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The Journey

1. February 2009

Seasons Greetings All,

I am now back in New Zealand enjoying the warm weather after a fantastic adventure. Below is a small story about the expedition and a few photos are posted in the Gallery.

 

 The Journey Begins:

Picking up the thread from the last posting at Punta Arenas we had organized all our provisions and were waiting for the green light to fly to the big frozen place.

Early morning 10th November we received notification of pick up and by mid morning we were boarding the huge Russian Ilyushin 76 cargo jet that would transport us.

After all the mundane training and preparation the Ilyushin fish tailing as it landed on the blue ice runway at Patriot Hills 5 hours later kick started the excitement.

Disembarking onto the expansive ice of the Antarctic Continent was rather surreal. The adventure was about to really begin.

A small team of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) staff had flown down with the Twin Otter aircraft ALE use on the ice and been at Patriot Hills for a week preparing the runway for the Ilyushin and getting the first of the camp facility tents up; but other than a few tents and some machinery there was not much there. The first significant group of the 50 or so ALE staff that operate the Patriot Hills camp, and also a smaller camp at Mount Vinson for the climbers, had just arrived on the first Ilyushin of the season along with us.

We pitched our tents and had an easy day preparing our pulks (sleds) as we had been scheduled for the next days flight to our start point at Hercules Inlet, 80 degrees south on the coast. Mid afternoon of 11th November we loaded our 60kg pulks and ourselves onto one of the Twin Otters. Thirty minutes later we were standing on the ice at Hercules Inlet with our skis and pulks watching the Otter take off and head back to Patriot Hills. Only 1170 kms to the Pole. Wanting to establish a daily routine we only hauled for two hours that day before setting up camp number one, but the journey had commenced. Over the next three days we hauled up the steepest terrain of the journey. The definition of steep needs to be put in context in that we were able to ski at all times so no problem. This area was also where the most crevasses were encountered though again no great problem with Sarah’s expertise on hand. Most were less than a metre wide and a few good prods with the ski pole determined how cautious we needed to be. A few were up to 5 metres wide and we simply took the safe option of moving to a narrower section before crossing. In the cases where you could break through the bridging ice, with the ski pole, it was quite enlightening to see just how deep these ice cracks are. Around midday of day four, 14th November, we arrived back into Patriot Hills. The ALE staff had been busy and the camp was taking shape with the dining tent being the main attraction. We spent the afternoon at Patriot Hills sorting equipment, discarding some items we had put to test and decided not to continue with, and to rectify skin attachments to skis (skins provide grip) which had given problems.

 The Storm:

The next morning with strong winds and a 60 knot wind warning, we headed off. A testing day in strong winds as we traversed across numerous patches of blue ice at the base of the Patriot Hills ranges. The wind strength was increasing as we pitched camp number five, and with the 60 knot wind warning we expected a turbulent night. We were not disappointed. Early morning one of the poles broke in our tent so it was all hands on deck to sort the problem before further damage occurred. The spare pole was fitted and back into the safety of the tent. With the winds hammering the tent and threatening further pole breakages, we sat inside holding the tent structure for support until Tom had the superb idea of using our ski boots and ski poles as props. A couple of hours later the girls’ tent had succumbed with two broken poles so we had no alternative but to collapse it completely and stow it before it was destroyed. Five of us in one tent was very cosy. About midday the winds started to ease and we spent the afternoon repairing the tents. Next morning, day seven, we were back on the trail.

 Typical Day:

My diary is filled with daily notes but rather than totally bore you all, I will try to give an overview of the next 46 days’ journey to the pole.

We woke at 0630 each morning, and whoever was on cooking duty would start the cookers and get water boiling for breakfast and hot drinks. Water made from snow the previous evening and stored in nalgene bottles was used for a quick start. Preparing a breakfast of oatmeal or granola with hot water, hot drinks, replenishing nalgenes and reheating nalgenes/thermoses was a constant rolling process for the cook. All cooking was done in the vestibule at the upwind end of the tent, the door being at the downwind end. By 0800 the morning tasks were pretty much done and at 0815 it was time to pack up the pulks, drop the tents and strap skis on. The first week or so we were hauling by 0845 but as efficiencies were improved we had that down to 0830. Then the day consisted of hauling for 3 x one-and-a-half hour stints, and 2 x one-and-a-quarter hour stints to give an actual seven hours of hauling. The breaks between stints were 15 to 20 minutes with the first task on stopping being to put a down jacket on to try and maintain body core temperature while stopped. Peeing was usually the next task for which minimum time with gloves off and dangly bits out was the key objective. That done, it was sit on your pulk back into the wind and take some drink and food.

The day food packs made up back in Punta were different for each individual but were essentially salami and crackers, nuts/dried fruit trail mix, muesli bars, and high sugar items. I didn’t use chocolate as an energy source so supplemented my intake with extra energy bars and cookies. For day drinks I used 1 x thermos, and 1 x nalgene (approximately 2.2 litres) of water with an electrolyte sachet in each one. Break sessions were usually quiet affairs, sitting on our pulks munching and slurping with the 15 minutes disappearing quickly although everyone looked forward to getting back to hauling as it was surprising how quickly the body core temperature dropped in the short break time, even with big down jackets on. After breaks the body always felt cold for the first 15 – 20 minutes of hauling and often it would take me 30 minutes or so of working the hands before they were  nice and warm again.

Our last stint usually ended around 1700 hours then it was tents up. If you were on cooking duty you were first into the tent to get the cookers going and start making water from snow. Hopefully someone had some water left over from day drinks to get the process going. Cooking was a full-on job with making water for hot drinks, filling all the thermos flasks and nalgene bottles, then dinner, another round of hot drinks and finally some wash water if it was wash night. Washing entailed some hot water in a plastic bag, doubled up to minimize the risk of leakage into the tent, wring the cloth out and clean the body bits that needed cleaning. A quick wipe of the face first seemed like the best idea even though it was the same cloth from the last wash of the dirtier bits.

Drying clothes of perspiration was the next task. On the nights when the sun was shining (I say night but of course it was 24 hour daylight) drying was a simple matter of securing items to the line inside the tent with safety pins and they would be dry by morning. On low light days, it was necessary to bring the cookers from the vestibule into the main tent area which then heated up and dried clothing. I preferred not to use vapour barriers (plastic bags) on my feet which made the feet a whole lot less smelly but required removal of my boot liners each night for drying. Every few days the boot interiors would also need a good de-icing.

We always aimed for a 2130-2200 sleep time but repairs often prevented this. There always seemed to be something that needed sewing repairs from the rigours of the expedition. In the early part of the expedition it was often cold in the tent once the cookers were turned off, but later on in December when the sun inclination was greater it was reasonably warm in the tent when the skies were clear. Sleeping on the sunny side was least favourable in the later weeks as it was often too hot in a minus 40 degree C sleeping bag.

Every 5 days we had a tent rotation where there would be a change between the 3 man and the 2 man tents. Both tents were 3 man Hellibergs. This way each person had time in the more spacious 2 man tent and spent time with all the expedition members.

As we reached each degree of latitude there was a “degree party” which meant Sarah would prepare the evening meal. We all piled into which ever tent Sarah was in and devoured whatever delights she had prepared. These nights which occurred approximately every 5 days also provided an opportunity for the whole team to get together as normally you just kept to your own tent.

 

Typically I wore one base layer of top and bottom thermals, one pair of ski pants, one pair vapour-therm socks, boots, one vapour-therm top, one breathable anorak fitted with a fur ruff, one fleece neck warmer, one fleece balaclava, one woolen hat, ski goggles and three pairs of gloves (base-intermediate-shell layers). Skis were Fisher 99 cross country skis fitted with full length 25mm skins until 87 degrees of latitude where I changed to half length kicker skins. Body temperature management was a constant process to try and stay warm, but not to perspire. Sounds easy but it needs constant vigilance of environmental changes and work load fluctuations, and preparing for the cooling that happened during the days food-drink stops. Closing up clothing vents was one way of increasing body core temperature in preparation for a stop but that didn’t always work. Hands were my biggest problem and, looking back, good old woolen glove liners would have been a better bet than the various modern synthetic liners I had which caused perspiration which then turned into ice during the stops.

 

On skis pulling a laden pulk across a frozen continent is not quite an everyday pastime and one went through various thought processes. If a good train of thought presented itself then the hauling stints passed very quickly. If I could not get focused on a subject and the mind just flitted around on no particular thing then time dragged and I simply could not control the process. The mind either focused or it didn’t. When it did then the level of clarity and thinking without any background noises, only the swish of skis and no visual distraction with only white to every horizon, was amazing.

 Depot 1:

Day 16 we arrived at 82.5 degrees South, our first re-supply depot. A small cache of supplies in the middle of nowhere, dropped off by one of the Twin Otters. The modern GPS does make life easy. Next day with thirteen more days of provisions loaded we were off again. No rubbish drop off; everything from the depot must be taken as the Otter does not return. Next way point was the depot at Thiel Mountains.

 Theil Mountains:

Day 29 we arrived at our second depot near Thiel Mountains. Three days prior, the Thiels range had slowly come into view as we hauled towards them. The ranges would completely disappear from view when we went down into dips only to come into full view again as we crested the next rise. The snow/ice covered mountain ranges provided stunning scenery as we approached the depot. Depot is a tad misleading as it was simply a cache of our next 10-days’ supplies and a couple of hundred fuel drums for refueling the Otters going to and from the Pole. Although the mountains are within a day’s hauling the depot is again in the middle of nowhere. However there was a snow hut which enabled going to the toilet out of the wind; sheer luxury. We had an easy day sorting provisions at Thiels and undertaking any necessary repairs and then it was off to do battle with the sastrugi again.

At this stage we had climbed to just over 5000 feet elevation and with the Pole at 9,300’ we still had some ascending to do.

Most of this remaining ascent (500 feet some days) was done in the leg up to our third depot at approx. 87.5 South and the approach to the plateau.. 500 feet doesn’t sound much but made for a solid day’s hauling though the sastrugi were getting smaller, giving smoother terrain.

 Depot 3 & Christmas:

Day 41 we arrived at depot three and the last 15 days’ supplies. From this point we started to experience much less sastrugi and more softer snow which made much easier skiing but increased the friction on the pulks making for more solid hauling. Two days later, at 88 degrees South, we were pretty much on the plateau at 9000’ elevation and essentially a flat run to the Pole. The more even surface but softer snow was now the predominant condition.

Day 45 was Christmas day and what a cracker. Blue skies, light winds and a white Christmas. It just doesn’t get any whiter than this. The typical Kiwi Christmas day is a huge lunch with family and a lazy afternoon.  The salami and crackers even after 45 days still seemed like a tasty Christmas lunch but the lazy afternoon wasn’t available. We still had a few hours of hauling to do. That evening we were all treated to another one of Sarah’s great meals and Kari produced a bottle of cognac. With a few hastily made Christmas decorations hanging in the tent we had a great Christmas atmosphere. Day 48 we reached 89 degrees South so it was time to start using WAG bags issued to us for storing all solid human waste. This is a requirement due to the higher density of human traffic with groups skiing the ‘last degree’. No big deal. Use the bag, let it freeze and stow in your pulk ready for next use. The main down side was that although food and fuel was being consumed daily the pulks were not getting any lighter!!.

 Conditions:

From the time we left Hercules Inlet until 88 degrees South (43 days) the terrain was pretty much a common theme; sastrugi, sastrugi and more sastrugi. These are the formations carved out of the ice by the ever-present, predominantly Southerly wind. Smaller sastrugi (150mm high), larger sastrugi (500mm high), sastrugi that tipped pulks over, just sastrugi!! Sometimes we were going down into dips, sometimes we were hauling up out of dips but always over sastrugi.

On clear sky days, visibility was great and larger sastrugi can be easily navigated around but on low light days where cloud cover blocked the sun, navigating the sastrugi was more difficult. In low light conditions, although you can clearly see someone in front of you, all depth perception on the white surface is lost and one generally only knows what the surface is by what their skis are telling them. The loss of definition was high-lighted on those low light days when selecting a tent site. Down on knees checking the surface for flatness thinking you had the perfect site only to find quite a different situation once in the tent.

Weather-wise, we had a dream trip with most days predominantly clear blue skies and therefore sunny. The visuals of rich blue skies against the whiteness of Antarctica were just stunning. Of the 53 days, only about 10 were low light of varying degrees and we only experienced white out (where the horizon is no longer distinguishable) for a few very short periods. We experienced one fantastic day of absolute calm the whole day but generally the winds were 10-15 knots and often 20-30 knots and predominantly southerly. On the higher wind days spin drift was always swirling around creating some stunning visuals but getting into every nook and cranny. During breaks on these days the spin drift would often swirl around your body and get into your face even with your back to the wind.

Temperatures in November were in the -20C to -25C region, though in December -15 to -20C was more common, minus whatever the wind chill for the day was.

The weather on the plateau was quite different to the typically settled patterns of the earlier weeks. Here the weather changed often during the day and hence very quickly between clear skies to low light conditions.

 New Year & The Pole:

Day 51 was New Year’s Eve so all into Sarah’s tent for dinner and some more of Kari’s cognac. The end was now in sight so two good reasons to celebrate.

New Year’s Day was the usual 7 hours hauling and we set up camp with 4.5 nautical miles to run. What a way to start the year!! Rather than pushing on the idea was to arrive at the Pole around noon so we would have the rest of the day to take it all in and enjoy the moment.

January 2nd morning we set off on the final leg and at 11:15 hours Chilean time (0350 hours, 3rd January NZ time) we arrived at the Geographic South Pole after 1170 kms and 53 days from Hercules Inlet. What a great feeling. First stop was the ceremonial barber’s pole with the shiny globe surrounded by the 12 Treaty nations’ flags for group photos. Then 30m across to the actual Geographic Pole marker which is repositioned January 1st each year due to its movement from ice shear during the year. So we were the first expedition to arrive at the new 2009 position. Each year a new figure head for the marker is designed and manufactured by the winter-over staff at the American base.

More group photos, tents up and then we accepted the Base invitation for tea, cookies and a tour of the Base. The new American Base, still under construction, is a very impressive facility which houses approx 300 scientists and support staff during the summer months of October to February and approx 60 personnel during the winter months. Base protocol is that once your tour is over its back outside until your pick up arrives though we were kindly treated to a very comprehensive tour of the Icecube Project.
January 5th an Otter arrived late afternoon to airlift us back to Patriot Hills. Well 3 of us plus the Messner group which had arrived January 3rd as Tom and Sarah were kiting back once their equipment arrived on a later flight. It had been fantastic to have 3 days at the Pole just taking it all in and reflecting on the trip.

Only a four hour flight, with a refueling stop at Thiels, to cover the same ground that had taken us 53 days of hauling.

 The Expedition Group:

A mixed bag from various sections of the globe.  Sarah our guide from Canada, Kari from Norway, Tom from Washington DC, Steve from Australia and myself. Tom Davenport was the stand-out person. Tom, as those of you who followed our progress on his website, suffered from colon cancer in 2006 and overcame serious adversity to not only undertake the full expedition from Hercules Inlet to the Pole but to kite all the way back. As a result of his cancer Tom had to deal with a raft of issues and not once did I hear a grumble from the man about anything for the entire expedition. My hat goes off to you mate. Also, a huge thanks to Sarah for a fantastic job. Sarah, at 24 years of age, has already done a dog sledding expedition to the Geographic North Pole, a 1400 mile crossing of the Greenland Icecap and two expeditions to the Geographic South Pole. Sarah is rapidly filling those huge polar guru shoes of her mum and dad. Also many thanks go to Mike Sharp and his ALE team for running a very slick logistics operation.

 Final Comment:

What a great adventure. The visuals from start to finish are beyond description; simply stunning. Even after days of no landmarks, only a white surface as far as the eye could see in any direction, the sheer beauty of the place was always present and I never tired of looking at it. It is a huge privilege to undertake such an expedition and to have it culminate by standing at the South Pole. One can only hope that this magnificent slice of the earth remains relatively unmarked.


date Posted on: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm







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