In December 2016 and January 2017, Eric Philips, Rob Smith and Keith Tuffley undertook a 34-day, 605km ski expedition from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole – becoming the first people to traverse the little-known Reedy Glacier. Their story continues...
26 December 2016 Our Christmas Day
We woke to our Christmas stockings bulging with a shot bottle of Inverglen whisky, courtesy of Santa Rob. Being virtually on the date line I think we may be the last people on earth ushering in Christmas Day.
I'll talk no more of sastrugi only to say that it took some time to find a tent site tonight. We laboured 9 hours for just 21km – our most difficult day yet. After lunch, a strong wind blew in from the SW, sending adding some bite to the -22c.
In Australia it's Boxing Day and my son Kip's 15th birthday. Happy birthday Kip. It was my daughter Mardi's 21st last month and my wife Susy's on Jan 1. 'Tis the season! I love you guys, almost as much as this bottle of Inverglen. Sorry to be missing so much but I'm at work!
27 December 2016 Repairs
My damaged sled is holding up well. But it will need regular maintenance to prevent the cracks from worsening. It has a crack from half way along the hull to the top of the bow, stitched up with pink spectra cord. I've also stitched a strip of plastic butchered from the front bulkhead over the cracked section making contact with the snow, so that I retain a semblance of glide. I've dubbed my sled Frankie! But my fingers have paid the price, a little cold damaged from working outside on the dexterous job.
Our last remaining 'ruggedised' solar panel sustained some damage in the sastrugi but Keith managed to wire it together again and it's working, for now. Twenty years ago I was using simple panels that would never have broken under these circumstances. So much stuff is now over-engineered and unnecessarily complicated.
20km in nine hours – but our final session was relatively good, a harbinger of abating sastrugi we hope.
28 December 2016 Superb weather
The last couple of days have been superb with not a cloud to blemish the sky and hardly a breath of wind to ruffle our ruffs.
We ski four sessions daily - 2.5 hours, two, two and two. With good surface conditions for the first two we skied at 3kph but hit another sastrugi field, which slowed us down to a grind. We're now camped amongst the demons.
I have a theory about the sastrugi. To the west of us lies Titan Dome, which rises to above 3,000m (I crossed it in 1998). Given we are currently at the height of the South Pole and climbing, we're likely on its eastern flank. With the circumpolar wind flowing east to west, I am thinking it deflects to the north of the dome – hence all of the sastrugi during our ascent over the flank. If my theory is correct, the sastrugi will diminish as we continue south.
In the final session, parhelia encircled the sun – the first we've seen. This atmospheric phenomenon gives the Antarctic plateau an additional magical twist.
29 December 2016 Twenty Twos
I felt ratshit today, no energy, no power, no stamina. Just one of those days where tentlife couldn't come soon enough.
But I could still appreciate the beauty. A bank of mottled clouds rolled in from the south, intermittently blanketing us in shadow and bathing us in sun. Each sunny spell was rebirth all over. Even the shadows on the frickin' sastrugi had me mesmerised.
We are in the 88th parallel and above the height of South Pole. We've covered 385km with 220 to go. It's our 22nd day, we did 22km and it was -22c. And I need 22 hours sleep!
30 December 2016 Companions
Our mottled sky persisted until the first break before a heavy low bank of cloud engulfed us. This made for interesting navigation as all contrast was obliterated.
My companions are awesome. As predicted, we have a gut-busting group belly laugh at least once a day, either over some minor misfortune or a cracker quip. For example, Keith spent one morning looking for his toothbrush, commenting how it needs to be kept sanitary, only to have it drop out of his pants while crapping, missing his turd by a cm.
Keith's history of endurance events and snow sports made for a relatively easy transition into expedition life and he spends most evenings modifying clothing, looking after his body and poring over maps and his diary. Rob's impetus for this expedition was undertaking a big goal in life that helped bring awareness to the scourge of cancer, which racked his family and friends, and then himself. Rob has been a picture of stoicism, dealing with one ailment after the other without a complaint and now finding himself strong and fit, poised within the final 200km of the South Pole.
Great friends both. And funny buggers.
31 December 2016 What I'm wearing
Thought I'd give an overview of what I'm wearing during the day on a -20°C windy day. From head to toe on my body while skiing:
Icetrek Sabine Hat, made for Icetrek by Satila of Sweden
Julbo Aerospace goggles. These have not fogged/iced once, they are superb for up here.
Icetrek Guru neoprene facemask
Smitten merino thermal top
Mont Adventure Equipment fleece jacket
Mont shell jacket with wolf/wolverine ruff
Smitten merino thermal pants
Mont fleece pants
Mont shell pants
OR merino liner mitts
Icetrek Kelvin polar mitts, by Satila
Lum-Tec Combat B watch
Baffin Endurance boots
Flexi Oversize Ski Bindings
Madshus Epoch skis
Icetrek Atlas sled harness
Below all that is one shoddy body!
-20°C today, mostly overcast and windy. Skied another 22km.
31 December 2016 (continued) The irony of extremes
I type this on my iPhone with numb fingertips. Every tenth inhalation is a deep catch up breath. Stinging chilblains cover my fingers and my right eyelid is swollen from a relentless southeasterly wind that has one mission only – to penetrate. Today we rest as yesterday was too much for my otherwise robust lungs – the early signs of altitude sickness which afflicted me dangerously in 2013 on the other side of the Antarctic plateau. That time we had a doctor on standby who could treat me with oxygen and drugs to drain my perilously full lungs. After a call with the doc at Union Glacier this morning our decision to rest was sealed. This will also help Keith who has some snowblindness in his right eye, the result of dispensing with iced-up goggles. It will help us all.
Yesterday, as I heaved a sucking breath and the last joule of energy drained from my body – with still another 90 minutes to go before calling it quits for the day, another 22km behind us – I hated Antarctica. My sled felt like a cargo ship, my fingers screamed for blood, the dead flat surface felt like an alp, my head throbbed with a persistent ache, my back creaked in protest and all I could do to take the next step was think of my family. I wanted out of this forsaken place and pondered the thoughts of Henry Worsley who last year deteriorated in health, ultimately fatally, not far from here in his attempt to cross Antarctica solo. He too would have thought of little else but family. The Antarctic plateau cares not for your experience – it exists only to be what it is, an environmental extremophile. You choose to fit in and flourish or you fight and flounder.
Yet during a brief foray outside to collect food from my sled I saw starkly the irony of extremes and felt as though I'd been harsh to my dear old friend Antarctica. Despite 25 years of polar exploration I've been humbled once again by this magnificent place. Looking around I see nothing but snow plains and blue sky. But here – at just under 3,000m elevation – it's snow and blue like no other. The sky is abuzz with sparkles of microscopic ice fragments, the air is brittle like space itself, the sun wheels equidistant above the horizon, the cold smacks at every gap in my armour and aside from my friends protected comfortably by two layers of tent fabric, not a spec of humanity exists. I can't hate this place. I just need to fit in again.
Happy New Year to the world out there.
Green Adventures November 2017