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Home, Sweet Home!

And so the journey ends…I have finally returned home and sitting here comfortably in Wandsworth, London, I am a world away from the life I’ve led over the past two months.  Team Le Cheile achieved what it set out to do, reaching the South Pole safely on 3rd January 2009.  Over 41 days we faced most of the conditions that Antarctica was able to throw at us, including white-outs with viciously chilling winds (wind chill of minus 45c or more) where we could see virtually no further than our skis and couldn’t even tell which way was up, to gloriously sunny days with no wind and balmy temperatures of -8c. 

The hardest part of the journey was definitely being away from my wife Anne and my son Conor – our reunion was a happy one indeed. Conor even remembered me, despite a bushy beard! Being away from home was made much easier though by a great team, so my thanks again to Eric, Doug, Jeremy and Luc – I couldn’t have asked for better travelling companions.  Congrats to Jeremy who heroically decided to kite back from the Pole – he returned to Patriot Hills a few days ago.

Hello too to some other intrepid Polar travellers, with whom we shared a beer (okay, several) at base camp in Patriot Hills: Ross Maxwell, Steve Gates, Kari Gundeso, who all also man-hauled their way fromthe coast to the Pole and to Mark Langridge, who succeeded in a solo-unsupported trip from coast to Pole. 

It would be very easy to return from a journey like this and claim to be a new man, a different person, but that wouldn’t be true in my case. A fair assessment is that I’ve confirmed a few things about myself and have reassessed some of my priorities. But sadly for everyone concerned, I’m still pretty much the same old me! My only real philosophical insight (and even this is not particularly original), is that we determine the sort of people we are by the choices we make and we determine the lives we lead by the way in which we bring about those choices. (As you can see from the rubbish I’m talking, I’m still the same me.) 

I have however returned a changed man – having shed some 24 pounds over the course of the journey, despite consuming in excess of 6,000 calories a day; I have also grown a rather bushy beard, which, because it matches my hair colour, has the effect of making me look older than my dad! Anne can’t work out if she prefers the ruggedness of the beard or the ‘youthful’(!) charm of a clean-cut. Conor is very definite – he loves tugging the beard, so to humour him it will probably stay on another week.

Again, many many thanks to everyone who sent messages of support – your kind words really did help!  And huge thanks too to all of you who sent donations to our charity SPARKS, which does such great work for children’s medical research. Contributions are still coming in, which is fabulous, and once the dust has settled we will have raised over £20,000 – a tremendous amount, which will be put to great use by SPARKS. 

I hope to see as many of you as possible over the next few weeks. In the meantime I have plenty of photos from the journey, some of which I’ll be able to upload to the site in the next few days, so please check back for those.

- DH

Still waiting for planes

The team camped outside the Amundsen-Scott base at the Pole for several days, before being flown back to Patriot Hills base camp on the Antarctic coast last Tuesday. Daragh’s original flight from Chile back to the UK was booked for today, arriving at Heathrow on Monday 12th, but unfortunately he remains at Patriot Hills for the time being, waiting for the wind to die down enough for a plane to land and fly the team back to Chile.

The landing runway at Patriot Hills is at the southern tip of Antarctica’s highest range of mountains and the winds funnel down with great force. This keeps the runway free from snow, but also means the wind needs to be below 20 knots (I think) for a plane to land.

When we spoke on Saturday, Daragh was expecting it to be several more days before this happened and I have postponed his flights home accordingly. I will also need to buy fresh ‘Welcome Home’ helium balloons, although Conor is getting his money’s-worth from the ones we already have!

The positives of being at base camp are that the team can rest and eat, and as Daragh pointed out, although they are still living on the ice in tents, they are extremely comfortable compared with what has gone before! A down-side, however, is that their cold-related injuries – frost-bite plus unspecified cold-induced damage to knees and thighs – are of course not healing yet. I don’t honestly think they will really begin to recuperate properly until they are back in a normal climate.

The other issue is boredom and not knowing how long they need to wait. Daragh can receive email though, so I have passed all of the messages from our hotmail and the visitor book through to the email at Patriot Hills. Thank you from me for all the lovely messages, and many more thanks from Daragh, who will be reading them and thinking of everyone back home until the weather improves. Unfortunately he can’t reply, so it’s one-way traffic at the moment.

On Tuesday Jeremy remained at the Pole, having chosen to undertake the return journey by kite and waiting for better visibility before setting out. (Blog from 1st January has more info.) I previously thought this would take him about 10 days – that is actually the minimum time. He can only use the kite when visibility is good (unlike Team Le Chiele, who perfected the shouting method of navigation) so the time needed could be anything between 10 days and four weeks.

And a photo!

I will try to get a more professional link here, but in the meantime you can see a photo of Team Le Cheile arriving at the Pole by going to www.gigapan.org and searching for ‘Le Cheile’. The photos were taken by someone working at the Pole. It first appears as a long, thin and very distant shot (I think it’s several pictures side by side), but if you click on the part you want to see, a tool appears over on the left for you to zoom in.

And in case you don’t recognise him(!), Daragh is the man on the far right, wearing blue.

- AH

From Daragh

Antarctica is a land of paradoxes: beautiful yet fiercely cruel, vast yet defined by its detail. Today, standing at 90 degrees south – literally the end of the earth – I have at least reconciled one of the paradoxes: that it is possible for individuals, humbled by her power, to travel through this land and, with her leave, enjoy a moment of triumph.

For 41 days I traveled further away from home in order to return home. I literally cannot go any further south and I am now returning to my loved ones, who I must thank for their unfailing help and support which has cosseted me against the cold and the wind.

My beautiful wife Anne, my son Conor, my parents, my sister and her family, have all been wonderful.

My thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support and donated kindly to SPARKS. The knowledge of that support definitely kept me going, especially through some of the harder miles.

Special thanks to Angela Lee, my personal trainer, who although she thought I was mad, helped me get in good shape for this journey.

Second, and very importantly, thank you to Luke Cunliffe. A very good friend, a special man without whose mentoring and advice on physical and mental preparation, and without whose support, I would not have been successful. Thank you Luke.

Last but not least my thanks to all the team that made the journey. Doug Oppenheim, Jeremy Rogers, Luc Reynders, and particularly our team guide, Eric Larsen, whose knowledge, expertise and patience allowed our team to become one that not only survived but thrived on the ice.

It just remains for me to make my way home now and although the weather at the Pole is relatively good, the visibility is poor and we are likely to be waiting for a few days before the twin otter plane is able to pick us up.

I am both thrilled and humbled to be here finally. The few days waiting for the plane will allow time for further reflection on the journey. On my return to civilization I will be in touch again.

Over and out.

- Daragh and Team Le Cheile

Arrival at the Pole!

They made it! I am so happy and so relieved and so proud of them all! The team arrived at the South Pole at about 7pm on Saturday. I found out this morning. They are currently camping outside the research station and expect to be there for a couple of days before the plane can come in to collect them.

Arriving at the base was rather surreal for them. Adjusting to artificial light took a while and the flat surface they were standing on felt unstable. They were taken into the base for a chat with the doctor, a tour around, and coffee and pastry! First time sitting on a chair or at a table for two months.

Daragh has written something for the blog, which I will post onto the site shortly. I actually don’t think they’ve seen a single penguin (yet!).

- AH

No news yet

This is becoming a very long weekend! I daren’t leave the house, and now everywhere I go I have a telephone attached to me as well as a one-year old…

- AH

Latest ETA is tomorrow…

… between 19.00 and 20.00 hours UK time. I calculate 89 degrees 50 right now. I’m finding this one of the hardest times and I’m certain they are. Come on!

The last half degree

“O, how glorious would it be to set my heel upon the Pole and turn myself 360° in a second!”

- Joseph Banks botanist on James Cook’s voyage, 1769-71

Happy New Year from London and also from the tents in Antarctica! On New Year’s Eve the guys were just 63 kms from the Pole, at 89 and a half degrees south. Every time I’m asked about their estimated arrival time at the Pole – which is a lot – I dress it up with ‘depends on the weather’ and a bit of a lecture about sticky snow and thin atmosphere, but at their current pace, Daragh, Doug, Jeremy, Luc and Eric are hoping to reach the Pole on Saturday 3rd January.

The average distance they are able to cover in a day has fallen for several reasons. They are crossing the vast and featureless Polar Plateau, ‘the heart of Antarctica’ and also the coldest! The snow is drier, colder and stickier, and has no glide for the skis or sleds, making each step a huge effort. The US-owned Amundsen-Scott station at the Pole can be seen from about 24 kms away; unless you’re in a white-out of course. So in clear conditions the last few days of travel can seem the longest.

Luc is suffering physical fatigue, Doug has ankle problems and Daragh is taking painkillers in an attempt to ignore his left hip and what he thinks is an injured hamstring. Add these to the previous ailments, the ever-present blisters etc, which won’t really have chance to heal until they finish, and with the weather and snow conditions you can see why progress is fairly painful!

So for two days after Christmas the team traveled for 4 hours per day instead of the usual 8. All are said to be “doing good” though and they are redistributing the weight in the sleds as needed. 

On the 28th there was another complete white-out and the coldest temperatures experienced so far. Another white-out from lunch time on 30th, which was still in place when I received a phone call on the evening of the 31st, are adding to their difficulties. Base camp at Patriot Hills has been unable to send out any aircraft for a couple of weeks, due to white-out and wind conditions there.

The Geographic South Pole is where all 360 lines of longitude meet, the most southerly point on Earth. The coordinates are usually given simply as 90 degrees south: its longitude being zero. There are no native animals or plants at the Pole, only the very occasional off-course skua bird, which look roughly like large brown seagulls but are obviously an awful lot tougher.

There are two actual poles at the Pole (following that?). The Geographic South Pole is indicated by a simple metal rod – rather like a large nail – which has to be moved each year, on New Year’s Day, to compensate for the fact that the ice shifts about 10 metres per annum. There is also a sign recording the dates that Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole: Amundsen on 14 December 1911 and Scott a month later.

Nearer the station there is also a ceremonial red and white pole, topped by a metallic sphere on a plinth, and surrounded by the state flags of signatories to the Antarctic Treaty. This is around 300 meters from the Geographic Pole. The ceremonial pole is shifted every two to three years to keep it within a short walking distance of the other.

Quick note on Jeremy’s plans. He has the logistics in place to kite a return journey from the Pole back to the coast, using the katabatic winds that are currently blowing against them. He would be doing this in the company of a Norwegian who has made the trip before – I imagine one of very few people! Jeremy can decide whether to go ahead with this when he arrives at the Pole (the others will be flying out). Yesterday he was fully intending to go ahead though, which is massively impressive! If he is able to make the journey it should take him around 10 days to complete.

 - AH