South Pole. Section 01 Hercules Inlet to Martin Hills. 80-82 Degrees
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.