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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Day 27 - Back to Chile

I wake up early and have a bit of a walk - it generally seems to be pretty warm first thing out here and it is great to be about when everyone else is in bed.



The mess tents with the US polar station in the background

The weather looks pretty good here which relieves my concerns and the good weather here breaking and so us getting stuck for longer. The news coming out of UG is encouraging in that the bad weather there is lifting faster than had been predicted so we are probably going to be flying shortly after lunch.

Then news comes out that we might be going all the way back to Punta tonight as they are trying to catch up on the Ilyshin schedule; but this may mean a flight at about 3 or 4 am getting in to Punta at 7 or 8 am and so missing most of the night's sleep. But at least once back there I can have a proper shower and shave, start contacting people and changing my flights. 

Loading the plane

Loading the plane

Team on the plane

We take off a bit after three but need to stop off to pick up some Brazilian scientists on the way back. Unfortunately, despite the fact that they have know about this for a couple of days, they are largely unprepared for our arrival. So whilst I and a couple of others help the crew load the plane with all their equipment and rubbish, the scientists head off to pack their bags and take down their tents. It doesn't appear that any of them have done this before, let alone in polar conditions, so it is both time consuming and amusing to watch. But eventually the plane is loaded and we head on to UG.

Picking up the Brazilians and their rubbish!

Back there we unload the plane before having out celebratory dinner which is a very nice touch - and very good food.



After that we repack and then convene at 23:30 for a 3am flight back to Punta.


Chilean bound Ilushin
 
Much like Vinson, the ski to the pole is really not that challenging at all presuming that you have the right gear and techniques to deal with the cold. The weather is the big unknown which can suddenly make things very difficult - especially if the wind really picks up. In general we had reasonable weather and so the expedition was slightly flat in that whilst it is a beautiful and exhilarating place I have not really had the adventure that I was looking forward to.
However, next up is Everest and if anywhere that should give me something to write home (or a blog) about!!




Friday, 27 December 2013

Day 26 - Back to UG?

The weather is superb again here - no wind, bright sunshine and clear blue skies. However there is a bit of concern about the weather at UG so we have calls at 9am and 10am where we again confirm the quality of the conditions here. No final decision on the flight has been made as yet but the plane is being loaded and fuelled so that it is ready to go once a decision is made.

No longer able to pass the responsibility for the decision onto us we are told to call back at 11 to see whether the plane has taken off or not. If they have taken off it should be here for about 3 and then we should be back in UG for a late supper at 8. That leaves us a couple of hours for photos, lunch and taking our tents down. We meet the Incelanders behind Arctic Trucks who provide support vehicles for many of the expeditions out here - and hear a great story how they started out by perhaps exaggerating their experience to the Top Gear team and so getting their first contract for a polar driving expedition.
 



11:20 - the plane is ready and take off is imminent although it has not actually happened yet. It should go ahead and hopefully now there is just the will we / won't over the flight back to Punta. This will give us a couple of days of gluttony in UG before heading out on 29th.

12:20 - just received confirmation that the plane is on its way and will be here at about 15:45. Unfortunately the temperature has really dropped and the prospect of popping out for some final photos is no longer quite so appealing! In the half hour it takes to get to the actual pole, take a couple of pictures and get back to the mess tent my fingers and face get really cold.



In the early afternoon the cloud starts to come in and visibility reduces - there are a series of concerning calls and the pilot starts getting a bit twitchy. The old adage of 'if you can go, you go' remains true and I just hope we don't come to regret not flying yesterday or early this morning when there was such great weather here.

The tone of the calls then gets more positive but the plane seems to be arriving later each time. But we get a final message that the plane will come in at 4 so to be ready for then. The plane finally arrives at 4:30 and then they announce that in fact it will not be returning to UG tonight so we need to go and set up the tents again. It has been really cold for a while and we have only just warmed up from taking down the tents so we are not best pleased with the incompetence of messing around in the morning and so missing the weather window and now this inability to communicate with us.
Not the best conditions for flying in after a wonderful morning

Don't worry we are told, we will be flying out first thing in the morning so it's not that bad! Ah, have you seen a forecast for tomorrow? A wag asks. No, they admit, then realising the hollowness of their prior reassurance. Again, not very impressive.

Everyone then crowds into the mess tent and I chat to some Icelandic drivers who, it turns out, were the chaps behind the Top Gear challenge to the North Pole and have some interesting stories - the photo of the truck above was taken in the morning which just shows how conditions have changed.

Cosy and rather full mess tent
There is a second mess tent that has been erected for the future groups and some people are using this as a dormitory tonight as they can't be bothered to out up their tents again. I am just convinced that with all those people there is bound to be some heavy snoring so decide to put up my tent to get some sleep.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Day 25 - South Pole!

Today should be pretty easy as we only have the last 8k to the VLF point and from there about a further 5k to the SP itself. The VLF point is the marker that all those heading to the Pole have to come via. There is a lot of scientific work being done at the pole and large areas have been zoned off for these to avoid pollution, contamination and other interference which people and vehicles would cause. Luckily the rather more significant pollution emanating from the US base doesn't seem to interfere with such work!!





I did not manage to get to sleep last night until about 3:30 am and then woke up at 06:30 this morning. But at least that gave me time for my XMas wash and to change into new clothes for the pole. We had a lazy start to the day and set off at 10am. Despite the fact that it is sunny yet again, it is a lot colder today so I hope we don't spend a lot of time waiting / standing about.

Just as we got to the VLF we saw a kite in the sky but not for long! There has not been much wind for the past few days and when it has come it had been in the wrong direction and very cold so he has not moved much at all - perhaps he will get in tomorrow. It will be interesting to see who it is and what he is doing.

Slightly premature - VLF is a good few km form the pole



From the VLF point there is a 'groomed' way leading to the pole which provides a good hard surface for us to move on (I get separated from the group here as they stop for a rest for some reason) and I get to the pole at 2pm.

Long walk to the pole


Being by myself I get some good, unspoilt footage before I meet a couple of ALE chaps who are up here working on some vehicles who very kindly take some photos.

The actual South Pole with the marker


Ceremonial South Pole - no about 50m from the actual pole as the ice moves over the ground

There is a ceremonial pole which is the recognisable one and then the geographic pole. Since this whole area is on a glacier, it is slowly moving and so the point which is over the actual SP is also moving. Therefore the geographic pole is marked by a sceptre that is moved on 1 Jan each year. The ceremonial pole is surrounded by the flags of all Antarctic Treaty Countries but the geographic pole only has the US flag - not very impressive!

Reflection in the ceremonial pole

A bit later, the others turn up and we do some group shots before I start to get really cold and head back to the mess tent to warm up.



Team at the Pole
The warmth of our nearby mess tent

There I meet another group who arrived a couple of days ago and are waiting for the plane back to UG. It is not clear why the plane has not been scheduled for today but hopefully it will come tomorrow.

We are getting a tour of the US base in the afternoon - or tomorrow morning their time - which is very interesting. As expected there is a lot of attention to the quality of living here with a lot of luxury - large gymnasium, several TV and games rooms etc.

The late afternoon and evening sees a series of polar explorers getting to the pole which is fantastic.
I get to welcome Jeff who is kite skiing across Antarctica raising money for breast cancer among other causes and has a novelty sled! Ben Saunders and Tarka pop in before setting off again on their momentous journey back to the coast in Scott's footsteps.

Me with Jeff's amazing sled at the pole

Then in the evening Maria arrives to become the first person to cycle to the pole. There is a route that very large trucks take from the coast to bring in supplies and fuel to the US base and this leaves a very compact clear track that provides a swift, 'easy' path to the pole. She has had a great, swift ride in but unfortunately this has taken that challenge away now.

Maria with her bike

The modified polar bike!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Day 24 - Skiing to the Pole

This should be our last full day on the skis and we get excellent weather for it. Despite the fact that it is XMas day we have a normal morning as we have our usual 20k to cover.




We are looking out for the first sighting of the pole but get concerned when we see a brown cloud on the horizon - joking that the pole is on fire. We turn out to be half right; the US base there generates so much exhaust that it creates a brown pollution cloud that can be seen from a long way off!!

First sighting of the pole - and brown cloud of pollution over it!


Soon after that we get our first view of the pole which is met with whoops of excitement from some. We sill have about 20k to go at this point so we soon return to trudging across the snow and ice.

I hang back for a bit at about 3pm (6pm UK time) to call the UK to catch people before dinners start and young ones need bathing or putting to bed. It is about -25 and windy but the sun is shining and it is great to hear friendly voices from across the continents and hear of their meal plans for the evening.


Christmas phone calls

 In contrast, I have had a packet of rather bad instant noodles for breakfast and some nuts, cheese and salami on the trail. Supper is going to be a packet meal - hopefully less gaseous than yesterday's - possibly Ho Fun chicken with rice! I do have a couple of treats in store! Some rather good whisky and an XMas wash!

Not looking too bad after a number of days without washing properly!

Although it is cold outside, there is a strong sun and it gets warm inside the tents. We only have about 10k to go tomorrow and so will have a lazy start - waking up at 8am! The SP base is run on New Zealand time and so no one will be up there until about 2pm or so our time - this will be the morning of the next day for them as they are 16 hours ahead! Time loses all meaning at singularities.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Day 23 - Skiing to the Pole

We have sunshine and blue sky today and this stays with us all day. As such it is pretty easy going - although this really makes you realise the bleakness of the place. We can see clearly from horizon to horizon and there is absolutely nothing at all out there. I move around the group and take some (hopefully good) photos.

Camp in the morning

Camp in the morning

Break time

Walking along

Walking along

Walking along
We had been hoping for a quick pick up from the SP (ie earlier than the planned rendez-vous of the 27th) and a reasonably prompt connecting flight back out to Punta (earlier than the planned one on 29th) to let us head on somewhere more fun for NYE but this does not seem possible and we are likely to spend a a day or two at the pole and it does not appear at the moment that we will be able to get an earlier flight to Punta.

The sun remains really strong into the evening and after supper we cook in our tents - I am just lying on my sleeping bag in my boxer shorts; someone records a temperature of 32c in their tent! This is pure solar heat and as soon as the sun goes behind a cloud the temperature drops significantly in the tent - you go from being too hot to actually pretty cold in a matter of seconds! But in general the cloudless sky means the tents continue to heat up and shortly it is too hot to sleep so (and remember that this is Antarctica!) I have to open my tent zips to let some cool air in! We are using Backpacker Pantry dehydrated food and whilst they taste pretty good they are prone to causing flatulence - I seem to have had a rather potent one today and so am exacerbating the temperature issues in the tent; luckily for the rest of the group I am in a tent by myself! Although I am later told that the comic effect of this did prevent others from sleeping for a while!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Day 22 - Skiing to the Pole

Today starts out with a bit of potential as some clear blue sky catches up with us and it actually becomes pretty hot and there is a fair bit of delayering.  It is also a good chance for some photos and video.

Dog star sun over the low cloud coming in from behind us
 
All too soon a low cloud comes in and both the visibility and temperature drop. The light becomes very flat and the rest of the day is a real trudge - still we do make our 20k for the day. After the reasonably flat terrain yesterday, today's route is littered with sastrugi. This means that you can't really get into a smooth rhythm and that is a big problem for me with my rather heavy sled as it glides very poorly over the bumps which put a brake on the momentum that I have managed to create- the flat light later on doesn't help much as then I struggle to see them then as well! 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Day 21 - Skiing to the Pole

We get a decent start but again there is no indication of the hoped for increase in speed as we again average under 3k an hour; the solution is to 'redistribute' the group gear - which translates into giving it to me so I end up carrying all the fuel and quite a bit of food. We manage to ski for 7 hours so get our 20k for the day done but I am not convinced that we will make the same tomorrow.

We have tended to ski in single file so far and so end up only really looking at the tips of our skis and the polk of the person in front. This gets quite boring and so I decide to break out of the single file and ski alongside the rest of the group. I can now chat to others in the group much more easily or head off for a bit of a wander and do some skiing at a reasonable speed. We end up skiing with low cloud and snow all day.

Walking through the snow and cloud

Even less to see now when we stop


The conditions are very volatile today. At times, there is sun as well as the low cloud which has the effect of trapping heat in so we get pretty hot and I ski with all my vent zips undone. At other times the cloud thickens and the wind picks up making it very cold indeed so we have to zip up and at times put extra layers on.

The polar plateau is pretty much flat ice from horizon to horizon so there is very little to see unfortunately - especially when there is low cloud so you can't even tell where the land finishes and the sky starts.

In comparison to the North Pole this is a lot warmer which makes things a lot easier but you don't have the pressure ridges that provide the interest and challenge up there.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Day 20 - Skiing to the Pole

The days are going to be very similar from now on so I will only be writing about the bits that stick out. 

Each day is roughly wake at 7am, breakfast and strike camp. Walk for 50 mins then break for 10 mins. Repeat until the evening, set up camp, have hot drinks then supper then bed. The plan is to move at about 4 kph to gain about 20km per day but we don't usually manage that and end up nearer 3 so having to move for 7 hours per day. 

Our food is a mixture of rehydrated meals for breakfast and supper (which have the amusing side effect of giving everyone bad wind) and a mixture of nuts, power bars, salami and cheese for lunch and snacks. 

Unlike at altitude when I will often sleep very little and feel fine the next day, I was very tired when I woke up and a bit slow getting out of camp. As usual when this happens things go from bad to worse.

I struggled with my sled all morning, having to adjust it every 15mins and then catch up with the rest of the group and then repeat all over again. At first I blamed my packing as I had not had problems when using the sled back at UG but when the problems continued after a big repack at the first break, I had a closer look at the sled and saw that it had bowed considerably - it had presumably been stacked against a heater on the flight out here, slightly melting the plastic and causing it to warp and so track badly and continually spill the contents to one side. The only option then is to tie things on really tightly which will warp the sled even more but at least things won't slowly slide off. After that,
things improved but it still felt pretty tough to pull.

The weather is pretty good for most of the day with plenty of blue sky and sunshine. Unfortunately we never really managed to get up the hoped for speed and trudged along at a similar speed to yesterday and then we stopped early at 15:50 as some people were tired - not convinced that this is the sort of form required to make our goal of spending XMas (or at least part of it) at the SP. We also stopped under bright blue skies and sunshine! I can't believe that this is common weather out here so it seems rather wasteful - I just hope that we don't come to regret this with days spent battling driving snow, cold and winds!

Our camp site in the morning - the small trenches are the footwells in our tent vestibules which make getting in and out much easier.

Stopping for a break - polar plateau in the background; white and flat from horizon to horizon
 

Friday, 20 December 2013

Day 19 - Off to the Pole

We wake up again to high winds but head to breakfast full of hopes that we will fly today. The morning drags on with no news so I have a shower and shave to be at my best for departure but even after that we are waiting for news. 

Just as I am writing this, Tom (our guide) comes in with the great news that we are off in a bit over an hour so we head back to the tents for final packing and then out to the airfield and off at 11. The flight should be about 3 hours as we are using the Basla and not a Twin Otter. The other benefits of the Basla are that being quite a large plane there is much leg room and heating!

Whilst waiting for the plane we chat so one of the ANI staff who will be heading up to the SP soon to set up their camp site there which is used for the big groups flying all the way there in Jan. Her plan is to head up soon so with any luck it will be in place for when we get there. I am not sure at the moment whether it would be better (if either actually proves possible) to have XMas in our tents in a more expedition style or the fixed camp with greater luxury....

Apparently, the weather is still pretty bad near in the South - there is a lot of low cloud so we are likely to be near whiteout conditions for much of the time. As a result, we are losing control of our plan to arrive for XMas. The pilots will land via the hole in the clouds nearest to our starting point but there is no saying, or ability to influence, whether this will be nearer to or further away from the pole - we are just lucky that there are some holes so we can actually get started. The flight is about 3 hours long and we get a decent sandwich on the plane so we a ready to set off once we hit the deck.
 
The team getting off the plane

Unloading our equipment

Add caption
Organising for departure

Off we go


Once off the plane we start on our journey South. We have moved up to about 2,700 mtrs so we go pretty slowly today to allow the new two time to acclimatise before we pick up the pace. I find I am getting pretty chilly at this pace so develop a routine of skiing with the group for 5 or so mins or less if I get cold soon, then stopping for a few minutes of exercises, mainly to warm my hands up again, then a quick ski to catch up with the group again. My feet get really quite cold by the time we stop which isn't good. I just hope that we will go quite a bit quicker from now on as that is a ridiculous way to travel to the pole. 

We walk for three hours before stopping for the evening - the original plan was for just one hour today so it is good to have pushed that along a bit. Everyone seems pretty competent so we get tents up and stoves on quickly and are soon settling down to some hot noodles and then onto supper properly.
Our kitchen
Oddly there seems to be quite a bit of snow about - both falling in the evening and on the ground. This is a little but surprising and grey damp clouds is not really what we were expecting out here!

We get to bed for about 21:30 which allows a bit of time for reading / diaries etc and then a decent night's sleep before the planned 7am rise tomorrow. Quite bizarrely I wake up shortly after falling asleep because whilst the rest of my body it too hot, my toes have become very painfully cold. The tent I am in slopes down towards the end and so my sleeping bag is in full contact with the body of the tent and so is transmitting the cold through to my feet.

Shortly after, the sun comes up and it gets ridiculously hot in the tent given that I am so close to the SP. I end up lying half in and half out of my sleeping bag! The heat and the bright light conspire to prevent me from getting back to sleep for a good few hours - further reason to hope for more tiring days ahead as not being able to sleep is pretty annoying on these expeditions!

Food:

Breakfast pancakes (crepes with egg, bacon and sausage) with a superb salsa
Ham and cheese sandwich on the plane
Kung Po Rice with Chicken - we have dehydrated as opposed to freeze dried food on this trip and so far they seem to be really quite good.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Day 18 - UG and its environs

The wind is blowing pretty strongly when we wake up which makes striking camp a bit more challenging but the sleeping systems make it so much easier and faster than normal. We ski the half an hour back to UG to make breakfast and then wait for a weather update to see whether we can fly today - it will make quite a bit of a difference to our trip so we are pretty nervous! In the meantime we do a bit of reorganising from last night but it can't really keep our minds off the big issue!

Oh dear!! Not only are we not flying to day because there is too much cloud, but the forecast has that cloud remaining in situ for the next few days so unless there is change we could be here for a while longer! Luckily, the weather tends to change quite a bit out here so we remain hopeful. This is likely to kibosh our plan of being at or getting to the SP for XMas though which is a shame.

After that I head down to the stores to get the additional tent. We find one quickly but a quick look indicates issues. The smaller tent should only have two poles and not the three in the bag and there seem to be two tent bodies there as well. It turns out that rather than being the Nalo (the smaller tent I am looking for) as the label states, we have the inner and outer for the Nalo and the inner and poles for the Kierin (the larger version that the others are using). We can't find any Nalo poles anywhere so use some Kierin poles that we can shorten to make poles for the Nalo and then tape them up so that they are ready for use. Tent poles are made up of a number of small tubes connected by elastic so that they are easy to carry in a backpack. When you are pulling a sled you don't mind long thin items so you just fold the poles at one of the joints and it helps to mark that with bright tape. The main weakness of the poles is at these connecting points and they can come loose and semi-out while being carried and then break when pressure is applied when putting up then tent. To avoid this we tape all the connecting points to reduce the risk of the poles sliding out of the sockets and so breaking when under pressure. 

After lunch we head out for a little trip to some nearby rocks where we can trek / scramble / climb up a valley as a nice change from being on snow.

The elephant head valley

End of the glacier with oddly eroded holes and air bubbles

There are a couple of partially modified for snow / ice bikes out here so I go for a bit of a ride. That is fine when the surface is hard but as soon as the snow is soft and deep you come to a very rapid stop!



There are currently a couple of chaps who are trying to cycle to the pole. Or to be more accurate, one pushing his bike whilst the other is skiing with a bike strapped to his sled. They are both having a very tough time and it looks at though the first won't make it whilst the second can't really claim to be cycling there. If this continues, that will mean that no one will have managed to cycle to the SP as yet. This is a record that I would be very suited to and something it am now considering for next year. The problem is that bikes are very unsuitable for travelling on the snow and I will need to spend quite a bit of time after Everest trying to come up with a bike that can work there but that is not too modified to no longer count as a bicycle. As much as you don't want to wish a fellow adventurer bad luck, that would be a fantastic opportunity and one that I would have a high level of confidence of achieving. It will be interesting to see what conditions are like up on the polar plateau to start thinking about how to plan such an attempt. 

We hear at supper that a flight tomorrow is a maybe - but a reasonable enough maybe for the pilot to start planning his day around it which is very encouraging. Still, we will have to wait for confirmation from tomorrow morning's weather update before we can go. That is at 07:45, then breakfast is at 8 and they will need an hour to sort out the plane so the earliest that we could leave is 10am. This gives us a bit of time for final showers etc in the am which is a nice way to start the trip.
Food:

Bacon, eggs and fruit
Salad and various cold meats
Beef stroganoff (very good) and orange cake with a superb chocolate orange sauce. The food at camp has been really good but this meal has been really outstanding - there are not many restaurants where this would not be an acceptable or even good standard of cooking!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Day 17 - UG and its environs

From about 3am I can hear footsteps of the newcomers walking out to the tents and in, anticipation of the chap coming into mine, I can't get back to sleep until well after he comes at 03:30. 

Breakfast is good as usual, after which we head down to the ski garage to go through gear again and have a bit of a chat about the expedition.


Sleds and tents at the hardware end of the camp

Trial sled packing up at our tents

One neatly packed sled and skis - unfortunately there is quite a bit more to go in; it will never look so good again!

After lunch we pack up our food for the trip - we are taking a rather large amount and we have to cover some contingency days as well. I would not be surprised if I brought about half back. I just don't eat that much on expeditions and after eating so well at UG for a number of days it will be quite a while before I need to eat much in any case.

The expedition food store.

10 days of food? Bound to bring half of it back!


After picking up the food, we allocate the group gear (stoves, fuel, pots and pans etc) and then head back to out tents for final repacking. 

We are trying a new sleeping system which is a large, tough zipped bag (shaped like a sleeping mat)that you put your sleeping mats and all your sleeping gear into (large blue items in the photo below). This can then be transferred en masse to and from the tent and sled. At first, we struggle as this makes a very large bundle to fit in the sled which is awkward but then we place them flat on top of the rest of the sled which is a very elegant solution. Not only does this provide a neat final layer but by having the zipper at the front you can easily store extra gloves, water bottles and electricals inside your sleeping bag which both keeps them warm and gives you very quick access to them! Fantastic qualities in polar conditions.

After supper we are heading out for a mini trip near the camp to test all our equipment and see if we need to change anything. Unfortunately, we hear rumours at supper that there is quite a bit of bad weather about and this leads to our planned flight tomorrow (after returning from our overnight camp) being placed in the very doubtful camp. Normally, this would not be too bad as we are not pressed for time yet but we are keen to get to the pole for XMas and this will jeopardise that significantly. Not much we can do but wait and see. 

Test run in camp

Heading out into the wilds!
Tent vestibule and view out to nearby mountains


We head off out of the camp for about half an hour before pitching camp and having a hot drink before bed. We are using Hilleberg tents which are good tunnel tents; one of the two has a large vestibule and we will cook communally in there. Despite managing 3 to these tents on the way to the North Pole, there seems to be very little room for us now (the sleeping systems take up a lot of space!) and so I volunteer to carry an extra small tent for me to use which will give everyone that extra bit of space - although I have no idea what the tent is actually like at the moment; fingers crossed.

Tomorrow we will head back to camp for breakfast and see what the weather will allow us to do. 

Food:

Bacon and fried potatoes
Spag Bol with an excellent guacamole
Chicken Kiev and salad