Quick geography lesson

Firstly, my navigation chart of Antarctica is predominantly white, there really aren’t many features on it. Secondly, it’s all rather approximate: for example under ‘contour accuracy’ is listed the fact that contours are neither reliable nor even approximate. Most crevasse locations are labelled with ‘reported in 1966′, or whatever year. (The 1960s appear to have been good years for mapping – or good years for falling down crevasses.)

The shoreline is also ‘undetermined’ and the team started their trek from north of the Antarctic shoreline, standing on a floating ice-shelf called the Ronne Ice Shelf (named after a science foundation). If you are looking at Antarctica on a globe, this would be on the north coast, slightly west of centre, and north north-west of the Pole. If you look at ‘The Trip’ page on this site, very approximately the coast north of the ‘N’ in ‘Antarctica’. I think it really does depend whose map you are looking at! Tidal cracks in the shelf can shift during the day as it rises and falls with the tide, but the ice-shelf itself is a permanent feature.

Immediately to the south of the team lies a massive ice stream flowing north towards the Ronne Ice Shelf. Ice stream flows create crevasses around them (marked on my chart as a permanent feature – without needing to be reported). So the route the team are taking will not be a straight line toward the Pole until they have passed to the west of the ice stream margins. This will take approximately 18 days, before they collect their first cache of supplies and turn about 45 degrees to the east and head directly for the Pole. 

Days begin at 8am, with the team setting out at about 10am and skiing until about 7pm. The latest report is that the sun is still strong and the group are all doing well. The daily distance is steady at around 20km, but my unreliable and not-even-approximate contour lines suggest the gradient is increasing.

Any questions?

- AH

Just got a phone call!

Very, very strange to imagine where Daragh was speaking from…there was constant noise like rushing wind in the background and the satellite phone cuts out or off every other minute, but I’m extremely pleased to report that Daragh sounds pretty relaxed and happy.

 The team set out from base camp on Monday 24th. They travelled 12km in 4.5 hours on the first day, 18km in 6 hours on the second. The distances travelled will increase as they acclimatise. The goal is 8 hours per day, stopping for 5-10 minutes each hour for a short rest and a snack. Obviously, the team stick together.

He reports that the weather is lovely and there is little wind. The view is an unchanging, endless horizon. I think the empty vastness of it is quite overwhelming: today’s highlight was “the top of a mountain in the distance”.

The team are getting used to their gear and getting the hang of skiing rhythmically and efficiently. The boots are beginning to pinch, so blister remedies are needed already.

The first cache of supplies is 19 days from their start date, by when the team will have travelled 321 km and climbed from sea level to about 4,100 feet. I believe the caches are simply marked by flags. I have a jet navigation map on which to track their progress, so I’ll hopefully be able to write about the team’s route and position in some context over the next few days.
- AH

And below the 80th latitude…?

“Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god; below the 60th no common sense and below the 70th no intelligence whatsoever”
Kim Stanley Robinson

On the evening of Thursday 20th, Daragh and team flew to base camp at Patriot Hills in Antarctica. They had been on standby since 6.30am local time, waiting for the cross-winds at the Antarctic runway to fall below gusts of 20 knots, and finally received the go-ahead at 8pm for a 9pm flight. This means they wouldn’t have arrived at the camp until at least 2am, but all were glad to be moving on.

They had spent the previous few days loading food and supplies, pitching tents repeatedly and being briefed on Antarctic dangers, with much emphasis on frost-bite! Also some drinking in the Shakleton Bar, from where Shackleton organised the rescue of his men from the Antarctic ice. I imagined Marion’s Nepalese tavern from Raiders of the Lost Ark (anybody following me?), but apparently it was quite civilised; more like a gentlemen’s club.

The flight from Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills takes about 4.5 hours, crossing the winter limits of frozen sea at about 60 degrees south and the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees, before reaching Patriot Hills at about 81 degrees. The landing runway is at the southernmost tip of Antarctica’s highest range of mountains, the Ellsworth Mountains. Katabatic winds funnel down from these mountains with great force (so you can see why wind-speed is such as issue!), but this allows the ice runway to remain free from snow.

More expedition logistics, acclimatising, more tent pitching, practise with clothing layers (gloves on – gloves off etc) is the plan for the next few days. There is one more flight – by ski-plane, back to the coast of Antarctica – when the team is ready. The current plan is for Monday.
- AH

Arrival in Punta Arenas

Well so far, so good. Daragh arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, on Sunday evening, via Madrid and Santiago. As of today (Monday), all six members of the team are present and, fortunately, so is all their luggage! There was an unexpected last-minute phone call at this end to make sure everybody’s kit was on a flight (some of the gear having only arrived in a north London depot on Saturday morning!), but apart from that all seems to be going smoothly so far.

While in Punta Arenas the six team members will get to know each other, review their route and expedition plan, prepare food and equipment, and maintain fitness through training sessions.

The flight from Chile to Antarctica is scheduled for Thursday 20th, but Antarctica is one of the most difficult places in the world to fly to and – in common with many aspects of this expedition – is dependant on local weather conditions. Delays are both normal and expected, and in some circumstances the flight could leave the day before. When the weather is suitable, the team will have just under an hour to prepare before leaving their hotel.

Because Antarctica experiences 24-hour sunlight during the summer and 24-hour darkness in winter, it is not subject to the usual time zone pattern which is linked to the movement of the sun. In fact all time zones converge at the geographic Pole, so each station simply chooses a timezone that is convenient to their work (the Amundsen-Scott station at the Pole uses New Zealand time). Daragh’s team will be using local time in Southern Chile (currently 3 hours behind the UK) to synchronise communications with their logistics base there.

More when I receive it…..
- AH

Last day of training!

It’s Friday; it’s sunny and a very beautiful late Autumn day in London. Perfect for one last run round Wandsworth Common with my beloved tyres!! The last weeks of training have been difficult – not physically, but rather I’ve just wanted to get on with the main event. I’ve felt ready for a few weeks now and I’m champing at the bit. I’ve also finally managed to put on some weight – hurrah! A coordinated pincer movement of easing off on the training and eating everything in sight was the recipe for success.All my kit is now sitting in neat piles on my living room floor waiting for one final check before being packed this evening. Sourcing the kit was much more difficult than I imagined, but it is at last satisfying to see it all in front of me. There were more than a few occasions when it looked like various pieces of equipment would remain elusive – particularly the rather crucial boots. But everything is now present and accounted for. Strange to think that my entire existence for the next two months could fit into one large duffle bag!

I leave tomorrow evening, arriving in Punta Arenas on Sunday night. A couple of days of packing the sled, going through team briefings and buying last minute supplies of chocolate and we should be off to Antarctica – weather dependent of course. That is a phrase that crops up a lot when talking about Antarctica – I do hope that we don’t have to wait too long before setting off. And then the adventure begins in earnest – with a bit of luck we should be underway by the 23rd and then the rest is up to us! Nearly 1,000kms lie ahead, in a continent rich in superlatives. Southwards, ho!