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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hiking in Antarctica

Our expedition to Antarctica, in celebration of the Geological Society of America's 125th anniversary, offered many opportunities to hike.  That was, after all, the only way to reach some of the key outcrops and parts of glaciers that were safe for walking.  While most of the wildlife action was near shore, each hike offered something that couldn't be experienced by staying close to shore.

We were fortunate to have an expert guide, Tim Carr, to lead us on these hikes.  Tim and his wife Pauline lived on and explored South Georgia Island for fourteen years so they know the island very, very well. One South Georgia hike, from Godthul to Sandebugten, took us inland across the Barff Peninsula and through Reindeer Valley.  The latter is aptly, if unimaginatively, named, as the reindeer seem to like it's tufty-grassed and mossy ground.

Reindeer Valley, South Georgia Island

On another hike we retraced the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton and two of his crew, Frank Worsley and Thomas Crean, following the final portion of their 1916 hike across South Georgia Island to the safety of the whaling station at Stromness. For those not familiar with Ernest Shackleton, I highly recommend the book "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" in which Alfred Lansing tells the riveting story of how the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition went from high hopes to near disaster to one of history's greatest feats of seamanship and survival. Unlike Shackleton, we walked these final miles in the summer time with a good map, full bellies and the latest expedition attire. What for him was a matter of life and death was for us an afternoon stroll. Still, it was nice to come over the ridge and see the famous z-fold on the opposite cliff, which had alerted Shackleton one hundred years earlier that he had indeed found his way back to Stromness.

Stromness Bay, South Georgia Island

From South Georgia Island we headed to Elephant Island, thus following another part of Shackleton's journey, albeit in reverse. We were fortunate to have calm enough water to land at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island.  We were also fortunate to have clear skies, making the short, steep hike up the ridge around the bay worthwhile for the expansive views.

View from above Lookout Point, Elephant Island (photo courtesy of Steve)

Another sunny day and another short and steep hike at Cuverville Island, just off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, brought more brilliant views, especially as a recent storm had left a fresh blanket of snow.

View from Cuverville Island

At Cuverville Island, the dark speck amid the icebergs is a zodiac (photo courtesy of Steve)

Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands to the northwest of the peninsula, is a collapsed volcanic caldera.  Ships can reach the relatively protected waters in its center by sailing through a narrow gap called "Neptune's Bellows."

Volcanically warmed sands at Deception Island (photo courtesy of Steve)

In spite of being in the inner protected part of the island our day at Deception Island was the windiest one we spent ashore.  I was glad on our morning hike, when it was still overcast and thus quite cold, to be wearing my thrummed woolen mittens. Thrums, by the way, are little extra bits of wool roving knit right into the fabric, giving an extra layer of wooly warmth. When I made these mittens several years ago it was definitely a case of "wishful knitting" since it is always too warm in Texas to wear them here.  Fortunately, I got my wish!

Each thrum makes a little "V" on the outside

Our afternoon hike to the Chinstrap Penguin colony at Baily Head brought sunshine but even stronger winds.  I seem to recall someone saying they were 40 or 50 knots.  Some people were actually knocked over by it and my daughter and I walked holding on to each other to keep from getting blown over.

Returning from Baily Head, Deception Island

In spite of the wind and cold we were determined to take advantage of our opportunity to say that we swam in Antarctic waters, so upon returning to the beach we stripped down to our bathing suits and ran into the water.  And just as quickly ran out.  The slightly warmer sand is not enough to make it into the spa it once was.  Another eruption is definitely in order.

Note the attire of photographer Scott Davis (photo courtesy of Steve)

We spent our final day ashore at Livingston Island, another of the South Shetland Islands, under sunny skies.  Expertly led once again by the extraordinary adventurer, Tim Carr, we climbed a steep slope of snow and scree and, upon reaching the ridge, were rewarded with a panoramic view of the western end of the island.

Climbing up, at Hurd Peninsula, Livingston Island

View from Hurd Peninsula, Livingston Island

View from Hurd Peninsula, Livingston Island

Climbing down, at Hurd Peninsula, Livingston Island

And here is my travel tip (unsolicited and unremunerated, by the way) for the day.  While this trip was sponsored by the GSA and the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas and led, geologically speaking, by Ian Dalziel from the University of Texas, the overall expedition leader was Ted Cheeseman of  Cheeseman's Ecology Safaris.  If you are thinking of making a trip to Antarctica, I highly recommend Cheeseman's.  They handled every aspect of the trip was with great professionalism and attention to detail.  They  provided expert pre-trip assistance with travel arrangements, insurance, packing lists, and more.  The entire staff, including photographers, wildlife biologists, naturalists, historians, scientists, an artist, and a medical doctor, were knowledgeable, patient, and just plain fun to be around.  Most importantly, Ted, with a deep knowledge of Antarctica and good working relationships with the ship's crew, was able to adjust plans to avoid bad weather and to take advantage of the best conditions.   The result was plenty of time ashore and a ship full of passengers eager for their next trip to the far south.

Ted Cheeseman at Livingston Island

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