I reached the South Pole in the early afternoon UK time. Fittingly, the day started in a complete whiteout, although the cloud broke up later in the morning as the buildings and satellite dishes and antennae started appearing on the horizon through the fog.
This is the second time I’ve arrived at the very bottom of the planet, the axis of the earth’s rotation, the place where all the lines of longitude converge. Standing at the South Pole, every direction is north, no matter which way you turn. My first time here was in late December 2013, with my team mate Tarka l’Herpiniere. We had walked here from Ross Island, on the east side of Antarctica, and planned to turn around and walk back to the coast again, retracing our route and picking up the chain of caches we had buried in the snow on our outward journey. We had almost nothing in reserve – no safety margin – and we were taking a huge risk. Many of you will have been following that journey too, and you’ll know that the weather turned bad, we had to start halving our remaining rations, and ultimately – hypothermic and near collapse – had to call for help in the form of a resupply flight.
Four years on, standing here with less food for the remainder of my journey than I’d planned, with a safety margin that I felt was too slim, I have decided this time to end my expedition at the Pole. In some ways it was an easy, logical decision to make, and in others it was extraordinarily hard, particularly as I’m not currently in trouble; I’m relatively well, although more depleted mentally and physically than I expected to be after making it through conditions that surprised me with their severity.
And I’ve been both more cautious and more fearful this year in a way I haven’t on previous expeditions. I slipped and lost my balance many times in the 450km or so of sastrugi I encountered, and I recall the moment I suddenly imagined falling and breaking an arm or a wrist. How would I put my tent up? What if I fell and knocked myself out? (I was left unconscious after a bad bike crash in summer 2015, and with a head injury that hospitalised me. My, thankfully slight, brush with brain injury – a minor traumatic subarachnoid haemorrhage – remains the most frightening thing I’ve experienced).
I type this with bittersweet feelings. This is a high-stakes, high-consequence environment and, paradoxically, one where prudence often trumps derring-do and bravado, as Shackleton summed up in his line about lions and donkeys. I’m proud that I’ve always aimed high, I’m proud that I’ve been willing to fail publicly, time and again as I’ve fallen short of some of my biggest goals, and the consolation prize is that I’m now one of a very small group (there are either two or three of us, depending on whether the Russian Fedor Konyukhov reached both Poles solo in the nineties, in journeys I had heard nothing about until recently).
Right now I’m feeling happier and more content than I thought I’d be, but perhaps the regret might follow later. I think I’d have had a lot of trouble believing you if you’d told me aged 18, as I read Ranulph Fiennes’ book Mind Over Matter in my bunk bed in the Scottish Highlands, that in the next couple of decades I’d be the second (or maybe third) person in history to ski solo to both Poles, that I’d hold the world record for the longest polar journey on foot – nearly 500 miles further than Fiennes and Stroud covered on their Antarctic crossing – and that I’d have covered some 4,000 miles on foot in the polar regions. This is a place that has made me as well as pushed me to my absolute limits.
I’ll sign off with words from a friend (an accomplished and decorated Army officer and mountaineer, who helped recover Ueli Steck’s body from Everest recently).
‘I defer here to Whymper’s well-known wise words: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”‘