South Pole. Section 03. The Thiel Mountains. 84-86 Degrees South.

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 . 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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