Storm Warning – Ignored

February 15, 2014

storm 290The ink does not want to flow, while my hands are barely able to grip the pen. It’s zero degrees in the hut at the moment and snow drift has been blasted in and sits on the sill. Water in pots inside is frozen. Vapour blows from mouth and nostrils as I eat a breakfast of ham and eggs. Thanks Carolyn. She is having a crack at  pancakes  as well. They taste great but she regrets the state of their delivery. I tell her I am ‘eating for effect’ and what they look like doesn’t matter. Besides, the effort and thought counts for much more and I am grateful for her cooking. I slept well, though as the temperature dropped I woke, chilled a little around my exposed shoulders. A quick adjustment of the bag liner, pulling on the Nepalese cap, and I was cosy again. My sleeping bag is not rated for these conditions but the liner should allow me to handle -10 if it comes to that.  I am betting on that not happening.

The other group stagger down the stairs from their sleeping loft as the snow is blasted up the slope at us. Their instructor is looking for jobs for them to do so two lads get the task of emptying  the ‘piss pot’ out into the latrine, a task that requires a trip into the storm, all the while carrying a big open container that is bound to slop around and spill. They rug up and pause, glance at each other and head outside.  The instructor grins in our direction. I’m happy they are here. The wind howls and buffets and reminds us we are mere humans with no answer to it other than our passive acceptance of the situation. The underside of my nose is sunburnt and tender and reminds me I never seem to learn that sunscreen lesson in the snow. What that has to do with anything I have no idea. Maybe if I write it down I will remember next time to get sunscreen into all the right places.

A visit to the latrine is an adventure in itself in these conditions. The wind has smashed the snow into the cubicle through every tiny crack. Snow has drifted high in the corner where the urinal is and that device is buried. The seat is covered in inches of snow and a soft mound to its left hints at the roll of paper buried there. Snow is ankle deep on the floor. Fine powder and ice coats the walls and is easily dislodged into my lap at the slightest disturbance. All the while fresh snow is hurtling around in the confined space as the storm pushes it in. You quite literally attend to toilet in an ice box. It takes every effort to not shiver.

By midday the wind has eased a little but the snow is still blasting up the hill. We give up waiting for the storm to ease and rig up for crevasse travel and head out looking for crevasses. The wind has picked up again and the snow blasts and roars around us. I am sealed up under my gortex and feel warm. I watch my feet and glance up every now and then to ensure I still have my bearings.    We find some crevasses and manage to negotiate around them though the snow is wisping and smoking and flashing across the surface. Carolyn, more familiar with these sorts of conditions in Canada than I am, is convinced the forecast 80km/h winds are a fantasy and that this wind is stronger than that. Every now and then a gust tries to knock me off my feet and I stagger to keep my balance. We are roped up of course and we all pause, brace and bow into the wind then start up again. We find faint lines in the crust that warn of open fault lines beneath us and we manage to negotiate around them all. Elke was hoping we would find one the hard way – for its training value – but seemed equally pleased we were reading the snow and conditions well enough to stay out of them.

We remained out in the maelstrom of white for a couple of hours and explored ice and snow columns, snow compression and so on before beating a retreat and climbing back to the hut where the other group was getting instruction on prussics. They are here for a quite a while so being holed up in here is less of an issue for them than it is for us. By 7.30 the weather breaks a little and even though the wind still buffets us, the sun staggers through clouds ripping snow off the peaks around us. Hochstetter Dome appears out of the grey cloud and the snow being raked into space from its top flies directly out into space. All being well we will be up there tomorrow.

The hut remains cool, with the temperature continuing to hover around zero. Fog bellows from my mouth, steam boils from the pots and kettles and swirls into the room from our cups of hot chocolate and soup. I am comfortable though there are spasms of shivering that won’t be stopped.   They are more frequent if I leave my hat off, testifying to the fact that we lose more heat through our heads than via any other body part. It’s now early evening and we are packing up anticipating an early start. I am hoping we can get to the top of the Dome though such aspirations are weather dependent. The forecast just radioed through tells us the wind will drop tomorrow and that we can expect a clear day. But that Saturday will see the storm return, with even stronger winds. So our thinking at this stage is that we will fly out early and spend our last day training near Mt Cook village.

Plans change and the weather forecast means we are not to be picked up by chopper on Saturday. We are prepped now to get up the Dome and the evening finishes with everyone on the veranda taking photos of peaks tinted peach across their new blanket of snow. The gloves are in the sleeping bag in an effort to dry them out with body heat overnight.  I will be following them there shortly.


Diary 23 January 2014


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