I’m struggling to know what to write today, without sounding like I’m moaning and complaining, but I’ve had another nine hours of complete, zero-visibility whiteout, and it’s been an intensely frustrating day. In 17 years of expeditions, I can’t recall a journey that’s had weather that’s been this poor, and I think roughly one day in every four I’ve been out here this year has had either no visibility at all, or low cloud and flat light with no contrast (basically a whiteout with a vague horizon). By the end of the day I had a headache and felt strangely nauseous, I think from the lack of a visible horizon. The ground and the sky look exactly the same, and it’s impossible to focus on anything, which seems to cause some sort of vertigo, for want of a more technical description of the syndrome.
As soon as I got going this morning I started tripping over small ridges, and the inside of my goggles might as well have spray-painted white. It was a struggle to fill ten blank hours outside with positive daydreams and memories, while staying calm and trying to avoid getting worked up each time I lost my balance. I’ll stop grumbling now, but the conditions really were not at all conducive to covering the sort of distance I’d expected to be covering this close to the South Pole, and I found today very trying.
On to some questions!
1) When NASA sends robots and satellites to space they often use years old, but proven, parts instead of cutting edge tech since once it leaves there is no chance of repair. While I know you do carry some spare equipment and you have previous experience with much of your kit, how do you choose to take along new items, (i.e. your custom stove, new skis, food, etc.)?
Hi Mark. Great question, and the answer varies depending on the specific item of new equipment or food, but each expedition brings lessons and experience that can be applied to the next, so some things – food especially – are tweaked with each expedition. The recent ‘paleo’ movement in nutrition has meant more snacks on the market that are higher in fat and therefore better suited to cold-weather journeys (they’re calorifically dense and also don’t freeze rock hard!). The skis are from a Norwegian brand, Åsnes, that I have used on many expeditions in the past, and had already been tested in Greenland and Antarctica by a Norwegian guide (and friend – hello Christian!) so word of mouth and personal recommendations are important too.
2) I recall from your Scott Expedition that your speed and distance back from the pole was pretty amazing, often around 26 miles a day. Are you hoping for similar distances once you reach the pole this trip?
Thanks Laurence. Theoretically yes, the same sort of distances ought to be possible. Tarka and I were skiing between the depots we’d laid on our outward journey, so usually had v light sledges, often with just four or five days at a time. We also did long days and were absolutely flat-out – it took me ten months to fully recover from that expedition!
3) I bet you get some beautiful views when the sun is out, do you see any birds or is it too cold for them? Do you listen to music or spoken word while you walk? I love a good bit of radio on a dog walk. I guess charging an iPod for a long trip is a challenge?
Thank you Debbie. No birds, and nothing living at all! The only wildlife in Antarctica is around the coast, and the interior is completely lifeless. It’s technically the world’s largest desert! I can charge my iPod Shuffles with a solar panel at night (24-hour daylight!) and often listen to music during the day. I didn’t bring any spoken word/audio books, but with all this rubbish weather I’m starting to wish I had!
4) While you have the experience of already having been on long cold arduous camping trips before, do those experience lessen the impact of what it’s like for you now, dealing with all that is actually happening?
The previous expeditions (twelve of them!) have given me a lot of very useful wisdom and experience, so it’s been remarkable how quickly I felt ‘at home’ on this trip, and how readily I became used to the daily routine. I must have spent more than 400 nights in this type of Hilleberg tent now, melting snow with an MSR stove, etc. so I think there’s less shock to the system than if this were my first expedition! The flip side is that sometimes this feels so normal to me that I probably sound like a grumpy old man moaning about the weather and the sastrugi, when of course I am extraordinarily lucky to be experiencing this magical, alien place, that so few will ever get to visit…
5) Could you tell us how you go about setting the compass direction that you will follow given that the south magnetic pole is not at the geographic south pole?
Thanks Patrick. It’s so simple that it almost feels like cheating, certainly compared to the efforts Scott and Shackleton had to go to, measuring the angle of the sun and the horizon. I have a very simple, bottom-of-the-range (fewer features equals lighter weight and longer battery life!) Garmin eTrex GPS. I’ve tried to photograph the screen but I’m not sure the image will survive being compressed. If it doesn’t, one of the waypoints (I save each day’s position as 44, 45, etc) is my next waypoint, L DEG (last degree, or S89 W052) and the GPS works out the magnetic bearing for me and tells me how far it is from my current position. In this case it’s 158° and 53.27km.
Lastly, hello to Kerry and Stefan, and to Ed T – thank you for your notes, and I look forward to seeing all of you in 2018…