The Flight to Patriot Hills
Training for Vinson by climbing "heart attack hill."
After yesterday's whiz of arriving at the South Pole, enjoying a fascinating and comprehensive tour of the station, learning about some of the science and research carried out here, and meeting dozens of interesting and hardy people, we are spending a quiet day working on projects in or near our tent. Except we did go skiing with our sleds for two hours, out and back to the ANI cache to pick up our kiting gear they had left for us there.
We are camped just 75 yards from the pole markers, and it's a real delight whenever we step out of the tent and see the flags of the signatory nations, the silver globe on its post, the Amundsen/Scott commemorative sign, the geophysical marker, and the station itself looming close behind. Never mind the biting -38C wind-chill, it is good to be here.
Writing this update, I'm using a PDA iPAQ pocket PC, powered by solar panels, and hooked up to the sat phone for sending the update to my server back home.
But I want to reflect on the trip just a bit.
It was simply fabulous!! Skiing to the South Pole has always been a dream, and now that dream has become a reality.
It was also a lot of skiing. In fact, yesterday when we first left our sleds at the pole markers and went into the station to begin our tour, we could hardly walk. Our legs are strong, but are accustomed to skiing, not walking. For the first hour we had great difficulty picking each foot up and putting it down properly. We had much the problem when stepping ashore after the Atlantic row. (That was 53 days, this was 58 days.)
By comparison we traveled slower than most. This was for two reasons.
1) The others were racing and we were not. Our focus was on the experience, not on ultra-long hours. Ten and half hours was enough for us. We were not into being heroes, and impressing everybody with suffering. We were not forcing our limits beyond our comfort level and into excruciating stress injuries. We chose to rise above all that, and connect with the landscape; learn from it, and learn how we could be stronger and more in tune with ourselves; and discover the beauty every step of the way.
2) We think we were as fit and well conditioned as the others. And our hike up the mountain with the others, in Punta Arenas, proved this out. But we feel that we were limited by our choice of three items of gear: the type of sleds, and the type of boots and bindings. These seemed to slow us down and increase the effort - compared to the type of sleds and boots/bindings used by the others. Live and learn.
As for the sleds, we had planned to kite back to PH from the Pole, so chose a new type of kiting sled that is much wider than normal, to reduce the chances of the sled tipping over. These sleds had not been tested on a long sledging expedition. We were the first, and we discovered that the sleds tended to fish-tail, to and fro, with every step. Like a skier descending a steep slope and carving turns in order to slow down. On a much smaller scale, our sleds carved much the same type of turns, and made the pulling a bit more difficult.
Trying to get to the root of this problem, I analyzed the photos taken by the others, and compared the tension and droop of their sled towing lines. It seems like the tension of our sled lines was greater than the others. This might have been due also to the type of runners we were using.
The type of ski bindings we chose might have limited our power wattage with each step. The hinge point is different, and might have been less efficient. But I will say that our type of boots were much warmer than the others. We rarely experienced cold feet. And our type of ski bindings permitted these type of boots.
Nevertheless, our gear got us there, and to us, that is the most important part.
The trip was quite difficult for Jenny, but she persevered and I am extremely proud of her. Skiing in Antarctica 10.5 hours a day, for 59 days without letup, in severe temperatures and strong head-winds, is a real accomplishment in anybody's book.
She experienced superficial frostbite on three of her toes the whole way, frost nip on her thighs for the first half of the trip, and continuous cracked fingertips. I frost nipped my thighs on the second day, same as Jenny, then once again mid-trip. These took takes about a month to heal. Three weeks ago, I frost nipped my hand and fingers in an experiment with a new combination of gloves. In a mere ten minutes I learned my lesson there. Other than those things, we are looking good.
Superficial frostbite on my hands, caused by ten minutes in a different type of glove setup. This healed in a week's time.
Our ride back to Patriot Hills is scheduled to arrive in an hour. It's a four-hour flight, plus a refueling stop at Thiels. So we are busy packing.
South Pole (2007-01-10)
At the South Pole we loaded our gear into an ANI Twin Otter, and in two hours flew to Thiels where we landed for refueling.
The Twin Otter takes off from the South Pole, headed for Patriot Hills Base Camp.
I was looking forward to this flight, seeing the terrain from the air. But in reality there wasn't much to look at, besides gleaming ice and snow. The brown streaks are oil on the outside of the window.
We talk to the pilots. The inbound flight had delivered a group of skiers to the last degree. But we were the only passengers on the outbound flight. And our gear.
Miscellaneous gear strapped in front of us.
Approaching the Thiels
I was wearing headphones, and as we were about to land I heard the co-pilot, who was in control of the plane asked, "How high are we?" Pilot: "Five feet." I had a good view out my window and I couldn't see anything. These pilots are something else.
The temperature was not as cold as it had been at the pole, but the wind was blowing fiercely, sending spindrift streaming high into the air. The sky was cloudy and the light a bit flat. How the pilot managed to land defies imagination.
Of course we recognized the Thiels cache with its many green fuel barrels, skidoo and plow, as we had camped here about a month ago.
Refueling at Thiels in a ground blizzard. We offered to help, but the pilots wanted us to stay out of their way. We were very impressed with these guys. They were not dressed to handle the cold, but were relying on the plane and it's warmth. Maybe they had emergency clothing and camping gear stashed away in the plane somewhere, but maybe not. Anyway, they were top-notched pilots who could handle the cold.
From there, the flight to Patriot Hills took another two and half hours, including a detour to check out some meteorite hunters on snowmobiles.
We detour to check out some meteorite hunters.
Fuel barrels strapped in front of us, behind our gear.
When we had first landed at Patriot Hills two months ago, we saw nothing but a few tents and a couple of small, basic structures. Now we saw a sprawling city of tents, large tent shelters, etc. The scene was reminiscent of a gold-rush boom town.