Antarctica '09: Skiing to the South Pole

Part 2 of our Antarctica Experience:  The Expedition

Day 0: Wednesday, 7 January 2009

S 88°59.716' W 82°13.882' elev. 2,734 m 112 km from SP

Exp-start TO-off About half an hour after being dropped in the middle of nowhere, we are all geared up and ready to push off for the first 2 hours of the long trekking ahead. After 45 min Rob does his first of the daily 20:30 calls (per Iridium phone) to base camp, after which we continue for a while.

The conditons are favourable: only moderate wind and cloudless sky and thus, thanks to the sun, keeping the freezing cold to a tolerable level of above -30°C.

Progress has been fairly good and we made 6 km during these first two hours. tent Setting up tent is still a bit slow and melting water and cooking dinner takes a long time. It is not until 2:00 that we finally get to fall asleep after a very exciting, but also very long day—Trudy can feel the colder temperature and its increased demand on her body, but once in the sleeping bag, she is warm and cosy and all is forgotton quickly in sweet dreams (the cold, fresh air are a dream to sleep in smile).

S 89°02.931' W 82°35.102' 106 km from SP

 

Day 1: Thursday, 8 January 2009

We get up at 9:30. We are very slow this morning: it takes us a long time to get ready, especially to melt and boil all the water for breakfast and the thermos and water bottles for during the day.

We depart at 12:30, under perfect conditions with cloudless skies and virtually no wind. The standard rhythm is one hour skiing followed by a 5-min break, except that the first stage of each day is two hours, and we have a 30-min lunch break after the 4th hour. The short breaks are just enough to pull out a thermo and get a few gulps of water between a few pieces of chocolate and some nuts. Also, we soon learn that one “Rob hour” has 70–80 minutes!

The lunch break is long enough that we are putting on our parkas while lunch we sit down on our pulks and try to stuff as much calories as possible into our mouth. The cold certainly makes it difficult to eat, as the food is thoroughly frozen that nothing melts in the mouth and all the food feels dry and is hard to chew. We quickly give up on the Mozzarella-style cheese cubes as they come across simply as frozen blocks of goo. Trudy manages crackers and a few sliced salami, while Gernot prefers the cake. Whatever the preference, what ultimately matters is to get calories into your body!

Eating on the way (snacks or lunch) is getting harder by the day especially for Trudy, as the days get colder and thus the breaks less pleasant, the food gets harder and colder and most of all, the body gets more and more exhausted from the cold and the strenuous skiing. This easily gets you into a vicious cycle, where you are too exhausted to eat, which means you get even more exhausted. Hence calorie intake remains a top priority.

The area near the pole is a desert, with very little precipitation over the year. As a result, the snow is quite hard-baked, and skiing while pulling the sledge is much harder work than at Patriot Hills. Hannah likened it to “pulling the sledge through sand”, not a far-fetched comparison! Nevertheless, skiing feels relatively easy on the first day, when our bodies are still fresh. It becomes progressively harder, a reflection of the fact that we are burning more calories than we are supplying in the form of food.

skiinlin As it turns out, we talk very little during the day: generally we ski in line one behind the other to maximise the benefit of better-gliding formed tracks. Usually, Rob leads the way, followed by Gernot, Trudy and then Ramon.

G&thevoid The probably strangest experience is walking into the void: there are no landmarks whatsoever, and the surroundings look exactly the same hour after hour, day after day—the photo of Gernot could have been taken in any direction and always been pretty much the same except for the direction of the sun. Gernot is very happy to have his GPS, which he briefly turns on at every stop: the slowly decreasing distance to the pole is the only “visible” sign that we are actually making progress.

Tired but happy we finish the first day skiing at 20:30, just in time for the daily call to base, having clocked up a solid 18km over a total of 8 h.

S 89°12.600' W 83°22.758' 88 km from SP

 

Day 2: Friday, 9 January 2009

The plan was to get up at 8:00, but everyone sleeps in and it is again 9:30. However, our routine has improved and we are ski-ready 2 hours later.

While conditions have been wonderfull early on, they start to deteriorate as the day goes on, and within 2 hours the sky is completely overcast and there is some wind. As a result it is now notably colder, which becomes especially apparent when we take our snack breaks, but also at the end of the day, as frost accumulates in the clothes and the temperature in the tent drops.

For orientation, Rob operates on three levels: compass At each stop (i.e., each “Rob hour”) he turns on his GPS and gets an accurate fix. He then adjusts his compass, which he wears on a little perspex board sastrugi in front of his chest (as seen in the picture to the left) as the hands are needed for skiing. The compass he uses to fix on some tiny landmark a few dozen metres ahead, such as on one of the more notable, taller of the zillion or so sastrugi—they are irregular grooves or ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposits.

Skiing again till 20:30 we improve on the day tally a little and get to 21km, still averaging pretty much 3 km per hour of skiing.

S 89°24.080' W 84°59.946' 67 km from SP

 

Day 3: Saturday, 10 January 2009

G-hood The sun has been out for part of the night, but by the time we get up at 8:00, the sky is all grey. Also, the wind is picking up, making for a coldish day with the unpleasant effect that we are cold as soon as we stop for a break. And even for the skiing, Gernot has to adjust and pull his hood over his beanie. The weather certainly makes today's skiing notably harder.

Our guide meanwhile is earning his name “Rob the Slave Master”—he keeps pushing us along. Fortunately, towards the end of the day, the wind is dying down, the sky is breaking up, some blue patches appear in the NW, and enough sun gets through the clouds to throw some shadow—a welcome, pleasant visual change.

Still, by the time we make camp at 19:15 we have made 22 km, and we are still averaging 3 km per hour of skiing. We are definitely quite tired.

S 89°36.053' W 85°27.582' 45 km from SP

 

Day 4: Sunday, 11 January 2009

We get up at 8:00 to a beautiful day with hardly any clouds. Initially, it is also quite calm, but soon the southerly picks up. After breakfast Gernot gets on the Iridium phone to call the airline to try to change our flight reservations. We are now highly confident to finish in time to be able to reach our flight from Santiago to Sydney, Ilyushin willing, but need to change the domestic flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago. We are lucky: there is space on the last flight that connects to the Santiago to Sydney flight, so we take that one to maximise flexibility. While Gernot waits for the agent to confirm the change, the line drops (the Iridium phones have a habit of doing this). We hope for the best that our requested change is firm with the airline and continue getting ready for the day's work.

It turns out to be a tough day, especially for Trudy. She is getting increasingly exhausted due to a few compounding factors: She is not getting enough sleep—7 or less hours, since we seem to be boiling water non-stop until midnight or later before we can go to sleep and she stays awake for up to an hour after the unavoidably lengthy pee-break. Also, she is not getting enough calories—Gernot's assessment is that she hasn't mastered the art of eating quickly and in big gulps, especially during the day; she struggles chewing on a single piece of chocolate, so that in a 5 minute break, she can consume only a single row when half a bar would be the target. As a result she is getting colder (her finger and hands don't stay warm, even with vigorous swinging of arms and clapping of hands). However, Gernot also feels the going increasingly tough, and our average speed drops from 3 km/h to 2.7 km/h.

During the last hour, Rob claims he can see the golf-ball shaped antenna cover of the South-Pole station, but none of the others can make it out. Yet, we like to trust that he is right.

T:jaded Despite becoming tougher, we persist and put in an other impressive day's of skiing: 22.5 km. Trudy pushes herself on with the calculation that if we get this far, we should be left with only one more (although long) day of skiing—an attractive idea compensating for the pain. On the right, Trudy is taking a breather at the end of the day and certainly looking jaded...

S 89°47.991' W 91°59.268' 22.5 km from SP

 

Day 5: Monday, 12 January 2009

goggle We had almost no sun overnight, and as a consequence the inside of the tent was much colder than during any other night of the trip. While previously our goggles/face masks and boots would dry completely, not so this time. Even as our sleeping bags keep us nice and warm, nothing defrosts and dries out around the tent. Our insulated water bottles barely keep the (once boiling) water from freezing overnight.

Considering Trudy's lack of energy at the end of each day, Gernot tries his best to force-feed her the usually huge dinners, supplemented with extra soups, cheese, meet, chocolate, and more, hoping to be better prepared for another long day of skiing. For this last day, Trudy also negotiated an extra hour of sleep with a 9:00 wakeup time. Since Amundsen-Scott base, the South Pole research station, runs on New Zealand time (GMT+13), this is not an issue, as our normal stopping time of 20:30 Chilean time (GMT-3) corresponds to 12:30 SP time, so being an hour or two later doesn't matter.

When we start at 11:15 it is grey and windy. But then, half an hour later, the weather has cleared, clouds and wind have almost disappeared, and it has become altogether much more pleasant. Such rapid change will repeat itself for most of the day.

As we start the day's skiing, we are anticipating to finally see something come up on the horizon to the South. And sure enough, about 1/2 hour in, Trudy spots a white dome (the golf ball Rob saw the evening before). It takes Gernot (who isn't wearing his prescription ASS1 glasses) an other hour or so, till he can make out some structure on the (southerly) horizon. For the first time in almost 5 days we can see an actual landmark!

Given that the weather and with it the visibility keeps changing (and ASS2 for a while we also go through a slight dip) the landmark keeps vanishing and re-appearing rather than gradually becoming more and more distinct. Each time it shows up again it has grown substantially. After lunch we can clearly discern multiple buildings, indicating the vast expanse of the US-run Amundsen-Scott Research Station (ASS).

By 19:15, we reach the end of a 3 km VLF antenna, which antenna ASS3 everyone has to circumnavigate as one approaches the base. We are undeniably almost there! Practically, though, it is another 4 km to SP, which takes us about 90 minutes, SP:arrive including our scheduled evening call back to base camp. It now only takes the last few pushes of effort as we step out the emptiness and vastness of a continent that we traversed at least a small part of. As we cross the 3km long skiway, we are being welcomed by a station representative, who turns out to be the station doctor.

It is 21:00 Chilean time or 13:00 local time (on the 13th) as we arrive at the South Pole (according to Gernot's GPS at 89°59.998'S and 13°14.415'E). While the elevation is about 2,840 m, the air density corresponds to about 3,700 m elevation at lower latitudes.

Today we made 23.5 km, for a total of 113 km. This took us 5 days and 2 hours all up.

We are happy, overwhelmed, impressed, exhausted, emotional, but most of all happy!

S 90°00.000' elev.  2,842 m 0.0 km from SP

 

Upon arrival we hear that Hannah's L2D group, which left PH two days before us, arrived at about the same day yesterday and was flown out this afternoon—we actually saw their plane. The other group, which left one and a half days before us, isn't expected for another day. Well, it looks like we have indeed put in a big effort, even more so when compared to the expected time of eight to nine days (according to ANI's information booklet).


Trudy & Gernot


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