Decompression

I’m still very near the South Pole, currently sat in a folding camp chair by a heater in a communal mess tent that I’d guess measures three metres by twelve. This tent in turn is pitched on a small area of compressed snow (flattened by footprints and skidoo tracks and occasionally by the fat skis of little Twin Otter aircraft) in an area called the NGO Campsite, perhaps a kilometre away from the South Pole itself. It’s ‘non-governmental’ as the Amundsen-Scott station at the Pole is operated by the American government’s National Science Foundation (NSF). The station is supported by a larger American base on the New Zealand side of Antarctica called McMurdo, so they both operate on New Zealand’s time zone, 13 hours ahead of the UK. Our campsite, meanwhile – a few minute’s walk from the sprawling station at the Pole – is on Chilean time, three hours behind the UK. With 24-hour daylight, and 16 hours between the two groups of human beings here at the bottom of the planet (occasionally I’ll see a tractor or a snowplough clearing the station’s runway, and it’s odd to think that the driver is already living in ‘tomorrow‘) it’s a potentially confusing place to be on New Year’s Eve…

For me this is the start of a peculiar decompression process, like a deep-sea diver slowly returning to the surface in stages. Here at the NGO Camp there are nine of us in total; three women, six men, four nationalities (British, Canadian, American, Ukrainian). And one of the Canadians is a chef, Michel Ritchie, who is somehow conjuring up miracles like Hollandaise sauce and freshly-baked cookies in a kitchen area of the tent not much larger than that of a VW camper van. The camp is managed by Hannah McKeand, a fellow Brit and one of the most accomplished female polar travellers in history, and the pilot of the Twin Otter aircraft – waiting to fly some of us back towards the coast when the weather there clears – is a Canadian lady called Lauren Brown, so this place isn’t quite the enclave of bearded machismo that you might imagine.

Things like a hot shower, water that comes from a tap, electricity that comes from a socket in a wall, WiFi and milk that hasn’t been made from powder or Ultra-Heat-Treated are all distant dreams, but some of the things I’m enjoying now (sitting in a chair, eating with a knife and fork, fresh coffee, the smell of bacon cooking nearby) were in turn distant dreams just a few days previously. In turn again I will marvel at each new layer of civilisation, and in turn I will soon take it for granted, until the transformation back to spoiled, soft city-dweller – where I can have Thai food or sour-dough pizza or fresh sushi or a towering cheeseburger delivered to my door by motorcycle at the touch of a button – is complete.

Already my seven weeks of travelling alone to reach this spot are bl urring into one diffuse memory, mostly white. There are moments and imprints that stand out, and the section of my journey from the Ronne Ice Shelf up through the Forrestal Range is perhaps my favourite of the entire expedition. It’s a remote spot, last visited by Henry Worsley two years ago, and the mountainous scenery was breathtaking (and occasionally backbreaking to traverse – getting my heavy sledge up the Wujek Ridge was a particularly hard day’s work on a particularly cold and windy day).

For now, I’m standing by, the physical path of the next few days of my life hinging on the regular ‘TAFs’ (Terminal Area Forecasts) that Lauren and her co-pilot Shawn receive via satellite. As I type, the visibility at Union Glacier – and at the Thiel Mountains, where we’ll land at a cache of barrels to refuel en route – is too poor to fly, so we’re waiting. The Winnie-the-Pooh quote that someone left in the comments a few days ago is especially relevant today: “People say nothi ng is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

Ben Saunders (@polarben)
31/12/17
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Comments

Kevin Wright

02/01/2018

Hi Ben, wow thought your blog was finished and you would be on a flight home by now. Hope the decompression goes well and you are on that flight soon. Wishing you and Pip a very Happy New Year. Cheers 🥂 Kev

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Honor

02/01/2018

We’ve been reading and watching – and cheering along. Ben – Happy New Year from us all at British Exploring. Glad above all that you are safe, inspired as ever that your personal capacity remains as awesome as it does, and that your capacity to reflect is as thought provoking as ever. But – when you do get that first burger – don’t feel the need to get ‘meta’ about it, will you? Focusing on eating it will be intense enough…

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janine milne

31/12/2017

such complete admiration for your determination, inner strength, bravery and love for a gruelling adventure / exploration of gargantuan proportion …. what a victory for you and all those who you will have inspired and indirectly taught so much about survival and the ‘will’ to succeed …. so well done and accomplished ben saunders … i too look forward to the next expedition wherever that may be.

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ML

31/12/2017

How exciting to be where the New Year’s ball drops every second for 12 (or more?)hours!

This blog was so much fun to follow. We are going to miss the daily reports. Looking forward to the next adventure whenever and whatever that may be !

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Diane Griffith

31/12/2017

Happy New Year, Ben! It’s been so wonderful to follow along again as you challenge yourself in ways most of us mere mortals can barely comprehend. And again, you’ve been an ubermensch and total inspiration. The wisdom you’ve shown by knowing when to stop will no doubt dawn upon you slowly, but I’m certain you’ll come to agree that it was indeed a wise move. I wonder if you’ve considered maintaining your blog through your ‘regular’ life? Perhaps not on a daily basis, but I know I’m not alone in hoping that you’ll continue to share your valuable insights into life in general and not just life on the ice. May the year ahead bring you many more fine adventures. Congratulations as well on your upcoming nuptials – one of the biggest adventures of them all! Many cheers

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Richard Kleinwort

31/12/2017

Dear Ben,
I heard you speak at Stowe in January 2017 when you helped to Launch The Worsley Science Centre. I was a contemporary of his and shared the odd sporting victory( normally all his doing!).
I am currently sitting in a heated glass house in the Finnish Arctic Circle …. so we have nothing in common(!) but I have tried to imagine those sastrugi and to comprehend the strength, both mental and physical, that you possess. Each time I have to bow my head in admiration and wonder at your inner soul. I hope to listen to you once again and send you my very best wishes.

In Awe,

Richard Kleinwort.

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Ed Riegl

31/12/2017

Simply amazed at all that you have done. Not only for us a fellow humans on this planet but also for yourself, your friend’s memory, and for science. In a world where ‘taking the easy way out’ has become the de facto mantra, your dedication to prepararing yourself both physically and mentally shines as a testament to all that have followed you in your journey. My sincere gratitude and appreciation. One day I hope to shake your hand. God speed!

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Paul Bower

31/12/2017

‘ at the bottom of the world!’ But at the top of your game, well done Ben, good to hear you’re safe. Best regards Paul & Jane ex Downe Arms

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