Antarctica 2019: Flight Delays, Brutal Starts, and Isolation on the Ice

Even though there are always a few skiers who hit the Antarctic ice in early November, things don’t really get going until later in the month when the austral summer takes hold and things begin to stabilize some. That’s when the bulk of the South Pole skiers begin to show up and that is the phase that we should be entering now. Unfortunately, flight delays have kept some of the explorers locked in place in Punta Arenas, Chile, putting off the start of their expeditions for a few days longer.

Amongst those currently waiting in Punta Arenas are Brits Wendy Searle and Neil Hunter. Searle took the delay as a chance to test her comms units and send a message from Chile, prior to heading out for the Antarctic. She says that the next opportunity to fly won’t come until tomorrow, but she and the other skiers won’t know until later tonight whether or not that flight will actually take place. Most of the adventurers who travel to the frozen continent do so by booking a flight and logistical support from Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. The company operates a permanent camp at Union Glacier that helps facilitate travel in the Antarctic, including flying to drop off points at Hercules Inlet and delivering climbers to Mt. Vinson. As you can imagine, flying in this region can be a bit dicey at times, which is why they take extra caution with when they come and go.

For his part, Hunter seems to have taken the delay in stride. He’s using the extra day to explore Punta Arenas, which doesn’t take all that long considering the size of the town. Not only did he discover some good coffee and cake shops however, he also strolled through a cemetery to take in the elaborate mausoleums found there. At this point, the anxious explorers are just looking to burn off nervous energy and stay busy until they can board their flight and Neil’s post shows he found some good ways to do that. Hopefully, he and the others that are waiting will head out soon.

Curiously enough, another British South Pole skier is already on the ice. Mollie Hughes hasn’t posted many details to her expedition yet, but she left a Facebook message a few days back saying “The first days in Antarctica have been brutal! Complete whiteout, 30nt winds and -40c with windchill. Someone do a sun dance for me please!?” In other words, she’s getting well acquainted to the cold and windy Antarctic conditions, which will hopefully improve as the days go by as well.

Finally, Australian Geoff Wilson is well into his expedition at this point and he too is finding it to be tough going in the early days. A few days back, the winds finally shifted in his favor and he’s now making his way towards the Pole of Inaccessibility, the first stop on his 5200 km (3231 mile) journey. He’s now been out on the ice for ten days and over that time he’s had a close call with frostbite on his hands and fingers. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two for the cold winds to do some damage, so he’s being extra cautious moving forward.

With his first week behind him, Wilson is starting to find his rhythm. The first few days acclimatizing to the shift in temperature are always difficult and since he is using a kite to cover longer distances, becoming accustomed to reading and using the wind can be tough too. But most of all, he’s feeling isolated and lonely. Unlike the South Pole skiers on the Hercules Inlet route, he is literally hundreds of miles from any other living person and isn’t likely to see anyone else until he reaches 90ºS himself. When you’re all alone in a difficult environment like this one and facing some of the biggest challenges imaginable, it can erode your confidence and leave you feeling nothing but despair. Usually these feelings begin to dissipate once these solo explorers find their footing and start to feel more comfortable on the ice. Considering Geoff has potentially 80 more days alone in the Antarctic, this will certainly be feelings he’ll have to learn to deal with, although he’s likely to have to wrestle with them from time to time.

That’s the latest from the bottom of the world. I’ll share more updates as these skiers truly get moving.

Kraig Becker