Antarctica 2014: Trouble on the Way to the POI

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The 2014 Antarctic expedition season is well underway now, with teams of skiers making their way towards the South Pole, and other destinations across the frozen continent. While travel in Antarctica has become somewhat common place in recent years, it is still a very difficult, and in hospitable place, which one explorer found out yesterday. Meanwhile, the next flight to Union Glacier is still on track for tomorrow, as yet more expeditions prepare to get underway.

Canadian kite-skier Frédéric Dion ran into a bit of trouble yesterday, and it could put his entire expedition in jeopardy. Dion set off from the Russian Novo station back on November 11 with the intention of kiting to the Pole of Inaccessibility, which is defined as a point that is located furthest from any coastline on the Antarctic continent. Using his large kites to catch the wind, Fréd has been zipping along quite nicely, covering more than 500 km (310 miles) in a relatively short period of time. With him he has a specially designed sled that can best be described as a kayak on skis, which carries all of his gear and supplies. It is essentially his lifeline while out on the ice, and it is the one piece of equipment that needs to function properly in order for him to successfully reach the POI.

Yesterday, when he contacted his home team, it was with the grim news that the kayak had suffered a 30 cm (11.8 inch) crack, this making it very difficult to continue. Dion immediately initiated an attempt to repair the crack, but it took 5 hours to do so, and he made no progress at all yesterday. He will attempt to continue today, although we’ll all have to wait to see if the sled will be able to stand-up to the rigors of the Antarctic.

In addition to his issues with his kayak-on-skis, Fréd is also dealing with a bit of frostbite on his nose.  Otherwise, he says that he is in great physical condition, and eager to continue, although he admits that his morale has taken a hit with the damage to the sled. He is still fully stocked with supplies, has 50 days remaining on his schedule, and is determined to press on however, so there is a good chance he could still reach the Pole of Inaccessibility. He’s going to need a little luck on his side though, with the hopes that no further damage will be done in the days ahead.

Meanwhile, fellow kite-skier Faysal Hanneche is finally back on the trail, and heading towards the South Pole. He spent three consecutive days inside his tent as high winds and whiteout conditions made it impossible for him to progress. He was finally able to get moving again yesterday, but made just 6 km (3.7 miles) of progress due to amount of time it took him to simply dig out his buried tent. He hopes to make better time today, as he has a lot of ground to cover. Faysal set off from Novo station as well, and will traverse the continent to Unction Glacier, via the South Pole.

Stéphanie and Jérémie Gicquel, along with guide Are Johansen, are continuing to make solid progress towards 90ºS as well. They have now been underway for six days, and yesterday the managed to knock off a solid 22.5 km (14 miles). Considering that they are still in the early stages of the journey, that is a good distance already. The route from Patriot Hills to the South Pole requires skiers to first climb to the Antarctic Plateau, which can take days, and keep progress to a minimum in the early going. Most South Pole skiers pick up speed at they overcome early obstacles, find their rhythm, and get more accustomed to the work. The fact that they are able to cover such solid distances in their first week of skiing bodes well for the team.

Finally, the next flight out of Punta Arenas to Union Glacier is still scheduled to take place tomorrow.  It will carry the next wave of South Pole skiers, including Newall Hunter and Ian Evans, both of which are heading to 90ºS independently of one another. They should be underway in just a day or two, depending on the weather conditions.

That’s all for today. Things are starting to get interesting in the Antarctic, and I’ll have more coverage soon.

Kraig Becker