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.
Twenty four hours ago the weather switched in dramatic fashion, as it often seems to do up here, and we wriggled out of our sleeping bags to the sounds of wind and heavy snow on the tent. We set off a short while later into an almost complete whiteout, with low cloud and wind-blown snow conspiring to limit our visibility to a vague, fuzzy horizon, a slightly lighter patch of cloud where the sun ought to be, and the occassional patch of sastrugi (hard, ridged snow formed in strong winds) immediately in front of our skis.
An hour later and the sun and horizon had vanished, and we travelled through a peculiar world with no ground, no sky, no left, right, up or down, and nothing to focus one’s gaze on. In the lead at times I wondered if my goggles had steamed up, or if I was going cross-eyed, peering into the cloudy soup for waypoints. At times I daydreamed I was a pilot, banking and veering through cloud, coming in to land.
Part of me was annoyed that we were having to work so hard for our mileage, but part of me was secretly pleased that the three of us would be genuinely tested. We have reached our halfway point on the icecap and turned for home yesterday, retracing our (now invisible) steps back to our drop-off point in the Watkins Mountains. To simulate the depots we’ll be laying for our return journey in Antarctica we left a couple of black flags in the snow, and we were due to rendezvous with the first yesterday.
We had marked the pretend depot as a GPS waypoint, so finding it again -a two-foot strip of flapping fabric after covering a half-marathon in the thickest fog you’ve ever seen- wasn’t as miraculous as it felt, but it was a satisfying achievement nonetheless. Al was leading when we got there, navigating using a chest-mounted compass (that leaves both hands free for ski poles) and an occassional peek at his GPS. Al has the least Arctic experience of the three of us and he looked justifiably pleased with himself as he turned, beaming, with one pole aloft in victory and a tiny flag flying in the breeze, barely visible a few strides in front of him.
It’s a wonderful feeling to have implicit faith in one’s team mates, and as I skied at the back for one session yesterday, following Al and Martin into the blank white nothingness, I felt a surge of pride in our little team. They’re both evidently granite-hard, without even the vaguest inclination toward shirking or complaint, yet they’re both also wonderful company; gregarious, funny, self-effacing and surprisingly nuanced. For three self-confessed specialists in suffering, our conversation has featured art, culture, geopolitics, literature and design as much as it has been about tales of derring-do on mountainsides, Arctic wastes or 46,000-mile bike rides.
The whiteout is still with us this morning, and we’re hoping the bad weather will blow through in time for our pick-up flight on Tuesday. More soon…