When after five hours the airplane finally landed on its skies, we saw a scary view of outside land form the airplane window. Cloudy, windy, snowy and vast white land without any irregular point. We have dressed up to puffy jackets and together with the steps out we completed our set of feelings by tasting -35°C wind-chill, headache from altitude and shortness of breath. The plane left behind us only snow cloud and we put on skies and pulled our 40kg sledges. Main part of the expedition had just begun. Despite all of those problems, we were happy we made it so far healthy. That we successfully completed the training, we hadn’t hurt ourselves, we hadn’t caught any disease nor had the plane been delayed. We were finally on the way and there were only 60 more nautical miles to the South pole in this incredible land of snow. In some sense we have already reached our goal.
Next eight days and eight nights were extremely similar. Brian commented it as he feels like in movie Groundhog Day in which the protagonist lives same day every day, meet same people and do same things. No matter what he does, the next day is same again. Daily routine was like this:
Morning wake up and set up cooker. During next about one and half hour boil about 6 liters of water. Some water for tea, morning soup, porridge or muesli, 1L of water for energy drink, 1L to thermos. Have a breakfast, dishes, toilet, put on cloths, pack things. Then next about half hour pack everything to sledges and put down tents. There is all the time something to do. Everybody has to end in same time that we don’t wait for anyone in cold. Then hook the sledges, get in line and go.
We were pulling the sledges over the tight snow. 0.75 nautical mile, it took us about 30 mins, then 2 minutes standing break, then another 0.75 nautical mile and 10 minutes longer break. During that break we sit on the sledges, take the food out, which we wear close to body in order not to freeze, drink, adjust gloves or some piece of equipment and when I was lucky, I made few pictures. And back to trek again. During average day, we made 8-9 nautical mile (around 16km) of air distance towards South Pole. It was a way to measure our progress. Then we immediately start building tents, pick up shovel and dig a hole in the tent to sit in and dig a toilet (Dean was named to be a royal Antarctic toilet architect), unload stuff to tents, put on the cooker, cook the dinner, report the coordinates and situation by satellite phone, discuss strategy for next day and then maybe one hour of free time before sleep, when I read a book about Antarctic adventurers.
This was repeating day after day. There were only three differences. First two days I had a headache from the altitude sickness, since day four I slowly developed solid back pain from pulling the sledges to the unbearable level, then I cannot even sleep from that and third differentiator was a weather. Most of the time it was somewhere between -20°C and -30°C, but we had days when wind chill dropped under -35°C and one day even -43°C. In the end I have learned a lot about cold.
So, for example coldest days were, when there were no clouds, just a clear sky. Sunglasses with metal frames make sure you develop a quality frostbites on nose very quickly. And the worst part what can happen is that you sweat. Really, I have experienced that. As soon as you have too warm cloths, then the sweat run over my body and took all my energy off, suddenly the walk was very difficult and every step was a suffering. Also, I was risking, that I will sweat through a base layer, which will freeze then and I will not be able to dry it out in these conditions. Far more important than air temperature is so called wind-chill. That combines air temperature with wind speed. The basic idea is, that when the wind is not blowing, then the body creates around a microclimate, which protects you from colds. But the wind can blow away this heated air. It is being felt especially on naked skin. When was for example air temperature -25°C and there was some mild wind, then wind chill was -35°C. In reality it looks like this. I sat on the sledges during a break in a way I was having wind blowing from back so I was protecting my hands from wind. During this air temperature I was able to take off gloves and unpack food. I had to keep my hands close to body, where were protected by the jacket and everything was OK. There was warm enough microclimate. As soon as I put my hand even for a second to the wind, the hand froze immediately and was in pain for another half hour. It was of course the case every time when I decided to take a camera to make pictures. With every picture from the trip I paid a price of half to one hour of hand pain and in the end, I took home few mild frostbites.
Next interesting thing was a realization what can freeze in those temperatures. For example, water with energy drink in plastic bottle in thermal sleeve was able to stay drinkable about 5 hours, water in vacuum thermos was able to be warm whole day, but that was it. Camera batteries had lower capacity when in cold, so I carried them all the time in “money pocket” on body; eye drops froze, cheeses, salami, chocolates froze; GoPro froze etc. We had to have food close to body, which complicated taking them out during breaks and required taking off gloves. But the worst thing were my goggles. They got frozen every morning and whole day I went in a way that I was looking out only through very tiny unfrozen window and trying to see at least the piece of sledges the guy at front of me. It was impossible to unfreeze them. I have tried to put toothpaste (works when you dive), but it was not possible to see through, spits froze and none of the unfrozen techniques worked. As soon as I have unfrozen them by breath to clean then, they got frozen again within one or two seconds. It was hopeless.
I didn’t enjoy much of the views. But there was not much at all. The landscape around the South Pole is very monotonous. Infinite flat, snow desert without any kind of topography. Endless freezing winds. Nothing can survive here. Animals are not closer than 1500 km away. We had not meet anyone. In this dead landscape was moving only five of us. Us and our shadows.
Overall, it was much more of psychological than physical challenge. We have been training for the physical over last year, but nothing has prepared us for the psychical one. You go long way, fighting with winds, headache, back is pain from which you don’t sleep, you don’t see anything through frozen goggles, there is no one to talk to most of the day, you are fighting all the time with the gear, counting steps and … and every day is the same.
Then it gets suddenly easier and you see in horizon black dots of Amundsen-Scott station. We have been still 5 nautical miles away, but we have felt the victory. So pulled sledged to the end. In the camp we were greet by the local polar men. They opened doors for us to the canteen, we got some good food and went to rest to tent. Everything from this point was only happy experience.