from old photo) were built onto the genny shed which will be a good addition for the hut, as it is hoped that this will be where most people enter Wordie House to help ease the congestion problems.
Armed with a paint brush on the one sunny day we received whilst at the hut, Rachel painted the north and west walls with bitumastic paint whilst I replaced some of the rotten boards and frame work to the genny shed before Rachel treated these walls to a new coat. There was an interesting array of insulation material in the genny shed walls, it ranged from paper, cloth, fine wooden strands and even the old cardboard wrappers from gin bottles were used to fend off the cold. Being the only decent day, work outside continued with us both painting the roof at a pace but alas this was curtailed as the weather closed in with snow falling again. Our day’s end at Wordie House took on a familiar role with supper in the lounge just before bedtime. Supper usually consisted of soup and biscuits with custard and jam for desert followed by coffee tinged with vodka!
The main living area of the hut consists of one main room used as lounge, kitchen and bedroom catering for around six people. Around the walls of the main room and between the two windows there are the three sets of bunk beds each one with a built in cupboard space. In the middle of the room there is a narrow partition wall dividing the kitchen area complete with Belfast sink, work surface and shelves from the lounge. With pride of place in the lounge and against the dividing wall sits the coal fire now retired flanked by bookcases and shelf. A table with an assortment of chairs completes the room. Even though the walls lay a little sparse in the form of decoration with four old b/w pictures to view there was however on book shelves some good reading material and board games from the hut’s golden age back in the 40's and 50's. We did delight in finding and reading the Detaille Diary from the winter of 1958 where the cold and the wind were recurring themes. It was on one such cold windy night that Rachel tucked herself into one sleeping bag before slipping that bag inside another sleeping bag whilst also keeping on her thermals, three pairs of socks and aided by feet warmers, she did remark how snug she was during the night!
The rotating views out of the lounge windows across the creeks make up for any lack in décor. Weddell seals could be spied on the ice, Antarctic terns were witnessed hovering above the water before diving for small fish whereupon they would return to their nesting places on the rocks and almost daily we could see them participating in "dog fights" with skuas who flew about, the chatter of the 20 odd pairs was relentless most days. Cormorants and penguins were also regular "passers by" in the creek sailing past on the small ice floes.
Our work schedule revolved around us staying at Wordie House for two nights before returning across the ice to Vernadsky for a night to keep up relations with our Ukrainian friends and to dry out our clothes. On the 14th Dec, the 100th year anniversary of Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole, we stayed with the Ukrainians who participated in a special broadcast with the Norwegian Ambassador to the Ukraine in Kiev. Duly the interviews were held in the famous “Faraday bar" built by Keith "Cat" Larratt and his team back in the winter of 1980. The organisation went as planned with Eugeny Karyagin the base leader (BC) heading the conversations whilst other winterers took the opportunity to talk with family members. Prior to the real broadcast they ran a test one which coincided with Rachel wanting to photograph the birds from the kitchen window, pandemonium broke out as the window opened signaling numerous skuas and gulls to squawk in delight, the noise resonated around the base but did not interfere with proceedings, perhaps the squawking of birds set off the snow avalanche from the roof which occurred shortly after.
Time at Wordie House and Vernadsky was coming to an end. The day before the scheduled pick-up Rachel and I crossed the ice to Skua Island from where we got an unrivalled view across Penola strait towards the Peninsula and southwards down the Grandidier Channel. All about was 10/10th ice, one year old pack ice is an awesome sight, it brings mixed emotions depending on one’s situation. For those who want to travel to far horizons it is "manna from heaven" but for us pangs of uncertainty as to whether we were going to be uplifted the following day. Not to be daunted, it was back to the hut to carry on our work of cleaning or making a start in preparation to leave. Rachel was seen vigorously rubbing /cleaning the brown tea pot in the hope that a "genie" would appear to grant her a wish!
Communications throughout our visit have been emails via the hand held iridium phone, daily scheds have gone to and fro between Port Lockroy, Wordie House and HQ. For test purposes, we made short phone calls to Tudor in Wales and Liesl at the South Pole showing anywhere is accessible and all worked well. The "Mobiles" (as we became known) after some fine tuning by Rachel prior to our leaving Port Lockroy are now a sound independent unit being able to venture to any of the huts geared up with the appropriate equipment and food required and to be able to stay as long as necessary.
Our last evening was spent at Vernadsky and early on the 23rd we were back at Wordie House just in time the hear the National Geographic Explorer’s expedition leader Lisa call us on the VHF radio from outside Cornice Channel. Their arrival came as a pleasant shock considering the ice which they had manoeuvred through to reach us. It was a very quick fire half hour (with no time to think) before our gear was packed into two zodiacs with the hut left neat and tidy, rubbish stored ready for pick up and the door securely closed that we left Wordie House. We radioed Vernadsky to say goodbye and carrying a very satisfied feeling of accomplishment we cruised out of Cornice Channel to be met by ice which temporarily blocked us from getting aboard the ship, Lief the captain of the NGE rotated the vessel on the spot creating an opening in the ice for the zodiacs to get in.
We are both very grateful for the tremendous effort put in by all on the Nat Geo Explorer to uplift us from Wordie house. Like our input, there was no time to linger around, we headed slowly northwards up the Penola Strait through the 10/10ths sea ice past Vernadsky Station then onto the familiar sights of Petermann Island, Wauwermans, Bismarck Strait, Lemaire Channel and eventually home to Port Lockroy for Christmas Day. Rachel said her goodbyes to one and all at Port Lockroy as she stayed aboard the ship all the way to Ushuaia.
Kudos goes to all those who helped us getting in and out of Wordie House and the personnel at Vernadsky Station. As a footnote, some one week later after our pick up from Wordie House the ice has consolidated even more around the Argentine Islands and Penola Strait denying any access to ships!
New Year’s Day 2012
* Neumayer, Lemaire, and Wauwerman were all named by de Gerlache after benefactors or champions. Bismarck was named by the German Antarctic Expedition 1873-4 after the first Chancellor of the German Empire. Penola was the name of the ship of the British Graham Land Expedition (after Rymill’s home).