West Antarctic Traverse

I am going to try and continue my one post per month rule but as I am about to head back into the field till some time in February I thought I would slide Decembers one in a little early.

The trip I have just returned from was a group of four field assistants pulling lots of Geology equipment 800km across West Antarctica to a coastal range called the Kola mountains.  While BAS does a lot of “traverses” where machines tow huge amounts of equipment and big bladders of fuel this was the first time this had been attempted with skidoos.  We flew in to an area south of the Ronne Ice shelf, packed up and left for what was meant to be 7-10days of ski doo driving across the great white flatness.  In the map here  we basically drove through the word West Antarctica out to the Amundsen Sea.  I dont usually keep a diary but did for once keep some notes which as the trip wore on (just a bit) enabled me to keep track of what was happening.


My sledge all loaded up and ready to go. The enormous bag on the front with my name on it is my sleeping system or “P-bag” with the various boxes containing food and cooking stuff, the big bags on top various tents and the jerries (hidden in the middle) fuel for stoves and skidoos. You can just make out the second sledge with a fuel bladder with 600litres of Petrol in it. All told the sledges combined weight of the 2 sledges was about 2000lbs


Al Docherty ready to go. We left at 6pm on the first day and drove until about 3am. Any mountaineers will probably know why looking at this photo – the circle round the sun (a sun dog or parheilia) is associated with good weather turning to bad – high winds in the next 24 hrs.  We drove for 10mins before the first thing fell off one of the sledges.


Sledges parked up for the night pointing into the wind and away from the tents so they don’t drift them in. My parents asked “what happens with the toilet” – the red bucket is part of that explanation.


My tent mate “Cheese” writing his diary in our first camp. We managed 100km in the first night (it doesn’t get dark just now) before pitching camp for “Lie up”. I wrote a note on the 2nd day that Cheese had mentioned casually “if we end up out here for three weeks we might start the good food” – I think he might have had a premonition as to what was to come.


Al Docherty sporting the latest in fashion wear on his skidoo and fairly ecstatic that he had found his ipod. Driving a skidoo in a straight line in the whitness for up to 20hrs at a time is not very exciting! We were laid up in our first camp for 3 days after the initial evening drive.


Al and Mat trying to rehydrate some food at a quick evening break. The thermos’s don’t quite keep the water hot enough to hydrate the food properly so you end up eating a lukewarm soupy substance and hoping it will hydrate inside you. We had got up at 8am on this day and this photo would have been taken at 8pm when we had our scheduled call in to Rothera to update on our progress. We then drove until 130am having made 130km


Cheese walking back to his skidoo and sledges for another long stint of flat white driving.


Cheese melting water at 2am after pitching camp. 2am in Antarctic summer is much like 2pm in Scottish Winter with the sun low in the sky but very much still up. We finally got to bed at 3am on this night (Day5) and got up at 8am to drive until 3am the next day.


Our first sign of the mountains. By Day 13 we had got to within 80km of our final destination having spent only 3.5 days driving and the rest of the time in lie up.


Sundog over the pyramid tents and Mt Takahe. We had a brief window of good weather in this camp before the winds rolled in again. At this point we all thought we would be finishing the trip any day.


Lie up. Cheese and I reading in our Pyramid tent. The BAS system is pretty luxurius with a Tilly lamp to heat the tent and a stove in the middle of the tent (the circle in the middle of the image is the snow melting pan on the stove) It is pretty comfortable but the full 800km ended up taking us 18 days of which 14 were spent in lie up – lots of sleeping, reading and tea drinking.


The only other thing to do in lie up is visit the neighbours. We played “Hearts” every day for a couple of hours.


Cheese getting dressed for the last haul in some blowing snow. We heard a weather forecast that seemed just good enough to risk it and packed up and left camp at 8pm driving through the night to our final destination


Self Portrait of me sheltering by my loaded skidoo just before leaving.


Blowing snow made the visibility fairly challenging at times.


Al and Mat driving past Mt Takahe in improving weather


Cheese and Al waypointing one of their Geology sites on Mt Murphy. We had finally got to bed at 545am but Cheese and I had to get up again at 7am to start giving weather observations for the plane that was then headed our way. We finally got up properly at 2pm and headed up onto the shoulder of Mt Murphy for a look around.


Camp under Mt Murphy. The Twin Otter plane flew in with the Geologists and picked up Mat and I.

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  1. Liz Tromans December 15, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    I have so enjoyed reading this and seeing your pictures. I am Al Docherty’s Mum, and apart from Al’s Dad having a call from him on the satphone last week we have had no news of how things were going since you all set off. It is such a relief to know that you got there eventually and to see the wonderful pictures of your journey. I particularly love the one of Al with his “found” ipod. I’m glad to see that nothing changes and he is as disorganised as ever!
    Kind regards,

    • aliirose December 16, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Liz, Thanks for the comment – Al and Cheese were both in good form when Matt and I left – happy to be in the camp at last and Al was steadily getting through a lot of books on his kindle.

  2. Howard December 16, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    great insite

  3. Callum Crawford December 16, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    Callum is so interested in your blog and wanted to leave you a message so here it is.
    “I hope you were ok landing on the slippery ice?” “Have you seen any penguins yet?” 🎿🏆

    • aliirose December 16, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

      Hi Callum. The planes are great at landing on the ice – they have wheeled skis so they can land on ice, snow or the gravel runway. I have seen a couple of penguins and some elephant seals (which burp and fart constantly). I am planning to do a blog post on animals at some point and possibly vehicles as there are some pretty crazy machines down here.

  4. Sunny Hardy December 26, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

    Merry Christmas!!
    We are loving your blog, it’s amazing, thanks for sharing!! Willow and Olive are looking forward to the animal blog and are also asking about penguins! No sign of snow here in Margaret River so living the white Christmas dream through your photos :)
    Thanks loads!
    Love Sunny, Gene, Willow + Olive xx

  5. Peter Murray January 7, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    Brilliant photos Ali!
    Adventure of a lifetime.
    Will follow your progress with interest.
    Peter (across the road and just had a chat with your Dad)

    ps I applied for the BAS (met assistant) in the mid sixties and got turned down as too interested in mountaineering, they had trouble with the met assistants disappearing into the mountains before. May have been other reasons!

  6. Tim McArthur January 28, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Hi Ali,

    Your Dad passed on a note of your blog and where you are and it is just a terrific read and the photos are superb. Three quarters of me is deeply envious of your experience, but there is a sensible quarter that says no,no,no,no,no!!

    I look forward to your next blog.

    Be safe

    Yours aye


  7. Jo Johnson February 20, 2016 at 9:47 pm #

    Hi Ali
    Being one of the scientists you did this all for, I can only say 1. how amazing you are, and 2. how much I enjoyed reading this just now! Thank you so much for your endeavours. We had an amazing season, as I’m sure Cheese will tell you, and we could never have even got started without you guys and your long drive….
    Hats off to you, and thanks for recording it like this!

    • aliirose February 21, 2016 at 1:14 am #

      Thanks Joe. Sounds like you had quite the season. Al just showed me Cheeses film – amazing place!

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