Getting On in Life
I read in New Scientist last year that our life span has been increasing by 2.2 years per decade, or about 5 hours per day for the last 100 years. But most of this longer life is spent with disability, disease and dementia, as weâ€™ve not been able to slow the ageing process or match the increase in lifespan with an equal increase in healthcare. Nor will we if current health crisisâ€™ are anything to go by.
I also read, in the same journal, that ants forage for food further a field as they get older, effectively taking more risks as they have less to lose. This selfless action benefits the overall success of the ant colony.
Putting these two ideas together, if you donâ€™t want a drawn out lingering death then get out there and take more risks with each year that passes.
Two days ago, New Years Day, my heels were in agony and I could no longer ski. I took my skis off to try walking. My feet were numb, like blocks of concrete. I stumbled and fell, got up, staggered, and fell again. I could go no further. As the rest of the team rallied round I crawled to the end of my sledge, sat down and looked into a chasm of despair. And then I cried, hot tears steaming up my goggles, closing me off from the world.
Something stirred in me then. Something I rarely see. I got up, reattached my sledge and edged one foot forwards, then the other, counting each tentative step. The sole of my right boot came away but I ignored it and carried on. Reciting the alphabet, first forwards, then backwards. Singing, stray lines from songs between big gulps of air, always moving till finally I reached our camp.
That was two days ago. This morning we crossed the 89th Parallel, a popular starting point for people who wish to walk the last 60 Nautical miles to the pole. I try to imagine I'm one of them, in good health, fully fed and keen to ski the 'Last Degree'. But the image doesn't last long. We've hauled over 1000km for 54 days to reach this point, we have lost a lot of weight, we look awful and we smell.
Now, as I sit in the tent, massaging Arnica Oil into my heels and tending to my sloughing soles, I accept my last degree will be a mountain. Yet not even death itself will stop me from reaching its summit.
I'm shattered, absolutely shattered. The last eight days have been without doubt the toughest so far. For the first five days after Pat hurt his back Jon, Clare and I distributed most of his load between us, taking turns to haul the remainder by attaching his sledge to the back of ours for 20 minute shifts. We did this for 20km a day, mainly uphill through a fair amount of sastrugi and soft snow. It was very exhausting. On the 6th day Pat hauled the sledge for a couple of shifts, then on the 7th he hauled it half laden for the whole day, and on the 8th day, today, he hauled it virtually fully laden. His recovery has been staggering, and dare I say it, much needed as we were not sure how long we could keep going. The worst by far was having to haul two sledges, it was a killer. My Achilles' insertion points on my heels have suffered greatly. When we made camp in the evenings I could hardly walk, and on one evening in particular I was reduced to crawling around the tent to put snow on the valences.
But all that can be forgotten now. We have arrived at our rest point and look forward to sleeping like babies before celebrating Christmas tomorrow. After 48 days of hard and heavy hauling it's difficult to believe that this day has finally arrived. It's even more difficult to imagine that we're now only 232km from the pole, only 10 more days…. hopefully!
It will certainly be a Christmas to remember!
Merry Christmas Jack
A big Happy Christmas to my beautiful little boy, Jack.
I had a wee chat to Santa and he was very pleased to hear you've been such a good boy this year. And he gave a big smile when I told him how hard you've been working on your reading and writing at school.
Daddy is very proud of you for being so brave whilst daddy is away, I think of you every day and kiss you goodnight every evening, knowing that the strong winds here take these kisses up into the air and carry them all the way to you whilst you sleep.
So be a good boy for mummy, help her when you can and never forget we both love you stars full.
All my love, Daddy xxx
Damn this bloody weather!
For six days we hauled amongst the vague silhouettes of mountains. Even when we couldn't see them, we could feel them, their powerful presence just beyond the veil. Ever watchful and curious, but largely indifferent to us whilst we humbled along, all but lost in a thick humid whiteness, like refugees seeking shelter through the cordite fog of battle.
Then on the seventh day we woke to find the war had passed over us. Replaced by a sun that shone reassuringly, as white dragons spread their wings and chased the retreating armies to the west.
The soft snow was still too fresh for our liking but we pulled through its grip regardless, our spirits high on the subtle colours and hues that the sun splayed about us. Yet even as our eyes feasted on this prismatic display we could see new gray armies assembling in the east. And soon they were upon us, slaughtering the sun and drawing the world tight till all it's colour had drained. Leaving us once again enveloped in the misery of this murky fog.
Antarctic Christmas Greetings
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my family, friends and everyone following our progress. It's pretty tough going at the moment so knowing you're all out there supporting us really helps to keep our spirits up.
We'll not be stopping to celebrate Christmas Day ourselves just yet as we're a bit under the gun, but we do hope to have a rest day on the 28th and so will celebrate it properly then.
All the best during this festive period.
Ahead in the distance lies the Thiels mountain range, veiled in mist. Dark jagged peaks tear through fine drapes of snow and puncture the sky. In front of me, bouncing earnestly over sastrugi, is Clare's sledge, the 'Dudley Docker'. I struggle to make anagrams of the blue lettering, 'cuddly', 'rocked', 'coddled', as I do most mornings. But soon my mind wanders off, the conscious giving way to the subconscious and suddenly I'm driving a jeep through the decaying streets of Havana, playing conckers with old friends in lost playgrounds or reliving my student days in various states of intoxication This is how time passes whilst we haul, 8 hours a day sifting through our minds, alert and yet asleep. Stumbling over the carrion of lost memories, long forgotten ideas and the odd stale emotion.
As the morning progresses, the mist descends and envelops us, reducing our world to walls of white in all directions. Navigating in these conditions demands concentration, the second man screaming at the first each time their stronger foot leads them astray.
Tomorrow we shall finally arrive at Thiels, our halfway point. There we will have our third rest day in 29 days. It is much needed as we are all beginning to feel the effects of our endevours thus far. From here on in things will get harder, both mentally and physically. Hopefully, if we succeed in achieving our goal of reaching the Pole, I'll have finally managed to come up with an 8 letter word…the countdown begins.
He's bent over double, leaning forward, trying to shift the weight of his burden between his left shoulder and his hips. His right shoulder is bust. The freshly fallen snow drags relentlessly at the runners of his sledge, turning each small step into an senseless act of flagellation.
Occasionally he loses his footing and thrusts his right pole deep into the snow for balance, sending a sharp burning bolt of pain down his back. He meets this with a grimace, pausing to draw his breath then continues on.
He cares little for his body, considering it simply as a vessel to carry the soul between shores on an ocean of time. Yet knowing his soul is strong, with armour fashioned from life and tempered by its knocks, it is still hard to watch his suffering.
If I could speak I would have suggested an alternative pilgrimage, bathing in the Ganges or walking the road to Santiago de Compostella. Perhaps even a visit to Lourdes. But I am merely his Shadow, so I content myself with mimicking his gestures whilst the sun chases me around him, slowly unwinding his mortal coil.
Dead Men Walking
My head heavy against the root of an ancient oak. Bathing on warm earth beneath a sun that blinds me. A chromium blue sky, tie dyed with thin slivers of cloud wisp, air brushed in by a perfect hand. Corn flowers dancing gentle in a summer's breeze. I listen…
Forestry band saws and bird song, a farm dog barking half heartedly and the distant sound of a motorcycle challenging country bends with caution all but thrown.
I lie in this idyl, half naked, with a lover feigning sleep on my shoulder, near drunk on spent passion and Spanish wine.
I'm wrenched awake from these thoughts to the sight of Pat cursing his upturned sledge. I ski to him and heave at the rear whilst he pulls forward, corkscrewing it back onto it's runners. With a grateful flick of his left pole he trudges on.
Pausing for a moment, I study my three team mates. All hauling, pole in front of pole, ski in front of ski, heads bowed in resigned humble labour. Trudging machines, eyes vacantly staring at the next three feet of ice, mesmerised and somatic. Only their bodies are here. Their heads lost in their own hauling thoughts, of home, of work, or of dreams not yet realised.
I lower my head and breathe deeply. Then, placing my right pole forward, I rejoin the dead men walking.
Every part of my body is covered. I see the world through the limited field of vision of these goggles. To exist you must stand in this field or scream louder than the incessant wind that torments my ears with nonsense. Else you must exist in my head, or in my heart.
I see a sky tinged purple, fading to an opaque blue hue on the horizon, where it marries the ice on which I'm hauling. A dry dead ice, long forgotten in this arid white desert.
Tethered to my aching back is a rope. It snaps at my shoulders and spine with each step. At the end of this rope is my sledge. It contains everything for my survival in this, the most hostile place on earth.
For seven days now, for seven hours each day this has been my world. Step by step, mile by mile, day by day, I march on…whilst spindrift dances around my boots like the souls of dead snakes, following the wind eternal.
I wake and feel my wrist, my watch has gone. With one hand I blindly search around my bag. I give up and slip back into sleep.I wake again, raise myself up onto one elbow and lift the patch from my eyes. The light hits me hard, my eyes water. Where is that damn watch? I find it by my right thigh, 6:47am. I slip my down jacket on over my double layered thermals then swivel around 180 degrees whilst still in my bag, careful not to touch the tent walls where a night’s worth of breath clings frozen, waiting to fall.I unzip the door to the vestibule, a cold gust of air brings me to full consciousness. I pump the fuel bottles to a workable pressure then open the taps until I can see them spit. Digging a lighter out of my jacket pocket I ignite the fuel and place a pan of ice water onto the stoves. Then I lay back down and watch the blue flames, hissing as they dance.Jon stirs next to me and we exchange good mornings, it’s cold..it always is.
I once spent a night in a tent on South Georgia, a small island in the South Atlantic. It was my first Beyond Endurance expedition, the second took me across Greenland and the third brought me here to Antarctica. During that night in the tent, almost a year ago, I lay listening to the sevear Katabatic winds which tore down the Three Towers and through our camp, destroying five tents. And I was scared.
Last night, in Patriot Hills camp, I agaiin lay in my tent listening to the same Katabatic winds, tearing down from the polar plateau at speeds of 60kts…near on 80km/h, far worse than those on South Georgia. But this time I was not scared.
In a simple moment I felt my passion flow out of me, the same passion that rocks lover's worlds, the same passion that creates great works of literature, of art, and which has driven men to war. It emptied out of me, rose up into the white nite and locked horns with that turbulent and troubled wind. Like two stags rucking, neither yielding, each refusing to cede dominance to the other. And there, respectively, they acknowledged each other.
I knew then that I would be safe, I knew then that our tent would hold.
Coffee, and a beer.
A man with one leg, the other lost just below the hip, crosses the street, on crutches. A moments thought: A war veteran? An accident at work ? Cancer ? He looks about 45, maybe younger. A pack of stray dogs chasing the scented wheel of a car steals my attention. When I return to the man he is lying in a puddle in the gutter. Before I have fully taken this in he is surrounded by three people helping him to his feet, or rather his foot. He’s dripping wet but smiles and thanks them all individually. Nodding his head reassuringly with a fresh red gash above his left eye. Satisfied, they all part on their separate ways and the scene evaporates.
I observe all this through heavily tinted windows in a bar sipping coffee, bad coffee. I have purposely chosen this place to witness the city transform from day to dusk From here I can watch the world go by, knowing my voyeuristic trait wont be discovered. Yet I still lower my eyes with guilt when I catch the eye of a passer by for an instant longer than chance.
The faces are mostly similar, dark brown hair, olive skin and beautiful brown eyes. Only the shape of their faces, their jaw structure, betrays the various levels of colonial blood. I could be in any Spanish or Portuguese provincial town but I am not. This is Punta Arenas, the city at the end of the world and the gateway to Patagonia.
It starts to rain but no one seems to notice. The sun is out, heralding the onset of a southern summer and everyone looks cheerful. Men sit on benches, as guilty as me. The young congregate on street corners sharing sweets or the time. Mothers clutch innocent hands and plastic bags whilst lovers clutch each other. Cars stack up against the gridded junctions, waiting for green. Larger shops have their shutters half cocked whilst the smaller ones bide their time, hoping to catch one or two more before the commercial day draws its veil.
The rain stops. Its been like this all week. Short bursts of downfall punctuating brilliant sunshine. But it is still cold, the colourful winter jackets augmenting the vividness of this bustling urban flow. I order a beer.
A red haired girl walks by, I think she’s the first I’ve seen here. She looks pensive and a little sad. She turns the corner and disappears from view, oblivious to the lines she inspires in my pen. The light starts to thin, the bench men migrate elsewhere and a younger generation take up their vigil. Soon the streets will empty but for now I soak it all, so as to to recall it on the ice.
We finally got all our gear from customs on Monday and have spent the last three days packing. The bulk of the effort was dividing all the food rations into day bags, sixty in all. We went out for dinner with Mike and Ronny on Monday night. Mike is head honcho of ALE and Ronny was our Kite and Sail Ski instructor in Finsen, Norway, but works for ALE during the Antarctic Summer season. ALE run the Patriot Hills outfit and are our logistical partners in our attempt on the South Pole and beyond.
This morning we met the other expedition teams who will be either attempting the pole or summiting Mt Vinson. We all hooked up for an ALE briefing about the Ilyushin plane, an overview of the Patriot Hills operation and an interesting presentation by the base’s medical team. Most of the presentation was centered on Frost Bite and how to avoid it, some of the slide show pictures were pretty horrific. It was during this presentation that I came across the title for this blog entry…its basically frost bite of the middle leg and something you really don’t want. Needless to say we were all a little apprehensive afterwards, especially the men.
Our gear was picked up this evening and taken to the Airport. From 6:20am tomorrow we’ll officialy be on standby which means we could receive a telephone call giving us a minimum of 40 minutes notice to get ready to fly out.
The Ilyushin was scheduled to fly some of the base staff down this morning. As it proceeded down the runway one of the brakes jammed causing the wheels to smoke like crazy. The take off was quickly aborted whilst the fire crew sped over to the plane to hose the tyres down. This might have a knock on effect and delay us for a day.
For those interested, when it does eventually reach Antarctica it will land on a blue ice runway. As using wheel brakes on ice is generally not a good idea the pilots get the beast to stop by stalling the engines. We’ve been told to expect a lot of noise when this happens and not to be too concerned…obviously I’m really looking forward to that….not!
We’ll be wearing full gear when we walk down the cargo ramp at the back of the plane as we have to prepared for whatever conditions greet us. Its very cold at this time of year, summer hasn’t really taken hold yet, it’s also been blowing quite a strong wind there these last few days which could make the landing a little more interesting.
Oh, and speaking of the landing, sometimes the pilots have difficulty locating the blue ice runway, which is not surprising really if you think about, being as its completely surrounded by miles and miles of, well, ice! So at about 15KM out a couple of the base crew stand at the beginning of the runway and use two hand held mirrors to reflect sunlight up at the plane. The pilots then use these short flashes to guide the plane down….pretty advanced stuff huh?!
So this is it then, this is finally it. I’m full of a myriad of emotions and feelings at the moment, apprehension, fear, relief, fatigue and loads of excitement. Traversing South Georgia and crossing Greenland in pretty awful conditions has definitely helped boost the confidence, but I would be very foolish to think this is just the same thing but longer. Antarctica is the most hostile place in the world and we will be at its mercy for two or more months. Things can and do happen, I only hope I can do my best to reach the pole, achieve my dream, and return intact with all my fingers and toes still attached.
We’re quite fortunate to be able to exercise some control over the day to day running of our lives, yet eventually there comes a time when we have to let go and cede the reins into the hands of others. Generally, I find these moments quite exciting, delivering myself to the ebb of chaos with that look of a child about to tear into his Christmas presents. But not this time. There is nothing remotely exciting about ceding my life into the hands of a pilot and a crew of aircraft maintenance engineers. In fact it is probably my greatest fear.
I pondered this whilst a man removed his jacket, placed it in the overhead compartment and lowered his large frame into the seat next to mine. I turned my head and cursed the ticket allocation machine for denying me the company of a striking looking red head I had noticed in the departure lounge. I also wanted to stop myself from staring at the small goatee beard he sported on his chin which was dyed crimson pink, perfectly matching the colour of his shirt. Was this intentional ? Did he dye it depending on his chosen attire for the day ? Colour coordinated body hair ?
It was only after dinner had been served did we start talking. The person in front of me had just reclined their chair, upsetting my drink and causing it to spill all over my jeans. He offered me his serviette and thus we embarked upon the usual exchange of pleasantries: Why are you going to Chile ? Where are you from ? What do you do ? And so forth.
His name was Waldo. He was born in Chile but lived in England and was returning to see friends and family, as he did every couple of years. He lent to the left when Pinochet came to power during the bloody coup of September 11th 1973. Consequently, he served a few years in prison and then left for England on his release. He had been a keen footballer in his youth and was fortunate to be given a trial for Portsmouth Football team on his arrival. This was the first link in the chain of our bond as I was born and raised in Portsmouth and an avid supporter of the local team…currently lying fourth in the premiership as I write this. Unfortunately Waldo broke both his legs some months later thus ending his short professional football career. He went on to help coach the youth team and now works as a drug counselor.
As the flight went on into the night, Waldo and I discussed the Chilean coup at great length. The effect it had on his life and how he had to bring his British born children with him when he first returned for fear of being re-arrested. His disdain for the “Chicago Boys”, the group of Chilean students educated in Milton Friedman’s shock therapy economics at the University of Chicago and widely considered responsible for Chile’s disastrous economical policies during Pinochet’s rule. His appreciation of Victor Jara, the Chilean poet, songwriter, guitarist, theatre director and university lecturer arrested, brutally tortured and machine gunned to death in the Santiago Stadium (renamed the Estadio Victor Jara in 2003). And how he, along with a network of like minded dissidents, continued to promote social change throughout the duration of Pinochet’s regime.
Chile is a different country today and Waldo is pleased of the changes he sees taking place. He will retire in three years and hopes to use his UK pension to return home and establish a youth workshop to encourage development through art, craft, music and sport.
When the plane landed in Santiago, we exchanged email addresses and said goodbye. As I joined the rest of the Beyond Endurance team at baggage reclaim I was again struck by the nature of chaos and, instead of cursing the ticket allocation machine, I thanked it dearly for allowing me to share the company of such an honourable and courageous man.
Just finished packing my casual gear and am about to leave the house and head to the airport. There I will meet up with two other members of the team, Pat and Jonathon, before boarding the plane to take us on the first leg of our flight to Chile. Unfortunately, we wont meet up with the final member of the team, Clare, until we reach Punta Arenas due to a mess up with her flights.
Had a great evening last night taking my son, Jack, on “trick or treat” dressed up as a Transformer, needless to say it was he, not I, that was dressed up! I’m going to miss him dearly over the next two and a half months. I’ve explained what daddy is doing and why he’ll be away; he’s been involved in shopping for all the gear over the last two years and loves sleeping in the Arctic sleeping bag I used for Greenland. He understands, as much as a six year old can, that this is important to daddy…although he is naturally disappointed I wont be there for Christmas. Do I feel guilty about being away from him for such a long time, indulging myself in trying to fulfill my dream to walk to the South Pole? Of course I do!
We’ve all bought 500 Euro of credit for the sat phone so we can phone our nearest and dearest whilst we’re in the white stuff, and I’ve promised to phone Jack every Sunday, just as I did during the Greenland expedition. But each call reminds both him and myself how much we miss each other, and that hurts. He’s very brave and I’m very proud of him, that’s why I’ve named my sledge after him.
Never forget Jack, Daddy loves you stars full.
Two days to go…and counting!
My stomach is in bits, I’m not sure if its due to the over indulgent send off I had on Sunday eve or apprehension that I will be leaving in two days to finally embark on a journey of a life time. Perhaps it’s a combination of them both.
Anyway, I’ve a few people to thank here, a few people who have supported me in one way or another over the past few years.
My Uncle John who has supported me non stop through the whole thing, Rachel who supported me through my training and had to put up with a lot of crap when I broke my collar bone just before crossing Greenland, David who provided us with excellent training in Norway, Sjur for his essential expert advice on clothing and equipment, Max who has had to put up with my loud thoughts at work, Nessa for listening to my gripes and getting me so drunk on Sunday that I spent the whole of Monday suffering, Brian for giving me the often needed reality check and Sean, for having to tolerate a less than diligent work effort over the past year. At the risk of sounding like a gushy Oscar winner, I’ll stop there, but loads more people have supported me in one way or another and greatly deserve thanks â€“ you know who you are, thankyou.
We fly out from Dublin on Thursday eve and should arrive in Punta Arenas, Chile, around 2pm on Saturday. We’ll then set about making final checks on all the gear we shipped, review our food rations and then pack the sledges (or Pulks as we call them). As soon as the weather allows we’ll board the big Russian Ilyushian cargo plane for the last leg of our Journey to Patriot Hills camp in Antarctica.
Check out the Ilyushin here, and learn more about Patriot Hills here.
The weather rarely achieves fame, yet occasionally it sways the course of History, perhaps no more so than the Russian winter of 1942-43. At this time, during the siege of
I apologise for the history lesson but I find it useful to appreciate the scale of the temperature I will have to face on the Antarctic continent. During the summer, at McMurdo base, near the edge of the continent, the temperature varies between -4C and -10C. As one proceeds inland, up onto the polar plateau, the temperature steadily drops to a somewhat chilly -30C to -40C at the South Pole. These are average temperatures, if you factor in the odd blizzard, of which there are many, and the accompanying wind chill then it gets a little more interesting.
So knowing that I will soon be spending 60 days in a climate comparable to a famous Russian winter is, well, making me a little apprehensiveâ€¦which is probably a good thing to be honest as I doubt there is any room for complacency on this trip!
For a quick look at the weather at the South Pole pop over to here.
As a child I read about the great explorers of the Heroic Age and dreamt of their endeavours. In 2006 I put my name forward to train for an expedition to traverse South Georgia in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. I gave up smoking and undertook some tough training sessions in Kerry, Ireland and Krosbu, Norway – prior to then my only experience were a few hikes across the Wicklow Mountains. We learnt snow shoeing, ice axe breaking, glacier rescue and rope techniques before heading down south in November 2006. We succeeded in crossing South Gerorgia with 24 kilos on our backs and went on to visit Elephant Island, cross Deception Island and even hike up a glacier on the Antarctic Peninsular.
On our return I committed myself to train for an expedition to traverse the polar plateau in Greenland. I again spent many weeks in Norway learning Nordic Skiing, cold weather camp craft and sledge hauling. In August this year we flew out to Greenland’s east coast and started our traverse, hauling 90KG sledges. It took 31 days in all and was tough going, thanks largely to the vast amount of melt water we encountered – the Greenland Ice Cap is indeed melting quite rapidly.
In November 2007, one and a half years after taking my first steps towards my childhood dream, I will leave for Antarctica with three others. From there we will embark on the first ever Irish attempt on the South Pole.
We did it!
“Following a phone call at 16:45pm irish time, 13:45pm Greenland time, Pat Falvey, Clare O’Leary and Shaun Menzies have just come off the edge of the Greenland ice cap on to their first solid ground in 31 days.
Pat was very excited and there was lots of banter and laughing going on in the background as they meet with the first people in weeks which were there to collect them and drive them to Kangelussak about 10 miles away where i imagine a big meal, long shower or bath and about 5 or more pints are on the cards.
The trio have gained massive experience and preparation for their South Pole attempt in Nov/Dec.
They had a very testing time especially as they approached the end. With such a short distance to the freedom of finally taking off their skiis ahead, they battled through the maze of melt water and persisted where I’m sure others have packed it in.” -Â Phone Update to Nial Foley
“The trio called me on Friday evening to discuss their options, they had made some progress through the endless melt waters and were at approx 50-60 km from the finish. They are to battle on and aim for the first Irish team and female to cross Greenland Arctic unsupported.
Unfortunately they were to fly that day, but are now looking at re-scheduling to the 6th. Pat said they are in dire need of some good food and a pint after skiing and trudging 550km over nearly 30 days on the ice cap!!
They were also intrigued at Kerry v Cork in the football coming up.
He is to make contact today or tonight to confirm their situation and plans for the coming days.” – Phone update to Niall Foley
“Approx. 80km from the western edge of Greenland, the 3 adventurers are battling with an endless maze of melt water rivers on and under the surface. Massive Lakes with a layer of ice on top about 3 inches thick break through to 2 feet of slush and water as the day warms up. Pat was hopeful they would pick away for another day or so and if things didn’t improve they will call it a day. They had only covered 9km when he called last night. A bit frustrated, he said “Its like a sting in the tail after plugging away to recover a day after our ordeal getting on to the ice cap..we are trying early in the AM tonight to see if it holds our weight for a while, its a vast bog like ice swamp, We are going to assess our situation over the next 48 hours as our progress at this rate could take a week” – Phone Update
Meandering melt water
What a day! Due to global warming we’re encountering a large number of melt water rivers, far more than normal for this time of year. We had to divert 9km from our route today as these fast flowing rivers are just too dangerous to cross. Shaun nearly lost his sledge in one, completely soaking his gear. To add to this frustrating scenario, the weather has again changed for the worse forcing us to make camp early whilst the snow storm passes.
We’re all quite tired and hungry but keeping positive. We know the descent will be testing, what with all the crevasses and hummocks that lie ahead, yet we’re still smiling. We’re getting pissed off with the bloody weather and are drooling for a big juicy steak, a pint and a shower.
After a blizzard and 6 days of non-stop white outs we finaly reached Dye 2 on Sunday. It appeared out of the mist like some long forgotten alien artifact, a great white dome on top dominates the building which, untill August 1988, was constantly manned by US military and government contractors.
We made camp, put on our head torches, and then scouted the areato find an entrance. It wasn’t long before we were in,dutifully signing our names in the adhoc visiters registra. We explored the whole site which had been abandoned in such a hurry by its owners that there were still half eaten meals in the canteen and boxes of unopened beer in the bar – all long past their “best before” dates unfortunately. It was fascinating reading a 20 year old copy of Newsweek, titled “The Greenhouse Effect – More hot summers ahead”. I’m sure some in Ireland would take issue with that!
The next morning we set off on perfect snow, covering 45km during the day. Today however was not so good, yet another white out and rain to boot. We still managed 27.9km, and would have bettered that had we not ran into a series of fast flowing melt water streams forcing us to make a 2km detour.
We have 118km left to the end of this expedition, it doesn’t sound much but it will involve negotiating an expanse of crevasses and pressure ridges as we make our way down the glacial leg. Hopefully, they wonâ€™t be as bad as the ones we encountered at the start, 22 days ago.
Runing out of Food and Time
“The conditions are the same with snow on the ground its quite soft and sticky as the day progresses, We are approx 80km from DYE 2, Our solar power has been zero over the last few days as there is no sun and little light. We have batteries as backup but it means conserving quite a bit of the use. We are also running low on food and time and we will keep you updated on any decisions made towards the final few days, say hi to everyone…”- Phone Update
Signs of the sun.
As the day progressed the blizzard relented and we could just see the sun briefly filtering through the overcast sky. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky, we’ll finally be able to use the solar panels to charge the battery packs and hence our comms gear and MP3 players.
We haul for eight hour legs per day, each of us leads a leg in rotation. The lead navigates the team whilst cutting a trail through the snow to make the going a little easier for the other team members and their sledges. We navigate using a combination of compass and GPS, the latter to ensure we donâ€™t drift too much – easily done on a featureless landscape with no visible points of reference.
We’re currently in our bags and bedding down for another cold night. We’ve now 300km remaining before we can have a pint.
20km in blizzard.
Due to our slow progress in the afternoons over the soft snow we decided to get up at 3:30am and start hauling at 5:00am. We woke to a freezing blizzard and total whiteout. The wind was very strong and didn’t let up all day. Nethertheless, we hauled through it for 10 hours and made 20km, not bad considering. It was very cold so our rest stops were short but not sweet and by the end of the day we were exhausted. Tomorrow’s forcast appears to be more of the same so have a moments thought for us in sunny (cough) Ireland.
Soft snow slows progress.
Our progress these last couple of days has been somewhat hindered by continuous snowfall which sticks to the skis and sledges, increasing their drag. In the afternoon it really makes the going tough, especially today when we were reduced to a crawl, quite literally!
Pat’s sledge, “The James Caird”, is really having problems in these conditions. Although the repairs we made last week are holding up, we think that the gash down the side is having a negative effect on the sledges rigidity and thus causing it to warp. It certainly is making it very hard to pull. This should improve once we get out of this powder snow, in the meantime we’ve repacked it in order to put as little weight on the damaged area as possible.
Needless to say the other two sledges, “The Dudley Docker” and “The Stancome Wills” are fairing much better.
Another point of concern is that the whiteout conditions are making it impossible to use the solar panels to charge up our battery packs. However, we have an emergency supply of lithium batteries which will ensure that our sat phone, our only link with the outside world, remains charged for these dispatches and emergencies.
Going hell for leather.
We’re now hauling well, making over 25km per day. We’ve 224km to go till Dye 2, a deserted US base in the middle of the plateau, and 444km till the west coast – our finishing point.
We just found out via Sat Phone that Charlie Paton’s team have had another two members evacuated off their expedition, namely Gert, the other Belgian, and George the American doctor. We’re unsure as to there whereabouts but believe that Charlie and John are continuing.
As for ourselves, we’re fed, watered and feeling physicaly well.
Today’s Grid Ref: N 66 08 780 W 41 23 617
Today’s weather: Temp -7 to +10; Winds moderate; Precipitation light snow; Snow condition sticky adding drag to sledges and skis.
480 Km to go.
“Its 0607 in the morning, feet are sore, otherwise in good form, after a good meal and building up some strength to get them back on target for the rest of the traverse after a very hard start.” – Phone Update
Location: N 66 02 068 / W 40 14 538
Altitude: 1684 mts
Hauled 28 Km today.
We have just covered 28 kms today in whiteout conditions, we also confirmed that one of Charlie Paten’s team, who we were with coming through crevasses, a belgium snowboarder was helicoptered off the ice cap yesterday, he had ligament problems. No problems for us and looking forward to making even more progress tomorrow.
Location: N 66 05 560 / W 40 49 521
Altitude: 1905 mts
N 65 58 989 / W 39 42 517
All is well overall, sadly we departed the other group as we are now going our separate ways. We are all suffering form the ordeal of the creavasse zone, Sean is trying to prevent crutch rot with Vaseline, Clare is suffering form sleep deprivation (probably Pats snoring), Pat isin’t too bad after treating many sore blisters. We now need to make up some time lost to those damned crevasses.. Today we traveled 21 kms
Winds Moderate, Cloudy, no precipitation Temperature: Day +15Â°C / Night -6Â°C
Grid Ref: N 65 52 262 W 38 54 816
Well, we’re finally out of the bumpy stuff and onto the snow. Unfortunately, the other team have two broken skis and bindings as a result of the previous rough terrain.
We’re still encountering deep crevasses but not so many. However, they have slowed us down quite a bit as we have to haul along them until we find a suitable crossing point.
We made camp earlier today as we have decided to start an hour earlier in the morning. The snow is better then.
Top of Ice fall / Crevasse zone
Grid Ref: N 65 52 262 W 38 54 816
There were two teams that left Kulusuk at the same time. Ours and an international team led by Charlie Paten, an ex Royal Marine. Both teams are traveling on the same permit so we’ve been climbing the glacier together these last few days.
Their team consists of George, an American who worked as a relief doctor in the aftermath of the Sri Lanka Tsunami; John, who is cycling from England to New York – unfortunately, Greenland is not that well suited for bikes so he’s skiing acros instead; and two Belgians, David and Gert, who are snowboarding first ascents around the world. They’re a good bunch and great for morale.
The day progressed resonably well, it is taking longer to get out of the crevasse zone than expected but we should surely be in the clear tomorrow. We’ve had to endure a couple of pretty hairy crevasse crossings, some so deep they simply descend into darkness. Its on everyones mind when we cross the snow bridges, will they hold my weight, will the sledge fall through and take me with it? Thankfully, we’re all safe.
The repairs made to Pat’s sledge didn’t hold too well, it took on water and everything got soaked. So we brought it into the tent in the evening and spent 3 hours drilling holes and bolting on bits of plastic using the most basic tools. We’re prety confident this will hold now, at least if the terain gets better. It’s quite energy zapping so we’re all quite tired and just looking forward to finally being able to put our skis on.
Its been a tiring day! We spent the morning ferrying our sledges across crevasses, some quit intimidatingly deep. It was slow progress but by lunchtime we were out of the worst.
Pat and Clare brought a second plastic sledge for light bulky stuff but I thought i’d be ok with just the main one. Unfortunately the terrain caused it to flip over every few meters so I certainly learnt my lesson. Thankfully, Clare leant me her second sledge so I could spread the load between the two, which has been a great help.
By evening we had started to pick up the pace and should be on the plateau tomorrow.
Pat’s sledge picked up an 8 inch gash in the side whilst hauling through the rough stuff. So we cut up a plastic container and patched it using Araldite. Hopefully it will last the distance.
Up at 6am again tomorrow so goodnight for now.
We took the wrong route.
Today was hell. As we made our way up the glacier the bumps I described yesterday became larger, often 3 to 4 feet high. Hauling our sledges over these has been very energy zapping. Furthermore, the crevasses are now much larger, often requiring two or three of us to get our gear across. The terrain is more akin to the North Pole.
We’ve had some minor damage but nothing sevear. I’ve lost a water bottle containing my spoon and fork, thankfully pat had a spare.
We hope to make it out of this stuff tomorrow or the day after at the latest. Hopefully, tomorrow will be better!
We’re finally on the ice! After precariosly lowering the sledges into some old fishing boats we set off on a two hour journey to our start point, the Apuserserpia glacier snout at Nagtivit. The boats crashed through the waves throwing us every which way, with plenty bruised heads to show.
We landed our gear and made our way in shore over bumpy solid ice littered with small crevasses. At 9pm we made camp and had our first expedition dehydrated meal, we were pleasantly surprised as they taste really good. A warm drink and then off to bed in preparation of our 6am start. We’re all happy to be finally eating the elephant after the delays of last week.
Well, we’ve finally packed our sledges! We estimate that each team member will be hauling about 80KG. We’ll be taking two light plastic sledges as well as our fibre glass sledges specially designed for the Greenland crossing. The plastic sledges will carry some bulky but light gear, to avoid our main sledges being packed too high and thus more prone to flipping over on the ascent to the plateau.
We’ve been rehearsing our crevasse rescue skills and ensuring all the necessary rescue gear is conveniently packed and readily available for when we hit the rough stuff. From what we could see from the plane during our flight over from the west coast, it would be wise to be prepared. We also have to ensure we are roped up in such a way that if one of the team falls down a crevasse, their sledge doesn’t follow them in..especially if its Pat because he weighs a tonne as it is!
This evening, we’re going to head over to the only hotel here and see if we can get a meal. Sean has been cooking up some great meals since we got here so it’s only fair to give him a night off.
When we reach the plateau and have a more reliable signal then i’ll try and send the photos associated with each dispatch.
The weather today has been bright and sunny, about 20 degrees centigrade, with a 3 knot arctic breeze.
So, we took a small break from orgqanising our gear to witness a demonstration of traditional Inuit fishing from a hand made seal skinned Kyak, as well as some Inuit singing and dancing.
The local football team won an important match last week and their success was celebrated via a community picnic of shark and seal meat. Pat enjoyed the shark meat but found the seal meat was like eating raw fishy butter.
An elder member of the community invited us into his home to see his collection of masks, hand carved from drift wood. It is interesting to see that each member of the community has a skill to offer for the benefit of all.
In fact the community spirit here has been an eye opener, no less so than the way the spoils of hunting are shared amongst all those who take part in the kill. One recent example concerns a Polar Bear who unfortunately wandered threatingly close to the village. The man who shot it got the prime cut of meat and the woman who spotted it got the skin, which she then sold for a tidy sum of 8500 Euros – a substantial amount of money in these parts.
We finally have our gear sorted and will spend the next two days organising a boat to take us to our start point, the snout of the glacier in Nagtivit.
Welcome to our first dispatch from Greenland!
We flew into the west coast yesterday and caught a small propeller plane to Kullusuk on the east coast – much to Sean’s amusement (he hates flying!).
The flight took us over the polar plateau and allowed us to assess the state of the ice cap. We could clearly see lots of glacier lakes and streams as well as many open crevasses, especially on the start and end of our intended route, which is a cause of concern.
The local village has a population of 350 and is currently out hunting whale. They have a seasonal quota of 3 whales but none have been caught so far.
We are currently organising our gear and rigging the tent so we can hitch it quickly in case of sudden weather changes on the plateau.
Our intentinion is to set off on Monday and we aim to write daily dispatches of our progress as well as our position and weather reports. So please check back often to follow our exploits.
The day started comically enough, one of our tent party woke up and, on seeing daylight, got up, dressed and started boiling water to make hot drinks. The winds seemed to have died down a little so we all started to rise….then Pat kindly advised us to get some more sleep as it was only 3:30 AM! I’m not exactly sure of the Anglo Saxon terminology used but the advice was well noted and we quickly got back into our bags, stopping only to drag our frozen boots in from the tent vestibule.
We next woke to the sound of movement around the camp, the winds were back again, not as strong but equally as demoralising. We quickly put on water and made three hot dinners for breakfast. I even managed to make a chocolate drink and put some hot water in my flask. When we emerged from our shelter we were confronted with the full extent of the damage to our tent. And we were not alone. Four of the expedition tents had suffered either rips or broken poles or both. Ours was completely beyond repair!
Packing up the gear was slow. We wore gloves and outer mitts to stave off the cold but they make packing awkward. Every now and again I had to remove my outer mitts to accomplish some fiddly task or other, gripping them between my teeth to ensure they weren’t blown away. Losing my outer mitts at this stage would make my hands very vulnerable to frost bite and in these winds they would be impossible to recover – I couldn’t exactly just get up and run after them on a glacier for fear of falling down a crevasse. Whilst stowing the food packs and gas canisters away I felt a huge thud on my shoulder, in that brief moment of surprise I looked up to see one of the team looking at me with an expression of grave concern….then I went down, collapsing on the snow in agony. A square piece of plywood which we used to support the gas stoves had been picked up by the wind and hurled into my shoulder with some force. A corner hitting me just under the collar bone. I lay on the ground clutching my shoulder whilst Pat came over to check I was ok. Fortunately the pain subsided, leaving me with a hefty bruise.
Once packed we headed up to a knoll from which we would attack the Crean glacier. Here we stopped to change into our snowshoes and were suddenly hit by a freak wind. It hit us with such force that it knocked three people right off their feet, ripping poles and snow shoes from this melee and carrying them 100 yards or so. I was a little way further down and thus sheltered from the full force. I managed to recover three poles. As I approached the third I caught a glimpse of something, like a flash of orange in the corner of my right eye. I looked up and saw one of the sledges tumbling down from the team like a ball of tumble weed. It flipped over and over across the ice, passing in front of me, disappearing down towards a crevasse field far below. Everyone just looked on, aghast, knowing it was too late to try and stop it or even recover it. It was in this moment of chaos that I began to genuinely get concerned. The day had only just started yet we were already beginning to draw upon our spare equipment. If the day continued like this then we could be in real trouble.
Each of the five teams put on their harnesses and roped up and started across the glacier. I was the end man in our team and thus carried the excess rope which we would use to rescue anyone who fell through a snow bridge into a crevasse. If the situation arose we’d belay down to the edge of the crevasse and dig in a snow anchor to take the weight of the victim. I’d then belay down to the edge and lower a rope for the victim to attach to their harness (if they were still conscious). Once secured, we’d haul them back out of the crevasse and attend to any wounds. We all carried expedition medical kits and were fortunate to have three qualified doctors on the expedition team. Fortunately, we had no need to put these essential skills into practice on this traverse.
The winds gave us no respite as we snaked our way across the glacier. These were Katabatic winds, intermittent but very violent. We’d hear them building up at first, giving us a few seconds to stop and brace ourselves to face the onslaught. I was blown right of my feet at least twice during this crossing, I soon developed a knack of contorting my body to keep my profile low, juggling my muscles to maintain balance. After surviving one particular memorable gust I looked up to find at least three, out of every six man team, sprawled on the ice.
It was very slow progress but we eventually made it across and took a ten minute rest for food and water. During this break Pat radioed the expedition support team on board ship and explained the tent situation. We would need at least one replacement tent. However, the only place the tent could be landed by Zodiac would be Fortuna Bay….some 15km away. The scouting party had just radioed back that the winds were just as strong ahead. The thought of us having to endure 15km in such winds was very worrying. There would be no time for lunch today, just the occasional short ten minute break for a little energy food and some water.
We set off again and fortunately, the winds started to abate. The sun even came out which was very uplifting. In front of us was a huge vastness of snow which we had to cross, we’d arrive at what I thought would be the top only to find it was only a deceptive ridge hiding even more vastness beyond. It seemed never ending, step after step after step. It appeared as if we were hardly making ground at all. Hours past and I became convinced we’d not make it before night fall. I tried to crawl into myself to pass the time. I remember once reading that Nigel Mansell would sometimes radio his pit crew during a Motor Racing Grand Prix and ask them to wake him up in twenty laps or so. He obviously wasn’t sleeping in the conventional sense, not whilst hurtling around a circuit at 180 mph, but he would find this place, this zone, in which time past differently than how we normally perceive it. I have read since that this state is known as “flow” and is a subject of some interest in sports psychology. I tend to enter this state whilst writing, and tried to enter it on the ice…with some difficulty. My pack was starting to feel heavier. The weight seemed to be transferring itself from my hips to my shoulders. At first I thought it was because it wasn’t gripping on my wind-stop outer shell so I kept tightening it…but to no avail. I then assumed the extra weight was from the ice that had accumulated and melted, thus water-logging parts of my pack, but this didn’t seem to make sense. I kept going, constantly trying to shift the weight back onto my hips. My shoulders started to ache more and more. At times the pain was very bad, severely affecting my morale. I tried “feeling the pain” and, after a while, concluded that yes, it was bloody painful indeed. Eventually I gave up and accepted that I’d just have to get on with it and tried concentrating my thoughts on my surroundings. I became fascinated with my footsteps, the sounds they made as the snow crushed under the snow shoes. In places, where the wind had swept all the snow away, exposing just ice, I watched the way it cracked under foot, like the way the solid toffee coating cracks on a toffee apple when you bite into it. Occasionally, the snow texture would change, from flaky snow to a fine friendly powder snow, just like an extra thick layer of icing sugar sieved on to a cake. And still we marched on.
At 7pm we approached the final ridge of this great white place. The mood of the teams ahead appeared to change but I couldn’t understand why. Had something happened up ahead? Was the scouting party ok ? It was only on reaching the ridge ourselves did it all make sense. We could see Fortuna Bay down below us and, better still, we could see the support ship anchored there. It blew its horn seven times – “welcome”. It was a very emotional moment for us, we had made it, the hardest part of the traverse was over!
It took us a further two hours to descend to the bay, switching to crampons and using our ice axes to negotiate the steep ice. We had trained how to use the ice axe as an “ice brake” during our glacier training course in Norway in June. If we slipped, we’d fling ourselves onto our stomaches, the ice axe held tightly to our chests, driving the axe point into the ice with our weight and hoping our motion would cause it to cut deeper into the ice and thus brake our fall. It was a slow and cautious descent, the slowness of the pace allowing the wind chill to get at us. But we didn’t care, we knew we’d soon be down on the bay and thus sheltered from the winds. They had thrown themselves at us, hounded us, tore into us but they hadn’t defeated us. Instead it was us who had triumphed. And with this in mind we descended in high spirits, the sound of the ship’s horn echoing around us, celebrating our arrival. At 9:00pm we finally walked off the ice onto the stony beach of Fortuna Bay.
Our camp that night buzzed with excitement. We knew that tomorrow morning we would be joined by the support team for the remaining four hour hike to Stromness, and hence the end of our traverse of South Georgia in the footsteps of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. We ate and drank our hot drinks whilst the support ship hoisted the Irish Flag and serenaded us with a rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. And then we slept…as ordinary people doing extraordinary things….and we slept well.
We made anchor in Prince Hakkon bay early on Monday morning, a treacherous bay by South Georgia standards…one ship ran aground here a few years back. The captain negotiated her in excellently, whilst the bridge filled with the sound of classical music, punctuated by gasps of wonder. The view was outstanding. I could see three or four glacial legs running into an ice blue sea. It must have been a splendid sight Shackleton, Crean, Worsley and crew after their heroic and exhausting feat of navigation from Elephant Island, some 800 miles away.
No sooner had he cut engines, the shore party was landed, along with our packs and boots. We geared up, put on our life jackets, washed our landing wellies and descended into the Zodiac’s. Everyone on board came to see us off, and we waved back with high spirits and apprehension. Some years back, Mesner, one of the most experienced mountaineers and explorers had a very tough time during an identical traverse, concluding it was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. A few years later, an expedition team of SAS soldiers had to be airlifted off after encountering severe weather conditions. What would be awaiting us ?
We landed amongst a flurry of fur seals, elephant seals and the occasional curious king penguin. Some only a few feet away. We quickly exchanged the life jackets and wellies for our boots, made some final gear checks, donned our packs and harnessed up our sledges. We had little time to take pictures as we needed to take advantage of the good weather. Within no time we were off, making our way towards the Murray Glacier. Five teams of six people, one sledge per team, each led by an experienced guide and a scouting party of two. Our team was led by Clare O’Leary, with Pat Falvey close behind hauling the sledge – no doubt using the occasion to get some personal training in for his intended expedition to the South Pole next year. After nearly five days at sea, it was great to be on firm ground. Taking the first steps into an adventure we had spent nearly a year training for. Our plan was to complete the traverse in three days, though we carried enough food for six days in case encountered some of South Georgia’s notoriously severe weather.
The day passed quickly and I hardly noticed the distance we made until we had to climb up to a ridge adjacent to three sharp peaks, known as the Trident Towers. It was from here that Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had sat on a rope and slid down – the excitement of the ride lifting their spirits briefly during their original traverse in 1916. We lined up the teams and made our way up towards the ridge, each of us cutting steps into the snow with our snow shoes for the next person. As we approached the top we were hit by a very strong wind which knocked a few of us to the ground. It was hard to maintain balance, especially with 24kg packs on our backs. My pack protruded nearly a foot above my head, causing it to act like a sail. I had to fight each gust with all my strength to prevent myself being blown over. But we all made it, helping each other over the top and to the other side where the wind was less severe. Here we briefly rested, snacking on some trail food – an energy bar or some nuts, and a few gulps of water. I carried an integrated platypus in my pack with a litre of water, diluted with a high carb energy drink…today was berry flavour. I like to take small sips of water whilst trekking in order to stave of the risk of cramp and replace the water lost to sweat. I also carried a litre flask of water which I drank from only when we stopped for short rests, thus conserving the platypus for when on the move. I find this works quite well for me. To supplement this I had a small 33cl flask of hot water just in case I needed to get some warmth in me.
As we made our way down the cloud cover lifted briefly and I was presented with what I can only describe as the most beautiful view I have ever seen. To the right, The Trident Towers, sloping down into a crevasse field, Shackleton was lucky their impromptu slide stopped just short of this field. In front of me I could make out a vast plateau of ice and snow stretching into the distance – the Crean Glacier, shaped by years of chaotic winds. To the left, another larger crevasse field, edging its way down into the sea. In between, amongst a cluster of rocks, I could see our scouting party starting to set up their tent. I could not believe we were making camp already, at the same time I was overjoyed at the thought of spending a night in this amazing place. Little did I know then it would turn out to be one of the worst nights I have ever spent outdoors.
Our scouting party consisted of Rolf and Segur, two very experienced Norwegian mountaineers and polar explorers. They were equipped with Telemark ski’s which are very different from the ski’s one uses whilst skiing in the alps. The heal of the boot is not fixed to a Telemark ski, allowing one to walk with the ski’s on – each step being roughly equivalent to six of our boot steps. One can cover large distances very quickly with these type of skis and are similar to the ones used by Amundsen on his famous South Pole conquest of 1911. Our scouting party could thus check out large areas of glacial and snow fields, negotiating the best route for the main expedition party. Furthermore, they could setup camp ahead of us and start boiling water whilst the rest of the team arrived and setup their tents.
When we arrived at camp, we set about flattening the the snow and ice with our snow shoes – to provide a more compact and comfortable base for our tents. Then the winds came. Strong violent winds whisking up loose ice grains from the surface, driving them into us like showers of glass, stinging every exposed area of flesh. We could only hunker down and cover our faces until they subsided for half a minute or so. During these respites we tried to pitch our tents, it was hell. We had never experienced such elements and tensions began to run high. We so wanted to shelter from these icy winds and we were desperate to get the tents up as quickly as we could. Luckily Pat, who himself had weathered such winds for ten days in Antarctica before summiting Mt. Venison, lent his experience to our own camp craft knowledge acquired in Norway. During the passage from Ushuaia had practiced setting up these tents in 20 knot winds on the top deck of the ship but that was a walk in the park by comparison to the 40 knot winds we suffered now.
Eventually we got them up, albeit with our energy levels zapped. After rolling out our Thermarests and sleeping bags, we filled our flasks with the freshly melted water from Rolf and Segur and then sought shelter, three persons per tent. A Thermarest is a self inflatable mattress made from a springy material known as “memory membrane” . These are not for comfort, although they are very comfortable, but to provide a layer of insulation between the ice beneath the tent and our sleeping bags. The bags themselves were special cold weather bags, “comfort” rated down to -20 degrees Celsius.
Setting up stoves just inside the tent Vestibule, we heated the water for our “dried food” bags. Mine was labeled “beef stew” but to be honest, the contents were irrelevant as long as it was warm and wholesome. We burn an average of 7000 calories per day on expeditions such as these and generally take in about 2500 calories. We ate directly out of the food bags, paying little heed to the instructions of leaving them to stand for five minutes. We wolfed the food down and crawled straight into our bags. Ideally we would have made a couple of hot drinks as well but darkness had long fallen. We were also very tired and just wanted to seek warmth in our bags. Whilst camping on a glacier in Norway I had found these bags stifling hot and slept in underwear and a T-shirt. This night I slept in all my gear excluding my outer ‘wet’ shell (three layers in all)!
No sooner had we bedded down for the night Ger McDonnal caught sight of a small tear in our tent’s flysheet. There was nothing that could be done but to make temporary repairs and hope they would last the night. If left unattended, the strong wind could gain a hold of this tear and eventually rip the tent apart. Here the old adage of a “stitch in time” runs very true. Whilst fixing the tear he noticed one of the tent poles had also broken and set about making repairs to that too. By now the winds were stretching the tents to their limits, these were storm tents designed for these type of conditions but that seemed to make little difference. We had no choice but to just make do and Ger’s departing words of “if the worse comes to the worse, make for the Norwegians tent” rang ominous. I can’t readily explain what sleeping was like that night, the tent bowed in every direction the winds chose to blow it. The inner shell rested on our bags, exposing us to the cold and wetness of the weather outside. The sound was horrendous and incessant, if you put your hands on your ears and slap yourself vigorously then you’d get an idea. We suffered this all night, my earplugs giving me little respite from this “crash ensemble”. And so passed our first night on South Georgia.
Sunday 8:30 pm…..and I’m all packed up! Wahooo!
It was no easy affair I can tell you, an experience in the modern day madness that is air travel. It would have been a very noble gesture if the Irish airline, our carrier for the first leg of a long three flight haul to Tierra Del Fuego, had allowed this home grown Irish expedition a little leeway with the baggage weight allowance, say an extra four or five kilos. Alas I’m pragmatic enough to know that financial capital and social capital are distant friends in this current climate. So after a couple of balancing acts on two sets of borrowed bathroom scales, much to the amusement of my wee boy, I’m happy to announce that my bags are packed and I’m ready to go.
And now, it’s time to sit back, have a well deserved beer and watch the new series of Planet Earth on BBC 1. Tonight’s episode is Ice Lands, which means I’ll be getting a healthy dose of Antarctica to set myself up for the journey ahead.
Well here it is, last day at work before a weekend of packing and re-packing. I’ve lost count of how many times Iâ€™ve checked the gear list. I’m not a particularly fastidious person but diving taught me to pay good attention to equipment, itâ€™s not easy to fix something when you’re 25m under the sea so you quickly get into the habit of checking and re-checking everything is functioning correctly. This expedition is no different, where success or failure can largely depend on having the right gear in case of eventualities. South Georgia is renowned for its unpredictable weather; a bright clear day can very quickly change into a hostile and unforgiving environment. That said, we’ll be in the expert hands of Pat, Clare, Ger, Donal and some of Norwegians finest cold weather expeditionists.
Am I nervous? I know I should be but I think Iâ€™m more excited at the moment. I’m really looking forward to meeting up with the team again, there’s a special bond that develops between people who are striving to achieve similar goals. We’ve all put a great deal of personal effort into this and soon we’ll be able to reap the reward. We all want the expedition to succeed, but itâ€™s the journey that’s more important…the steps we take.
Thanks goes to my Uncle John and Aunty Patricia for their support and encouragement; my son, Jack, for being the most inspirational thing in my life and who will disown me if I don’t bring back a picture of Freddy T. Bear; my dad, who has suffered greatly these last two years and who is secretly very pleased with my endeavors. Thanks also to Steorn.com, especially Sean, Pat and Michael, who pushed the right buttons when I had doubts and are themselves some of life’s great adventurers. And finally, for fear of this all becoming a bit too gushy, a big thanks to Matt for helping to make this website one of the best expedition websites around.
One of my pet interests is the Battle of the Atlantic during WWII, more specifically the U-Boat war on Allied Merchant Shipping from 1939 to 1943 – the battle was pretty much won by the end of 1943, some might even say the end result was a foregone conclusion by May 1943. Germany failed to keep pace with Allied technological developments in Anti-Submarine warfare and consequently the U-Boat arm, the only really effective arm of the Bundesmarine, lost the element of surprise and hence their ability to perform surface night attacks.
The thing that stands out most during a study of this period is the sheer sacrifice made by the Allied merchant navy, efforts often unrewarded and largely unrecognised. Even to this day I fear these seamen are still the unsung heroes of a battle that nearly achieved its aims of forcing Britain to sue for peace and America to be isolated on a geo-political scale.
Another area that surprised me was how durable these merchant ships were, even during the worst sea conditions the North Atlantic could throw at them, especially during the winter months. Some of these ships were many years old. Had there not been a war, they would have surely been consigned to the scrap heap age’s ago. Yet these ships managed to face severe weather, a constant threat of torpedo attack and even some very inept strategic planning to ensure the supply lifelines, the veins of allied industry and war effort, flowed continuously.
I am greatly reassured by this knowledge, for when we embark on our sea passage to South Georgia and beyond, I am confident that the UV Ushuaia will ride out the worst the South Atlantic Sea will throw at us. So if we find ourselves pitching and rolling in gales and high seas, fear not, the ship will not sink, and neither will she founder….so just brace yourselves and enjoy the ride!
In less than two weeks Iâ€™ll be forced up the stairs of a plane, the first step in our journey to Chile. I say forced because I hate flying, or rather I have an irrational fear of it. I’ve tried many ways to overcome this, one of the most memorable was getting into a ground launched glider which was then catapulted into the air at a cheek flapping speed. Before taking off the pilot, who thankfully was sitting right behind me, asked me to fold my arms….I asked whether this was standard procedure to which he replied “No, I just want to make sure you don’t grab the controls when you freak out.”…….reassuring words.
Needless to say 7 minutes of screaming as the “thing” descended from 1000ft didn’t really help the phobia.
However, the days of being asked to sit with the Air Hostesses so they can keep an eye on me are long over (they really don’t take too kindly to people trying to flip that big red handle on the emergency exit do they?!!). The wonderful world of medicine came to my rescue with the invention of Xanex, a mild anti-anxiety pill that pretty much removes all the fear….or at least puts it in a box and buries it beneath a couple of layers of numbed senses. The end result is a relaxing flight with no stomach cramps, no grabbing the leg of the person sitting next to me and no running down the center aisle claiming a plane is about to hit us…which actually turned out to be just flashing lights on the wing tip.
So if you happen to stumble upon some bloke wandering around the airport with a stupid smile and a face covered in drool then please grab his hand and lead him to the plane.
Freddy, what do Yaks eat ?
I was showing my son Jack this site the other day, he’s just turned five and I wanted him to understand why daddy will be away for nearly a month. I tried to show him South Georgia and Antarctica on Google Earth but he was having more fun zooming into our house….”Daddy, Iâ€™ve just crashed into the roof!”
As soon as I opened the blogg page he said “Ahhhhâ€¦Freddy T. Bear…..is he going with you ?”
A few months back I coerced Pat into giving me a copy of Freddy’s 2004 assent on Everest. It became one of our many bed time story books and helped Jack to understand why daddy was off climbing in Kerry, Norway and Wicklow. It has really helped him to relate to the whole expedition. He has also picked up a good deal of knowledge on our expedition gear and even re-enacts climbing expeditions with his friends after school – much to the amusement of Margaret, his after school minder.
He is much happier knowing that Freddy will be coming with us and would very much like to ask him: â€œDo Yaks eat pooh ?!!â€
The UV Ushuaia
Well if we hit a “freak wave” in the South Atlantic then i’d like to know a little bit more about the ship i’ll be going down with.
The UV USHUAIA was commisioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a research ship in 1970 and christened “RESEARCHER”. She was renamed the “MALCOLM BALDRIGE” in 1987 after the US Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldrige, was killed in a rodeo accident.
In 1996 she completed a year-long scientific expedition to gather critical data on the ocean’s role in global climate change and global warming. She was also the second NOAA ship to circum-navigate the globe…..so she has as respectful history. Further information can be found here
South Georgia Traverse Route
I’ve plotted the Lat/Long GPS route data in Google Earth and produced an image of the route below. You should be able to click on this image to see a larger and clearer version.
Shackleton’s Grave, Grytviken.
Ernest Shackleton final resting place is in the small “whalers” graveyard at Grytviken.
(courtersy of Google Maps)
Stromness Whaling Station.
(courtesy of Google Maps)
It’s ironic to be sitting here in Lansdowne road on a cold October evening, cheering Munster and freezing, whilst all my cold weather gear is on its way to Chile. Likewise to have a membership card in my wallet for the British Mountaineering Council, but no head for heights. How did I get here?
Seven months ago a good friend, aware of my interest in Antarctica, mentioned the Beyond Endurance expedition in passing, then forwarded on a web link to the RTE program now featured on this website. Of course there were many reasons not to sign up. Besides the overall cost of the expedition sat various fears of failure, not least of all the failure to be selected. Yet it’s hard to see what lies beyond the comfort of our lives if one never takes a step outside. And I’ve often believed life is defined, not by the goals we set ourselves, but by the experiences we encounter whilst striving to achieve them. So I decided to take a step, then I decided to take another, and then another, and another…..and so began my journey.
Training for this expedition was long and arduous. An icy dip into a lake beneath the shadow of Carrauntoohil, weekends backpacking across the MacGillycuddyâ€™s Reeks in Co. Kerry, fully laden hikes up Lugnaquilla in Co. Wicklow and even an episode of ice axe breaking in the sand dunes of Inch all led to a week long final selection course in Norway. Here we learnt glacier rescue and snow skills under the expert eyes of Norway’s best (well letâ€™s be honest, Roald Amundsen didn’t conquer the South Pole by chance). It was one hell of a week, culminating in a three day 45km trek across some of the most beautiful glacial landscapes I have ever seen. During this time we summited seven peeks above 2000m and camped in the heart of one of Norwayâ€™s largest glaciers – it really was an incredible experience, and thatâ€™s just the training.
Soon now, very soon in fact, we will be embarking on the final leg of this journey. For me, it will be the realisation of a life long dream to taste Antarctica, to perhaps finally satisfy the pull of that great white place.