…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

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!