Day 3: Close Call
We slept well in all our clothes and big down jackets, but when we awoke we were far from comfortable. Whenever we would move an arm or a leg, the thick frost coating on the inside of the tent would rain down on us. Nevertheless, we set our resolve and packed our bags, and emerged back out into the storm.
Directly ahead of us were the mountains at the south end of the Ellsworth Range. According to our map, we should have been heading for Foxy Pass. But according to our compasses (both mine and Jenny's), what we took for Foxy Pass looked impossibly steep. So in the next few hours we headed southeast to find a better crossing. Finally I realized that I had been using the compass wrongly. The compasses we had were new to us, not the type we were used to. As it turns out, they took some getting used to. Realizing my error, I pointed the compass in the right direction - and there, indeed, was Foxy Pass.
We skied for the pass the rest of the day in boisterous conditions, and in the late afternoon, as we were approaching the slope going up to Foxy Pass, the storm came hurling down on us in earnest. At times the ground blizzard was so thick that we could not see our skis. And again because of the ice and sastrugi, we could not find anywhere to camp.
The wind is strong. The mountains called Patriot Hills recede in the background.
At one point in the storm I had a close call. I took my ultra-thick mitten off one hand, and also the inner glove. I was reaching for the camera, down my shirt, while pinching the gloves between my knees. A moment of inattention, and the tempest blew my glove and mitten away.
Fortunately the glove and mitten were caught by a sastrugi 30 feet away. I ran and grabbed them. But then I couldn't get my hand back in my inner glove because the glove had frozen hard as a rock. In only a few seconds I started losing the use of my fingers. In another minute or so they would have been gone. I could not unzip my parka to warm my hand against my body because the zipper was coated in ice and wouldn't budge. I shoved my hand into the outer mitten, and after several minutes my hand began to warm. Lesson learned: wear vapor barrier gloves under the outer mitts, and tie the mittens to the body.
The grind up the slope was extremely long, slow-going, and exhausting against the wind. Visibility was less than a hundred yards, and we could not see the top of the slope. We could not tell how far below the pass we were until we were almost on it. As before, during the last hour Jenny lagged behind, and I had to go very slow so that she could keep up. I should have taken some of the weight out of her sled, but we were both too cold to stop. We figured we should find a place to camp soon, so we hung on.
At the end of a 12 hour day we reached the pass proper and found a good place to camp. But the wind was so strong that I had serious misgivings about pitching the tent, due to the risk of breaking a pole or two. However, I had fitted this tent with extra thick and beefy poles, and so pitching turned out to be no problem. We had read stories of tents blowing away in Antarctica, so I had devised a system of tie-downs, anchored by a ski pole or two. Our system was to lift the folded tent out of my sled and anchor it immediately to the snow surface. Then we hung on to the tent when pitching it, and then Jenny stood there holding on to it while I finished setting the anchors. I then shoveled snow onto the snow skirt all around. It was only at that point that we could both let go of the tent, confident that it wouldn't blow away.
Our camp at Foxy Pass. After only an hour, the spindrift is starting to bury the sleds. Mt. Shattock, behind us, lies at the far-south end of the Ellsworth mountains.
Crawling into the tent was a little bit of heaven because of the storm raging outside. We didn't feel it now, but in a few days we would realize that we had both frost-nipped the front of our thighs fairly severely on the climb to Foxy Pass. But we had fared much better than some skiers. In this same storm one person from a British team just ahead of us sustained frostbite to his thighs so badly that he had to be evacuated. The doctor said that because of the damage by gangrene, he might have to have ongoing skin grafts for the rest of his life. Someone else lost a thumb. Altogether some twenty skiers would suffer frostbite during this Antarctic season.