Today was much the same as yesterday, except for a couple of hours this afternoon when the sastrugi dial was turned up to somewhere between ‘absurd’ and ‘nightmarish’. At one point the terrain felt more like the pack ice off the north coast of Canada (where it’s forced against the land by the current of the Arctic Ocean and concertinas into giant pressure ridges). Some of the ridges today were higher than me, and when I dropped down between them – usually with my sledge freefalling in hot pursuit, trying to run me over – I lost sight of the horizon, and therefore the point on my bearing that I was aiming for. It was claustrophobic as well as frustrating, and I took huge zigzag detours to try to find the best route south.
One consolation is that I happened upon a new species of sastrugi today, and as I hope you can tell from the photograph, it appears to be related to the anteater, or perhaps an elephant. Suggestions for names in the comments, please!
My daydreams today lingered in the Scottish Highlands, and the year in my late teens I spent working as an instructor at the John Ridgway School of Adventure. It probably goes without saying that that year – and the influence of John himself – had a profound effect on the course my life went on to take. I remember reading Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ book, Mind Over Matter, lying on my bunk bed, so it was quite surreal to find a note from the man himself in my food bag this evening (hello Ran, and thank you!)
Some answers to your questions:
1) What has been the most enjoyable part of your expedition so far?
On a daily basis, lying down in my sleeping bag every evening after I’ve eaten my meal is always a happy moment. In the grander scheme of things, climbing the Wujek Ridge back on day 12. It was hellishly tough at the time, but a special place, and an experience I’ll never forget.
2) Do you ever get bored, all by your self in the middle of nowhere? How did you discover your passion for exploring in freezing temperatures?
Never bored as I’m quite busy navigating etc, but occasionally the scale of the journey can feel overwhelming.
My first major expedition was in 2001, an attempt to reach the geographic North Pole from Russia, with Pen Hadow. We didn’t make it to the Pole, but that 59 days on the Arctic Ocean was an extraordinary apprenticeship, with a world-class mentor, and that’s when the screw came loose, really. I was 23 at the time.
3) I was just wondering how you keep yourself company when you are all alone in such a big place.
I’m not really sure how to answer that! I often listen to music during the day, and I read (on a Kindle app) every evening. My thinking during the day is frustratingly fragmented as there’s so much going on, so it’s not quite as meditative an experience as you might imagine.
4) (From the Barn Owls)
How do you go to the toilet?
As quickly as possible!
Why do you like going to such harsh, cold places?
I’ve been asking myself the same thing recently! I think I’ll go to a sandy beach for my next expedition. Mostly, I enjoy challenging and testing myself, and I feel lucky to spend time in a place where I’m surrounded only by nature. I haven’t seen anyone else, or anything man-made, for 36 days now.
How many days do you think you have left?
I have 29 days of food left in my sledge.
5) Do you ever see an aeroplane vapour trail?
I haven’t seen any, no. Airliners certainly don’t fly over here, and the US aircraft servicing the South Pole station fly from McMurdo, on the opposite side of Antarctica.
6) How long does it take you to set up and install yourself in your tent?
About half an hour.
7) What’s the temperature in your tent at “night”?
Surprisingly warm if the sun is shining. At floor level it’s always below freezing but above that it’s quite comfy. For the first week or ten days, nearer the coast, I’d wake up to a lot of frost inside the tent, but at altitude now it’s so dry that things are less grim in the mornings.
8) How do you handle “body waste” and personal hygiene/washing?
I have a pee bottle in the tent, and number twos happen outside, when I dig a hole with my snow shovel. I wash v rarely, with the (usually quite unappetising) option of a ‘snow bath’ in the porch of my tent. There’s no dirt or bacteria – other than my own – down here so it’s not as bad as it sounds.
9) Do your observations on the creation of sastrugi lead to further study expeditions perhaps?
I’d love to know more about them, although I fear the wider relevance might be limited…
10) What are your plans for transitioning back into a less stressful routine after your finish?
I’m already quite excited about watching movies and having food and drink delivered to my seat on the long flight from Chile back to London…
Lastly, I’m sending happy birthday wishes to Fergus – I hope you’re having a great day, and I’ll see you next year!