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.
The Route (Part 5) - The Polar Plateau
I strongly suspect that Ben and Tarka will have mixed feelings as they pull away from the source of the Beardmore glacier. They will be relieved that their greatest obstacle is behind them (until they return of course) and that (hopefully) it has been incident free and their key pieces of equipment are unbroken. But I know that they will have gazed in wonder at the grandeur of the scenery that has been their companion. They will have relished the challenges that the glacier has thrown at them and enjoyed meeting the demand on their resourcefulness to overcome them. And they will have felt the presence of Shackleton, Scott (and their patron Robert Swan) as they followed in their footsteps up the 120 mile highway of ice that links the north to the south.
So, around Christmas Day, with the peaks of Buckley Island slowly falling from view behind them Ben and Tarka will start their slow climb over the endless false ridgelines as they join the Polar Plateau. Compared to the Ross Ice Shelf and the Beardmore, the conditions facing them will be very different. Firstly, the altitude (10,000ft) will have them gasping for air and as they inhale deep breaths of freezing oxygen they might well respond to with a dry rasping cough that is common at this stage of an Antarctic journey. The wind will generally be straight in their faces and careering past them at 35mph will be commonplace. Couple that with the air temperature, and the wind chill will often be in the -40sC. And they will also find that the snow behaves very differently at those temperatures – it resembles wet sand and so the sledges and skis require increased effort to overcome the added friction. But this is what the Antarctic does to you. It makes you work for your dreams and just when you think you are overcoming all it can throw at you, it effortlessly raises the bar.
But by this stage of the journey, Ben and Tarka will have covered in the region of 650nm and have depoted most of their supplies for the return journey, including the heavy ropes, crampons and harnesses they used on the glacier; so, with lighter sledges they will be moving at a good speed – longing for the halfway point to appear.
The first sign that they are getting close to the South Pole will be them noticing the daily C-130 flights that resupply the scientists at the Scott-Amundsen Station. This will be the first sight of the hand of man for nearly two months and I expect it will feel like an intrusion on their sense of isolation – but it will be short lived because they will desperately want to reach their halfway point. It won’t be until the last 5 miles or so that Ben and Tarka will start to see the shape of the South Pole Station on the horizon. The ‘golf ball’ radar equipment will be the first sight, then their finely tuned sense of smell will pick up odours of aviation fuel and fried food. Scientists on skidoos and the odd vehicle will now be visible.
I suspect that their stop at the Pole will be short lived as they will be eager to head North again – with their deadline there is no time for rest-days and tours of the station which will be on offer. But I am sure that they will pause for thought and tip their hat to Captain Scott who will have stood at the 90S degree point 102 years before them.
Heading North, hopefully in early January, it will simply be a race against time and the weather. Their sledges will be the lightest possible with all their supplies lying out on the route ahead of them. They will have lost a lot of weight by now and so will be feeling weak – but the route is downhill and the wind will be behind them. Everything will be in their favour – it is simply a matter now of whether the Antarctic will let them fulfill their dream.
Text and images thanks to Henry Worsley. Video (The Route in 30 Seconds) by Ben.
This is the fifth and final part in a five-part series by Henry Worsley giving an insight into Ben and Tarka's route through his own first hand experience.