Pole to Pole
Day 138: Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills
The first ice-floes are sighted. Huge white floating platforms tinged a piercing jade green at the base, some of them as much as three-quarters of a mile across and 800 feet high (though only 200 feet may be above water). The pack-ice, which begins by looking like curdled milk on a cup of dark coffee, then fractured eggshell, coalesces into a continuous band of ice which makes it difficult to distinguish where the ice-shelf ends and the continent begins. Fierce winds are blowing, turning the sea white and whipping snow trails high off the cliffs. They call these katabatic winds, caused by a mass of intensely cold air sinking onto the polar plateau and flowing downhill, accelerating as it hits the coast, sometimes at speeds of 180 miles an hour. It may look beautiful and serene from an aircraft, crisp and cool as Hockney's Los Angeles, but the land below is the most inhospitable on earth.
Below us the flat white waste is broken by nunataks - peaks that are tall enough to break through the ice-sheet - and eventually by the longer ranges of crumbly black rock that make up the Ellsworth Mountains.
Much of Antarctica is still unmapped and a race to name new mountains, plateaux, bays and glaciers is under way. To prevent complete confusion there is an international committee that vets names and claims. From the latest map it would seem they've run sadly short of inspiration - one set of mountains is called the 'Executive Committee Range'. If they can get away with that, surely I can find a 'Palin Peak'.
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