Antarctica 2014: High Winds and Whiteout Conditions Test Skiers

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It has been a couple of very trying days in the Antarctic. Weather conditions have been brutal for most of the South Pole skiers, with high winds and whiteout conditions reminding them just exactly where they are, This is all part of what it takes to travel on the frozen continent of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier when they’re caught out in a storm. Most of the explorers having been making the best of the situation, and covering as much ground as they can, while others are currently tent-bound, and waiting for things to improve.

The high winds don’t bother Frédérick Dion all that much. The Canadian kite-skier uses those winds to propel him on, and he is now nearing his ultimate destination – the South Pole of Inaccessibility. As of Wednesday, when he released his last update, he was just 267km (165 miles) from his goal. Considering he had knocked off 101km (63 miles) that day alone, it is possible that he could reach the POI today or tomorrow. With a little luck – and wind – on his side, he should wrap up the expedition this weekend. It won’t be easy however, as Fred reports lots of sastrugi in the area, which are keeping him on his toes, and ensuring that his final stage of the journey will be a difficult one. Still, I would expect an update by Monday that says that he has become the first person to ski unsupported to the South Pole of Inaccessibility via the Russian Novo Station. Stay tuned for more updates on Frédérick’s progress.

Fayasal Hanneche – the other kite-skier out on the ice – isn’t having quite as an enjoyable time on his journey through the Antarctic. After covering just 3km (1.8 miles) on Thursday, he has spent all of today stranded in his tent, waiting for a major storm to abate. While the high winds can be a boon for a kite-skier, the whiteout conditions conceal obstacles, which can be far more dangerous when traveling at high speeds. Fayasal says that in order to pass the time while stranded spending days in his tent, he watches movies such Lawrence of Arabia and Kingdom of Heaven. He also reads a lot, and spends the time resting, preparing for the chance to continue his journey.

Whiteout conditions have been the norm for Are Johnson, who is guiding Stéphanie and Jérémie Gicquel to the South Pole. Over the past couple of days, they have skied in near-zero visibility thanks to strong winds and fresh snow. Never the less, they have continued to make great progress knocking off more than 23km (14 miles) per day. They are climbing uphill now, on their way to the top of the Polar Plateau, which makes for hard work even in the best of conditions. They have also been experiencing meter-high sastrugis, which cause them to work harder to cover the same distances as well. Yet the team is reportedly in good spirits, and enjoying the journey thus far.

Solol-skier Newall Hunter has been struggling with the whiteout conditions as well. He compared his journey over the past two days to walking inside a ping pong ball, as visibility was almost nonexistent, and all he could see around him was white. This can be very disorienting and humbling for the explorers, but they trudge on as best they can, usually navigating with a compass or GPS rather than by site. To add to the frustration, fresh snow fell, making it more difficult to ski, and causing his sleds to stick or flip over. The end result was very slow going, but eventually the skies cleared, and conditions improved enough for him to make up for lost time.

Finally, Tractor Girl, aka Manon Ossevoort, is finding her journey to the South Pole in a Massey Ferguson tractor to be more challenging than she expected. Originally, the plan had been to reach 90ºS by December 7, but with that deadline looming, it appears that she, and her support team, will not make it on the date that they expected. Yesterday, the team reached their refueling point, where extra gas was dropped last year in preparation for this trip. They spent half of the day refueling, and doing some minor repairs to the equipment, before proceeding on. The fuel dump should give them everything they need to reach the South Pole now, it is just a matter of time before they reach that point, with weather and surface conditions creating the main obstacles.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned for more progress reports next week, including the possibility of Frédérick Dion reaching the Pole of Inaccessibility by Monday.

Kraig Becker