Antarctica 2017: The Ice Maidens Are Underway at Last

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The Antarctic expedition season is continuing to unfold at a rapid pace. It seems like just yesterday we were reporting that the first teams skiing to the South Pole had arrived on the ice, and now we’re nearly a month into the season already. For the first groups of explorers it has been a long couple of weeks already, but for very different reasons.

For the Ice Maidens, the start of the journey was slow in coming, even though they were on the first plane out to Union Glacier. The six ladies who make up the squad are eager to become the first all-female team to ski the full distance to the South Pole, and yet Antarctica wasn’t being all that cooperative. As a result, the Maidens were forced to sit at the Union Glacier camp while they waited for the weather to improve at their starting point on the Leverett Glacier.

And so they waited, and waited, and waited. For nearly three weeks they stood at the ready to begin their journey, but continued to face delay after delay. Such is the life of an Antarctic skier, particularly at the start of the season. But fortunately the weather has improved at long last, and the women have finally begun their expedition in earnest. They were dropped off on the glacier a few days back and are now making their way south. They have given up the relatively warm and comfortable confines of camp for the wild, unpredictable weather and wide open spaces of the Antarctic, which is of course what they’ve been hoping for all along.

Ben Saunders has now been out on the ice for more than three weeks and he is continuing to make steady progress towards the South Pole. He’s been knocking off solid distances on most days, skiing for 9 hours, while taking six 10 minute breaks along the way. The frozen continent hasn’t been making it easy on him however, as high winds and whiteout conditions have made for tough going at times. On more than one occasion Ben has been forced to navigate using his compass and watch, because in a whiteout there aren’t any landmarks that can help him find the way. This slows down the progress some, but is vitally important for staying on course.

As you’ll probably recall, Saunders is attempting to become the first person to ski solo and unassisted to the South Pole and back again. That means he’s going completely on his own and without any outside support, supply drops, or any assistance of any kind. That makes this expedition an extremely difficult and dangerous one, particularly when skiing alone in a whiteout without anyone else to help navigate or pick up the slack. And with more than 800 miles (1287 km) yet to go, there are times when I’m sure he wouldn’t mind having someone else along to help break the trail.

Scott Sears – aka the Antarctic Ghurka – has been skiing for ten days now and seems to be finding his rhythm quite nicely. He’s been knocking off around 25 km (15.5 miles) per day, and is picking up steam in his quest to become the youngest person to ski the full distance to the South Pole. The journey hasn’t been without its challenges however, as he too has faced whiteout conditions multiple times already. When that happens, he can barely see past the end of his skis, again making navigation a challenging affair.

The whiteouts also keep Sears from being able to recharge the batteries he uses to keep his electronic gear operating. Like most Antarctic explorers, he places solar panels a top his sled, which collect power while he skis all day, But on days where the sun is elusive, that isn’t possible, and as a result the batteries don’t collect all the energy they need. Considering that it is daylight 24/7 in Antarctica right now, it won’t take long for Scott to get his gear up and running again. For now though, he is without comms from time to time.

The next ALE flight is scheduled to take place on December 4, bringing more skiers to the Antarctic. We should also soon start seeing the arrival of teams of climbers heading to Mt. Vinson, the tallest peak on the continent as well. I’ve heard rumors of a few other mountaineering expeditions to Antarctica this season as well, but until they are confirmed, I’ll keep them under my hat for now. Besides, we have plenty of news to keep us busy for now anyway.

More to come soon.

Kraig Becker