Antarctica 2014: Lonely Days on the Ice

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Due to the Thanksgiving holiday here in the States, it has been a few days since I’ve posted an update on the unfolding Antarctic season. While we have been gathering with friends and family over the past few days, and enjoying some great food in the process, the explorers and adventurers on the frozen continent have continued their struggles to reach the South Pole, or similar destinations. It has not been an easy couple of days for most, with the true challenges of the Antarctic now starting to emerge.

We are about three weeks into the season, and the rigors of the journey have begun to take their toll. No where is that more evident than with Canadian kite-skier Frédérick Dion, who has had to face some of his biggest fears over the past couple of days. According to his home team, Fred called on the satellite phone a few days back in tears, as he entered a massive sastrugi field that he thought would tear his makeshift sled apart. You may recall, his sled suffered major damage awhile back, and it looked like he might have to cancel the expedition. Fred was able to fix the damage however, and has continued on. But the latest area of rough ground that he has been traveling through looked like it might cause his handiwork to come undone, and he was unsure what would happen if it did. Dion is on his way to the South Pole of Inaccessibility, and is now at a point where if he were to become injured or suffered a major equipment failure, an aircraft would not be able to come evacuate him from the ice. That fear and uncertainly, not to mention having been completely alone for three weeks, was unnerving for the Canadian. Fortunately, he was able to rally, and gain confidence as he traveled. On Saturday he knocked off more than 130 km (80 miles), and moved through the danger zone without much difficulty.

At times it is easy to think of these Antarctic explorers as tough, stoic men and and women, who are hardened against loneliness and fear. But Frédérick’s latest dispatch gives us a peek into their psyche, and reminds us that they are human just like the rest of us, sharing in our own insecurities and uncertainties. Dion is doing quite well, and is set to reach the POI in good time, and by sharing his worries with those who are following along at home, he gives us new insights into what it is like out there on the ice.

Fellow kite-skier Faysal Hanneche is facing different problems on his journey to the South Pole. Over the past few days, he has had very little wind to help pull him along, which means he has resorted to walking and skiing across the Antarctic. That has made for slower travel of course, but Faysal has nearly made his way to the top of the Antarctic Plateau, so he is continuing to make the best of the situation. His journey will be a traverse of the Antarctic continent, having set out from the Russian Novo station, he’ll first travel to the Pole before returning to the coast at Union Glacier.

Are Johnson and his clients –  Stéphanie and Jérémie Gicquel – continue to make good progress towards the South Pole as well. The trio are skiing towards their destination, and covering approximately 27-28 km (16-17 miles) per day in temperatures that are hovering around -40ºC/F with the windchill. Earlier today they skied to a supply drop, where they picked up more food and fuel for their journey. This was met with much anticipation and relief, and signals a nice break from the routine. Tomorrow they’ll take a rest day to regain some strength as they sleep, eat, and enjoy some downtime before returning to the trail on Wednesday.

Newall Hunter has now been on the ice for six days and is sharing some of his experiences as well. He has been covering about 26 km (15 miles) per day, which is a good pace for so early in the expedition. Newall says that he generally skies for about two hours before taking a break, which allows him to catch up on food and water. Those breaks are important, but he says that when he stops, he gets incredibly cold, so he prefers to keep moving as much as he can. This is just one more challenge that the explorers face at the bottom of the world, as they continue to press forward toward their goals.

Paula Reid is finally off and running after a few delays to the start of her expedition. She isn’t posting much in the way of dispatches about her experiences, but we can still track her progress none the less.  She is skiing to the Pole along the traditional route from Hercules Inlet.

Finally, Tractor Girl Manion Ossevoort has launched her journey to the South Pole in a Massey Ferguson tractor. She has been out on the ice for nine days now, having started from the Novo Station. While driving to the South Pole presents its own set of challenges, it is not really the same as skiing. Still, the team supporting the project is making great progress, and they are on an adventure all of their own. If all goes according to plan, they should arrive at 90ºS by this weekend.

That’s all for now. I’ll post more updates later in the week.

Kraig Becker