Day 4 at Penguin Camp. As if yesterday’s blizzard didn’t wreak enough havoc, turned out it had brought down our solar panels and flooded the generator to boot. Now we got a new problem: we had lost all sources of power. Everyone was told to unplug their electronic devices to conserve energy for Casper’s daily satellite pow-wows with Union Glacier Camp. It was the only means to get weather reports and the next flight window. Our saving grace was the Antarctic summer’s 24-hour sun, which eliminates the need for any lighting. Also, jet fuel is used to heat all the stoves and melt ice for our water supply, which lessens the camp’s electrical demand.
Winds were gusting at 25-30 knots (29-40 mph or 46-65 km/h) with drifting snow. It was still too hazardous for us to venture out and the ALE crew seriously needed some rest, so we just lounged around the Club House shooting the breeze, nibbling on snacks and sipping hot drinks. Fortunately or unfortunately, alcoholic drinks were limited to meal times, so there were no social disturbances despite everyone drinking copiously for hours.
Due to the power outage, Noah, our naturalist guide was unable to give any presentations (short of doing hand puppets). However, sensing the non-natives were getting restless, he jumped in as Chief Entertainment Officer while Casper and others went out again to continue storm proofing the camp. He got us playing Yahtzee and Bananagram, some much more successfully than others. It was a pleasant diversion that kept us busy and out of trouble till time for our most excellent dinner of seared lamb chops. Now if every meal was like that, I might just stay behind…
After dinner, a gaggle of Emperors was seen wandering around camp. With nothing better to do, most of us suited up and grabbed our cameras to go on a passeggiata-cum-penguin photo safari.
There was little material change in the weather the following day, so no outings to the emperor penguin colony again. However more penguins came by, and a couple of Emperors obligingly parked themselves in front of the Basler. It was hard to resist this photo op.
More worrisome was the state of the generator. Ivan, the flight engineer, had taken it apart to check everything out and found no obvious issues. If the generator still failed to start after a couple days, it would have to be replaced once planes could land. However running out of backup power before then would cut us off from the outside world and make life challenging.
Finally some good news. Casper got the latest weather report and confirmation for our Saturday departure. With that, all ALE staff swung into high gear. Most were busy digging out tents or moving the plane on the runway, while the guides took off to check on the penguin colony and prepare for our last visit in the late afternoon.
Apparently some crevasses had opened up over the last couple days, so our guides flagged a new route and we must go as a single group for safety reasons. Disappointingly, the penguins had moved 1 km (.62 mi) further away, so it was a longer slog than usual, but sight of the bustling rookery made it all worthwhile.
Even more gratifying, these penguin chicks came out to greet us a show off their latest line dancing steps.
I happened to see this neat row of penguins. Half were standing at attention while the other half were bowing to feed their chicks.
It was a stroke of luck that someone spotted the crèches of emperor penguin chicks shortly before we were set to leave. It was extraordinarily exciting to see not 1 but 2 circles of baby penguins forming. The huddled chicks were not having a rave party, but getting together to for warmth and protection. I could certainly appreciate that, as a bitter wind had started to whip up.
We bid reluctant goodbyes to the Emperors and started on what I would since call the Death March. Had to say it was pretty much my own fault for failing to secure my polar parka’s hood before heading back. But dinner time was coming up and everyone was leaving in a hurry. Unfortunately, I was walking into an increasingly strong wind, which whipped back my hood, treating me to ‘refreshing’ blasts of Polar air. I also had trouble moving forward, bringing up memories of my recent blizzard encounter… Seeing the backs of the group disappearing in the distance and afraid of being left behind, I made hurried attempts to put the hood back on, only to have it blown backwards with every gust until I finally stopped to properly zip and cinch up the offending hood. Net result was a well chilled neck and extra time on the long, cold trek than if I had done things right to begin with.
That evening, Casper told us there was a small window after tomorrow’s breakfast to fly out. The next morning, we all took one last look around Penguin Camp where we spent the most memorable 6 days of our lives. The tents were half swallowed by the drifting snow again, a reminder that we are visitors in a land where nature still reigns supreme. Shortly before leaving, the generator finally kicked in, so life is good once more.
After a round of fond farewells with the awesome Penguin Camp staff, it was time to leave for Union Glacier. Once there, we barely had time to get our luggage into the assigned tents. It was almost ‘civilization shock’ to see 8-ft standing height clam tents with cots and hot water showers after Penguin Camp. UG tents have names associated with legendary polar explorers. Mine was ‘Fuchs’ of Sir Vivian Ernest Fuchs fame. He spearheaded the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition to reach the South Pole overland in 1958.
That afternoon was a whirlwind of activities – a late lunch, facility tour, champagne reception where we received our Certificates of Achievement, followed by dinner. We were scheduled to overnight at UG and then return to Punta Arenas next afternoon when the tour ends. Due to our tight schedule, the camp guides got approval for a rare double excursion after dinner to see the major geologic features of the area.
It was after 9 pm by the time we left with 3 guides in a modified 11-pax van. The low inflation tires provided the much needed traction and absorbed some of the bumps, but the ride was definitely jolty over the blue ice roadway. Outside the heavily tinted window, snow drifts skimmed over the ice sheet like steam billowing from some unseen hot spring, while higher up, more snow tumbled over the mountain tops to form a glowing halo.
We eventually pulled up at the base of Elephant’s Head, a granite outcrop said to resemble the pachyderm’s profile. But before we could go play, the guides made sure we had microspikes attached to our boots and poles to negotiate the slick blue ice. With preliminaries over, we eagerly scampered onto the glimmering ice field. These ethereal crystalline structures were ubiquitous underfoot, but it was hard to capture their delicate beauty through the ice. This pic is courtesy of one of our friends in the group.
Basking in the intense Antarctic light, pebbles on a velvety bed of snow were juxtaposed against a seemingly frozen rivulet of diamonds (I wish!).
Jagged fissures and a tracery of holes left by phantom rocks were scattered amidst the sea of sparking, rippley, turquoise-blue ice. The scene was made more sculptural as cracked ice stood in stark relief against the exposed snow under a dazzling sky.
Eventually it was time to leave. On the way back, we saw the Charles Peak Windscoop, a snow covered saucer like depression. Windscoops are landscape features particular to Antarctica as fierce winds erode the mountains’ surrounding area, piling up snow banks on one side and scouring down the compacted blue ice on the other. If we had more time at UG, we could be ice climbing up its side!
As noted before, Antarctic weather is highly unpredictable. Like an apparition, these surreal clouds – which reminded me of the animated cartoon Casper the Friendly Ghost – appeared out of nowhere and hovered over the Windscoop, just minutes after the previous pic.
We ended up skipping Drake Icefall as the weather had turned inhospitably chilly and blustery. It was also in the shadow of the mountains by then, so the guides stopped the vehicle for us to take pix from afar instead.
Most of us were looking for an up close and personal experience of the Icefall and were sorely disappointed. We had seen this cool pic – even if it were posed – of someone ‘surfing’ between layers of ice & snow there. A longer stay at UG was probably needed to get that scheduled, so we were out of luck.
We finally got back after midnight. By the time I filled my water bottle, cleaned up, finished journaling and strung everything up to dry, it was almost 4 am. In my dreams I saw the Emperors and felt surprised, as I knew there shouldn’t be penguins at UG…Then I woke up sweating profusely in the sauna-like solar heated tent at 8 am.
We packed up, got lunch, attended a New Zealand climatologist’s lecture on climate change, and played a game of Antarctica Trivia before lining up to check in for the flight to Punta Arenas. With our remaining time, part of the group went to watch ALE’s 757 land on the blue ice runway. A couple of us stayed behind to chat and bid adieu to Jim, our wonderful Basler pilot, and his flight crew. We eventually left on the Boeing around 6 pm and I took a final look at the White Continent in the fading sun.
Most of us had a couple days to kill in Punta Arenas. It was fun having a final dinner together – a last hurrah to laugh and reminisce before we scatter to the four winds. Looking back on this incredible journey, I realize that while it’s truly an adventure of a lifetime to witness the emperor penguins and Antarctica in all their majestic wonders, the tireless dedication of ALE’s staff and flight crew at Penguin Camp when faced with the full force of nature – and the cheery camaraderie of my fellow travelers in spite of that – are what make the memories and experiences of this trip stay with me forever.