Day 23. Inverlael to Knockdamph Bothy. 24 km. 8.5 hours. 680m up. 530m down. There was a nice collection of people at Iain’s bunkhouse at Forest Way and breakfast was slow and learned with discussions of bird migration and climate change. It almost had a bothy atmosphere but was much more comfortable. Iain, who owned the place, told me a little of the previous owners of Inverbroom and Braemore estates from the days of the Fowlers in the 1880’s. Sir Fowler was a distinguished engineer and was the chief engineer on the Forth Rail Bridge and also an entire underground line in London. He made his main money on building railroads in North America and bought the estate. Lady Fowler was a keen walker and naturalist and had a number of walks built in the valley. They also planted the arboretum just outside Iain’s door with the tremendous Douglas Fir and Sequoias. However the estate lapsed after the Fowlers until it was bought some 20 years ago by a London lawyer. 

He set about restoring all the cottages, the main lodge house, the farm buildings and huge amounts of fencing. He employed a small army of Polish workers to do all this work and put them up in the estate cottages and they continue to stay there and improve the estate. It seems no expense was spared. He had even rebuilt many of Lady Fowler’s walks including the one I was just about to walk on called the “River Path”.  Whatever one’s political views on the ownership of estates and whoever thinks they actually own them I suggest all estate landlords are more custodians than owners. They can transfer ownership to a new custodian in a financial transaction but the estate, its trees and its land will outlive the new custodian. You get bad custodians, who run their estates into the ground and they should have their estates removed from them, and good custodians who should be encouraged. I think the current owner of Inverbroom is an excellent custodian. He is spending far more money improving the aesthetics and natural beauty of the estate than he is ever likely to recoup and he had made many of those improvements available to the public, like Lady Fowler’s walks. 

128. The Riverside Path between Lael Forest and Inverbroom Lodge was one of Lady Fowler’s walks which the estate had restored

So when I set off from Iain’s bunkhouse I wandered back through the arboretum of specimen trees, all of which had been labelled, and the walkways leading between them. It was a lovely start to the day. I then crossed the small bridge and started on the restored “River Path”. It was an absolutely delightful 4 kilometres beside the river through the old woods. The ground was thick with bluebells and beyond them the bright yellow gorse along the bank. There were a few constructed ponds for waterfowl and some hides to watch them. However I saw none as the water level was very low. After a good kilometre the bank became steep and there were some 20 small walkways or bridges over gullies which the Polish estate workers had built and installed at huge expense. After this it was back to the levee on the riverbank again past more bluebell woods and specimen trees until I got to the main lodge. It was set amongst bright verdant fields full of Scott Renwicks cheviot sheep and lambs. The lodge looked in excellent condition and well cared for. I don’t really care who was the current custodian of the estate but I was very grateful he made it available to me. After nearly 5 km and 2 hours I came to the last bridge over the River Inverbroom and had to cross it leaving my enchanted woodland world behind.

129. Inverbroom Lodge is a Victorian lodge and the seat of the estate. It was once the home of Sir Fowler chief engineer on the Forth Rail Bridge.

I now had a good kilometre of walk on the verge beside the busy A835 road to Ullapool and the north west. I walked up facing the traffic and just counted down to the Inverlael Hall where I could turn off and leave the hiss and roar of the traffic behind. The Hall could not come quick enough. I left the road and headed east through the planted conifers of Inverlael Forest. I had been here a few times so I ignored the route of the CWT and went up the valley floor on the north side of the river to an old farm, now in ruins and being consumed by the forest, at Glensguaib. From here it was into low gear for a steep climb on small tracks to the edge of the forest where I met the CWT track.  By now all the morning mist had burnt off and the day was warm. 

At the edge of the forest the track went through a deer gate and then it traversed up the hill above a side valley. It was a slog but the track was a godsend really and had it not been there the slog would have been much worse. It climbed high above the Lael Valley onto the peaty moorland where I could get some last views of An Teallach, now a hazy blue in the distance. At the end of the track a argocat track took over by a stream and it had flattened a route across the moor to a distant cairn. I followed it to the cairn which was pretty much on the pass over to the wide open Glen Douchary. In normal conditions this would have been wet and squelchy but in these dry spring conditions the ground was firm and dry and all but the sphagnum moss was crisp and crunchy to walk on. 

130. Looking down into Glen Lael from the climb up to the watershed between The Lael and The Douchary rivers. In the distant right is An Teallach mountain

At the watershed a couple from London caught me up. They were Jo and Adrian and they had walked the southern part last year and finished at Inverlael where they had just started this morning. They were bright and good conversationalists and we had lunch together. After lunch we each took our own way traversing down the hillside gently for 3 kilometres to the ruins in Glen Douchary. They were much faster than me and I was feeling the extra 6 kilos I had picked up at Iain’s Bunkhouse with my resupply parcel. It took a good hour to reach the green pastures beside the meandering river where the ruins were. The main dwelling was two stories I think and very well built with dressed square stones. It was more than a shepherd’s seasonal shelter.

131. Looking down into the open Glen Douchary from the watershed between it and the River Lael. The ruins are just visible beside the gravel banks of the rivers meanders

From the ruins the route crossed the river and picked up a small deer path which some walkers were also using. It was a taxing route as it went up and down over many of the spurs in the river valley. The river itself carved a deeper and deeper slot in the rock and the crystal clear water formed long deep pools and then plunged over a waterfall into the next. There were more and more trees on the ravines’ sides and the whole setting was very pretty. However it was arduous for me and it took over two hours to slowly crawl my way up and down the spurs and side ravines to at last reach Loch Damph. I was very tired now and my back was sore from the strain. 

132. After the flatter plain with the ruins the River Douchary entered a narrow gorge with deep pools and the sides covered in small verdant decidious trees

However to my delight I could follow the shoreline of Loch Damph as the water level was so low. By doing this it saved me climbing up across the heather clad hillside to reach the track I should have been on. This track was slowly traversing down to the loch anyway and all I had to do was follow its shore for 3 km and the track would come down to me. Small plover type birds darted out from the coves as I approached and flew low across the water to land behind me. When I reached the hillside track near the water’s edge I caught up with Jo and Adrian again. We did not chat long as the bothy was near and I assumed they were also going to it. Just 15 minutes down the track it appeared and I was relieved. I went in and dumped my heavy rucksack on a platform. 

133. Loch an Damph was a welcome sight after following the difficult path above the River Douchary gorge on the east side.

To my surprise I was the only one in the bothy. The Dutch guy was camping outside, as was a lady from Aviemore. She was supervising a group of teenagers from Gordonston who were doing a Duke of Edinburgh Gold award walk for 3 days. Jo and Adrain did not stop but went on to find somewhere to camp. The Dutch guy came in to cook some water and have a quick chat but otherwise I was alone. After my dehydrated pouch dinner I managed to write before tiredness overcame me. I crashed out at 2200 while it was still light enough to read a paper outside

Day 24. Knockdamph Bothy to Oykel Bridge. 14 km. 4.5 hours. 160m up. 350m down. I was the only one in the bothy and as the mist came down last night and enveloped everything and dampened all the noise it felt very isolated and peaceful, despite there being people in tents nearby. The original flagstone floor of the bothy kept it cooler inside than even the misty evening and I had to use my duvet jacket and sleeping bag. However I slept well, as I should after yesterday’s Herculean effort which left me very tired and a little broken. I woke up early at 0630 and got up to have breakfast. The Dutch guy, Barend, was already up and taking his tent down with Teutonic discipline. I left about 10 minutes after him as the mist was clearing but I had no chance of catching him and he was fast and lightweight.

134. The cold Knockdamph Bothy was spacious inside but had flagstone floors which kept it cool.

The first part of the day was to continue east down the open valley where the small burn which drained Loch na Damph. It was a treeless valley covered in heather and sedge grasses but there must have been a thriving sheep farming community here as there were 3 old stone sheep fanks here and they were quite large. The fanks were ruins and the sheep had long since disappeared leaving deer to colonise the valley instead. After 5 km the track crossed the small burn and just upstream of its confluence with the Rappach Water, a larger burn. There were some deciduous trees here where fencing had prevented the deer nibbling the saplings. There were frequent puddles on the road and every one was covered in waterboat men. They darted about on the surface, spreading their legs so as not to break the meniscus when I approached. Some puddles even had tadpoles in them. About 2 km after the confluence with the Rappach Water another burn, the Abhainn Dubhag, flowed down from the south where it drained the eastern cories on Seana Bhraigh, 926m arguably the most remote Munro of them all. There was a bridge here and a water gauge.  The Zero reading was about 30 centimetres above the current extremely low level. Just after the bridge was the Duag Bridge Schoolhouse. It was an old corrugated clad wooden building which had once served as the school, probably for the children of the shepherds who cared for the sheep in these high valleys in the summer. It probably closed down 50-60 years ago but had been restored by the MBA, as a bothy, which had gone to great lengths to preserve its heritage with old desks, the blackboard and old maps and encyclopaedias. There were 3 small rooms in all and no fireplace. I was quite moved by the fact that the youngest  children who had gone to school here would probably be in the 80’s now and the lifestyle of their youth a bygone era. 

135. Looking down Glen Einig from the meeting point of the higher glens which emerged from the surrounding mountains near the Duag Bridge Schoolhouse Bothy (centre right)

After the Schoolhouse Bothy the combined valleys which converged here now formed the deeper and more pronounced Glen Einig. The track went down on the south side of the valley keeping level through the woods for a surprisingly long time before it dropped down to the river 5-6 kilometres after the Old Schoolhouse. It was a pleasant track but hard and unforgiving underfoot. However it went through both natural regenerating deciduous woods and older Scots Pine trees. There was plenty of birdsong and I now started to recognize Willow Warbler as there were so many of them. There was also a few cuckoos. When the track did drop down to the River Einig I was surprised how little it descended before I was on the old bridge looking over the river which was small enough to jump across. Usually it would sweep a man away in the torrent.

136. The very dry River Einig just before it’s confluence with the River Oykel.

137. The newer bridge over the River Oykel. The old stone bridge is hidden behind it.

After a kilometre the track ended at some older forestry style semi detached houses and the confluence of the River Oykel and River Einig. Just up the former river was the large single span stone bridge where the road the A837 crossed the River Oykel. The bridge was quite iconic but its older incarnation was even more so, but it was hidden behind it. beside the 2 bridges was the Oykel Bridge Hotel, an old inn which had probably been serving travellers and fishermen in this remote valley for nearly 200 years. They had some simple rooms, called bothy rooms, for a very reasonable price. Despite being called a bothy room they had all the luxuries of a normal hotel room like towels, sheets, complimentary soaps etc. the three bathrooms were shared amongst the 6 bothy rooms and one had a bath. I first went to the bar where Dutch Barends and Jo and Adrian were having just finished a meal. I joined them and ordered Fish and Chips. It was a large serving and even the most ravenous hiker would feel full. After the meal the other 3 left and I went up and had a soak in the bath and washed my clothes while in it. A few other hikers arrived with a pair of English friends from Hampshire going even slightly slower that me. I would no doubt chat to them later but first I had to do the blog in the quiet comfortable lounge. The barman, a well travelled local, who was perfectly cut out to entertain the guests and give them all the salmon fishing stories they could ask for,  made me the best coffee I have had for years using all the skills he picked up from doing it in Melbourne, a coffee connoisseur’s high temple, on his travels. 

138. The Oykel Bridge Hotel was an oasis of comfort and good food all at a reasonable price. I spent a night here.

Day 25.  Oykel Bridge to Lochan carn nan Conbhairean. 23 km. 8 hours. 500m up. 210m down. At breakfast there were the two from Hampshire who were making the best of their walk and taking it slowly and delving into local culture and Iain Frew. Iain was going North to South so our paths would only cross here. He was the character of the trip so far. He was an assertive Glaswegian with a cheeky humorous nature and I warmed to him at once. What you saw was what you got without any pretence and he was a year older than me at 65. However Iain was also very bright and had done a computer course at university in 1978 right at the coalface of knowledge at the time. Before long he was head hunted by the infant, but burgeoning, Microsoft as a programmer and project manager and moved to Seattle and has been there ever since. It was a great shame we would pass like ships here as he was a great and witty conversationalist. I had a late start after my enormous breakfast and eventually left at 0930. The Oykel Bridge hotel had looked after me well and the food was tasty and generous and the staff friendly. I remembered as I left it was owned by a syndicate of fishermen who bought it to stop it closing down and depriving them of somewhere to stay on their annual fishing holiday on the River Oykel. 

139. The rowan trees in Strath Oykel beside the river were full of flowers and will be heavy with berries in the autumn.

The first part of the day was very easy if not a bit tedious as I wandered up the track on the east side of the River Oykel. There were woods on each side and the rowans here were thick in leaf and flowerheads. After 4 km I got to Caplich Farm where a retired gentleman farmer and his wife, both approaching 80, were farming Gascon cattle from the Pyrenees region. As I approached he was pushing hay towards an orderly row of cattle behind a barrier at the edge of the barn and they were greedily foraging on it. He stopped the tractor and we chatted for 20 minutes. He said he was just about to release the cattle into the fields and hillside now as the grass was growing well. I got the impression he had always been a hard working farmer and this project with the Gascon cattle was more of a retirement hobby. He had about 100 beasts in all and they all looked well. I walked on above the river and then the track came down to it and followed it. It was very low indeed and I could have walked across it in places and kept my feet dry. There were many fisherman’s huts and benches with rod rests here and after 3 hours I sat on one and had lunch. 

140. The River Oykel is a well known salmon river, but at the moment the salmon are waiting for the river to rise before heading up to their spawning grounds

As I finished, a Dutch couple who were also at the Oykel bridge Hotel ambled along. We walked together at a slow pace chatting. So much so we missed the turning and continued up the river bank on a fisherman’s path. It mattered not as the track and fishermans path met again after 4 km. They were Stefan and Charlotte and were also easy company. When we reached the track they stopped for their lunch and I carried on to Loch Ailish. It was a beautiful blue loch fringed by rolling hills and forestry plantations, some of which were being harvested. However the backdrop to Loch Ailish was The huge massif of Ben More Assynt and Conival, a near 1000m high mountain of quartzite. It rose gradually to the north of Loch Ailish and its higher slopes were strewn with huge screefields of broken quartzite. Most of the CWT hikers were going to the west of this massif to Inchnadamph, but I wanted to go on the seldom travelled path to the east of it. I continued round the shores of Loch Ailish, past the beige coloured Ben More Lodge, the seat of the estate, and then on another kilometre to a junction in the Oykel River which was also the junction of the paths. 

141. Loch Ailish is the birth place of the River Oykel and many streams flow into the loch. In the background are the scree clad ridges of Ben More Assynt

There was a small campsite here where I once camped 6 years ago and the two friends from Hampshire were already there. They had their tents up and were relaxing in the sun. I stopped with them for a small bite and a chat but wanted to push on to make tomorrow a bit easier. Their relaxed pace meant they could really savour the CWT hike. Eventually at around 1600 I left and headed up a small stream on a stalkers path. 

142. Heading north up beside the main stream feeding Loch Ailish to the junction where the path splits to go round Ben More Assynt on the west or east side

The path was generally dry but it did cross some boggy areas where I had to weave and jump to avoid the worst of it. Initially it climbed gently and behind me I could see Loch Ailish in a shallow bowl. But after crossing a corie with a mountain lochan in it the path started to climb in earnest and on one occasion up some zig-zags on the grassy hillside. I noticed an old circular stone sheep fank here which must have been disused for nearly a century now. In the space of 3 km I gained about 400 metres to climb up the SE ridge of Eagle Rock, 715m. I was tired but the sun was out now and all the morning’s mist had burnt off so it was a pleasant climb. To my east were the dull rounded hills of central Sutherland which had no appeal but to my west the massif of Ben More Assynt was getting more and more impressive and my curiosity pulled me along until at last I got to the top of the ridge. The stalker’s path was still visible and easy to walk along most of the time. 

The descent down the otherside of the ridge crossed many peat hags with many metre high faces of peat above a dark morass. It was so dry I could walk between them without fear of sinking in too deep. As I went down the Loch Carn nan Conbhairean unfolded inside a corie. I could see some camping spots near it and decided to call it a day. I had walked 2 hours and 5 km from the junction in the track where the Hampshire men were camping and that would make tomorrow much more feasible. When I reached the loch I was delighted by its setting in a corie fringed by steep sides that led up to a jagged ridge. It was not on the same scale as Torridon but it was wild and remote and that had its charm. I found a lovely place to camp right beside the water on the north side of the outflow and quickly had the tent up. It had been a long day but I managed the blog before falling asleep at 2130 with it still very light outside. 

143. Camped at Loch carn nan Conbhairean on the east side of the Ben More Assynt massif

Day 26. Camp at Lochan carn nan Conbhairean to Glencoul Bothy. 18 km. 7.5 hours. 430m up. 790m down. It was misty in the morning, very wind still and perfectly calm and peaceful. I was a bit worried about the mist as I expected good weather and the last time I came this way it was pouring rain and I saw nothing. But by the time I left my small grassy patch at the side of the loch nothing had changed and I was resigned to missing the views up the east side of Ben More Assynt. 

The path I was on yesterday continued for another 3 kilometres. It was rough going with frequent boggy patches which made for convoluted detours. In places the path was more like a trench of bog with peat hags on each side. However on the plus side the mist was lifting slightly and I could feel the sun from time to time as it tried to burn off the remaining mist. It took a good hour to negotiate the boggy trench for the 3 kilometres and it would have been much worse in the wet, as I remember from last time. 

After 3 kilometres a track came up from Glen Cassley to the east and it now turned north and went along the where the path used to be. The track was grassed over and well drained and it was a joy to follow as it was quite fast. Below me were the shallow looking Loch na Sruine Luime and beyond the convoluted Fionn Loch Mor looked ideal places for Red Throated Divers to nest on as there were so many islands. I made good time on the grassy track and was eating up the kilometres. The mist had completely lifted now except for the summits and blue sky was everywhere and it was even a little hot. Unfortunately the one summit the mist was lingering on was Ben More Assynt and it was right above me, however I could look into the wild steep sided corie on its northern side and it was filled with grandeur. 

144. With the mist finally clearing the sun shone on Gorm Loch Mor on the east side of Ben More Assynt.

As I neared Gorm Loch Mor the rough track veered west into the lower part of this grand corie and I needed to go more north so reluctantly left it. I say reluctantly as I knew the ground I had to follow for the next few hours would be very very rough and completely off-piste. There were not even deer tracks. Initially I made my way down to Gorm Loch Mor across boulders, peat hags and tussocks of heather. There were many diversions and backtracking as it was almost a maze of hazards. It took awhile but I eventually made the loch largely by following the stream which emerged from the corie. I planned to have lunch here as I did  years ago when I spotted some divers. However there were none today. This loch also had some perfect breeding islands for the divers so I am sure they were away at sea feeding. I played some calls I had recorded on my phone which enticed them previously but to no avail today. 

145. Heading down the rocky valley between Gorm Loch Mor and the sea loch of Loch Coul

After lunch I started on the roughest 5 kilometres of the whole trip. It took nearly 3 hours as there were so many diversions and micro ups and downs of a metre or two. It was all boggy, rocky or covered in peat hags and often all mixed together. I had to watch where I placed virtually every step as there was no easy ground at all. I got to a small dramatic loch which was surrounded by craggy ridges and had to climb up over one of these ridges to reach another wild corie with huge slabs of bare rock. The last permanent snowfields did not leave here long ago. However this corie had a stream coming down it and I could follow the stream to the main valley floor, albeit slowly and carefully as there was great scope to slip and fall in a peat hag or bog. At last my pathless route met the official route of the CWT as it came over from Inchnadamph and from here on I had a path, but a very rough one. However the previous 5 kilometres of difficult pathless terrain had completely sapped my energy and any hope of pushing on to Glendhu bothy after Glencoul bothy was gone. 

146. Apparently the Eas a’Chual Aluinn waterfall is the highest in Britian. however it was not a vertical drop at all

The final 4 kilometres of the day were lovely. Firstly I followed the path along the valley floor between the Stack of Glencoul on one side and Britain’s highest waterfall, the Eas a’Chual Aliunn, on the other. While the accolade Britain’s Highest Waterfall sounds grand the spectacle was actually quite underwhelming and nothing compared to the Falls of Glomach. It was more of a trickle down some steeper slabs without any proper vertical drop. Just after the waterfall the flat valley led down to the estuary and gravel at the end of Loch GlenCoul where there was a secluded bay. The tide was half out and the shallow gravel and sand banks had a green hue but the deeper waters were deep azure. At the other end of the loch some 5 kilometres away I could just make out some houses at Kylesku. I now just had to walk across bracken covered pasture to some small islands where the idyllic Glencoul Bothy sat on the shore with a magnificent view down the loch. It was sunny on the well cropped grass round the bothy which some 20 wild geese were grazing.  I was still relatively early and I could relax in the sun and rest. I was quite tired and felt I needed it. 

147. Approaching the secluded bay at the end of Loch Coul with the tide half out. The bothy was another 2 km from here.

There was an older couple from Dundee camping nearby and I chatted with them for a good half hour.  They were well acquainted with the Scottish Highlands and knew them better than me. They had done all the munros and were now on the Corbetts and Grahams. Every place I mentioned as one of my favourites they knew about. A little later in the evening Jo and Adrian arrived quite tired from Inchnadamph. Despite there being a path it was a hard route.  They also went and camped in the old sheep fank leaving me alone in the Bothy.

The bothy was part of the outbuilding of the old Glencoul House. The house was built in the 1880’s and still stands but is falling into disrepair. It was lived in by generations of the Elliot Family and the memorial cross on the hill is for two of the brothers who died in the First World War. The house was supplied by a steamer from Glasgow twice a year. However in the 1950 it was abandoned and the windows were boarded up. It is owned by the Duke of Westminster and there are plans to save the house as the Glendhu House in the neighbouring loch but he better hurry up before more slates blow off the roof. 

148. The stunning view from the bench at Glencoul Bothy looking across the islands in Lochcoul to he village of Unapool and Kylesku at the far end. Quiniag mountain is in the distant left.

To the north of Glencoul, between it and the neighbouring Glendhu is the Glencoul Thrust, a geological superstar where strata of rocks are stacked up on each other for all to see. However what is unusual is that the oldest rocks are on top. This happened when the continents old Laurentia and Baltiica collided some 420 million years ago and the In this collision the layers of rock crumpled like a tablecloth pushed together and huge wedges of rock called nappe where shunted sideways sliding on top of each other with the youngest rocks at the bottom. The Glencoul Thrust was one of the formulating discoveries in the history of Geology and what was discovered here helped unlock geological problems some 130 years ago. Tomorrow I will walk over it. 

149. The small bothy at Glencoul has a perfect setting in a sheltered bay at the end of the Loch with several islands around it.

Day 27. Glencoul Bothy to Loch Stack Lodge. 26 km. 10 hours. 1050m up. 1040m down. Having done this part of the trail before I was a bit too relaxed this morning and did not start until 0830. When I looked at the statistics I was a bit shocked to find it was over 25 km with 1000 metres up and down. How did I miss that? It would be a late finish. I chatted briefly with the couple from Dundee who were just about to start packing up and then started up the rough track. It was a beautiful day with little wind and horizon to horizon blue sky. The air was already warm and I knew it would be a hot day. The track I was on was very rough and steep and it zig-zagged diagonally up the hillside above a deer fence to help protect the native deciduous woods on the northside of Loch GlenCoul

150. Looking back to the Hhead of Loch Glencoul. The house and bothy are just visible to the left of the islands. The stack of Glen Coul is on the left and the waterfall is just visible in the centre of the photo. A truly special place

Half way up I looked back and caught perhaps the best view of the trip so far. It was the epitome of the NW Highlands. Below me was the loch with its cerulean waters which became greener towards the shallow fringes around the 7 verdant islands and the tidal beaches at the head of the loch. Beyond that the rich pastures on the meadows around the head of the loch with its vibrant green fields which looked so inviting to laze in. Finally surrounding all this was craggy mountains with buttresses of rock and the remarkable Stack of Glencoul, a steep sugar loaf shaped peak. The view coud grace any calendar and was a terrific advert for Scotland. It left me feeling quite elated. 

151. Looking across Loch Glencoul from the path over the Glencoul Thrust towards the massif buttress of Quinag, which has 3 Corbetts atop its ramparts

As I continued up the slopes I climbed at the same angle and on top of the geological feature known as the Glencoul Thrust. It was all part of the greater Moine Thrust feature caused by the Caledonian Orogeny 430 million years ago. In this event Laurentia (North America especially East Greenland) collided with Baltica (Scandinavia especially West Norway). Prior to the collision there was an ocean between them called the Iapetus Ocean. As they neared each other the Iapetus Ocean vanished and the ocean floor beneath it got squashed and crumpled. It was full of sandy sediments. However the ocean floor and the continental crusts did not vanish but were rammed together.  This was like two stacks of dinner plates with a smaller stack of side plates between them, pushed together by slow bulldozers. As the pressure mounted the side plates forced their way between the dinner plates as everything crumpled together.

152. Looking north from the Glencoul Thrust down into Loch Glendhu with Glendhu House and Bothy on the otherside to the left of the picture.

My walk over this exposed thrust fault between Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu took me up one of the side plates of ocean floor which had been pushed westwards into the stack of dinner plates of old Lewisian Gneiss. However what was remarkable was there was another older dinner plate of Lewisian Gneiss which was sitting on the old ocean floor I was walking on and it had been sliding up and over on top of the ocean floor. As I reached the top of the ridge dividing the two lochs and started down the otherside on the quartzite of the old ocean floor I came across a few areas of piperock. These were knobbly layers of rock where pipe worm casts were fossilised in the quartzite.It was a fascinating geological wander and it took me down to the head of Loch Glendhu through ever thickening native woodland, rife with cuckoos.

153. Some of the many sea pinks which were beginning to blossom on the tidal grasses at the head of Loch Glendhu

At the head of this loch the tide was half way out so I could cut across the cobbles exposed by the tide, cross the stream and reach the newly restored Glendhu house where 3 garrons, or stalking ponies, were grazing in the lush pasture. Beside it was the lovely Glendhu bothy with its 2 rooms downstairs and 2 upstairs. I sat in the sun and watched some red throated divers far away in the loch bobbing about on the waves. Soon a workboat appeared and moored up on the shore just below and lowered its ramp. 2 argocats stacked high with single mattresses drove off, crawled up the bumpy beach to the track and drove along it to me. The older driver stopped and chatted to me. He was taking the mattresses to the adjacent Glendhu House as it had just been done up by the “Duke” as a place for underprivileged kids to come and enjoy nature. He was obviously one of the Duke’s ghillies and spoke admirably of him. Apparently Glencoul House where I was last night was going to be done up next year as the “Duke” was keen to save it. 

153. The beautiful track along the north side of Loch Glendhu between the bothy and Kylesku reminded me of a postcard of a cart track from the 1950’s

The route now went along the north side of Loch Glendhu on an absolutely stunning track, suitable only for small argocat type vehicles. There was a small dry stone wall parapet which was reminiscent of a postcard from the 1950’s. Beyond the parapet was the loch and across the loch rose the truly magnificent mountain of Quinag, a Y shaped Torridonian Sandstone fortress comprising 3 separate Corbetts. I was eating up the kilometres as I sauntered along here between the loch and mountain. After a good hour I got to the Maldie Burn as it tumbled down the mountain in cascades. It was now time to change into a lower gear for the climb up to Ben Draevie, 510m. 

155. A distant image of a golden plover. I saw a few pairs of them on the flatter top of Ben Draevie all feigning injury to lure me from their scraps.

It was hot as I started north up the track and I was soon sweating under the midday sun which was blasting down on me burning the back of my bare legs. It took a hot hard half hour to climb 200 metres to the beautiful moorland Loch an Leathaid Bhuain. It was a refreshing sight however the climb did not stop there but continued for another 150 metres up the small grassed over track to a junction of tracks beside a small refreshing stream of fresh water. I stopped here for a break and to take in the views to the north over the large quartzite mountains between me and the north coast around Loch Eriboll. The largest of them, Fionaven, was to the west and still out of sight. The mountains were bright in the sun, especially as the skies further north were grey with cloud now. However the climb was still not done but it was much easier as I gradually climbed the track northwards for another 2 km to a small ruin. 

156. Looking west to Aldany island, which is just attached to the mainland at low tide, then the Stoer Peninsula beyond. In the far distance, almost lost in the haze, is Lewis and Harris

Here there was a choice at a junction. Either down to Achfary and round the east side of Loch Stack or over Ben Dreavie and round the west side of Loch Stack. The former was shorter but not as spectacular as the Ben Dreavie route which I took. It was another more gentle 2 kilometres up the shallow mountain to the flat summit past a scattering of high small lochans, which were too small for fish. Along here I saw a number of pairs of golden plover who fled a little and then feigned injury to lure me away from their scrapes where they must have eggs by now. There were orchids everywhere, on average 2 or 3 to a square metre across the entire hillside. Some were white, some pink and a few purple. Some had spotted leaves and some plain. I think there were about 5-6 different varieties. Immediately to the north, Ben Stack loomed steeply above me across the high empty valley of Glen Stack. However the highlight was out to the west. I could see the coast from Kinlochbervie all the way down to the Mountain of An Teallach beyond Ullapool. Especially prominent was the Stoer Peninsula and Aldany Island which I knew well from kayaking. Above them in the hazy blue/grey distance was the low skyline of Lewis and the lumpier skyline of Harris across the Minch. In this late afternoon light the sun reflected of hundreds of small lochans scattered across the flatter rocky coastal plain of Assynt. It was the classic “cnoc and lochan” landscape of NW Sutherland where the recently departed ice sheet had scoured the basement rock bare leaving lots of rocky knolls called “cnocs” and indentations which had filled with water called “lochans”  The summit of Ben Draevie was Torridonian Sandstone and in this area the sedimentary rock contained millions of purple round pebbles embedded in the sandstone.

157. Some of the huge display of orchids which were just coming into blossom everywhere on the trail. There were 5-6 varieties of them.

I remembered now that getting off the NW side of Ben Draevie was not easy as it was steep and craggy. I tried to avoid the worst of it by heading west down the crest of the ridge but it only put off the inevitable taxing descent by 15 minutes when I was being diverted too far west. So I took the plunge and walked over the lip and down the steep heather and rock slopes. It took a good half hour to reach the small Feur Lochan, some 300 metres below in the depths of Glen Stack. When I reached it my legs were tired and I had to be careful I did not make a bad step and twist or sprain something. I walked along the gravel of its exposed shore to the north end and soon found a track which would lead me round the western shoulder of Ben Stack and down to the small A838 road. 

158. A typical cluster of Lochans in this “Cnoc and Lochan” landscape of NW Sutherland on terrain which is still largely bare after the ice sheets dissapeared

The track was a godsend. I put my brain into neutral and walked north along it passing a few lochans, shimmering silver in the early evening light. Soon I got to Loch an Seilge where there was just a small detour off the rough track for a marvellous camp spot by the water’s edge and beside a small peach coloured beach. However I had my sights set on the River Laxford down a series of zig-zags which the small track now descended steeply down. As I went down the River Laxford appeared, flowing from Loch Stack to the Atlantic at Laxford Bridge. There was a grassy area beside a small fishing hut which looked like a nice place to camp but I thought it might be monitored and it was visible from the road so went down and along to Loch Stack Lodge. I knew it would be empty, as it was last time, and that there was a secluded place to camp in the woods beside it. I crossed the bridge across the river as it flowed out of Loch Stack and soon had my campsite on the “Dukes” lawn. It was quite breezy so there were no midges and I had the tent up and was inside quickly. I was too tired to write so after my meal I fell asleep. I woke once in the night and the wind had dropped and I could see thousands of midges battering the inner tent trying to get at me but that was tomorrow’s problem. 

159. Looking NW from the path down to Loch Stack to the typical rocky landscape of Lewisian Gneiss. The small Loch na Seilge had a lovely camping beach near the outlet.

Day 28. Loch Stack Lodge to Inshegra. 16 km. 5 hours. 260m up. 260m down. I did not sleep that well as it was so warm in the night. I knew I had to deal with the midges first thing so I smeared “smidge” on my bare legs and arms and face and neck. Once everything was packed in bags I flung it out of the tent and scrambled out myself. I expected to be devoured by swarms of hungry female midges but the “smidge” repellent seemed to work and even in shorts I was OK taking the tent down in the still morning. The first section in the morning was a lovely section on a good argocat track which must have been used to ferry fishermen around to the various lochs up here. I think Loch Stack Lodge was primarily a fishing lodge for the wealthy and friends of the Duke rather than a deerstalkers lodge, of which he had plenty. After 2 kilometres I reached Loch a Cham Alltain and there right in front of me by the shore was a pair of red throated divers. They swam away quickly into the middle of the bay before I could get a photo of them but I managed to lure them back a bit by playing a recording of their calls on my phone. They even answered the call at one stage. In the end I though it a bit unfair so took some mediocre photos and moved on. A bit further on at the foot of Ben Arkle, 787m, which was covered in streaks of white quartzite scree, I met the very small and indistinct path round the north side of Loch Stack. Considering this was the way many CWT hikers went I was surprised it was so faint. 

160. Loch Stack Lodge is a modest Victorian lodge at the outlet of Loch Stack which is owned by the Duke of Westminster and probably used as a fishing lodge. I camped in the trees at the edge of the lawn.

I had stopped here for an early break, as yesterday was still taking it out of me, and just when I finished the two from Hampshire appeared from the faint track. Actually only one was from Hampshire and the other, Andrew, was from Devon. They were both easy going, witty and great company so we walked together for the next 2 hours chatting. They were marginally quicker than me so I had to up my pace a bit to keep up. They were both ex army and our views were very similar so I did not feel I was stepping on eggshells as I might with some folk. The only problem with walking with other people is that the surroundings flashed by without being able to stop and take photos or investigate various plants which I might be able to do on my own. 

161. Looking back to Ben Stack which dominates the south side of Loch Stack. It is only 720 metres high but is a steep quartzite mountain with a very conical profile from the west.

We got to the point where we left the small track and then followed a path across the country to Loch a’Garbh-bhaid Mor. At the south end of the loch by a stony shoreline the water’s surface was discoloured by a green yellow powder which I assumed was pollen. It formed a layer so dense in places you could not see the water. We followed the east shoreline north on the path bashed by the feet of CWT hikers as I don’t think anyone else would come this way. 

162. Two distant red throated divers on Loch a’Cham Alltain. I tried to lure them with the recording of a call and they anwsered with their own call.

At the end of the Loch there was a small river connecting it with the next long thin narrow Loch a’Garbh-bhaid Beag. Here there was a stream crossing, across the Garbh Allt, which was perhaps the biggest on the entire trip so far as a stream draining the entire catchment area to the west of the long Foinaven mountain flowed into the loch. We got across it with dry feet but only just. In heavy rain, like tomorrow’s forecast, it would have been raging with wet feet a certainty. Just after the crossing was a boatshed with a rusting corrugated roof and a plastic fishing boat outside it. From here the path improved significantly as it was drained on one side so fishermen could access the boat. I let the others go on here as we were about to descend down the Rhiconich River into the deciduous woods for a couple of kilometres to reach the Rhiconich Hotel, A838 road, public toilets and the Police Station. It was a peaceful walk but the wind was getting up and the skies were darkening as the forecast bad weather approached. The Hampshire/Devon team were on the grass having a brew waiting for a friend and I joined them chatting for a good half hour, getting cold in the wind. 

163. The boatshed on Loch a’Garbh-Bhaid Beag, the smaller of the two lochs on the final run down to the perfunctory hamlet of Rhiconich.

I still had about 4 km of road walking to do up the small B801 road towards Kinlochbervie. I had booked a room at the Inshegra Old Schoolhouse which did Bed and Breakfast. It was a fascinating walk up through the crofting township of Achriesgill, while across the water on the south side of the seawater Loch Inchard I could see two more crofting townships. Each croft had 4-5 acres, or 2 hectares, of variable land running from near the shore and up the hill. The crofts were quite egalitarian with every croft having some good grazing or planting land and also some poor land of bog and rushes. Each croft had a dry stone wall round it and this was the crofters domain on which he once had to eke a living supplemented by fishing in Loch Inchard at the bottom of the croft. The croft houses where all in a row with the road cutting across all the crofts. Above the crofts there would have been common grazing where those with sheep would put their sheep or previously cattle to graze in the summer. The common grazing belonged to the township as a whole and was often poorer grazing than the individual crofts. 

164. Looking down Loch Inchard to the crofting township of Achriesgill with all the crofts surround by drystone walls. This was on the walk along the quiet road to Inshegra hamlet

I got to the Old Schoolhouse with an hour to kill before they opened at 1600. Luckily it was not raining so I could sit on the bench and edit photos. At 1600 I was shown a great room and shared bathroom. I was soon in the shower rinsing off 4 days of grim, sweat and midge repellant and searching for ticks of which I had about 5. After washing clothes I looked out of the window and the weather had arrived. It was miserable. I still had the blog to do and my feet were sore after yesterday so I decided to stay another day and let the weather pass while I wrote. I was in the fortunate position of not having a deadline. Luckily the room was free for another day. I had a great meal in the adjoining restaurant with the very easy going friendly staff. The quality of the food was great and excellent value for money.

I had posted my last resupply box here with 3 days of food in it. There was enough for a night at Strathchailleach Bothy, then Kearvaig Bothy just after Cape Wrath and a final day to the road at the southern end of the Kyle of Durness. The final day was a contingency in case the minibus or ferry were not running and at the moment both were very erratic and unpredictable.

The next day I did stay at Inshegra while the gale blew and sheets of rain fell in the cold northerly wind. The burn beside the Old Schoolhouse went from a clear trickle to a torrent of brown peaty water. I heard from Nicole who I walked with earlier and she had spent last night in Strathchailleach with 6 others and they had battled to Cape Wrath today. They were all stuck in the lighthouse and were cold and wet as the heating was off. On the plus side the sea would have been spectacular in this northerly gale and near spring tides. 

Back

Day 16. Morvich to Iron Lodge. 17 km. 7.5 hours. 780m up. 650m down. I was late in leaving and did not get going until 1030. It was partly because I slept in at the campsite until 0830. It was overcast but there were large blue patches in the sky and the forecast was for these to increase. Initially my route took me through the rest of the dispersed rural hamlet of Morvich beside the river which flowed gently. The riverside path followed the curves through vibrant woods, whose floor was covered in a carpet of bluebells. Evenually I got to a junction where there were two paths one up Gleann Lichd which went south of Beinn Fada and on to Glen Affric eventually, and the other to the north of Beinn Fada and on to the Falls of Glomach. I took the latter. I could not help noticing the enourmous ravines which came down the south face of Beinn Fada and its neighbour to the north, A’Ghlas bheinn. They were deep and narrow and rocky on each side. I guess that small glacial tongues came down here once scouring the ravines deeper and deeper. 

088. Looking west back down to Loch Duich and Kintail from the start of the climb up to Falls of Glomach

The north path went through a regenerating forest to a higher pasture where it split again. Unfortunately I was distracted and did not notice my turning and went a good kilometre up the wrong valley. By the time I realized I had alread gained 100 metres. I could have continued but it would have been much longer than cutting my loses and returning to the junction I missed, which is what I did, returning through the nice regenerating decidious woods. Once in the field again I found the right path which lead me north across the Abhainn Chonaig burn to a field full of heavily pregnant ewes and a forestry track. I followed the forestry track up a narrowing valley which was mostly covered in conifer plantation but did have copses of decidious trees, mostly beech and birch, which were vibrant green with their new spring leaves. Occasionally I thought the conifers were on fire as there was so much pollen wafting off the trees in the small breeze I thought it was smoke. After 2 km the track crossed a small concrete bridge and immeadiately after it I had to leave it and climb up a steep side valley.

089. A most splendid beech tree in full vibrant spring grandeur in the last of the forest before the climb up to the Falls of Glomach starts in ernest

 

Just at the junction I bumped into an English father and son coming towards me and a Polish couple going my way. We stopped for a good 10 minute chat before me and the Poles went on up the side valley. I chatted with him for at least half of the hour long ascent, and it make the climb much less ardous although he was very fit and his wife was forging ahead. About half way up he left me and pushed on to catch up with his wife. It left me time to appreaciate the wildness of this small wild valley with its tiny path travesing up the northern side. The sun was more fully out and 60% of the sky was blue now. As I neared the top of the valley at the pass, Bealach na Sroine, 524m the gradient eased. It was warm now in the strong spring sun and I stopped for a rest and drink before the short descent into the valley on the east side, where there was a stream which plunged over a lip at the Falls of Glomach. 

090. Looking back down the wild valley on the climb up to Bealach na Sroine pass before the short descent to the top of Falls of Glomach.

the Falls of Glomach are Britian’s highest waterfall  I guess they are around a 100 metre drop in two adjacent sections one of 35 metres and then immeadiatly afterwards one of 65 metres. There is a path down beside the falls to a viewpoint, however the path is steep and sometimes slippery, especially if the rock is greasy with wet. It was not the case today as the falls were small and there was no spray. From one point about level with the split in the falls I could get a vantage point on a rock and see the entire drop. With this very low water level it looked quite calm but I am sure after 100mm of rain in 24 hours, which you might get in a November downpour, then the ground would be shaking with the violence of the spectacle and everything would be drenched in plumes of spray. The path ended at this viewpoint and I had to climb back to the top of the falls to continue, as below the viewpoint the valley became a gorge. 

091. The Falls of Glomach. This usually thunderous spectacle was greatly diminished by the drought-like spring conditions

I chatted with the nice Poles again at the top who were inspired to spend the night camped at the top of the falls. In the sun their grassy patch was very inviting. However I wanted to get down to the valley at least. The path went down the spur to the west of the falls. It was frequently rocky and often steep. There was plently of scope for a bad slip here so I was cautious especially with my big rucksack. Gingerly I made my way down frequently going over rock ridges,  or crossing side valleys, for about an hour until I reached the easy lower slopes and could then stride out again as I dropped into the main Glen Elchaig. The was a great view to the NE up this valley past a loch on the valley floor to the older simple lodges of Carnach Lodge and way beyond at the head of the valley Iron Lodge. I crossed a bridge over the stream which led away from the Falls of Glomach and then another over the River Elchaig to reach the valley floor. just on the other side was a nice track, grassy in the middle and with verdant verges which I would follow for the rest of the day. The gorse was in full bloom and smelt of coconut. Its vibrant yellow made a great foreground to the azure blue waters of Lochan na Lietreach and the dull golden hillsides, which were just starting to green slightly. 

092. Looking back up to the Falls of Glomach and the gorge below it from half way down the descent to Glen Elchaig.

I turned right and walked up the track. Soon I reached an older man who was lying in the most awkward looking position. So much so I though he had collapsed. He was however 76 and doing the TGO challenge. He now lived in London but was originally from Austria. I waited for him and we chatted at we walked up beside the beautiful loch chatting. He had a slow disjointed gait and I thought he looked tired despite still being on his day one.

093. Looking up Glen Elchaig past the lovely Lochan na Lietreach to Carnach Lodge and Iron Lodge at the end of the valley

At Carnach I thought about camping. The lodge was on the brink of falling into disrepair with some roof flashings and some slates missing. I then remembered this farmer farmed deer rather than sheep and there was a feeding bale on the old lawn and some deer around it. The ground would be infested with ticks so I decided to move on and continue the chat. Half way to Iron Lodge the older Austrian needed a break so I carried on past herds of deer who barely moved off the track as I approached. A long hour after reaching the track below the loch I finally reached Iron Lodge. It was also on the brink of falling into disrepair but could still be saved. It was too far off the beaten track to be anything touristic or holiday accomodation and I struggled to see what purpose it might serve if the farmer preserved it. I camped right on the grassy track by the Iron Lodge with the last rays on the tent before I went inside. There was a fat tick which must have fallen off a deer in the last few days in the porch of the tent. It was like a small grape and now slightly withering and not so turgid. I assumed some 5,000 tiny ticks were incubating inside it in preparation for a massed hatching and flicked it aside.  I was tired, too tired to write so fell asleep after dinner.  

Day 17. Iron Lodge to Ben Dronaig Bothy. 16 km. 6 hours. 580m up. 520m down. I got up early at 0630 and was away by 0800. It was a beautiful morning with the sun out and the the mountains glowing in the early morning sun. It was windstill and virtually cloudless. By the time I was ready to leave the sun was on the tent and I took my jacket off. At Iron Lodge 3 valleys meet to form the main Glen Elchaig valley. I was to take the valley which headed off to the north. I seemed to remember previously the tracked stopped, but it went on up the valley first on the west of the burn and then on the east. It made the long slow climb up to the watershed much easier with a track. My legs were tired after the heavy pack and long ascent of yesterday but the glorious condtions alleviated that and it was a very easy pleasent stroll. 

094. Looking down to Iron Lodge and Glen Elchaig in the early morning on the climb up the pass over to Maol Bhuidhe Bothy

As I climbed a wild corrie opened up to my left on the east face of Faochaig, a corbett to my west. While on the other side of the pass was another corbett called Aonach Buidhe. It only took an hour to reach the pass between these corbetts at 466 metres. I thought the road might end here but to my delight it continued down the otherside albeit much more a argocat route that a track and with frequent boggy bits. It was much easier than going cross country or following a boggy walkers track with its braided sections through marshy areas. 

As I went down the open hillside small rivulets entered from each side draining small bowls until there was enough water for a small burn to form. It grew quite quickly and there was soon a streambed with rocks and some small gravel areas. In front of me was the corbett of Beinn Dronaig rising like a grassy whaleback, with very few crags or outcrops. It looked out of place here in the west of Scotland and would have looked at home in the Borders. I passed close to one small lochan off to my right and then saw the distinctive white walls of Maol Bhuidhe bothy beside its copse of trees in a fence in an otherwise barren and grassy landscape. 

When I reached the bothy my back was tired with the rucksack. I dumped it at the door and chatted with a man doing the CWT from North to South with an enviably light pack. We sat on the stone bench outside in the warm morning air and talked about the trip each was doing. He said he only saw an average og 6-10 people heading north on the Cape Wrath Trail every day which was reassuring as this was the peak season. Once he had gone I went inside to the newly polished-up bothy to get a chair and write on the windowsill. The Mountain Bothies Association maintain some 50 bothies in Scotland on behalf of the landlord or estate owner for walkers and mountaineers to use. Occasionally they had time and funds to repair one, and this one had just been done and the timber still smelt of resin and an efficient small pot belly stove had been installed. It had 3 rooms and sleeping platforms for 10 people. Some of the best evenings of my life have been spent in bothies. As I wrote I noticed just how many small passerine birds kept emerging from the tiny copse to feed on insects around. I saw multiple Wheatear, Chaffinch and Wagtail come and go. It just goes to show what would happen if all of Scotland was rewilded with native woods.  

095. Looking south from the east ridge of Ben Dronaig to Loch Croushie with Maol Bhuidhe Bothy beyond it beside the small copse

After writing I eventially left at 1400. I was stiff, especially my back, after being hunched up writing and now with this heavy rucksack with nearly a weeks food. I shuffled down past the small native copse with multiple spieces of tree and on down to the river. The river was the outflow of the reed fringed Loch Croushie, which surprisingly flowed west to the Atlantic rather than the North Sea. It was easy to step across stones but in wet weather this would be a wade. After crossing the river the path crossed 2 kilometres of boggy tussock with the odd peat hag. The path all but dissapeared as each walker made their own way across it so there was not a distinct trail. I followed my nose and occasionally a path formed only to disperse again. I tried to avoid making the mistake I usually do and that is climbing too high. I did have a GPX route on my watch and trusted it to lead me over the spur, which was the east ridge of Ben Dronaig mountain. Right on cue it met the rough stalkers path on the otherside which I followed down to the sandy bays at the east end of Loch Calavie.

096. Looking across Loch Calavie from the beach at the east end. The peach coloured sands is from granite in the surrounding mountains.

I crossed a bridge over the outflow which this time flowed east down to the North Sea and then skirted two lovely peach coloured sandy bays before I got to the main track. I remember there was a controversy with this track and the Scottish Mountaineering Council when it was bulldozed 20 years ago. The Attadade Estate felt it was unfairly criticised and one of their defences was that it would green over given time. Now 20 years later it had completely greened over and blended in well. I walked along its grassy middle just above the lake as small sandpiper type birds hopped from cove to cove. From this side Ben Dronaig was completly different and it was covered in crags to the extent it would be difficult to go up it without using your hands.  At the far end on the loch was a small climb to the watershed and then the track descended 2 km to Ben Dronaig lodge, a shooters cabin really rather than a mansion.

The simple single story wooden lodge, perhaps 80 years old, was owned by the Attadale Estate and they made one of the outhouses beside it available as a bothy. I had stayed here twice before and it was a great walkers and munro baggers shelter and often convivial. There were 4 middle aged Scots here who had been climbing the hills on this weekend. It did not take long before connections were made and one was a work complice of a very good friend of mine. Outdoor Scotland is a small world. I had a great evening chat with them until 2100 when we all went to bed. I was quite tired due to the rucksack,  the weight of which was not dropping as fast as I would have liked, and the next two days will be quite testing for my stamina and fortitude. 

Day 18. Ben Dronaig Bothy to Coire Fionnaraich Bothy. 19 km. 8 hours. 490m up. 520m down. It was warm outside but the sky was covered in a thin film of cloud I noticed when we all woke at about 0630. After a quick breakfast and small chat we all managed to pack up and left around 0800. I left first but they were fast walkers and quickly caught me up and overtook me. We followed a large broad track which really would take ages to green over. The large road was essentially constructed to build two micro hydro plants, built some 8 years ago and was now used to maintain them, which did not require much. The first micro plant was up the valley toward the tiny Bearnais Bothy and the second was just a kilometre down the road where a small intake dam had been constructed. I crossed on a bridge below the dam and then a short kilometre later left the road to follow a barely discernible path across the heather and bog. 

097. Leaving Ben Dronaig bothy in the morning with my new pals en route over the hills on the path to Strathcarron

The path climbed quickly and soon became more established  on the north side of a small stream. After a good half hour the path reached the easy pass, Bealach Alltan Ruairidh. From here there was a great view looking back to the open valley where the small Ben Dronaig Lodge was still just visible. It was the high point of the morning and from here there was a long slow descent past the two smaller Fuara Lochans, which had extensive green reed beds growing on their fringes. The descent was across a featureless landscape which occasionally dropped off into a wooded valley to the south west. After a few kilometres the path veered north west and passed a few more small lochans. None had islets on them so were probably not suitable for divers to nest at. To the north I could see the valley I was going up in the evening flanked by mountains of Torridonian Sandstone and between them I could see the giants of Torridon, namely Liathach and Beinn Eighe where I would be tomorrow. It was very pleasing to see them as they rivalled Knoydart in their spectacular nature. 

098. Looking east from the path over the hills to Strathcarron towards Ben Dronaig Bothy beside the copse of trees in the distance

At this cluster of lochans the rocky footpath started to descend to the village of Strathcarron which I could just see. The blue waters of Lochcarron appeared, with the tide up to the grassy channels at the end of the loch. I could clearly see the white church at the village of Lochcarron, but most of the village was obscured by a knoll. I reached a well constructed deer fence and went over an enormous style to enter a fabulous area of regeneration. I think the small crofting hamlet of Achintee had given over its common grazing to native woodlands and it was wonderful to see so much greenery sprouting. Small rowans were everywhere and some,  just the height of me, were covered in flowers. In 50 years this will be a lush thriving woodland. The path soon reached the 10 houses of Achintee and then continued down to the main A890 road. On reaching it I discovered I could walk on a small path for 300 metres across a verge to reach the level crossing, the train station and my objective namely the hotel. 

099. On the path over to Stathcarron with the mountains of Torridon in the distance to the north

I had banked on having lunch here and luckily it was open and serving. The owner and his wife were from Edinburgh and had been here for 5 years. I got the impression he could not handle the stress of running a pub well,  and at busy times would be at bursting point. The menu was simple, like a child’s menu, but there was enough there to keep me going. As I waited for each course I updated the blog and generally rested my tired shoulders. Although I thought the rucksack was considerably lighter today. As I ate the skies darkened and there was the rare flash of lightning. Soon there was a short downpour and I was grateful to be inside. 

100. Coming down to Strathcarron with the tide in at the head of Loch Carron. The white building in the distance is the old church.

After a couple of hours at the pub it was time to move on and the weather had cleared. I walked north on the main road for a few hundred metres and crossed the sluggish mature River Carron on a bridge. The water level was very low. Just after the bridge over the river was a gate which I took and then followed the north bank of the River  as it meandered. It was a lovely walk through glowing gorse and passing a series of named fishing pools on the river. There was a large old lodge house here called New Kelso and the fertile alluvial grazing beside it was full of ewes and lambs.

101. Walking along the north side of the Carron River near New Kelso between Strathcarron and Coulags

The riparian path continued well past the New Kelso and then entered mixed woodland with native and conifer plantation areas. I sauntered along through it with my rucksack remarkably trouble free, I had obviously just eaten enough food so it was not below the critical weight of around 20 kg. The track was fast and I quickly ticked off the kilometres to Coulags. However I remembered the last kilometre was on a grassy verge beside the main road and I wanted to avoid it but the alternative paths did not link up. I decided to chance the alternative and was delighted when the track went well beyond what the map indicated. However it got smaller and smaller and eventually petered out just as I reached the Fionn Abhainn burn. I had to either force a route through the woods and undergrowth of willow or cross the burn and pick up a track on the other side. As it was very low I opted for the latter although in anything but these current conditions it would have been a shin deep wade. I was lucky and hopped across on stones and found the track. It led me past a field of Belted Galloway cattle,  some of which were brown rather than black, which I had never seen before. When I reached the A89 all I had to do was cross it to find my final track of the day. 

102. Coire Fionnariach Bothy is some 4 km north of Coulags and is in the heart of the mountains between Glen Carron and Glen Torridon

By now the rain was on again and I had to put on my jacket. There was a flash of lightning from time to time too. However the final 3 kilometres was up a small track beside the Fionn Abhainn burn into the heart of this southern limit of Torridonian mountains,  characterised by steep steps of sandstone. The further up the glen I went the more the mountains on each side leered over me like old men frozen in curiosity. After 2 km the track reached a small micro dam and then diminished to a rocky path. I followed it over a bridge to the west side of the burn where it continued for another kilometre to the lovely bothy. Coire Fionnaraich Bothy is one of my favourites as it is large and spacious with two wood panelled rooms upstairs also. The rain ceased well before I reached it and the 3 who were staying at the bothy already were outside chatting. 

I joined them briefly. There was the recently retired Cambridge University Geology Professor, an older gent from Birmingham and a young Belgium teacher. The latter two were doing the CWT north to south. I chatted with them all,  amazed at just who one might meet in a bothy,  and then went in to sort myself out in an empty upstairs room. I then went down for a good chat with the professor and picked his brains about my geological curiosities. We all cooked together quite late and then chatted before everyone went to bed at 2100. I had still not written so stayed up for another two hours typing in my room until 2300. 

Day 19. Coire Fionnaraich Bothy to Coire Mhic Fhearchair. 19 km. 8 hours. 970m up. 560m down. I was up first just after 0700 and the rest followed quickly. Over breakfast I chatted with the man from Birmingham. He was very gentle and kindly and had just retired. “From what” I enquired. From being a zoo keeper at Chester Zoo where he was involved with the primates. It was a job he obviously loved. Bothies have a way of bringing an eclectic mix of folk together and this one was a fine example. The geology professor and the Belgium teacher soon joined us and we had an enthusiastic chat. I had to pull myself away at 0830 as I had a long day ahead.

It was a fine windstill morning but overcast and the forecast was for rain. However at the moment the summits were clear and there were some impressive summits as I wandered up the glen to Loch Coire Fionnaraich. The most impressive was Moal Chean Dearg, 923m, which had a terrific north shoulder of stacked layers of Torridonian Sandstone and patches of Quartzite.  The loch was fringed in peach coloured beaches with bits of sandstone and quartzite around the fringes. Trout were rising in the middle but around the edges I scared off a few which were basking in the warmer shallow water. Ahead of me was the headwall on the valley and I could see the morning’s task which was to climb the path which diagonally climbed it from west to the high pass on the east. 

103. Loch Corie Fionnariach in the early morning. My route went up the valley headwall in the centre of the picture from left rising to to pass on the right.

Before long I was starting to ascend this path. It must have been an old constructed stalkers track as it was well made and the gradient was comfortable. Some 20 minutes after the loch a branch went east over a pass and down to Annat on the shores of Loch Torridon. My path continues east up the diagonal ascent to the pass on the north side of the quartzite pyramid of Sjorr Ruadh, 962m. The sun was shining on it occasionally and its flanks were gleaming with cascades of light scree. As I climbed I saw an eagle. This time I was sure it was a golden eagle as its wingspan was more slender and it flew with more panache. It eventually landed on the rocks above me but it was too far to get a meaningful picture, although I did get a bad one. On and on the path traversed until it reached the rocky ridge. I thought this was the top but it continued to climb with some zig zags round the north shoulder of Sgorr Ruadh and then a further kilometre to the east on a more level contour across quartzite debris. 

104. Looking up at the NE face of Maol Chean dearg from the climb up the headwall of Corie Fionnariach between Glens Carron and Torridon

To the north a marvellous view unfolded with two of Scotland’s most iconic mountains Beinn Eighe and the superlative Liathach and both were still clear. Between them and me was the vast classic U shaped Glen Torridon which could have graced any geography textbook as an example of a glacial valley. The descent down to it was long and initially the path was faint. I trusted my GPX track and it kept me on course and soon enough the path got more and more distinct. It would have been a much more arduous descent otherwise as there had once been a large glacier here and as it melted some 10,000 years ago it left piles of moraine scattered all over the place called drumlins. The path wove an easy route through them on a generally gravel surface which was much easier than going on a freestyle route. I once went a freestyle route 15 years ago because I started heading down too early. After a good hour I reached the SMC Ling Hut, a clubhouse for climbers in Torridon. I walked round the east side of the lochan it sat on and soon reached the single track A896 where there was a parking place with the almost tame deer waiting to be fed. All the way down Liathach grew in stature and started to loom over me with the Fasarinen Pinnacles running along the crest like the spiny defences on a giant dinosaur. 

105. On the descent from the pass down into Glen Torridon you can see Loch Torridon and the bare landscape around the hamlet of Diabeg

I was getting tired but mindful of the darkening skies so pushed on quickly up the Allt Coire Dubh Mor stream which tumbled down in the deep valley between Liathach and Beinn Eighe. The valley curved to the west right round the base of the east end of Liathach and from here I could look up nearly 1000 metres of layer upon layer of steps of Torridonian sandstone, all of which was laid down nearly a billion years ago when this part of Scotland was a vast estuary in sea much like the Mississippi estuary is today. After a good hour the excellent path crossed the main valley stream on large stepping stones and then started to veer north and then east round the rocky west end of Beinn Eighe. As I headed up this path the north face of Liathach came into view with its steep north facing cories and steep walls and had it been a lighter rock and with less vegetation could have been the Dolomites. About a kilometre from the end the rain which had been threatening all day finally arrived. Initially it was half hearted but soon it started to fall in earnest  with large drops and the rocky path was soon running with trickles of water. To the north was an empty quarter with a handful of seldom visited Torridonian monoliths rising to over 800 metres from the flat Lewisian Gneiss basement from which they rose like squat chess pieces. 

106. The south face of the iconic Liathach with the Farsarinen Pinnacles making up the most jagged part of the ridge.

The final climb up to Corie Mhic Fhearchair was up steps of sandstone with a stream cascading down the steps to my left. The stream drained the loch above beside which I hoped to camp. As I reached the loch I was pleased to see that the corie was still clear despite the rain as it contained the Triple Buttress, an infamous and very spectacular climbing crag made up of 3 pillars of sandstone. It lay across the loch to the south as I was now on the north side of Beinn Eighe. I found a damp spot to camp on a nearly muddy patch at the bottom of some slabs and dived into the tent dripping wet. Soon the rain intensified and water began to pool outside and I was thankful for the Macpac quality bathtub floor of the tent. Nevertheless the floor became wet as everything condensed on it. I wrote a little but was tired and decided to sleep with the rain now pelting the tent quite loudly. There was little cheer in the tent and an air of cold damp pervaded everything.

107. The north side of Liathach and in particular its peak Mullach an Rathain, 1023m, the highest at the peak at the west end of Liathach

Day 20. Coire Mhic Fhearchair to Kinlochewe. 13 km. 5.5 hours. 270m up. 820m down. It was still raining in the morning and everything was wet or damp. My sleeping bag was just damp. The bathtub groundsheet was like a waterbed as a few centimetres of water underneath it sloshed about. With no small discipline I got up at 0630, ate breakfast and packed up and was off by 0800. The rain was a little lighter but it was still 3 star misery. It would have been five if the mist was down and it was windy. I remembered from 12 years ago I would now have a few hours of picking a route across very very rough ground with no path. 

108. My tent in Corie Mhic Fhearchair with the Triple Buttress in the middle of the photo partly obscured by the heavy rain.

Initially I dropped down off the lip of the corie and down the heather and boulder slope. I remembered it was difficult to traverse across the slope higher up so I decided to go down to the more level ground down by the burn below. It worked well and I came across a track, perhaps a deer track as there were no footprints. I followed the animal path a little too eagerly as I thought the deer would know best. However, in my optimism I did not notice I was straying further and further from where I should be, which was traversing the tricky and arduous north face of Ruadh stac Mor. By the time I came to my senses I was a good kilometre to the north following the burn down the wrong valley. I could still rescue the situation with some difficulty and head diagonally back up the mountain towards a wild and inaccessible corie in the middle of the north side of Beinn Eighe. The trouble was I had to pick my own path through knee high heather through drumlins of moraine which were piled up all over the place. After a good hour of climbing I eventually reached where I should have been. I discovered that there was still no path here and the terrain was just as hospitable as it was 12 years ago so I had not lost much time and effort as the suggested route was a bloodsome slog. I followed it roughly as I picked a way through quartzite debris for almost an hour climbing and descending around the drumlins of stone until I entered a high valley between the corbetts of Ruadh stac Beag and Meall a’Ghuibhais. There was virtually no sandstone left and the rock on the mountains, scree and in the valley at this eastern end of Beinn Eighe was quartzite. It was less forgiving than sandstone, more slippery and I had to be more attentive as to where I was putting my feet. 

109. Heading down from Coire Mhic Fhearchair with the sublime waterfall to start the very rough pathless traverse along the base of the north side of Beinn Eighe, 1010m.

Soon the route entered a high level area, possibly a lake which had been filled in by sediment over the last few thousand years. At last the going became easier as I could follow the wetter softer ground beside the stream. The stream meandered through this area with banks of fine quartzite gravel. It was incredibly clear and where there were pools there was no loss of visibility and the water had a lovely emerald hue to it. After a good kilometre of this flatter area the stream veered south to a very remote hidden corie on the north of Beinn Eighe which I am sure is very little visited. I however continued east up a slight ridge with an ever increasing path in the white quartzite gravel to reach a shallow pass. As I got to it I saw that further east in Scotland the weather was plausible, and it was only grim behind me on Beinn Eighe and the rest of Torridon. 

110. The lost valley on the north side of Beinn Eighe with the small river meandering across the small plain with sandy beaches and crystal clear water.

The top of the pass was marked by a large cairn of white stones and I was delighted to see that there was now a good path leading down all the way to the grassy fields around Kinlochewe. I started pounding down the gravel of the path as it contoured down through a few deeper stream beds  On my left the huge Slioch mountain, 980m, came into view on the other side of Loch Maree, a very large freshwater loch. After a good hour I crossed the final stream bed and then started to head down a spur to the head of Loch Maree between two shallow ravines. The ravines were full of pine which had regenerated from some of the hardy venerable stock which had been there for aeons. It was great to see such a recovery in this otherwise inhospitable terrain. Before long I reached the valley floor and then walked on a lovely soft path of sandy gravel towards the village a kilometre away. The pinewoods here were full of birdsong and I saw many chaffinches. Unexpectedly I rounded the corner and there was the petrol station.

111. Heading down to the green fields and the fleshpots of Kinlochewe with the rain finally ceased.

112. The mountain of Slioch, 981m, (left) dominates the eastern side of loch Maree. I hope to go up the narrow valley, Glean Bianasdail, to the south of it in the centre to reach Loch Fada in Fisherfield tomorrow

It was busy with portly motorcyclists and 2 other hikers. The hikers invited me over and I sat with them. One from Cornwall and a very chatty friendly one from Selkirk. They were both doing the CWT also. I got some food and great coffee and had lunch while chatting about the trail. Mindful of my damp sleeping bag, wet tent, stinking clothes and hours of tying I phoned the hotel but they were full, the campsite had its maximum allocation of 3 tents already and the B and B I once stayed at had closed down. However the petrol station owner told me about a caravan. I phoned and it was free this evening. I booked it. An hour later I was getting ensconced with all my wet equipment on the line, my stinking hiking clothes in the washing machine and me in the shower. It was perfect. The rain returned later in the evening and I sat in the caravan and watched it fall as I typed away in comfort. I had enough food to eat in so I did not have to visit the hotel for dinner. It was the most perfect solution.    

113. There was a lot of birdsong in the regenerating pinewoods to the NW of Kinlochewe. I saw many chaffinches here. This one was eating insects on a willow.

Day 21. Kinlochewe to Achneigie Woods. 24 km. 8.5 hours. 730m up. 660m down. I slept well in the caravan and woke up quite early at 0600. By the time I had my breakfast of granola and the one she left for me of toast and jam, and then packed it was 0800. It was a nice calm day and there were large blue patches. The forecast was good also. I was in good spirits but knew I had a long but exciting day. Initially I walked up the cycle beside the road passing Kinlochewe Lodge which was trying to eradicate its feral Rhododendrons. After the lodge the road went through some gorgeous beech woods and then crossed the Kinlochewe River. It was quite wide but the deciduous canopies on each side nearly met over the still water. I followed the small road past the school to a parking place with a few walkers vans parked up for those doing the Munro of Slioch

114. Crossing the Kinlochewe River on the bridge overvtobthe start of the Slioch path.

A path left this parking space and headed NW along the edge of the verdant valley floor. The path was squeezed between the fields and river on the west side and the lower ramparts of Beinn a’Mhuinidh, 692m on the east side. It was a very pretty walk as I went along a corridor of mature deciduous trees and below me the flanks of the river were lined with gorse in full vibrant yellow flower. The path was generally flat and easy underfoot. Cuckoos were everywhere in the woods and I even saw one flying over me calling as it went. At first glance it could have been mistaken for a small kestrel. The further I walked the more the massif of Slioch showed itself. It was the star of the show this morning and I would walk beneath it. Eventually the fields and delta gave way to Loch Maree and I followed its shoreline for a kilometre before coming to the tumbling Abhainnan an Ehasaigh burn which cascaded out of Glean Bianasdail valley to the east of Slioch. I left the lochside path here which continued to Letterewe and followed the rocky track up the valley. 

115. Looking at the delta where the Kinlochewe River enters Loch Maree

It was a mountain walk as the path was narrow and rocky and the valley was deep. On the NW side the steps and ramparts of Slioch rose up until the bulge of the mountain blocked the view higher. The burn flowed in a ravine over a series of small waterfalls. The sides of the raving were lined with old alders and pines. I knew from previously there was a special pine here and was looking for it but did not see it until a craggy section. It was a tree which every man aspires to be. Growing in difficult circumstances on the rocky side of the gorge it had for at least a century thrived in the most inhospitable place to become a venerable giant. It was immensely stout and gnarled but very strong also, like a giant bonsai. I found an old photo of it and took a more modern one to compare. Not much had changed and it still stood proud and steadfast. I admired it for 5 minutes before pushing on up the glen. I saw another eagle here. It looked like a golden eagle as its wings were quite slender but its tail was very wedge shaped which made me doubt it. It effortlessly used the updraughts to climb effortlessly. It took a good hour and a half to climb up some 300 metres up the side of the deep valley. The path had to climb as there was a narrow gorge to avoid and it went over the top of it. At the highest point a terrific view of the mountains of the Fisherfield came into view on the other side of the deep azure blue of Loch Fada. From here I could now look back and see the top of Slioch on top of a ramp which was surrounded by cliffs. It was a quick short descent to Loch Fada where I had to cross the outflow just before it entered the gorge I had just walked over. If the water was very high after Biblical rain this would be tricky and the preferred route then would be the duller option up Gleann na Muice, which is where the Cape Wrath Trail goes. 

116. The venerable old pine tree growing on the side of the gorge in Gleann Bianasdail.

At Loch Fada the path follows the shore round past a couple of gravel beaches with absolutely stunning views up the length of this remote hidden loch sandwiched in a slot between the mountains of Letterewe and Fisherfield. The sun was warm and I lingered on a beach and almost went for a dip in the stupendous setting but didn’t. At the north end of the main beach there was a small path which led up the hillside for a few hundred metres to meet the main Cape Wrath Trail. I would now follow it NE over a shoulder with a small lochan at the top. From here on the shallow pass I could look north down to the lower Bealach nan Croise a good kilometre away. It was the watershed between Loch Maree and Loch na Sealga which drained into Gruinard Bay eventually. Between me and this lower pass was some very peaty ground with large hags and plenty of diversions to cross boggy sections. In the middle of it was a small stream draining Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, 1018m, one of the biggest Fisherfield Munros. The stream had cut a ravine in the bedrock and I remembered to head west and keep height to allow an easy crossing. I actually stopped for a late lunch at this stream and relaxed on the slightly sloping bedrock, which was covered in the fossilised dimples of pipe worm casts, like frozen raindrops. After lunch I continued down some 20 minutes to the watershed at the Bealach nan Croise. 

117. Looking west down Loch Fada from the beach at the east end. Left are the Letterewe Mountains and Fisherfield to the right

118. On the climb up to Bealach nan Croise and looking back to Loch Fada and Slioch mountain beyond it.

I had been going for about 6 hours now but still had a lot to go. However it was all downhill now and the path was much better than I remembered it. Pretty soon I could see glimpses of Loch an Nid, a small lake fabled for its beauty. Within an hour I had reached it and was surprised at how blue it was. There was a gravel lined river leading into it and a gravel beach across the north end where the outflow was. I walked along the curves of the gravel river flowing into it thinking that this is where the Atlantic Salmon would come to spawn in the gravel beds. They would have to come up all the way from Gruinard Bay and could only do it when the river was in spate. The fry and smolt of the salmon would then develop here in Loch an Nid before they themselves went down stream to the Atlantic to feed and grow in the sea before returning to the gravel burn of their youth to start the whole cycle again. Unfortunately commercial fish farming has played havoc with this natural cycle and hardly any salmon now make the journey up here to spawn anymore. 

119. The first views of An Teallach mountain with Loch an Nid in the foreground.

As I walked down the east side of Loch an Nid I noticed the curious bare rock slabs which covered much of the east face of Sgurr Ban, 989m. The slabs were at quite a shallow angle, perhaps 25 degrees and it would be quite possible to walk up them from the loch to the summit. A little further down the valley another of Scotland’s most iconic mountains, namely An Teallach, 1060m, came into view with the infamous Corrag Bhuidhe, a scramblers mecca, sitting on the ridge near the summit. My route now followed a stalkers track for another 4 km down the valley towards An Teallach mountain. Here at a junction of two burns was a flatter alluvial plain where the river ran. On this plain was an enchanting wood, Achneigie Wood, which was largely composed of very old alder trees which I reckoned would be about 200 years old. Between the trees were sunny grassy glades. I had camped here before and was now looking forward to camp here again and found it much better than pressing on another 4 kilometres to the lovely but inevitably busy bothy of Sheneval.The gorse was vibrant around the wood in the more inhospitable ground at the edge of the woods. I found a nice spot and had the tent up quickly. The only problem with this wood was deer and cattle also sheltered here in poor weather so I should expect it to be dense with ticks. It was but once in the tent I was safe. As I ate and wrote there were some very close visits by noisy cuckoos some of which sound like they were in the tree above me. It had been a very very good day but quite long and I was tired.

120. The delightful ancient Alder woods at Achneigie beside the river with An Tealkach in the background.

Day 21. Achneigie Woods to Inverlael. 23 km. 8.5 hours. 800m up. 890m down. I had a beautiful sleep in the woods and was woken by many cuckoos who seemed to be gathering in the trees above me. When I got up there were about 5 of them frolicking in the old venerable alders. I should imagine cuckoos have been migrating from the Congo Basin to breed here in the nest of pipits and warblers for hundreds of generations. Once their eggs were laid in the host nests there was little for them to do except sing and play. It was warm outside and a lovely morning. As I packed, a mixed herd of Belted Galloway and Highland Cattle with their calves came down the track to the meadows around the confluence of the streams. It was a scene out of a romantic Victorian painting. The only problem was the ticks. There were 11 alone on the groundsheet as I rolled it up. I can never remember such a bad tick year. 

121. Looking down on Achneigie Woods from the track over to CorrieHallie on the A832. In the background is Beinn Chlaidheimh, 913m, which misses out on Munro status by half a metre.

I left around 0730 and walked past the cattle to reach the base of the track which I knew would take me over the hillside and down to the road at Dundonnell. The walk up the track was quite steep on this warm morning and I was soon sweating and the midge repellant I put on for the onslaught of the insects last night was running into my eyes stinging them. As I climbed more and more of the magnificent corie on the north side of An Teallach came into view. I knew I would see more of it soon as I walked north and was eager for the view. It was one of the biggest and steepest cories in Scotland. After 3 km the track levelled out and it was soon joined by the path from Shenavall bothy which climbed up steeply and then crossed the rocky moorland. There were a couple of CWT hikers on it and they got to the junction at the same time as me. One was from Israel and the other Dutch. I had met them before at the cafe at the Kinlochewe filling station. I chatted with the Israeli man from the top of the ridge all the way down to the road an hour away. Unfortunately I was a little distracted and did not get to fully appreciate An Teallach as I passed it but knew I would have a good view later in the afternoon. At Corrie Hallie on the road we walked north for half a kilometre keeping well on the verge of this busy road before the turnoff to Dundonnell. Here our path went over a lovely old bridge to the small hamlet. We parted company here as he was a faster walker than me and with a lighter rucksack, and I also needed a break. 

 

122. Coire Loch Toll an Lochan, the southerly of the two west cories of An Teallach.

The path now went up and over the hill to Inverbroom on a path I had seen called the Kirk Road or the Coffin Road. It was a lovely path although it was hot in the early afternoon sun in the still air of the mixed deciduous woods. As I climbed above the woods there was a slight breeze but the spring sun was merciless. I got to a small cascading stream and stopped here for a long cold drink. There were cuckoos here too but more importantly a magnificent view of the twin cories of An Teallach. The most southerly one was slightly more impressive with its huge cliffs and buttresses culminating in Lord Berkeley’s Seat, a prow which overlooked the sheer cliffs.

123. Coire A’Ghlas Thuill, the northerly of the two west cories of An Teallach.

 

After my much needed break I continued up for a good hour and a half. I could not remember it being so long but eventually I got to the lochan at the top. Now the Beinn Dearg massif opened up before me across the other side of Inverbroom. I had a last look at An Teallach before starting the long descent of 400 metres. Soon the verdant well organised fields of Inverbroom appeared laid out across the flat valley floor. It could see Loch Broom off to the north, The tide was half way and the shallows had a green hue but the rest of the Loch was dark blue. Around the head of the loch and each side of the river the gorse was egg yolk yellow. However what really impressed me was the green fields full of sheep and lambs. It was a long, occasionally steep descent before I reached them. 

124. From the top on the Coffin Road between Dundonnell and Inverbroom looking down onto the fields around the head of Loch Broom

Once on the valley floor I had to walk south for about 4 km through these fields. They were full of Texel sheep each with an average of 2 lambs. In all I must have passed 20 fields, each with 50 sheep. Everything was so well ordered and maintained. Every stone wall, every gate was in perfect order. The main Inverbroom Lodge and the farm building were in immaculate shape and gleaming white with fresh whitewash. This was one of the best maintained estates I had seen. 

125. Looking up the valley floor of Inverbroom towards Inverlael with the verdant fields spread across the valley

As I walked along the track a pick up came towards me and stopped for a chat. I knew it was Scott Renwick who was the tenant farmer of the Inverbroom Estate. I had stayed with him as a B&B guest when I did this walk 12 years ago. We chatted for a good half hour and he seemed to know all the farmers I knew, including Norman Stodart on Skye, the Bowsers of Auchlyne and even Sybil Machpherson who ran the squalid farm I passed through at Dalmally. He was a very likeable man with an infectious chuckle and good humour.  He offered me a lift to Inverlael but I said I had to walk. He was partly responsible for the well managed farm and here was the owner of all the sheep. If there was a benchmark for how a farm should be run then Scott Renwick would be the standard for others to try and achieve. 

126. Looking across the fields of Inverbroom with grazing Texel sheep. The white buildings are the sheds of Inverbroom Lodge which is hidden in
the trees

I continued up the track for another 3 km then crossed the Inverbroom River. I now had to double on the main road for nearly a kilometre but to my relief there was a small path along a woodland walk with many specimen trees including a gigantic Douglas Fir and a humongous Sequoia. At the end of the woodland walk I crossed the road and arrived at Inverlael Bunkhouse where I had stayed a few times. Iain, who owned the place, had received my resupply package and it was on my bed. There was a very nice Scottish man and English woman already here and I chatted with them before heading into the shower. The Scottish man had previously cooked a lot of Chilli con Carne and offered it for dinner. We all ate together around the convivial table before I wrote the blog. 

127. Looking south up the Inverbroom River with lush vegetation on the side. In the distance is one of the Fannich mountains

Back

Day 09. Corran to Cona Glen. 12 km. 4 hours. 280m up. 200m down. There was a good wind and the sun was out in a perfectly blue sky when I woke. It was a NE wind coming down Loch Linnhe from Fort William so I would be in the rain shadow of any weather which the east of Scotland might get. There was a great drying wind and all my claggy equipment and clothing was now crisp and dry. I had a lot of writing and uploading to do so got up early, around 0700 and did it for about 3 hours until I had everything uploaded onto my webpage and then could start the new section afresh in the evening. By the time I emerged from the tent it was 1030 and I did not set off until 1100. By this time the wind was up to a force 5 and Loch Linnhe was full of white caps. 

Initially I had about 3 kilometres of the quiet road to walk along with more sheep than cars wandering on it. However that changed with a convoy of at least 100 motorcycles slowly came past. But they were all vintage and some even looked like they were from World War 1 and at least 100 years old. Most were older than me and I recognized some from my youth. There were some noble names here like Enfield and Triumph.  The riders were as old as their bikes and had obviously been tinkering with them in garages and workshops up and down the country all winter in preparation for this outing. They all chugged past me slowly with every rider waving as I watched. 

045. Looking downstream from the bridge over the River Scaddle with Ben Nevis in the distance

As I approached the twin estuary of the Scaddle and Cona Rivers in Inverscaddle Bay the wind dropped off and it became beautifully warm and pleasant. There were banks of gorse, all in full bloom and bright yellow, like an egg yolk, each side of the river banks and alder, birch and oak in the woods on each side. Beyond this soft woodland scene rose Ben Nevis some 15 kilometres away, still with some snow fields on it and higher than anything else. It was quite idyllic. I crossed both rivers on bridges and then turned west up a track which I knew went up Cona Glen, catching glimpses of the large aristocratic mansion of Conaglen House, which must have been the seat of the estate. 

046. One of the Canadian Pakrafters at the base of one of the nine huge Sequoia trees at the bottom of Cona Glen.

I had forgotten just how lovely Cona Glen was. In my opinion it is one of the nicest glens in Scotland. The small track led me through mixed woods to a stand of 9 huge Sequoia trees which must have been 150 years old. As I was admiring them a posse of CWT ( Cape Wrath Trail) walkers arrived. I introduced myself and them to each other as they had also just met. There was a Canadian couple, an Englishman from Aldershot and Tom from Aberdeen. There was great camaraderie and excitement as we were all embarking on what would be our adventure of the summer. Most had planned to do it in 2 weeks while I had 3 which made me feel relaxed. I walked with the Canadians for a couple of kilometres. They had heavy rucksacks and then I noticed they had pakrafts, paddles and life jackets with them also. There is a Cape Wrath Trail variation for Pakrafters apparently. They had already used them from Fort William and had been blown down Loch Linnhe for nearly 10 kilometres with the wind in their back. 

047. The lovely mature native oak woods at the bottom of Cona Glen beside the river on the left.

The woods here were beautiful mature Scottish native deciduous trees. The oaks were large and gnarly with burrs on their boles. They were just producing their first leaves from bud so the forest was still grey but with a green tinge. Beside us the Cona River gently tumbled over steps in the bed rock as it made its way to the sea with no urgency. A slow worm, a legless lizard and blind, slid across the track as we walked. We stopped at a side stream and the Canadians had a snack while I wandered on in my own time so I could photograph the trees and look at the river. Once the woods ended after 3-4 kilometres the valley floor was green with pasture. I remembered herds of Highland Cattle here but they were not around today, just sporadic sheep and their lambs. 

048. Above the oakwoods Cona Glen opened up into pasture where I had previously seen herds of Highland Cattle.

049. Looking across the crystal clear Cona River to the south side where there was a remnant of the old Caledonian Pine Forest across the hillside

The next 4 km were quite open but on the south side of the valley was a large pine and birch forest. Some of the pines looked large and venerable and were remnants of the great Caledonian Forest which covered much of Scotland 500 years ago and before. The dark pine trees were in stark contrast to the lime green birch in their first spring foliage. On each side the craggy mountains rose quite steeply to 6-700 metres. There were a few “Grahams” (mountains over 2000 feet)  here, a shorter but no less challenging version of a Munro ( over 3000 feet). I met a lady from Inverness who had done all the Munros 4 times, Corbetts (2500 foot) 3 times and was now just 1 short of completing her Grahams for the second time. A hillwalking connoisseur in her element in this Cona Glen. A bit later I met 3 from Edinburgh who were also bagging Grahams around the Glen. I soon reached the small locked bothy at Corrlarach where I intended to camp but there was no flat ground. It was a lovely spot beside a large side burn looking across the lazy river to the pine Caledonian Forest with the rocky mountains rising beyond it. A few hikers passed me as I rested but they were all chatty but on a mission to get to the base of the pass. As I rested a chaffinch came and sat on the lawn in front of me. 

050. As I sat on the steps of Corrlarach bothy in Cona Glen a chaffinch landed on the grass in front of me.

I was just about to go when Nicole arrived. She was originally from Germany but had lived in Inverness for the last 20 years. She must have spent every weekend in the Highlands as she knew them intimately, every bothy, mountain, glen and beach and was very knowledgeable about the place. She was also taking her time and aimed to do it in 3 weeks with some sight variations. She was very chatty and amusing. She also intended to camp here but could not see any flat ground so we headed off to a camp spot the 3 “Graham baggers” from Edinburgh just told me about. It was 2 km further up the track by a hidden footbridge to the south side over the river. It was a large spot easily big enough for 4-5 tents.  We pitched the tents here, with the entrances pointing west into the lee of the wind. This also meant the evening sun streamed into the open tent warming it. It was 1900 when the tents were pitched and by the time I had eaten I was too tired to write so fell asleep with the sun still up. 

051. My campsite in Cona Glen with the remnants of the Caledonian Pine forest across the river

Day 10. Cona Glen to Glenfinnan. 16 km. 6 hours.  470m up. 520m down. It was yet again a perfect morning with virtually total blue sky and a slight westerly breeze. I wrote first thing in the morning and was done by 0730 and then by the time I had breakfast, packed up and chatted with Nicole who was emerging from her tent it was 0930 by the time I set off. I continued up the track passing the last stand of older pines beside the river before reaching a stretch of tussock grasses on each side of the track. It was the perfect temperature for shirt sleeves rolled up and shorts. I felt quite euphoric and without a care in the world. Not even the impending climb worried me. Cona Glen was leaving a very favourable impression of me with its near pristine nature, varied woods and forests, beautiful river, gnarly craggy mountains and this perfect weather. 

052. Heading up Cona Glen in the morning with the rugged Ardgour mountains above the last stand of pines

053. Looking south from the pass to the mountains of Ardgour before the descent to Glenfinnan

After a good hours walk up the track it forked with one rustic branch going up the valley to the bowl at the end while another, a stalkers track really, slowly climbed diagonally up the north side of the valley wall to a surprisingly low pass, Bealach Allt na Cruaiche, 383m, which remained hidden until you nearly reached it. On the southside of the Cona Glen valley here was the impressive Druim Tarsuinn, 770m. It had a great gash in the side of it which divided the mountain from its neighbour and I remembered struggling up it a decade ago on another long walk. At the pass the terrain now descended just very slightly for the best part of 2 kilometres as it crossed a high bowl, almost a small hanging valley before it got to a lip above the descent to Glenfinnan. I passed Tom here as he was struggling with his lightweight shoes and sore feet. Luckily he had the option to go to his mothers in Inverness by train and change them out for a pair he was more accustomed to and then return. He had bags of time for his walk and intended to finish a couple of days after me. 

054. About to enter Glenfinnan with the mountains between it and Loch Arkaig to the north. On the left is Streap and on the right the massive Gulvain.

The descent was easy as the path was good and it soon became a small track which was built at least a decade ago to build and service a very modest and unobtrusive micro hydro scheme. There were many old pines on the other side of the ravine where the micro hydro was built and this muted the impact even further. I now followed the track down to the valley floor where the River Callop formed. On the other side was the busy Fort William to Mallaig road and beyond that two large mountains Streap and Gulvain. I passed the farm at the bottom on the valley floor and got to a parking place accessed by a track off the south side of the A830. 

055. Looking downstream from the footbridge over the River Callop as it enters Loch Shiel

There was a contentious foot bridge over the River Callop some 2 kilometres to the west of the parking place but it was apparently closed due to damage. It had been for 3 years now Forestry Scotland were promising to repair it but kept delaying the repair. The footbridge took one to the heart of Glenfinnan. The alternative was a walk along the main road which had a rough grassy verge and no pavement. The grapevine said that the bridge was crossable and Forestry Scotland had closed it to remove any liability. I decided to chance the footbridge as many others had done and set off on the quiet 2 kilometre walk along the forestry track to it. When I got to the turnoff there were so many signs up forbidding access it would have stopped the half hearted in their tracks. However the bulk of the CWT walkers walked round them onto the broadwalk. It was essentially just this southern broadwalk approach to the bridge which was the problem. In the winter of 2021 Loch Shiel flooded after heavy rain and coupled with a SW gale the waves crashed into the broadwalk. 98% of it was OK but 2% was damaged but intact. It was no hindrance at all to the determined hiker. What was a hindrance was the security fencing at the entrance to the bridge but it was easy to bypass it and clamber onto the bridge through the railings at the side and it looked a well trodden bypass. The bridge itself was solid and so was the very short broadwalk on the northside. Then there was the final obstacle of more security barriers to exit the northern broadwalk again on a well trodden route before all the warning signs on the north side. Someone had defaced one sign with a felt tip pen poking fun at Forest Scotland’s promise to repair the ridge and boardwalk but lacking any intention of actually doing it. 

056. The Glenfinnan Monument is 18 metres high and topped by a typical Highland who enrolled and fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 rebellion.

Within a few minutes I was at Glenfinnan. It was once a popular tourist stop to view the Glenfinnan Monument, a 18 metre high tower commemorating the Highlanders who enrolled and fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Catholic uprising of 1745. However Glenfinnan is now synonymous with the Glenfinnan Viaduct which was propelled to fame with the Harry Potter movies and instagram. Bus loads of tourists, of all nationalities, were stopping here and walking up to the viaduct.  I walked past the cafe to see if there were any CWT hikers here, but there were not so pushed on up the road to the west. 

057. The church at Glenfinnan is set with a magnificent backdrop of the mountains on each side of Loch Shiel behind it

I passed the dramatic, and significantly Catholic, Glenfinnan church. It was on a knoll with fantastic views down Loch Shiel and the mountains on each side. Some 10 minutes after the church was the Princes House Hotel where I had booked in and had a resupply box waiting. I figured after 4 nights camping I would relish a wash. It was a family run hotel with a retired Edinburgh couple in their 50’s. She was exceptionally welcoming and maternal and gave me a room with a bath. I needed it not only to cleanse myself but also to soothe my weary bones and my feet. I wallowed in the bath for an hour before going down for a great meal. The hotel was a little expensive but the service and ambience matched the price. After the meal I charged all my gadgets and wrote and updated the blog. Tomorrow I start the 4 days through the Rough Bounds of Knoydart to Kinlochhourn, arguably the finest section of the entire trip.

Day 11. Glenfinnan to A’Chuil Bothy. 21 km. 8 hours. 710m up. 660m down. I had the best nights sleep of the entire trip so far and woke refreshed. Breakfast was at 0080 and it was superb, with high quality ingredients. Every thing about the Princes House Hotel was great. I chatted a ittle with the owner how the whole Harry Potter and Hogwarts story had completely overwhelmed what was essentialy a small village. He said I woud see for myself if I took the “Viaduct Trail” from the station to the viaduct, which I intended to do anyway. Apparently the Hogwarts Express was due to cross the viaduct at 1045.

058. Looking down across the north end of Loch Shiel from the Viaduct Trail between the station and the viaduct

I left at 0930 with my heavy rucksack, restocked with another 6 kilos of food. It felt heavy as I climbed up to the station and found the trail between two railway carriages used for accommodation and a cafe. The trail contoured across the hilside to a magnificent viewpoint over the chruch and then Loch Sheil beyond. There were two such viewpoints and below the trail the birch woods were full of bluebells. It was a magnificent trail for well over a kilometre.

059. The viaduct at Glenfinnan made famous by the Harry Potter films has put the Glenfinnan Memorial into the shadows

I then came round a corner and saw the viaduct built well over 100 yers ago from concrete. The train was due in half and hour, so I was not going to wait. I had seen it before, a bit too close for comfort when I was wandering along the train track to Essan bothy a few years ago and it came round the corner. I could see the whites of the drivers eyes then. As I neared the viaduct there were more and more people on the hillside, many infront of tripods. The further I went the more people there were and I guess there must have been well over 1000 people on the hillside at the west end of the viaduct waiting for the Hogwart Express to arrive. As I went down to the base of the viaduct there were streams of people coming up for the train in 10 minutes.

060. The “Hogwarts Express” crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct at 1045 in the morning. It stopped here to allow 1000 spectators to view and photograph it.

I thought I was too cool for Harry Potter so ignored it all and carried on down to the base of the viaduct and then headed north under it on the tarmac road. After 5 minutes I heard the characteristic whistle of the stream train as it approached. It acurally stopped on the viaduct infront of the collected international audience on the hillside. It then built up a head of steam and belched it into the air in large plumes as it moved off. It was actually quite emotional to watch it and I now wished I was not to cool for Harry Potter and had waited with the hordes to get a ring side seat.

It was an easy walk for a good hour up to Corryhully Bothy, commonly known as the Electric Bothy as it had power. It was quite a rustic bothy despite the power with poor sleeping benches. It was well used by CWT walkers and also by people climbing the Munros just above it. I stopped at the bothy for a break as the day deterioated with mist appearing on the surrounding craggy summits. From the bothy there was well over an hours walk to a chink in the ramparts of mountaind which surrounded me. This chink was a high pass of about 500 metres. As I approached it on a good track the side of the valley encroached and funneled everything to the pass. The pass was between steep craggy buttressed mountains of Streap and Sgurr Thuilm, both of which I had previously climbed. The top of the pass was quite narrow but then it opened up onto a wetter tussock valley floor on the other side.

061. Looking north east down Gleann a’Chaorulinn valley towards Glen Pean after the pass.

From this wet tussock the barely visible path descended mre steeply into the valley below. It was a shallow U shaped valley with a stream meandering through a trench in the morraine on the valley floor. It looked straight out of a grography text book from an illustration about post glacial landscapes. Initially I went down the west side across wet ground frequently haviing to jump metre wide troughs of deep wet spagnum moss. It was quite slow going. Then the path crossed to the east side and back to the west on what looked like was the exploratory track of a machine which might construct a track soon. Probably for a micro hydro scheme as the valley was ripe for one. Eventually I ended up one the east side just as a ravine formed. The path on the east side was the wettest opart of the entire descent but it was too late to cross the stream in the ravine. A bit beyond was the rustic bridge with some planks of wood missing from the spans between to large iron girders. Last time I was at this bridge there were some university students diving in the deep pool under it doing a study on native freshwater mussels which were apparently found here in the River Pean.

062. Looking upstream from the old bridge over the River Pean on the approach to A’Chuil bothy.

I now headed up stream for 50 metres and then north through dark mossy spruce woods for 200 metres to reach a large forest track which went up Glen Pean. I however was going down the track through the forest for a kilometre before it slowly climbed a forested spur between Glen Pean and Glen Dessary. Here I could look east and see the very end of Loch Arkaig. Once over the spur between the valley I veered west up Glen Dessary still on the same track which contoured the hillside for 3 kilometres on a grassy path through the forest. Despite it being spruce there was a lot of birdsong which my app said was chaffinch. Eventually, with the odd glimpse across the valley to some gnarly rough munro mountains and the meandering River dessary on the valley floor, I reached the turn off for A’Chuil Bothy which was 200 metres below the track.

063. The walk along the forestry track heading west up Glen Dessarry towards A’Chuil bothy

There was a nice mother and son munro bagging team in one room and some noisy men from Bolton in the other. I thought it best I take the room with the Bolton men hopefull I would be able to understand them and hold my own. They turned out to be very nice guys, as were the mother and son from Ayrshire. A few other people came but they camped outside when they saw the bothy was half full. Later on in the evening the mother and son team lit a fire in the stove in their room and we all went through to chew the fat and tell some yarns. The 3 men from Bolton were great company and exactly what you wanted for a bothy evening with great banter, leg-pulling and humour.

Day 12. A’Chuil Bothy to Sourlies Bothy. 11 km. 4.5 hours. 330m up. 420m down. Considering I slept on the bothy floor it was a surprisingly good night. The mother and son team were already up and away to do another 2 munros leaving just the 3 men form Bolton. They were all heading home chuffed with what they had done of the last few days and still full of humour. Breakfast was quite raucous and good natured before we all packed and headed our various ways at 0900. I climbed back onto the track for a few hundred metres and then turned west towards the heart of Knoydart.

064. Leaving A’Chuil Bothy tucked away at the bottom of the forest to head further west up Glen Dessarry into Knoydart

The track descended slightly to the forest and the River Dessary. It now followed the river as it meandered across the forested valley floor for about 3 km. There were some lovely glades among the dark forest and occasional glimpses through the trees to the gnarly mountains here which rose steeply in buttresses of crags to the mist covered summits. Even with this mist I knew I was in some of the wildest mountains in Scotland. After an hour the track, now no more than a wet peaty route through the woods, climbed diagonally up the north side of the valley and burst out of the forest.

065. One of the many glades in the forest in Glen Dessarry as I head west towards Sourlies Bothy in Knoydart

2 speedy hikers from London overtook me here. They were heading for The Forge Pub at Inverie. It had great transport links for a long weekend tour with people getting off the train at Glenfinnan, walking 2 or 3 days to finish with a night at UK’s most remote pub, The Forge, and now community owned also, and then a boat across to Mallaig and home on the train again. As I slowly siddled round the side of upper Glenb Dessary valley I caught up with a young team of 8. They were new to hillwalking but were finding this trip eye opening and inspiring. There were also heading for The Forge this evening but I doubted they would get there. Soon after I passed them I reached the wet squelchy pass which was squezed between massive and imposing rocky mountains on each side, especially the north where 3 munos rose very steeply in ramparts of buttresses and back crags.

066. Looking up the slopes of Garbh Chioch Mhor, one of the more easterly Munros in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart

The descent down the other side was both pretty and dramatic with two lochs along the rocky valley floor. The path went round the south side of both lochs and each had a sandy beach at either end. I would not have been surprised if red throated divers nested here on some of the islets but saw none. At the end of the second loch I turned to take a photo and saw Nicole coming down the path. She had camped in a glade in the forest in Glen Dessary and I must have passed here in the morning. We chatted enthusiastically as the the young team of 8 caught up. The 10 of us then continued down the flatter valley floor where a small stream was forming.

067. Looking east up from the end of the slightly lower twin Lochan a’Mhain lochs just to the west of the pass down to Sourlies Bothy.

This more level valley came to a lip, like that on a hanging valley and we had to climb more steeply over a rocky spur to the north of where the stream dissapeared down a steep ravine. On the other side there was a more difficult descent, some on abrasive rock slabs where you had to trust the soles of your boots to grip, for nearly half and hour before we got to a wooden bridge over a side stream which had carved a deep slot.

On the other side of the bridge the descent was much easier. In the slightly hazy light I could see old lazy beds on the more gentle valley sides each side of the main Loch called Loch Nevis, which was a fjord-like inlet some 20 km long. The tide was out and there was a large beach at the head of the sea loch. I could just make out Sourlies bothy and a string of tents on the grassy foreshore in front of it. before long we were weaving a route across the boggy valley floor to reach the grassland around the bothy. Nicole stopped a few hundred metres before and put her tent up assuming the bothy would be full and not wanting to join the hamlet of tents already there. I went on to the Sourlies bothy itself and went in. I was the only one there so far so chose the best most secluded sleeping area behind the door.

068. The final few kilometres down Glen Finiskaig to Loch Nevis with Sourlies Bothy on the right hand side of the exposed sands.

The other 8 tents all belonged to a walking club from Milngavie and all but one of the occupants were away on the surrounding mountains collecting various munros. Before long the young team arrived and they decided, quite sensibily, to stay here rather than push on as they were not even half way and it was already 1430. A few other people passed through in the afternoon and I sat outside the bothy and held court as they all had a half hour break. Most, about 10 people, were going on to The Forge but a few, about 4, were doing the Cape Wrath Trail and were continueing to Barrisdale Bothy or camping en route to it. A few people stayed and by early evening the there were 18 tents in all plus 2 hikers joining me in the bothy. It was a beautiful evening and most people sat outside their tents enjoying the the sunset which was around 2100 now. Throughout this time the bothy remained as the mothership and all the campers came up to inspect it and see what was going on here so it was a sociable place. I finished the blog at 2100 and then sat outside for a bit until the darkness started to appear. It had been an easy day, one which I probably needed.

Day 13. Sourlies Bothy to Barrisdale Bothy. 16 km. 6 hours. 560m up. 560m down. I did not sleep well at all on the narrow bed. At one stage I even fell off the side of the bed deep in the night while asleep and crashed 2 feet down onto the concrete floor hurting my foot. To an onlooker it would have been quite comical. I think I woke up the other 3 in the room as two enquired about the comotion. We all got up around 0730 and I had breakfast outside on the bench after removing 3 ticks I must have picked up yesterday.

069. Outside Sourlies Bothy which has spaces for about 6 people to sleep inside so most camp outside.

After breakfast I chatted with two young girls who were walking the trail from Glenfinnan to the Forge at Inverie. One was a doctor and she had just had lymes disease so I was quizzing her about it. She said most doctors still dont take it seriously and she had stressed that she needed antibiotics to treat it. From them I went over to the large group from Milngavie. They were mostly about my age and very friendly. I was offered a coffee by Wendy and a seat by someone else. They all just finished 2 quite hard munro and corbett bagging and were now waiting for a boat to come and pick them up. They were a really interesting group. One was a professor, one was an artist and one was a farmer and I am sure all the others had interesting jobs. The conversation was great and I realised I missed an opportunity to socialise with them. I left about 1000 after the coffee and an hour’s chat. 

070. The exposed sands at the head of Loch Nevis by Sourlies Bothy. When it is like this it allows you to walk round the headland to reach the Carnach River.

By the time I left the tide was out enough I could walk along the exposed beach to avoid going over the short ridge. As I set off Nicole appeared and we walked together along the beach and then up the estuary of the River Carnach to the new bridge. The estuary was quite wet and even the short tidal grasses which would produce sea pinks were wet. There was a herd of deer grazing grasses above the tidal zone near the bridge. 

Once on the west side of the river we walked upstream past some ruins and towards the very gnarly Ben Aden, 887m. It was only a corbett but one of the most impressive corbetts in Scotland with steep rocky buttresses all the way to the top. The River Carnach flowed in a more rocky bed with fabulous pools and small cascades over steps. One of the pools was perhaps 5 metres deep and crystal clear so you could see each stone in the bottom of the pool. As we neared the base of Ben Aden it reared up above us like a huge tsunami of stone about to break. There seemed no easy way up. We walked on a bit more just before the Carnach entered a deep gorge like a ravine and had a bite to eat. 

071. Walking up the Carnach River towards the huge looming spectre of Ben Aden.

After lunch I headed off as Nicole picked her way over the steep rocky path. It was slow going as the gorge got steeper and steeper. The trees here were just coming into leaf and were mostly oak, alder, birch and even holly. Beneath them on the wood floor was covered in bluebells and primroses with the occasional patch of wood anemones. It was very pretty but quite rough.

072. In the deciduous woods of birch, hazel, oak and holly the ground was covered in bluebells and primroses.

It eventually opened up on the west side of Ben Aden when the mountain ended in a wall which plunged into the river above a sandy area. Looking back at where I had come from, the valley looked mythical like Mordor. Here the path climbed a spur on the west side on a stalkers  path originally built from stones for ponies. I zig zagged up it to enter a higher hidden valley which was quite flat for at least a kilometre. I had a choice here to go off piste up the steep hillside meandering between the rocky crags to reach a high stalkers path near the pass I needed to go over or follow the valley for the good kilometre and then climb steeply up a rough path to reach the same stalkers path just halfway up the mountain. I chose the latter and I had done the first 6 years ago and it was tricky. 

073. The wall at the bottom of the west ridge if Ben Aden where it drops into the upper River Carnach where there is a sandy beach

The valley was easy but a bit wet, however I felt I was not gaining anything. Then at the end of the valley where two streams met by a deep pool a tiny faint track headed steeply up the hillside. I followed it in a series of peaty zig-zags climbing for half an hour and gaining some 150 metres until I met the stalkers track I was aiming for. It came from the eastern end of Loch Quoich which I could now just see further up the valley of the River Carnach. Once on the stalkers track the going became much easier as it went up a stable gradient for a short hour to the Mam Unndalain pass at about 550m. Rocky mountains rose up to 900 metres each side of me but the tops were lost in the mist which had hung around all day. 

074. Looking east from the pass between Sourlies and Barrisdale bothies to the small Lochan nan Breac and Loch Quoich just visible in the distance.

The descent down the other side was easy as it was all on the stalkers path. Initially it zig-zagged down the steeper head wall until it got to the bottom of a bowl where a stream formed. The path now followed the east side of the stream down a grassy hillside towards a small birch forest. There were bumblebees hopping from purple lousewort to lousewort already collecting nectar which I could see on their legs. As the path rounded a corner Loch Barrisdale, another sea loch,  came into view with the large beach covered in the high tide. It was a wild and dramatic sight and in the overcast sky worthy of a browned Victorian oil painting. 

075. Coming down from the pass towards Barrisdale Bothy with the sea loch of Loch Hourn

In another half hour I was just finishing the descent and about to cross the valley floor to the collection of buildings where there was a bothy belonging to Barrisdale Estate. There were already 4 tents here and two older men from Cumbernauld in the bothy. I took a bunk in the room with the two guys. In the other room there were apparently 3 women from England but they were out hillwalking. I chatted with the two men from Cumbernauld for an hour when Nicole arrived. She took the last bed in the mens room as it was the lower bunk. It was quite a sociable evening in the main room which had electric light. In fact the bothy even had a flushing toilet and water tap above a Belfast sink. It was one of the more salubrious bothies and we were expected to make a donation, but nobody carries cash anymore. By 2200 everyone had gone to bed leaving the main kitchen room devoid of character without a stove or fire and people.

Day 14. Barrisdale Bothy to Allt a’Choire Reidh. 16 km. 6 hours. 720m up. 450m down. The bothy had 2 rooms, each with 3 bunks. I slept in a room with 4 people, including the two men from Cumbernauld. I slept well on a lower bunk and rose quite early with the two Cumbernauld men, who were also doing the Cape Wrath Trail. There were about 10 people in tents and they came in and out to collect water, charge gadgets on the single socket or just chat. It was a very sociable place. I chatted to a civil servant from London and two German lawyers for a couple of hours which included a coffee the Germans gave me. I also chatted with the French estate manager and a gamekeeper from Zimbabwe. I managed to pay my £5 bothy fee by card in the adjacent estate office. Apparently the estate was 13,000 acres and had 260 stags and 340 hinds on it. It was owned by a Dutch couple who the manager admired and liked. By the time I left it was already 1030. It was my last easy day for a while.

076. Looking across the exposed sands of Barrisdale Bay on Loch Hourn to the hugely impressive massif of Ladhar Bheinn, 1020m, the Queen of knoydart.

The weather was overcast but the cloudbase was above 1000 metres so all the summits were clear and there were patches of sunlit hillside where a break in the cloud allowed it. It was wind still and perfect for shorts and shirt sleeves as I left. I walked down the road past the estate lodge and then along the most beautiful shoreline road for a further kilometre. It was grassed over and twisted along the top of a stone wall next to the green tidal grasses. I had a skip in my step and felt euphoric as I looked across the expanse of shimmering wet sand to the retreating sea, as the tide was going out. There were magnificent views to the Queen of Knoydart, namely the steep and craggy Ladhar Bhienn 1020m, across the sands of the bay and a superb view down past 3 islets to the rest of Loch Hourn towards the Sound of Sleat with Beinn Sgritheall, 974m, dominating the northern side. Waders and oystercatchers were combing the newly exposed sand and mud for small crustaceans and worms. I could have sat there all day and watched the tide go fully out and then come back in again.

077. Looking west down Loch Hourn from the first climb on the track and path to Kinlochhourn

 

But I had to move on east up the southern shore of Loch Hourn for about 10 km. It started with a short climb up the stalkers path which then levelled off and slowly descended back to the sea. At the narrows of Coalas Mor the water was flowing out of the tip of the loch above in a tidal flow. I saw an otter here swimming back to shore after hunting in the current. Across the other side of the loch on the craggy north side was the most magnificent native forest mostly of deciduous trees like birch and alder. The hillside was peppared in lime green copses. On the south side there were also significant stretches of forest with all sorts of native trees and some old pines. 

078. A last look at Ladhar Bhienn before she dissappears from view on the track to Kinlochhourn

079. The narrows on Loch Hourn at Caolas Mor where I saw the otter swimming at the edge of the current caused by the ebbing tide

Some 2 hours after leaving Barrisdale Nicole appeared. She was a late starter but had caught me up as I was ambling and taking photographs. We reached the remote and now abandoned farm of Runival at the same time. We soon caught two plump Irish brothers who were new to hiking and struggling with ailments. After Runival the path climbed over a spur as the shoreline route was blocked by crags which plunged into the water. As soon as the path reached the shoreline it climbed over another 100 metres high spur. It was taxing and hot in the warm afternoon. On the other side of the second spur was a verdant alluvial fan where a small stream came down to the fjord-like loch. Here there was a house which was just recently abandoned and many stone walls of old croft houses from when this was a viable community 150 years ago. I left Nicole now and strode off down the lochside path which was almost an old cart track along the shoreline. I could see quite a few dead guillemots in the seaweed and assumed that either bird flu or fishermens insatiable greed to harvest their food which was responsible. At the head of the loch there were many feral rhododendron, some in purple flower now. Just beyond was the hamlet of Kinloch Hourn and the burgeoning team room and bed and breakfast business which had grown since I was last here. However it was shut on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and today being Tuesday meant no cake and coffee.

080. The last 2 kilometres to Kinlochhourn go on an old rustic cart track between the abandoned hamlet of Skiary and Kinlochhourn

 

I decided to continue for another 2 hours and eat into some of tomorrows ardous day. The route led me futher up the road to eventual civilization at Loch Garry some 40 km away.  But after a half km I took a track to the north over the river. It soon went past Kinloch Hourn Lodge, A small Victorian hunting lodge with a few out of character extensions. It was surrounded by an arboretum which had an eclectic mix of trees. Unfortunately there were many vast Leylandii and even bigger eucalyptus trees which dominated the trees round the lodge and made it less than salubrious. It was a strange choice for the original lodge owner to plant these some 100-150 years ago. 

081. Looking down Loch Hourn from the track heading north from Kinlochhourn to Allt A’Choire Reidh where I camped

The path went right past the house and then up a steep rough track under a line of pylons. It climbed steeply gaining 200 metres in a thigh pumping half hour. At the top however it levelled off and I was rewarded with a superb view down Loch Hourn. The path now veered to the north and then north east as it skirted the base of a corbett mountain and entered a high mountain valley down which the Allt a’Choire Reidh lazily tumbled out of a mountain bowl. There were a couple of campsites here and an old shed which looked like it belonged on an unkept allotment. The two Cumbernauld men were in it and I chatted briefly with them before putting my tent up beside the stream. I was not at all envious of their shed with its broken floor. Half an hour later Niciole arrived and camped on the other tent spot on the other side of the stream. With the sun warming my tent I went in to prepare supper and write. With the tent zipped up the temperature soon rose as the sun heated it like a greenhouse. It was a lovely spot to camp and I hoped the gluggle of the water would lull me to sleep. It had been a great day, and the last of my 4 easier shorter Knoydart days which luckily did not see any bad weather. In fact, of my 14 days so far only two, one each side of Loch Dochard, have had poor weather. 

082. My Macpac Minaret tent on the grassy bank of the Allt a’Choire Reidh burn between Kinlochhourn and Shiel Bridge

Day 15. Allt a’Choire Reidh to Morvich. 17 km. 7 hours. 550m up. 850m down. There was an outside tap at the closed Lochhournhead tearoom. I assumed it was mains supply so I filled my bottle and had a drink. It was only afterwards someone pointed out to me there was a faded notice saying “Not Drinking Water”. It must be the roof supply in a tank for cleaning and watering plants in the courtyard, as even Scotland gets its drought spells.  I thought nothing of it as I had tasted much worse. However that evening about 6 hours after drinking it some rumblings started. I got sick twice and spent much of the night awake. When I fell asleep at 0500 I did not feel well and in the morning felt ever tired and lacklustre. However I managed to get up at 0730 and pack up. It was overcast and rain threatened and was also forecast for later in the day.

083. My trusty old Pod rucksack on the climb up to the Bealach Choire Mhalagain with The Saddle and the Forcan Ridge just showing left of centre

I immediately crossed the stream I was camped beside and started walking round a spur which would take me into the adjacent side valley to the north and up to the pass. Even after a few steps I knew it would be a long day as I felt tired with stiff joints. Luckily the path was easy and the gradient gentle as I climbed. One reaching the next burn the Allt Coire Mhalagain coming down from from the pass I was going up the path either vanished or I lost it. I crossed the burn and had a much needed rest and then started up the west side of the burn. The pass, Bealach Coire Mhalagain 701m, was far ahead of me up the steepening valley and I could see the whole route up it. On the west side of the pass was the enormous, craggy, convoluted mountain called The Saddle, one of the most iconic on the west coast of Scotland. This bastion of harder rock had resisted erosion better than its neighbours and now stands proud atop a series of ramparts looking like something from the Black Cuillins on Skye.

The haul up to the pass was long and slow for me and I had to rest a few times to gather my strength and another time to throw up my breakfast and hot chocolate. I don’t think anything else I would eat would stay down and was not particularly hungry anyway. As I rested once I saw the red jacket and blue rucksack cover of Nicole far behind and she soon caught me up nearer the pass. There was a small lochan at the pass but it was in the full blast of the colder wind to stop even for a rest so we continued. The route sidled across the top of the next corie without losing height and beneath a great rock slab on The Saddle for a kilometre to gain the east ridge, the infamous Forcan Ridge of The Saddle.  There were two possible routes: a lower off-piste one which Nicole took and the one which I took. My path involved a slight climb towards The Saddle where there was a very rough dry stone dyke which contoured round the mountainside. The path went immediately above the dyke and I kept wondering why it was built some 150-200 years ago. Both routes took the same time and we ended up on the Forcan ridge of The Saddle at the same time. I needed a rest here while Nicole continued on.

084. Looking north from the Bealach Coire Mhalagain near the bottom of the Forcan Ridge to the Five Sisters of Kintail across the Glen Shiel Valley

There was a birds eye view here of Gen Shiel and on the other side of this deep valley rose the iconic Five Sisters of Kintail. In the valley below was the site of a famous battle, the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, where the Jacobites, who were part of an alliance of forces including Spain at this time, were beaten. From here there was also a great view looking up the jagged Forcan Ridge, which I climbed a few years ago as part of 9 munros in a long day with my mate, Grant Watkins, from Skye. 

085. Looking back up to The Saddle from the meeting of the 3 waters on its North side in Gleann Undarlain near Shiel Bridge

Previously I had gone straight down the steep head wall of Coire Caol but it was covered in slabs and one had to thread a route. In my ginger shape I decided to follow the longer path round the eastern ridge of this valley side to a saddle at 500 metres and then drop down to the valley floor from here. It was much easier this way and there was even a path. Once on the floor of Glen Caol there was a nice footpath through the knee high heather to reach the junction of 3 mountain valleys. As I looked back to the south and The Saddle up these 3 valleys I could truly see what an impressive complex of ridges, crags, and buttresses this massif was. It was perhaps its best side. I now had to cross the 3 burns, below their confluence, which in these dry times was quite easy, to reach a track. Just 3 kilometres down the increasingly deciduous track was the small hamlet of Shiel Bridge. There was a small campsite here where there was a cluster of lightweight walkers tents from Cape Wrath Trail hikers, who were now sitting on benches chewing the fat. I however was at the other campsite some 5 kilometres away as they accepted my resupply box.

086. Heading down the increasingly deciduous Gleann Unndalain towards Shiel Bridge.

 

I walked a few hundred metres and had to stop again to gather strength. I was not convinced anything I ate would stay down so I had nothing but was very thirsty. I decided to plug on through the hamlet and onto the busy A87 road. I had to walk about a good kilometre on the verge beside the pavement until I reached the Kintail Lodge Hotel on the shores of Loch Alsh. The road was noisy and the traffic fast and it was a relief to pass the old disused boat on the shore line and the hotel where I could cut off and follow the old road, now a overgrown lane, along the coast to reach a cafe, previously called the Jack-O-Bite and now the Pitstop. Nicole was still here dealing with a resupply box she posted to herself in which a tin of mackerel had burst, spilling its contents onto everything and then rotting for the last week. I managed a cake and coke to settle my stomach and then continued east through the rest of the small hamlet and onto a quiet country road past cottages and flat grazing fields to Morvich Campsite.

087. The moored boat on the southern tip of Loch Alsh by the Kintail Lodge Hotel signalled the end of the day.

 

I got there at 1800 and put my tent up at the designated pitch. There were a few other hikers here but there was not the same atmosphere I had seen at the Shiel Bridge campsite which was full of banter. However this one had a washing machine, common room and non-tokened hot showers. I had a fantastic shower to wash the dirt off accumulated since Glenfinnan and then put my clothes in the washing machine. I sat in the adjacent common room while they washed and fell asleep a few times. There was a drying room here too, so after hanging everything up I went to bed without eating. I was simply too tired to eat anyway. I slept magnificently but realised that I would have to rest the next day. This had enormous implications as I was on a tight schedule with commitments when I returned. I would have to cancel all my commitments and continue the walk because 95% of a walk is not the same satisfaction as completing it. 

 

Back

Day 01. Toward to Inverchaolain. 13 km. 3.5 hours.  260m up. 260m down.  I seemed to have missed nearly every connection on my way from Edinburgh to Toward by train, ferry and bus, often arriving just after it had departed, entailing nearly an hour’s wait. Eventually I got the bus at Dunoon and travelled south to the lighthouse. Looking out of the bus window one could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Rivera with the newly cut lawns, colourful spring blossoms and the palm like cabbage trees. It was a lovely trip to the bottom of this peninsula on Cowal. 

001. The start of the “West Scotland Trail” is Toward Lighthouse seen here. Beside it looking like a chapel is the fog horn.

The lighthouse is now private but the beacon still flashes. Beside the beautifully maintained light was the foghorn house. It looked like an old chapel and was also well maintained. I spent a while here in the glorious sun which was enhanced by the white buildings like a Greek Island village. The tide was out so the shore line was large. Beyond it was the Firth of Clyde which stretched far to the south. It contained a few islands and just across a sound was the Isle of Bute and rising above that was the jagged skyline of Arran, the largest of the Clydes islands. It was a calming sight on this lovely spring afternoon. 

002. Looking across to the Isle of Bute from the beaches near Toward Castle

I left the lighthouse and headed west along the road. There was no pavement but it was a quiet road with little traffic. On my seaward side was a string of beaches which the low tide had exposed. The sand was still wet and glistening in the sun. As I wandered down the distinctive black and white Calmac ferries went between the Mainland and Bute as sailboats tacked to avoid them. Before long I passed the upmarket Toward Castle Hotel before reaching a bay with a farm steading which once belonged to the Castle but was now falling into disrepair with its red sandstone crumbling. There was a small sailing club here too.

003. Looking onto the leafy Ardyne burn from the old stone bridge over it.

The road now went inland for a couple of kilometres past green fields for grazing livestock. It was mostly ewes and their lambs in them now. The lambs were full of energy on this easy spring day. Beside the road the verges were covered in dandelions and bluebells. It was a very peaceful walk and it took me inland until the road swung to the west and crossed the beautiful Ardyne Burn on an old stone bridge. The water gently flowed under a lime green canopy almost fluorescent in the late afternoon sun. Just beyond the burn was the very well kept Knockdow House which looked newly restored. There were two ponds in front of it with Japanese style bridges over inlets. It was made to soothe the soul. I noticed each pond had a pair of little grebes on them and they would no doubt nest here. I stayed admiring the ponds for a while before walking another km until I reached a farm track which headed north past Gortansaig Farm. This track went up the hill, past the farm, for a good kilometre passing a couple of gates until the track split. There was a great view here across the sound to Bute and Arran beyond.

004. Knockdow House lies in a prime position beside 2 tranquil ponds and beside the Ardyne Burn.

As the track split it left the rough hill grazing and went into the forest. The track was grassed over and very easy to walk along as it contoured the hillside. There were frequent small streams coming out of the forest above me with crystal clear water. Each side of the stream bed was peppered with bright cream coloured clumps of primrose. This track was never used for vehicles and it would have been possible to camp on it as it was also sheltered. Frequently there were breaks in the forest where there were spectacular views down to Loch Striven and across to the Kyles of Bute. I sauntered along here noticing how the birch trees were about to explode into their lime green spring colours. It was a lovely walk and very gentle and after some 5 kilometres the track started to descend to Loch Striven and Inverchaolain.

005. Looking up Loch Striven from the high forest balcony track before the descent to the hamlet of Inverchaolain.

The descent was also easy on curved bends with the forest encroaching on each side. In places I noticed the gorse was 5 metres high. Soon it will encroach on this part of the track  making it difficult, but for now it was a joy. After a few bends the track disgorged me in the grazing fields of Inverchaolain farm. There was a burn here and I had previously thought about camping here. As I crossed the bridge I saw a nice spot just below the bridge on the north side. But first I wanted to see the historic church, which was 100 years old. It in turn was on the site of a few previous churches dating back to when this hamlet of perhaps 5 houses now had nearly 1000 people living here 200 years ago. I walked around the church and then returned to the campspot. 

006. The small church at Inverchaolain have a long and interesting history

I was in a dilemma as to which tent to take. I have 3-4 light or ultralight tents which I have used extensively in the past, even on the Cape Wrath Trail but decided to go for a 4 season tent as there would be so much camping on this trip. I took my Macpac Minaret as I knew even in a late seasonal storm it would look after me. Despite the extra weight I was glad I made that choice as I quickly put the tent up and went in after getting water from the main burn. The tent was roomy and I could sit up in it and write and it was quite cosy when the gas stove was working. Supper was Fish and Potato in Parsley sauce by Expedition Foods as I had previously eaten this year for 60 days in a row. It was as delicious as I remembered. By 2300 I had done the blog and photos and settled down in the cosy strong tent. 

007. My first camp at Inverchaolain hamlet was beside the burn near its tidal estuary.

 

Day 02. Inverchaolain to Glenbranter. 29 km. 10 hours.  630m up. 610m down.  It was a beautifully still morning when I woke to the song of a willow warbler. On emerging from the tent I saw it on a nearby shrub beside the water. I had an unhurried breakfast and set off a little past 0900. I walked back up past the church and then soon after turned east up a track which went up the valley on the north side of the Inverchaolain Burn. It was warm and I soon had to stop and take my jacket off. The climb was sustained but gentle and after half an hour I reached the point where it levelled off and contoured across the hillside. It was a lovely walk in the sun sauntering across the level hillside looking at the regeneration taking place now it was deer fenced. Unfortunately the whole area was planted in very small spruce which would soon dominate and consume the burgeoning native woodland. I passed a small pond with some noisy resident geese and many mallard before the track descended to the burn on the valley floor. 

I could see the climb loom above me on the other side as I dropped down to the water. There was a ruined bridge, smashed in a seasonal torrent, but the water level was low now and it was easy to skip across and start the climb. It was a slog with the 18 kg backpack across the tussock and heather. It was entirely off piste with no hint of a path. It was also planted with spruce so in 10 years it will be impossible to come this way and a detour further up the valley would be necessary. As I climbed the view over the valley opened up with Loch Striven at the bottom. After an hour of slog I finally made it to the saddle. I thought I would have to climb the deer fence, but there was a locked gate and someone had lifted it off its hinges.   

008. Looking down the greening Glen Chaolain with Loch Striven in the distance

On the other side it was surprisingly rugged with a craggy mountain to the side of the pass. There was no path but I could see down into the forest where there was a track on each side. I had to take the northerly one. It was rough coming down the fence line and along the side of the forest. It was warm out of the wind here. Soon I met an abandoned grassed over track and followed it down to the main track. There was a sign here saying the path I had just done was the “Coffin Road” I later found out it was to carry coffins over to Inverchaolain Church and not the other way round. The track now descended easily for 5 odd km to cross a dilapidated bridge over the Little Eachaig river.

009. Looking back to the saddle with the “coffin road” over to Glen Chaolain with the craggy Black Craig, 522m, to the left

The route now crossed the Dunoon to Portavadie road and went back into the forest which was being harvested. A bit beyond the forest disappeared and then I was down to the flat alluvial valley floor. There were some lovely Victorian villas here in fertile gardens bright with Rhododendrons.

010. One of the lovely Victorian villas in the Invereck valley

Unfortunately the route now followed the very quiet road for 3 km until it reached the bridge over the River Massen. I left the road here and followed the gentle River Eachaig along its sandy bank covered in beech, which were just coming into leaf with a lime green hue to them. This took me to the gate of Benmore Gardens. It was open so I went through to the avenue of some 49 huge Redwood trees. It was an impressive sight and each year the 130 year old trees grow a bit more. In 500 years they will be venerable giants as this climate suits them. I also wandered up to the pond with its acer trees and Japanese bridges. I left the gardens past a display of stunning Rhododendrons in flower and out through the north entrance which looked like it was always open. Within the garden grounds is an Outdoor Centre for school children and it occupies the Victorian mansion to which the gardens once belonged and this probably ensures the North Gate stays open. 

011. The avenue of nearly 50 giant redwood trees in the Benmore Botanical Gardens.

Previously I had camped just beyond the Benmore farm at the start of the road up the west side of Loch Eck. However this time I wanted to do a few more kilometres in order to reduce tomorrow’s hike so continued up past my previous campsite, a couple of holiday parks on the other side of the River Eachaig to reach Loch Eck. I was already tired and the soles of my feet were sore so the new stony track of large chippings hurt my feet. After half an hour I reached a small beach and shed where the Outdoor Centre launched their canoes from. An hour later along the stone track with a few camping spots I reached Bernice, an old community with a small graveyard and a restored house. I could have camped here but despite my tiredness I became greedy and decided to push on to the end of Loch Eck. 

012. Looking north up Loch Eck from the southern end. It is about 10 km long.

The track now became much softer underfoot and was grassed over in the middle. It climbed slightly above the loch and followed a quiet shaded route through the mature conifer forest. There were many small streams emerging from the forest, passing under the road and continuing through the moss covered forest to the loch. There were a few places to camp but they were not the best. However, the tranquil calm forest gave me a second wind and I santered on. Occasionally there was a recent landslip where trees and soil had slipped onto the road. There was a route through the trees but it was sobering to see how increased rainfall is going to affect the landscape as the climate warms. 

013. The tranquil track through the mature forest from Bernice to the north end of Loch Eck

At the end of the loch I could find nowhere to camp so decided to push on to the grassy fields I could see around Glenbranter a couple of kilometres ahead. I had walked far longer than I intended and was now quite tired. I hoped I would not suffer tomorrow. However as I reached Glenbranter I crossed a small bridge over the Glen Shellish Burn and spotted a superb camp spot on the other side. I retraced my steps over the bridge and went through a gate into a field. Here beside the burn under some overhanging beech branches and on sandy grass was a level tent area. I pitched the tent quickly and took water from the burn and then collapsed into the small cosy tent to eat, write and sleep. 

014. My beautiful second campsite on the bank of the Shellish Burn in the early morning as the frost clears

 

Day 03. Glenbranter to Lochgoilhead. 14 km. 4.5 hours.  410m up. 420m down. The sun was already warming the tent and it was melting the small frost in the field as soon as it touched it. As I was having breakfast a woodpecker was hammering on a nearby tree in short bursts every minute. I packed up and managed to get away quite at 0830, relatively early considering how tired I was yesterday. Initially my route took me across the Glen Shellish burn again and then past some magnificent conifers to Glenbranter. The hamlet was a collection of old wooden forestry houses and the local forestry yard. Perhaps 30 people lived here in 12 houses. It was a peaceful community with bird feeders in every garden. At the far end I crossed the River Cur, the main river of the valley as it flowed south towards Loch Eck. Just after the bridge the road to the village road met the A815 road between Dunnon and Strachur on Loch Fyne. I had to follow this quiet but fast road south for a good half kilometre until I crossed it to reach a track heading up through the forest on the SE side of Bienn Lagan. 

015. The climb up the east side of Beinn Lagan through the mature conifers took me to a saddle where I turned east

It was an easy climb up the track past some mature forests. Through the trees I could see a small hamlet which I soon climbed above as I went up the side valley on the easy track. Here again there was the odd small landslide from a recent Biblical downpour, some with trees still growing from the landslide. It was warm and still in the forest and the cold morning was now a distant memory as I climbed for a short hour up to the saddle. I noted I was on the Cowal Trail for much of this climb and continued to be for the rest of the day to Lochgoilhead. 

At the saddle A smaller track headed east between small trees regenerating naturally, mostly birch with some feral spruce. As I walked up the track a flock of chaffinches led the way for many hundreds of metres skipping excitedly some 10 metres in front of me. As the lovely trail approached a block of spruce across the valley floor it abruptly stopped and turned into a small path. It had the signs for the “Cowal Way” on posts. The path went along the north of the forest to a small rise which was essentially the watershed. At the top I saw Curra Lochain, about a kilometre long and quite narrow. On its south bank the block of spruce continued but then the hill side rose quite steeply with scattered crags up to the summit of Bienn Bheula, 779m. It was a typical Arrochar mountain with steep grass and black crags. I found a rock to sit on and watched about 10 Canada Geese swim on the lochain as I ate lunch. 

016. My lunch stop on the path to the north of the peaceful lo Curra Lochain with the craggy Bienn Bheula, 779m, rising beyond

I continued down the northside of the lochain on the small path to the end and then veered to the north away from the outlet stream following the small path down under crags and into the forest. It descended more steeply in some curving bends for nearly half an hour to spill me onto a large track in the newly harvested and open hillside covered in the debris of harvest. If I looked back to the saddle I had just come from I could see the outlet stream cascading over the Sruth Ban falls as it tumbled across slabs. While in the other direction I could look down to see Loch Goil and beyond that the most famous of all the Arrochar mountains, namely the Cobbler. I followed the large track down for 3 km as it descended to the shores of Loch Goil. 

As I neared the sea I realised there were two parts to Lochgoilhead. across the water on the east side were small white villas, surrounded by shrubs, along the shoreline. While on the west side there were 2-300 chalets or mobile homes arranged on 2-3 terraces. It all started in the 1960’s when a local farming couple discovered tourists were more profitable than sheep and put up a few static caravans. In the next 50 years it grew, and bought Drimsynie House and Estate, the local hotel and also a few caravan parks elsewhere in Argyll. They were all a blot on the serenity of the landscape only tempered slightly by the shrubs and trees which were growing between them. It must be a terrible eyesore for the owners of the more refined villas on the east side to look across the loch onto. 

017. Looking down Loch Goil, an arm of Loch Long, from near Lochgoilhead on a sunny afternoon

It was early afternoon now and I decided to see if the heart of this holiday empire, the Drimsynie Hotel, had a room. I did not so much need a wash, comfortable bed or food as a place to charge my gadgets and somewhere to write comfortably. They did have a room and by 1500 I was in the shower washing my barely dirty clothes. I managed to catch up with the blog writing in the comfort of my room while a small rain shower passed. 

Day 04. Lochgoilhead to Upper Glenfyne. 31 km. 9.5 hours.  570m up. 410m down. It was a beautiful morning with a touch of ground frost lingering in the shade. The hotel served breakfast at 0800 but it was extra and I already had some granola so I ate in my room and was off at 0730. The route I plotted took me along the loch front to the main square of the village. The tide was out and the sun made the wet beach glow with a peach hue. Beyond the beach the loch was still like a mirror. The square has a shop and an open area and I could imagine the villagers gathering here to relax, chat and spread local news. The holiday park did not look too bad from here so the village left a great impression on me on this sunny morning. My route now followed the Cowal Way past an arboretum of magnificent conifers to reach fields with ewes and lambs. I followed the track round to the road and then crossed the small and quite slow Goil River over a picturesque old stone bridge. The beech trees on each side of the bridge were vibrant green with new leaves starting to unfurl.

018. The beach at Lochgoilhead in the early morning with the tide out

I now turned away from this lovely village and went upstream on a riverside path for 3 km. I think the path was part of a community funded project. It was a joy to follow with the forest on my left and the river or its floodplain on the right. It took me past a couple of houses and then led me to the minor road up Hell’s Glen. The native oak trees on each side of the road were dripping in moss, testament to the rainfall here, but the leaf buds were yet to open. It was a very quiet road with perhaps a car every 10 minutes and because of the nature of the road they were driving very slowly. I passed an old spring which had been in use for centuries called Moses Well, and then the road, the B839, entered a coniferous plantation. There were quite a few trees here which had been blown over this winter. The roots were shallow of this poor ground but the plates were large with some 5 metres in diameter. Occasionally a row had blown over and the root plates were still joined and formed a continual 5 metre high earthen wall. 

019. Looking across Loch Fyne from the highpoint of the B839 road

At the top there was a great view down to Loch Fyne and across to Inveraray, which was white in the sun.I could even see the childhood home of my father on the hill above the town. The descent was quick and I was distracted so missed my turning to the left which would have led me to a farm and then the shore. Instead I reached the junction of the quiet B839 with the fast A815 at a place called Tinkers Heart. I decided to cross the road and then bash my way through the boggy forest to the shore of Loch Fyne. I knew from my last trip here there was a lovely shoreline track and had planned to follow it. The bushwack took nearly half an hour but I eventually reached the shore and stopped for a break. 

020. The imposing Ardkinglas house on the shores of Loch Fyne near Cairndow.

The next 3 kilometres to Ardkinglas house were idyllic. To my left was the loch with its shallow stoney coast line full of interest. There were many wildfowl and geese and the excited chatter of oyster catchers. There was the occasional house beside the track on the uphill side but it was mostly woods. As I reached the large imposing Ardkinglas house I noticed there had been some lovely specimen trees which had been blown down including beech and fir. Ardkinglas house was very characterful and imposing and its gardens were stunning. I went round past the old walled garden, green houses and orchard and these needed a bit of love but were interesting. I crossed a bridge over the main burn called the Kinglass Water and came to a paved road which I followed to Cairndow. Just on the other side of the road were some famous gardens and a magnificent arboretum with the tallest trees in Britain at 210 feet. I made a note to visit when I am passing here next. My arrival in Cairndow was heralded by the lovely octagonal church and its tower, a landmark. A bit beyond in this sleepy village was the old Stagecoach Inn where I intended to eat, as I had last time I walked here, It was open and serving so I went in for lunch.

021. The Octagonal church and its tower at Cairndow.

Previously I had to walk along the verge of the main road to the head of the loch but a few years ago the Caindow Community created the “Shepherdess Path” well above the road on the wooded hillside. It was a lovely path for 3 km with great views up Glen Fyne where I was going and also back down the loch. After a very nice short hour I came down to the road bridges over the river and the small private road up the glen. I passed a small brewery called Fyne Ales and went into its shop and cafe. It was full of genteel, hairy real ale aficionados discussing hop varieties with the staff. It did serve coffee and snacks, but I did not see any. I felt out of place with my large rucksack so I walked through and out of the back door. 

022. A Deer farm on the valley floor just up Glen Fyne from the brewery

My route now took me up the glen on an empty private tarmac road for 5 km. As I wandered up the road past deer farms and Highland cows with huge protective horns and young calves I noticed how craggy the mountains were becoming. Before a hamlet of just 4 houses I crossed a bridge over the River Fyne to the north west side. The houses looked like a smallholding and estate workers for the Ardkinglas Estate. After the houses the road reverted to a track and entered an area where there was a lot of regenerating native woodland. This was largely achieved by fencing it off so deer and sheep could not nibble the young saplings which would sprout from seeds dormant in the soil. There was a lot of alder and hazel in the young trees and of course silver birch. The track continued up the glen which was getting more and more imposing. I felt I was entering the mountains now after 3 days of preamble. I could see snowfields higher up. After 5 km the track reached a newly restored shepherd’s house which looked lovely through the windows. 

023. This part of Loch Fyne near the restored shepherd’s house was being rewilded but keep the sheep and deer out to allow trees to grow

The track stopped here but a stalkers path continued up the valley on the west hand side. It was occasionally wet but much easier than the hillside. There were sheep and deer here eating all that sprouted so there were no saplings. I heard many cuckoos in the birch trees in the crags which the deer could not reach. I saw two herds of deer altogether and many ewes all with lambs. I wandered up this track, often above the River Fyne for another 5 km until I got to a ruined stone cottage and stone sheep fanks. Here the valley split as two burns came down to a confluence. It was where I had been heading for and it seemed a natural place to stop. I found a grassy patch beside the westernmost burn and had the tent up in a jif. It was only 1900 but I had done well today and was tired. After supper and writing I managed to get to sleep as the last cuckoos called when the light faded. The hiss and burble of the burn lulled me to sleep.  

Day 05. Upper Glenfyne to Dalmally. 14 km. 6 hours.  440m up. 560m down. It was a beautiful morning when I popped my head out of the tent. It was completely clear with a blue sky although there was a frost, even on the tent, but it would soon burn off. Better cold and sunny than warm and wet. I packed up and set off at 0800 and almost immediately saw a vast bird. It was a Sea Eagle and it soared in the thermal above me looking for some carrian, or even a placenta from a new lamb. As I watched it glide effortlessly a crow appeared and started to harry it. It was only when I saw the two together did I realise how big it was at perhaps 10 times the size of the crow. It was like a jumbo jet and a cessna 6 seater. However the crow could easily out manoeuvre it and chase it off. It was a great start to the day.

024. A sea eagle soaring above my campsite in upper Glen Fyne

 

Still at my campsite I now climbed the steep tussock covered hillside to what looked like a gate in the deer fence. It was not, just planks between strainers but it did allow me to clamber over it easily. I now followed another fence for about a kilometre as it contoured around the top of the gorge which the upper River Fyne flowed in. Deer and sheep had also gone this way and there was a very rustic and sometimes wet path. At one point a fallen tree had crushed the fence and I took the opportunity to go into the regenerating woodland but so did the animals and the path disappeared. A bit further I reached the fence as it went up the hillside and could cross it via a removable panel. I was now on the open hillside with just a sheep fence which I crossed back and forth easily as necessary to keep to the drier ground. It was slow going and I plodded up here between tussock and bog on the south side of the river for 2 kilometres. Then I spotted a track on the hillside to the north of the river. I crossed it easily in this dry season and cut up across more tussock to the track. The sea eagle passed across the hillside soaring low as I climbed. 

The track was great. It was more for an argocat than anything else and was used to service some 10 water intake slots which stretch across the hillside between where I was and the dam at the saddle of Glen Fyne and Glen Shira. The water intakes were essentially diverting all the small burns coming down the hillside and instead of letting them flow naturally into the upper River Fyne it channelled them off to the dam where it would help power the turbines down Glen Shira. Even the main upper Fyne River was diverted at the end of the track and channelled off in a pipe. 

This was where I had to leave the main valley and head north up beside the small upper Fyne to an open and shallow pass high on the hillside to the north between the Fyne and Orchy catchment areas. I kept high above the small burn or stream on more level ground to avoid the interlocking spurs and moraine debris beside the river. After a short hour I reached a greener grassier area with some old ruins. 

These ruins were shielings or summer grazing houses from generations ago. There were 6 buildings and a stone fank. What was once a place where families tended to the livestock in the summer filled with laughter and work was now just a 5 rickle of stones which were being consumed by the hillside. These grazers would have left the shielings each autumn and returned with their livestock to their village in Glen Fyne or Glen Shira for the winter. My grandfather’s grandfather could have probably remembered this time of transhumance which stopped nearly 200 years ago. The descendents of the folk who spent the summer here now probably live in Canada or New Zealand having been evicted or dispersed to seek their fortune in the Empire.  While this way of life has vanished in the UK it is still found in many mountainous areas of the old world, from the Alps to the Himalayas. 

025. Looking south from to shallow pass between Glen Fyne and Stath Orchy. The mountain is the munro of Bienn Bhuidhe

I continued up the pathless hillside making my best way across the tussock and peat bogs as I slowly gained on the shallow pass. Behind me I could see the mountains around Crianlarich with a new dusting of snow, especially Stob Binnein. More immediately to the south was the vast craggy massif of the mountains between Glen Fyne and Glen Shira which culminated in Beinn Bhuidhe, 948m. It had just a few patches of snow on it.

Once I got to the top of the shallow pass a spectacular vista unfolded in front of me across the other side of the Strath Orchy valley. There were numerous mountains here from Ben Cruachan rising steeply from the steely blue/grey waters of Loch Awe in the south to distant peaks on the south side of Glencoe to the north. Tomorrow I would walk into them but first today I would just descend to Dalmally which I could make out in the valley below.

026. Looking NW from the shallow pass between Glen Fyne and Strath Orchy to Ben Cruachan mountain and Loch Awe

The descent was initially across peat hags but then a stream formed and I followed it down. As I approached forest in the shallow ravine which my stream descended into I made a mistake and went through a ramshackle gate in a deer fence to the west of the ravine. I should have continued down the east side. As a consequence I had to cross the ravine and clamber over a rotting deer fence to reach a track which I knew led to Brackley farm.

I had come this way 13 years ago and as I crossed the railway line and passed the farm that time I was invited into for a cup of tea by the wife of the farmer. I spent a couple of hours chatting with her in the kitchen. I remember it being  untidy  with crockery and utensils everywhere but considered just part of farming life and the farmer was very jolly and quite learned, so ignored it. I later saw this very farm and both the husband and wife on the BBC programme “This farming life”. During the program I remember them saying as they were childless they hoped their urban nieces who live in London would take over. However the urban nieces were not keen. 

When I reached the farm I was quite horrified by the state of it. I suppose a dead cow rotting in the scrubland and two dead sheep in the field above should have prepared me. The barn had collapsed and the farmhouse where I had my tea looked derelict with broken windows. There was farming detritus and scrap everywhere clogging up the farmyard and there was a smell of rot and decay. I discovered it was from the corpse of a fox which was dumped at the gate. There were however two new livestock sheds and I assumed that the farmer I met previously had abandoned the old farm and lived in a smaller house from the 1960’s and concentrated on the livestock in the shed. It must be very difficult for farmers when they get old and want to continue farming but their abilities would not let them and everything goes to rack and ruin. However one also has to consider the welfare of the livestock they look after. I did not look into the new sheds but hoped they were not as bad as the rest of the farm. The looked much more professional than the rest of the farm.

027. The octagonal church and tower at Dalmally is similar to the one at Cairndow.

From here it was a short kilometre walk down the road to the main road. I had to follow its verge for about half a kilometre until the pavement started. Dalmally itself looked like it was struggling a little and there was a large hotel which had been closed for a while and the other main hotel was now room only as it could not to cook anything. I had already booked into a lovely Bed and Breakfast past the distinctive hexagonal church and tower, similar to the one at Cairndow yesterday, and beside the River Orchy. I got a great welcome at the Orchy Bank  and was delighted that my resupply box had arrived intact with my supplies for the next 5 days of camping.

028. Looking downstream from the old bridge over the large River Orchy at Dalmally. The Orchy Bank Guesthouse is on the right

Day 06. Dalmally to Loch Dochard. 21 km. 7.5 hours.  600m up. 420m down. After a great breakfast I left the comfortable Orchy Bank Guesthouse a little after 0900. My rucksack was heavy with 5 days of food in it, which was an extra 6 kilos. I walked down the very quiet B8077 road. Not a car passed me in 3 kilometres. Initially it was past a series of hidden houses and I had a large marsh to my left which went down to Loch Awe. I think the march was created by the estuary of the Orchy River as it entered the loch in a maze of meanders. In front of me were 4 large mountains, all of them Munros. When I reached a bridge over the River Strae I crossed it and then left the road to head up a track. 

029. A new born lamb in one on the many fields with lambs below Dalmally

I had to follow this track up Glen Strae for nearly 10 kilometres.  I was a well maintained track and all the fences on each side were well maintained. After a kilometre or so I got to a pond with a few islands and reedbeds. There were about 10 teal (I think) on the pond and they were quite wary and swam off. However there were perhaps 20 simple hides around the pond to hide behind and observe them. I don’t know if it was the farmer or community who set up the hides but it was commendable. After a bit of forestry the valley opened up into a fertile flat bottomed floodplain across which the river meandered. It was like a Victorian oil painting of  romantic Scottish Glen. There was a house here in the woods to the east and overlooking the glen. It was probably the farmers house and it was beautifully maintained. In fact the whole of the area seemed well looked after with good gates and fences around the beautiful fields. It was in stark contrast to the squalor of Brackley Farm yesterday.

030. 0ne of the crystal clear side streams flowing down the mountains and into the River Strae

I passed another man made pond with an island and duck houses on it and then two large herds of Highland Cattle, each with 30 animals. It was raining now as per the forecast but the cattle were not bothered under their heavy fleeces. As the cattle finished the sheep started and they went right up the valley. I also noticed how much of the sides of the valley were fenced off to allow regeneration  and there were large areas of saplings about to burst into leaf. There were also some plantations with mixed conifers. It was a joy to walk here, even in the rain. 

031. One of the wet Highland Cattle in the well managed farm in Glen Strae

As I went up the valley the track got smaller and smaller, but the valley was still pretty and spectacular. Especially dramatic was the long sharp ridge which went up to the pyramid shaped Benn Mhic-Mhonaidh, which dominated the east side of the glen while Beinn Lurachan dominated the west. Both were about 750 metres. The valley became less U shaped and more V shaped as I went up and the track was now small and grassed over at the top. I scared off a herd of 10 sheep as I approached the main river to cross it. I noticed two lambs hidden in the heather out of the wind but still in the rain. They saw me and almost imprinted on me, bolting towards me and bumping into my boots. As I crossed they tried to follow but I waved them off and they stood there bleating until the mother ewe eventually responded. 

032. Looking up across the wide fertile flood plain of Gen Strae with the river meandering across it.

It was windy and the rain was persistent now. I was fully kitted out for the forecast deluge in the afternoon. As I started up the hillside I saw an eagle further up the glen. Again a sea eagle I think. I hoped the naive lambs would realise this danger. The climb was slow and sustained. It took at least an hour to climb up the tussock grass. I went up the east side of the stream’s ravine using deer or sheep tracks as I found them. The wind was very gusty and the rain was now quite heavy but it was not falling in sheets, like net curtains shimmering. 

At the broad top there would have been a great view across Glen Kinglass to the Ben Starav mountains but it was all lost in the rain and mist. Just down from the pass was a new micro hydro power intake and track. I followed it down through a deer fence and into regenerating woodland. I could see Loch Dochard far to the east down in the valley. The track however veered to the west and seemed to go just very gradually down the hill. It alarmed me as if I ended up at the bottom I would have to cross the large River Kinglass to get to a good stalkers path on the other side and there was no bridge and the water level would be rising in its many catchment streams. So I came to my senses and retraced my steps through the deer gate again. I now crossed a small stream just before it entered a ravine. I now followed animal tracks as I slowly sidled down the hillside descending diagonally for a good hour until I reached the valley floor and a different stalkers track. It was a wild descent in this remote county in one of the least accessible places in Scotland. 

033. Looking down Glen Kinglass from the saddle be Glen Kinglass and Glen Strae as the rain fell

Once on the valley floor I could head east up the stalkers paths which was now saturated with the rain with puddles and rivulets across it. I headed up climbing slowly with the rain lashing my back and drumming of my jacket hood.After an hour Loch Dochard appeared. It had a large sandy delta where the main stream to enter it came in from the north. It was fringed with sandy beaches, mostly peach coloured from the surrounding granite I think. To the south of the loch were copses of pine, some old and venerable. As I reached the loch a very small wet path headed off to the north. I took it and after 15 minutes came to a shallow channel flooded by the swollen river entering the loch. I skipped across the 6 inch deep channel just not getting my socks wet and then found a nice grassy campsite beside the river. I quickly put the tent up and flung everything in and then went in to sort it all out. By 1900 I was very cosy inside the storm proof tent, at least 4 season anyway, with the rain pelting the outer fly. I used half of the guy ropes so knew it would stand a wind if one got up. I was glad I was not in one of my ultralight tents and the extra 1.5 kilos were worth it. 

034. I camped beside the Loch Dochard and then went up the valley in the middle to cross a pass to reach Glen Etive

Day 07. Loch Dochard to Upper Glen Creran. 23 km. 9 hours.  910m up. 1000m down. It rained the best part of the night but there was a short respite when I packed up the tent. However I could see more coming over imminently so I dressed in my waterproofs before I set off up the stalkers path well after 0900. The ground was sodden and every step was squelchy . My boots were wet and I had pretty much given up on trying to keep them dry as I sloshed up the path into the large U shaped valley which curved to the west as it went higher. There was mist on the mountains on each side of the valley, and indeed all the mountains. As I went up I noticed many tree roots in the peat, some were exposed by the river eroding the peaty banks. In one place two roots were growing on top of each other with the second tree forming a root plate above the first. The first was not rotted because it was preserved in the peat, as was the second. These were probably from pine trees when the climate was a bit drier and the deer had predators to keep the numbers down. Perhaps 500 years ago or maybe more when much of Scotland was covered in Caledonian Pine forest. There are just a few remnants of this left today. 

I had to cross the main stream across some slabs, maybe 15 metres wide down which the water rushed. It was only 10 centimetres deep at the most and that was in these sodden conditions. The stalkers’ track continued the way up the east side of the valley now above the main stream. Soon the pass showed itself up ahead and it was a slow steady climb to get there. The mountains on each side were both Munros and quite craggy, especially Meall nan Eun, 928m, on the west side. The pass was very windy as the southly funnelled through this narrow gap. 

035. The craggy Meall nan Eun formed the west side of the pass between Loch Dochard and Glen Etive

036. Coming down the steeper slopes of wet moorland and rock slabs to reach Glen Etive.

Once on the north side of the pass I could see Glen Etive far below. The valley into which I was to descend was flanked by huge mountains on each side covered in crags and slabs. The one on the west was over 1000 metres and impossible to walk up from this side due to its ramparts of rocks. It was an impressive mountain environment and very dramatic and inhospitable especially in this west weather. Rivulets of white foam poured down the black crags as the rain made its way to the valley floor. I went straight down a hikers path which was very wet and slippery. Three times my feet slid from under me and I landed on my rucksack. Unscathed, I made it to the valley floor where there was a new micro hydro. These things are cropping up in every valley now but are usually quite well done. There is a small dam which takes 75% of the water. It then travels underground in a hidden pipe to a small turbine and generator house which often look in keeping. The biggest scar from it all is the track but they will green over in time. I followed this track to the main Etive valley floor. 

037. In Glen Etive looking beyond a herd of Highland Cattle with the sharp Buachaille Etive Beag in the distance

I wanted to cross here but what I thought was a bridge was a broken 2 wire trolley over a gorge. I knew there was a bridge a good kilometre downstream so set off past a herd of Highland cows with a large hairy bull amongst them. Jagged peaks surrounded me and it is little wonder Glen Etive is considered one of Scotland’s most dramatic valleys. At the bridge I crossed and then headed back upstream on the minor valley road to the houses on the north side of the trolley. Here I cut a corner up past another micro hydro scheme to gain the forest track I wanted. I might have been as well walking a bit more on the road as I had 2 deer fences to climb and the rough rubble of the route where the hydro pipe was buried. 

038. Looking up the River Etive from the bridge with Buachialle Etive Beag in the left distance

It was initially my aim to stop here and camp but it was early afternoon and I decided to do at least some of the first of two climbs tomorrow. The track was good and it quickly led me up through the forest and onto the open hill. I could see the pass ahead between 2 craggy munro mountains each about 950m and set off up for it. I half heartedly looked for somewhere to camp but the ground was wet and as I climbed the wind increased. I resigned myself to finding somewhere on the other side. It took me two hours to climb up the squelchy stalkers track to the pass and I reached it with tired legs. It was a wild impressive craggy pass strewn with black boulders which had tumbled from the cliffs above and were now being consumed by peat and turf. 

039. Climbing up the nothside of Glen Etive and looking back to the huge bulk of Ben Starav on the south side of Loch Etive Head

There were some places to camp on the NW side of the pass but I got a second wind and just kept coming down. When I saw a camp spot I found a fault with it so carried on. After half an hour I came across a new track on the east side of the stream. It seemed odd to have one up here and I wondered if it was the start of another micro hydro scheme. The track took me down to the valley floor and into a forestry plantation. I hoped to camp here but there was nothing suitable for a good 3 km until a grassy spot appeared beside a stream. It was perfect but I was tired. I eventually got into the tent around 2000 hrs and noticed I was dog tired. I had my usual Fish and Potato dehydrated dinner and a litre of hot chocolate and then fell asleep with the rain still lightly falling, as it had been all day. I could not write a jot.   

Day 08. Upper Glen Creran to Corran. 27 km. 10 hours.  610m up. 730m down. When I undid the zip the first thing I saw were patches of blue sky. I was not before time as the last 48 hours of damp weather meant everything was getting claggy and humid, even my sleeping bag. This would give it a chance to dry off a bit. I set off at about 0830 and the first thing I had to do was cross a couple of hundred metres of harvested forest and then climb a deer fence. Once over the fence it was much easier than I thought to cross the upper River Creran and cross more forest to reach another track on the north side of the valley. The whole thing took a good half hour but I had managed to cross the missing link. 

040. Crossing the upper River Creran in the alderwoods each on each bank

A short kilometre down the track I came to another micro hydro station whose small turbine house was tucked into the forest. I had a track following the waterpipe and this track was the one I needed to take me up the hill to a small dam. It was a short steep walk and I was soon warm in the sun. At the dam I gingerly tiptoed across the top of the water intake which was slippery. Had I slipped I would just have gotten wet as there was water on each side. I was only 5 metres wide and it saved me bashing through the forest. An intense walk for another 20 minutes through smashed trees from harvesting brought me to a larger track and the end of my off piste sections. I would now be on established routes again. 

I walked north up the track and soon the giant mountains of Glencoe came into view, Bidean nam Ban the highest looked huge with a wave of cloud blowing off its top. After a short kilometre on the forest track I reached a sign for a public right of way to Ballachulish. It was exactly what I was looking for but thought it would be overgrown and concealed. The path went up through beautiful larch woods for half an hour to the top of the ridge dividing two valleys which I had to cross. There were more great views this time to the north over the two grey scree covered mountains which made up the Ballachulish Horseshoe, both enormous Munros. 

The sun was out now and it was warm as I started down the steeper slope to the valley floor through small birch. On the valley floor was a more popular and well established path which I could follow all the way to civilization. It was hot so I stopped at a stream partly shaded by birch trees and peppered with primroses. I sat on a rock beside the stream and had lunch in the warm air. It was a great tonic after the last couple of more miserable days. After lunch I follow the path down across moorland and then greenfields with grazing sheep to reach the first houses.

041. Coming down to Ballachulish with Loch Leven beyond.

This was a nicest part of Ballachulish with a great view over the islands in Loch Leven and a string of cottages beside the stream whose banks were covered in blooming rhododendron. It was short lived and before long I was on a street with dull houses heading down to the main road. I had tried everything to find a way from Ballachulish to the Corran Ferry without going on the main road, the A82. However there were few options. In the end I had to walk about 4 kilometres on a foot and cycle track beside the road while cars and lorries rumbled by beside me. It only took an hour but it was not pleasant although I was separated from the traffic a little. 

042. Looking up Loch Leven from Ballachulish bridge. Bidean nam Ban is on the right and the Pap of Glencoe on the left.

Crossing the bridge was also fraught as the pavement was quite narrow. As soon as I reached the north end I left the road and went down across fields to the tranquillity of the pebble beach. It was peaceful here on the shore of Loch Linnhe sea loch. I had my second lunch here as the small waves lapped at the shore. Across the loch to the west were the rugged hills of Ardgour. I now had to return to the road for another 3 kilometres through the village of Onich, again on a wide pavement. However the traffic was relentless and I could not imagine living here at all despite its wonderful location. As I reached the west end of the village I could escape again. 

043. Looking west from the pebble beach at North Ballachulish across Loch Linnhe to rugged Ardgour

It was only 2 kilometres along this unpleasant road to the Corran Ferry but there was a walk up a very wooded side valley across a stream and down to Inchree which was 4 kilometres. I took the latter on a lovely path through native woodlands. The gorse was in flower here and smelt like coconut oil. After I crossed the wooded stream the path descended through large conifers to reach the Inchree village and the Corran Ferry just beyond. I was tired, hot and my feet were sore so it was a great break to be whisked across the water on a ferry which crossed the narrow strait frequently. It left me at Corran on the west side of the narrows and the start of a new section. 

044. My greeting in Ardgour from a confident ram after crossing the Corran Ferry.

I asked at the Ardgour Inn if they had any rooms but they were full. Everywhere is full now as Scottish Tourism is having a boom. I had planned to camp anyway tonight so started walking up the small road, the A861. It was a beautiful evening and I could see up the Loch Linnhe now to Fort William and Ben Nevis towering above it. I passed a row of houses which made up Corran until I got to a large farm. Sheep and some rams wandered across the road undisturbed by the occasional car. In the end I walked about 5 kilometres north from the village before I found a nice place to camp beside the sea loch and with a cool clear stream. I was tired though and after I put the tent up could not write and fell asleep with the small waves lapping on the rocky shore line just below. 

Back

Alan, Dave, and myself were all looking forward to a rest day. We were all a little bewildered, especially me, after having spent 2 months on the ice with virtually no social influence. Spending time at ALE’s South Pole camp with our 4 considerate and enlightened hosts was perfect. It gave us time to start the readjustment to the life we had left behind months ago. That first day at the South Pole camp was a dreamy day. It was the first day I had had off for weeks and I lapped it up. Twitty, the cook, also kept trays of delicious food for us on the counter and we could help ourselves. The hosts also provided a well stocked drinks tray with teas and coffees, soft drinks and even wine, both red and white. Of all the things I craved, wine was well down the list, probably below broccoli even, and a mug of it would have knocked me out.

138. The lovely large heated tent was almost too warm as the solar gain through the wall was supplemented by the heater.

We all had problems walking well. Without the sticks to support each side and the pulk to anchor us our sense of balance was not functioning well. Every step felt like I was walking on a small fishing boat on a choppy sea and it was difficult to keep a straight line. I did not move far all day; just between my small heated tent and the large communal tent when the others were, and also all the food. Both were warm, comfortable and spacious and it was a delight to be able to stand up. I spent some of the day having frequent siestas in my own tent, basking in the warmth of the heater and the sun. When I woke from my snoozes I was a bit perplexed at first until I realised I had finished and fully deserved to snooze. With glee I rolled over and went back to sleep.  

139. There were about 15 client tents at ALE’s South Pole Camp, much of it designed by Devon McDairmid

There was also the occasional visit to the toilet which was a small metal container. The pee went into a 5 gallon container under the urinal where it froze and the turds were laid into a large plastic bag beneath the seat, where they also froze. The swag bag and the pee container, both with their frozen contents, were then transported by plane to Union Glacier and on to Chile to be dealt with. 

140. The Mess tent also housed the kitchen. It was the heart of the ALE South Pole Camp. In the background is the large Scott Amundsen South Pole Station with its 150 inhabitants.

During the afternoon Polish Robert and Swedish Per arrived at the end of their journey from the Messner start. It was just a bit shorter than mine but the two routes shared the difficult route from Thiel Fuel Cache onwards through the rough terrain of the 86 and 87 degrees. It was good to see them and the joy they had in their eyes when they walked into the main mess tent where I was chatting with Alan and Dave. Soon Devon and Cedar arrived also after they had volunteered to take photos for everybody at the south pole. 

141. Inside the Mess tent with the wild looking Alan Chambers and Dave Thomas who had done the same trip which I did and finished just before me.

That evening we all ate together with a large meal cooked by Twitty. There was a lot of banter and reminiscing about various parts. Cedar and Devon were more experienced than any of us except perhaps Alan Chambers, and had a lot of witty stories and insights into Polar travel and the trip we had just done. During our meal it was confirmed that the plane to take us back to Union Glacier was already en route. It was bringing a few more ALE staff to help dismantle the South Pole Camp in the next week. Apparently all the tents, kitchen equipment, heaters, vehicles, snow scooters and most other things would be arranged under a huge tarpaulin. The edges of the tarpaulin would then be covered with snow to keep it in pace and some snow thrown on top to weigh it down. The whole camp would then remain under the tarpaulin over the winter waiting to be dug up again in November and set up again. It was quite remarkable the whole place would be packed away. Apparently much of the design of the camp and the storage was the brainchild of Devon McDiarmid who had developed his skills in the Canadian Arctic where he spent the summers. 

When the 1942 model DC 3 arrived in the late afternoon the crew Devon and Cedar started to load it with tomorrow’s return flight with some equipment which could not overwinter here. They had it done by mid evening. We were told to have our pulks ready packed for loading at 0800 the next morning for departure at 0900. It did not take long and Alan and Dave helped me strip the electrical tape from my tent poles so I could fold them up and pack my tent. In the evening the crew of the DC 3 arrived having got everything ready for tomorrow. The pilot looked like a very experienced old-timer who had cut his teeth flying bush and mountain flights in the Canadian Rockies and had seen it all.

In the morning it was time to say goodbye to the tranquil South Pole camp and head back to the real world again. The flight we were taking was in a 82 year old DC 3 built in 1942. It had even had a minor crash 30 years ago when it slid off an icy runway in Indiana. It was repaired and modified for the Polar regions where it remains a workhorse and is owned by Kenn Borek Air. They seemed a very can-do charter airline and they came to Antarctica each year to support ALE’s operations. To operate successfully in Antarctica you must have a determination and willingness to get the job done. You need experienced and skilled people who could make judgement calls based on experience rather than slavishly following procedures which would entangle them to a standstill. Ken Borek Air was exactly this. We took our seats in the plane beside a pile of cargo strapped up under blankets, including snow scooters, our pulks and barrels of fuel. In the back of the plane, behind a curtain was a simple port-a-potty with a strap round it to stop it sliding about. The engines revved up and we taxied past the large Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station to the icy runway with the plane on skid rather than tyres. The engines then hurtled the plane down the icy runway pinning us to the back of the seat until we took off and the snow field dropped away as we became airborne.

142. The ride home in the 1942 made DC 3. It was a smooth, simple ride home in an aircaraft from the bygone era of aviation.

The flight back to Union Glacier was pretty much over the same path which had taken me over two months to ski. It was a vast empty landscape with virtually no features for 500 or so kilometres, which took nearly 2 hours, until we got to the Thiel Mountains. Although the window kept icing up , as there was no heating in the plane, I could scrape it quick enough to see a view of it but any n photographs would be no use due to the frost. In another hour and a half we approached the Ellsworth Mountains and the sun was on the window sufficiently to reduce the frosted condensation build up. It was a terrific flight over the multiple ridges at the south east end of the range. There were some large glaciers here flowing down from the cirques which were almost completely full of ice. Where the glaciers accelerated away from the cirques, or sheared as they changed direction, were huge glaciers, big enough to swallow a house.  The plane veered west and then descended over more crevasses with some of the biggest being just to the east of Union Glacier. The touchdown was smooth. 

143. Flying over the SE end of the Ellsworth Mountains on the descent back to ALE’s main base at Union Glacier.

Outside it was relatively warm at about minus 5-10 degrees. Mark Reed was waiting for us as we touched down and pretty soon Lucy arrived. They both got big hugs from everyone. It was great to see their smiles and joy as they had followed our trips. I went over to the medics to see who was there and to say hello. Paddy and Sarah had gone but Doc Martin was there, and in his usually high spirits. I had wanted to go to the Operations cabin to see Phil and Tim and also the Comms cabin to see Dave, Robert, Alex, and Catho but unfortunately I did not have time. I only had 2 hours to retrieve my bags from storage where Lucy was looking after them, repack my pulk, get into my travel clothes, and check-in for my next flight from Union Glacier to Punta Arenas in 2 hours time. It did not take as long as I thought as I kept most of my skiing clothes on, but did manage to dig out my shorts and put them on for the flight. It was then into the mess tent to see Patrick and the Finns who had been relaxing here for a couple of days and were recovering from their expedition. I did not recognise that many of the staff but knew Coleen Wilson was working in the kitchen and I wanted to see her and thank her for the messages of support at the beginning. I knew she had been following my blog also. Another warm hug. 

144. Me in the middle flanked by Alan and Dave back at Union Glacier. We had a quick turn-a-round to get ready for the next flight to Chile in 3 hours

The mess tent soon filled up with people. Most had been on a Mount Vinson expedition; some with Madison Mountaineering, some with Adventure Consultants, and some with other outfitting companies. Many had their fingers bandaged as they had suffered frostnip. I think it was well into the minus forties near the summit and there had been some strong winds making a wind chill of around minus 60. It was much colder than anything the ski expeditions experienced. I sat next to Patrick and two of the world’s most accomplished climbers, a Scot called David Hamilton and an American called Garrett  Madison, although I did not know it at the time as they were remarkably modest. David said he had met me before and had introduced me to the audience at a talk I gave some 14 years ago to the Alpine Ski Club in London. I was so nervous at the time I barely remembered. Soon Poppis and the Finns arrived and also Alan and Dave. Alan knew David Hamilton from previous trips. 

After lunch we boarded the truck and drove the 5-6 km to the Blue-Ice runway where the plane was loading. It was nice to just carry my small day bag as ALE was transporting the kit bags and my pulk separately and I would not see them until they would appear on the luggage belt at Punta Arenas. The plane was surprisingly full as the season was coming to an end. David Hamilton saw me searching for a seat and invited me to sit beside him. It was only during the flight that I realised just what an accomplished mountaineer and skier was, especially in the Karakoram Range, where he ran a guiding company, and also in the Himalayas. It was a privilege to sit next to him for the 5 hour flight. We chatted continually for the entire duration with the occasional glance out of the window at the Ellsworth Mountains, which were on the other side of the plane out of the west window. 

When we arrived in Punta Arenas I met Carlos at the airport. He gave me a hearty hug and congratulations. He was a customer services organiser for ALE and was at the airport to help ferry the 50 clients and 50 staff on a fleet of buses to take us back to town. My pulk was going to the ALE warehouse where I could repack it later, but me and my 4 holdalls were going back to the Endurance Hotel which Carlos had already booked for me. I was the first stop for the bus as it went round town dropping everyone off. The staff at the hotel remembered me and there were more hugs and congratulations before I finally got to my room at about 2230. Outside it was now dark. The first darkness I had seen in nearly 10 weeks. I made the mistake of connecting to the internet and saw I had over 1000 emails, messages and facebook notifications. I glanced through them quickly but noticed one was from Radio Scotland about an interview in the morning at 0600 Chilean time. That was the end of my lie-in. 

The alarm awakened me from a deep sleep. I was groggy with sleep and had a shower before the interview. As arranged they phoned me on Whatsapp at 0550 for the interview. I was a bit of a stupor during it and felt I could not describe the experience properly in the allocated 6-7 minutes. After the interview I went back to bed to have my longed-for lie in. When I woke I was a bit bewildered but luckily I had left a clean set of clothes at the hotel which I put on and went to get my haircut and a full shave. It took a good hour at the hairdresser to tidy me up as he went to town with his clippers and gadgets.

As I wandered from the hairdresser to the Wake Up Cafe for lunch I noticed I was not walking well. My balance had been dulled by weeks of using ski sticks and being anchored to the pulk. People must have thought I had been drinking as I veered across the pavements with my legs feeling clumsy and wooden. At Wake Up I bumped into David Hamilton again and he invited me to sit at his table. We were soon joined by Mike Sharp and his wife Olga. Mike had been one of the 5 partners at ALE until a few years ago when he retired and sold his share. He had a very long and distinguished pedigree in  Antarctica spanning nearly 50 years. It was fascinating listening to him about his time there.

I had wanted to go and explore the forests above Punta Arenas as I did before I left for Antarctica in November. However, I just could not muster the enthusiasm and energy, and when the time came I went back to the hotel, pulled down the blind and had a long siesta waking in the late afternoon.. There was a message from Poppis that the remaining people who had been on a ski expedition were meeting in a restaurant at 1900. Al and Davie had already left, and Poppis and the Finns were going from the restaurant straight to the airport. I got there a little late to find the 3 Finns, Patrick, Robert and Per had all made it. It was a celebratory meal for all of us and we were full of spirits and comparisons of the best sections and the more difficult sections. I sat next to Patrick who had had the most challenging trip of all of us and took it all in his stride. It was the last time I would see them as everybody departed Chile that evening or the next day. I still had not bought a ticket. 

When I did it was for a couple of days away. I would have 3 flights. One to Santiago with the easy, reliable LATAM where I would have a few hours before the long 14 hour flight with LEVEL to Barcelona. It was a full and chaotic flight and I was squashed into a middle seat as their booking system was down. Luckily there were good films. I then spent the night in a hotel in Barcelona before the 3 hour flight to Edinburgh the next day. I tracked all my luggage with the Apple airtags but it was not so critical now if anything got delayed. I eventually got to Edinburgh some 48 hours after leaving Punta Arenas. Fiona picked me, all my bags and the pulk up at the airport and we were soon home. I had everything with me and the expedition was over. It was time to relax now and bask in having completed it.

Initially I was quite relaxed when I returned and went for small walks in the hills around Edinburgh. A few people suggested I should have a large party but the thought of organising it and then hosting it was too much. I was quite happy to do very little and just remain at home. I did have a fair amount of paperwork to catch up on after 3 months away and I found it quite easy to withdraw into my study light the stove and work, somewhat inefficiently, on tasks which had to be done like my accounts for the year. Perhaps I rested on my laurels a bit too much as half of the weight I lost in Antarctica sneaked back on again in these unguarded weeks. Quiet unexpectedly I was contacted by the Guiness Book of Records and asked to confirm some details which Steve Jones of ALE had given them. It was not my intention to become the oldest soloist to ski to the south pole or the oldest to ski there unsupported; I did it for the adventure of it, but I was. Once I had confirmed a few details they sent me a certificate with my records and said they would put it in the next book to be published in September. 

145. My unexpected certificate from the Guiness Book of Records for the Oldest to ski to the Pole “Unsupported”

One thing I did notice about the trip was how quickly the memory of it faded. In all my other long expeditions and walks I still remember the distinctive days, the people and wildlife I encountered and the scenery. However on this trip there was very little to punctuate the days, not even nightfall. Everything seemed to blur into one long endless day and this day was divided into good weather or bad weather. Had I not written a blog and taken photographs with the location or date on them I would have been struggling to remember sections and even place the events which happened. I dare say in a few years it will all be a blur and I will have to re-read my blog to jog my memory. Yet my other 4 big trips are still crystal clear. It must be that memories are created by visual, social and sensory events and there were very few on this expedition. I think because of this I wont cherish it as much as the Ski Paddle Norway trip for instance, which I will remember and cherish to my deathbed. 

After some 6 weeks of being quite lazy and a bit haphazard I started to get more organised. Initially I didn’t  even manage to arrange to go to Norway for a week’s skiing in the spring with a small rucksack; something I had been looking forward to when I was in Antarctica. I did at last manage to get my act together in mid March and went off on a walk in Scotland with my tent for a short week.  

  

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October 14, 2023

Day 52. Jan 10. S 87º57.940 W 083º05.636 to S 88º09.228 W 082º43.957. 22 km. 10.5 hrs. 2940 Cal. There was sun on and off in the night and the tent was warm. However, in the morning just as I was packing up, I could see the clouds starting to erase the sun and the light. Not again I thought. How many white outs can there be on this trip? But it did not turn out like that as it must have been a thin mist of low cloud and although my shadow almost disappeared, the visibility remained tolerable. It stayed like this for a couple of hours until my first break. After 5 km I crossed out of the difficult 87 degree and into the reputedly easier 88 degree. The terrain was quite easy, but it was slow. All that new snow which had fallen yesterday was like white iron filings, shards of ice, and they clung to the pulk as I pulled it over them. It was hard slow work, almost like pulling a tyre on a wet sandy beach. The sun never really disappeared though, and it shone through the veil of mist with a halo round it and more iron filings in the mist fell to the ground.

I was dreading my second break as I anticipated cold fingers preparing and eating it. It was cold, about minus 25, but the ferocious bitter winds of the last few days had dissipated, and it was now a gentle breeze and the wind ribbon waved half-heartedly. Preparing lunch, I must have looked like a scientist handling flasks of liquid nitrogen. I had big clumsy mitts on and with them I was filling the Nalgene bottle and the macaroni cup with steaming water from the thermoses. In the end it worked OK, and the macaroni was great. It started hot but I had to finish it within 5 minutes, or it would start to freeze.

I was quite empowered by the lunch and set off well. I could feel the surge of energy from the 1000 calorie meal. Instead of stopping after 5 km I continued for 7 km. The terrain got easier with less sastrugi and dunes or drifting, and, if you could see them, there were also strips of harder glazed snow which were aligned in the direction I was going. More and more blue sky was appearing and yet behind me from where I had come looked dark and almost certainly a whiteout. I wondered if I really had climbed out of one weather zone into another which was the high pressure which was frequent on the polar plateau, where there was more of a continental climate. Frequently I looked back, and the sun was still there but beneath it on the ground was a tremendous glow as if there was a nuclear explosion. I assume it was the optics of the veil of mist and the reflection from the snow. It was there all afternoon whenever I looked back.

126. It looked like a nuclear explosion on the ground but was obviously a reflection of the sun on the icefield.

During my third break a hand got very cold. I think some moisture got onto the glove and into the mitt liner while I was preparing a drink. Luckily, I had the redline mitts to hand in a pocket in the green bedding bag. I ripped off my damp glove and plunged my hand into the lamb’s wool and down feather of the redline and prevented any damage. I was glad now I had an abundance of gloves. I skied another 5 km after that across a plain filled with dunes of snow about a metre high. There was hardly a flat patch there. It looked like ocean would look like in a force 3 breeze just before the white caps of a force 4 started. They were easy to ski over but there was plenty of soft snow between them to slow me down.

At last, the 22 km mark for the day came and I pitched the tent at once in this choppy frozen ocean. There was no wind, and the tent was a dream to put up even with mitts on. It took just 15 minutes instead of the windy 30 minutes when I was much more cautious. As it was, I could feel the heat of the sun on my face as I started to boil the kettle. I had still 205 km to ski to the South Pole and had 9 day’s worth of food which I could stretch to 10 with a bit of rationing and 11 with a lot. It seemed quite plausible. I had already done over 950 km since I started. Once the weather improves in a few days I might put in some early starts to get the average milage down a bit. It had been a great day, and I was delighted to have started the final section and put the rough climb section behind me.

Day 53. Jan 11. S 88º09.228 W 082º43.957 to S 88º20.805 W 082º46.888. 22 km. 11 hrs. 3070 Cal. Although the sun was out it was very cold at minus 28 outside. Luckily there was virtually no wind otherwise it would have been serious. As it was, I could feel the cold creep through my salopettes. I had pretty much every item of clothing on when I left at 0700. In the unlikely event it got too hot I could always ventilate using the zips on the salopettes and pit zips on the jacket. It remained chilly all day and even hit minus 30 when I stopped to put the tent up. The one item I lacked were really good gloves for tent work. The Hestra Alpine Pro were not up to the job as the shiny leather absorbed the cold and the lining was too thin. Much the same way a steel toecap boot is cold in the winter as the toecap absorbs the cold.

I did not have a plan when I set off but wanted to cross the 88 degree and 20-minute line. It was about 21 km away. All the 4 sessions today were quite similar. The spindrift had settled everywhere on the flat ice between the gentle climbs. On these flatter bits with new spindrift the going was very sluggish and the ice crystals lying in the dunes did not let the pulk pass easily. However, where the ridges of the dunes had been polished the pulk slid beautifully. The trouble was there were few of these polished areas and they were mostly on the climbs.

127. The moonscape of waves on the ice sheet. Mostly they were dunes but some were carved into sastrugi

As the wind was now quite negligible it was easy to prepare my food and eat it sitting on the pulk. I had made a mistake of taking such preparation intensive food for my midday meals and would have been better off having a nose bag of easy snacks I could just tuck into. When I did have my macaroni, I did feel a surge of energy which lasted a couple of hours before the mouse was back gnawing at the walls of my stomach. I was quite well nourished though but my main complaint was tiredness.

I don’t know whether my pulk is heavier or slides less well than the others?  Probably both but at the moment I am putting in 10-11 hours days every day without respite and have to do so to complete my 22-24 km each day. I wake at 0500 and the cycle begins and start skiing at 0700. I don’t finish until 1900 and then have to set up the tent and put everything on the drying racks. If the sun is not out to warm the tent, I have to bring the stove in to warm the tent for an hour or so to dry everything. Then I have supper, write the blog, and try and get to sleep by 2200 but it is often later. I should have 8 more days of this before I reach the South Pole. People might ask what I am going to do when I reach the Pole and the ALE camp there. Overwhelmingly what I would like to do is sleep. I will sleep for days hopefully.

The weather now is much more continental with dry, sunny, cold. The forecast for the next week is more of the same. But it comes at the price of cold. It is now on average between -25 and -30 centigrade outside. But without the catabatic winds that is not too bad if you wrap up well. I do have a problem with my breathing mask and general condensation from my breath. It ices up the windstopper flap I have sewn onto the bottom of my goggles to protect my nose and cheeks. icicles hang from the bottom of it. When I lift them slightly to my forehead so I can eat I feel I am in the mouth of a predator fish looking out past the teeth. However, the real condensate is around the mask and at the end of the day it is thick with ice. I should have brought 3 or 4 of them really to swap out every break.

128. It was a particularly cold day. Between minus 25-30 ?C The ice built up on my goggles and breathing mask was severe.

Today I skied until about 1900 and as soon as I had done my 23 km put the tent up. I was tired, too tired to write the blog, so I am writing it the next morning before breakfast at 0430. Hence the slight rambling. On the bush telegraph the FireAngels, Bex and George have finished with a massive 37 km day and have reached the Pole. Congratulations to them they have had a well-organised and well-disciplined expedition and have done stunningly well. Poppis and the Finns are about 2 days ahead of me and Al and Dave about one and a half, so I am still managing to keep in touch with them. They both had resupply caches left for them near here. Also about are Per the Swede and Robert the Polish skier who started at the shorter Messner start and are a few days ahead. And then there is Patrick who started at Berkner Island and is doing a really huge trip. Patrick is going very well and should be at the South Poe in a few days. We are all put to shame by Frenchman Vincent Colliard who reached the South Pole yesterday beating the previous record which had stood for a while. He did it in 22 days beating the record by 2 days. It will be nice for Pierre (already at the Pole and waiting to fly back to Union Glacier) to meet him. 2 record breakers, both French, the fastest and the youngest.

Day 54. Jan 12. S 88º20.805 W 082º46.888 to S 88º32.724 W 081º46.847. 23 km. 10.5 hrs. 2800 Cal. Distance to Pole 162 km. Food Left 7 days. (ED: note the 2 new stats for the final countdown!) Again, it was very cold in the morning. Down to about minus 30. I got cold fingers packing up the tent. I noticed that although it was clear and quite wind still, the air was full of shards of ice glistening in the sun like stardust. Every day the terrain in degree 88 has become easier and today it started off pretty uniform with small dunes, drifts really. You could have skied here in a whiteout without trouble. However, the snow was abrasive, and it was hard to pull the pulk except for the rare bit of more glazed snow. I guess that as the sastrugi, and the dunes get smaller it means the winds are not so strong here and maybe that’s why the snow was a bit looser and still sharp and angular as it had not been battered and rolled by the wind as spindrift. I felt desperately tired as I skied in the morning both physically and even more mentally. There were times where I could easily have fallen asleep and carried on skiing I felt, like sleepwalking.

I had my breaks sitting on the pulk with the very slight breeze in my back and the sun in my face. It was like the weeks before Thiel Fuel Cache when the weather was good. except now it was probably 20 degrees colder. I easily made the macaroni and the hot chocolate drinks with the mitts on as I was getting more used to it. I had to eat the macaroni quickly, like a dog lapping up its dinner and without finesse as I had to get it down before it froze.

In the second half of the day the temperature rose to about minus 15 and it was noticeably warmer. It was more to do with the sun being at its strongest than with any weather change. Whereas yesterday I felt I was going uphill the whole day while not really doing so, today I felt I was skiing on the level. Either my legs were less tired, or the snow was a bit easier. Once I had been going for about 12 hours in all with 10.5 on skis I decided to camp. I wanted 24 but was happy with 23.

I had wanted an early night but as I was melting snow the stove started to splutter. It needed a bit of maintenance. The other one had already been put aside for maintenance, so I had to strip the burners from both stoves and get them going again. It took well over an hour. I also filled my fuel bottles from the dodgy ones in the pulk. I had about 2.5 litres of fuel to cook and occasionally heat the tent if the sun was not out. It would be enough to get me to the South Pole. I only have 7 days of food left now and am aiming to be at the Pole on the 19 January which assuming there are no weather problems is quite feasible as it is 162 km away. However, in the next 4 days I want to do 100 km just to add a comfort buffer. It means getting up earlier. I am afraid the blog might suffer, and become more perfunctory, but we will see how time goes. As I put my tent up a plane flew north in the distance. It was carrying Pierre, Bex and George and, I assume, Vincent Colliard back to Union Glacier, so the bush telegraph will be very depleted as they were part of the mainstay.

Day 55. Jan 13. S 88º32.724 W 081º46.847 to S88º45.800 W 081º53.839. 25 km. 11 hrs. 2770 Cal. Distance to Pole 138 km. Food Left 6 days. I woke naturally at 0400. The tent was warm, and the sun was out so I decided I might as well get up and make an earlier start. I had planned to do this anyway. It took me two and a half hours to get ready and set off which is a bit ridiculous really and I will have to be more efficient in the mornings. It was very cold when I packed up the tent, I reckon it was minus 30, but there was no wind which was lucky. I got very tired in the first session and almost got the “nods” where you are desperate to stay awake but can’t. Despite skiing and pulling the pulk, the experience is the same as when you are on a long drive and can’t keep your eyes open. At least then I would have had the chance to pull into a stopping place but there was not the same option here.

Since I came into the 88th degree the conditions have gradually got easier. I likened my first day in them like an ocean frozen in a force 4 just before the whitecaps start to break. Then it was a force 3 and yesterday was like a force 2 and very benign. Well today it was almost flat calm. This can only mean one thing and that is the prevalent winds in this area are gradually diminishing as I head up to the Pole. I would say this area seldom receives the big winds to create the sastrugi and dunes of the lower sections.

I had been going for a good hour when I noticed some cloud formations and mist to the east. I thought nothing of it until suddenly the snow lost its luminosity. I looked round and the sun was being swallowed by a large cloud. Not again I thought as I assumed I had finished with the compass now I had reached the sunlit uplands.

129 The last of the dunes and sastrugi halfway through the 88th degree as the terrain became yet more flat and calm.

At the time I was experimenting with the neoprene facemask, as the Cold Avenger breathing mask produced so much moisture which ran down to my chest making the five layers of clothing damp. However, the neoprene FRX racing mask had its own issues and steamed up the goggles. As I was wondering how to revert back to the cold avenger the skies darkened, and a small wind appeared. It was absolutely freezing and despite having all my clothes on I could still feel the cold. It caught me unawares like a squall at sea while you are sunbathing. Luckily, I had a spare pair of goggles but as soon as I put them on, they started to fog up also. I decided to revert back to the partially frozen Cold Avenger. However, the switch over was fraught in the minus 30 with the wind. Eventually I managed but I sacrificed 2 pairs of gloves as they got covered in frozen condensed breath and got a bit wet. Eventually the switch to the breathing mask was complete and luckily my googles started to clear again.

The cloud only lasted for a couple of hours and then the sun returned. I caught myself starting to smile when the first shard of sun approached. I carried on to the south, coming across numerous ski tracks from my colleagues. Some I followed for a bit, others I ignored. They were no easier than the rest of the ice field. I noticed my pulk, which squeaked and crunched over the snow was starting to fall silent. I had climbed imperceptibly and was now at the 88th degree and 40 minutes and this was the end of the climb which had been going on the undulating steps from Thiel Fuel Cache. I was now going onto the Polar Plateau at last.

The snow was like castor sugar or sand, but it was not so abrasive as the same type of snow in the 86th degree. The grain of the snow was very small and almost powder. It was OK to ski on and it continues for the next 150 km all the way to the south pole. I skied perhaps another 10 km across the plateau till I hit the 25 km mark and then put the tent up. The snow was deep and loose, and the tent pegs would struggle if a wind arrived, so I used the skis as tent anchors. Since the squall passed early in the morning the weather had been nice again and now in the evening it warmed the tent and dried my damp clothing. It had been a great day and despite the tiredness I enjoyed the peace and solitude of the plateau, smooth and luminous bright, it was vast and almost seemed to follow the curvature of the earth like an ocean view does. If I had 6 more days like today, I would reach the pole before my food ran out.

Day 56. Jan 14.  S 88º45.800 W 081º53.839 to S 88º58.377 W 082º44.961. 24 km. 10.5 hrs. 2740 Cal. Distance to Pole 115 km. Food Left 5 days. I woke naturally at 0400 again and the sun was out. I was a bit quicker this morning and got away just after 0600. It was immensely bright outside on this Polar Plateau, yet far to the north where I had been in the last 2-3 weeks was cloud. I wondered if there were the same whiteout conditions there now, similar to the ones which had plagued me when I was there. The snow up here was like caster sugar again, but some people compared it to sand. It was quite a remarkable consistency and not unlike the snow of the 86th degree which was deep and abrasive. Except here it was not so abrasive and the pulk slid a bit more easily. However, I was never going to get any sort of glide on my skis before the end of the expedition as the snow was too sharp and granular. Perhaps even without a pulk I would have had little glide. So, I was resigned to plodding along for the next 5 days or 115 km. What was remarkable about the snow was the silence of it. Unusually the pulk runners squeak as they get dragged over the snow but with the Polar Plateau snow it was silent as if riding on a bed of feathers.

It was pretty flat all day according to my instruments, but I felt I was going uphill. I was quite fatigued. I thought perhaps I had some sort of illness or lethargy but had no fever. I felt very sleepy and could have easily put the tent up and fallen asleep at once. It was the same as yesterday. This was probably because I am not getting enough sleep. I ski for 11-12 hours, put up or take down the tent for 4 hours, cook for 2, blog for 1 and the remaining 5 hours are sleep. For most of the morning I felt slightly delirious and plodded along in automaton mode with my eyelids often heavy. Even when clouds came and blotted out the sun and the temperature plummeted to minus 30, I did not get any invigoration. Nor after the snacks or meal. It was only towards the end of the day after the last break that I became livelier. People might say, I bet you can’t wait to have a beer or pizza. Actually, nothing is further from my mind. What I am really looking forward to is falling asleep in front of the fire in my cosy living room with Fiona, my partner, practicing the piano in the corner.

I came across more tracks and even some campsites today. I think they were from Al and Dave- the ex-marines, and then later Robert and Per, 2 soloists from Poland and Sweden respectively who appear to have teamed up. They began from the Messner Start, which is slightly shorter and meets the Hercules Inlet route at Thiel Fuel Cache. Thereafter they would have done the rugged 86 and 87 degrees which I did. They are not on my bush telegraph but they seem to be averaging 18 km a day so I might catch them up. In the meantime, I am still last.

I was going to do 25 km today but as I reached 24, I saw a wave of castor sugar looming. It was not the climb which concerned me but the cold wind coming down the slope as the evening air chilled. This catabatic wind would have stripped any solar gain the tent was producing. So, I stopped well before the bottom of the slope. This slope rose up pretty much on the 89th degree and also coincided with the 2700 metre contour line. I got a message from Poppis saying he had recorded a temperature of minus 32 just up the slope. So that, and the catabatic wind, would have been fiendishly cold.

The tent was up quickly in the gentle, but bitter breeze and I was soon inside the tent feeling the sun on my face. Without the sun this expedition would have been very difficult. There would be no way to dry clothes or have a clear vision of the terrain. The forecast said sun, lots of it, for the next week, but the temperature would be about minus 30-35. With it minus 30 outside the temperature in the tent could be plus 20 and all that separated the two was a layer of ripstop nylon.

Tomorrow, I start the Last Degree. The others already have. There is a definite excitement in the air now with everybody remaining, about 9 of us about to finish in the next week. I plan to finish on the 19th of January primarily because that is when my food runs out. The forecast is good, 5 days is average for a degree and the last degree is relatively easy and flat, so it is within my sights. But things can always go wrong.

Day 57. Jan 15.  S 88º58.377 W 082º44.961 to S 89º11.566 W 082º19.116. 25 km. 10.5 hrs. 3010 Cal. Distance to Pole 90 km. Food Left 4 days. I woke at 0430, a bit later than I wanted but still OK as I was quite fast and still managed to set off by 0630. It was a beautiful morning with just a slight breeze but cold; very cold at below minus 30. As I got to the bottom of the slope that I had stopped before yesterday, the breeze started to pick up and it went from a force 2 to a 3. It really made a difference, and my fingers were getting cold, so I had to put the OR Alti Mitts on. As I skied south it appeared that this rise was just one of many rises. They were less than a kilometre apart and there must have been a down slope the other side of each rise. I barely noticed the ups and downs other than visually. It was like a huge mid ocean swell created by a distant storm. I must have crossed some 15 of them in the first 12 km.

The wind had now increased to a force 4 and the spindrift was certainly on the move, although it stayed close to the ground. The patterns it produced on the surface of the snow were just like sand where water was moving over it. There were ripples in the snow everywhere. Although this was a southern wind, I noticed that there were some dunes here, and these were all aligned South East – North West indicating a South East wind. These South East winds would have been cyclonic when large depressions from the Southern Ocean extended this far. They must have been ferocious weather events. Luckily, I just had to cope with this cold catabatic southerly wind as the cold air flowed downhill from the plateau. My wind soon increased again to force 4. The wind chill must have been in the minus 40’s. I had to change gloves again for the Redline Mitts. I have never been more thankful to Bjorn at Pitteraq in Oslo for thrusting them upon me. They are so warm and give instant respite.

In the UK when we say a “bitter wind” we probably have a cold easterly in February coming off the North Sea. However, this morning’s wind took that to a whole new level. It was more like an industrial blast freezer where food is rapidly frozen. If I took a finger sized chipolata sausage at room temperature and threw it on the ground here, I am sure it would be frozen solid in a couple of minutes.  A bare hand, perhaps 10 minutes, and a hand in my Hestra gloves, perhaps half an hour before there was frostbite. I had to plan every move that involved any dexterity and stopping for a snack or rehydrating the macaroni was out of the question. Hence, I did not stop for nearly 6 hours by which time I had done 13km. At one stage I could feel the cold even coming through the Redline Mitts and thought I would have to call it a day and put the tent up or risk frostbite. It was the most intense cold I think I have experienced. However, I managed to get the Redline Mitts into the poggies and that brought some respite.

After 6 hours the Force 4 had abated to a Force 2, and I took the opportunity to have the macaroni and hot chocolate. It was delicious and I managed to finish the cup of macaroni before it froze. This boosted my energy, and I did another 8 km with the wind easing all the time. I came across some tracks and worked out they were from Al and Dave and also from Robert and Per. They were just a day old but already covered in small dunes. It was not a great help to follow them as the new spindrift was more abrasive than the snow I was on. However, it did mean I could park my mind in neutral and not have to worry about navigation. I followed their tracks past their campsites and across more rolling swell until I had done 25 km. As yesterday I noticed a large wave or ridge to the south which would be the first thing tomorrow.

It was just a force 2 but still below minus 30 when I quickly put the tent up and went inside to sort myself out. My mask had frozen to my small beard which took a while to pull apart but the piece of drybag I had sewn onto the mask did seem to have diverted the moisture away from my chest. Despite the blast freezer raging outside at minus 30 the tent did get up to nearly 20 degrees inside which will dry my damp clothing. It had been a good day despite the wind and the most noticeable achievement was passing into the “Last Degree”. ALE and private firms run mini guided expeditions across the relatively easy but cold last degree which takes a week or so for those who want a shorter Antarctic adventure. But these had just finished for the season. At the scheduled 2100 ALE phone call I spoke to Louis Rudd who had just finished guiding a group for his company called Shackleton.

Day 58. Jan 16. S 89º11.566 W 082º19.116 to S89º25.296 W 081º44.483. 26 km. 11 hrs. 2740 Cal. Distance to Pole 65 km. Food Left 3 days. I woke at 0400 and left at 0630. Initially it was great but then a southerly wind developed. It was not as bad as yesterday but still one of the coldest days I have experienced. The whole day was similar to yesterday really except the wind was just low enough to give me the confidence to prepare the chocolate drinks and the lunch. I continued skiing over the vast undulating icefield which sat over the pole and spread out in every direction.

Around lunch I thought I spotted someone away in the distance, about 5 km away. Of course, it could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. But I lined it up with 2 distinctive patches of snow and it did in fact move. In fact, it seemed there were two people. It must be Robert and Per, Polish and Swedish respectively. They had started at the shorter Messner start and were going quite slowly. After some 4 hours I finally caught up with them when they camped early because Per’s foot was sore. I had not seen anyone since the end of November so as I approached the tents, I was anxious. It was indeed Robert and Per, and they came out to meet me. I suppose a snippet of social chat was all I could hope for in my “Man Friday” moment. However, it was very perfunctory. I would have been better going round them and saved the epiphany of social interaction for the camp at the South Pole. They took a few photos of me, and I skied off after 10 minutes.

130. Arriving at the campsite of Per and Robert who took the photo.

I wanted 26 today and I got them. Once the tent was up, I did all the chores and then had my delicious Expedition Foods fish and potato. After the meal I tried to write but kept falling asleep so made the blog for today short and succinct.

Day 59. Jan 17. S 89º25.296 W 081º44.483 to S 89º38.363 W 081º17.103. 25 km. 11 hrs. 2610 Cal. Distance to Pole 40 km. Food Left 2 days. When I looked at my watch and it said 0400, I knew I had to get up, but I would dearly loved to have spent another 4-5 hours sleeping. I could see from the rippling on the tent there was a slight breeze, but the sun was out, and the tent was not cold. The solar gain of the tent is an absolute Godsend and without it this trip would be totally different with tens of litres of fuel to heat the tent and dry things.

I set off at 0630 and already the wind had dropped a bit as per the forecast. by lunchtime it had all but ceased. The view from my hermetically sealed face area and out of the goggles was almost of a tropical paradise with smooth white sand under an even light turquoise sky. It could have been a poster for a white sandy Hebridean beach or Whitehaven Beach in Australia. The “sand” was brilliant white, almost luminous, and it sparkled as I went along it. There was immense solitude and mystery here on the Polar Plateau nearly 3000 metres above sea level. It was quite a magical place. But then if you took a glove off or unsealed part of the face the reality of minus 30 soon made its presence felt with a stinging reminder.

131. The problem of condensation is that it freezes on the breathing mask and on the cheek and nose protection flaps sewn onto the goggles.

As I skied my thoughts inevitably turned to finishing in a couple of days. There will be a team running the camp as a satellite from the main hub at Union Glacier. I wondered who was in that team as inevitably there would be someone there who I’d known previously or was a friend of a friend, either American, Norwegian, or British. Then there will be the “expeditioners”. Pierre and the FireAngels had already left but in their place will be Patrick the Canadian who I hung around with in Punta Arenas before we left. Then there would be the Finns who arrived at the South Pole today. Then Al and Dave (the ex-marines) and I would probably all arrive in 2 days. I should imagine the comradeship between us will be overwhelming. Apparently, Patrick has already said he would bring me breakfast in bed on the first morning. I am not looking forward to luxuries that much other than having time to relax and write. I don’t think I have had a whole day off since I thought I had badly damaged my knee and that was perhaps 7 weeks ago. I am also looking forward to the very simple things like having a chair to sit on or readily available hot water.

However I will also miss the daily expedition life and the routine I have established. Everything in the tent has a place and this order has evolved over the last 8 weeks. As long as the sun is out it gives me great joy to ski in Antarctica and I have enjoyed being in my bubble of exclusivity. But there have also been some significant hardships and it will be a delight not to contend with these for a while.

I did my 25 km by 1900 and then put the tent up. once inside I soon started to warm up as the evening sun shone onto the west side of the tent and radiated it heat. It was a very simple luxury, but I would not swap it for all the chocolate in Belgium. After the scheduled 2100 call with ALE I ate my delicious fish and potato stew and then wrote the blog but had difficulty staying awake. I still have 40 km to do which I hope to do the majority of tomorrow leaving me with a short day to finish on the 19th. All in all, it had been a great day, but I was tired and fatigued.

Day 60. Jan 18. S 89º38.363 W 081º17.103 to S 89º50.151 W 079º55.617. 22 km. 10 hrs. 2490 Cal. Distance to Pole 18 km. Food Left 1 days. When I looked at my watch it said 0300 so I rolled over for another hour. Unfortunately, I slept on to 0500 partially due to the tent being so warm due to the sun outside. I eventually got going at 0730. It was too late a start to do the intended 25 km, but it would be close. It was a beautiful, very bright and quite still morning and I had to vent the salopette legs to stop myself overheating despite the temperatures hovering around minus 30. From one horizon across to the other there was not a cloud in the light turquoise sky. There was just the sun in it. I have not seen the moon at all on this entire trip and it is something I will have to look up. Perhaps its orbit is in more restricted latitudes of say below 80 or even 70 degrees.

I split the day into four times 6 km sessions. On the first I approached the 2800 contour line and there was wave after wave of rolling ice waves to gently climb and then even more gently descent to reach the next. Each wave was about half a kilometre apart. The pulk felt heavy and difficult to pull or perhaps I had become quite feeble. It was now only about 50kg with a day’s worth of food and 2 litres of fuel. I tired very easily and also noticed how short of breath I was. It was nearly 3000 metres, but I had acclimatised in a text book manner and also at 3000 metres in the Himalayas I don’t have any issue. Maybe there was less oxygen in the air at the poles. I have not seen my torso for nearly 2 months as I never change clothes however, I notice the tremendous weight loss. I started probably 103 kg and I would say now I am approaching 80 kg. Just when the New Year’s resolution of Keto or Atkins or Huel diets are running into the sand in the general population with little to show may I recommend dragging a 100 kg sledge for 2 months across 1200km in Antarctica for guaranteed weight loss.

On the second session I felt a bit perkier as the waves eased off onto a very broad ridge. The weather had not changed but suddenly it felt colder. Much colder. I had my hand bare for 15 seconds doing something and it started to sting. I also noticed the cold suddenly creep through all my clothing. I have become used to it being minus 30 over the last week but this was much more, and it frightened me. An hour or two later I warmed up so I can only conclude it was a cold bubble of air that had dropped from a very high altitude. Like the opposite of a thermal. During its worst I had the redline mitts on and the poggies and still my fingers were cold.

During the third session I reached the top of the broad rise which the waves of the morning led up to and the skiing was easy. I think there was a slight descent because I was getting a glide on my skis here and there. In the distance I noticed 2 white stripes on the ice cap which looked a bit unusual. They could not be drifts. They were a long way away and perhaps there was some sort of mirage. it was warm enough now for me to take my phone camera out and I set it to 100 zoom and took a few photos. There were black things and when I looked with the eye again, I could make them out. Then it dawned on me it was the South Pole Station. There it is. THERE IT IS!! It was about 24 km away still but that was the South Pole and the end of my journey. I aimed to get there tomorrow.

From here there was a lovely barely perceptible descent for a couple of km down into a dip where the building disappeared. I stopped here for my snack and was amazed now how warm it was. I could virtually eat the whole energy bar without gloves on. This is what I would expect though on a sunny afternoon. I was going to do 6 km after the snack but in the end only did 4 km as I wanted the time to do the blog and enjoy a sunny evening in the tent. It was my last evening in the tent. I would miss the routine and order from boiling the kettle with my legs in the hole in the snow to then turning the stove off to retreat to the inner chamber which the sun had warmed nicely. I then had a host of things to do including eat my delicious dinner, check in with ALE, spread the solar panels out on the tent floor to charge, do some maintenance and write the blog. It was a routine which had developed over the last 60 nights which I have been in the tent consecutively. The tent has really been my home and I have got quite fond of it in the same way a prisoner might get fond of his cell. There is stability and order here while just outside is danger and chaos.

And so, I began my last night in the tent. Tomorrow I will be thrust back into society again having been detached from it for two months. During that time, I have virtually been entirely on my own like an ascetic monastic monk in a stone house on a rocky outcrop. I am usually a keen follower of current affairs, yet I know nothing about what has happened in the world since mid-November when Hamas launched an attack on Israel and Israel had just started to respond. I have lived in a complete cultural void where the only things that matter are the weather, snow condition, temperature, and visibility. It will be quite a shock to go back into society again after my supercharged Lent. I can imagine when I reconnect with my phone there will be over a thousand emails waiting for me but there will also be people to laugh and share jokes with and rejoice with and that excites me. I have done my time as a spiritual hermit and now it is time to re-enter society again. I have done it a few times in my life, not least with my 249 day Norway trip, but there is always an anxiety with change and change will happen tomorrow when I get to the South Pole Station. When I arrive there, I will be the oldest person to have skied solo to the South Pole and also the oldest person to have skied there unsupported. That is taking all my food fuel equipment and doing all my own repairs and maintenance without any outside help. I am pleased with that as it is quite an achievement for a 64 year old.

Day 61. Jan 19. S 89º50.151 W 079º55.617 to S 90º00.000 W 000º00.000. 21 km. 8 hrs. 2210 Cal. Distance to Pole 0 km. Food Left 0 days. I managed to get up a little after 0400 and the sun was shining into the tent heating the black insulation I had on the floor and this in turn was warming the tent and heating my boots. I packed everything and placed it all outside the vestibule and then turned and sat with my legs in the pit and looked inside my tent with some sadness. It had been very good to me and had been a solid and secure home for last two months. I then did the zip up of the inner for the last time and went out to pack the pulk. Although it was sunny there was a crescent of light grey cloud to the east. All the forecasts said it would be great today except for the one which I got on the Iridium Go. which said it would cloud over at 0900. Unfortunately, the Iridium Go forecast was the one I had leant was by far the most accurate and so it seemed today also.

132. In the freezing fog semi whiteout which enveloped on my last day as I skied towards the pole.

I decided to split the day into 3 times 6 kilometres and have two breaks. At each break I would have the last of my food, a packet of macaroni cheese. The 1000 calories in each would power me through the day. The trouble was it was a faff to prepare with mitts on. It was lovely as I set off, but the crescent of low grey cloud was moving towards me like a dust storm consuming all as it swallowed it up in its misery. I braced myself for it as the joy of the morning started to fade and within a short time the lights had gone out and where there was once sparkling snow there was now just a dull uniform greyness. It was not a proper whiteout, the likes of which plagued the 86th degree for me, but a semi whiteout and I could still see 100 metres. Without the sun to temper the cold the temperature dropped considerably as the freezing fog enveloped me. When the 6 km mark came up for the first break, I thought it is just not worth getting cold for the sake of a bowlful of macaroni so decided to bin the break and just have one at 9 km.

The closer I got to the South Pole the more and more tracks there were. Just as you could not move anymore with crossing over a longitudinal line it was the same with ski tracks and even vehicle tracks left by scientific vehicles. Most of the ski tracks came from ALE or private groups doing the “Last Degree” to the South Pole. Given the poor visibility, I decided to follow one of them where I guessed some 20 skiers had been altogether. It was fast and easy. With the longitudinal degree lines, what was 60 minutes or 60 nautical miles on the equator, was now just tens of metres. I should have been able to see the South Pole buildings from here become imperceptibly closer with every kilometre but could not see them at all.

Beside the ski track I was following there had been a single skier a few metres off to the side. I went over and followed this track for a while. There were a few things I noticed about it. It was so shockingly straight it would have made a Roman Road look like a meandering country lane. The pole baskets of the skier hit the ground every 2 metres rather than every metre like mine, so this skier had a great glide and technique. The pulk they were towing was a Paris Pulk. I soon deduced it was the track of Vincent Colliard who passed this way a week ago on his record-breaking speed run. he was making his own track as he did not want his record questioned. His technique was simply superb.

133. Arriving at the Ceremonial South Pole after 61 days alone on the ice if Antarctica.

At 9 km I did stop for my macaroni and as predicted I did get cold. I could feel the minus 30 even creep into my boots with the separate liners and 2 pairs of socks. I could feel it permeate 6 layers on top and 4 on my legs and I could certainly feel it come through the mitts. However, once I had the macaroni inside me I felt empowered and sped off to try and warm up again. After a quick 4 km, almost racing an imaginary Colliard beside me on his razor-sharp track, I had warmed up again. Then out of the grey, to the west of the track, appeared some small structures with flags on. I assumed these were scientific data or collection points. They continued for a kilometre or so when the freezing fog started first to thin and let some more light in and then to lift slightly. Suddenly before my eyes some 2 kilometres away the South Pole Base Station, dozens of small scientific structures, a large telecoms dish and the brightly coloured tents of ALE’s South Pole Camp appeared. ALE’s camp was about half a kilometre to the east of the South Pole Base Station, and it was my immediate destination. All the ski tracks were leading to it like spokes on a wheel. I had been told when I got to it someone would come out to meet me and point me in the direction of the South Pole itself.

It took a short hour to reach ALE’s brightly coloured camp, almost a pageant in contrast to the stark authoritarian structure of the US administered Amundsen Scott South Pole Station.  I can imagine someone in the ALE camp saw me and announced “incoming single skier with pulk” as soon an ALE jeep came out to meet me. The camp manager Cedar from Whitehorse and his good friend Devon from South BC, Canada, got out and strolled over to intercept me. I recognised both from Union Glacier 2 months ago. It seemed appropriate that Devon should welcome me as he was the person who put me in touch with ALE (Antarctic Logistics and Exploration) 8 months ago when I first enquired about an adventure in Antarctica. There was a hearty handshake and congratulations, but I was covered in ice and did not want to take my mask or goggles off because it would take so long to realign everything. They pointed me in the direction of the Ceremonial South Pole and the Geographical South Pole which were adjacent to each other a short kilometre away up an icy road. They told me to go there, and they would come up in 15 minutes and meet me and take photos and then drive me and the pulk back.

134. With the glint of victory in my eyes at the Ceremonial South Pole. The tape on the nose is to cover some frost damage.

I went up to the flags of the Ceremonial South Pole and as I got there Devon arrived in the ALE truck. There were more handshakes and then he took some 30 photos of me getting his hands cold in the process. We then walked over to the Geographical South Pole a few hundred metres away and I set off my check in to register the 90-degree reading. I walked round the world a couple of times and stood with one foot in one time zone and the other in a time zone twelve hours ahead. Devon took more photos. Then we loaded the pulk onto a trailer and I climbed into the truck and drove the short km back to ALE’s camp. Here Devon showed me a large yellow tent with 2 beds, a heater, 2 chairs, and a table in and said it was mine. I could stand up in it and the warmth was fantastic, both solar and the kerosene heater. I put my bedding on the pack on the bare mattress and then went into the main dining and kitchen tent.

135. With my now very empty pulk with the Thistle of Scotland on the back. My bedding is in the green bag.

As I went in there was a cheer and people came forward congratulate me. First were the two ex-marines Alan Chamber and his friend Dave who arrived a few hours ahead of me. Then Anna, a delightful and calm Kiwi from Te Anau, who gave me an enormous and warm hug, and then Twitty, a Malaysian cook from Sabah. Along with Cedar and Devon, we were the only people here. I had just missed Patrick and Poppis and the Finns who flew back to Union Glacier as I was arriving. I sat with Al and Dave and had a huge plate of food and soft drink. There was beer here too, but it would make me too sleepy.

136. With my skis at the Ceremonial South Pole. I used both Asnes Amundsen (pictured) and Asnes Ousland in the pulk.

I spent the afternoon basking in the euphoria of that dining tent and the seemingly unlimited supply of luxuries of soft drinks, chocolate, and great company. Alan and Dave were in a similar mood and had the sparkle of victory in their very blue eyes. Alan was a Polar veteran and had many North Pole last degree trips under his belt and a few South Pole ones too. He knew everybody and one of his last trips had been to bring the founding owners of Google to Antarctica for a solar eclipse and they were now his personal friends. I had been in contact with Al and Dave almost daily via a Garmin Inreach message and they had helped keep me motivated during my darkest days in the whiteouts in the 86th degree. How lovely it was now to bask with them in the victory of this warm convivial tent looked after by Cedar, Devon, Anna and Twitty the most warm, considerate and delightful hosts. Cedar and Devon were both polar guides and had done this trip so they could empathise with us.

137. At the Geographical South Pole at 90 degrees where all longitudinal lines and time zones meet.

Soon Twitty announced dinner was ready and served us a fusion of Malaysian inspired beef curry and chicken and then the 7 of us, 4 staff and 3 guests ate together. It was the most perfect evening and it only got better when Al produced a bottle of single malt, Wolfburn 46%, from Thurso which the 7 of us shared. I eventually went to bed just after 2100 into my warm spacious tent having been told breakfast was at 1000 the next day. As usual I went to bed fully dressed in 3 layers of leggings and 5 tops. Initially I slept well but then woke after midnight absolutely boiling as if I had fallen asleep in a greenhouse in the mid-afternoon in the middle of a heatwave. The trouble is I could not get my tops off. All the zips were stuck in the done-up position where they had been for the last 8 weeks and then were eroded by salt and time. I eventually forced them off but nearly ripped my ears off. The mesh of the Brynje under garments had left diamond impressions on my torso. I was pleased to see my arms had not withered as much as I feared. after that I fell back asleep and slept well until the alarm went at 0500. The joy of hitting the “dismiss” button should not be underestimated and I slept for another 4 hours.

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October 14, 2023

Day 40. Dec 29.  S 86º00.335 W 081º14.560 to S 86º11.000 W 081º20.082.  20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3110 Cal. It had been snowing a light drizzle through the night and it was still doing so in the morning. Perhaps 2 cm had accumulated on the pulk. It was not flakes or even polystyrene like beads but more of a fine dust, as if someone had thrown icing sugar around. I set off at 0700 and immediately knew I would be splitting the day into four 5 km sessions rather than 6 as it was heavy going from the off.

The 86 degree is renowned for having deeper soft snow, similar to what I was skiing on. There was probably a climatic explanation, but it might be that this region gets a lot of freezing fog, and this produces the fine snow particles which just accumulate. These small snow particles like icing sugar grip the runners of the pulk and don’t let it pass easily. I found that there were also some slightly glazed ridges amongst the beds of deep soft snow and these ridges ran in the same direction I was going, namely south. If I kept to the ridges, it was much easier, but it was not easy to link them up. Although it was nearly a whiteout the sun was there as a diffuse ball trying to shine through a thin layer of fog. This fog or low cloud persisted all day but the diffuse ball in the sky was there most of the tie also. It was a kind of semi whiteout and the snow had little contrast, but I could see at least 100 metres.

I pulled and pulled the pulk all day gradually getting more and more tired. It was exhausting work. I felt like a large plough horse pulling a 3 bladed plough through an everlasting field of sorbet. As the day wore on the more tired, I got. I suppose this is what it was like to be a slave or a prisoner in a work camp where you get up and toil all day, day after day, until the labour takes its toll. However, this usually takes years, and it is quite unbelievable really how resilient the human body is. I was toiling but I was well nourished and there was also a goal insight just in 3 weeks or so. My lot was really nothing like a slave or prisoner of war, but it was taxing, and I was working at full steam really.

At last, the 20 km was up and I found a nice firm sheet of neve snow on which to pitch the tent. It was up in 20 minutes, and I was soon inside getting the stove going. It takes a good hour to melt and boil enough snow for the next 24 hours. After that I retreated to the inner tent and got onto my sleeping bag and made a chair from the thermarest. It was the best time of the day, just about to have my delicious Expedition Foods fish and potato stew, which I could never tire of. Their lunch time Mac and Cheese is wearing a bit thin though. After that the bush telegraph messages start coming in about who had an easy day and who had a tough one. It seems that most people in this neck of the woods were having the same problem with the soft abrasive sand like snow. Not Pierre though he had finally broken through the giant sastrugi and dunes of snow and was just on the Polar Plateau. He had some 200 km of flattish skiing to do to reach the South Pole. For me it had been a hard day with little rewards or view, but I was another 20 km closer to the pole. I would sleep well tonight.

Day 41. Dec 30. S 86º11.000 W 081º20.082 to S  86º17.916 W 081º22.555. 13 km. 9 hrs. 2470 Cal. It was snowing a light drizzle when I woke and packed. The pulk had about 5 cm of new snow on it with the consistency of castor sugar (where I previously wrote icing sugar, I meant castor sugar). Once I was hitched into the harness and had taken my first steps, I knew today was going to be hard. To make it more bearable mentally I kept it in 4 sessions but dropped the kilometres in each one to 4 kilometres. As it turned out even that was too much. It was a fiendish haul and I had to really work hard. The first kilometre took an hour and cost me 300 calories. I became a bit despondent about it all and morale slipped to a low ebb. In the last week since leaving Thiel Fuel Cache it has virtually been poor weather the whole time. The sun has not made many appearances, but the whiteouts and the fine snow has continued almost unabated. It is sapping my joy and from what I can make of the weather forecast there is still a couple more days of overcast snowy weather to come. I also was a bit annoyed that the others were now days ahead of me. They were in teams with much lighter pulks, and they could also take it in turns to plough through.

I had hoped to do a degree in every 5 days, which is an average of about 22 km per day but there is no way I can manage that in these conditions. After nearly 3 hours I had only done 3 km and I was already quite exhausted so had my first break. It had at least stopped snowing now and the whiteout was quite half hearted really. For the rest of the day the weather did improve and as it did, I could feel my mood lift. Towards the end of the day there was plenty of blue sky and I could put my compass away and rely on distant cloud formations as a bearing. My usually ordered system of breaks went out of the window as I ploughed on, and they became quite random and almost chaotic as I had to stop nearly every kilometre for a rest. I could feel some aches and pains but interestingly not in my right knee. My pulk weight including the pulk was still about 75 kg and of that only about 30kg was food and fuel now. I think I am still a good week or two from that magic tipping point when I can easily overcome the resistance. A bit like a motorboat labouring away until suddenly it breaks free and starts to plane on the water.

115. Ploughing a lonely furrow in an endless plain of caster sugar like snow, some 10-15 cm deep.

I heard from others ahead that this degree becomes easier after the halfway point with firmer snow again. That means I probably still have another two days of hard work before I get there. If it continues like this much more, it will cost me my “unsupported” status as I will probably need a re supply somewhere on the Polar Plateau but that is still a long way off. A resupply would not be the end of the world for me, but had I decided to go “supported” the whole way I could have had a 50 kg lighter pulk on average and a lot less worry over my equipment failing. The Finns did this and have been living the dream with entrecote and chardonnay. I stopped early at 1730 as I thought there was a danger of damaging some muscles especially in my right lower leg. As I put the tent up the sun came out and it soon warmed the tent. In fact, it was a lovely evening in the tent and the temperature in the drying rack got up to 31 degrees and the solar panels were working overtime after a leisurely week for them. The sun makes all the difference to the mood too and I was content in the evening.

Day 42. Dec 31. S 86º17.916 W 081º22.555 to S 86º27.544 W 081º27.525. 18 km. 9 hrs. 2290 Cal. It was a warm and sunny night. The tent was warm, and everything was crisp and dry. The solar chargers had filled both batteries in the night. The tent life in the morning was pleasant as it was about 20 degrees in the tent. When I emerged, it was to a wall-to-wall light blue sky, a very mild turquoise almost like a watercolour wash. The snow was a brilliant white and without my goggles I would have almost been blinded by it. The weather had instantly changed my mood for the better. There had been no wind in the night and my footsteps around the tent, some 15 cm deep were still fresh. As I put on the yoke and started to pull, the pulk felt heavy and I decided to go for four times 4.5 kilometres today making a total of 18. It is what most of the others managed in this quagmire of caster sugar.

As I was doing the first session the icesheet rose up to a higher plateau to around 1800 metres. On this rise there must have been some catabatic winds descending from the 1800 plateau as there was little snow here on the firm neve and skarve surface. My ski poles squeaked as they twisted on the firm surface. There was also some small sastrugi around, but it was quite light. The pulk slid easily across the hard surface and I could climb quite quickly. However, it was only a couple of kilometres over an hour or so and soon I was on the shelf above and the deep caster sugar returned.

116. My tent pitched with the skis as pegs as the snowpack was too soft for the standard snow pegs I have.

It continued like this for the rest of the day with me stopping every 2-2.5 hours for a break. As far as the eye could see it was a smooth even surface to the distant horizons. The horizon itself was huge and well delineated. Above was the turquoise water colour wash and below the brilliant white smooth snow, which I though took of some of the turquoise from above. Occasionally I came across the tracks of Poppis and the Finns who passed here two days previously, but they were buried under 10 cm of new snow, and I quickly lost them again.

At the breaks I had to swap my gloves for mitts as it was much colder now. I also put on my Decathlon duvet jacket over my main Shackleton jacket and the harness. That way I kept warm while sitting on the pulk. During the last session a wisp of hazy cloud appeared and occasionally covered the sun. It was the next batch of poor snowy weather arriving and it was forecast to last 2 days. Hopefully I would be out of this wind still area where the snow accumulated with being compressed into firmer snow by the wind. After this inclement weather for the next couple of days, which was bound to be in a whiteout, the forecast looks good. At 18 km I stopped and put up the tent. There was no sun now, so it was not that warm until I brought the stove inside the inner tent. It did not take long before it was roasting. I ate my supper sitting up feeling the warmth pumping out from the stove. On the bush telegraph this evening I have not heard from Pierre but with both his bindings damaged but just usable he is pushing for the South Pole on the Polar Plateau now. Poppis and the Finns, the FireAngels, and the ex-marines Al and Dave, are all ahead by a day or 3 and are in better conditions now and all three groups are preparing for the big 1000 metre climb to the Polar Plateau. Theis climb of 1000 metres is over some 150 kilometres, so the gradients are not that steep, but significant. Today had been a nice way to finish off the year.

Day 43. Jan 1. S 86º27.544 W 081º27.525 to S 86º38.000 W 081º37.741. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3150 Cal. From my sleeping bag I could hear it was quite windy outside and the tent buffeted a bit. But it was just a mild gale and not anything like a storm and I could not afford a day off.  When I emerged from the tent, having packed everything, I thought “is this wise?”. It was like Ice station Zebra again. If someone had said to me I would do 20 km today I would never have believed them. It was also cold, perhaps minus 15, and the windchill was terrific. I carefully took the tent down using the security painter in case a gust took it from my hands and packed it too and got out the compass. I would have liked to have taken a photo, but it would have been too cold on my fingers, which now look like a clerics rather than a bricklayers, as I lose weight.

With the compass mounted I set off and luckily the wind was almost at my back coming from the NE. I was well covered up. The Shackleton salopettes, which are amongst my favourite bits of kit, really do a great job in keeping my legs warm and the jacket with the fake fur ruff protect my top half face beautifully. The terrain was still sandy snow like caster sugar. The skis would not keep a straight line or stay that level and my boots and ankles were twisting sideways frequently. However, there were often patches where the snow was firmer, and I could ski here and was delighted how well the pulk was on this firmer snow. I decided to go for four 5 km sessions and by the time I reached the first the wind had eased from a force 6 to a 4. It was still bitter in it.

On the second, third, and fourth sessions the snow got progressively firmer, and the skiing was much easier. I had to put the “Cold Avenger” face-mask on as the sunburn on my lips was being affected by the cold. It too is another favourite bit of kit. I suddenly saw my blurry shadow and looked round and there was the haze hidden sun behind a thin layer of cloud. It came and went all day except in the morning, when it was a total white out, the visibility remained tolerable. I climbed steadily all day and barely noticed it and by the time I reached 20 km I had climbed to 1900 metres over sea level. Which partly explains the bitter cold. I still have another 1000 metres to climb over the next 10 days or so to reach the Polar Plateau.

It is almost habit now, but it is amazing to just stop at a random spot on this vast ice sheet take out the tent and put it up and then some 20 minutes later I am sitting with my legs in a hole while the stove is melting snow. Then I retire into the inner tent, which is my home, and the bitter cold of the outside is soon forgotten. After my scheduled call to ALE at 2100 hours I write the blog and send it to my friend, Ruth, to proofread and publish. The day has a rigid structure and routine and without that I think things would unravel quite quickly.  On the bush telegraph both Pierre and Poppis had equipment failures which they are both hoping to fix. The FireAngels, Bex and George, are now into the middle of the 87th degree where the climbs are steep and the sastrugi of biblical dimensions. Al and Dave, the ex-marines are about 25 km ahead of me and keep sending me words of encouragement which was needed after the last week of poor weather and difficult snow. All in all, it had been an OK day, and I am slowly chipping away at the distance. It is now only 375 km to go, and I still have 17 day’s worth of food left.

Day 44. Jan 02. S 86º38.000 W 081º37.741 to S 86º48.765 W 081º45.469.  21 km. 9.5 hrs. 2450 Cal. Sometime in the early morning the sun must have come out as it was hot in the tent. I was still in my minus 30 sleeping bag so was in effect being slowly roasted. As a result, I did not wake naturally around 0500 but nearer 0600 and I felt a bit groggy, almost hungover. The sun stayed out while I breakfasted, packed, and for the first hour or so of the day. The skiing in the morning was great and it was firm and even. I decided to go for 3 sessions of 7 km each so I would only have two breaks instead of three. Ahead of me I could see a great wave of ice. It looked like a frozen tsunami towering some 50-100 metres above. To get to the base of it there was actually a bit of shallow downhill and then the climb up the wave started. It was 100 metres, and it took about an hour. The climb was on hard snow and even bare ice which was fissured with narrow cracks 1-2 cm wide caused by the buckling of the ice sheet as it slowly flowed down here. The pulk glided beautifully on it and despite going up, felt light. It was so different to the last week when I was in a quagmire of soft white sugary snow which clawed at the pulk. I felt like a fruit fly which had inadvertently landed in the middle of bowl of syrup and after a week of wading through it finally reached the rim of the bowl.

117. The tsunami in the ice sheet which I had to climb to reach the 1900 metre plateau.

Despite the effort of the climb up the tsunami it was nice to have some topography again after a bland flat week. Near the top of the climb, I had my first break just as the forecast clouds and snow were coming in on the bitter NE wind. From my selection of gloves and mitts I had finally found a great solution to this cold for my fingers. I had removed the liners from OR Alti Mitts and this allowed me to use my OR Backstop Sensors inside them. Then I put both into the poggies so in effect I had 3 layers. If I needed to do something dexterous, I could just slip my gloved hand out of the mitt for a minute or five and then reinsert it into the warm mitt lining later.

On the second session the weather deteriorated to just short of a complete white out. However, the surface was even, and I could just plod along. Both the sky and snow were a dull grey but the sky was slightly darker so there was fuzzy horizon. There was little to see on the snow’s surface and any pitfall was only noticed at the last minute, but there were very few. One of the biggest problems skiing in a near whiteout was what to do with the mind. It would not go dormant and passive but just kept churning round and round on usually banal thoughts. Once it started on a chain of negative thoughts It was difficult to turn it around to happy thoughts again. One recurring theme was constantly calculating how much food I had, versus how many kilometres, versus how much time I needed, versus average kilometres per day. “Doing the Math” as people on the Pacific Crest Trail used to say. I think long distance hikers do a lot of it and it is dull. Perhaps that is why they listen to podcasts to have a more structured chain of thought rather than random thoughts in a chaotic chain reaction.

During the third session the whiteout cleared, and it was more like sporadic pockets of snow showers coming through. There was always one horizon which was clear even if the other 3 were blurred. I kept my compass mounted in front of me as without it I was like a moth to the sun. Within the space of 15 seconds, I could inadvertently turn 90 degrees without knowing it. It was only when I looked at the compass again that I realised. I also use my Garmin Fenix watch a lot to navigate. It has the course plotted on it and my position too and I just keep on one or the other. It also tells me how far I have done and much more useful information like whether I am ascending or not. Just as I was approaching the end of the day, I started on another shallow but sustained climb from the shelf or plateau I had been on up to the next level. I only did a part of it when I hit 21 km much earlier in the day than I thought.

118. The tent is up, and the sun is warming it for me to go inside and cook (boil water really) and relax.

I had the tent up and stove on by 1900 just as the sun came out fully to warm the tent. It was a lovely evening for me with some warmth and the clothes, hardly damp with sweat, drying on the rack. I had macaroni for supper for a change as over the last few days I have been rationing the odd portion here and there, especially the lunch time macaroni which is a palaver to prepare in a cold wind. But doing this I have collected an entire day’s worth, so I still have 16 day’s worth; one to finish this degree and 5 for each of the next 3 degrees. A degree is 112 km for those who like to “do the math”. At the scheduled 2100 call to ALE I give my position and then have a small 2-3 minute chat.  Sometimes there is someone from the ALE family of employees there to offer encouragement and support after the call. Tonight, it was Preet Chandri, polar superstar, on the phone to chivvy me along to the Pole. They are a very thoughtful bunch at Union Glacier and indeed the Polar Community in general.

Day 45. Jan 03. S 86º48.765 W 081º45.469 to S 86º57.102 W 081º50.543. 16 km. 8 hrs. 2290 Cal. I could hear it was a nasty day from the comfort of my sleeping bag. It took great discipline to get up because I knew what lay in store. There was yet another weather front coming in and it would mean snow, whiteout, and a cold wind. None the less I had to get something on the scorecard for today. When I went out at 0700 it was as bad as I feared with virtually no visibility, snow and a stream of spindrift flowing like water round a boulder when it hit the tent. There was a large drift on the upwind side of the tent and the snow valances around the tent were buried. Rather than burden myself with something unfeasible I said I would try and do 4 sessions each of 4 kilometres. I thought it was quite manageable. Just as I started, I noticed a tiny air bubble in the compass.

The first session was quite arduous as it continued uphill on the hard snow and drifted snow which was almost dune like. I saw nothing of it nor when I was about to walk into it until I was on it. It was a total white out and all I could see were my skis and the compass on the mount. There was no horizon at all. The trouble with this total white out is you can’t see the change in terrain or the small ridges or dunes and so you can’t plan accordingly, you just stumble into it. So, it took 2 hours to do the first session. My skis slipped on the harder patches and then got bogged down in the small dunes. All I could do was keep moving forward. As an experiment I closed my eyes for a minute and kept skiing. It did not make any difference at all. It was the same with all the sessions today except some had quite benign terrain where I could step forward more confidently. I spent the entire day watching my compass bubble grow until it was about the size of a lentil.

I kept thinking about the weather and why it was like this at the moment. Perhaps it was affected by El Nino, which influenced the Atlantic also, or perhaps it was just a bad run of low pressures in the Southern Ocean and these ones were big enough to encroach onto Antarctica also. If they did then the northeast winds (the equivalent of the northern hemisphere south westerly) would bring in moisture which would be swept inland and condense and fall as precipitation as it rose and the 86th degree is where it rose. Maybe it was a bit like a cloud forest in warmer climes where moisture laden air would rise up in the mountains and condense leaving the mountains above dry and sunny. Maybe that is the case here too where the moisture falls here in the 86th and 87th degree leaving the Polar Plateau dryer and sunnier. Hopefully not as elusive and fictitious as the Sunlit Uplands of Boris Johnson.

119. It takes about an hour at the end of every day to melt and boil some 7 litres of water for the next 24 hours.

As I closed in on my 16 km in the whiteout, I thought that if any normal people had seen me, they would want me sectioned or locked up for my own good. Here was a solo person on a vast glacier in a whiteout with the nearest other people, Al and Dave, some 30 kilometres away. And yet to me now it felt quite normal. It’s what I had been doing for the last 6 weeks and what I would be doing for the next 2. Perhaps I was suffering from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where I felt some benevolence to my kidnappers. When the weather is good, I thoroughly enjoy it, but this run of snowy and misty weather is beginning to test my patience. However, from the small forecasts I can get on my devices it seems good weather is just round the corner.

I had wanted to make it to the 87th degree but that would have meant another 3 hours skiing and a late finish. So as planned I stopped at 16 km and put the tent up. it was cold here now I was at 2100 metres. It was perhaps minus 18 outside but in the wind, it felt considerably more. There was no sun, so the tent was cold but after melting the snow I brought the stove inside and it quickly warmed the interior and started to dry some of the damp clothing. It had not been a great day, yet I had done 16 km and climbed some 150 metres too apparently although I never noticed it. The bush telegraph was very quiet, and I think everyone had an early finish and then an early bed.

Day 46. Jan 04. S 86º57.102 W 081º50.543 to S 87º08.805 W 082º27.146. 24 km. 11.5 hrs. 3790 Cal. The iridium weather forecast said it would be 5 days of sun from this morning and I could see and feel from inside the tent it had already started. However, it was to be cold, about minus 22, and there would be a force 4-5 wind for the whole period. When I went outside to pack, the sky was perfectly blue, a light azure, but it was cold, very cold. I decided to be ambitious today and go for 4 sessions of 6 km and see if I could make 24 in total. However, the snow was clinging at the pulk. It was if I was dragging it through iron filings, especially the deeper sections. There had been snow on and off for the last 8 days and it had not really settled yet or got a glaze.

The first session was quite easy except for the sluggish snow but it took 3 hours just to do 6 km. I started at about 2100 metres height and climbed frequently over waves of ice as they flow in super slow motion down from the plateau. There was the odd bit of negligible downhill on the south side of the wave before a gentle climb of on average 20 metres or so to the next. Each wave seemed 2 km apart. Going up the wave the wind had generally blown the snow off the firmer fissured ice, so it was much easier than the flatter parts where it settled.

It was so cold my glove system of OR backstop, then the outer shell of the OR Alti Mitt and then the poggie was not really enough. I had something else at the ready which I was keeping for the plateau but thought it wise to use it now. It was the Mountain Equipment Redline Mitt. They were too big for the poggies but the small OR backstop fitted inside them. They were fantastically warm, and I was so pleased I brought them.

It was a delight to be able to see everything again. The cold and the wind were a small sacrifice to pay to be able to appreciate where I was on this vast rolling ice sheet. My mood soared and I was optimistic again. If I could just push hard for these 5 predicted good weather days, I should be through the infamous 87 Degree and almost on to the flatter gentler Polar Plateau.

120. The valley with the dunes of snow in a moonscape before the tsunami of ice beyond which I would climb

At the third break it was just too windy, and I would have got too cold preparing my drink. I thought it was getting on also and it would be better to do just another 4 km in which case I could skip the hot chocolate drink, which I did. A bit further on I came over another wave and could see a great frozen tsunami rearing up ahead. It was the slope up to the 2200 metres contour line. Unfortunately, my 4 km would take me halfway up it but, that was acceptable I thought. However, there was a small valley of ice between it and the wave I was on. I had a nice 5-10 minute downhill run and sometimes had to ski fast so the pulk would not catch me up and bash into my legs. The valley was quiet and sunny with little wind and in hindsight I should have stopped here. It had some strange snow formations which I had heard ALE refer to as dunes. I previously dismissed it as perhaps a mis translation between American and British English, but I was wrong. There were actual dunes of snow some 2-3 metres high. I wove a path through them and then started climbing the tsunami up to the 2200 metre contour. It was OK in the sunlight but would have been a nightmare in a whiteout. There was sastrugi everywhere, however it was quite small and between the sastrugi were smooth hard sheets of bare snow which was almost ice. I carried on up with the wind getting up to a force 4, then a 5, and finally a 6. I did my 22 km but there was nowhere to camp, so I went on, and on, and on and there was still nowhere. As I climbed, I was drawn like a moth to the west as it was easier. I had to veer this way anyway so did not fight it. But I could not find anywhere, and the wind was not abating as it often does with catabatic winds as you climb. Eventually at nearly 2000 I decided I’d just have to camp here in the flow of spindrift which was flowing down from above. I found a section which had settled spindrift on the bare ice as I needed to use my skis at tent pegs in this wind.

It took me nearly an hour to put the tent up as I had to be neurotic about not losing anything to the wind. I certainly could not catch it again and I doubt Usain Bolt would have been able to. A super Redline mitt or a tent bag would have soon been swept away. However, at last it was all up using the 4 skis and all the pegs bar two which I kept to anchor the pulk drag line. Then began my favourite part of the day to light the stove and derobe after a good day. I was however shocked at the amount of ice around my face, balaclava, buff, and the cold avenger breathing mask. They were all frozen together and then also into my small beard. I had only just started to boil the kettle when I had to make the phone call for the scheduled check in which was one of the reasons I had to camp because the phone was packed and operating it in the cold wind was not that feasible. If I missed that phone call alarm bells would start to ring, and people would be initially concerned and then start to take action. As it happened, I did do the 24 km I set out to do but it had thrown my evening routine out of the window and instead of sleeping at 2200 it was midnight. Even at midnight the sun continued to warm the tent, but the force 5 wind cooled it.

Day 47. Jan 05. S 87º08.805 W 082º27.146 to S 87º18.649 W 083º28.926. 20 km. 9.5 hrs. 3160 Cal. It remained windy all night although it dropped from force 6 to force 4 in the morning. A huge pile of snow had drifted in the lee of the tent, and I almost had to dig my way out. I was both physically and mentally tired after yesterday’s late finish and I felt it in the first steps. I decided to go for 4 times 5 km today. The next waypoint was about 40 km to the south and it was called SkiSP West 2014. However, to the east of this was a crevassed area and this waypoint was the most easterly we could go, we should stay west from it. I also had information from the most experienced Norwegian Expedition organiser of the last 25 years that it was far better to go much further west to W080?30.000. That way the climbs were not so steep and the sastrugi was smaller and you were well away from and potential crevasses. So, I decided to veer west to this waypoint, which was some 8 km west of SkiSP West 2014, and then come back east again and join the ALE route some 30-40 km to the south. So as soon as I left camp, I started to navigate towards this alternative waypoint still some 40 km away.

121. The tent was covered in a large drift in the morning which I had to dig my way out of.

Initially I had to continue to climb. It was not too bad as the winds had swept much of the loose snow and spindrift off this area leaving hard snow. The ski skins adhered to it but the pulk runner glided nicely over it making it easy work for me. It was cold, still minus 20, and the wind chill was significant, but I was well covered up. The main thing was it was bright and sunny and the windchill was a small price to pay to be able to see the snow and ice and the wind carved formations. The sastrugi was quite minimal really and at the top of the gentle climb, at around 2200m, it disappeared. Instead, what I got was flat fields of firmer snow which was compacting and between these areas of looser softer snow which the pulk sank into a little. Both seemed to adhere to the pulk but more so the latter.

And it continued like this throughout the day with undulations and gentle climbs. In all I went from about 2200 metres to 2300 metres which seems to be the way of things at the moment. The only real issues were doing intricate tasks like preparing lunch or tent work where dexterity was needed, and I could not use the mitts. The cold was overpowering and would chill a bare hand very quickly. It was also a nuisance with the breathing mask. The vapour in my breath condensed outside it and ran to the apron under the breathing aperture and froze. It froze my breathing mask to my balaclava and then froze the balaclava to my nearly 2 cm long beard and jacket zip. At the end of the day, I had to prise it all apart. It was certainly a novel way to shave, a bit like waxing.

122. The condensed breath from my breathing mask quickly froze into a clump of mask, balaclava and beard in these cold temperatures.

As the day wore on and I had my breaks in the sun with the bitter wind to my back the force of the wind dropped so rather than a horizontal cascade of spindrift like last night there were just some wispy tendrils of it, usually down wind of sastrugi formations. I found a place to camp as soon as the 20 km mark came up and put the tent up without the stress of a near gale. It was sunny and after the tent was up but before I brought my stuff in, I dug a hole in the vestibule for my feet. As I dug, I could fell the warmth in the tent and it pleased me I would have a warm evening to dry out the stuff, especially the face mask and goretex shell.

There was not much chat on the garmin messenger bush telegraph other than that Pierre had just 40 km to go and was within touching distance of becoming the youngest person to ski to the South Pole. His anticipated success is a great victory for him as he had a fuel shortage and broken and failing bindings. Poppis and the Finns are doing well and were saying it is twice as cold in Finland with temperature of minus 44.4. If there is one people that can look after themselves in the cold, it is the Finns. The FireAngels are on the plateau some 5 days ahead of me and Al and Dave I assume are 2 days ahead.

Day 48. Jan 06. S 87º18.649 W 083º28.926 to S 87º29.236 W 084º24.713. 21 km. 10.5 hrs. 3150 Cal. It was windy and even colder in the morning. minus 22 with a force 4 wind. I put everything on before I went out. It was fiendishly cold, probably the coldest I have ever experienced. I have camped in minus 41 in Sweden but when it is so cold in Scandinavia it is calm. I had the redline mitts on and I was not taking them off even for a photo. I set off at 0700 and aimed to be at a waypoint 22 km away by evening so split the day into 4 times 5 km.

The skiing was quite rough and the snow abrasive, but I ploughed up the first hill gaining some 40 metres to reach the first stop. I was hermetically sealed from the cold but eating and drinking were vulnerable times. The drink I mixed up at breakfast was already in its Nalgene bottle but as I tried to drink it it turned to a slush puppy before my eyes. The bottom 3 cm froze before I could drink it.

At the next break I decided it was too much palaver to make the Macaroni and Cheese. I would get sore fingers at the best and frostbite at the worst. I had the hot chocolate drinks and that was energy enough. The Macaroni can go towards an extra day’s food I was slowly collecting.

The third and fourth session were long. I did not notice it, but my balaclava was over my mouth and all the condensate was running down it onto my 4 chest layers soaking them. A km short of the waypoint I had done 21 km and was exhausted so threw in the towel at the top of a climb to reach 2400 metres. It took a while to put the tent up in the force 5 but by 1930 hrs I was ensconced in a sunny tent. Unfortunately, the wind did not allow for a heat to build up. I did the fortnightly refilling of the 3 litre fuel bottles which should see my out and I still had another 2 litres in reserve.

I was very tired, hence the short blog, but I have 3 more days anticipated good weather and want to get to the Polar Plateau in that time. It means 20-24 km per day for the next 3. It would be a nightmare going through this terrain in a whiteout but a joy in these conditions when you can see. Pierre, against all the odds, is camped 11 km from the pole and will become the youngest to ski to the Pole unsupported. He is just 26.

Day 49. Jan 07. S 87º29.236 W 084º24.713 to 87º38.617 W 083º30.219. 19 km. 10 hrs. 2720 Cal. I knew what was in store today and indeed the next 3 days. It was to continue up the undulating wavy ice gaining about 100 metres per day. If I did 20-22 km each day, I should finish with the infamous 87th degree in 3 days. The weather forecast looked promising except maybe for the last day. However, it remained cold at about minus 22 and the wind was a force 4 on average. It would make everything significantly more challenging and slower as I had to do things with mitts on rather than gloves.

The slope up to the Polar Plateau and the 88th degree was not a steady gradient at all. It had the same profile as a wavy water slide at theme park with mostly downhill sections but some flat or even uphill sections. To me it was the opposite I would climb what looked like a frozen tsunami for 30-40 metres but then on reaching the top of the slope I might have to go down 10-20 metres in elevation over the course of 3-4 km on a flatter section before the next tsunami of 30-40 metres. This has been the trend for the last 200 km really and also often before Thiel Fuel Cache. I don’t know what causes these waves. It is far too regular to be the underlying topography of the bedrock hundreds, if not thousands, of metres below. It must either be explained by the laws of fluid dynamics, for glaciers are slow fluids really, or it must be wind stripping snow continuously from one area and dumping in another to the extent that it builds up to tens of metres in depth. I probably favour the fluid dynamics speculation.

Where the climb is up the face of the tsunami the snow surface is generally quite rough with patches of sastrugi and also glazed and polished plates of neve snow. At the bottom of the slope are dunes and the biggest sastrugi where the catabatic winds coming down the slope are at their strongest. I think first a dune forms and it can be 2 metres high. The dune then hardens and gets glazed by the sun and wind. Then a strong wind will tear down the mountain in a storm and find a chink in the dune which then allows it to start carving it into sastrugi until the whole structure is razed. Between the wave and the bottom of the next slope is the step or self in this vast icefield and this flatter area is a moonscape of structures and blocks like the bottom of the slopes but smaller. There are also beds of loose snow here and it can be hard work pulling the pulk across their abrasive surface.

123. The moonscape of dunes, sastrugi and other wind carved formations on the flatter sections between waves.

I split the day into 3 seven-kilometre sessions as preparing lunch was out of the question in this cold wind. My breaks were a litre of drinking chocolate and an energy bar, and I would have only 2 each about 3 hours apart. The macaroni was carried forwards and over the last 3 days I have accumulated another whole day’s supply. So, I now have 12 days food left and my end date can be pushed back to the 19th. I hope 2 days will finish this degree and then have 5 for each of the last two degrees. In essence starving myself a little to build a supply is a way of keeping the daily average sustainable.

I reached the waypoint to avoid the crevassed area to the east after just a km and then took a new bearing to return to the original route some 25 km to the south. I had come some 7 km to the west of the route, but it had not cost me more than a km or two as the angle away from and back to the route were very small, and it was worth it just not to worry about crevasses. Once I turned, I went over a couple of waves and across large flat areas with slightly sticky snow. It was the snow and spindrift which fell last week but it has now begun to harden and glaze with the sun and wind and it was much easier. At the end of each session I was tired, dog tired, and could not wait for the nourishment. These were hard relentless days, but I had to make the most of the good weather. However, at the last session I ran out of steam and called it a day after just 5 km into the 7 km session.

It was now only a force 3 and the spindrift was barely moving. The sun was of course out and strong. I put the tent up quite quickly and then went inside to take off all my cold protection gear. Over the last days my biggest problem was the build-up of ice around the breathing mask. Yesterday as it built up it also thawed against my chin and throat and soaked my clothing as it ran down my chest. Today I tried the mask outside the jacket. It kept my chest dry, but the mask and jacket were frozen together, and it took ages to prise them apart. Because of the lack of wind, the tent got quite warm, and everything dried well. There was also no spindrift landing on the tent which in effect prevented solar gain. All in all, it had been a great day.

124. Today’s ice build-up entombed the zip to my jacket and it took a cautious while to prise apart.

On the bush telegraph Pierre announced that against all the odds he had reached the South Pole after 47 or 48 days. The youngest ever to do so. With his integrity, courage and brains Pierre will go a very long way in life. Al and Dave, the ex-marines are about a day and a half in front of me and racing to get to their food cache. Poppis the same. The unsupported Fire Angels, Bex and George, are efficiently clocking up the miles very professionally and are almost in the final degree.

Day 50. Jan 08. S 87º38.617 W 083º30.219 to 87º48.596 W 083º01.267. 20 km. 10 hrs. 2730 Cal. It was a lovely day and the wind which had been a constant menace over the last few days was a bit diminished. However far to the NW I saw some clouds on the horizon and from the forecast I knew they were coming this way. It seems there is a weather system coming my way and that can only mean whiteouts and that make me anxious as there will be no visibility or no heat in the tent in the evening to dry things other than precious cooking fuel.

I split the day into 3 time 7 kilometres as it was too much palaver to rehydrate the macaroni and it was another if I run out of food at the end. The breaks were just hot chocolate and an energy bar. The first session was getting back onto the main route after the diversion to the west to avoid a potential crevassed area. It was a nice ski, and I was delighted that the snow was hardening up and the sheets where spindrift had laid now had a crust and the pulk slid beautifully over them. I had to weave between dunes, about a metre high, and sastrugi, I suppose also a metre high but the way the dunes and sastrugi were aligned were exactly the direction I was going so I could just follow the hardened shallow groves between them, and I made quick time. and did the first 7 km in 3 hours. Meanwhile the clouds kept getting closer.

The second session was pretty much the same except the terrain got gentler and there were few dunes or formations. The surface was firm, and it was easy to pull the pulk. Somewhere early on, perhaps even in the first session, I crossed the 2500 metre contour line. I could feel the air a bit thinner, but it had been a very gradual acclimatisation, so it was not a shock but occasionally after a strenuous bit I gasped for breath. Not long after there was a depression of about 40 metres deep and 5 kilometres long and 2-3 wide. I could not work out what might cause such a depression in a glacier. As glaciers are slowly flowing, I would have thought this depression would have filled in over time. But there must have been other factors keeping it as a depression like a shallow reservoir which had been drained.

My biggest problem was the Cold Avenger breathing mask. It produced a lot of water from my breath, and it had to go somewhere. It either fell out as droplets or dripped onto the growing mass of ice under the mask. I wore it outside my jacket hood otherwise it would soak my neck and chest area. Outside the hood worked well until I wanted to eat. Then I had to undo it behind the hood and use the jacket front as a hinge and the two were frozen together.

On the third session the clouds began to cover the sky and the day, and my happiness, began to shut down and the snow withdrew its luminosity, and it was replaced by a dull, one-dimensional white sheet. Fortuitously I came across some tracks. I think they were from the Fire Angels, Bex and George, 5 days ago. I followed them a bit but, in this light, they were impossible to see, and I lost them in the whiteout. I got my compass out and started following a bearing for a couple of km. The terrain was very benign and there was nothing lumpy to trip me up. With a km to go it all went wrong. I knocked the compass with a ski pole, and it jumped out of its holder. It was a tricky job to get it back in and I had to take the mitts off, and my gloved hands got cold. Then while I was flustered sorting the compass out my goggles steamed up and the steam froze. There was too much going on, so I decided to camp right there. I had the tent up quickly and went in, but it was cold inside without the sun. After melting the water, I had to bring the stove inside and it quickly warmed the inner sanctum and dried the clothes. It is not without risk though so I had to keep vigilant nothing could fall onto it or touch it.

The weather forecast for the next few days is poor and that left me in a bit of despair. I think I am more susceptible than most to whiteouts and the lack of visibility. I feel completely helpless as I shuffle forward in them with nothing visible. Perhaps others can see a bit more than me and certainly in groups you have other people to help judge perspective but on your own it is quite isolating and vulnerable, and I am dreading the next day if there is sastrugi about. On the bush telegraph the others have said there is not much though. Poppis and the Finns have reached their food resupply and will be having a slap-up meal in a warm tent and then will sleep it off tomorrow as they rest. Such are the joys of supported expeditions as opposed to the hardship of unsupported ones.

Day 51. Jan 09. S 87º48.596 W 083º01.267 to S 87º57.940 W 083º05.636. 18 km. 10 hrs. 2920 Cal. I did not sleep well as I was anxious about the weather and it holding me up. It seemed better weather up on the plateau. However, when I woke at 0300 the sun was out, and it was partially cloudy. I decided to go for it, and after the usual morning routines, I was off before 0600. The snow was now quite hard and my pulk was noticeably light and I made good time for about an hour before some scattered snow showers came through. They were the advance party and pretty soon they merged, and the horizon disappeared, and the whiteout set in. I had planned 3 times 7 km to take me to the milestone of the 88th degree 21 km away to the south. It was the end of this crux and infamous section.

When the white out arrived I just carried on skiing but at a slightly slower pace. The terrain was still pretty even but 3 times a small ridge caught me unaware and I fell over. I was quite comfortable skiing on this in the white. I was loathe to stop and have my snack and drink as I knew I would get cold, especially my fingers and I did 8 km before I decided one more km and then I will stop. However, in that 1 km I ran into some large dunes which looked to be about 2 metres high although I could not really see them. What I could see is some of the eroded faces and deep groves around them and they looked treacherous to ski off or slide into. I therefore had to proceed very slowly probing my way. Luckily, they only lasted for about half a kilometre, but it took over an hour to pass through them.

After the quick cold break, I began to climb a slope. The snow covering on it was perfect with sheets of glazed snow. The ski pole’s tips squeaked as I twisted them when I walked and the pulk, usually grinding or screeching behind me fell silent. I guess a lot of the spindrift does not settle here but carries on down to the bottom to form new dunes. I climbed nearly 100 metres from the 2500 contour to the 2600 contour but hardly noticed it on this superb surface. I kept looking round to see if there was any hint of light to the west where the weather was coming from but there was none, and this whiteout looked set for the day. As long as I did not any large sastrugi I should be OK if I continued cautiously and patiently like this. However, there was no joy at all to a whiteout and I relied on my compass and wind ribbon to navigate by. If I relied on instinct I would be going round in circles.

125. Tools of the trade in a whiteout. The compass mounted at eye level and the wind direction ribbon on the ski pole.

After the second break my intention was to do another 7 km, but I ran out of steam again and the terrain became quite lumpy. I could not see but it just stumbled into it. I fell twice again, probably partly due to exhaustion and disorientation. I had been staring at the compass and the unseen ground ahead of me for 8-9 hours now. So, I decided to throw in the towel at 18 km. It does not sound much but they were hard won.  It was also a victory for me to confront the anxiety of a whiteout and come out on top. I dare say if there was a lot of sastrugi I would not have fared so well.

At 18 km on the dot, I stopped and pitched the tent on what seemed a flat bit of snow. I set up my travelling home and moved in to start boiling. It was very cold outside, perhaps even minus 25, and the tent was not much warmer until the stove got going which raised it to zero. It was not the same as the sun and there would be none of that tonight. It was going to be cold. However just as I was packing up the kitchen, I noticed a shadow and looked out to see the sun. I could feel its warmth through the nylon flysheet. It would make all the difference. I was still some 4 km shy of the 88th degree but I was delighted with what I had done. I retreated to the inner sanctum, surrounded myself with feathers and ate my delicious fish and potato stew. I was quite early, and it was nice to get the blog out of the way before the scheduled 2100 hrs phone call to ALE to let them know all is well and I am still alive.

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October 14, 2023

Day 30. Dec 19.  S 84º02.177 W 080º30.731 to S 84º14.185 W 080º31.200. 23 km. 10 hrs. 2440 Cal. I got going at 0730 on a bright and sunny morning with very little wind. I kept the skinny 30mm mohair short skins on, and they were just enough to give me the traction. However, within an hour I felt the first breezes and in another hour it was about force 3 which is when the spindrift starts to flow. All the loose snow which had fallen in the last 5 days, and there was only about 4 cm of it, had remained undisturbed by wind. Well, when the wind got up to force 4 it started to flow from south to north and was soon piling up in large banks like the leaves in a autumn gale. My problem now was that instead of a nice consistent cover over the whole terrain there were frequent piles of it everywhere and they were unavoidable. I could push my skis through them easily enough but when the pulk hit them it slowed considerably as they were like piles of sand. My gait was no longer a short ski or fast walk but a steady first gear plod with the off section of heaving to get over the mounds of spindrift. At one stage I was worried that something was wrong with a runner on the pulk such was a drag and I turned it over, but all was well.

102. There is usually always a path through the sastrugi. Occasionally it is narrow and one has to be careful the pulk does not slide into a hole

After my first break the wind went up to a force 5 and now the whole ground was flowing with tiny ice particles. Where these went into sastrugi they followed the contours of the ghoulish shapes and streamed plumes where a groove ended in a ramp or lip. It was like a cascading waterfall in the sastrugi. The wind remained strong all the way through my lunch and I had to be careful again not to lose a glove or poggie. However, as the afternoon wore on it reduced back to a force 3. Throughout all this the sun remained unimpeded to shine its light onto the snow and also to warm me a little. It also seemed to glaze the snow slightly as with the marginal breeze the spindrift was not so much on the move and the pulk slid much more easily. It was a lovely late afternoon ski, but I just ran out of time to do my full 6 km in the last section and called it a day at 23 km in all. I spotted a nice camp spot and with half an hour the kettle was on the stove. I always keep some water back in the day to put in the pan before the snow goes in. I call it seed water and without it, it is very easy to damage the bottom of the kettle if one only has snow. It is always a feeling of deep joy to sit on the edge of my sleeping bag with my feet in the hole and feel the warmth of the stove and the sun after a hard day in the open wind.

103. Tent life. Outside it is minus 15 and a force 3 wind yet inside it is plus 25 and everything is drying nicely on the lines. If the sun goes so does the warmth.

I knew that a Frenchman, Vincent Colliard, was starting about now to have a go at the record for the route I was doing, which is in a way the main or official route. It is currently 24 days and held by a Norwegian Eide. By comparison I should take about 60 to do the same 1150 km. However, I now learnt that Colin O’Brady, an American who caused a stir 7 years ago, is going to give Vincent a run for his money and compete against him. There will be much made of this and much comment in the polar community as these two big names go head-to-head.

However for me the more interesting race is with another Frenchman, Pierre, who I have alluded to in the last few days as the man with 2 pieces of bad luck, a susceptible binding, and a fuel leak which has left him just 4 litres to finish the last 500 km. Rather than seek help and go supported Pierre has decided to go for it and try and reach the South Pole before his fuel runs out. Pierre is only 26 years old and if he succeeds, will be the youngest to go unsupported to the Pole. So, a record awaits. To me this is a huge display of courage and optimism, and I can only but admire him as he dashes south for probably only 440 km now. It is a race between Pierre and him running out of fuel. He can do 30 km a day and uses 200 ml fuel a day, so the margins are very tight. ALLEZ ALLEZ PIERRE!!

I am now towards the back of the field of 9. With Pierre miles ahead, the supported Finns with their light pulks 40 km ahead, the feisty Fire Angels 20 km ahead and the ex-marines Al and Dave about 20 km behind. There is no competition between us. Except for the supported Finns, we all have a race to get to the Pole before our recourses run out. I still have 29 days food left, large amounts of fuel and spares of many critical items, like skis and stoves, and this leaves me quite comfortable. Comfortable especially after today because I skied 23 km and did not take any ibuprofen all day and never felt my knee at all. It is there lurking under the surface, and it could still all go horribly wrong but for the moment the knee is behaving as it should.

Day 31. Dec 20.  S 84º14.185 W 080º31.200 to S 84º26.718 W 080º34.445. 24 km. 9 hrs. 2060 Cal. As usual I was up just after 0500 and away just after 0700 on another bright beautiful calm morning. But it was cold at about minus 15 which was easy to overlook in the warm tent. As soon as I started skiing, I was pleased to notice that the mounds of spindrift had not only packed together but also had a slight glaze to them and the pulk glided easily over the surface. It made such a difference in effort and also in speed and I managed to do the first 6 km in just over 2 hours. I sat on my pulk and had a snack and while I could feel the sun warm my legs through the dark grey salopettes I could also feel my fingers getting cold.

The second and third sections were the same in glorious sunshine with virtually no wind. However, towards the end of the third section the glazed snow started to get a breakable crust and I went through the surface frequently into the slower snow underneath. it was like breaking through a meringue crust to be mired in the stickier filling. On the plus side it will mean this will glaze over all the more during the night hours when the sun is not so intense. We were very blessed to have this period of good weather and the forecast was for more of it. It makes everything so much easier.

On the fourth and final section I got a surprise to find that it actually went downhill for about a kilometre during which I lost 30 odd metres of elevation. I forgot about the pulk entirely as it bounced along behind me. I was a wonderful 10 minutes of relaxation, but I knew there would be a price to pay. This price was a long hill up the other side, and it took me a good 2 hours to slog up it to complete the 6 km. My legs were tired, and I could feel the tank was empty as I finally clocked up the 24 km for the day. I don’t think I could have done more but it had been a relatively easy day with not a lot of calories burned. My knee was fine but my neck was sore, but this was alleviated a little by dropping the harness, so the waist took more than the shoulders.

104. Just taken the harness off and starting to put the tent up after a long day. Pretty soon the tent will be a warm cocoon on the cold icesheet.

I found a place to camp and within the hour was filling the thermoses from the kettle on the stove. The tent was roasting and at one stage the thermometer showed 32 degrees. It was delightful to wallow on the inside after the day in the cold. It was a significant day because it marked the halfway stage in my food. I managed to spin the first 28 days supplies out to 31 days by being frugal when I had a day off or a very short day. However, I doubt I will be able to do that now as I need all the calories I can get and protein to keep the muscles and joints in shape. So, I now have 28 days food left starting tomorrow morning meaning I will run out of food on the 17 January evening. That should give me enough time to cover the remaining 620 km.  I have already done 535 km but that was with a much heavier pulk. In terms of distance, I should be at the halfway stage in a couple of days but in terms of effort I think I have already passed it. So instead of counting the days up I am now counting them down.

Day 32. Dec 21. S 84º26.718 W 080º34.445 to S84º39.269 W 080º33.617.  24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2090 Cal. I was getting spoilt by this weather. I was woken again by the sun in the warm tent which had been slow roasting me all night. Consequently, I did not feel that well rested but was glad of the warm tent. Yet outside it was minus 16, but calm. It was the perfect day in a run of perfect days. I managed to get away by 0700 which is always my goal but often relapses.

The snow in the morning was firm and quite fast and it was a joy to ski. There was a fair climb but like most gradients here it was very gentle. Just before my first break after the climbing was done, I looked to my west and land was ahoy! It was the first land I had seen for weeks. I think they were part of the Theil Mountains Range, and they looked about 50-100 km away to the west. They were covered in ice and white, without the big dark rock walls of the Patriot Hills at the start. It was lovely to spot them as this frozen ocean was quite monotonous save for the changing texture of the surface.

105. About to stop for a break and get food out of the pulk. Which is definitely getting lighter.

During my third session of 6 km, I started to feel a pain in my neck. I dropped the harness so the shoulders would take less weight and the legs more and this seemed to help but I could not shake it. It lingered with me for the rest of the day. I hope it is not going to become my go-to pain now the knee has had its day and seems to have stopped complaining. I suppose overall I am quite tired, both physically from the effort and mentally from the relatively little sleep and I am sure no deep sleep. However, I need to keep putting in good days like this while the weather is good. Soon enough there will be a foul day or even a storm and I can then lie in bed listening to it without guilt while I rest. On the last section I was slow. The snow was good, but I did not have the energy to ski so had to plod along with my skis on. Eventually around 1800 I had done my 24 km and found a good spot to camp. I suppose this expedition is more of an endurance test than an expedition.

This is nowhere more on show that with the “race” between Colin O’Brady and Vincent Colliard which I alluded to yesterday. I know nothing about Vincent Colliard other than he works with Ousland Explorers, and that in the Polar World is about the highest accolade you can get. By implication he will be modest, highly competent, and likeable, and hand-picked by his employer. Colin O’Brady is a record chaser and something of a showboating chest-beater. He is certainly a very competent endurance athlete but perhaps in adventure sports for all the wrong reasons. Colin would never climb a mountain to revel in the wild alpine flower meadows, but he would do it to crush someone else’s record. They will no doubt overtake me in a few weeks.

To my mind the real race is between young Pierre up ahead and him running out of fuel. This a race of courage versus misfortune. The misfortune being he had a fuel leak and lost a few litres of fuel. He is putting in some huge days to try, and is now down to 3 litres with some 400 km remaining. You can follow it on his blog www.polexpedition.fr . Meanwhile the FireAngels Bex and George are storming ahead. Bex used to play women’s rugby for Wales and they have gone through the male teams and soloist, like me, in a similar manner to Jonah Lomu going through the England Backs. They are consistently doing high 20’s every day without fail.

But all in all, on this the longest day in the southern hemisphere I had a good day and a comfortable evening doing chores in the warm tent. When I say longest day, I don’t really mean Antarctica where this day is perhaps 3-4 months long with the sun continually going round in the sky until it dips to the horizon and rises again for a month and then disappears completely for 3-4 months.

Day 33. Dec 22. S 84º39.269 W 080º33.617 to S 84º51.750 W 080º46.155. 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2360 Cal. It was yet another fantastic day when I wearily dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and packed. I am in a bit of a cocoon in the tent so when I stepped outside, like a marmot leaving its burrow, I was struggling to see for the glare. I set of at 0700 and initially the going was quite slow due to the crystals in the snow but as the sun intensified it mellowed and relinquished its resistance. After that it was an easy pull on a lovely day. I have climbed slightly and am now around 1300 metres and its does feel a bit colder than down at 800 metres. Perhaps minus 15 as opposed to 10. With a bit of a breeze, it does feel very cold and I was struggling with the small gloves and the poggies. In the end I had to get my Alti on and they are super. They are also made my Outdoor Research who know how to make gloves and mitts. I also have some Hestra which are borderline useless. I have many pairs of Hestra gloves at home, and none work well.

On the second leg I began to feel a few aches and pains. One of the most alarming was under the heel of the right foot where the planter attaches. Another was neck. I am acutely tuned in now to any developing pains. They could be a banana skin to this expedition. The trouble is the older you get the more banana skins there are lying around and at 64 there are quite a few. However, as the day unfolded the heel diminished and with the neck I found a sweet spot for the harness lower down where my torso and legs could share the strain.

106. Skiing with the 90 kg pulk behind me containing everything I need for the next month.

On the third and fourth 6 kilometres the mountains I had seen yesterday reappeared. They were much closer now at perhaps 30 km and tall and covered in snow and ice. There were Ford Massif in the Theil Mountains. Other nunataks and escarpments just made an appearance, but I did not climb high enough on the undulating ice sheet for them to reveal themselves. None the less it was lovely to see land and I am sure tomorrow I will see more when I ski near their base. However, these nunataks and escarpments were much smaller than the Ford Massif and I don’t think I will be overwhelmed by them. The snow, especially towards the end was superb and on the level bits I was actually able to ski. My pulk is still quite heavy at about 90 kg but it will reduce to 50 kg in the next weeks and this small ski today was hopefully a taste of things to come. I certainly was not as tired as yesterday when I hit the 24 km mark and looked for a place to camp.

It takes half an hour from taking the skis off to lighting the stove and by 1900 the stove was roaring away. There is no subtlety to the stove. It is either off and quiet or on and dominating everything with its need for attention and jet like roar. However, it works well, and in an hour everything was boiled and I could withdraw to the inner sanctum of the tent and eat my dinner. On the bush telegraph I was saddened, in fact gutted, to hear one of us has had to retire. It will be a great loss to our camaraderie. The FireAngels are past Theil and the Finns have had a day off there, gorging themselves on their resupply and sleeping no doubt. To my great surprise Alan and Dave were also there. I was sure they were behind me, but they also have a resupply and so must have overtaken me with their light pulks. It means I am last now; however, the Finns and the Ex-Marines will now be burdened with their resupplies which will slow them a bit. I still seem to have a large stock of food, fuel and 2 of just about everything critical. My strategy was not to dash to the South Pole like a high-performance car but grind my way there like a tractor covering most contingencies, and that still seems to be working.

Day 34. Dec 23.  S 84º51.750 W 080º46.155 to S 85º04.511 W 080º45.798. 24 km. 9 hrs. 2260 Cal. It was yet again another fantastic day, and the tent was warm. I knew just the other side of the ripstop it was minus 15 but in the tent it was cosy. One thing I have in the tent that really helps this is a 3 mm thick piece of insulating mat which covers the entire groundsheet. Not only does it protect me from the cold snow below, but it is black and absorbs the solar radiation and then slowly lets it out.

I managed to get going at 0700 as usual and as normal the early morning snow was quite gritty and held the pulk back. As I climbed the temperature dropped and I noticed how my beloved combination of the Outdoor Research Backstop Sensor gloves inside the poggies was not as warm as it used to be. I tried several different combinations and settled on the mohair fingerless mitts inside the Hestra gloves and then these inside the poggies. It was not as dexterous but slightly warmer. If there is one thing I have an abundance of, it is gloves and mittens. On the right of the photo are 2 pairs of mohair fingerless mittens which I use as a liner as they fit inside everything else except the OR Backstop. I have two pairs of these in case I lose one. Then there is the red Hestra heli ski which I use for putting the tent up and down and more and more in the poggies. Then there are the poggies which go on the ski sticks, and I can just slip my gloved hand in and out off. Then on the left are the OR Alti Mitts which are very warm but not that dexterous and then finally there are the Mountain equipment Redline mitts which are the warmest of the lot and also a backup in case a OR Alti mitt blows away. All the gloves and mitts are on wrist lanyards which is an essential safety feature.

107. A collection of gloves with the liners on the right and the serious mitts on the left.

As the morning progressed the snow became less icy and gritty and much easier to pull the pulk on and therefore faster. There were times where I could actually ski, and as the pulk empties more, these will become more frequent. My neck hurt initially but I dropped the harness just by a centimetre or two and it made all the difference. I saw the Theil Mountains all day, or just the tops of them, as there was an ice ridge in the way. I am sad to say I don’t think I will ever get a full view of them now.

For my breaks I sit on my pulk on the section where the clothes bags are. It is wonderful to be able to sit in little wind with the sun in my face and warming my legs through the dark salopettes. All around me is the ice field, utterly still and peaceful and without a soul within a good day’s ski. It is one of the most isolated places I have been and quite sensational having it all to myself. It has been nearly a month since I have seen anyone although I know there are a few people within a 200 km circle of me. I sit on my pulk without a care in the world and watch the snow sparkle. Not like the kaleidoscope when there is a bit of spindrift on the move but more subtly like the milky way on a clear cold night. My breaks are about 20-30 minutes and then it is time to put the skis back on and go another 6 km, which generally takes 2-3 hours.

108. The Ford Massif in the Theil Mountains never revealed its true glory due to the ice ridge blocking the view.

After 24 Km I was just a km short of the Theil Fuel Cache. It is an icy runway and a couple of shipping containers and lots of fuel drums neatly stacked. Some planes en route from Union Glacier to the South Pole Station sometimes have to stop here to top up their tanks. There is possibly the world’s most remote toilet here and a container where supplies are left. Both the Finns and the Ex-marines had a resupply here; but not Pierre, or the FireAngels, or me. I could not use the toilet or even leave rubbish either, in keeping with my unsupported status. So tomorrow I will ski on by as it did not exist. When I put the tent up, I could not find any good purchase for the pegs in the sugary snow. It is usually rock hard, so this surprised me. I had to use my 4 skis as the main anchor points for the tent, making sure the sharp steel edges were facing the tent so they did not chaff through the cord. It was another beautiful warm evening in the tent. I am sometimes frustrated how long the snow melting takes to produce 6 litres of boiling water and with tonight’s sugary snow it was nearly an hour and a half. I suppose I could have gone further but I don’t want to risk any more injuries and am keeping the momentum steady until I lose more weight from the pulk. It had been a marvellous day.

Day 35. Dec 24. S 85º04.511 W 080º45.798 to S 85º16981 W 080º49764. 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2810 Cal. I cannot believe this weather. It is yet again a beautiful cold crisp clear day with little wind. I have nothing to compare it to so don’t know if I am being fortunate or whether this is the norm. I left at 0700 and skied the km and a half to the Thiel Corner Fuel Cache. It was essentially an ice runway marked out with coloured bags, an small arial for comms, perhaps 100 barrels of aviation fuel in a neat line, a limp windsock and the famous toilet, apparently the most remote in the world. It was about 2.5 metres in height, width and length and must have been brought to Antarctica on the Ilyushin cargo flight and then dragged here from Union Glacier with the fuel some years ago. I went over to open the door and have a look inside, but it was cold and quite dark and a poor alternative to outside. I think it might also be used to resupply the supported expeditions I did not bother taking my skis off as there was nothing here for me and even taking a sheet of toilet paper would have jeopardised my “unsupported” status. I skied on into a multitude of tracks. Some were skiers and some were vehicles. I assume the Electric Vehicle and its support convoy came this way. There were 11 skiers in front of me, including Robert and Per, who both independently came to here from a different start, The Messner Start, which is slightly shorter. Including me there are 12 skiers and I am now bringing up the rear, but I am not stressed by that. Slow and steady for me.

109. Possibly the world’s most remote toilet at Thiel Corner Fuel Cache.

As I headed south for the first of my breaks, I noticed how smooth the snow is here. There is no sastrugi at all and very little skarve even. These features are caused by wind, and it must be quite sheltered here from the catabatic winds which sweep down from the Polar Plateau to the south. In fact, there was about 5 cm of newish snow lying on the old surface from about 10 days ago and it had not been pulverised into spindrift like in other places. It had hardly been disturbed. It was easy to ski on. I thought I was going uphill but at my break I sat on the pulk and looked back to the distant toilet and fuel cache, and they looked higher than me.

About 20 kilometres to my west were the Thiel Mountains. I could only see the upper parts of them as an ice rise blocked the view of the base and much of the ramparts. From here they reminded me of the Hardangerjokull in Norway with its flat ice field on top and then steep glaciers tumbling down from it between the ramparts. Where I was going to the south was just a vast plain of ice until beyond the curvature of the earth.

It was a long afternoon as the snow reached a certain temperature or humidity, so it gripped the pulk. Either that or there was little gas in the tank to overcome the friction. To the Gods above I must have looked like an ant dragging a large colourful caterpillar across a white sand beach. Usually, the last section is a bit easier as the snow is more glazed but not today. It was still abrasive. At last, the 24 km mark came up and I could look for somewhere to put the tent. It was not as easy here as say a week ago because the snow was much looser and sugary due to the lack of compaction by the wind.

110. My tent in the evening on Christmas Eve was warm and cosy despite it being minus 15 outside.

There was not much on the bush telegraph this evening except from Sam. A few days ago, Sam suffered a medical setback which could have happened to anyone. And it ended his trip. I remember getting the text from him about it a few days ago and it left me shocked. I suppose being out here on your own, where time is almost meaningless and the only things that matter are immediately in the vicinity one loses some measuring stick for emotion. When I got Sam’s message, I thought I would cry. I didn’t but I was very emotional about it and was gutted for him. He was evacuated the next day on the doctor’s recommendation and went to Union Glacier and then on the returning Ilyushin to Punta Arenas. The diagnosis was correct, and Sam is returning to the UK after Christmas. He is an ex-marine and has served in combat so will know the real feeling, but for me it felt like we lost a man. Pierre is now some 200 km ahead in difficult ground and the Fire Angels, The Finns and Al and Dave are a day ahead of me. It was another great evening in the warm tent with just a slightly overcast sky.

Day 36. Dec 25. S 85º16.981 W 080º49.764 to S 85º28.473 W 080º58.411. 22 km. 9.5 hrs. 2600 Cal. It was very warm in the tent most of the night and especially in the morning, so I did not sleep that well. I should have vented the door a bit, but I was miserly about retaining the heat. When I eventually emerged, blinking into the daylight, it was 0630 and there were some clouds to the north. To the north doesn’t worry me the wind seems to come from the south, so I was not perturbed. I heaved everything out of the tent and packed the pulk and was ready to go at 0700. The clouds seemed a lot closer now.

In fact there was an ominous mist below them and it was drifting towards me and encircling me. I felt a bit of alarm now as it continued to advance like toxic gas in the first world war. I skied south away from it and into my shadow but that started to get fainter and fainter until the mist had consumed everything. The sun, which had been my joy and companion for the last week was quickly extinguished and all its benefits went. The most significant was the contrast and light and then the warmth. The freezing fog consumed everything and all I could see was the snow for about 10 metres in front of me and even that was not that clear.

On the plus side the terrain was very gentle. It was flat and I think level, but it was difficult to gauge. I made good time and did the first 6 km in 2 hours. It was the same for the second stretch also, but I could see nothing. I might well have been a hamster on a treadmill with a white blindfold on. During the third stretch it cleared slightly and I could see a great ice rise looming ahead in the direction I was going. I checked my GPS and that was correct. I had to climb nearly 100 metres up it from the level I was on to a new higher plateau. As I skied to the base of it for my third break, I came across more and more light sastrugi and many small ridges and grooves in the snow’s surface.

On the fourth section, the calm plod of the morning all went out of the window as I got to the bottom of the slope. It seems the cold air descending this slope, in what is a catabatic wind, often came roaring down here and created and carved some difficult but small sastrugi. It had also stripped all the loose snow from the surface and the resulting sastrugi, ridges and grooves were glazed and polished. I wandered into this just as the mist came back and it was chaos. I slithered on my skis, stumbling frequently, but the pulk kept getting stuck in grooves. I then had to heave on the slippery surface with my skis slipping hopelessly to try and get it out. I went from 3 km per hour to 1 km per hour if that and it was very strenuous. To make it worse I was already on the climb. I peered into the flat white light but could barely make anything out. My eyes were already tired after the morning and early afternoon and kept inventing mirages as fluid drifted across my cornea. I became very angry with everything and in the end had to stop and change skis to the Ousland skis with the wider Nylon 60mm short skin and the current 30 mm mohair did not provide enough grip. The next hour I climbed slithered and strained and slowly pulled myself and the pulk up the hill away from the pockmarked terrain as the bottom. Eventually it began to get a bit smoother as I climbed further but the sastrugi and poor visibility at the bottom had taken its toll and I was tired.

Some 2 hours after my break I had only done another 2 km and was thinking of putting the tent up when I came across ski tracks leading up the hill. I followed them for a bit and noticed I was not the only one having problems as one of the skiers had walked much of this section. It is frowned upon to walk as there is a danger from crevasses, which is minimised if your weight is spread with skis. I continued up the slope for another 2 km on much easier ground but decided to camp early at 22 km rather than the 24 km I aimed for.

The tent was up at 1730 and then I went in to boil the 7 litres of water. The stove was the only heat in the tent as there was no sun and it got the tent up to about 10 degrees. It had been quite a puritanical Christmas. I think some of the founding fathers of this austere type of Christianity would have heartily approved of my toil and John Knox himself would have been delighted. Once in the tent I had my usual supper and then started on the blog. The bush telegraph was full of Christmas banter. The FireAngels were enjoying a bottle of Baileys, and the ex-marines Al and Dave were having port. Poppis I am sure would have bettered that even. Ahead Pierre was enjoying some French treats he had been saving. Everyone though had struggle with the light today and cut their day short.

Day 37. Dec 26.  S 85º28.473 W 080º58.411 to S 85º39.304 W 081º03.075.  21 km. 10 hrs. 2320 Cal. It was cold in the tent in the morning, a little above zero and I knew the sun was not out. When I emerged 2 hours later, I was disappointed to see it was a white out. Even with my high contrast goggles on I could make out very little about the terrain. It had also been snowing a little in the night and there was now about 4 cm of new snow about. As soon as I had taken the first steps and felt the snow clawing at the pulk I knew it would be a long day and boring day. especially if the sun did not return.

To make it easier for me to cope with the white out I decided to do four 5 km sections rather than the usual 6. If there was a change in fortune, then I could always do more at the end. I tried to go without the chest mounted compass, relying on the course on my garmin watch and the route on the GPS. However, unless you looked at these gadgets every 15 seconds it was easy to become disorientated and go wildly off course very quickly, especially if the wind ribbon was erratic and limp. Without any gadget or compass or wind I would imagine you would end up just randomly wandering round in circles for hours going nowhere, but convinced you were heading directly south. Even with the compass I found myself 30 degrees off course just in the matter of 15 seconds if I was not paying attention.

These conditions continued all day. There was nothing to see save 4 nearby nunataks which just fleeting revealed themselves before being consumed by the mist again. I think it was the Lewis nunataks and they will be the last land I see until I reach the South Pole. Now they are quite small with the 4 of them in a row but if climate change continues, they will be the crest of some mighty mountains in a thousand or two years.

111. A long day in the mist with the pulk clinging to the snow and the face masks icing up with condensed breath.

The one saving grace of the day was that the terrain was even. There was no sastrugi or even skarve and that meant I could just plod along towing the sluggish pulk all day. Had there been sastrugi I think I would have done less than half the distance and probably for more effort. I was doing about 2 kilometres an hour with my mind busy calculating permutations of days left, food left averages needed each day or per degree. Whichever way I looked at it there were no grounds for alarm unless of course the sun does not return for a week or two while this low pressure persists. But without the sun there was no joy in today and if this keeps up for a while morale will take a blow.

After my 20 kilometres I saw I had time and energy to do another without eating too much into the evening. I could not even see where I wanted to put the tent so had to walk around to leave some footprints so I could judge the lie of the land. With the tent up and no sun there was no solar gain, so the tent remained cold while I refilled my three 1 litre fuel bottles. This is a fortnightly task as I burn about 200 ml a day melting snow to boil 7 litres. With the 3 bottles full I saw I still had another 5 litres which are split into three 5 litre containers so if one went, I would still have the 3-4 litres in the other 2 containers. I had an abundance of fuel, and it might be needed to heat the tent on the polar plateau in 2 weeks on sunless evenings. Although it had been a dull day, I had at least knocked another 21 km off the total and am now just 485 kilometres from the South Pole.

On the bush telegraph of the garmin inreach devices the Finns, the ex-marines Al and Dave, and the FireAngels all did well despite the whiteout. It bodes well for me as they are all a day ahead and said there was no sastrugi. Meanwhile Pierre who is far ahead had a difficult cold day climbing up to the Polar Plateau but still put on many kilometres.

Day 38. Dec 27. S 85º39.304 W 081º03.075 to S 85º49.816 W 081º08 246. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3170 Cal. Against the odds it was sunny when I woke but it was a small crescent of clear sky between what looked like 2 fronts. I packed in the sun and skied about 3-4 km when the inevitable change started to happen. It was like the management closing down a famous theatre after an evening’s extravagant performance. The first thing to get switched off is the sparkle and luminosity of the snow. The crystals stop reflecting and the light drains from the snow, and it starts to go grey. My shadow, sharp and defined in the sun becomes more diffuse and eventually becomes a dark blur as the first waves of thinner cloud start to cover the sun. Then the horizon, once clear and sharp, starts to merge with the sky in a dullness that is a harbinger of things to come. Initially the snow still maintains some shadows and highlights and is 3 dimensional but as the light fades when more cloud covers the sun these become less contrasting until in the end everything becomes 2 dimensional and flat. If it stayed like this, it would be tolerable but inevitably what happens next is the cloud descends or it starts to snow, and you are in mist. Now the 2-dimensional snow just disappears along with any horizon, and everything is just one dimension of a slightly grey white. It is impossible to see features beyond the end of your skis and you have no idea what is snow and what is sky. It is like scuba diving in milk.

And this is what happened this morning as it had the last two days. All I could do was plod on hoping I was not going to hit a sastrugi patch. As the sunny day was shutting down, I did manage to get a glimpse of the Lewis Nunatak before it to was extinguished by the whiteout. The whiteout blotted out any joy there was, and I knew it would be a trudge until it ended.

112. Looking back at the pulk and the track through the newer soft snow before the whiteout arrived.

It didn’t end and it persisted all day through all my breaks and sessions of skiing. The snow was also not letting the pulk glide easily and I was going uphill, but I could only feel it and not see it. It was a long day, but I was determined to get something out of it. I did my usual 4 sessions with 3 breaks, but I cut the last two sessions short as with all the heaving I was getting a sore neck. The 20-kilometre mark could not come quickly enough, and I spent the last 2 hours constantly looking at my watch to monitor my slow progress. As soon as it came, I pitched the tent. I was a bit delayed with my usual evening as I did not stop until after 1900. Once in the tent I could relax but even here there was no joy as the sun was not warming it. Once I finished melting the 7 litres, I brought the stove into the inner sanctum and in no time it hit 30 degrees. However, I could not keep it there as there are carbon monoxide concerns. I looked at the forecast in the evening and it did not look good for a few more days. On the bush telegraph everyone was complaining about the weather and the whiteout, even the Finns who know about harsh wintery weather.

113. Looking over to the Lewis Nunatak before the mist stole the view.

Day 39. Dec 28. S 85º49.816 W 081º08 246 to S 86º00.335 W 081º14.560. 20 km. 10.5 hrs. 3170 Cal. It was not sunny when I emerged from the tent but there was good light and there was plenty of contrast in the snow. The horizon with the snowpack and the sky was not very pronounced and they almost merged. However, there was a distant crescent of blue sky far to the north east and the very gentle wind was also coming from there so there was hope. I had skied about an hour when suddenly I noticed my shadow beginning to appear. I looked round and the blue crescent was now almost upon me. Within 10 minutes everything started to burst into life and the snow started to sparkle again. There were some dark clouds on the distant horizon but at least I would have a few hours joy.

The snow however was very abrasive and did not let the pulk pass easily. I rescheduled my day to do four times 5 km, rather than 6 km as I knew I would not have the time or the energy. By the time I got to my main lunch break, the middle break, it was beautiful weather and surprisingly warm. I did not need gloves even which has been unheard of in the last month. I sat on my pulk and basked in the sun enjoying what I had been missing over the last 4 days.

I had been going up steadily since Thiel Fuel Cache but had not really noticed it. However, I was now at 1600 metres having climbed 200 since the cache. I would have to climb much more in the next fortnight getting up to 2800 metres and there was the infamous sastrugi of the 87th degree ahead where much of the climbing was, but for now it was gentle, and the terrain was very kind with lots of smooth gentle slopes. However, the snow was quite deep and not at all compact or glazed. I worked like a cart horse pulling the pulk through it leaving a trail some 10 centimetres deep. There were no signs of any other tracks as the wind and new snow obliterate them quite quickly.

114. It was nice to enjoy the sun again while having lunch.

Eventually, 12 hours after setting off and after some 10 and a half hours hard pulling, I crossed into the 86th Degree and then the 20-kilometre mark for the day soon after. By now the weather was changing and the sun was struggling to appear through thickening cloud. my shadow had long gone, and it was even snowing very slightly, like a frozen drizzle. I had the tent up quickly and dived inside pulling the zip closed on the world outside. I was now in my warming cocoon with the stove going, an hour later that normal. it seemed everyone ahead, Poppis, the FireAngels and the Ex-Marines were all complaining about the deep abrasive sandy snow and were saying this is what this degree is renowned for. The next 100 km were going to be a slow pull in sand snow up a gentle slope until the 87-degree started, and it was probably worse as it was where most of the climb was. This brings the Middle Section, The Thiel Mountains, to an end and heralds the start of the Steep Rough section, Section 4, from the 86th Degree to the end of the 87th degree. It is perhaps the crux of the whole trip and delivers you to the Polar Plateau, the last section. It had been a great section, but I was disappointed that the route did not go nearer the mountains. The weather in the first half was superb but the second half tarnished it a bit.

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October 14, 2023

Day 18. Dec 7. S 81º55.626 W 080º07.595 to S 82º07.063 W 080º08.858. 22 km. 8.5 hrs. 2710 Cal. The vestibule of the tent was heavy with spindrift and was bulging inside. I could not push it out from my sleeping bag so left it until later. Outside I could hear the stiff breeze but inside it was warm, and the solar chargers were just topping up the power banks on the east side of the inner tent floor. I managed to pack everything into the pulk by 0730, a record for this trip, and set off south. I thought I could do it all without my outer jacket today but after a few minutes I realised it was a bad idea and had to stop and faff around to adjust my head gear and then put the jacket on. It was instant relief from the biting wind.

I could feel my knee and indeed the whole IT Band from my knee up my thigh and I expected it would give me some hassle today. However, I also developed the pain in my neck quite early on and this concerned me more. I think it comes from leaning forwards with the harness on to pull the pulk. As I skied, I analysed the angle my body was at due to the high harness and wondered what would happen if I lengthened the shoulder straps and dropped the harness, so it was at my hips rather than resting on it. There was near instant relief as my posture was much more upright. The only problem was that my already exerted legs would now have to do a bit more and I felt it quickly. However, it did not get worse as the day went on.

There was a small climb in the morning, and I thought I saw either 2 or 3 skiers perhaps 4-5 kilometres ahead. If it was 2 it would be Alan and Dave and if it was 3 it would be the Finns led by Poppis. Both were in the vicinity as the Finns had a day off yesterday to celebrate Finnish Independence Day. The climb took perhaps a little under two hours and the going was easy. At the top of the climb, it levelled off and I really felt it was level. Here I crossed the 82nd degree. The last degree had been a very slow one and taken well over 10 days due to me nursing my knee. However, there was nothing to see at all but it was a significant milestone. I sat on my pulk and had my usual Clif Bar and hot chocolate with the sun in my face and back to the wind.

080. Crossing the 82nd Degree and heading south in good conditions

After my break I started the best 14 kilometres of skiing the trip had offered yet. The snowpack was firm and the pulk slid easily on the level terrain. There was no skarve really and the skis just slid along. I was doing 3 kilometres per hour. When Omar gets to this section on his bicycle, he really will be able to cycle. Halfway across this lovely section a small squall came in from the SE. The spindrift started to rise, and the air was full of sparkling crystals when the sun illuminated them. I had a repeat break sitting on my pulk and then carried on gliding across the snow’s surface. I almost got into a rhythm. The neck and knee discomforts had gone, and I could enjoy myself peering out from my goggles surrounded by the ruff on the jacket. I had already done 20 km by 1530 and should have called it an early day. However, before I got the tent out at a suitable camp spot, I dug a hole. I could only go down 10 cm before I hit hard ice. I would not be able to dig a hole for my feet when boiling the water. So, I went on another two km and this time I found a nice surface with deep firm snow. It was perfect.

081. Dinner in bed. A mug of potato and fish stew with a litre of hot chocolate. In the periphery are drying clothes and solar chargers.

It had been Force 4 or 5 all day and was now a 5. Before I unpacked the tent, I got all the pegs ready and also the harness line for the security line on the tent. I then unravelled it and I tried to keep it at snow level while I got the poles in the sleeves. I was up quickly then and soon I had dug a half metre deep hole in the vestibule and filled the tent with all the bags and cases. I secured the pulk and then withdrew into the tent zipped up the fly and enjoyed the warmth of the sun blasting on my face as I peeled off the icy garments. I brush the snow of everything and then lay them out in the tent to dry. On the west side in the evening and then moved them to the east in the night. With the boiling done and the stove put away I withdrew into the tent with my flasks and got into my sleeping bag to eat dinner. It was my favourite time of day, and the tent was usually around 20 degrees if the sun was out. Although my knee was a bit of an issue midday at the end of the day it felt like nothing was wrong and I could have gone on for another 5 km. I am not sure if that was the Nurofen I took a few hours earlier or my knee was healing. I think the former. It had been a great day, and I was pleased with everything when I finally settled down for the night at this the start of the second section. Although I could see no sign of the Martin and Nash Hills out to the west which heralded the start of this Section 02.

Day 19. Dec 8. S 82º07.063 W 080º08.858 to S 82º18.466 W 080º09.994. 22 km. 8 hrs. 2760 Cal. It was overcast and dull in the morning, but the wind was minimal, and it made packing the pulk and taking the tent down much easier and quicker and I was off by 0800. It was a flat light, and I could not really see the snow at all. However, I could tell it was smooth and there was some loose spindrift or even a small cover of new snow on top. It made for slightly heavier work dragging the pulk over spindrift or new snow. However far to the south on the horizon was a blue line in the sky and as the wind and weather constantly come from the south, I knew sunshine was on the way in a few hours. It took longer than expected to do the first 8 km until my break and in the dull light and softer snow it was a bit of a trudge.

After my break however the low cloud had broken enough to let some light onto the snow and at once I could see the more glazed bits and the small areas it had drifted which would cling at the pulk. So, I could weave a path between them until the sun finally arrived and my shadow appeared in front just to my right. Perhaps the snow just needed a little bit of sun to take the edge off its graininess because suddenly the pulk slid much more easily. I still had the short skins on on the Asnes Ousland and they worked really well, and I could actually ski on the level ice sheet. I made good time and enjoyed it. I could feel my knee, but it was very tolerable, and it gave me confidence to know what the problem was now.

082. Having my snack and litre of hot chocolate sitting on my pulk in the sun. Despite appearances it was still minus 12.

I stopped for another break in the sun and sat on my pulk as usual to have my snack. The weather was so benign now I could even set the phone down in the snow to take a selfie. I had already done 16 km and was thinking about doing another 8 km and when I set off, I was full of vigour. The lovely skiing continued but soon I started to see some sastrugi fields litter the otherwise pristine gentle slope. Pierre who was now miles ahead warned me of 14 minutes (nautical miles) of sastrugi and I was about to enter it. After 6 km I decided that I would call it a day. My knee was OK, but I have a few chores like melting water, the blog and hanging the clothes to dry and if I leave it too late it runs past my bedtime of 2200. I found a place to camp, dug a test pit to make sure the snow was deep enough and then put the tent up.

One of the chores I had to do was beef up the padding round the Ampulla fuel bottles. With my pulk being fibreglass rather than Kevlar it was a bit less rigid, and I noticed the fibreglass matting liner had chaffed a hole in the bubble wrap around the containers. If I had a lot of sastrugi tomorrow it might chaff right through the side of the container and spill 4 litres of fuel into the pulk. It would be a nightmare scenario, so I used up all my empty ziploc bags and other plastic wrapping to cover the bottom of the Ampulla flasks and then kept all this twisted plastic in place with electrical tape. They were well padded by the time I finished. I not only boiled the litres of water I needed for the evening and next day but also a bit to wash in with my facecloth. The tent was so warm it was the perfect evening to do so. At one stage the top of the tent by the drying rack got to over 30 degrees!

There was little chat on the garmin messenger, but it seemed Sam was still going strong and in good spirits heading across the Ronne Ice Shelf to the Penescola Mountains and the Fire Angels were still going strong now about 39 km behind me. They were like a couple of Lionesses on the savannah closing down on an old bull buffalo. They will no doubt catch me within 2 weeks. I reassessed my food and it seems I still have 40 days which is more than I expected and makes me feel a bit more comfortable about not smashing out 30km days.

Day 20. Dec 9. S 82º18.466 W 080º09.994 to S 82º28.658 W 080º13.236. 20 km. 8.5 hrs. 2690 Cal. It was a beautiful morning and it had been a bright sunny night. The tent was very warm, and I did not sleep in my sleeping bag despite it being about minus 10 outside. I had no idea “solar gain” could be so significant. The lack of wind also helped. I got up early at 0530 and started with cereal and whey drink in bed before packing. I was off by 0730.  However, by this time the sun had vanished and there was a flat light with little contrast on the snow.

I had been warned by Pierre, now nearly 100 km ahead, that the next 30 km involved some big sastrugi. I had camped just at the northern edge of this area. It did not take long before I was into it. I am not sure what causes sastrugi other than wind. The wind and spindrift erode the hard snow into formations much like it does in the desert on sandstone outcrops. What is eroded gets blown away to form into a drift somewhere down wind and it builds into a large structure which then sets hard with the sun and minus temperatures. This hard drift is then ripe to get eroded into sastrugi again and so the cycle continues endlessly. It is at its worst where the wind is strongest. Here in Antarctica that is on downward slopes where the catabatic winds roar down to the coast accelerating down slopes or at pinch points between mountains. I don’t know why there was sastrugi here but there must have been some wind.

083. Sastrugi. Nice to look at but hellish to drag a pulk through. Some of those mounds were a metre high.

The shapes created were lovely to look at. A jumble of hollows, anvils, and sharp ridges but that is where the loveliness ends. For me there was a hellish collection of fiendish obstacles each one intent on tipping the pulk over or threatening to break a ski as I straddled two ghoulish shapes. In addition to that just downwind from the sastrugi were small dunes of gritty snow that would claw at the pulk. Luckily the sastrugi only occurred in patches, each about the size of a tennis court with another tennis court of soft grainy snow adjacent to them. In the worst areas the tennis court patches almost merged but it was still possible to weave a path between them. However, that frequently meant straying into the softer drifts or into the small sastrugi.

084. The consequences of not choosing the right path through the sastrugi was a pulk with a mind of its own.

It took me nearly 4 hours to get to my first break after 8 km. My legs were tired with the effort of having to heave the pulk over ridges. I have a very strong bungee elastic on my tow rope, and it was sometimes nearly at full stretch as I leaned forwards. Often, I would go one way but the pulk got caught diagonally on the ridge and headed off at 45 degrees until it finally climbed the ridge which diverted it. It capsized a few times as it did not follow me, and the path I intended it to take, and wandered over frozen anvils.  All this was at great expense to me, and I could feel all the patient work on my knee undoing. In the end I discovered it was hard work going diagonally across it. It was easiest to follow the ridges and then tack back perpendicular to the ridges. A bit like a sailing boat beating into the wind. The only cheer in all this was that the sun was returning, and it was windstill and remarkably mild at minus 5.

After my lunch of rehydrated macaroni and cheese I continued but this time in better light. I could stop and pick a course with more thought and consideration. It was still slow going and I laboured on for another 3 hours just to gain another 6 km before I could feel the macaroni was spent and I needed another break. Two Clif bars later I was recharged but could only manage another 6 km before it was 1700 and I had been on the go for nearly 8.5 hours. It had only done 20 km today, but they were hard earned. My knee was sore, but not catastrophically so, and I could feel the other one just starting. According to Pierre I still had another 6 km of this tomorrow before it eased off again.

085. My second break after just 14 km in 7 hard hours. The weather alleviated the hardship hugely.

I was quite please I had managed all this on the short skins. I did put the longer ones on for a while but there was so much friction in them it was like trying to ski with snowshoes on. I think this was the cause of my sore knee in the first place 14 days ago. I am not sure what I will do about them. I have a pair of even smaller mohair short skins which offer great glide, but minimal grip and I might take the long skins off my Asnes Amundsen skis and put on these speedy skins and keep the current ones on my Asnes Ousland skis and vary the ski/skin combination to the conditions.

It was a lovely evening when I found a small patch of firm snow. The tent was up in 10 minutes without the wind, and I could dig a great hole in the vestibule to dangle my legs into. I zipped up the fly and felt the heat build. Soon the ice on my goggles and mouth guard were dripping water. I boiled the 7 litres and then took my outer shell off and retreated into the inner sanctum to surround myself in feathers, not that they were needed on this sunny wind free evening. The battery banks on the solar panel needed to be warmed before they would accept a charge but that was quickly sorted by putting them in the pizza delivery box with the hot thermoses for tomorrow’s drinks. It had been a hard day, but my legs seemed to recover quickly.

Day 21. Dec 10. S 82º28.658 W 080º13.236 to S 82º38.924 W 080º12.341. 20 km. 8 hrs. 2450 Cal. The tent was warm in the night, and it was very bright. It was like sleeping in a greenhouse on a summer’s day. However, it was still minus 10 outside. I did not sleep well and felt my knee after yesterday’s strain through the sastrugi. It was not sore I was just worried it was not getting better. It hung there like the Sword of Damocles ready to strike me down if I put in too much effort. I got my usual 0800 start on a beautiful wind free bright sunny morning.

The first 8 km to my first stop took 3 hours and it was all weaving through the sastrugi areas and having to cross drifts and ridges. It was simple enough, but I could not get a rhythm as there were so many small diversions and occasional heaves where I had to strain to get the pulk over a ridge. I was told by the Finns and young Pierre who were ahead that I would only have half a day of it and then it would get better and sure enough it did start to diminish by the time I got to this 8 km break. It was so calm and windstill the silence and peace were magnificent. I rehydrated a macaroni for lunch and had it on my pulk.

086. My view for much of the gloomy afternoon was just the tips of my ski and this chest mounted compass to keep my bearing correct.

For the next 8 km the visibility started to deteriorate as low cloud swept in from the east. Small mounds in the icefield started to get absorbed by the could which was moving unstoppably closer. Rather quickly my shadow disappeared and then all the detail in the snow, highlighted by sparkling small ridges and shadows vanished. It was now all just a dull white. It was as if someone had switched the electricity off at a party. By now the sastrugi had all but vanished and I was thankful I was out of those hazards before the contrast went. The skiing now was quite smooth. I stopped for a short break after another 8 km and was surprised to see the odd flake of snow landing on the pulk. I had been getting my directions disorientated in this light so out came the compass on a chest mount, so it sat in front of my face. Even with this I could still turn 90 degrees in the space of 30 seconds if I was not paying attention. There was nothing on the horizon to focus on and my wind ribbon was hanging limp. In fact, there was hardly a horizon at all and if I took my goggles off, I could only see a dull grey white everywhere. On and on I skied correcting every 10 seconds when I looked at the compass on the chest mount. It was virtually the only thing I could see. However, the snow was superb and smooth and my skis and even the pulk glided effortlessly over it. It was just a shame I could not see it.

After 20 km I stopped for a Clif bar before the final 2 km in the contrast-less grey gloom when I noticed the tail end of one of my short skins had peeled back a little and was covered in snow. If I was not careful the whole skin would soon be covered in snow and the glue ineffective until dried. I had to attend to it at once and so decided to camp here and sort it out. The tent went up like a dream without any wind and I was inside with the stove going with 20 minutes.

However, I had to turn my attention to the skins. The long skins made by Colltex were full length and held on by a rubber clip at the front and a metal clip at the tail. When I looked at them, I could see both rubber clips were badly perished and damaged and would not last much longer. Also, one of the metal clips at the tail was bent back and I had no way to repair it. The long skins were doomed to fail very soon. I have used Colltex skins for 40 years and these were the worst set I had owned. They had just changed the design a little from the previous model but introduced two fatal flaws. It was a major concern and disappointment, and I can see myself throwing these skins away at Thiel Corner in 270 km. I took them off and packed them away. In their place I put on some 30mm mohair short skins. Probable the fastest but least grippy skin you can get. To prevent the tails peeling back on the other 3 skins and to reaffix the one which had already peeled I screwed the tails of them into the skis. Luckily, I had had the foresight to pack a hand auger, screws, and a screwdriver for this very purpose as it was always in the back of my mind the tails might peel. It took a good hour and a half to sort all this out, but I did it in conjunction with boiling the 7 litres. I kept the skis in my tent overnight just to press the glued tips on again and again before using them. So now both my skis have short skins, one for everyday use and one for excellent conditions and all have the tails screwed down.

087. Emergency maintenance work to the skins. These are the 30 mm mohair short skins getting screwed to the Amundsen skis.

On the bush telegraph I only heard from the Fire Angels this evening, 2 Welsh female fire fighters who were doing well. However, they just entered the sastrugi area when the light failed and after a few hours of floundering around in the mist decided to camp. Al and Dave were just a bit behind them. The Finns are probably 15 km in front of me and young Pierre some 100 km ahead of us leading the herd.

Day 22. Dec 11. S 82º38.924 W 080º12.341 to S 82º42.971 W 080º13.248. 8 km. 3 hrs. 1120 Cal. This morning started off where I left it yesterday. If felt quite warm perhaps minus 5 only and the visibility was poor. It was almost as if a warm fog had enveloped tis part of the Antarctic plateau. In every direction they were grey clouds above a barely discernible grey icefield. There was not a chink of brighter weather anywhere. I could see it was going to be a very difficult day to navigate so put the compass mount on and at the same time took my jacket off as it was just far too warm. Even with the compass in front of me I was still all over the place. I tend to fix a bearing on a darker patch of sky or a lighter cloud in the grey gloom but today there was little variation and what there was seemed to be every changing. So, in the space of 20 metres, I can wander of course by as much as 20 degrees. What generally happens is I veer towards the easiest path in the snow and my ski and pulk align themselves with the ridges and channels on the snow. I plodded on like this for about 4 km with the light getting worse and worse and the contrast almost totally disappearing. If I dropped an A4 sheet of paper on the ground in front of me, I doubt I would have been able to see it unless it lay across my ski. Luckily the snow surface was not too bad, and I could assume the next step was going to be like the previous. I suppose it was a good to a white out as you can get. The only blessing was there was absolutely no wind and the wind ribbon from my ski stick hung limply. On and on I pushed, correcting my direction with the compass every half minute or so.

However, after 4 km in an hour and a half the terrain started to change. Suddenly there was a ridge here which I had not seen, and my ski slid sideways on it, then there was an unexpected hollow 10 centimetres deep and I stumbled into it. This got more frequent, and the ridges and hollows became slightly bigger. At one stage the pulk became a dead weight and I could not heave it over the ridge, and I turned round to see it had capsized. Because I could not see the ridges the pulk was about to climb over I could not lunge forwards at the required time to increase the momentum and so often it would take me by surprise, and I would have to heave and strain. It was all becoming quite taxing. Pretty soon it was becoming quite chaotic, and I was starting to lose confidence as to where my skis would be on a ridge or in a hollow. My pace slowed right down to about a kilometre an hour. To an observer from afar I must have looked like a drunk trying to get home at night. I stumbled many times, fell a few, and frequently had to right the capsized pulk.

088. Fumbling my way forwards with the chest mounted compass in the near whiteout until I decided to camp early.

After an hour of this without the light getting any better or the terrain easing, I thought something is going to break here. Either my knee or a ski or a binding. For the effort I was putting in I was getting very little reward. I looked at the weather forecast, and it said it might improve marginally in the afternoon from 100% cloud cover to 70%. So, I decided to put the tent up and sleep until the afternoon came. With no wind the tent was up in a flash and my sleeping system in the green bag slid onto the groundsheet. I left everything else in the pulk, went into the tent unzipped the outer bag and was asleep in 5 minutes.

I woke an hour later at midday to see it was still the same so returned to bed. This continued through the afternoon and each time I had a look outside it seemed I had dipped my head into a bucket on milk. I could still see no contrast in the snow’s surface. The hoped for 70% cloud cover forecast came and went with no change. Eventually at 1700 I threw in the towel and decided to camp here. The forecast for tomorrow was much better and I needed some visibility to weave my way through the hazards here. In fact, it was supposed to be blue skies from midnight. On and off I had slept about 5 hours in the afternoon and will sleep more tonight so an early start might be on the cards. I also managed to finish up all the odds and ends of food I had saved in the last week which were left over from my daily ration packs and by doing so managed to get another day out of my food. So, the day I run out of food is postponed a day from the 16th to the 17th of January. In the evening I heard from Poppis and the Finns and also Pierre and they had soldiered on and made good ground. I suspect the ex-marines, Al and Dave, and the Fire Angels had a hard time of it in the sastrugi I left yesterday which was worse than what I encountered today.

Day 23. Dec 12. S 82º42.971 W 080º13.248 to S 82º55.963 W 080º14.662. 25 km. 9.5 hrs. 2860 Cal. When I woke in the early morning around 0400, I could feel the warmth of the sun. I looked outside and it was crystal clear, and the snow was full of detail. I got up, had breakfast and then was off by 0600. I could now see I was in the middle of a sastrugi area. there were ridges and grooves all over the place and occasionally a tennis court size area of ghoulish sculptures. I was worried I opted out too easily yesterday but now with the terrain before me I could see it was the best choice. It was windstill and only about minus 10 so quite perfect conditions. However, pulling the pulk was like as if it was in treacle. Over the last few days there was no wind and a fair amount of humidity. The surface of the snow was covered in a hawfrost of many small plates of icy snowflakes, and these clawed at the pulk and slowed it down. It was hard work pulling through it and also all drifts in the sastrugi area. After a couple of hours, I was starting to feel my knee as the effort was taking its toll. It felt like I was going uphill but when I looked behind me it looked like I was going downhill. One was an optical illusion.

089. The sastrugi field revealed itself in the morning and justified my decision to camp yesterday morning.

I made heavy work of it and wanted to see if I could do 10 by 10. That is 10 km by 10 am in the morning. I just made it, and it took 4 hours in all. My knee was definitely complaining when I stopped for the lunch of Macaroni. I took another ibuprofen with it, but it made little difference for the afternoon stretch. I could feel every step and it was beginning to get me down and also causing me worry. If there is one reason this expedition fails it will be because of the knee. With it gnawing away, my thoughts turned very negative and pessimistic. How much longer could I go on if it persisted. What was the point of it all? was it just some ego trip to brag later I had done it? The joy of the expedition started to fall away at the thought of another 36 days with this dull ache and endless slog with very few creature comforts. I wondered at what stage most people who are going to bail out do so. Certainly not in the last third but perhaps in the first third when the reality of it all become too daunting. It would just take one phone call and it would all end and I could be teleported back to Punta Arenas with its pizza parlours and hot showers. It was the first time in the trip I had thought about quitting, and I was shocked at how powerful these thoughts were.

I had a second break around 17 km and sat on my pulk and ate a Clif bar. The wind was just starting to pick up and the flakes of hawfrost were getting blown around. They were settling in loose drifts and the sun was sparkling off them and the drifts where they were accumulating looked like a kaleidoscope of flashes. Eventually these flakes would get broken down into small ice particles of spindrift and pack together as the wind increased. I had a third Ibuprofen now hoping it would stave off any discomfort while I tried to get a reasonable distance today.

090. Eating macaroni on the pulk at my midmorning break while it was still calm and sunny.

And it seemed to work. The snowpack became much harder, and it was easy to ski and the pulk seemed much lighter. For the next 3 hours I skied well and the pain in my knee completely vanished. I am not sure if it was the ibuprofen or that it the pain was reducing as the muscle and ligaments worked. I have noticed before at the end of a day it eases off. It completely restored my good mood and when I did the calculations in my head about distance left to do and days’ worth of food left, I realised it was very feasible. The weight in the pulk was diminishing considerably and it would mean I would get faster, but even if I didn’t, then at the halfway stage, in about 12 days, I would still have just under half my original food and more than half of fuel. It restored my confidence after a wobble in the morning and early afternoon. I skied on until 1700 hrs when the wind was up to a force 5 and I knew I better find somewhere to camp.

091. The tent set up as a strong breeze lashed it with spindrift. Inside the tent it was delightfully warm, dry and calm.

Putting up the tent was easy enough, but I used the security painter attached to it just in case it was ripped from my grasp by a gust. If it disappeared over the icy horizon, it really would be the end of the trip. Soon I was inside with my feet in the pit, and everything unpacked. I disrobed as the stove warmed the tent even more, so it was hot. Once the water was boiled, I retreated inside pleased with my 25 km and surprised that my knee was not complaining. I had my usual fish and potato stew, which I could never tire of, sitting up in bed and then wrote the blog with the heat of the sun drying my clothes and charging the batteries. Outside it was a force 5 and spindrift was everywhere but inside it was warm and calm.

Day 24. Dec 13. S 82º55.963 W 080º14.662 to S 83º07.490 W 080º16.159. 22 km. 9 hrs. 2810 Cal. It was windy but sunny in the night but in the morning the wind ramped up a notch from force 5 to 6.  I put all the clothes on I might need today, selected my gloves to take the tent down and the mitts for skiing and did everything up before I went outside. I could not believe the difference from the greenhouse like warmth of the tent to the industrial blast freezer outside. Spindrift was a metre high, and it was rippling across the snowfield. I had to be very careful not to lose any equipment as my dry bags of clothes would blow away. I had to take everything from the tent to the pulk rather than throw it out of the door. Taking the tent down was a difficult challenge and I made double sure it was anchored to my pulk drag rope with the security painter before I took out the last pegs. I then had to wrestle with it on the ground to fold the poles over in half and roll the whole thing up. It all took twice the time at least and I was being lashed with spindrift the whole time. Eventually I set off at 0730.

I could not use poggies today on the ski sticks as the risk of losing one was too great. Instead, I used my large Outdoor Research Alti mitts and once I change over from my Hestra work gloves my hands were lovely and warm but unable to do any small fiddly task. Although it was hard work skiing into the wind, and I was skiing directly into it, watching the streams of spindrift flow down was mesmerising and also spectacular when it went through sastrugi areas as plumes of it would be directed into the air. This was Antarctica in her raw nature. What it must be like in a force I shudder to think. If this current weather was in the UK, the Met Office would have issued a red warning with question. Yet in my salopettes and jacket I was protected from it and I could peer at it with comfort from my protective goggles and face mask.

I slogged into it for nearly 4 hours to get my first 8 km. The snow was loose and sandy and did not allow the pulk to pass easily and I think there was a fair bit of windage on the pulk also. I continued with a slow plod, as in first gear, slowly but sure grinding down the distance. However, despite yesterday’s efforts my legs were quite tired, but the knee did not complain at all. In fact, I did not notice it all morning despite the strain, nor had I felt it last night in the tent. It could not possibly be on the mend, could it?

When I came to have my break, it was a very undignified affair. I turned the pulk sideways to the wind and then crouched down on the snow in the lee of it like an animal would. It was somewhat sheltered but on each side of me I could see ridges of spindrift forming quickly before my eyes and it was amazing how quickly they built up. By the time I left they were half a meter high and 10 metres long. My hands got very cold here as I put on my usual small black ones to have lunch and they were soon covered in spindrift and inadequate, but the mitts came to the rescue as I started skiing again.

In the afternoon the wind started to ease and suddenly the spindrift all but vanished. Previously navigation was easy as it was directly into the spindrift all morning but now without it, I wandered a bit off the line. The skiing also got easier as the snow was not so loose, and the sun was perhaps glazing the surface. It was a nice 8 km, but it seemed to drag on. My thoughts were positive now and remarkably my knee was still not complaining except right at the end. By now the wind had eased enough that I could sit on my pulk and eat my Clif Bars without fear of getting frostbite in the blast freezer of the morning. In fact, in the late afternoon after my second break it was turning into a lovely late afternoon. The snow was now very hard and my pulk passed over it without much friction. I have noticed this a few times that the skiing is hardest in the morning and easiest in the evening when it is more glazed. I passed the 20 km mark which I would not have envisaged in the morning and continued for another 2 km. Again, there was not complaint from my knee.

093. Tent life. Here feeding chunks of snow into the kettle while enjoying the heat in the vestibule of the tent before disrobing.

Time was getting on now and it was after 1800 before I had the tent up and the pit for my feet dug. Once everything was secured outside, I came in and sat on a dry bag of clothes with my feet in the pit and closed the outer door. It was instant bliss as I could feel the warmth on my face as I peeled off the ice encrusted head gear and gloves. I got the stove going as soon as possible and started feeding chunks of snow into the kettle. This usually takes an hour and warms the tent even more as the liquid fuel stove pumps out the heat. Inside the tent it was a forest of drying clothes from the clothes lines, mostly gloves and their linings. Before long the solar panels were charging the batteries. Once enough water was boiled, I retreated into the tent and closed up the inner to enjoy my delicious dinner and write the blog. The blog alone takes nearly 2 hours to write and send. Despite the wind it had been a great day mostly on account of my knee not complaining too much.

Day 25. Dec 14. S 83º07.490 W 080º16.159 to S 83º21.024 W 080º17.636. 26 km. 9.5 hrs. 3030 Cal. All too quickly it was 0500 and the cycle starts to repeat. I opened a new weekly food bag last night. I have 5 left meaning another 35 days. It is one of the ways I have of keeping track of time and seeing the weight slowly reduce as each one is about 10 kg.  I then gather all my chargers and gadgets from in my sleeping bag and pack them away. Then have breakfast, again in my sleeping bag. I could see it was sunny and there was little wind outside, my favourite combination. As I eat, I check the weather forecast on the Garmin Inreach device I have. Inside the tent it was 14 degrees. Then it is time to get out of my sleeping bag and put on my socks, salopettes, jacket, boots, and the head gear. Once that is on, I zip up my sleeping bag in the bedding system and throw everything outside the door and follow it zipping up the tent. I put it all in the pulk and then take the tent down. The tent poles remain in their sleeves and I just part the 3 sets in the middle and fold them over and then roll the whole thing up and put it in a 1.5-metre-long tube bag. It too goes in the pulk, and everything gets zipped into the pulk cover and secured down. The whole procedure takes 2 hours but a bit more if it is windy.

Today was not windy. It was a beautiful day with azure blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. It was the perfect day and would do wonders for morale. The snow was quite fast and hard and the pulk moved easily across the generally even terrain. I was in a good mood and humming cheerful songs and I walked quicky with my skis on. I always seemed to be going uphill but again when I looked back it looked like I had come downhill. It was a common theme I had noticed frequently. Whatever I was doing the gradients were minimal. After 3 hours I had done my 8 km and sat on the pulk with my face to the sun and had macaroni and ibuprofen.

094. It was a glorious day’s skiing under blue skies and a gentle breeze all day. I still used the poggies on the ski sticks for warmth and have the dexterity with my small gloves on.

For the second 3 hours stint the snow went from OK to superb. Suddenly I found myself actually skiing and the pulk was just bouncing along behind me. I got into a rhythm of launching off one ski and gliding with the other. I was doing about 6 km per hour. Ecstatically I calculated I would do 30 km today, be at Thiel fuel cache 210 km away in a week and at the Pole in 3. And the pulk felt much lighter than before. When I started it was like pulling a railway carriage, now it was just like a Volvo estate and hopefully in a few weeks it will feel like a Smart car. However, it did not last long and after about half an hour the terrain got rougher, and I felt my knee. My mood came crashing down again. Will I never shake this affliction. And I limped on to my second break again sitting on the pulk in glorious sunshine.

On the third stint I actually had to sit on the pulk at one stage while the knee was sensitive but then I thought if I carry on it will pass as it does most days. And it did and I hit the 20 km mark feeling great. I carried on for a few more hours but the terrain got much rougher as the sastrugi appeared and between these wild sculptures in the snow everything else was large skarve with ridges and grooves. Luckily, they seemed to be aligned to the direction I wanted to go. Nevertheless, it was slower, and I had to right the pulk 5 times after various capsizes. As I was feeling good, and the late afternoon was perfect I carried on for another hour after my usual stopping time of 1700. The terrain got even worse, but I managed to find a camp spot at 1800 amongst it all. The tent was up very quickly, and I did not load the valances with snow as it was forecast to be still all night and there was very little reason to question that now. Within half an hour I was basking in the tent with the sun radiating through the ripstop nylon cover. I knew all my sweaty clothing and damp boots would be dry in a few hours. It is this solar gain and 24-hour sunlight which makes expeditions down here possible. If it were dark outside with no chance to dry anything it would be a real hardship. Borge Ousland and Mike Horn, arguably the world top two explorers did a trip across the North Pole in the dark of winter and must have endured some terrible hardship and used lots of fuel heating the tents.

095. A self-timer on the ground as I ski past the camera with the pulk in tow.

It was a busy night on the Garmin Inreach bush telegraph. The Fireangels were just behind me and enjoyed the same glorious day. They did 27 km and would soon overtake me. Pierre 100 km to the north had a great morning but then hit cloud and poor visibility. Sam on a different and much more demanding route had endured a day of great effort where he had to shuttle everything up a steep slope in a scene out of the Heroic age of polar exploration a century ago. But everyone seemed in good spirits. For me it was one of the best days of the trip and I think if I take enough ibuprofen and push through the knee pain, which comes around the 10-15 km mark and disappears later, I have a good chance to finish. Especially as I can feel my pulk getting lighter as I have used ? ‘s of the consumables. I still have another 50 kg to shed from the weight and that will make a huge difference to my speed and effort.

Day 26. Dec 15. S 83º21.024 W 080º17.636 to S 83º32.975 W 080º19.594. 23 km. 9 hrs. 2530 Cal.  I often wake in the night at am pleased to see it is just midnight or 0130. However, this morning I slept through it all and was surprised to see it was 0515 but I still felt tired. The night had passed in a flash, and I felt cheated of some downtime. I had to start the day at once and it was a beautiful day outside so there was no time to waste. After the usual routine I was away by 0715. This time I did not put a jacket on as it was sunny and windstill. I still had my face coverings though, partly also to protect my lips against the intense glare.

I divided my day into 3 x three-hour long sections again, during that time I could generally make 8 km. As an experiment with the first I did not take any ibuprofen and my knee felt quite normal up to the break. This was partly because I could not exert myself and stride forth due to the terrain. It was heavily sastrugied and I had to make every step with consideration. However, there was plenty of routes through the sastrugi and I was always looking 50 metres ahead for the best course. Often, they looked worse than they were and there was a path right through the middle of them. One was very gnarly and impassable, even to a tractor, and was high. I called it a Monsterugi ! It was about my height.

096. Some of the largest sastrugi so far. Monsterugi even. It was nearly 2 metre high in places. Luckily it was only in patches.

After 3 hours I stopped for a very calm lunch. I could put anything on the ground without any fear of it getting blown away and the wind ribbon on the ski stick barely fluttered. The sun warmed me as I sat on the pulk even though it was at least minus 10.

For the second spell I could see clouds far in the distance. They looked different to wispy ones, and I wondered if they could be caused by mountains which I knew to be in that direction but still 180 km away. That was where the Theil Mountains were, and I would be skiing past them for a week starting in 8-9 days. I also knew there were nunataks to the west like the Pagano Nunatak but could see no sign of them. At the top of every rise, I looked longingly for mountain or nunataks which might punctuate this endless frozen ice cap. The middle section today the ice cap was like an ocean which had been frozen in a squall. The white claws of breaking waves instantly petrified into ghoulish sastrugi. I got right through this section also without feeling my knee.

097. About to have my macaroni sitting on the pulk with the sun in my face.

It was only in the third section did it start to hurt and that coincided with the terrain becoming much more benign so I could put more effort in and start to ski.; thrusting with the trailing leg while the leading leg glided for half a metre or so. I got a good rhythm going on the hardening flatter snow and the pulk clattered along behind me. With my red poggies on the ski sticks thrust into view alternatively each side of me I felt like a steam engine locomotive. However, it took its toll and I had to slow down and then stop a kilometre short of my goal. However, if someone had said to me 3 weeks ago when I was distraught in the tent thinking I had torn a ligament that I would be pushing 25 kilometres daily soon I would not have believed it. It was good to stop when I did as there were a few things I had to do.

Once the tent was up, I had to fill up my 3 fuel bottles from the plastic ones in the pulk. I think the lids might have been leaking fractionally when the liquid in them sloshed around when I went over the sastrugi. Filling the bottle is always a fraught and dangerous occasion as the fuel is very cold and any spillage on your hands is a serious skin injury. I took 3 litres out of the fullest container so now each container has 2 litres in it. Then I had to attend to a blister which surprised me as I never get blisters. I also had to have a token wash and cut my nails. Occasionally I would catch whiff of my clothing, especially the damp wool clothing and it smelt like an animal cage at a zoo. It would make Durian fruit smell like roses. With those chores done and the water boiled it was time to withdraw into the inner sanctum of the tent and have my supper propped up in sitting position on the thermarest. I could never tire of my potato and fish stew, but the lunchtime macaroni is becoming dull. There was very little chat on the bush telegraph tonight except from the Fireangels who are slowly catching me up and are just 8 km behind me now. I think to an extent I am pulling them, and they are pushing me to do an extra few km every day.  It was a good day really but tomorrow looks like the light will be poor if not terrible.

Day 27. Dec 16. S 83º32.975 W 080º19.594 to S 83º35.555 W 080º19.530. 5 km. 3 hrs. 630 Cal.  I knew today was going to be a difficult day as the forecast was for 100% cloud cover and light snow. The problem was going to be with visibility if I came across rough terrain. I set off sharp at 0700 and the first kilometre was good except snow was sticking under the nylon short skins. I changed skis to the ones with the short mohair skins and they slid beautifully. However very soon I hit rough terrain. In the white it was difficult to see if it was just skarve or whether it was sastrugi. Whatever, the mohair skins were not grippy enough for the occasion and I had to swap back.

For the next 2 hours I fumbled and stumbled over small unseen ridges and had to heave frequently to pull the pulk out of hollows. It was a lot of effort for very little gain. The pulk capsized frequently as it slid off a ridge. On one occasion 3 times in the space of 10 metres. In the end I had to take my skis off and walk it through some of the areas for a couple of times. I grew increasingly irate and frustrated and, in the end, decided it was not worth it. The forecast was for it to be poor all day and I thought if I continue like this all day something on me or the equipment will break. I compared myself to a lumber horse decades ago trying to pull logs out of a felled forest full of tree stumps and doing it in the dark. Others seemed to manage better and the Fireangels overtook me and did about 20 km but perhaps it is easier in a team. It can be difficult mentally on your own as there are no reference points and, in the end, you lose your confidence as to where your next step may be. I felt my knee hurting a bit after a particular strenuous heave to get the pulk over an unseen divot and then decided that’s it.

It was only 1030 but there was little to gain and plenty to lose so I found a level spot somewhere in the white and put the tent up temporarily. I intended to wait here until it cleared. I just took in my sleeping bag and slept from 1100 to 1300. When I looked again it was worse with low cloud and a slight snowfall of round polystyrene type snow. The same at 1500 when I then decided to get everything I needed from the pulk and make this spot my home for the night.

There were a few things I needed to do like cut up the large full skins which were just about useless anyway. I cut them into shorter segments I could screw into the base of the ski should my current nylon ones fail, and I had to stitch a small hole in the sleeping bag. After doing my exercises for my knee I had the usual supper and then went to bed early hoping for a very early rise as the forecast is good from after midnight. I still have 32 days of food and ample fuel and even managed to squirrel away some of the snacks I did not eat today in hope that I might accrue another days’ worth of food should there be more rest days. None the less it was a frustrating day.

Day 28. Dec 17.  S 83º35.555   W 080º19.530 to S 83º49.520 W080º26.150. 27 km. 12 hrs. 3650 Cal.  Because I slept much of the day, I did not sleep well at night so when I woke just after one, I had a look outside. It looked like it was clearing up as the forecast promised. I slowly got into gear and rumbled into life pulling myself out of the warm sleeping bag after breakfast. However, when I was ready to go at 0315 it had misted over again and was snowing gently. By this stage I was committed so set off. The terrain was gentler than I remembered it from yesterday and there was a predictability to where my skis went. It was the pulk which had a mind of its own and wandered off the plinth I was skiing along into a groove where it capsized. In all there were about 12 capsizes which are very time consuming to rectify.

However, after an hour it got a bit more gnarly and the mist induced whiteout more complete. I slowed right down and walked forwards using my poles like a blind man would use a white stick. I found them especially good to keep them well to the front of me and off to the side where I could feel if there was a groove or divot. I felt one many times, and prodded around more to see what the obstacle was. I could then divert to the other side to stop the pulk capsizing off the edge. It worked very well but it was slow at just over 1 km per hour.  However patiently and carefully I was gaining some kilometres. My vision was limited to what I saw out of the goggles which was just my two large red poggies thrust forward with the sticks prodding forwards. I should imagine it is rather the same view as a lobster might have probing along the seafloor with its two claws on each side.

098. Probing forwards in the white gloom hoping my pulk behind does not slide into a divot or furrow, or even capsize.

I have changed my strategy now and instead of aiming to do 3 times 8 km a day I will do 4 times 6 km. It is a much more manageable chunk and less daunting to do 2 hours rather that 3 between breaks. During my first break I sat on my pulk in the white mist with snowflakes falling and had a Clif Bar and hot chocolate at about 0530 in the morning. However, during the second break at about 0900 I noticed that the visibility was improving, and I could see 100 metres now, all be it like someone with cataracts. However, things just carried on improving until at last I saw a faint shadow and the surface of the snow sprung into life.  I had just done 12km in the space of nearly 7 hours but suddenly I could stop probing and shuffling and go faster.

By the end of my third session, it was becoming a glorious day and the very gentle breeze was from the east meaning it did not have the bitter edge as the south wind does. I could now see everything although there was a haze in the sky from which a light snow continued to fall. It mattered not to the visibility as the sun shone through and warmed me. It had a halo round it all day as the light higher haze distorted its light. The terrain for the rest of the day was through sastrugi fields. However, between these fields of ghoulish shapes like blacksmith’s anvils and giant closed fists was a relatively level platform of level snow covered in a light dusting of new powder. With the great visibility it was possible to plan a route which did not involve too much deviation and I was making good time.

At the end of my fourth session, it was just 1530 and I had already done 24 km. I pilfered the snacks I had squirrelled away yesterday and set off again hoping to get another 6 km and try and get my first 30 km day. Despite the odd niggle from both knees, I felt OK but then doubts started creeping in. Was it really worth the bravado of doing 30 km if I was to be semi crippled for the next week. It had happened earlier in the trip. Also, the time was soon approaching 1700 and I need time in the evening to do all my chores so after 3 km I saw a nice patch of snow and put the tent up.

099. At the end of a long day, I put the tent up facing the evening sun which has a halo round it.

By 1800 I was sitting in the hot vestibule with my legs in a pit starting to boil the water. Once I had supper, I tried to write but fell asleep in the warm tent sitting in campers chaise-longue. The alarm woke me for my scheduled 2100 called to ALE to check in and report everything was OK. During this call the doctors at ALE, Paddy and Isla, had arranged that Ily, a guide from Alaska, sit in. She was also a physiotherapist and talked me through some more exercises for my IT Band as well as hips and legs in general. This level of service ALE provide is really second to none and is offered not just from good customer service but also a real human concern. Virtually everyone who works at Union Glacier, and there are about 100 staff, are all outdoors people and very empathetic. I was going to write again after the phone call but fell asleep at once after what had been a long but great day.

Day 29. Dec 18.  S 83º49.520 W 080º26.150 to S 84º02.177 W 080º30.731 24 km. 9.5 hrs. 2600 Cal. Yesterday was far too long in duration and effort. As a result, I was too tired to do anything last night and exercises, blog, teeth etc all fell by the wayside as I fell asleep at 2110 after the scheduled call to ALE. That meant when I woke at 0500 I had to write and send the blog otherwise it would have over me like a black cloud all day. I was done by 0630, had breakfast and was off but 0800 a full hour later than normal but with a clear conscience on a beautiful still sunny morning with some hazy cloud.

The late finish and late start totally mucked up my routine. Routine for an expedition like this is essential. Without routine and consistency things quickly unravel and flow into the sand. I have my routine of up a 0500 off at 0700 and then doing four 6 kilometre stretches each taking about 2.5 hours and then putting the tent up around 1700-1730 which give me enough time to boil the water, at least an hour, eat supper and write the blog finishing at 2100 for the 3-minute phone call. Then lights out as they say. Any deviation from that means I am very tired in the morning and he to fight to get things back on track.

100. This patch of Monstrugi had formations which were 2 metres high.

All 4 sections of the skiing today were pretty similar. The old snowpack had 3-4 cm of new snow on it from the last couple of days and this did not allow the pulk to pass easily. The snow particles clung to the runners as it went over them, and I could hear it grinding all day. When this melts and refreezes or just get a bit of a glaze on it then it will be lovely to pull the pulk across it. I had both the short nylon and short mohair skins on at different times today. They are on different set of skis and the set which are redundant sit on top of the pulk, so they are easy to change as the conditions determine. At each of my 3 breaks I could sit on my pulk without my main jacket on such was the clement weather all day. Having no wind was nice but the warming sun and excellent visibility was magnificent. With my 4 stints of 6 km done I found a nice place to camp at the 24 km mark. A bit later than I would have liked for my evening chores but pleased I had done 24 km after yesterday’s 27 km. It was also especially pleasing that my knee was no longer the gnawing pain and that I had only taken 1 ibuprofen each day. I would not say I am out of the woods with it, but my confidence is returning.

I heard from one other expeditioner who is going “unsupported” and has run into a lot of bad luck. It means he might have to go “supported”. Although there are only 2 characters difference in those words there is a huge difference in reality. Supported means you can get 3 food and fuel drops; you can leave your rubbish at Theil and you can get replacements of things that might break. In theory it means you can travel very light most of the time with a 70 kg pulk reducing to 50 kg before you reach our next supply. Your pulk is not quite a toboggan with a hamper of easter eggs on it but it is more that end of the scale than Sam Cox’s monster pulk with 80 days of food and fuel in it and weighing in at nearly 200kg for his unsupported expedition. So, what does unsupported mean. It means you have to take everything from the start. All the food, all the fuel, all the spare parts, and contingencies like spare ski, solar chargers, clothing. It is a lot more demanding and completely self-reliant. When I started, my pulk was 137 kg but if I went supported it would be 70 at the most. Mine is probably 95 now but will come down a further 40 as I eat the other half of my food to around 55 kg. 55 kg will be a dream. This extra weight at the beginning puts a lot of extra wear and tear on the body and slows one down a lot. So, there is a lot more kudos to unsupported especially amongst the polar community and any serious expedition to north or south polar regions would have to go unsupported to have any claim.

The worst is to start off unsupported and put all that effort into it and then have some bad luck like a fuel leak or a broken binding which you could not fix and had to rely on outside help. Your expedition would then be reclassified from unsupported to supported and for that you lose all claim to any record you were trying to set and also some status. I am still unsupported but only by the grace of God. If one of my critical bits of equipment packed in and I needed outside help I would lose that status and revert to supported.

101. Despite the sun being out it was still minus 15 and my breath froze quickly onto my clothing.

I learnt today that one of us is having that plight and unless he can figure something out, will have to seek outside help and revert to supported. Consider his journey in comparison to the one of the electric vehicle which made it to the south pole. This makes towing a toboggan of easter eggs seem impossibly arduous with its heated seats and climate control. Now some people, especially petrolheads, might consider me a puritanical killjoy but I suggest this expedition should never have happened. Dogs are not allowed on Antarctica for environmental reasons so why should an electric vehicle? Is nothing sacred anymore? It is the thin end of the wedge. What’s next, the Red Bull Mt Vinson Motor Cross Rally? To add to my distaste, it was done for climate change awareness. It left me fuming about as much as the petrocarbon generators used to charge the electric vehicles’ batteries and the diesel support vehicles. Rant over!

Towards the end of the day, I crossed the 84th degree. That brings an end of the second of five equal sections. I could not see the nunataks, like Pagano which marked the end of it, but my GPS told me I had crossed into the middle section, that is the section with the Thiel Mountains. This last section saw my knee and IT Band getting stronger and starting to heal and it also saw my total pulk weight reduce by a further 15 kg. It may not sound much against the 100 kg average, but I am starting to feel the difference. I still have 30 days of food left and this is 2 days more than half, so I feel quite comfortable in the supplies I have.

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October 14, 2023

Day 01. 20 Nov. Hercules Inlet to S 79º59.2243’ W79º50.7014’. 8 km. 3.5 hrs. 80 up. 0 down. 1380 Cal. At breakfast I noticed it was a lot less noisy. Indeed, it was almost dull. There were some 40 people in the dining room, but it was subdued. Then I noticed none of the staff were here. They had all moved through to their own dining room leaving just the guests. It must be said that most were very interesting but there was not the happy banter. Tim Mcdowell, the young ops guy came to tell me the 0930 flight was postponed as there was still a bit of fog over Hercules Inlet and the pilots needed good contrast and this was likely missing. He said there was another satellite image at 1200 but in the meantime, we should prepare out gear. I packed everything except my tent and took all the stuff I was leaving to Lucy who could store it. At 1200 Tim came back and said the flight was on. I packed the tent and then my pulk went off to be weighed. It was 137 kg in all. 80 of which was consumables. I then had a quick lunch while the crew loaded the pulk into the Twin Otter. They separated the fuel so it would not leak with reduced pressure. I forgot to fill my thermoses at the dining room which would have save me fuel in the evening. After lunch it was time to go to the plane.

035. The Twin Otter on the ice runway having disgorged me and all my equipment.

The pilot and co-pilot were both Canadian women. The pilot oozed experience and was an Arctic Pilot in the summer for the same company – which ALE chartered. The pulk and gear was already loaded so I just had to take my seat. After a while the engines started and the plane moved forward on its large skis turned and then headed down the runway taking off quickly with the light load. The camp was soon gone, and in its place was a small range of glaciated mountains sticking out of the mantel of an ice sheet. Hercules inlet was just the other side of the mountains some 60 km away. We were there in no time, but the pilot had to make a couple of low passes to make sure the ice sheet was smooth enough to land on. She found a spot and we circled round and landed. The two pilots helped be out with the heavy sledge and the fuel and I and all my gear were on the ice. The pilots made sure I phoned comms to report my position and then they filled a couple of black bags with snow to act as a marker for their other flights this season.

At last, I was ready. The pilots took some photos of me and then I was ready to set off. I left at 1500 hrs heading south. Once I was far enough away, they started their engines and took off. The plane soon disappeared leaving me on my own in this vast wilderness of ice. It is likely other skiers, and there were about 10 skiing this route this year, will catch me up and I might meet them, but it could be the pilots are the last people I see for 56 days until I reach the pole.

036. Heading south from the plane so it could take off a return to Union Glacier

For the first hour the skiing was very easy as I crossed the flat icesheet which filled the Inlet. The snow was smooth and hard with a light dusting on it from last night. It was almost what the Norwegians call silkefore – silky conditions. The sun was quite bright but there was some mid-level cloud, and it was wild still and totally silent except for the swish of skis. I was going to use full skins but changed to the short skins and they were fine. After an hour I got to the edge of the inlet where the floating ice was grounded on the bedrock. At the safety brief I was told to keep my eyes open here as the ice essentially went up a down slightly with the tide and there was a hinge effect. However, I saw not the slightest crack.

037. The Patriot Hills were about 20 km to the SW and were a great directional marker to head towards as I crossed the frozen inlet to the start of the climb.

The terrain started to climb now, and it would rise some 800 metres in the next 20 km. I had expected a discernible climb, but the gradient was so shallow it was barely noticeable. I kept on a bearing from the start waypoint to another some 6 km away. It kept me on a bearing towards the Patriot Hills away in the distance so 20 km away. I kept heading for the glacier which drained the central portions of these hills. It was windstill and silent. Although the climb was negligible, I did feel it from time to time especially when going over rougher ground with the odd lip. It would be an exaggeration to call it sastrugi which is slower. I plodded up here for the next two hours constantly debating whether I should switch my skis over to the set with the full skins but just managed to keep going on some areas with a vigorous short set of herring bone steps.

At one stage I glanced at my watch, and it said it was 2000. I was shocked at where all the time had gone. I decided to ski for another hour and then phone comms for my daily scheduled call and position which I had to do every day at 2100. By that stage I would have done 8 km and done a good 3 hours. I must have faffed about for ages at the plane. I summited a very gentle rise and found a good spot to put the tent up. It was already 2110 and I was a bit late with the call. However, the operator at the other end seemed surprised I was calling him. I gave my position and said I was going to camp.

038. The tent set up in the sun at the end of my first day. It was cold, perhaps minus 10 outside but warm in the tent with the tremendous solar gain.

The snow was firm, like a neve type of snow and it squeaked when I put my sticks into it or walked on it. It was firm enough to hold the large tent pegs I had well. The tent was up in ten minutes then I threw all my pizza delivery bags in and dug a hole in the porch. I dragged my bedding bag in and then got the stove going. It all worked as it should, and it took well over an hour to melt 6 litres of water. 4 went to create chocolate drinks, 1 to rehydrate dinner, and 1 for tomorrow’s lunch and water left over to start tomorrow’s melting so I would not scorch the pan. I sent a few messages and was pleased to hear Sam Cox was doing well up in Berkner Island. It was already 2300 when I started my meal and. It did not feel late at all, and the sun was charging the batteries in the tent porch.

039. My kitchen is basically to melt water to hydrate meals and make hot drinks. I would do it all in the evening to save the faff in the morning as the thermoses were so good.

However, I noticed all my other gadgets said it was around 2100 but my trusty watch said midnight. I was confused. I phone Comms again to ask the time. I was in fact 2100 and my watch was 3 hours fast. It must have picked up the time on the Skylink satellite at Union Glacier camp and shifted my phone to Western Time without me knowing. It was lucky I thought to phone again otherwise I would have had a black mark by my name. It explained why the afternoon was so short. I had good time now so wrote the blog and just enjoyed the warmth of the tent perched on the sunny icy expanse. It got up to about 20 degrees in the tent and I was warm. Outside the sun was bright and passing over the Patriot Hills to the SW. It had been a marvellous first day and I was being spoilt by the weather. I had some aches and pains and a bit of cramp after the day but that was probably due to being relatively inactive for the last 3 weeks. I had another 700 metres to climb and would take them slowly easing my way into the trip and savouring the experience of this extraordinary continent.

Day 02. S 79º59.2243’ W79º50.7014’ to S 80º03.9712 W 80º20.6876. 15 km. 7 hrs.  370m up. 20m down. 3140 Cal.?  I slept well on the ice without the need for an eye mask despite the bright sunshine. It was so bright in the tent in the morning the solar chargers were working well on the tent floor beside my bed. I had breakfast in my sleeping bag washed down with a litre of whey and milk. I also had a litre of chocolate still scalding hot in my flask after a night. I had to put snow in to cool it. Outside it was windstill, below zero at perhaps minus 5 or 10, but sunny and this warmed the tent like a greenhouse. My bare hands got cold packing up the tent, but they warmed quickly once they were away from the frosty ripstop. It did not take long to pack the pulk, but I tried a few experiments to get access to my stuff without taking the skis, sleeping system and tent tube off and this took nearly an hour. I eventually left at 1100. It was way too late, but I did not want to put in big days yet anyway. After 3 weeks in Punta Arenas I looked like Billy Bunter and I did not want a wear and tear injury. Once I was in better shape, I could extend my efforts.

040. Leaving camp in the morning and looking over to the Patriot Hills which I would soon leave behind as I veered more to the south.

I set off south with the warm sun on my back. I had the short skins on as the terrain was undulating for the next 3-4 km and then I could see it rise to the west of Fudgie Nunatak. A small knoll standing proud of the icesheet. I persevered with the short skins, but it was quite hard work, and I was always tense and prepared to get pulled back. Eventually with the slope to the west of Fudgie Nunatak approaching I put on the skis with the full skins. What a difference. I could now pull with confidence. With these full skins I felt I could pull a railway carriage, which was just as well as my pulk was not far off at 137 kg.

As I started up the slope, I noticed some bare milky blue ice to the side of the waypointed route. I veered over to it. It was cracked and the cracks were about 2-3 cm wide. However, the runners glided like a dream on the ice and my skins had a good grip, so I stayed on the ice weaving a path between the wind shaped sastrugi which was lumpy and erratic. it was not a steep climb by Scandinavian standards but with the weight of the pulk it certainly made me work. Under the sun it was hot work and I had to stop to take off a layer of clothes and also my balaclava and gloves. The sun was intense, and I could feel it burning my scalp. It had never occurred to me to take a baseball hat with a neck cover but that is exactly what I needed.

It took a good 2 hours to climb up the slope between Fudgie Nunatak and the Pirrit Hills and I passed very close to Fudgie. So close I could easily have gone onto its rounded boulder covered dome. I am sure there might have been some lichens growing on the rocks. I kept thinking Northern Europe must have looked much like this 12000 years ago at the last ice age with everything covered in ice. Reindeer would been at the more hospitable edges going from outcrop to outcrop to nibble the lichens. The Neanderthal hunters would have followed them as they moved north as the ice withdrew until they could settle the land and become todays Scandinavians.

041. Hauling the 136 kg pulk up the slope between Fudgie Nunatak and the Pirrit Hills over rougher ground. it was hot work under the constant sun.

As the cold air flowed down from the central higher areas of Antarctica it picked up speed at the steeper sections. These are catabatic winds. It is the reason that whichever route you ski to the pole the winds are against you as they always flow north from the high polar dome in the centre. Here between the Pirrit Hills and Fudgie Nunatak they would have accelerated through the gap and blown the snow into uneven formations called sastrugi. Although it was beautifully calm today the normally constant wind had left its mark and I had to pick a path through the formations. Some were like blacksmiths anvils and other were scallop like depressions. The pulk struggled and 5 times it turned over and I had to right it. All the Acapulca Pulks I have owned and also the Fjellpulken ones have a common issue with this, and I think the runners could be another 25% further apart to minimize the capsizing.

At the top of the climb, I reached another waypoint and veered more to the south. I would follow this for another 6 km to another all the time climbing slightly. The gnarliness of the sastrugi eased as the slope eased and I could make better time again. It was still hot and windstill and I had no use for gloves at all. I was tempted to go on and on into the sun which was now almost in front on me. However, I was wary of doing myself an injury. It would do me no good to gain an extra 5 km at the risk of popping a hernia or prolapsing a disc so after 7 hours I found a flatter spot in the sastrugi and made camp. The tent went up quickly and once inside I made a deep hole in the porch, I could put my legs into so I could sit as I melted water. I could feel the heat of the porch warm my slightly sunburnt head. I boiled 4 litres of hot water for the flasks and another 3 to drink with my dinner and tomorrows breakfast. I had tried not to sweat too much today but it was difficult not to. At times I felt like a slave pulling great blocks of stone to build the great pyramids of Gaza under the midday sun. I sent a few messages on the Garmin Inreach App which I am sure I would use a lot as fed snow into the kettle. After supper I wrote a bit of the blog but fell asleep halfway through it at 2230 and abandoned it as I slid into my sleeping bag.

042. My camp on at the end of Day 02 with the Pirrit Hills in the background. Once inside the tent I could almost lounge around in underwear such was the solar gain.

Day 03. S 80º03.9712 W 80º20.6876 to S 80º14.1736 W 80º37.2676. 21 km. 8 hrs. 170m up. 30m down. 3380 Cal.  I had a slow start as I needed to finish the blog in the morning. It was bright outside and there was virtually no cloud, and it was completely still. I have heard it said that the moment you get off the plane Antarctica wants you dead! Who ever said that either led a very sheltered life or is a drama queen. Since I arrived, I have been spoiled by the most benign conditions, I know it will change and the wind will pick up but for the moment I am having some terrific skiing. I was wrong what I said yesterday about the Pirrit Hills. They are much further away and all the hills I am passing to the west are the Patriot Hills which is basically the SE end of the Ellsworth Mountains before they diminish and are consumed by the ice sheet.

043. A high east facing cirque in the Patriot Hills whose glacier drained onto the icesheet

In the morning I continued south to another waypoint. As I went another plane went over to take some more people to Hercules inlet. I was in contact with the always chirpy Jacob. Pierre and the older British Marines started yesterday, and Jacob and the Finns started today. That just left Missy Desktop who was keeping her trip under cover and would start soon. The young Turks of Jacob, Pierre, and Missy Desktop would soon catch me up. The older marines I guess would go at my pace and the Finns, guided by the remarkable Poppis might catch me up. Poppis was not only an experienced guide and outdoors man but also an inventor of outdoor gear and quite a character. There were also 3 going from Messner Start including Robert the Pole and Lucy the Czech with Christian Styve as her guide. I am not sure where Per the Swede is starting probably Hercules Inlet also. In addition to that there was Sam and Patrick starting at Berkner Island on the outer coast. They were the purists. There was also Omar on his bicycle towing a pulk which will be interesting. So, in all there were 16 Expeditioners in all. The older Marines of Alan and I think Mike were also characters especially Alan while the steely Mike was nearly 68 years old.

The first half of the day was to the East of the Patriot Hills across the vast icefield. It rose very slightly but the surface of the snow got easier and easier until I could get a passable glide on my full skins. The pulk just capsized once and I repacked the top half and that seemed to lower its centre of gravity. The gradient eased as I went from perhaps 1 in 100 to almost flat. At the top with the smoother snow and the lack of sastrugi I felt I was cooking on gas. The pulk, a strain on the climb, was now at times barely noticeable. I found myself leaning forwards occasionally and reminded myself to be more upright and pull from the hips and keep the chest up. In short, I had to ski like a pigeon and not like a turtle.

044. My tent at the end of the day with the Three Sails barely visible as 3 dots on the horizon above the vestibule.

As I skied, I could not help but think what was under me. Perhaps a kilometre of ice slowly flowing towards Inner Coast and the Ronne Ice Shelf where I started. I have heard it said that if Antarctica losses all its ice, then sea levels will rise by 67 metres. It seemed an excessive claim up to a week ago but now having seen the vast amount of ice here I can believe it.  Perhaps one day in 1000 years it will all be gone and a kilometre below me colonizer plants and scrub will be establishing themselves in the newly exposed moraine and eskers.

In the afternoon the skiing got even easier. I did not change skis to the one with the short skins as everything seemed to be working well. In fact, I think the ice sheet might have dipped slightly maybe at 200 to 1. It was virtually imperceptible to see but the skiing was quicker. I made good time and the pulk was more stable across the small sastrugi. In fact, I thought I could have been skiing down a Scandinavian lake were it not for the expansive ice fields. About 5 km before I stopped, I saw The Three Sails. It was a waypoint I had to head for and was composed of three nunataks in a line. Once I got there, I would have done about 50 km on this journey. As I skied towards them, they virtually sunk below the horizon as I skied south into a depression. I could have skied much longer in these great conditions but decided to call it a day a 1930. The sun was still warm and was burning my right cheek as it veered from behind me to ahead of me. I found a flatter area, set up the tent and started to melt the 7 litres of water I needed. After the obligatory check in phone call at 2100 I washed in come cold water with a facecloth and then started the blog. It had been a great day, and I was optimistic about tomorrow also.

045. Looking from my campsite across the icesheet to another range in the Patriot Hills which had dominated all 21 km today.

Day 04. S 80º14.1736 W 80º37.2676 to S 80º24.8351 W 80º28.2534. 21 km. 8.5 hrs. 70m up. 70m down. 3470 Cal.  I got quite badly sunburnt on my cheeks and jawline yesterday despite them being on the shaded side. I think the reflection from the snow is enough. Today I would take more precautions and wore a buff to protect my neck and a small hat to cover my scalp. It was a bit windier today so I could get away covering up a bit before I started to sweat. It was still probably minus 10 but I could feel the sun warming my back. I smeared my lips and cheeks in sunblock and set off at 0900. Probably not a pretty sight but I would meet no-one today.

046. After getting fried yesterday I was taking no chances with the sun today. Notice despite the sun there was still frost on by jacket.

Initially the snow was good as I skied south past the distant Patriot Hills, possibly 20 km to the west. There was a grand array of peaks, likely composed of hard rock which rose up through the icesheet. All the rock I had seen so far, mostly from the plane seemed to be sedimentary. I made good time and with the early start I was eating up the kilometres and after 3 hours had already done 10. I stopped for lunch in the middle of the vast icesheet in the very slight breeze. The sun was shining, and it warmed anything black facing it. I sat on my pulk and ate the Clif bars and drank my first hot chocolate. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with my drinks mix. Either it stewed all night and lost its flavour, or the flask was imparting a metallic substance. I noticed it yesterday also and my drink tasted foul. I was sure it was stainless steel, but it looked matt now. It was a GSI Microlite 1 Litre, and I had 3 of them. I would try putting the next batch in lukewarm to avoid scalding the milk/chocolate mix. My Nalgene bottles did not have the taste and were sweet and delicious.

047. Looking over my pulk to the distant Patriot Hills. The poggies on my ski poles were very useful. As was the ribbon which showed wind direction and helped with navigation.

After lunch I thought I would be at the 3 sails in no time. However, it took ages to make any headway. The snows surface was ridged and furrowed, and also hard and unforgiving. my skis often crossed at the top of an ice mound, and I fell over twice, once when the strong elastic on the pulk trace heaved my back. As I ski towards the 3 sails, they started to disappear from sight, and I very gradually descended into a dip. I was using them as navigation as there was a way point nearby. With them disappearing I had to resort to my gadgets to navigate.

048. A zoomed in shot to one of the biggest massifs in the Patriot Hills.

After a slow lumpy climb the tops of the 3 sails reappeared and with each step more and more of them were revealed. They were not high or dramatic nunataks but graceful like the sails of a schooner. I seemed no closer to them than I was a lunchtime, but the Patriot Hills were definitely starting to recede now. After the 3 sails there was nothing but the ice sheet. I imagined the Ancient Mariner must have felt like this as he sailed through the Pillars of Hercules and out into the vast Atlantic. There would have been a few rocky outcrops about to see him off before he ventured into the vast empty ocean expanse. The 3 sails were to be my last outcrops before I went forth into the all-encompassing and featureless expanse. I would see the odd distant nunatak but nothing significant until the Theil Mountains and they were still 3-4 weeks away. It really would be an isolating experience.

The snow got difficult towards the end of the day and was quite lumpy. It was always firm and had been since I left the plane. I occasionally tried short skins, but I slipped around too much on the small icy ridges so went back to the full skins. On one occasion I slipped, and my ski knocked and bent the clip holding the end of the skins to the rear end of the skin. I would have to bent it back later in the tent so put on one ski with short skins in addition the one with long skins. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of the skins. Once the glue was wet it would have to be dried before reattaching. In fact, all in all skins are somewhat vulnerable. If I was to buy my equipment again, I would definitely get a pair of Fisher Crown Base ski which have fishscales on them. Not are fast as skins and the connoisseurs look down on them but trouble free and reliable.

049. The graceful Three Sails which I camped near. It might be the last bit of land I pass for a while.

The last few km of the day were a bit laboured. Perhaps I was worrying about the ski skins, but I did not feel full of joy as I had previously in the trip. However, the sun was out and the wind was barely there so the evening was pleasant. I decided to camp at 1800. It would give me enough time to boil 7 litres and eat supper before my 2100 check in call. With the tent up and the vestibule facing south the sun soon warmed the tent and it felt cosy inside. I did my cooking duties, phoned ALE and then sent a few messages on the Garmin device which was quite remarkable. Sam still seemed to be going well and Jacob and Poppis were 2 days behind me. I also heard from Bex of the Fire Angels. I forgot to mention them yesterday. They were 2 Welsh girls, firefighters, skiing from Union Glacier to the South Pole. This brings the total number of Expeditioners to 18 this year, which must be something of a record for ALE. It had been a good day but not a great day and I was a bit worried about the hard snow conditions. The icy ridges might take a toll on my equipment.

Day 05. S 80º24.8351 W 80º28.2534 to S 80º35.5031 W 80º09.1850. 22 km. 8.5 hrs. 100m up. 90m down. 3340 Cal.  The locations where I camp are given in degrees as there is a lack of suitable landmarks. Imagine the world split into an orange with 360 segments, 180 West and 180 East. At the equator the distance across each segment is 60 nautical miles. Obviously when we leave the equator and head to the top or bottom of the segments the segment remains distinct but the distance across it reduces proportionally until it becomes virtually nothing.  This is called longitude. Now let us imagine two segments of the orange lying side by side so they form a circle. Then cut a segment of orange up into 180 equal portions, like a cake, and divide them into 90 North and 90 south. The outside edge of each of these portions, or degrees, is also 60 nautical miles, but unlike the longitude, the 360 segments of the orange, they stay at 60 nautical miles wherever their position. For my trip I can forget the longitude, it is irrelevant, but the latitude is important. I start at about South 80 Latitude and then go through all of the 80’s until I reach South 90 – which is the pole. So, I have to pass 10 degrees with each one being 60 nautical miles or roughly 11 km. So, the S figure in my campspot in today’s case is S 80º35.5031 and means 80 degrees and 35 minutes with a fraction of the minute in decimals. There are 60 minutes in a degree latitude also so when I get to S 80º59.9999 I am just a few steps from S 81º.  the degrees of latitude will become important for me as I ski down to S 90º the South Pole itself. As I said earlier each degree is 111 Kilometres and I have 10 to do of which I have done about half of one.

My face was still stinging from 2 days ago, so I covered up very well again with a hat, buff, and total sun block on the exposed areas. It was still not enough in this intense sun. The problem was my sunglasses kept steaming up as my breath was diverted into the buff. I could not really see my watch for navigation or indeed the lie of the snow and its ridges. Twice I fell forwards when a ski hit an unseen ridge. I also went backwards a couple of times which must have looked quite comical and the pulk refused to more and the strong bungee cord yanked me backwards off my feet. More seriously though something might break.

050. Putting the goggles on was a revelation as the vision was so clear and the face protection attached to the underside of them was a godsend.

I decided to try the goggles. I have never used goggles in 40 years of ski touring. I always battered on in a ventile jacket and old sunglasses and thought goggles was for the Alpine ski slopes. However, putting them on was like having like having cataracts removed. Not only that but the face protection Fiona had made to sew onto the goggles covered my cheeks, nose, and top lip. I was sold. I can’t believe it took me 40 years to discover goggles but now I am a convert. Especially for these Julbo ones which pull of the face a bit to allow air circulation.

The snow was still quite lumpy for many kilometres after the Three Sails. Not quite full blown sastrugi but ridged and scalloped enough to make me work hard. Occasionally I looked round in a forlorn way to see if anybody was catching me up but there was nothing but an ocean of ice. In the receding distance was the Patriot Hills but they were getting smaller by the day. I stopped for lunch and had Mac and Cheese. I sat on my pulk and ate it in the sun with virtually no wind. Although it was about minus 10 it was warm in the sun. It was quite surreal to be sat here, totally isolated for everyone else and viewing this vast vista of ice and mountain. I was lucky too it was such magnificent weather. I was privileged indeed to experience such tranquil splendour, and indebted to be educated to such a level I could appreciate it.

 

051. A last lingering look at the magnificent Patriot Hills before I dissapear into an ocean of ice.

After lunch the going got much easier as the snow became smoother. I still had the full skins on and was comfortable in them. I needed their traction to pull the 130 kg pulk and in anything less would have been tense. By midday any physical niggles I had like a stiff back had disappeared once I warmed up. So, I could ski carefree across the easier snow heading south into the ocean of ice. The last outpost of land was disappearing quickly. The goggles were fantastic, and my face was covered. The only issue I now had was that with the absence of any landmarks I strayed off the trail regularly. It had a few tools to keep me right. Firstly, a compass bearing taken from a GPS and it was about 180, secondly I could use the sun and the wind ribbon on my ski stick to keep a constant like my shadow at 1200 hrs or the wind ribbon at 0700 hrs and lastly I had the route on my watch as a track and this was my main means of sticking to the line. Nonetheless with my mind in neutral and the skis swishing away I often found myself a few hundred metres each side of it. It was not important, but it meant it zig-zagged a bit.

052. The pulk make a great seat. At the far end I have a pizza box of drinking chocolate bottles to sit on and wash down my lunch. Note the wind ribbon on the ski pole for wind direction indication.

It was really a lovely afternoon’s ski, and I was full of optimism and the worries of yesterday were now diminished. No doubt something will happen to some equipment again soon and I will have to find a fix for it but in the meantime, I could enjoy the peace and lack of worry. I did get a few messages from others, and they seemed to be experiencing a bit of grief. Sam on his long trip was bogged down in deep snow with a 170 kg pulk on Berkner Island. He was a tough guy though Sam and I sure he would push on. The Fire Angels were also on sticky snow today, the wrong side of Hercules Inlet. I feared for their speed of progress, and I feared worse for Omar on the bicycle and could just not see how it would be possible to make progress in this uneven snow, especially towing a pulk. Still no news of the young Turks of Jacob, Pierre, Missy Desktop or the Finns under the experienced Poppis, all of whom were behind me, probably a few more days. I could have pushed on more, but I thought it best to keep it under 8 hours in the beginning so camped just before 1900 hrs. As usual I angled the tent so the sun would heat the vestibule in the night and dry my sweaty clothes. It was another magnificent day; the type of day Norwegians dream of when they flock to the winter mountains at Easter.

Day 06. S 80º35.503 W 080º09.185 to S 80º45.670 W 08000.345  20 km. 7 hrs. 70m up. 100m down. 2830 Cal.  It was yet another good day in prospect when I opened the tent. The 2 solar panels were working well inside the tent to charge the 2 battery banks I had. They would even charge in the inner tent laid on the floor. I was getting quite well rehearsed now in my morning routine. After breakfast in bed, I put all the gadgets, tools, medicines, drinks containers and stove system into one of 5 soft material boxes. They were all red to keep the tent looking warm. I then zipped up the sleeping bag, and mattress into its lime green protective cover and threw everything outside. I then put my boots on, zipped up the tent and loaded the 5 red material boxes into the pulk. I then split the tent poles in half and folded the half not in the sleeve over and rolled the tent up and put it into a long ripstop tube. This tube went inside the pulk beside the red boxes. Then the sleeping system went on top and the skis I was not using on to again. There were pockets in the lime green material bag for thinks I might need like a Gore-Tex jacket of mittens but up to now had not used. It generally took me half an hour to pack.

053. The two types of skin I use. The full length on the left and the short skins on the right. The latter are faster but often don’t provide the traction I need.

Today I started on full skins. The conditions were quite fast and the pulk runners slid nicely on the hard morning snow. I skied all morning and had done 10 km by midday. It was the fastest ski of the trip yet. After lunch I tried the skis with the short skins, and they were OK but not as good as the long skins, so I switched back. In the ridged condition, which the Norwegians would call Skare, the short section with the skin might not be in contact with the snow and I would slip back. It was unnerving and tense so I switched back, especially as I could see a small climb coming up.

The goggles continued to be fantastic, and the cheek and nose protection worked perfectly with the soft-shell wool jacket and zip to cover virtually my entire face and I was slowly recovering from being battered by the sun 3-4 days ago at the start. I noticed my clothes were also a bit looser now, especially the salopettes which I wore constantly. A week ago, if the button ripped loose and popped off it would have taken someone’s eye out but now it was just straining gently. I was also getting a bit more agile, but still groaned when I stood up after kneeling. It would be a while before I could get off the floor keeping my hands in my pockets.

I stopped for lunch and sat on the back of the pulk having one last look at the Patriot Hills and Heritage Range before they disappeared into the distance. I was about to head into the ocean of ice, but I did notice 2 lofty nunataks sticking out in the middle of the ice. They were at least 50 kilometres away. My hot chocolate was foul again from the thermos, and I had to pour it away. I realized that the problem was the milk was forming culture in the flask. It was a really bitter taste and made butter milk taste pleasant. I would have to rethink my drinks and now add hot water to the milk/chocolate in a Nalgene bottle. At least the thermos did keep it warm for 24 hours.

054. Having lunch and looking across the vast frozen ocean of ice with very little features on it.

After lunch I tried the short skins again but soon reverted. The snow was really quite good with no sastrugi and smaller skarve. I made good time however by about 17 km I noticed a small pain on the left side of the left knee. I decided to call it a day at 1800 after 20 km rather than try for a couple more and run the risk of injury. I fold a flat spot and put the tent up. I took 15 minutes until I was inside getting the stove going. Despite the -10 outside and the 10 knot wind it was soon cosy inside. I was only 1800 which meant an early night. I rinsed the contaminated flasks with hot water and filled them with hot water. I cooked the dehydrated tea and then made my obligatory 2100 hrs phone call to ALE. it seems people were a day or two behind and everyone was reporting OK conditions. I wrote the blog trying not to fall asleep in my sleeping bag and eventually crashed out at 2200 – a record for me as its often midnight.

055. A last look at the now distant Patriot hills before they disappear behind the curve of the glacier or into the haze. I will be sad to see them go as they have been my only companion in the last week.

Day 07.  S 80º45.670 W 08000.345 to S 80º53.512 W 080º04.207. 15 km. 5 hrs. 20m up. 80m down. 1910 Cal.  It was quite windy in the morning, perhaps a Force 4. However, the spindrift was barely moving across the surface of the snow. It was millions of tiny pieces of snow and ice, small and spherical, flowing endlessly across the snow, ultimately north in Antarctica, until it found a drift to latch onto and become part of. The wind just made it more difficult to do things, like wrap up the tent as one had to be careful not to slip you grasp on anything, especially the tent. Otherwise, it would be off and much faster than I could run! It also made it a bit colder on the hands. However, it was a bright bright day, and the sun was fierce. it is difficult to underestimate the ferocity of the sun and its UV power. I am not sure if the Ozone hole has been filled in again. I think it has. But the rays are strong and are present 24 hours a day as the sun goes around overhead. I was only now repairing the carnage the sun had done to my lips on the first two days with constant smearing of lip balm and total cover by clothes.

It was perhaps -10 and the snow was quite firm. It seemed to be best in the morning when the sun was at its lowest. It was a skarve, with small holes and scallops. The pulk moved like a dream across it and my skis slid well also so progress was quite fast. I think I might have been going down very slightly as the resistance was minimal. it was really a lovely ski and in 3 hours I had covered so 10 km and stopped quite early for lunch at midday. The biggest of the Patriot Hills were just poking above the ice horizon as I sat on my pulk and had Mac and Cheese. I solved the problem with the foul-tasting milk culture in the flask by just keeping hot water in the flask, from the night before, and adding it to the milk as I needed it in a Nalgene bottle. It was cold in the wind, so I sat with my back to it with my full Gore-Tex jacket over my skiing jacket.

056. Lunch on my pulk on Day 07. The mountains of the Patriot Hills and indeed all the Ellsworth Mountains were all beyond the horizon now save for a few distant tops.

After lunch the lovely conditions continued but I think I started to go up slightly on the undulating ice. It was difficult to tell with the naked eye and I just noticed it when the resistance increased, and my watch started to show some altitude gain. It was very gradual at perhaps a metre every 5 minutes. The snow was the best of the trip so far and the ridges in the skarve formations were small. Occasionally there would be completely flat patches. It was a far cry from the lumpy skarve and medium sastrugi on the climb up from Hercules Inlet over the first 2-3 days. In fact, the skiing now was a joy. It was still too uneven for me to switch completely to the small skins, but I am sure most Norwegians would have done so.

After a couple of easy hours after lunch I noticed the pain in my knee coming back. It was on the outside of the left knee. I know little of the anatomy of the knee other than it is complicated but for some reason though it was a cruciate ligament and it had been straining a bit over the last week and was now slightly inflamed. I also though it could be the start of it tearing which would be a trip ending event, so I decided to be cautious and call it a day. it was just 1400 and were it not for this could have gone on for another few hours. I had done 15 kilometres already which was an acceptable amount anyway. I put the tent up with the vestibule facing north and the lower end into the wind and was soon inside.

057. Melting snow in the tent on the reliable but noisy MSR XGK 11 stove. I still use my trusty 40-year-old Witco spade from Norway. It is heavier than its modern carbon fibre equivalents but it has never let me down.

I was quite a luxury to have the whole afternoon to relax in the warm tent. Outside it was minus 11 but inside in was plus 20. I boiled the 6 litres of water and then turned off the jet engine of the stove to enjoy the silence. The stove is an MSR XGK 11. It is a solid little stove with few moving parts and it not adjustable. It is either on and roaring away or off and quiet. There are other options, but they are not as reliable. Indeed, I still have my 25-year-old MSR XGK 1 and use it from time to time in Nepal, where everything else clogs up on the dubious kerosene.

I then hung all my slightly damp clothing up on the clothes lines in the tent and clipped them there with beech cloths pegs. They would dry in no time in this heat. Some items, especially my wool skiing jacket which I would use in all but the worst weather, was starting to smell like a wet dog and that was just after a week. I can imagine after 8 it will be quite rich. I made my mattress into a chaise longue by raising the end, pulled the sleeping back over me and started to write the blog. However, the comfort and warmth soon overwhelmed me and I dozed for an hour. It might be hard to believe that in this extremely isolated and inhospitable place, in the middle of a vast icesheet one could find such comfort.

058. Hanging all the undergarments, gloves, and hat in the tent to dry at the end of each day. Without the solar gain of the tent, enhanced by its yellow colour, the expedition would be a damp, frozen misery.

As the afternoon wore on, I got a few messages for other skiers. Sam was still on Berkner Island 500 kilometres away and after a week of hard slog had at last had a nicer day with firmer snow and Jacob was still in good spirits by the 3 sails and the Finns under the characterful Poppis were also there. I could reassure Jacob and Poppis that the conditions were about to get better. No news of Omar on his bike, Pierre who I would expect to catch up soon and Alan and Mike, the older ex marines. It was comforting to know there were others on the ice even if they were 50 km away. I finished the blog and dinner well before my scheduled check in at 2100. I had taken 2 Ibuprofen with each meal since midday and my knee was totally forgotten about, so I probably won’t speak to the doctor today as tomorrow is Medical Monday when we all have to speak to either Doctor Isla or Doctor Paddy for our weekly check-up which the very professional ALE provide.

Day 08.  S 80º53.512 W 080º04.207 to S 81º02665 W 080º 02.141. 18 km. 7 hrs. 90m up. 110m down. 2260 Cal.  It was not that nice when I woke at about 0500. The sun was off course still up as it never set but it was behind a layer of cloud so there was not the solar gain, and the tent was cold. In addition, there was a good wind outside, not quite a force 5 but enough to rattle the tent and have all the promise for a cold day. I put on an extra layer in anticipation and had to use the cosier but less dexterous Hestra gloves to take the tent down as my usual OR Backstop were not enough. I packed everything into the pulk without allowing too much spindrift in.

059. It was quite windy in the morning and cold without much sun. The spindrift was lashing the south end of the tent.

Initially my knee was OK but after a few kilometres it started to hurt again. I analysed the movement which aggravated it, and it seemed it was due to my lower leg moving forwards rather than what I expected it to be which was straining to straighten the leg and move forward. I was still in the full skins, and they had a fair bit of friction in them especially as I often had to lift the tip as Colltex had changed the front rubber clips and they often caught on the snow. I decided to change to the short skins as the conditions now warranted it anyway. They glided forwards much more easily and after a kilometre I did not feel the knee anymore. Hallelujah. Unless I hit large sastrugi and had to switch to full skins again this was the solution. My arms had to work harder as I could no longer plough forwards like a tractor and had to put more power into them. Perhaps different parts of my body had to take it in turns to have a bit of pain.

I was glad I had an extra wool layer under the goretex shell. It was the first time I had both the goretex salopettes, which I virtually live in, and the goretex jacket on. I felt a bit trussed up, but I was covered head to toe and felt warm. Importantly my cheeks and upper lip were covered by the goggles and the flap below them and my lower lip by the merino jacket. The flow of dry cold air over them still aggravated the sunburn from a week ago but it was subsiding. I even got sunburnt on the tip of my tongue then.

I was too cold to fiddle around and get the camera out for photos. Not that there was much to take. The mountains had disappeared, and it was just this vast icefield as far as the eye could see. At the top of a small rise, I just saw what I assumed were the Pirrit Hills and a vast monolith of a nunatak beside them called Moreland Nunatak which stood up steeply from the icefield. They were perhaps 40-50 kilometres to my west, and I would see them from time to time today.

The snow was good, and I could see from my watch I was going down ever so slightly. I made good time and within 3 hours I had made 9 km and I felt great. The weather was not as fierce as it was earlier, and I thought to have lunch on my pulk. I got the pizza delivery box out and poured water from my flasks on my mac and cheese and into my Nalgene bottle with the chocolate and milk mix which was now delicious compared to the rancid culture a few days ago. I could see none of the Young Turks approaching.

060. The headgear is important. I have a hat on then googles over this. At the bottom of the googles is a flap sewn on to protect the nose and upper lip. Then a wool under jacket zipped up to protect the bottom lip and this also has a hood. Finally, a goretex jacket with a hood and a small ruff covers everything.

After lunch the almost imperceptible undulations continued. The wind was now just a force 4 and the sun barely visible. It made the light quite flat and lacking in contrast. I needed this contrast to ski towards features in the snow but without it I was just going on my shadow, I was often skiing into my shadow, or the wind direction ribbon. However, it was hard not to unconsciously turn so I was going parallel with the ridges of skave snow rather than diagonally over it, as I should, but which was more effort. I frequently had to correct myself. After another 3 hours I stopped for more chocolate drink and a biscuit and had intended to go more but the pain started to come back in my knee soon after I restarted. The snowfields were good, and I could camp anywhere at will so after 18 km stopped and pitched the tent. This time I made sure the vestibule was facing south to catch the night sun, warm the tent and charge the batteries. I seemed to have a surplus of power with the two solar chargers.

I think my body is suffering a little from the weight I put on before I started. I had gone from slightly above my fighting weight to plump. Carrying too much weight takes its toll on the body just like too much snow on a Christmas tree will take a toll on the branches. Eventually limbs start to ache and break. I can see I am getting slightly more agile now as I lose weight and by the end of this trip should be in fine shape and ready to lead an active life. The test will be to see if I am able to stand up from lying on the floor while keeping my hands in my pockets.

Just before I stopped, I crossed the 81-degree line. I had skied a whole slice of the cake I talked about a few days ago, from 80 degrees to 81 degrees. It was 60 nautical miles or about 111 kilometres. I still had another 9 degrees to ski, but it was nice to get one out of the way. I also had to start a new food bag as I had already gone through one. Each bag contains 7 days of rations, and I had 7 left. I did a quick calculation and see that I had to ski just over 20 kilometres a day for the next 49 days to reach the South Pole at 90 degrees. It was quite feasible as I would get fitter hopefully and my pulk would get considerably lighter losing over 10 kg per week.

061. Disrobing all the head gear in the sanctuary of the tent. Often the tent was so bright I would need sunglasses inside it!

Once inside the tent surrounded by down feathers, I was soon warm and relaxed in the orange/yellow glow. It was -11 outside, -21 with the windchill but inside the tent it was 14 degrees. As always it was a luxurious end to the day to lounge around for a few hours and eat supper. One day there will be a storm, but I can secure the tent to make it much more solid and half bury the sides with snow to see it out. The was not so much chat on the Garmin messenger service with the other expeditioners this evening but I did speak to Doctor Isla at ALE as it was Medical Monday and told her about my knee.

 

Day 09. S 81º02.665 W 080º 02.141 to S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305. 6 km. 2.5 hrs. 20m up. 60m down. 1120 Cal.  It was a force 5 in the morning and overcast with little solar warmth. I had to be careful when taking the tent down not to lose anything in the wind. I have a security line on the tent which I attach to the line I drag the pulk with which I used this morning. If I lost a grip of the tent, it would be off quicker that I could ski. My hands got a little cold, but they soon warmed up when I started to ski. I have poggies on my ski sticks and they are fantastic as they keep the wind off completely. Before long the cold in the fingers was replace by the hot aches as blood rushed into them. I had overdressed this morning and I soon had to stop to take off my wool jacket and put on the goretex jacket. The wool jacket is totally unsuitable to skiing if there is any spindrift as it would soon get covered.

I headed south for a couple of kilometres over easy snow and was feeling quite good physically but there was a slight twinge in the knee. It was on the left-hand side of the left-hand knee, at the bony protrusion and perhaps 2 cm forward of the large tendon which comes down the back on the knee on the outside. As the kilometres progressed it got slightly worse and after 4 km I stopped for a biscuit. However, it did not go away. It was not that painful, but I am just worried that if I pushed it, I would cause more damage. After 2 km it was not going away as I warmed up, so I decided to call it a day at around 1200.

My knees have never troubled me before, and I was not expecting it. I was more worried about my back but not my knees. Some might say I pushed it too much on the first week and I was a bit too greedy to get the kilometres in and perhaps keep up with the pack. I would say there is a lot of truth in this, and I should have limited my skiing to 6 hours a day for the first week and then increased it by an hour a week thereafter. However, the situation is now that there is an inflamed tendon and I have to throw everything at it to resolve it otherwise it might become a trip ending injury. As I put the tent up, I could feel nothing wrong and once in the tent it was fine, but I would have to rest it. So, I decided to take the rest of the day off and all of tomorrow also.

062. My tent, its south end well battened down against the south wind. I may well spend 48 hours here.

I will hit it with Ibuprofen and try and put a small ice pack on it and keep it rested. Then in two days’ time I will go for a small 3-hour ski and keep it at that for a while until I am confident, I can stretch things again.  One thing I do have on my side at the moment is time and I still have nearly 50 days of food to do exactly 1000 km. It is a good week worth of food more than most people have. However, I cannot say I am not disappointed to have accrued this injury so early. I remember a good friend of mine in Norway warning me about getting “belastningsskader” a couple of weeks into my Norge Paa Langs on skis. Well, it seems I have got a “belastningsskader” and will have to nurse it for a while.

Once in the tent I had a snooze. The spindrift swirled outside, and I could hear sliding off the tent when it built up a bit. There was little solar gain as the sun was behind the cloud. I had dozed for a couple of hours when suddenly I heard something outside. It must be Pierre. I knew he was a short distance behind me. I unzipped the fly and right enough it was Pierre. We chatted for a good 5 minutes. It seemed he had a similar problem and he thought it was also caused by his full skins. I noticed he was on his mohair short skins now. The best of the best. I have a pair too and might put them on when I leave here.

063. Pierre came skiing past my tent late afternoon. He continued for a few hours I think into the wind. He seemed a very strong and experienced skier despite his young years.

He was completely kitted out for the weather and even had his Air Avenger mask on and a large Wolverine ruff. With him getting cold outside and spindrift blowing into the tent our conversation was swift. We exchanged numbers and I zipped up tent and he clipped into his harness and slipped away into the weather.

It was good seeing Pierre. He was one of the Young Turks I was waiting to catch me up. He would now be the leader of this year’s Peloton of skiers heading from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. There would be no material benefit to following in his tracks because there would be none. However, there was some psychological comfort knowing he was out there forging the way. I expected to see Jacob or even Omar on his bicycle next. The tent was not that warm due to the lack of sun, but it was nice to spend the afternoon lazing in it. Having to spend a whole day in it tomorrow through should be quite boring but necessary.

Day 10. S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305. 0 km. 0 hrs. 0m up. 0m down. 0 Cal. As my knee was not fully recovering, I had already decided to throw everything at it today to see if I could stop it worsening. And that meant taking a day off and staying in bed. When I heard the wind outside and unzipped the flysheet to see a force 5 with a good bit of spindrift and light snow, I was not sorry. I could not just roll over and go back to sleep as I had to get up, get fully dressed and then go outside and clear the snow which had built up on the vestibule especially. It was remarkable to see how big and long the drift was down wind of the tent which had formed just in one night due to the changed aerodynamics of my tent being there. That done it was back into the tent to disrobe and crawl back into my still warm sleeping bag. I dozed on and off until lunchtime midmorning.

064. The Office. I usually write the blog from my sleeping bag with the thermarest backrest up after the evening meal.

I then sent a long string of messages to my favourite Veterinarian, who was up to speed on the knee anyway. It seemed I had inflamed my IT Band right at the bottom of the femur. It was not a catastrophe and was eminently treatable. Firstly RICE. I was Resting, Ice was in abundance everywhere, so I put some snow from the porch in a ziploc bag and then stuffed it down my leggings to the knee joint. I did not bother with Compression and as I was horizontal, I did not bother Elevating. In addition to that I took 3 more nurofen today. I was also given some exercise to do. One of which involved rolling on a cylinder.

065. The tent on the windy morning was covered in spindrift and had to be dug out to all what little sun there was to heat the inside.

Everyone who camps in the snow knows the comfort of a pee bottle. It saves getting out of you sleeping bag and going out into the snow. Mine is a pink Nalgene bottle with flowers on it. The main exercise I had to do was lie on my left side quite rigidly, almost like planking. Then I had to put the cylinder under my hip and propel myself forwards keeping rigid, so the cylinder rolled down to my knee and stretched the IT Band. I had to do this 4 times twice a day. I could have used my thermos flasks, but I think I would have crushed them, so the pee bottle was ideal. My tent floor had an insulated covering and under that was hard snow. It was perfect for a gym floor once the sleeping system was raised to one side. I got in position and rolled up the tent floor using the bottle as a fulcrum until my head was in the vestibule over the hole, I dig so I can sit up. I did this 4 times and could feel the muscle and tendon stretching. I was then back to more snoozing for the afternoon while the poor weather continued.

On the positive side my lips which had got so burnt a week ago and previously felt like they had been botoxed with hot lava were now starting to calm down completely. Despite using 100% sun block I had a trout pout for a few days. With much bee’s wax and face coverings I had nursed them back to normal and today inside all day and it being dull made a huge difference. Even in the tent there is risk of getting sunburnt and my solar chargers work beside me when I sleep if the sun is out.

It is easy to let negative thoughts accrue in a long trip, especially if conditions are unpleasant, or things are not going well. I noticed on the PCT walk in the US many hikers listened to headphones. I questioned one as to why he thought this was better than the sound of the wind in the pines or babbling brooks or even the iconic call of the Hermit Thrush. He said if he didn’t, he would have the same thoughts going round and round in his head for days and often they were negative. I totally knew where he was coming from as I had also noticed it. Had I slogged on today with a sore knee into the half-hearted blizzard I would have struggled to keep positive. However now I am positive and hope I can regain full fitness in a week or so. Tomorrow I will just to 3 hours skiing – even if it is a perfect day – and then camp. I will slowly build it up again. I still have the luxury of time on my side even if I only do 100 km in the next week. And my pulk is getting lighter by the day.

Day 11. Nov 30th. S 81º05.880 W 080º02.305 to S81º09.903 W 080º02.853. 8 km. 3.5 hrs. 60m up. 60m down. 1730 Cal. My knee felt fine this morning. However, it had felt good most of the time except at the end of a day which were increasingly getting shorter due to it. I had done pretty much everything I could, and I just could not spend another day in bed. My idea was to build up slowly now. So today I aimed to do about 8 km or 3 hours. There was no hurry at all and when I looked out of the tent it was overcast with a flat light with little contrast. It would make it difficult to pick out the nuances of the snow. I did my IT Band stretches and was reading to start packing up when far on the horizon I saw 2 skiers. It must be Alan and Mike I thought, and they would more than likely swing by to say hello. When I looked 15 minutes later, I saw it was just one skier. I knew who it was, and they were trying to do it as quickly as possible. They also wanted to keep it under wraps a bit, so I won’t say more. They gave me a wide berth and continued past my tent at half a kilometre’s distance, so I carried on with my packing. By the time I was out of the tent, had packed my pulk and was ready to set off they were a distant dot about to get swallowed by the poor light.

066. The anonymous skier went past my tent at a distance in the morning hoping to reach the south pole in a record time.

For the first step my knee felt good. I was nervous about it and was tuned in to see if I could feel anything, but I could not and that was a relief. The snow of yesterday had smoothed over the snowfields beautifully and most of the ridges and scallops of the skare had been filed by it. It was easy skiing but the pulk was a bit more of a drag because of the ankle-deep snow. My short skins were coping well. However, the light was very poor, and it was difficult to see the nuances of the snow and the ups and down. Hence it was difficult to put on a small spurt to overcome a small rise or move slightly left or fight to avoid a divot. A few caught me out and one made me fall over. Had it been sunny bright clear weather today would have been an excellent ski. After an hour and a half, I had done 4 easy kilometres and thought I would take lunch rather than blast through the 3 hours in one go.

I sat on my pulk and rehydrated the macaroni and poured hot water onto the powdered chocolate drink in my Nalgene bottle. It was cold at about minus 14 and the wind was force 4, so there was quite a wind chill. After lunch I just had an hour and a half left to ski for today’s quota so experimented with the different head coverings, goggles, and mouth pieces I had.  The “cold avenger” mask which Pierre was wearing in the photo a few days ago was good but it interfered with the flap I had sewn onto the bottom of the goggles. The flap gets a lot of moisture on it and was frozen, so I had to get my other goggles out and with them it worked fine for an hour. I then tried the neoprene balaclava for winter motorcycle racing. They worked well but was a bit tight and I noticed some ice building up inside the goggles with these on. I also spent time adjusting my compass holder which is a chest strap with a protrusion to hold the compass at eye level, so I don’t have to look down to see my bearing. These are remarkably accurate but not as convenient as having the route course on your watch.

After 8 km my knee was still completely OK. It could have been tempting to go on, but the visibility was poor, and both goggles needed some work on them. I chose a random spot pretty much on the marked GPX route and put the tent up. It did not take long before I was inside with everything hanging on the drying lines. There was little solar gain in the tent, and it barely crept above zero. There was also no sun to charge the batteries. Luckily, I had an abundance of power which would last 4-5 days, but I would need the sun soon to charge the gadgets. In the later afternoon I put the back of the thermarest up and sat in my sleeping bag and had Clif Bars and hot chocolate. I intended to write the blog after that but fell asleep upright. When I woke there was tepid glow in the tent which was now 5 degrees plus. The sun was not far away and could come anytime in the night to turn the tent into a drying room. I was pleased with today and even if I had been fighting fit, I would not have done more that 20 km because of the light. I will up my distance tomorrow marginally and of course do my exercises and ice my knee tonight.

Day 12. Dec 1st. S 81º09.903 W 080º02.853 to S81º15.152 W080º03.464.  10 km. 3.5 hrs. 30m up. 40m down. 1530 Cal. At odds with the forecast, it was bright and sunny outside. Perhaps the first sun for 3-4 days. It made such a difference to the mood. In the bright clear light, the snow almost shone and every ridge or change in surface was crystal clear. I thought there was a tent about a km from me last night but now in the clear light I could see it was the massive sugar loaf bulk of Moreland Nunatak. It rose straight out of the ice to a great height and was steep on all sides. It stood defiant against the ice sheet unwilling to be eroded away like so many of its neighbours. It was much easier to pack up without the wind and I was more optimistic about the day.

067. The distant Moreland Nunatak is about 50 km to the west of the trail and stood out proud from the ice sheet.

The snow was good, and I made speed across it. Sometimes the pulk just followed like a Jack Russel. Its runners just sliding easily over the crests of the ridged snow. The suddenly it the dug in like a St Bernard wanting to sniff and I had to lean forwards to pull it through the softer snow. It was a easy hour and a half to my first break but which time I had already done 4 km. There was a twinge in the knee but not the one that concerned me as it was in a different place. The headpiece I was wearing seemed to work well and it did not fog up the goggles at all. It was the winter motorcycle racing hood which was a fully face covering mask. It was made by FXR racing. At the first break I stopped for my main lunch which was all in the refreshment’s cabinet along with the hot chocolate. The only problem with the hood is I had to remove it to eat. Moreland Nunatak stood proud far to the west.

068. The refreshment cabinet with hot water to rehydrate the meal and hot chocolate to drink.

The next 4 kilometres were much the same. The sun came a went a bit more now so I to concentrate on the direction more as I could not use my shadow all the time as a compass. Usually on the bearing I am skiing on which is 142 degrees I am skiing directly into my shadow at 1400 in the afternoon. After another 4 km in an hour and a half I stopped again. This time just for a Clif Bar and more hot chocolate. My knee still felt fine, so I continued. However, after another kilometre I felt the first twinge of what I had been searching for. It was the slight discomfort in the IT Band at the bottom of the femur. I skied on slowly for another kilometre hoping it might pass but it did not. Wary I might undo all the remedial work I had done in the last 3 days I searched for a spot to camp with a firm base so I could do my rolling exercises.

069.  A selfie with the racing mask on. It is almost invisible under the goggles with the nose/cheek flap attached.

Putting the tent up and cooking the 7 litres of water was now a well-practiced routing and I found it second nature. As the southerly wind forecast was going down to a force 3 I decided to put the vestibule facing south. That way the solar gain was all the more should the sun come out and it would warm the tent, charge my batteries and dry the slightly damp clothing all the more. As usual in the evening, the bush telegraph started up and there were many texts on Garmin inreach messenger. Pierre was now 50 km ahead as was the anonymous skier who overtook me yesterday morning and Jacob was about level with me but far to the west. They all asked about my knee as did Sam who was doing fantastically well on Berkner Island on a different route. I had hoped to get a few more kilometres out of today but have to adjust everything to the foibles of one knee. It is a bit frustrating to see everyone overtake me and disappear over the horizon to the south. If my knee does sort itself out, I will be like a coiled spring and if not there is a plan B which I am formulating, as I need to do 20 km a day not 10 km.

Day 13. Dec 2nd. S 81º15.152 W 080º03.464 To S 81º20.929 W 080º03.970. 12 km. 4.5 hrs. 50m up. 50m down. 1770 Cal. I did not have a good night as I was worrying about my knee. It would be crushingly disappointing if I had to end my trip because of it after so much time and expense planning for it. If my knee did not repair sufficiently, I could ski on at about 8-10 km a day to the halfway point at Thiel Fuel Cache where ALE planes regularly landed. It was still 420 km to the south and in fact my next waypoint. If my knee went downhill more to the extent, I could not move then I could always get rescued, but the ignominy of that would be much to bear having never have been rescued before. On the other hand, my knee might recover completely. Certainly, the other one was like a coiled spring rearing to go.

In the morning it was overcast and dull. There was a very flat light, and it was difficult to see where horizon stopped, and the sky took over. Everything was white in this low cloud. The visibility was perhaps half a kilometre, but it was difficult to tell without any reference. Just as I was finishing packing the tent into the pulk I spotted two very small figures in the distance, perhaps 2 kilometres away. It could only be Alan Chalmers and his friend Mike – both ex marines and Mike being nearly 68. It looked like they were heading south parallel to my track but a good 2 km to the west. Jacob and the Finns under Poppis were also even further to the west. We were all on a compass bearing of 141 degrees. However, I was adhering to the imaginary line between the Three Sails and the next way point at Thiel Fuel Cache. After I set off, I quickly lost sight of them as the undulations of the icesheet got in the way.

I skied an hour and a half and did 4 km. It was quite taxing navigation wise. There were no reference points and no sun to cast a shadow. The only consistent thing was the wind ribbon on my ski stick, but it was often limp as the breeze was very small. I used the chest mounted compass, but it demanded a lot of attention, and I used my Garmin watch which had the route marked on it. The latter was the most precise. It had snowed a little in the night and it was still just snowing, and the terrain was great. The new snow had filled in the imperfections of the skave and the skiing was fast and easy. I had the small nylon skins on, and they slid beautifully over the snow and created just enough friction to pull the pulk. It slid behind me quite easily. After 4 km I stopped for a drink and a rest. My knee felt good and after a short break I continued.

The snow surface was even better now but the visibility was worse. I kept seeing mirage especially in the form of a rocky mountain ahead. A few times I also thought I saw people. There was nothing of course except me and my eyes imagination. Although the snow was good the visibility stopped me from going faster as I could only shuffle across the snow because there were still some ridges to catch me out and one did, and I fell forwards. I stopped for my second break after another hour and a half. The visibility had opened up behind me and I saw Alan and Mike again. They were still 2 km away and further to the west.

My knee still felt OK although I could just feel it if I focused on it, so I set off for another 2 or 4 km. But now the cloud had lifted a bit, and the visibility was good. The snow was also excellent and given the improved vision I could now stride out. The pulk followed obediently and I made good time. There were even hints of blue sky on the horizon. It was the best skiing of the trip so far and if it remained like this to the South Pole I would be delighted. It was still 980 km away. When I got to 10 km the knee was still fine, so I went the other two and was just starting to feel it. The wind had dropped completely when I found some firm flat snow to camp on. The tent went up easily the large pets getting a good grip in the firm surface. It was only 1600 hrs.

With the tent up I boiled the 7 litres of water I needed and then another litre to wash in with my flannel. smalling of soap for the first time in a while I got into my sleeping bag for an early supper and then wrote the blog with the clothes lines full of damp clothes drying. There was a little sun outside and it made all the difference to the tent temperature. Perhaps as much as 20 degrees more if the sun was shining.  After the last few days, the battery chargers were also picking up enough light to charge the power banks. It had been a good day the snow was excellent, and my knee was certainly improving. I am not out of the woods yet and will have to take the next week relatively carefully should I not have to revert to a couple of days rehabilitation in the tent.  I realized at the end of the day I had taken no photos all day such was the unappealing light and views.

Day 14. Dec 3rd. S 81º20.929 W 080º03.970 to S 81º27.524 W 080º04656. 14 km. 5.5 hrs. 60m up. 70m down. 1900 Cal. It was quite miserable in the morning. There was a very small amount of new snow falling from an overcast dull sky. It was not that cold at about minus 7 but it felt it. The was little wind. There was virtually no horizon, and the snowfield was a uniform smear of dull white without any contrast at all. It could be difficult skiing and it would certainly be taxing to navigate with no shadow or wind ribbon or landmarks. I packed up early and was off by 0800 as the forecast was for the wind to get up later.

As soon as I left, I could see the two skiers I saw yesterday. It must be Alan and Dave (who I previously referred to as Mike). I could see we were going to meet with the trajectory we were both on, so I speeded up a bit to be in front of them. After an hour and a half skiing, I had done 4 km and was ready for a break and they were half a kilometre or so behind me. By the time I had finished they were approaching. It was them in their blue Mountain Equipment suits covered in charitable events for the UK Forces. They were both ex marines and had led some polar expeditions with the forces. Indeed, Alan is something of a polar legend and guide. One of his more recent trips was guiding the 3 founders of Google on an Antarctic expedition. They were so impressed by him they gave him money to come on this trip with a friend, namely Dave. They were not here to set records but were just two old buddies out to have a trip to themselves. They were well loaded down as they hope to do the Hercules Inlet to South Poe unsupported. As Alan arrived, I said to him “Doctor Chalmers I presume. I have been expecting you” which made him chuckle.

070 A brief chance encounter with Al and Dave on the ice. Two hard as nails ex marines.

We had a brief chat about how we found the trip so far and they asked me if I needed anything to which I said “No”. There are strict rules to going “unsupported” and even accepting a mug of coffee would invalidate the claim. After about 5 minutes we parted company with them walking for another 10 minutes to their hourly break and me eager to get going as the wind was getting up and it was cold. With us both navigating using different systems, Alan with his compass and me with my GPS watch we soon went on slightly different trajectories into the white gloom. Occasionally I caught sight of them during the course of the next 10 km as we drifted apart.

071. Al was pulling two pulks. The small one at the back followed the main one like duckling follows a mother

After the chance meeting the remainder of the afternoon was getting easier and easier. Firstly, it became less gloomy and there was a bit of contrast to the snow at last so as least I could see the ridges and hollows before I hit them blind. Then a patch of blue sky opened up in the distance exactly where I want to be heading. It was my navigational landmark. Without landmarks, navigation must rely on instruments, and it is fiddly and time consuming. Sometimes the instruments say one thing and intuition says another. Off course intuition is always wrong but it sows doubt and erodes confidence. Soon the small patch grew, and it was coming my way.

The snow was now easy to ski on and I glided well on the skis. I could see where the small ridges were on the gentle skarve so I could thrust a bit more to get the pulk over them rather than being caught unawares and heaving to haul it over with no momentum. I stopped for a short break of biscuits and a litre of chocolate drink before pushing on. The wind was increasing a bit but there was no spindrift yet. Most importantly my knee was not causing any major issues. I could feel it, but it was well within my worry zone. Even as I reached the 14 km mark, I could have gone on but thought it prudent to stop. It was only 1500 hrs, early afternoon really. The wind was increasing all the time also and it was a force 4 now.

I had the tent up quickly. I risked pitching the vestibule into the wind so I could get more solar gain in the porch to charge batteries. I covered the flaps which surround the tent in snow to help anchor it, pegged out a few more guy ropes on the south facing vestibule side and put everything in. I then secured the pulk and went into the vestibule and dug a half metre deep hole so I could sit comfortably with my feet in the hole. I then disrobed my face and head and fired up the stove and started melting 6 litres of water and boiling much of it. I was only using 180 ml a fuel a day using this method cooking once a day. Once the boiling was done, I withdrew into the inner tent and got changed.

072. The first task in my tent after pitching is to dig the hole for my feet and then boil water in the Robens Kettle. The plate hanger spring on the kettle lid is to hold it in place so the rim does not get squashed into an oval.

It was not a good force 6 outside and the wind roared round the tent. The flaps at the side meant no spindrift was blown in and there was a lot of it about. The wind chill must have been minus 20 or more. However, inside the tent it was bright and warm as the sun arrived and blasted through the walls. Once my batteries warmed up, they started to charge quickly placed on the bags inside. The drying rack was warm, and I knew everything would dry quickly. I had a full 3mm mat across the entire groundsheet and it was black and also absorbed the heat. It was like being inside a greenhouse. I checked my thermometer at one stage on the drying rack in the roof and it measured 31.5 degrees. It was fantastically cosy and yet just the other side of the thin fly it was bitterly cold. I was very comfortable writing the blog. It had been a good day I was now up to 14 km a day with my knee. It would be nice to get 16 tomorrow but I must not undue the last weeks self-nursing.

Day 15. Dec 4. S 81º27.524 W 080º04656 to S 81º36.805 W 080º05.673. 16 km. 6.5 hrs. 70m up. 50m down. 2340 Cal. It was windy in the night, and it was still windy in the morning. A good force 5 if not a 6. The wind had blown the spindrift into a huge ridge some 50 metres long and half a metre high down wind of the tent. Even the pulk had created its own snow drift in its lee. However, it was bright and sunny and that lured me out of bed. I knew it was going to be cold packing up the tent, so I put my jacket on also. I wore my thicker gloves for this as I needed dexterity and warmth. One of my biggest fears is losing something in the wind. I have spare gloves and mitts and they are all on leashes but to lose the tent would be a nightmare and a trip ending mishap.

A bit later than I wanted I set off at 0930. The wind was bitterly cold, and I had to ski a bit to warm up enough to take my larger gloves off and put on my daily OR Backstop sensor gloves – one of the best bits of kit I have. I put my hands in these smaller gloves into the poggies which are also fantastic. The two work well together to give me the dexterity and warmth when I do a small task like undo zippers or tighten buckles.  However, the spindrift was all over the surface of the previously hard snow and it made it quite frozen sand. The pulk would not slide as easily on the matt surface as on a glossy surface. I found myself leaning forwards more than normal to get the pulk to slide. I knew it would take its toll on my knee.

073. Some of the snow surface today was quite lumpy. I am not sure if it was “skarve heavy” or “sastrugi lite”

With the sun out, the day had a much more enjoyable feel to it than the gloomy past few days. I could see for miles, and it was easy to navigate with glistening snow drifts a kilometre ahead or a single distant cloud on the horizon. It was also easy to navigate with the spindrift. It flowed across the surface of the snow like a fast motion dry ice smoke as it cascaded towards me. It was difficult to comprehend how many billions of tonnes of spindrift were on the move, not just here but all over Antarctica. It was quite mesmerising looking at it and I had to pick a path through the large skarve and occasional soft drift. When I looked up as the sky with a few clouds in it they seemed to be rushing towards me also for a while. Sometimes I was not sure if the surface of the snow could be described as Skarve Heavy or Sastrugi Lite as one merges into another.

After a hard 6 km I took a break. This would be no picnic of the first week. It was too cold and windy to stop for long. I drank a litre of hot chocolate and had a Cliff bar and was ready to move in wading upstream in a torrent of spindrift. I was well clad. I had the salopettes on as usual and they kept my legs very warm and on top I had the matching jacket and just two layers underneath. The jacket was very windproof and had a ruff round the hood to create a small microclimate around my face. It had some well thought out features like a placket pocket which allowed access to the salopette chest pockets without having to undo the whole zip. On my face now I wore the cold avenger mask which worked well and protected my lips from the bright sun, and it fitted under the goggles whose flap I sewed on was almost superfluous with the “cold avenger”. After another had 5 km I took another break – again a quick one.

I thought I would camp soon after as the snow was still sandy and heaving on the pulk was straining my knee more than I would like. However just then the snow surface became harder and the pulk glided more easily. The wind also dropped from the force 6 down to a 4 as the afternoon wore on and that made a big difference. So, I continued for another 5 km to complete my 16 for the day which is what I set out to do. Before me I could see a great wave in the ice sheet, almost like a mid ocean Tsunami. It rose some 30-50 metres and I would have to climb it next. It was just a gentle undulation in the whole ice sheet but most you could hardly see.

074. The head gear for a windy day involves a breathing mask, goggles and a ruff on the jacket to create a microclimate round the face.

I stopped at 16 km on a nice solid surface so I could do my exercises. I put the tent up carefully in the wind with the vestibule facing south to capture the sun hoping and expecting the wind to die down. I could not dig my usually half metre pit for my legs as I hit ice after 20 cm, which was impenetrable. However, I could still come in and sort everything out in the warmth of the sun. I had the added chore tonight of filling up my 3-litre bottle of fuel. Each one takes 900ml, so I have used 2.7 litres in 14 days. Not long after the 6 litres were boiled, and I could retreat into the inner tent for supper and to write the blog. Tonight was also Medical Monday where we spoke to the doctor. It was Paddy on call tonight. He gave me some tips with taping my leg and also a few exercises. However, he also though it was an ailment with I would probably have to manage throughout the trip. All in all, it had been a good day. Skiing on my own miles from anybody at the bottom of the world in bright sunshine across a vast glacier with spindrift flowing towards me was an extraordinary experience.

Day 16. Dec 5. S 81º36.805 W 080º05.673 to 81º45.060 W 080º06.537. 18 km. 8 hrs. 2650 Cal.  I have stopped posting the altitude measurements as they are not accurate at all especially when windy. It was windy in the night again and it was dull in the tent. It did not entice me out but out I had to go. I got dressed in the tent and packed up before opened the flysheet and stepped oot. It was like walking into the stage set of Ice Station Zebra. It was a good force 5 and there was spindrift everywhere. I had to be really careful taking down the tent so as not to damage the poles. I was very slow at doing it, so I did not lose control of it, and did it all kneeling on the ground to keep the tent low. Meanwhile spindrift was lashing into me. A good half hour after from emerging from the tent I set off. It was cold, about minus 15, and add the wind onto that there was quite a chill.

075. The curious halo and the repeat suns in a ring around the whole sky. The halo is here but the rings of sun round the sky are out of the picture.

I split the day into 3 six kilometre stretches to achieve my 18 km for the day. it would be far too cold for any hot food, so I aimed to have a Clif Bar and a litre of hot chocolate at each of the two breaks. On the first 6 km the wind was relentless, and I was completely battened down with goggles, mask, and the hood on my jacket done up and the ruff deployed. The wind was coming straight into me, as it virtually always did. I had to slowly climb the frozen Tsunami, which I saw yesterday, and the catabatic wind coming down the slope made it very rough ground as it accelerated down the shallow slope. It was not a long climb just about the whole 6 km. However, there was the odd patch of hazy blue in the overall dull greyness and occasionally I could see my shadow. On one occasion I glanced up and the sun was surrounded by a halo of rainbows. It was remarkable enough but what was really unusual is there was a ring right round the sky at the level of the sun and the sun seemed to be repeated about 8 times on the ring. Two of the repetition suns happened right on the halo of the rainbow. I am sure there is a name to this optical phenomenon much like a broken spectre is another optical phenomenon. My break was quick and perfunctory, and I did not take my harness off as I did not want to fiddle with my hand getting cold to put it back on again.

On the middle 6 kilometres the visibility disappeared all together. It was pretty much a white out. The spindrift was still flowing but I could not see it. The contrast of the snow completely vanished however I could feel it was much smoother that the earlier section even if I could not see it. The spindrift was like sand and my pulk was harder to drag across the snow. At one stage I felt I was dragging a millstone along the bottom of an Olympic sized swimming pool filled with milk – and I was going from the deep end up to the shallow. It was a slow relentless plod and I kept glancing at my watch to see if my 6 km was coming to a halt. Eventually it did and I had another Clif bar and litre of chocolate before starting the grind again.

076. The days breath condenses on my googles mask, my Cold Avenger mask, my jacket and even the ruff. It is not cold inside, but one has to be careful not to break anything to remove gear to have a snack.

On the third section in the mid-afternoon the visibility improved slightly. I had a few more mirages where I would see other skiers or tents. Then I saw a very pale blue line. It was directly in front of me, and I could not work out what it was. It got bigger and bigger and then I realised it was blue sky and it was coming straight for me. Hallelujah. It still took a good hour to get to me but then the whole horizon ahead was glorious and blue and there were contrast in the snow and my shadow too. The last 4 km were wonderful. The spindrift had stopped, and the snowpack had more of a glazed feel to it as the runner of the pulk went over it. it was much easier. As I neared 18 km, I realised my knee was holding up. I could feel it, but it was not painful. I did have a slight pain in the neck at the vertebrae, but I think this was caused by heaving the pulk through the sandy spindrift up the slope this morning. It is something I will have to pay attention to as last year an Expeditioner, Ben Weber, had issues with it and it caused him great grief, but he still finished despite this ailment.

077. About an hour after the previous photo, I am cosy in my warm tent with damp clothing drying quickly in the 20 degrees in the tent. It is a comfortable home after a day out on the ice.

When I found a place to camp, I put the small end up into the wind as it was due to increase to a force 6 or even 7 in the night. With the tent up, the pulk pegged into the ground to stop it blowing away and everything in the tent, I dug the hole for my feet, got in and closed the door. It was another world and as I started to take off the ice encrusted face shields. I could feel the sun warming my face. It was my favourite time of day especially if the sun was out and I knew the tent would be warm. I boiled the 7 litres and then closed up the inner door and retired to the warm sanctuary. Today it looked like a laundry with all the damp clothes hanging up. The chargers were working well inside the tent. I did not finish the blog until 2130 and then spent another half hour sending it. I had to be up at 0600 everyday now really so the blogs might get shorter. I had been a good day the only blight on it was I heard my bright, chirpy young mate Jacob, part of our herd, had flown back to Union Glacier today. His tour over but thankfully not due to injury or accident.

Day 17. Dec 6. S 81º45.060 W 080º06.537 to 81º55.626 W 080º07.595. 20 km. 8 hrs. 2480 Cal.  It was windy again outside and I thought it was overcast until I went outside and saw it was bright sunshine but that the tent was covered in a layer of spindrift. My day began as usual at 0600 when I had my cereal. Then I got dressed in the tent and packed everything into the containers they belonged in. Then I would stack it all in the vestibule and go out for the first time in the day. Then it was just to pack all the containers in the pulk leaving one side of the top half free. It was for the tent tube. I would then secure the tent to the harness line and take it down just removing half the pole from the sleeve. I would then fold the exposed half pole over the pole still in the sleeve. Once I had done this to all three poles, I would then roll the tent up and insert it into the 1.5-metre-long bag. I was all done by 0800.

Although it was windy, and this made it feel about minus 20-25 it was beautiful day. The ice sheet stretched away in every direction, and I felt I was in a small boat in the middle of a vast ocean. It might sound boring, but it had its charm of total isolation and other worldliness. And it was incomprehensibly huge. With the spindrift the going was slow as there was more friction. However, after I climbed a small, almost imperceptible, rise there was less spindrift on top of the snow and the surface was more glazed. The runners slid well on this latter surface. I think I saw a couple of skiers way to the east of the route and assumed this to be Alan and David, the characterful ex marines.

078. The vast expanse of the frozen icesheet which covers just about everything except for the odd nunatak out here.

I stopped after 7 km, turning the pulk so I could sit on my clothes bags underneath with my back to the wind. It was far too much palaver in this cold wind to bother rehydrating some Macaroni Cheese with hot water from a thermos, so I just had a Clif Bar and hot chocolate. After this break I felt invigorated and the pulk slid easily across the ground. It was probably flat, but it felt like I was going up slightly. The pressure changes in the atmosphere would have been more significant than my small rise and fall in elevation that the barometer on my gadgets measured. After an easy 7 km I stopped again for the same short break which only lasted 15 minutes. The spindrift eased for the final 6 km across the endless icesheet, and it was a delightful ski until I reached the 20km mark for the day. It was my goal and limit.

I checked the forecast and the wind seemed to be increasing in the night so I pitched the lower end towards the south meaning the vestibule would not have direct sunlight all night. However, I could still arrange everything in the tent, so it dried in the warmth. It was not the best pitch and on a bit of a slope which I did not initially see with my goggles on. But worse than that was it was on 10 cm of hard snow and then ice underneath. I could get the tent pegs in but could not dig the hole. Instead of sitting comfortably undressing and boiling my water I had to scrabble about on the floor of the tent on my elbow and in a very clumsy fashion. Having said that, when I started, I was as elegant as a walrus manoeuvring in the tent, and now I am getting much more agile as I lose weight.

079. The daily photo of myself dripping in ice from condensed breath. Sometime many of the garment round my chin are frozen together. The cosy tent warming up in the sun.

There was not much banter on the bush telegraph this evening. There was a group with Pierre the young Frenchman, Poppis and the other 2 Finns and the Fire Angels who were at the back of the herd but catching up slowly but surely. There was also Sam, but he was on a different and much much more ambitious route. He was doing well, and it looks like he has the potential to achieve something special. Missing from the banter was Jacob. His tour had not gone as he would have liked, and he bailed out yesterday. It was a great shame for him and also a loss for me as I considered him my mate on this section as everyone else except the speedster Pierre were in teams.

At my regular 2100 check in called to give my daily position and have a small but perfunctory chat with the radio operator Coleen asked to speak to me. She had come over from the catering area to the comms container to do so. She and her partner, Lane, were working here and both keen hikers from the US. We had some common hiking friends, and none more so than Top’O my hiking buddy from the first half of the PCT 6 years ago. She had a message from Top’O and also told me that each morning at the ALE group meeting when the Expeditioners progress was announced that people were rooting for me and hoping I overcome my knee. It made an already good day into a memorable one.  There is an overlap between the close-knit US hiking fraternity and the family of ALE employers. I still seem to have 42 days’ worth of food left and the South Pole is 900 km away. Hopefully as my pulk gets lighter I will get faster. There is still 60 kg in it to get consumed and 50 which will not.

 

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