We zipped up our down-filled jackets in silence and, despite the dazzling view of the Transantarctic Mountains from our porch, I clambered out of the tent in a glum mood. I was nervous about what day 40 of our expedition held in store for us.
For the first time on this journey, Tarka and I would wear climbing as well as sledge harnesses. We could see a few vast crevasses from our campsite, and what looked like a remarkably steep climb up a snow-covered ramp to a col known as the Gateway. Beyond this saddle, the behemoth Beardmore Glacier lay in wait for us.
The Gateway and the Beardmore are two of the features on the route from Ross Island to the South Pole that were discovered and named more than 100 years ago, first by Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and later by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition.
All three expeditions covered vast distances across uncharted territory in the most hostile conditions on the planet. The ski tracks belonging to Scott, Wilson and Bowers ended after approximately 2,631 kilometres, a distance that remained unsurpassed a century after their deaths during the Terra Nova expedition.
Every subsequent South Pole trek on foot or ski, without additional support from dogs, vehicles or kites, had covered a shorter distance than Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. It seemed remarkable to me that one of the most audacious journeys of the golden age of polar exploration – to walk from the coastline of Antarctica to the South Pole and back – remained unfinished. Completing Scott’s route became my goal.
I knew that the traverse of the Beardmore would be the most dangerous and challenging section of our three-and-a-half-month journey to and from 90°S and I wasn’t feeling all that brave about squaring up to it. Frank Wild, one of Shackleton’s companions on the Nimrod expedition, said that travelling on parts of the Beardmore felt like walking over the glass roof of a railway station.
Thankfully, the first crevasses we came across at the inland edge of the Ross Ice Shelf were old, obvious and easy to skirt around and the climb to the Gateway wasn’t quite as taxing as I’d expected. We leaned into our sled harnesses, shortened our strides and pulled hard for about an hour. The gradient increased, but the firm surface was kind to us and we were able to pull directly up the slope rather than having to resort to zigzagging.
Reaching the Gateway and seeing what lay on the other side is a moment I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. I hadn’t expected the panorama that greeted us, from the distant peaks of Mount Kathleen (named after Captain Scott’s wife) and Mount Kyffin across to the giant, sparkling ‘motorway’ of the Beardmore. The Cloudmaker, the peak named by Shackleton for the resident puff of cloud on its summit, was also visible. It was a once-in-a-lifetime view: a vista and a moment that, a year on from the conclusion of the expedition, I can close my eyes and bring into focus, like a slide from an old-fashioned overhead projector.
We descended the Gateway after taking a few photographs and worked our way through some rough ice to the edge of the Beardmore. To my relief, the terrain felt oddly familiar, like navigating over the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, as we scouted a viable route and stepped over cracks. We crossed dozens of crevasses but they were all manageable, thanks in part to the fact that we remained on our skis nearly all day. Most of the open slots were only half a metre or so wide, making them easy to span with a ski, and the big ones were all filled in with snow. We made good progress and to my absolute surprise, I found myself smitten with the one section of the journey that I had been dreading.
The Beardmore was a magical place, and skiing past landmarks such as Mount Hope and the Granite Pillars made me feel as though I had stepped into the pages of a familiar childhood storybook. I felt an overwhelming sense of privilege at travelling through a distant corner of the planet that very few people have seen.
In some ways, the journey I had set my heart on completing could not have been more simple: walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, turn around and walk back to the sea. In other ways it could hardly have been more complicated. Antarctica is larger than India and China combined, and just getting to Scott’s hut on Ross Island entailed three days of flying from South America in a chartered Basler BT-67 (a modified 1940s DC-3 Dakota). Fuel depots for the trip had been positioned the previous year, and the blue ice runway at Union Glacier had been opened especially early in the season to give Tarka L’Herpiniere and myself a sporting chance of completing our expedition during the Antarctic summer. The total cost for our flight alone ran to almost seven figures, and the expedition’s funding took more than ten years to raise.
Hauling sledges – which at the outset were almost two and a half times as heavy as the average British man – from Ross Island to the South Pole and back to the coast would be the most demanding task either of us had undertaken. The total distance was 2,888 kilometres, longer than a return journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. No one had previously covered that distance unsupported on foot or ski in the polar regions. Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud covered 2,172 kilometres across Antarctica in 1993, and the Australian duo of James Castrission and Justin Jones walked 2,275 kilometres in 2012. Both pairs skied themselves to the point of starvation and exhaustion. Physiologically, attempting to travel more than 600 kilometres further than the existing record lies at the outer limits of what is humanly possible. We weren’t going to be drawing maps or naming glaciers, but finishing Scott’s journey would entail stepping into the unknown, a fact that motivated and intimidated me in equal measure.
It was also a journey that would make huge demands on our equipment and clothing. Outfitting the expedition was a cumulative process that had spanned more than a decade. During that time, I had skied more than 3,000 kilometres in the Arctic while testing a variety of kit. I had also spent months modifying and refining the essential gear that Tarka and I would trust with our lives.
Each item of equipment had to be lightweight as we did not have the capacity to haul even a single extraneous gram. Every piece of kit also had to perform reliably under the harshest of conditions (including the most ham-fisted abuse). I knew we would be hauling a shade over 200 kilograms each, which was nearly the same weight that Scott’s weakest ponies had pulled. Saving weight became an obsession. We sawed handles off toothbrushes, cut labels from clothes, and replaced metal pull-tabs on zips with loops of Kevlar cord.
Inventions like freeze-dried food, down-filled sleeping bags, and the advanced composite materials used in our sledges and skis meant that attempting this journey unsupported, 100 years after the conclusion of the Terra Nova expedition, was a feasible undertaking. Yet despite our vast technological advantages over the Edwardian pioneers, we still suffered like dogs.
Two thirds of the way through the expedition I requested a resupply of eight days of food to be flown to us at the moment when hypothermia, brought on by extended and severe rationing in continuously low temperatures, threatened to overwhelm us.
I blogged each evening from my sleeping bag using a customised Iridium Pilot satellite transmitter. This technology enabled us to send back more data, higher resolution images and higher-definition video than had ever before been possible from a human-powered expedition in Antarctica. Yet despite this unprecedented bandwidth, I struggled to find the words to do the journey justice, a challenge that continues to this day. It was a very long walk in a very cold place pulling very heavy sledges with insufficient food or sleep. In many ways it was a test of pure willpower and physical endurance. Ultimately, we completed the longest man-hauling journey in polar expedition history.
We experienced many consecutive days of near whiteout, trudging on a compass bearing into an infinite grey gloom, willing our minds to daydream the hours away. Captain Scott wrote of experiencing tedium: ‘The marches are terribly monotonous. One’s thoughts wander occasionally to pleasanter scenes and places, but the necessity to keep the course, or some hitch in the surface, quickly brings them back. There have been some hours of very steady plodding to-day [sic]; these are the best part of the business, they mean forgetfulness and advance.’
Yet despite the misery of our own days of steady plodding, the expedition also became the most rewarding challenge I have undertaken. Our 105-day odyssey gave Tarka and myself a glimpse into worlds that few people have ever – or will ever – experience. Steinbeck wrote of journeys that continue ‘…long after movement in time and space have ceased’, and I find that months after pulling off my sledge harness for the final time upon our return to the coast of Antarctica, the view from the Gateway across to the mouth of the Beardmore and on to the Cloudmaker remains with me.
Ben Saunders leads polar expeditions. He is currently writing his first book, and working on a film of his Antarctic expedition. Find more details at: www.bensaunders.com. All photographs courtesy of Ben Saunders, Andy Ward and Tarka L’Herpiniere.
Planning to walk to the South Pole? Ben Saunders suggests a few vital pieces of equipment to help in the trek, including customised sledges, a multi-purpose pocket tool, unusual skis, balaclavas with added protection to keep out the elements, a highly-versatile tent, and a sleeping bag first used in the mid-1980s (but thoroughly updated since then)
Customised Acapulka pulk
£3,067 / 9 kilograms (approx.)
Our 2.7-metre-long sledges were handmade from carbon fibre, Kevlar and epoxy resins. The rear quarter of each pulk was jettisoned at a depot on the outward journey when the loads became light, and retrieved on our way back.
Alfa Extreme North Pole GTX boots with Intuition Universal liners
£635 / 2.55 kilograms
Settling on the right footwear was something I expended a lot of time on. In the end I took Norwegian Alfa boots with Intuition liners and didn’t suffer a single blister in nearly 3,000 kilometres.
Leatherman Super Tool 300 EOD
£120 / 272 grams
We took this as we assumed we would be as likely to repair electronics as conventional gear. It repaired the low temperature cable that connected our solar panels to our lithium polymer battery packs. We would have been stuffed without it.
Attivo Gara Aero World Cup
£720 / 1.41 kilograms
Compared to the narrow backcountry skis used by most polar expeditions, the skis we used were a radical choice. They were several hundred grams lighter and a dozen centimetres shorter than any ski I’d used before. An inspired choice.
Outdoor Research WS Gorilla
£35 / 86 grams
We added extra material to the face panels of our superb Gorillas, along with pieces of windproof fleece to our goggles. These modifications kept our faces free from frostbite during temperatures as low as –40°C. If there is one piece of kit I recommend to every polar expedition, it’s the Gorilla.
6. Sleeping bag
Mountain Equipment Everest
£745 / 2.3 kilograms
Robert Swan bivied out on the Beardmore using an Everest sleeping bag during his mid-1980s Footsteps of Scott expedition. The latest version, with its 1,250 grams of down insulation, worked equally well for us. We chose not to use vapour barrier liners and the bags remained ice-free for the duration.
Hilleberg Keron 3 GT
£995 / 4.9 kilograms
This three-person tent gave us extra space for bulky items and featured an integral snow valance. We pitched it for 105 nights with a combination of skis, poles, sledges, and the carbon fibre flag poles we used to mark the location of our food depots for the return journey.
Mountain Safety Research XGK EX
£140 / 374 grams
We attached a titanium fuel bottle to our XGK, and cleaned the stove every ten days. We hauled 55 litres of Coleman Fuel in high density polyethylene containers, and melted enough snow to produce roughly 1,100 litres of water.
Julbo Explorer L
£105 / 42 grams
I wanted the best eye protection as we would be spending more than 100 days in 24-hour daylight beneath an ozone hole. The polarised, photochromic Cameleon [sic] lens did a brilliant job.
10. Crevasse harness
Cilao OZ 22 Race
£47 / 100 grams
Available in five sizes, the OZ 22 is devoid of buckles so fit is critical: try it on while wearing the clothing you will be using in the field.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine