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.