Survival and the luck of the Irish

January 18, 2010

Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson called Cape Denison ‘the home of the blizzard’ during his term here because of the incessant Katabatic winds which pour down the Antarctic plateau blasting everything in sight.

Wind gusts here have been known to exceed 370 kilometres per hour (185 knots), so I consider myself lucky to have only had to endure 100 kilometres per hour winds funnelling through my tent during the past six weeks at Cape Denison.

Pauline in bivvy bagSo it seemed only right that I test my endurance a step further by putting my survival training into action and spend a night in a bivvy bag in the great icy outdoors.

“If you really want to experience strong winds, sleep up on the rocks near the wind generator,” advised expeditioner Chris Henderson.

So over a few days we watched the weather forecast to get a perfect (windy) experience, but on the chosen day a blizzard rolled in and it was considered unsafe for me to sleep outside.

A few days later the perfect conditions arrived — mild winds but with the usual katabatic gusts after midnight.

A 'headless' penguin on the rocks not far from Mawson's HutExpedition leader Tony Stewart inspected the site to ensure it was safe and at midnight I carried my bivvy bag, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, survival pack, two way radio, snow goggles, a padded freezer suit, pyjamas, a hat, gloves, eye pads and a book, up to my camping spot.

Given that I was lying on rocks, I decided to use the suit as padding between the mat and the sleeping bag, in the knowledge that when the wind blew up I could put the suit on as an additional layer of clothes.

It was an unusually calm night so I decided to read for a while. I stuck my head and book out of the bag and had the most amazing views of Commonwealth Bay with icebergs floating within a couple of hundred metres away.

When I settled down for the night, I pulled the drawstrings tight on the bag, with just enough air getting to avoid suffocation.

Pauline peeping out of bivvy bagFor the first few hours, I kept waiting on the wind to come roaring down the valley like a freight train and smash into my little bivvy bag, but all I could hear was the sound of ice melting into the sea, which is not as you may think, sleep inducing.

In fact, it sounds like a building being demolished. First there is a loud bang as the ice cracks, then the sound of something heavy crashing into the sea. This went on throughout most of the night.

Despite the crashing of ice and the rocks sticking into me, I eventually fell asleep, only waking when I heard my name being called at about 8.45 a.m.

I had slept through the night. I’d survived! But I was later told it was the only night of our expedition that the wind didn’t blow.

I woke to the most beautiful morning with the sun shining.

Just another comical episode in Antarctica when I think the ‘luck of the Irish’ prevailed.

P.S. This may be my last blog from Antarctica. We’ve been told to be ready for departure, weather permitting, on Wednesday.

One comment

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What an amazing experience you’re having…..enjoyed your blog see you soon!!

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