On my daily satellite phone call to Union Glacier (ALE’s base in Antarctica) in which I report my current position, the distance covered that day, any issues with my health/equipment/etc. I was asked if I’d like a weather forecast for my location. This was new. ‘Ooh yes please’, I said. The next three days were apparently quite similar: ‘Minus eighteen to minus twenty-three centigrade, wind seven to ten knots from the south east, sunny patches, cloud and some mist’. I now wonder if ‘sunny patches’ was added purely to stop me spiralling into depression.
I woke up this morning (after some very odd dreams – Pip and I were house hunting and being shown round a tiny bungalow right on a pebble beach in Margate that used to belong to Margaret Thatcher, and I wasn’t convinced it was entirely what we were looking for…) to what sounded like rain. There was no obvious horizon when I peered out of the little air vent in the porch of my tent, and it was snowing hard, a sort of fine gritty powder rather than soft flakes.
Sure enough, when I clipped into the trace – the thin rope (actually a specialist 7mm dinghy racing sheet from Marlow) that connects me to the sledge – it was essentially a complete whiteout. I didn’t see the sun or my shadow at all during the day, but at times the contrast improved sufficiently for me to spot tiny features in the snow a few metres ahead, which helped with the navigation, and at times I was skiing blind.
And ‘skiing’ is a misleading term for much of my activity today. Crossing yet more sastrugi in zero visibility was like trying to complete a deep-frozen assault course with a blindfold on, towing an inanimate object that weighs about the same as I do. Occasionally I’d lose my balance as a ski pole would find one or two feet of thin air rather than solid ground between ridges in the snow, or I’d find the tips of my skis perilously spanning a wide gap between two frozen peaks, and threatening to become a U shape if I put too much weight on them. It made for agonisingly slow progress.
Putting my tent up this evening was a bit of a gamble as well, as it’s hard to tell if you’re on a slope when there’s no horizon, but perhaps my luck is changing as I don’t think I could have found a flatter spot to rest on if I’d had a spirit level and some sort of snow-levelling machine…
Some rapid-fire answers:
1) In terms of altitude you’ll climb to the South Pole it looks like you’ve done nearly half it by now. As you’re slogging out this part of your journey how often does the magnitude of what you’d actually accomplish come into your thoughts?
I made it to 1500m above sea level today, so you’re right – I’m just over half way altitude-wise, and nearly half way in distance. Re the magnitude, the sheer scale of the trip, and the distance still to cover, can be a bit overwhelming, especially when it’s tough and slow going like today, so most of the time I try to focus on each day at a time. I’ve dragged the sledge nearly 500km now on this expedition, which is a fair old walk.
2) Can you please tell us what you do for “bathing” or “showers”?
Very little! If the sun’s out in a few days’ time then I might have a snow bath and change my underwear to celebrate a month of no showers. This entails stripping off and having a bit of a scrub with some handfuls of snow in the porch of my tent before diving back into my sleeping bag. I also have a mini bottle of hand sanitiser that offers a bit of placebo value through its clean smell! There’s no dirt or bacteria down here (other than the bacteria I’ve brought with me – I often wonder if my gut flora knows it’s in the largest sterile environment on earth) and I basically live in a fridge, so things aren’t quite as squalid as they might sound.
3) How do you think you would manage if you were trying to do this epic challenge using the equipment that Shackleton and Scott used, or would it even be possible going solo?
I was thinking about this in the whiteout today, as the lenses in my sunglasses help me see contrast in the snow when the light is ‘flat’. With no GPS and with a giant wooden sledge then I think a solo journey like this would be out of the question. Perhaps some loon will prove me wrong one day, but I’m still suffering like a dog despite having all the mod cons!
4) Hi Ben, it looks like you have the old railway problem of the wrong kind of snow on the tracks.
Back here in blighty, a friend is teaching her Year 1 class at Greenacres Primary School (Emerald Class, Miss Schultz-Wiremu) all about Antarctica and what you are doing.
They have just learnt about how animals keep warm by covering their hands in margarine and plunging them into cold water. They were wondering how you keep warm and what layers you have on during the day and at night?
You’re absolutely right about the wrong snow! This fine, gritty stuff today is not typical for Antarctica. I sleep in one base layer of thermals (leggings and a long-sleeved top) and a pair of thick socks, and I ski in the same base layer, with lycra shorts as underwear, another thicker pair of fleece leggings on top, windproof salopettes, a thin fleece top and a windproof jacket, so normally just three layers. Today was cold when the wind was blowing, so I travelled in a fourth layer, a down-filled vest on top of everything else. For very cold days I also have two thicker fleeces to wear under my jacket, and I have a giant down-filled jacket that I put on to keep warm every time I stop, as well as when I take my tent down and pack the sledge in the morning.