A Challenging Trip to Antarctica

I recently completed a fascinating but challenging trip to Antarctica. As all of my readers know, I’m a warm weather Cloud-dweller but I visited the frozen continent to see the impact of climate change. Antarctica might seem like a faraway place but what happens on the bottom of the world impacts us all.

The history of Antarctica is short. While ice was long suspected to be at the bottom of the earth to match the ice cap in the Arctic, there were also rumours of a landmass at the South Pole. In 1775, Captain James Cook noted in his journal that there was a possible southern land and he thought he had viewed it. According to his ships charts, however, he had gone no closer than 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the first permanent ice shelves.

Antarctica was officially discovered in 1820 by a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev who sighted and charted the Fimbul ice shelf. The first landing on the continent was not until 1895 when the Norwegians were the first to reach the new continent.

Antarctic vistas are incredibly beautiful!

The great explorer, Roald Amundsen reached the geographic South Pole on 14 December 1911 but it was 1956 before anyone else set foot at that famous point. The first coast-to-coast solo traverse of the continent was not until 1996/1997, but that difficult trip started where the land begins and not at the water’s edge because the ice cap extends hundreds of kilometres more out to sea. It was only in 2019 that a solo trek from sea-to-sea was accomplished!

Antarctica is 14.2 Million square kilometres (5.5 Million square miles) of mostly undiscovered lands. That means Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and larger even than Europe! It is the coldest, driest continent on earth and has the highest average elevation. There has been no rain in the past 2 Million years but 80% of the world’s fresh water is locked in its ice. Today, between 1000-5000 people reside there throughout the year.

So, why should you care about this forbidding land and why did I visit it on your behalf? What happens in Antarctica directly affects us all. The polar regions (both North and South) are warming much faster than the rest of the world. When I was there in December, the temperature was high enough to sunbathe in a T-shirt! If the Antarctic ice cap was to melt entirely, sea levels would rise approximately 10 meters (33 feet) and almost every major city on a coast would be underwater. Cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Mumbai, Dubai, Rome, Rio and London would be uninhabitable. This may sound far-fetched but I’ve seen first-hand the effects of climate change.

Expeditions require specialised equipment and transport

You may be wondering what it’s like at the bottom of the world. Here are some highlights:

  • I didn’t see any aliens, any pyramids and I discovered no portals into the centre of the earth. I’m sorry if you are disappointed by this.
  • There are “nunataks” in Antarctica that are oases where there is no ice or snow cover. Nunataks are where research bases are sited because it is easier to build.
  • The sea ice looks exactly like frozen waves where the water has lapped up and frozen in layers that produce a rippling, frozen and beautiful vista.
  • It is nearly impossible to judge distances without proper equipment in Antarctica because there are no trees, few buildings or other points of reference.
  • Ice caves are forming and expanding quite rapidly as water under the ice caps melts and creates voids. This melting causes the glaciers to move more rapidly as the water reduces friction and the weighty ice slides more easily across the bedrock.
  • Antarctica smells clean and of nothing because it is too cold to allow aromatic chemicals to reach your nose.

Yes, Ice caves are that blue!

Reaching Antarctica is difficult and expensive. I flew by jet from Cape Town with other expedition members into Wolf Fang, a camp with significant traffic. Once we arrived we took a specially equipped turboprop aircraft to a more forward position on the continent from which to explore. Once untethered from support, the most frequent form of transport is cross-country skis while you pull a “pulka” (a sled-like pallet) with all of your gear. This is a hard and laborious form of transport and you will pay dearly for testing your endurance.

Meals are best when communal!

What goes into Antarctica comes back out. That includes your human waste products. They are diligently collected and transported off the continent. You must consume 3500 – 5000 kcal per day just to keep warm and fuel your exertions. All of your freeze-dried food goes in with you and everything – including packaging comes back out when you leave. The food is basic and, because the aromatics are less volatile in the cold, not very flavourful. You melt pure snow to hydrate the food and this requires extra time for preparation.

Accommodations are very basic, even for the well-heeled that choose semi-permanent “eco-cabins” supplied by the few specialist expedition services that operate in Antarctica. I slept in a tent with another expedition member as our team explored far onto the ice. I enjoyed the warmth of a companion in my tent. Each day, we had to dig into the snow to provide a good base and protection from the frequently challenging weather. Once the tent is setup, snow is piled around the outside to partially cover the tent to anchor it and provide insulation from the harsh winds that rise suddenly.

Antarctic weather can be forbidding! Expeditions to Antarctica are mostly taken in the Southern Hemisphere summer when the weather is kinder. We did have a few days of very harsh weather, however, including 128 kph (80 mph) winds and had to stay in our tents for more than 20 hours. After the weather broke, we needed to dig out an expedition mate who had a solo tent. Travelling during summer means that the sun shines 24-hours per day and that can make sleep difficult. The rigours of such a trip mean that you must be in peak physical and mental health. I prepared for more than one year to build stamina, increase muscle, build lung capacity, grow accustomed to the cold and build mental fortitude.

Accommodations are basic and best shared for warmth!

The beauty of this forbidding continent makes the preparation, hardship and costs of the expedition well-worth expending! I remember seeing the frozen sea ice from a high vista and realising that such beauty is worth saving for future generations.

 

Let’s all pray that this fragile and unique environment remains unspoiled!

 

Love,

Isabella

 

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Isabella’s Checklist

What to see: Nunataks, Ice caves, frozen sea ice and incredible vistas (https://www.polarexperience.com, https://white-desert.com, https://www.expeditions-unlimited.com/en)

Where to stay: A tent – basic but warmer and fun with a companion

Where to party: Sneaky treats are a luxury! Our team brought chocolates and boxed wine. Weight is at a premium, so the treats must be rationed. Really, though, the most fun comes from knowing that you are someplace that few have ever visited and you may be walking where no one has walked before!

Where to eat: One of the tents on the expedition or, if you are lucky, you can find a warm meal if visiting a research facility

What to buy: Nothing! Not one thing leaves there except photos and memories!

Cherish irreplaceable Antarctica!
Isabella’s Checklist

What to see: Nunataks, Ice caves, frozen sea ice and incredible vistas (https://www.polarexperience.com, https://white-desert.com, https://www.expeditions-unlimited.com/en)

Where to stay: A tent – basic but warmer and fun with a companion

Where to party: Sneaky treats are a luxury! Our team brought chocolates and boxed wine. Weight is at a premium, so the treats must be rationed. Really, though, the most fun comes from knowing that you are someplace that few have ever visited and you may be walking where no one has walked before!

Where to eat: One of the tents on the expedition or, if you are lucky, you can find a warm meal if visiting a research facility

What to buy: Nothing! Not one thing leaves there except photos and memories!

Cherish irreplaceable Antarctica!

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