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A harrowing passage to a frozen desert

Mark Robinson

Sunday, April 27, 2014, 10:48 AM -

If this was a desert why the heck was it raining so hard? 

I stood looking up at massive rivers of ice sliding down the rocky ridge of the mountains in front of the ship.  The groan and crunch of the glaciers echoed across the water and as the rain sheeted across me, I tried to tuck my camera under my jacket as best I could.  Rain wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and my coat was not doing a great job keeping out the water. 

This was the wettest desert I’d ever been in.

UNEARTHED: Catch Mark on T.V. on The Weather Network for the latest episode of his adventures in Antarctica, tonight at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. EDT

Antarctica is the coldest desert on earth and one of the most incredible places on the planet. It was one of those places that I thought I’d never have the chance to visit.  My chase partner George Kourounis had been a couple of times, but I didn’t even dream that I’d ever be able to step foot on the continent.  In my mind, the continent was otherworldly, mysterious and barren.

I was both totally correct and totally wrong.

Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent and contains 70% of the planet’s freshwater in the form of ice. The vast majority of the continent, 98 per cent, is covered in ice, in some places to a depth of 2.1 km. Along the edges of the continent, cold-adapted organisms live and thrive. It is the driest, coldest, and highest continent on Earth and visiting the place is adventure in itself.

Despite the advances of our modern age, getting to the Antarctic involves many days of travel on almost every type of powered vehicle we’ve invented. A 14-hour plane flight, taxi rides, then two days on board a ship as it crosses the Drake Passage between Tierra Del Fuego and the Western Antarctic Peninsula, then a rubber Zodiac ride to the rocks of Antarctica. 

For modern explorers, it’s nothing compared to the adventurers of the past. Their journey might take months and death was a very real possibility. Our biggest worry was whether the hot tub was warm or not. 

Travelling to the Antarctic is actually a bit more dangerous than your usual vacation.  Despite our civilization extending over most of the planet’s surface, there are places that are still far from human contact and Antarctica is one of them. Our ship was fully equipped with everything that might be needed, including a surgical bay and a dental chair. We even had a doctor on board. We needed to be utterly self sufficient.  

Our goal was the western Antarctic Peninsula, the closest point of the continent to any other landmass. It’s also the furthest north and easiest to get to. The plan was to sail across the Drake and visit a couple of islands before getting to the continent itself. The sail down the Beagle Passage and out into the southern Atlantic was calm and the sunset glinted pink off the gathering clouds.

That seemed like a good start to the trip. And then things changed. Big time. We went from sunny and warm to cold and rainy. The rain began to lash across the ship obscuring any view beyond about a kilometer. This was not so good.

Then the ship began to heel back and forth. And back and forth. And side to side.  


I’d always made fun of George because he gets seasick in bathtub and it takes a lot to make me even vaguely nauseous.  

Ah, the tide was turned. I don’t know if it was the days of travel and lack of sleep, but this time I was barely able to get out of bed as the ship tossed and turned across the Drake Passage. Dizzy and massive headache is not the way you want to greet the magnificence of the frozen continent, but it would have to do. 

That is, if we could see it. The rain continued as we approached our first landing and in addition, the clouds lowered and fog rolled in.  Driest continent?  Not so much.  Antarctica seemed determined to keep her secrets from us.

As the ship slid slowly forward towards the rocks of Antarctica, the fog slid back and away, but stubbornly clung to the peaks of the steel grey rocks ahead. Ahead, a fantastic landscape opened up. Two massive peaks loomed upwards into the grey, a passage barely wide enough to fit the ship cutting between them.  

The water was silent and still, a mirror upon which blue white bits of ice reflected above and below.  Massive walls of ice clung to the rocks, frozen in the act of diving towards the ocean waters below.

This was one of the most famous channels in the Antarctic; the Lemaire Passage. It’s a place where ships have come to shelter from the howling winds of Southern Ocean storms for decades. The sheer beauty of the place is what drew us. One Ocean Expeditions have been taking clients through the Passage ever since they made their first voyage (which George happened to be on) and none of the crew have ever gotten tired of traveling through it.

As the ship slid between the the Cyanean rocks of the Passage I stared upwards into clouds that shrouded the very tops of the peaks and I marveled at where I was. I’d made it to the continent that I thought I’d never get to. But here it was and it was more desolate and more incredible than I’d ever imagined.  

And this was just the beginning of the journey…

UNEARTHED: Catch Mark on T.V. on The Weather Network for the latest episode of his adventures in Antarctica, tonight at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. EDT

Standing in the shadows of climate change
The ridiculously cold Southern Ocean
Welcome to the Arctic!
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