Daragh Talks About the Trek to the South Pole
Flying from London to Punta Arenas in Chile on the 15th November the first stage of the expedition begins with our last minute preparations and briefings on weather conditions in the Antarctic. On the 20th, weather permitting, we depart for Patriot Hills in Antarctica and land on an ice-runway near the base camp. We spend a couple of days checking our gear on the ice and snow and then fly by ski-plane to the coast to begin the expedition in earnest.
We then begin our daily grind of dragging our 70 kilo sledges behind us at little more than 3km/hr. The sledges carry the supplies of fuel and food that will keep us alive in this icy desert over the next fifteen days or so until we reach the first of two resupply points. We face Katabatic headwinds that are likely to be 15-20km/hr on average, but can blow up vicious blizzards of more than 100km/hr,.
We are using special cross country skis called Amundsens after Roald Amundsen the first man to reach the Pole. We climb from the coast at an elevation of 300m to the South Pole at an elevation of .2,835m. We ski for some eight hours each day with just five minutes break each hour – it’s too cold to stop for longer! The air temperature will be about minus 30C, but the wind chill will make it feel like minus 50C. Temperatures this low cause frostbite in minutes so losing a glove to the wind is disastrous.
We pitch our tents speedily each night and begin the lengthy process of cooking a hot meal. Most of our food supplies will be dehydrated rations that require rehydration by melting snow and boiling the water. In the Antarctic, this can take hours. Then after checking in with base camp to let them know all’s well, we relax, chat and write our diaries. Sleep will come easily after a day pulling a sledge using up to 6,000 calories a day. Eye masks are required to help sleep, as it’s daylight 24 hours a day during the Antarctic summer.
Apart from the cold, the main hazards we face are crevasses and sastrugi fields. Crevasses we hope to avoid with good navigation, but they are often well hidden until discovered too late. The sastrugi are vast fields of wind-created ridges of snow and ice, growing to a metre high. They can easily tip over the sledge.
After 40 to 45 days of a long uphill slog of 934km we reach the South Pole and become part of a small group of adventurers who have completed the journey to the Pole from the coast of Antarctica without artificial assistance.
Antarctica and the South Pole
One of the most inhospitable places on earth, Antarctica is one and a half times the area of the US. It is the coldest and windiest of all the continents.
Winter temperatures drop as low as minus 90c, while in summer they rise to between minus 30c and minus 20c, though at the Pole the temperatures never rise much above minus 30c due to the elevation. (At the coast, summer does see temperatures of plus 5c and sometimes as much as plus 15c.)
As average annual precipitation is less than two inches of snow, the continent is technically the largest desert in the world. However, Antarctica is also a huge store of natural water, accounting for 70% of the world’s fresh water in frozen form.
Antarctica is surrounded by the stormy seas of the Southern Ocean on all sides. The first confirmed sightings of the continent were not until 1820 and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that expeditions to explore this vast ice wilderness began. The Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen first reached the geographic South Pole in December 1911 – the southernmost point on the planet. The magnetic South Pole, which is much more accessible from the coast was reached much earlier by Irishman Ernest Shackleton’s expedition.
Wildlife in Antarctica, limited to the coastal areas, includes penguins, seals and Antarctic birds. The snow petrel has occasionally been spotted far inland. Antarctic flora comprises mainly lichens and mosses, which grow during the summer and again are limited to the coastal areas where temperatures occasionally rise above freezing.