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.”