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“If you are going through hell, keep going”

I spoke to Daragh on Christmas Day. Although he’s basically in good physical and mental shape, he admitted to being tired, which must be a huge understatement! He told me his blisters have healed a little though, and the frost-bite on his face is also healing and not too serious.

The team achieved their second cache as planned on the 23rd and had travelled for half a day on the 25th. The main reason for the half-day was that they wanted to celebrate and eat Christmas dinner and – rather like Conor – they can’t stay awake in the evening unless they have a good sleep in the afternoon!

The team had a Secret Santa, taking one individual present plus one item for the team (Daragh took Top Gear Top Trumps and a small LED Christmas Tree that will run off the solar charger). There is also a small Christmas cake and festive food, which I reckon they’ve done well not to eat long before now! They have all certainly lost weight, although of course it’s impossible to tell how much.

The physical effort required has increased over the past few weeks with some steep climbs. They have already scaled a buried escarpment of the Transantarctic Mountains, which divide east and west Antarctica, before achieving more level ground at 87 degrees south. They are currently at 88 degrees south and ascending the long slog towards the Polar Plateau. On the 22nd they travelled 25kms, with a 700 ft climb, in 8 hours.

Quick lecture on altitude (skip a few paragraphs if you like): the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. (The ground is actually close to sea level, it’s the ice that’s almost 10,000 feet thick!). The rotation of the Earth causes the atmosphere to thin out at each Pole, meaning the air pressure at the station is more like that found at 13,000 feet.

Therefore the team are experiencing symptoms associated with higher altitude than they are actually at, including less oxygen, shortness of breath, etc. Danger of UV exposure is also greater at the South Pole than it is at the Antarctic coast, as a result of the thinner atmosphere and ozone layer. I don’t believe they will be at risk of altitude sickness though, as they have acclimatised while travelling over the past month.

The team expect to reach the Polar Plateau 2-3 days after Christmas, and the South Pole about 8 days after Christmas, on the 2nd or 3rd January. It is very hard to estimate their speed between here and the Pole though; firstly because of the gradients, and then because the sticky, dry snow that is found on the Plateau will make their skis and sleds stick rather than glide. This is when all that training by tyre-dragging should really kick in!

I’m hopeful that the next blog will be about the final leg and approach to the Pole!

- AH

Merry Christmas from Antarctica

Message from Daragh via satellite phone (Saturday 20th):

Please wish everyone a merry Christmas from me, and say thank you to everyone who has sent a message and thank you to everyone who has contributed to the charity. Thank you for your support and I hope to see you very soon in the new year.

The good news is that on Saturday the team were around 300kms from the Pole and in an 8-hour day still covering upwards of 26kms. They are therefore hoping to reach the Pole in less than two week’s time, on or around the 2nd January!

The white-out which lasted all day on the 17th meant they could only travel half the day, but since Friday the weather has cleared and they are again making good progress under clear skies, despite high sastrugi. They expect to attain the next cache of supplies on 23rd December, then the Pole is about a week and a half away (weather and feet permitting).

- AH

…and lots more white-out

More white-out in Antarctica! In fact several days of it: the 15th, 17th and 18th. The team have been working on different navigational techniques – the current one involves much shouting to keep a reference point on each other! As well as taking turns in snow shovelling and collecting water for dinner (which is effectively snow shovelling under a different name!), they take turns in leading and navigating. This shared responsibility is working well and the team are coping brilliantly, with personal strengths coming to the fore.

I must mention Jeremy’s sewing skills here. The team spend much of their evenings mending equipment, and Doug describes Jeremy’s abilities in sewing as ‘worryingly impressive’. They also report that keeping their minds active in such a bare landscape is a great challenge.

During these white-outs, the team cannot see beyond the ends of their skis and there is certainly no horizon to look to. An explorer friend of Eric’s describes being in a white-out as ‘like being on the inside of a ping pong ball’ and many of them have suffered from some degree of ‘white-out sickness’ (basically motion sickness), as there is no reference point for their eyes. Closing your eyes is apparently ‘about the same, but less nauseating!’, and the sickness has been severe enough to bring those at the front of the team close to vomiting. I’m hoping that Daragh’s experiences sailing in a choppy English Channel are paying off in unexpected ways right now!

I don’t think Eric will mind if I quote him here. He has recorded a description of the team that I think sums up their current daily conditions and the value of their routine, which is identical – as far as possible – from day to day.

At any given moment, one of us is struggling in one capacity of another, mentally or physically. But it is within (our daily) structure that we are able to keep moving forward, cope with our fears and hardships, and simply just endure. This is our life and this is how we survive. To want something else other than what fits in our sleds or in the safe corners of our minds is of little utility here.”

On a lighter note, the same team are described by various people as ‘happy and healthy’, ‘haven’t had to use the group straight jacket so far, ‘revelling in small things’ and ‘having a good time’(?!!).

They are now just over half way through in terms of distance, with a straight line to the Pole – hopefully. However, the hardest part is still to come, with ongoing foot injuries and minor frost-bite to attend to, increased altitude, stickier snow and plenty more sastrugi. It’s getting pretty tough!

- AH

Complete white-out!

Yesterday afternoon (Monday 15th) the team experienced a complete white-out in Antarctica, with cloud so thick they literally couldn’t see what was in front of them. To navigate, one member of the team moves ahead while the others wait behind, then they take a reading between them to find their bearings and decide their next direction. Of course this made progress quite slow and it was a huge challenge for them all, but conditions underfoot were fair and they still covered an amazing 26.5kms during the day.

Blisters are an ongoing issue for all. Luc scraped the skin from his heels in the first week, Daragh and Jeremy both have blistering on the balls of their feet, and Doug is having problems with his insteps (I think some type of strain, but sure he has blisters too). Large and painful blisters are an unavoidable aspect of the expedition, and all the guys can really do is attempt to control them using plenty of padding, and of course keep them clean. Daragh told me that since the third week his body has been held together by bits of tape and plaster. The good news is that all body parts are being held together successfully!

Another typical Polar challenge has been ‘sastrugi’: hard snow ridges formed by the wind that can be up to six to eight feet high and have caused grief to many Polar explorers. The navigational challenge is to hold your course to the Pole while meeting the channels and solid edges of the sastrugi at as favourable an angle as possible.

Reinhold Messner (after whom the Messner Start is named, the point the team set off from at the coast) wrote an account of his journey in which he describes the area around Thiels Corner when he traversed it:“From above, the landscape here would look like a freshly ploughed field”. “We did not pull the sledges, we tugged them across heavy snow and tore them free when they jammed between sastrugi”.

As sastrugi are wind-formed they are unpredictable and variable. The team met lots during the first few weeks, but I don’t believe they have been held back by them too much so far. I think the heavier toll on their feet was of more concern than the extra physical effort.

I’d just like to say thank you so much for all your messages here too. I do pass these on to Daragh and they get through at some point: an email from me had found its way with some fuel to Thiels Corner (see below), which I was really pleased to hear, so please do keep sending them when you can.

- AH

First resupply

Daragh, Jeremy, Doug, Eric and Luc reached their first resupply point at about 15.30pm on Monday 8th. The cache was marked by a “very small” black flag, so luckily it was a clear day. For the rest of Monday afternoon the team reorganised their supplies and repacked the sleds. The original plan was to have a full day’s rest at the first cache, but – in what I imagine must be an indication that the team are all feeling fit and well and keen to get on – they chose to take just half a day’s break on Tuesday morning before covering 13kms in the afternoon.

I did congratulate Daragh on them all being ahead of schedule (the schedule as I calculated it from the original plan); he simply referred me to the new schedule, in which they are spot on.

He told me it is actually extremely difficult to judge your own speed or the distance being covered – I assume because the view is pretty much unchanging. It is therefore also hard not to obsess about moving too slowly and falling behind time. However, in the evenings when the team calculate how far they have traveled, it often exceeds their expectations and is great motivation to get up and do it again the following day.

He also reports that sleep is easy, despite the 24 hour daylight. The team get about 7 hours sleep each night and although Daragh usually wakes 3 or 4 times, he is so exhausted that he drops back almost immediately and doesn’t necessarily need his eye-mask in place to do so.

So at the end of the day on Thursday 11th, I reckon they have covered 365kms, or 40% of the expected distance to the Pole. The original estimated distance for their expedition was 934km point to point on a map, but in reality the journey is likely to be 20-30km further, as the team zig-zag and navigate the best route.

Achieving the first cache also meant a strategic decision for the team, who are now five, as the supplies were dropped several weeks ago for the original team of six. This means they had surplus food, fuel and gear; useful but also extra weight!

From the cache it was four day’s ski to Thiels Corner, an area by the Thiel mountain range used as a fuel depot for the twin-engined planes that fly across Antarctica. (Planes have to refuel approx half-way to the Pole as they can’t carry enough to do the full distance in one journey.) At Thiels Corner the team left their own rubbish from the first leg of the journey, and also extra gear from the first cache. I actually don’t know if they simply ate the extra food on the way…

Related news is that Wednesday 10th was Conor’s first birthday! And he did receive a call from his Daddy in the South Pole at about 6.45am South Pole time. We’ve had two parties so far, one at the weekend with all Conor’s grandparents and five of his friends (who brought their parents along too), and then on Wednesday with his grandma and godmother. Lots of fun and cake, and cards and presents are still arriving. Thank you so much to everyone for remembering – it’s made the celebrations truly happy.

- AH

Onwards and downwards

They’re getting close to their first resupply! Jill was airlifted safely back to base camp at about 8.30pm on Monday 1st and the rest of the team resumed travel the following morning. The apparent temperature at that time was hovering around -44 centigrade and the wind still gusting. The team will likely experience temperatures falling still further as they move south: the higher elevation counters the slight rise in temperature as the Antarctic summer progresses. The first cache is at an elevation of about 1,250m.

 During the week the wind has died down and also the surface of the snow has become softer, easing travel conditions a little. However this will change, with the snow becoming ‘stickier’ as they progress and the air temperature falls. The surface conditions on the last leg to the Pole have been described as ‘like sandpaper’.

 For anyone who has been inspired to rush out and buy a detailed map(?), on Friday 5th the team were located at approx 84 degrees south, 75 degrees west. Or if you would rather squint at the tiny map on this site’s ‘The Trip’ page – and use my rather rough reckoning – they’re moving somewhere towards the bottom right tip of the letter N in ‘Antarctica’.

 On that day the team had covered over 27kms in 8 hours, so were in good spirits and celebrating with a ‘degree party’. The first cache is about 320kms from their start at base camp, and my shaky calculations suggest they could reach it on Monday 8th or Tuesday 9th December (maybe). I also believe they could currently be a couple of days ahead of schedule (again maybe, I’ll let you know if that’s confirmed).

 Daragh is also in very good spirits, his only reported problems are ‘a touch of sunburn, sore feet and blisters’. No report on the state of the Polar beard though.

Changes at Camp 7

Since the last blog entry there have been a few changes. The weather is still generally good, although it has turned cloudier – meaning Daragh’s i-pod can’t always charge from solar power – and the wind has also picked up. Snow now needs to be shovelled regularly when the team are in camp, to avoid it building up on the outside of the tents. When we spoke on Monday, Daragh had just come inside from doing this in temperatures below -30, or -45 degrees including wind-chill factor!

The team have now travelled more than 250 kms across physically challenging conditions of hard and tightly packed snow. Having struggled with the distances involved each day and the cold, over the weekend Jill chose to leave the expedition and be airlifted back to base camp. This must have been a difficult decision for everyone, and on Monday the team were holding their position until a plane could be despatched. All are fine.

In the meantime, location co-ordinates show that they had re-routed several degrees to the west following unconfirmed reports of potentially crevassed areas ahead of them, provided by pilots in the area. This means they are giving the ice-stream an even wider berth (see Quick Geography Lesson below if that doesn’t make sense).

- AH