The weather stayed nice, but it was still too windy for the Ilyushin to land. (The requirement for landing was less than 20 knots of crosswinds and most of the time there were gusts up to 30 knots, so I could stay in Antarctica for longer.) With the sunlight unimpeded by clouds, it felt much warmer again.
In the afternoon, it was time for another trip with the Tucker (the first one had been to the DC-6 crash site). This time, we went towards Patriot Hills themselves. From the camp we could only see the first row of the hills. Behind this first row is a wide ice field, followed by a second row of hills, which we had only seen for a moment from the plane on our flight to the South Pole. This time the tour went up Patriot Hills and towards Windy Pass (given the conditions we had in the preceding days in Patriot Hills, my first reaction to that was "You have weather like this here and there is another place somewhere you call Windy?").
Being outside and having a look at the hills was fun, and I was quite happy that evening. (Ok, I don't do 'happy' well on photographs, but I was.)
Next morning, weather was still half-fine. A cloud layer had moved in from the west, so it was clear blue skies to one side and a big cloud layer to the other side. But the wind had grown weaker and it looked a lot like the Ilyushin would be able to came in, and this was going to be the last day in Antarctica.
But there was a special treat to utterly destroy any sense of melancholy that might have come up. We went to the eastern end of Patriot Hill by snowmobile (no self-drive, though - strictly one guide and one passenger per snowmobile). So we went around the hills and drove up from the other side. The sights from up there were incredible. In one direction a wide empty plane with the hills in the background,. In the other direction, a wide empty plane that went on forever. (Ok, not really forever, but 'just' about 500 kilometers to the sea edge of the ice shelf, but that didn't matter.) I walked with Denise to one of the top of the hills and then along the ridge to another top. I won't pretend that this was any sort of mountaineering deed [even though some of the pictures make it look like standing on an incredible summit] - these are just hills and all I did was walk up a hill for hundred meters - but standing up there, it felt like top of the world and above. With the white expanse stretching out below me to the horizon and beyond, being on the hill, it felt like standing on the edge of the world. It also felt like being dozens of kilometers above the surface. The ice below sort of looked like a cloud layer from a plane, but so far below, that it seemed like being much higher than anytime before. It was a view so utterly outside my normal experience, that it turned into one of my top three 'standing there' moments. (I can't really explain what I mean with that. Essentially short moments of being somewhere, which should be able to last forever.)
The trip was completely unexpected, and it had made almost as much as an emotional impact on me as the South Pole trip. (I had been looking forward to the South Pole for a long time, so I was sort of 'emotionally prepared', but this place took me by surprise.) These were 'just some hills' in Antarctica, not even a major attraction, and just walking and looking around there was more exciting than almost everything else I have ever done.
Back at the camp, the news were sort of bleak. Wind was mostly below 10 knots now, with gusts below 20 knots, so the Ilyushin would be able to land. There was still some waiting on whether this would stabilise or turn out to be just a 'sucker hole', but it was very likely that it would be soon time to leave Antarctica.
But there was still time for one more excursion.
In the afternoon, we went towards the base of Patriot Hills. This time we didn't take the Tucker or the snowmobiles, but took the 'people carrier', which was a wooden sledge, which was obviously built from leftover crates and pulled by a snowmobile. It didn't quite get us to the hills (the snowmobile didn't have enough traction on ice to pull it, so we went to the edge of the blue ice runway and were 'ferried' the rest of the distance with the snowmobiles.
This is what the Ilyushin has to land on:
And this is the weather station next to the runway. (Wind conditions at the runway can differ a lot from wind conditions at the camp, which is a kilometer away.) Note the highly professional seasonal wind sock.
There were a couple of interesting ice formations near the base of the hills. As far as I could find out, these 'ice jellyfish' are a result of stones rolling off the mountains. The black stones heat up in the direct sunlight and melt the ice below. They sink, until they are out of the direct sunlight and the water freezes above them.
Little areas of ice in the lower parts of the hills (which are small enough to thaw and freeze again), had little frostwork patterns in them. (The pattern is completely within the ice. While it is not obvious from the picture, the surface of the ice is smooth and flat.)
Comparing the next picture with the ones taken in the morning, it's obvious that it was a lot less windy now.
Time for a boring story, which embarrassed me a bit (though, luckily, this time not through a fault of my own), but which I'm going to tell anyway.
Being at the base of the hills, everyone spread out a bit and enjoyed the day. Some just lay down on the rocks to enjoy the sun, some were looking for odd rocks or fossils, some were looking for interesting ice formations, and so on. I started looking at snow formations at the side of the hill and moved slowly upwards. Denise was nearby and asked "Do you want to go up?" and we started walking up the hill. I'm not particularly fit (even after using an exercise bike for a year) and doing the "endless climb", I was soon out of breath. (It was called 'the endless climb', since due to the curvature of the hill it looked as if the top of it would just be 50 meters away, but once you got there, it wasn't the top, but it looked like the actual top was another 50 meters away.) Denise, being the professional guide, stayed a bit below me, so I could catch my breath and carry on, letting me set the pace. After a while, she suggested a big rock on the hillside and to stop climbing there. (This was exactly the place where I would have stopped the climb if I would have gotten up there on my own.) Time to sit down, relax and enjoy the view.
Going down, we took a slightly different path, since there was some snow at the side of the hill that could be used for sliding down the mountain. Fun!
Rejoining the rest of the group at the base of the mountain, someone commented that I must be 'like a mountain goat', going up that hill with Denise having trouble catching up.
Didn't look at all like that from where I was standing...
I was feeling very uncomfortable right them. I had trouble getting up that hill. Denise was polite and professional and clearly not even remotely strained by going up that hill, and onlookers got it utterly wrong and even joked about it. I tried to explain what actually happened, but it still was an awkward moment.
Would probably have been much worse, if everybody hadn't been using only first names at Patriot Hills. While looking through the Web while writing these pages, I happen to find references to Denise and I was going "What? That Denise?" She had skied 900 kilometers to the North Pole, skied 1100 kilometers to the South Pole and trekked through the Australian desert. Luckily, I didn't know that when I was in Antarctica, because I would have developed a bad case of hero worship. Being faster than her going up a hill? Not even with a ski lift...
By then, it was time to head back to the camp. Everyone was ferried back to the 'people carrier' by snowmobile
And then back to the camp in the 'people carrier' itself.
The weather was holding, so the Ilyushin would be called in soon. There was still a bit of a delay, this time due to the fine weather. With the warm temperature and the sun shining on the ice, the surface of the ice was very slippery, which is not good for landing. So the flight was postponed for a couple of hours, so that the Ilyushin would arrive when the sun was behind the mountains and the ice runway would be in shadow.
But it was time to pack and say goodbye.
The flight out would be like the flight in. Everyone had to dress up in full polar gear one last time. And everything else had to be packed and be ready next to the main tent a couple of hours before the flight.
During dinner the news came in that the plane had left Punta Arenas and was on its way. Fortunately, I didn't have to pack the skis, since they belonged to the camp, so instead of having to sit somewhere and sulk, I could just go outside and look at this incredible landscape one last time.
Then it was time to get ready. Time to walk over to the hangar, looking at the plane coming in.
Time to watch the new arrivals, the group of Marathon runners, making their way towards the camp.
And finally, time to go over to the plane and board.
Time to leave...
As on the flight in, on-board catering was freshly made.
The plane was fairly empty. There were only ten passengers on board this time, so there was a chance to go to the emergency doors (which had little windows) and see a bit of the sea ice that surrounds Antarctica.
There was also enough room on the floor to stretch out, huddle in my parka and catch a bit of sleep.
And then, around 5:30 am, we landed in Punta Arenas. After waking the border police to be able to formally enter Chile again, we were driven to the hotel. One last goodbye, then I checked in, took a quick shower and went to sleep.
My journey to Antarctica was over.
Onwards to Reflections on Antarctica.
Or read some thoughts written a year after standing at the South Pole.
Or just ignore the pointless musings and go to the next part of the trip description, the penguins in Chile.
Back to other travels