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Skiing Antarctica Skiing Antarctica
2019-11-25 12:00:00

Last November Joe Doherty became the first Scout in the world to ski to the South Pole and kite ski back. The journey began from the Messner Start (80o 67’ S 65o 00’ W) where he man hauled his 100kg Pulk 912km to the South Pole over 45 days. Upon reaching the Pole he headed for Union Glacier which took him 16 days and he covered 2045km in total.  (80o 05’ S 78o 30’ W)

The last time I wrote a blog for Rab, I had just completed a training expedition to Haugostol, Norway. Although the expedition was a success, stress had consumed my mind and body trying to find the funding for the main expedition. I had less than 6 months to find £70,000. I was telling everyone that it was going to happen, that I would find the money, that I would break a world record. I worked so hard to find potential sponsors, drove up and down the UK to various meetings and never gave up. If someone said know I just redrew the list and started again with the same amount of drive and determination.

Next thing I know I’m rushing around getting my kit, buying flights, delivering a leaving presentation and then I’ve landed in Punta Arenas, Chile. This is the base of Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) who provided a guide for the expedition and the logistics as well. Myself and Christian, my Norwegian guide and now very good mate, packed food for the 61-day expedition. Meticulously weighing everything, removing excess packaging and making bags for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. We shaved about 10kg between us which is essential on an expedition where your dragging all your kit. Our Pulks (the long sleds) carried all our food, tent, stove, crevasse rescue kit, sleeping system, spare clothing, repair kit, and fuel. Any weight we could save was critical to help us in the long run.

Arriving in Antarctica

Landing in Antarctica was something else. First we boarded a Russian Ilyssuian, an old remnant of the Cold War that is now used to for humanitarian relief across the world. Inside everything was exposed, hanging out of the fuselage. The noise was painful and we were stuck in that tin can for about 5 hours, a small TV screen playing live footage of our flight towards the frozen desert. When we got closer to the blue ice runway, a natural sheet of ice that is formed by high winds on Union Glacier, the reality of what I was getting myself in for hit me. Once the door opened and I stepped onto Antarctic Ice it hit my lungs and skin like a train. I couldn’t stop coughing, due to the exchange of temperature in my lungs! We spent a couple of days at Union Glacier waiting for good weather. It was my last chance to fatten up on good food. Then we took a Twin Otter plane to the Messner Start of our route. I weighed 86kg before starting, I had put on 10kg on top of my normal weight and I knew I would lose even more due to the extreme cold and physical exertion.

If the scale of what I was attempting hit me physically when I first set foot in Antarctica, then it hit me mentally when we landed at the starting point. There was nothing on the horizon for hundreds of miles. At Union Glacier you are surrounded by hundreds of mountains, but the Messner Start was deadly quiet, the horizon was endless. I felt a mixture of overwhelming fear at the enormous distance I had to cover blending with a feeling of extreme fortune at being in this stunning place.

That first night in the tent was a long night. Trying not to drive myself crazy at the exposure of it all. We were camped on shelf ice not land ice, so we could hear the popping and cracking as it was moved and flexed. It felt like a crevasse might open any minute and swallow me in my sleep!

The next 45 days are hard to put into words. It brings back so many emotions, pains, metaphors, feelings and memories. But I feel that Antarctica is alive. It’s got a mind of its own. A lot of the time it’s trying to kill you, but it’s also trying to show you its beauty as well. If you drop your guard it will slap you in the face and leave you with a nasty mark. If you get frustrated with it, it will do more to spite you. If you try and conquer it, it will conquer you. But if you work with it, it might just allow you enough room to enjoy it, and make progress towards your goal.

The next 45 days went like this...

0600: We would wake up, it was normally somewhere between -5 and +15 degrees in the tent. With 24 hour sunlight you get very warm temperatures in the tent, relatively speaking, and if the sun is on your side it could actually get too hot! My Rab Expedition 1000 and Neutrino Endurance 400 sleeping bags both did their jobs extremely well, most of the time I alternated between the two but on the really cold days with 50 knot winds and overcast conditions I would sleep in both!

0700: Eat a breakfast of dehydrated porridge and boil two litres of water for the day. Add in some electrolytes and syrups to help energy and stave off boredom! Getting changed was the next conundrum, mainly because I was trying to avoid being cold at any point.

0800: The everything would be packed into our pulks ready to go.

Then we would ski for 8 hours, taking a 10 minute break every hour. I fell into the routine of skiing for the first 40 minutes and letting my mind wander, day dreaming about absolutely anything from fish fingers to how to deal with Brexit! Then I would look at my watch and there would be 20 minutes left. Oh my, this time took forever to pass! After an eternity my watch would tell me only 4 minutes and gone by! Eventually the buzzer would go off and then a break. Big Neutrino Jacket on. Time to consume around 300kcal as quickly as possible. A swig of water, which would cool me down rapidly, jacket off which was horrible as the cold hit you hard. Then 10 minutes filled with shaking and teeth jittering as the skiing warmed me up again.

As we gained more mileage into the Pole we would experience stronger winds and colder temperatures. The ground become rougher and hillier with 240km of ground covered with Sastrugi and a height gain off 100m a day with a 100kg pulk. Some days we would have super soft snow with high friction and other days amazing glide on hard snow.

It’s hard to day dream when its -40 degrees and there is a 10 knot wind making it -48 degrees, adding in snow that is so old its become like sand paper. Added to this an old Achilles injury flared up. Pain wasn’t the right word. After some legs I would cry for a couple of minutes before my tears froze to my cheeks. It might only be day 19 of 45, you only had done 300km out of 916km. Only. The endless horizon would freak me out. Not seeing anything but snow would give me cabin fever! But giving up wasn’t an option. There’s always a solution, sometimes you just have to work harder to find it.

By 1800: we would have finished skiing, averaging about 25km a day. The tent was up in 4 minutes and we began constructing our home from home. The snow isn’t wet so digging and burying the tent wasn’t horrible. We would pile snow onto the tent to insulate it and shelter us from the wind. I would dig out a pit in the front porch of the tent so we could stand up fully to aid getting changed and to allow me to stretch and cook in relative comfort.

1900: Food would be cooked and I would start to feel warm and relax, all the pain, misery and hardship would just wash away as fast as I inhaled my food. Time to write in the diary, fix any kit or tend to any minor injuries was also done before a relatively early bed time of around 2100. Eye mask on, ear plugs in and plenty of snoring. Tomorrow we would repeat the whole process again!

The South Pole

We reached the South Pole on day 45 after 916km and over 2800m of height gain from the coast. It was sunny with no wind, a warm -33 degrees. We had acclimatised well to the altitude, due to a lack of pressure at the pole it feels more like 5000m above sea level rather than the 3000m it actually is. I skied towards the pole with such relief and happiness. But for me this was not the end, I knew Christian and I still had to kite ski all the way back. It didn’t ruin anything for me at the pole, but couldn’t help but feel a little anxious about what was to come.

This was the part of the expedition where we were very much in Antarctica’s hands. We needed the right winds, right direction and clear visibility to get back in 16 days. I also hadn’t kite skied in over 9 months, so putting on my skis and hooking up to a 12m kite at the South Pole was a daunting process - I mainly spent the first half hour falling over or letting the kite die!

We aimed to cover one degree a day or around 111km. Unlike skiing to Pole, we kited for 5 hours then we stopped and put up the tent and had a 90 minute siesta. Tent down and another 5 hours of kiting, so around 12 hour days. These were long days, although not as physically hard as skiing, the mental fatigue was immense. You couldn’t switch off, if you did, you fell over and risked being dragged hundreds of metres along the floor by the kite.

You couldn’t look at the kite to see if it was behaving, you couldn’t look at your skis to see if you had enough edge, you couldn’t look at the pulk behind you to see if it had tipped. You had to look where you were going and the rest was done by feel. If you tried to focus on one thing it all went to plop, as I soon found out kiting through Sastrugi National Park. A region spanning across 88 to 86 degrees South filled with wind carved snow as big as cars. This could be lethal, I had to plan my route on the fly and react to what was up next. On one day I wasn’t focussing on the kite enough. I was picked up by a gust of wind, taken 2-5 meters in the air and dropped down again, sometimes on my head or back. The kite would try and drag me whilst I frantically grabbed for the break handle. I just had to pick myself up again, reset the kite, launch and go. One day this happed over 10 times. But we kept going. One day we managed 225km in 12 hours, a tremendous effort. We did however have 4 days stuck in the tent due to a lack of wind, this was pretty frustrating but you can’t get annoyed at something you can’t control.

As we neared Patriot Hills we knew Union Glacier was only 50km away, it would prove to be an absolute battle to get there. The wind had changed from a consistent Southerly direction to more South West, Westerly. The direction we needed to head was almost dead up wind, which is pretty tricky to manage on a big flat plateau let alone in tight valleys filled with glaciers and hidden crevasses. We also were going down into the basins of these glaciers and experiencing a lot of turbulent wind coming from the Heritage Mountains causing 40 knot winds to accelerate at terrifying speeds down some of the hills. At one point the spindrift was so high it was above my head and I could barely see the kite. We came to a sudden halt as we took a turn upwind to head to Union Glacier, it was just too close to the wind and we couldn’t tack up-wind with the crevasses surrounding us.

At that moment I had a sudden rush of emotions. I had become the first Scout in the World to Ski to the South Pole and Kite ski back. I was relieved it was over, but gutted at the same time. I had spent 61 days on the ice, I lived a simple life of skiing, eating and sleeping. Nothing else was more important than getting the mileage done. For it all to be over felt surreal, a bit of an anti-climax in some ways and hard to accept.

It would take me a long time to feel proud, happy and be able to acknowledge what I had achieved. But like reaching the South Pole I knew it wasn’t over. It was onto my next mission which is ‘My South Pole’ a scheme to help young people to find their South Pole via free events where they can engage with others like myself, and are provided with the opportunity to chase their dream with support from those who have done it.

If you want to keep up to date with Joe and the in development My South Pole scheme, head over to the HSX Antarctica Facebook page

Words by | Joe Doherty

Last November Joe Doherty became the first Scout in the world to ski to the South Pole and kite ski back. The journey began from the Messner Start (80o 67’ S 65o 00’ W) where he man hauled his 100kg Pulk 912km to the South Pole over 45 days. Upon reaching the Pole he headed for Union Glacier which took him 16 days and he covered 2045km in total. (80o 05’ S 78o 30’ W)