Antarctica: Preparations and delays

The journey to Punta Arenas

It has been a long couple of weeks or so. On the 28th October, I started the journey south from Inverness, making sure to have a couple of days in Oxford and London to see friends and family before heading to Punta Arenas in Patagonia, which is my base before flying to Antarctica. The journey to Punta started on the 1st November and was reasonably smooth though not without worrying moments.

The staff of LATAM Airlines in London told me my bags would go straight through to Punta. This struck me as unusual as was flying through Santiago: normally you must collect bags at Santiago to clear customs. In Sao Paulo (where I had a 12 hour layover), a LATAM rep told me that I indeed needed to collect the bags. Talk about making life confusing! At Santiago, the bags didn’t appear.

After waiting an hour to speak with the LATAM baggage claim people, they told me they didn’t know where the bags were. But yes, they said: I needed to collect them to clear customs there. Fortunately, given another huge layover (8 hours this time), there was time for them to find them, and all was good. Alarming, but it worked out! It was nice to pick them up as well as I had left my laptop in the checked baggage (long story!) but that was there and undamaged.

Getting it all sorted

Finally, on arriving in Punta Arenas at around midday on the 3rd, I got to the hotel. I am staying at the Apartment Hotel Quillango. It is a nice place, close to the centre and with space to organise everything. Definitely needed as there was so much to organise! Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) – the company that organises the logistics for Antarctic journeys – delivered my cargo to the hotel. The Pulk, food, skis, tent, electronics, clothing and more: everything together under one roof for the first time.

Then it was a matter of decanting 155 dehydrated dinners, lunches and breakfasts (Expedition Foods) from their pouches into lighter bags. This is a time-consuming process but it reduced the total weight by 3kg. It also means that I need not worry about accumulating residual waste in pouches after eating, which adds weight. Every kilo counts on an Antarctic expedition!

Also, I had to sort out my daily snacks of chocolate, dried fruit, nuts, protein and energy bars, cookies and crackers, and meats and cheeses, into separate bags. Buying and cooking the meats (sausages, bacon, ham, chorizo and salami) and weighing everything out into the ration packs. It all took about three days or so.

With everything now packed and organised, it’s just a matter of waiting. I was meant to fly to Antarctica on 10th November. However, a harsh winter has affected ALE’s base on the continent and delayed all expeditions. A massive amount of snow has accumulated on the runway making it impossible for large planes to land, and poor conditions are hampering the opening of the base. My flight is now set to the 13th, thought this might be delayed further. Fingers crossed I can get going soon!

Greenland Part 4: Leaving DYE2 behind

After DYE2 we had a few more days of skiing slowly uphill before it was pretty much flat for a while, and we eventually started the slow and almost imperceptible descent towards the eastern coast.

We had mixed weather conditions, with some whiteouts, some windier days, and some hotter and colder conditions. I have talked about it in another post but… I have to mention it again… whiteouts are really quite tough and surreal! The last time I had dealt with them was in Norway. At least there every now and then you could see rocks in mountain-sides, which helped a little, helping you feel like you are actually getting somewhere. But this time, nothing. Everything white: above, below, and beside you. Absolutely nothing to see for reference and a true limbo, in which you feel like you are floating; moving but going nowhere at the same time. With the temperatures, the worst it got down to was around -39C with the windchill, making it harder to control the temperatures in our extremities with the fingers and toes. But we all came through alright. On one of the hotter days, with temperatures around -1C or higher, clumping became a problem with the skis, as did over-heating, making life really hard. We had to stop for an early an extended break to wait for the temperatures to cool down–and it was remarkable: just one or two degrees difference and the clumping just stopped.

We went 13 days without a break from the start so took a rest day on which it was great to sit with the group and have lunch outside. Our guides, Elisabeth and Calle, prepared a treat for us all with pancakes and soup; a brilliant surprise! A few days later after more travelling, we also took a weather day because of the strong winds, but we had made good progress so it was fine and we were still going according to plans and schedule with the timings to get to the other side. When we got going, we had a day when we saw another expedition–almost right in the middle of the icecap. It was quite an exciting moment for all of us considering how we hadn’t seen anyone for a while. We first saw their silhouettes on their ice in the distance and took a while trying to work out what they were as we approached. They were coming from the other direction, from east to west, and both of our groups veered slightly away from our courses so we could meet and chat for a few minutes before continuing on our journeys. They were from Iceland and had taken 20 days to get as far as they did. When we finished the expedition, we flew to Iceland and apparently they were local celebrities and people we met asked us about them. They might have taken a few more days, but made it eventually which was great to hear.

As the plateau is so high we were unable to see any of the eastern coastal mountains until the last couple of days of the descent. Our eyes were constantly looking to the horizon, scanning for signs that we were getting close to the end, though the icecap would give very few clues to what awaited us…

Boots ‘n Bindings

Getting boots for polar expeditions is not entirely simple – you have to consider the warmth of the boots of course, but you also have to consider the bindings that will let you attach to the skis.

On the Auyuittuq and Cross Canada journeys, Natalia and I used the Baffin Boots – Polar Series (Impact); rated down to -100C, with removable liners. They are harder to get a hold of in Europe as opposed to Canada or the US, but are excellent. They are pretty big boots (and you need to get at least one size larger than your normal size as you have to think about the number of socks you’ll wear), but… they’re not compatible with any standard ski bindings. Instead, you have to get specialised bindings that can be used with large boots, and we found that the famous Australian explorer Erik Phillips designed and sells “Flexi bindings” for this purpose. Erik skied from the Siberian coast to the North Pole using these. The bindings are very simple–after you have installed them on the skis at least: you just slot in your boots and then tighten the straps. And they are also very easy to remove when you want to take your skis off. Sometimes when we were skiing the straps did become a little lose, and when the straps got wet, this would make them harder to tighten, but on the whole, we were very happy with them. They are pretty much indestructible, though only problem is that they are expensive, and you have to import them from Australia.

As a note, you can now get Baffin polar boots that are compatible with three-pin bindings, but I can’t comment about what these are like, aside from their being twice the cost of the standard polar series. Probably worth investing in Alfas…

With the Greenland Expedition, I will be with a team led by Hvitserk of Norway, and for the sake of making repairs easy with a group of ten of us, they have requested that we use BC bindings, which are much cheaper than the Eric Phillips bindings. Okay… the only problem is that while obviously normal ski boots can be used with such bindings, normal ski boots aren’t designed for polar expeditions and are way too tight and cold. You need to get Alfa Polar Expedition boots, which are… darn expensive (eliminating any savings from the bindings!). The good thing about the Alfas is that they are very warm and again have the removable liners that are also vapour barriers that prevent the inner boot getting wet from sweat; they are also considered the best expedition boots out there. And after having skied with them a week in Norway… well yes, they are really very comfortable. It takes a little while to get used to the BC binding system as opposed to the Flexi bindings – you have to place the bar at the front the of the Alfa boot in the lock on the bindings, so have to make sure it’s in the right position and it can take a little practice. Also, snow can get in behind the binding lock making it hard to open or close properly without removing it, so it can be fiddly. But overall, it seems more comfortable and solid skiing and moving with the Alfas than the Baffins, so I am (at least, I think I am) happy with the change! Again, let’s see after Greenland!

Thinking about the gear

So much gear to think about and to get for journeys like these… got to get the right skis and bindings; polar boots that are compatible with the bindings… base layers, mid layers, outer shells and down layers (both for legs and top); sleeping bags and vapour barrier liners, liner gloves and mittens and then the bigger mitts. Light hats; heavier hats; googles and sun glasses; face masks, balaclavas… water bottles and thermos flasks… That’s not mentioning the tent and the stoves, and communications devices (locator beacon and sat phone), solar panels and spare batteries… the list just goes on and on!

All of it has to get into the sled, together with the bags full of the food and snacks that have to be prepared in advance, and the gasoline to cook with and melt water every morning and every night as the expedition proceeds…

Welcome to my blog!

Thanks for visiting this site! Over the next few weeks and months I will be updating it with news about my training for the forthcoming Greenland Expedition (and training in New Delhi where we are already getting temperatures in the 20s, when Greenland will be -30C or so… isn’t the easiest thing to think about!), and other adventure-related news. If you yourself are planning any adventures, I would love to hear from you! I always love chatting about such journeys, and if I can help you in anyway with your preparation, I would be delighted!

I hope you find it interesting and that you can follow me – of course, if you are able to donate to Cancer Research to support my cause of raising funds for them, that would be wonderful! But if not, no worries – It would be fantastic if you could follow, share, or even just visit occasionally!