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UAB in Antarctica

I know Craig has already enlightened our loyal and avid readers about the extracurricular activities that are available to us here at Palmer Station with amenities such as the gym, lounge, and zodiac boating.  I will say he did a thorough job with his report on these activities but he left out one activity that needs some press, ice climbing. 

Our Glacier Search and Rescue (GSAR) Team members, Dave Weimer and fiancĂ© Sara Russell, have experienced polar ice in everyway possible, from running dog sleds across the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska, to working at all three United States Antarctic research stations.  On Monday these two fine folks led an ice climbing expedition for those interested in the unusual sport.  The other four people that participated were fellow GSAR Team member Dan Simas, Alan Maschek, Shawn Vainio, and me

The advertisement for this adventure had been posted on the infamous white dry erase board in the galley over the weekend so all those interested could arrange their Monday schedules accordingly.  Usually Palmer employees have the day off on Sunday, but since the L.M. Gould was arriving on Sunday to drop off one research team and pick up another, the Raytheon Palmer staff needed to aid in this docking and debarking.  So their day off was move to Monday. 

Safety is top priority here at Palmer Station so it was no surprise that the ice climbing expedition began in the Palmer Station Lounge with a safety lecture from Sara and Dave.  They made sure everyone was well aware of proper use of the climbing gear and rope protocols, and stressed that everyone needs to be aware of other climbers and the safety of those around you. 

Sara or Dave instructed each climber individually, novice (me) or expert, on proper figure eight knots, and harness usage.  After they were sure everyone grasped the knots and harness, they moved onto instruction of the ice axes and crampons imploring folks to be extremely careful not to damage the ropes with either of these sharp instruments.  The crampons attach to the climber's boots and have spikes that are kicked into the ice wall at each step.  The ice ax is attached to the climber's wrist and is used as more of an anchor than a means of climbing.  "Its all in the legs, trust your crampons," Dave explained to me. 

After the safety talk and gear introduction, all six of us headed down to the GWR garage to pack ropes and ice axes and get fitted for crampons.  After one last gear check making sure that the team had radios, water, food and extra clothing, we headed out for the hike to the southwestern side of Arthur Harbor where Dave and Sara had discovered a perfect 45 ft wall a few weeks before.  At this point the excitement really sunk in.  Dave had left a bit before everyone else to get the ropes and belay anchors set so when we arrived at the site about a half of a mile away from Palmer Station the stage was already set.

I could not have asked for a nicer spot for the day's activities.   The ice wall stood about 40 yards uphill from the brash ice covered waters of Arthur Harbor.  Two elephant seals were relaxing on the rocky shore when we arrived and stayed there pretty much the entire day.  Dave was finishing the rope set up as we put on our harnesses and crampons and then it was time to climb.

As Dave belayed, Sarah slowly began to climb the wall while shouting instruction explaining proper technique.  She explained that small steps and far reaches with the ice ax were the best way to climb.  Essentially the climber kicks their front crampon spikes, which are only a few inches long, into the ice.  The climber then reaches up and uses the ax to hammer a notch in the ice and then the process repeats itself alternating right and left feet and hands.  The technique is almost like vertical crawling with crampons and axes.

So now it was time for the rest of us to climb.  We climbed so much that day that I do not even remember who went up first.  However, everyone there had been ice climbing many times except Allen and me.  It took me a couple of runs before I finally began to trust the crampons and axes, but by the third run I reached the top of the wall comfortably.  When I repelled back down I felt like I really understood the sport. 

Not only did the six of us take turns climbing but we also belayed for one another.  Belaying is a method for one person anchored on the ground to control the amount of rope fed out to the climber.  Therefore if the climber slips and falls they will not fall far because they are on belay.  The climber will only dangle at the spot of the slip.  Each of us made four or five climbs and felt very accomplished by the end of the day. 

Hiking back to Palmer grinning ear to ear everyone insisted that Dave and Sara make this a weekly activity for Sundays when weather permits.  They graciously accepted.