I think that everyone has a dream that they don’t think is going to happen. An image that you bring to mind, entertain for a few moments, then snuff out with a longing sigh. Mine was going to the South Pole.
The seed was planted when I first heard about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the bottom of the world in school and how, after heroic effort, he arrived at the pole only to find that he had been beaten by the Norwegian chancer Roald Amundsen. Exhausted, starving and freezing, Scott’s men started to topple over on the return journey to the coast. Evans was first to go, dying in his tracks. Oates, handicapped by frostbite, sacrificed himself by crawling out of the tent into a blizzard, but not before uttering the best exit line ever: ‘I’m going out for a walk now. I may be some time.’ Despite this, Scott died a few days later, tragically, just 13 miles short of a huge depot.
You think that the days of Scott and Amundsen are a long time ago? So what do you say when the man who led the third team to travel overland to the South Pole offers you a scone?
That’s right, in the 1950s our very own Sir Ed Hillary was using tractors to lay out supply lines for Vivian Fuchs’ Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition. Finding himself just a few miles short of the pole, Sir Ed made a cheeky dash in the last few miles on his Massey Fergusons.
When I had been sitting on Mum’s couch wondering what to do with my life (see the trans-Atlantic rowing story) I even briefly considered mounting a trek to the South Pole. But that was as far as it went. Too hard, too long, too cold, too painful. Antarctica is the kind of place that makes snow statues out of suburban slobs.
But then I rowed across the Atlantic and suddenly trekking to the pole didn’t seem so bad. After all, it just required learning some new skills and I had proven I could do that, and pulling heavy things for a long way, and we certainly had a bit of a track record doing that.
By ‘we’, I meant Jamie, my old rowing buddy. It hadn’t been hard to put the gang back together, I just had to search the length and breadth of the living room. After the euphoria of the rowing race had died down Jamie and I had washed up in Auckland and were flatting together.
We did some research. There have been a lot of amazing treks done in Antarctica (although far fewer then you might think) but no one has ever done a really simple (conceptually) one. An unsupported, unresupplied trek from the coast to the Pole and back again. All it takes is pulling 160 kgs, 2400kms across the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, most ‘est’ place on Earth. We decided to trek to the pole, but use snow kites (very similar to kite-surfing kites) to make our way back.
Sir Ed was even happy to be involved again. We had some wonderful morning teas with him and Lady June at their house in Remuera. The timing for our attempt was going to match with the 50th anniversary of Sir Ed’s own trip to the South Pole.
“How cold did it get?” I asked.
Sir Ed leaned back in his chair.
“Cold? It used to get so cold that sometimes the petrol would freeze in the metal fuel lines. Then we would draw straws. The person with the shortest straw would be given the blowtorch. It would be his job to unthaw the fuel lines – while the rest of us stood well back.”
The most important thing was to get fit to pull the massive loads that we would be taking. We trained for pulling sleds by dragging old car tyres. We tried to go to secluded places initially to avoid making a fuss. But it was just easier to hook on and pull straight out of the garage into quiet unsuspecting suburbia, chased by four bobbing, weaving lumps of smelly old rubber. They each have a life of their own, wrapping around lamp posts, dropping into drains, gouging up the grass and otherwise scraping noisily and reluctantly along the footpath. Security lights flare, curtains twitch, dogs howl, cars swerve – but after ten minutes you’re beyond caring.
We travelled up to the far north of Canada, just short of the Arctic circle to learn the skills we would need to keep us alive at -40C. We also had to learn how to fly the giant traction kites that we were counting on to pull us back from the Pole.
They have an extraordinary amount of pull, those kites. I use to practice flying them at the large Bastion Point park on the Auckland waterfront. On one particularly windy day it seemed like a good idea to tie myself to the trig station to avoid being flung into the sea. I set the kite up on the ground, backed away carefully, tied myself to the trig and then flicked the kite lines. The kite came off the ground unevenly — in three quick bounces it repositioned itself directly downwind, paused for a moment, then rocketed into the air. Immediately behind me, the line twanged tight and I was hoisted off the ground, eyes bulging and legs kicking. I had created a giant slingshot, and I was the marble. Right on cue the strap tying me to the trig broke. I will leave the rest to your imagination.
Murder in the first degree
A Twin Otter flies you to the coast of Antarctica. The view from the frosted window shrivels your baby-makers. Its an ocean of ice. Barren, forbidding, gigantic, and hostile. There is nobody. There never has been anybody. The loneliest spot that I’ve been to seemed like jostling madness compared with this. The landscape is completely and utterly indifferent. We were as insignificant and ephemeral as any two of the billion flecks of snow down there. I bet when the first two people land on Mars they will feel the same thing I felt — we’ve got no place being here.
Things went wrong right away. Due to a misunderstanding the plane dropped us nine nautical miles further away from the Pole than our planned starting point. No problem, we’ll just walk them. I hooked into my sled. Leaned forward. Nothing happened. Leaned forward harder. Still nothing happened. Oops. It took three days of desperate, desperate hauling, with the sled harness cutting me in half and massaging my stomach against my spine every step of the way.
We were in deep trouble. You see as soon as you step out the plane the food clock starts. You have only brought enough food for a certain number of days. And don’t think about cutting down the ration, you’re already running short. If you take the amount of food that you actually need, say eight to ten thousand calories, and then multiply by the amount of days estimated to reach the destination, the total is a very heavy sled. So heavy in fact that you decide it will definitely take longer than your first estimate. So now you have to take more food for the longer trip and so on until your sled weighs three and a half tons and is going nowhere. You end up taking the barest quantity that you get away with and count on using your own fat reserves. Which is a polite way of saying eating yourself inside out.
Slowly we crawled towards the pole. Day after day we got out of the tent in fierce chilling winds and stumbled back in at night completely disheartened. We were falling further and further behind schedule. The scale of the task was overwhelming. We were throwing our best at it, and it wasn’t good enough. We were pushing the proverbial uphill. We had bitten off more than we could chew. Worse, we were running out of cliches. It was a good time to practise some of the lessons that that we had learned out on the Atlantic. (The ones I talk about in my speeches).
People get frostbite in Antarctica which, when you think about it, is a bit strange. You know it’s going to be cold, you take warm clothes. The problem is that you also get told that in Antarctica, if you sweat, you die. Which also sounds strange, does your sweat become toxic in the cold? Does the extreme cold trigger some ancient dormant gland that causes your skin to exude snake venom? In fact, I can report that you can sweat quite happily in Antarctica: the problem is when you stop. Then you become encased in ice. To avoid this you tend to wear fewer clothes than you need, especially at the start of the day. ‘Why not just start out wearing an extra layer which you take off when you’ve warmed up?’, I hear you very reasonably ask. Good point. Unfortunately, the difference between being warm and being freezing on a lousy day in Antarctica is about 30 seconds. To stop, remove a jacket and put it on the sled, takes more like 45 seconds. You are now cold again and have to repeat the pain of warming up, not to mention that you don’t have 45 seconds in your day every time you feel hot or cold. The clock watching is that extreme.
Somehow, very slowly, we began to make our daily target. Even, on some days, to make a mile or two back on our deficit. Then the hunger really kicked in. Then Jamie started breaking things. Like one of the tent poles, then the tent. It could have been worse though, we could have had the problems that an RAF team had when they were down there. They had to be evacuated, and we didn’t know why for the longest time until one of them texted us on the sat phone to say that he had got frostbite ‘on his private parts’ (sic). Turned out the poor guy had to get an inch taken off. Now for the blokes out there, I don’t know about you, but an inch when its -30 is quite a big percentage!
Then we were starving. To say that I was day dreaming about food doesn’t convey the degree of obsession that I had. I would spend hours in my head buttering a piece of Vogel’s bread and laying on a thick swipe of honey.
A testing time for both of us was every four days when we would have to divide up the next bag of chocolate. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Escape to the Pole’:
Firstly all the good and true squares are selected, turned about and carefully secreted into our snack bags. When this is done it's time to play chocolate jigsaw. Each of us takes a turn examining the remaining fragments and then pulls out two, or more, pieces that form more or less the volume equivalent of a square, holding it up for inspection and an approving nod. Creating more than a square is met with a slightly raised eyebrow and the production of a reciprocally oversized square.
And so on, until there are only chocolate shards left. A pile is made of these and split down the middle. Now there is only chocolate dust, which is coaxed from the bag and also divided. Finally the bag itself is split in half and handed out so that the chocolate molecules can be licked from the inside. Finally the clean plastic sheets are now folded and kept for homeopathic and spiritual purposes. They once held chocolate and are therefore sacred by association.’
Then there were the days when something like a fog came over the landscape: the dreaded ‘white out’. The sleds were turning over by themselves. It was liked being attacked by stealthy white ninjas.
Understanding Captain Scott
After years of adulation and hagiography, Captain Scott got a kicking by biographers in the 1970s. Out with ‘brave, noble sacrifice’ and in with ‘bungling, autocratic amateur’. Shackleton became the fashion, who, as well as being a man of the people and an inspired leader, had a lot more buckle in his swash. Fortunately Ranulph Fiennes wrote an inspired book more recently that attempted to answer the accusations against Scott. I am firmly in Fiennes’ camp. There is nothing like trekking across a snowy wasteland for a few months to appreciate what Scott went through. Facing the same difficulties and making some of the same mistakes. Lighting a paraffin stove without setting fire to the tent. Having the wind blow away pieces of clothing. Having to repair pieces of equipment with icy frozen fingers. A careful analysis of the decisions that he made, the course that he chose, the weather that he got shows that in fact if you had been a leading polar expert at the time, you would have chosen to go on Scott’s expedition. And revered him the way that his men did.
Arrival at the pole
You navigate by compass in Antarctica. You don’t head to where it points though because you would end up off the coast (where the magnetic South Pole is) instead you point about 40 degrees away. As you can imagine, it is a relief to see something on the horizon after nearly two months of trekking.
At the South Pole there is a barber shop pole, with a mirrored ball on top. After 52 days we finally saw it, in the distance. It's not often you go to a point on the Earth that has astronomical significance. A few more slithers on the skis and then there we were. The axis of the world. The spindle around which several trillion tons of matter noiselessly spins. Not that I was thinking lofty thoughts at this time – I was just happy that the pain had stopped and proud to be the first New Zealanders to have trekked there unsupported.
You won’t believe who was at the South Pole (nor what they were wearing). I certainly didn’t. I don’t want to drop a spoiler here in case you are reading this before coming to hear me speak. But if you’ve read my summary of the trans-Atlantic trip, then you know what I was expecting at the end of that trip.
There is nothing like time in a frozen wasteland to make you think of your loved ones, and Jamie had been doing a lot of thinking about his girlfriend Kate. When we got to the pole he asked me to take this picture of him with the pole in the background. He said that the plan was to get it blown up and use it to propose to her when we got back.
I’m pleased to say that he did use the photo, she did say yes, and it’s the same photo that he uses now when he wants to go hunting.
It had been much harder than I had expected. Without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most worthwhile.
Here is a clip from the TVNZ documentary ‘ICE’ presented by Marcus Lush. It gives a pretty good summary of our Antarctic expedition.