South Pole. Section 04. The Rough Climb to the Polar Plateau. 86-88 Degrees South.

October 14, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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