The 57 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes it took me to ski the 700 miles from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole were, to sum up in one word, intense.
Every day presented incredible challenges. From the steep climbs up from Hercules Inlet at the start when the sled was at its heaviest, to the gradual climbs up towards the plateau. The sharp and short snow “dunes” as you get past the half way mark and get ever closer to the end.
Incredible variations in snow conditions
The incredible variations in snow conditions, with all the sastrugi – from the small, irritating formations to the massive structures as large as buses that you had to work out a way to go around, through or over. The soft snow that sapped the energy and slowed you down to a snail’s pace, and the compact snow over which you could fly! Sawdust snow, hard ice. Whiteouts hiding all the different obstacles that rested metres in front of you.
Worrying about frostbite to my fingers and crevasses
Skiing into strong headwinds and putting the tent up and taking it down again in these conditions. Worrying about the temperature of my fingers especially and the risk of frost bite. Being aware of the risks of crevasses. What were the best layers to have on at a particular time? Do I need to ventilate and cool down? Am I going in the right direction..?! Any combination of the above!!
Even the rest days were intense experiences. Trying to help the body to recover, thinking about things to improve on the next day’s travel, planning how to progress considering the limited rations and ever decreasing number of days available to complete the expedition. Will the tent be okay in the storm..?!
Thoughts of giving up…
My neck made the challenges even more acute and there were times I truly did think about ending it and asking ALE to extract me from the ice. After the first two weeks of constant pain, I did ask ALE about my “options”, with a view to a possible pickup from where I was.
As I got closer to the Pole, more doubts crept in, despite having made really good progress since the early days, though exacerbated by the number of rest days and half days I had taken as I had tried to help my neck improve. I felt myself hitting a wall, going ever slower in the soft snow, struggling as it snapped my energy. Unfortunately the old maxim of “slow and steady” really does not apply to polar expeditions: rations have to be considered; the length of the polar season has to be respected as conditions deteriorate. Time was always a slow but omnipresent background enemy, lurking and waiting to end the expedition.
More doubts would creep in. Could I really do this??? Was I really cut out for this?? Could I just return to normal life and leave this all behind, content that I had “tried my best”?
I couldn’t give up.
Though while the thoughts went through my head, there was no way I could seriously entertain them. I had to do this. I couldn’t give up. Had I really tried my best? Could I still move? Was I able to function? How much of the pain could I tolerate? How long could I tolerate it for? Was it worth it?!
I felt great in my body aside from my neck. Fit and strong and able to go, so while the pain was demoralising, the only answer I could come up with for whether I had tried my best; whether I had tried and done everything I could was… no. I hadn’t: I could manage this, I just had to keep going. This was a dream of a life time and yes while there was pain, while there were the daily intense challenges, it was absolutely worth it and I couldn’t let myself abandon the journey so easily.
Obviously I had to have ALE’s medical advice and consent. They are extremely safety conscious. I was in constant contact with the doctors: had they thought it was too dangerous for me, I would have had to have ended the expedition. That would have been it. But I couldn’t end it without doing everything I could first. Being so close to fulfilling a dream, it would have been devastating. There were small sacrifices that had to be made: I had wanted to do this without assistance or resupply though it quickly became apparent I needed both, as my own pain medication ran out and I was taking longer than planned due to the pain. But the goal was always the Pole and those were easy sacrifices to make.
Concentrating on the positives
I always had to believe that I could make it and push the self doubts to the background. Concentrate on the positives: the daily challenges actually helped make the journey so fantastic. Where would be the challenge or the fun if there were no obstacles?! If it was all just smooth and compact snow? I could just walk in the park if I wanted that.
Getting through those sastrugi fields! Getting through those whiteouts! The feeling of navigating some of the most difficult ice formations I had ever seen. Managing to get up those climbs and reach that gorgeous and incredible plateau.
A Beer at the end
Taking each of those challenges and at the end of each day reminding myself that, wow! I had got through the day! I had made great progress! I was a quarter of a degree closer to the Pole! If I could do this today, why couldn’t I manage tomorrow? I got the tent up in strong winds and there were no problems! Of course I could do it again! I managed to get through temperatures of -20C without frostbite, what’s the problem with -25C?! Yes, it was hard and I was cursing the conditions at the time, but then the sense of fulfilment that came with getting through it all… it reminded me of what I always say about a long hard bike ride: the beer at the end is always that much more rewarding and delicious the harder it is!
I had to remind myself of who I was, what I had done and what I knew deep down that I could do, no matter what the challenge was. In managing this, while I was truly exhausted by the time I got to the Pole, I was truly ecstatic and elated. One of the best feelings I have ever had. I am still feeling it and it is out of this world.