Distance to go:
Ben and Tarka will cover 1800 miles starting from Scott's Terra Nova Hut at the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back to the coast again. That's equivalent to 69 back-to-back marathons hauling up to 200kg each (the weight of roughly two adult men) of kit and supplies necessary to survive.
Distances here are shown in statute miles.
On Our Way Home
I'm typing this from a folding camp chair where I'm sat with my feet up by the stove, in a heated Weatherhaven tent, a few hundred metres from the snow runway at Union Glacier, a small base that's established each year by ALE on the Chilean side of Antarctica to support tourists and private expeditions.
We arrived here in the early hours of yesterday after a six-and-a-half hour flight on the same Basler ski plane that dropped us off on McMurdo Sound's sea ice last October, a journey that left Tarka and I excited about being a huge leap closer to home, but utterly confused about what time (or even day) it is, as Union Glacier operates on Chilean time, 14 hours behind New Zealand, the time zone we'd switched to when we reached Ross Island last week. We're the last expedition left in Antarctica this season, and there's a skeleton staff left at Union Glacier who'll fly out with us as soon as the weather's good enough for the big Ilyushin transport aircraft to get in from Punta Arenas.
The good news as far as Tarka and I are concerned is that one of this small gang of nine is a fabulous Norwegian chef who, in the 16 hours since we landed, has rustled up a selection of goodies that has included bacon and eggs, huge salads, rice pudding, giant burritos, home-made chocolate brownies, risotto, chicken wrapped in bacon, roast pumpkin and sweet potato, smoked salmon and cream cheese, raspberry smoothies and slices of fresh orange. I'm also happy to report that devouring this amount of non-freeze-dried food has had no ill effects beyond the discomfort of stuffing ourselves until we're entirely full at each meal.
The Basler's crew are here with us too, grounded until the weather releases its hold and they can leave Antarctica for their long flight north to their next job in Arctic Canada(!) an odyssey that entails six days of continuous flying over the Americas with stop-offs as improbable and exotic as the Cayman Islands. Jim Haffey, the pilot, is deeply respected in this small community, and his modest nature means it's taken a while to persuade him to regale us with tales from a career that spans tens of thousands of flying hours. His clear blue eyes sparkle with joy and the creases around his eyes deepen in smile as he talks about the practice of "tickling" a snow runway with the aircraft's skis. His three-man Canadian crew are dressed in heavy, insulated Carhartt jeans, fuel-stained hoodies and battered baseball caps; their faces bearded and weathered after their long season's work here. They nod appreciatively over cans of Chilean Polar Imperial beer as we coax stories from their Captain.
As for our story, the memories of more than a hundred days on the ice have become strangely blurred for both Tarka and me now we're back in relative civilisation; so many hard, hard days condensed to a single super-memory of whiteouts, sticky surfaces, sledges that never seemed to become lighter, rumbling stomachs, homesickness, sleep deprivation, deep fatigue and a land with a scale that defies comprehension and description. A scale that threatened at times to crush our spirits and to utterly exhaust our bodies, yet a scale that also left an impression on us that will stay for the rest of our lives. Emotionally I'm still feeling numbed by the whole thing. I'd expected to be skiing the last few hundred metres on to Ross Island in tears, but they never came, and I think it'll take a while for our all-consuming tiredness to lift, and for the immensity of what we managed to do to start sinking in.
The latest forecast predicts a brief window in the cloud tomorrow (or even today, by the time you read this) and therefore a sliver of hope that we'll soon be back in Punta Arenas.
# Mark Davies, February 12th 2014
Even from this distance it feels like life has gone into overdrive since you finished the long walk, I can’t believe you’re going to be so far away so quickly. From the perspective of my centrally heated home in Oxfordshire, you are still somewhere very inhospitable although it must seem like the Ritz Carlton compared to just a week ago.
Wishing you a safe and relaxing onward journey, all the way home.
# Damian, February 12th 2014
I bet that chair was unadulterated pleasure after the past months.
# Richard Pierce, February 12th 2014
Polar pilots are indeed a special breed. The chopper pilot I got to know in the Antarctic hardly ever said a word, and it was not until several long days into our acquaintance that I found out he was also a superb photographer.
Lucky you to have a Norwegian chef to look after you :-) They know how to feed against the cold. And I should know; I’m married to a Norwegian. And very pleased you’ve had no adverse effects to all that proper food.
I wish all of you at Union Glacier, including all the crews, a safe onwards trip, and look forward, like all the blog watchers here probably, to hearing much more about your post-Antarctic lives, and, of course, much much more about your journey.
# CaninesCashews, February 12th 2014
Ah a chair – what luxury after 100 odd days without one. A lock in with a Norwegian chef – not bad, not bad at all.
I imagine those pilots are a unique breed, not a job for the faint of heart. Hope you are not delayed there too long with the weather hold. I’m sure the rest of the Union crew are as eager to get back as you are.
Regarding your memories of the expedition and the clarity of them, the excellent travel writer Tim Cahill said, “An adventure is never an adventure while it’s happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquillity.”
Hopefully once all the madness is over and you have some measure of tranquillity then the memories will come.
God speed on your journey home,
# wonderwoman, February 12th 2014
So well said and written again. Thanks Gav.
# Jo, February 12th 2014
I really enjoy reading about your experiences after you completed your journey.
I also think I might have had a glimpse of the numbness you describe which prevented emotional reactions on the last meters. It happened to me on the finish-line of first 100mile run I ever tried and finished. I was too shattered to enjoy it then. It had sucked for too long and still sucked on the finish-line. But I was definitely not as deeply exhausted like you because the joy came already the next day. If there´s some general rule involved here it might take some more time for you to fully realise what you´ve done and been through. In the meantime: Enjoy yourselves! And keep on writing!
# Jon, February 12th 2014
Wonderful description of the interstitial period between the adventure and returning to civilisation, as you know well Ben it take time to adjust, some say you never really adjust to normality. Antarctica is like a virus that pervades your body, you will spend the next five years of your life trying to recall what it actually felt like to be walking across her, but somehow your memories will never quite feel or be the same, Antarctica holds something back, when you are with her everything makes sense, but as soon as you leave her, you will wonder why you can’t find that same peacefulness and clarity of mind again. Its the gift she grants you, only while you spend time with her.
Enjoy Ronny’s food, it is amazing and it is not just because you haven’t eaten for so long, it tastes just as good in Finse, Norway where he has cooked in the past.
If you are so inclined go for a little run around the camp and see what your legs feel like to run. You’ll be amazed at how crap they feel ;-)
Safe travels home
# Phil Satoor, February 12th 2014
Food, Glorious Food - one of life’s great pleasures I think.
# Wendy, February 12th 2014
Your journey, your blog changed me forever. You are both my heros. Please please have a post adventure blog too., , please. :-)
# Steve, February 12th 2014
Did you get an opportunity to weigh yourselves at the the start & finish of the expedition?
With all the blog references to how lean you’d become I’d be interested to know what that actually equates too
# Curly Texan, February 12th 2014
So good to hear from you Ben. You may suspect by now the withdrawal your readers have been going through since the conclusion of your long walk. I imagine this time feels like a bit of limbo not really in a defined or comfortable space. And hopefully this slow reentry is what you need to survive the real world moments that are yet to come. Keep us posted when you can, you’ve become part of our virtual families now and simply put, we care.
Hoping you get that cloud break you need to take off. Get back up to our hemisphere as quick as you can!
# Heidi, February 12th 2014
“Keep us posted when you can, you’ve become part of our virtual families now and simply put, we care.” Yes, exactly.
# Sue, February 12th 2014
Words cannot even begin to express the admiralty I have come to feel towards you and Tarka. Reading your daily blogs on how exhausted, tired and hungry the two of you were then to get up each and every day to cross that finish line is totally astounding. I hope to continue reading your blogs they have become a part of my every day life. Hope the clouds clear soon for all you so that you can continue your homeward journey!
# Paige, February 12th 2014
Safe travels you two! So amazed still by what you and Tarka have accomplished. I’m sure you will get a lot of joy reading your blog posts and the comments left once you’ve settled back in at home. Well done!