Archive for the ‘Antarctica 2011 Legacy Crossing’ Category

Punta Arenas, Chile—Acknowledgements

February 1, 2012 1:15pm

February 1, 2012

The days spent here in Chile are all about rest, food, social re-acclimating, and the slow re-integration to communication and interaction with the world. The basic, if arduous, daily objective of simply moving forward on the ice and making miles is always refreshing in its simplicity. No clutter; no emails; no to-do lists. The limited and mostly one-way communication, dictated by the isolation and the self-defining nature of constant movement, go a long way to facilitate a deep cycle mind-altering calmness. In spite of all the challenges, aches and pains and eventual injuries, the peace this brings mostly defines the appeal of the exercise. Simplicity, in a complex world, is hard to come by! The extraction from that state is always jarring in the first few days. But with a slow thaw, I am coming back to face the music; and it doesn’t sound so bad!

Food has been a great, new companion in this recovery process. Eric is thin to begin with at about 160 pounds wet. His weight loss was in the order of twelve pounds. Mine has been more substantial: from 213 pounds, I came in at 183, or a net loss of thirty pounds. My body fat is presently between 7 and 8 percent: skin and bones! I have been wanting to work out to regain some strength in the atrophied areas. Many muscle groups don’t work while kiting and the body cannibalizes those areas, as well as fat, to generate warmth and energy in a cold environment. Consequently, while some areas like thighs, abdominals and upper back remain well developed, others such as chest, biceps, triceps, shoulders, lats and quad muscles go the way of the dodo. They will come back. Unfortunately, my sore toes, and the dressing that covers them, hinders a variety of exercise routines; so I will take a couple of weeks off—and eat. It is interesting to see the body filling up—it doesn’t waste anytime, particularly in re-storing fat reserves! Polar travel is the best weight loss program I have come across!

An expedition of this scope relies on broad people support, sponsors, factors, and benefactors. While the attention invariably centers on the lead actors, there are a host of financial, logistics and emotional players without whom the expedition could not proceed. I would like to take a moment to thank and acknowledge those.

First come my sponsors. Most have been lending me support for multiple years and have remained loyal to my efforts. It is hard to find ways that properly address the debt of gratitude that I hold for your faith in my endeavors. This is made all the more special as each one is top of class, and benchmark of quality. HP, whose corporate sustainability culture has made for an ideal partner, also lent technology to the trip: the iPack, now smart phone, is an invaluable and bombproof tool, and a staple of expedition communication, the world over. Thank you Karen Cage for your steadfast commitment to see this one through! Andrea, Alessandra and Martino and my friends at Napapijri: not only have you supported my endeavors since 2005, the designs and customized alterations have made for the best cold environment clothing that I know. They have kept us warm and stylish on the ice and I am proud to be your ambassador. Julie and REVO sunglasses: hands down the best polarized glass anywhere. I cannot think of an environment that is more exacting on eyewear than Antarctica. Thank you for meeting my specification for the frames while outfitting them with the best lenses on the market. Jason and the team at Rossignol: between Greenland and Antarctica, I have put over 6500 kilometers on one pair of skis over some of the most shredded, bone jarring ice anywhere! The fact that the sticks have held as well as they have is a testament to the company’s manufacturing excellence. You are the gold standard. I am proud to have kept my life in your hands. Matt and Ozone Kites: thank you for once again promoting the sport by supporting this expedition and allowing us to push the limits of polar travel. Ozone kites are the criterion by which all others are measured, and the very best kites in the world. Hilleberg tents have sheltered, cocooned and otherwise saved my life on multiple trip. ON this trip, the tent was also a friend and a beacon of warmth at the end of long, hard day. Thank you for being there, Petra, once again. The Herbalife powders and supplements have been a part of my expedition for four years now; I would not dream of leaving for the ice without them. Thank you Luigi for your ongoing support. I have relied on my trusty, bombproof Canon 5D Mark II’s to capture both photos and stunning 1080 HD video footage for the upcoming documentary chronicling the mission. The cameras have survived some of the harshest treatment imaginable; I don’t know how but they still hold up. On a kite skiing mission where peanuts turn to butter from the shake, this says a lot! Thank you Scott for your ongoing support. Thank you Jeff Cable and Lexar: your cards I have used from the North Pole to the South Pole, across many ice caps. They have never failed on me, in spite of the abuse. The best memory on the market. Climate Partner has once again made the trip carbon neutral. Thank you for your support and allowing me to put consequence behind my positions! For the first time this trip, we brought Organic Food Bars to supplement our lunches. I would not leave on a trip without them from now on: organic and sometimes even vegan, the bar’s cooking process prevents them from freezing even in 50C below, all the while delivering over 300 healthy calories.  Cold Avenger masks provided facial warmth for the colder days, and prevented sucking on cold air all day long.Finally, there are all my friends at Global Green whose tireless work on climate change inspires me to be better: thank you!

I also want to thank all of the supporters who put their money where their mouths are to endorse our kickstarter efforts leading into this expedition. Your help was invaluable; your generosity crucial. Just as important are all of you who kept up with the expedition, left comments on my website, shared the information on FaceBook or followed us an re-posted on Twitter. Knowing from the ice that so many remained faithful to the daily updates was a huge factor in motivating me to share more insight into our experience. You provided an audience to our unfolding play, and gave us wings to fly to the finish line. Thank you!

Of critical importance to the success of the mission, were the logisitics teams overseeing our SAR (search&rescue), providing medical advice and with whom I communicated daily. I want to thank Victor Serov of TAC for being such a gentleman in Cape Town,  as well as Andrey and Mikhail who provided daily support form Novolazarevskaya until we reached the South Pole. From the South Pole on, the folks at ALE never failed to deliver encouragement and enthusiasm for our mission. Thank you Marc de Keyser for once again lending your eye into the future: your spot on weather predictions helped appease our spirits when it was needed. The scope of ALE’s logistics expertise is hard to describe: it has to be seen to be believed. Mike, Steve, Peter and the whole crew at ALE: bravo!

I want to acknowledge Jessica, my assistant, who from behind the scenes, made sure that all updates were posted, while every other detail was overseen smoothly during a three and a half months absence. Jess, you were the pillar that held the house. Thank you.

I want to thank Eric, my partner on one more expedition. Your calm under pressure, kiting expertise, and deft, MacGyver skills make you an invaluable asset on any mission. While your right boot, lent without hesitation to protect my frostbitten toe, single handedly saved our mission!

Finally, I want to thank my soul mate and life partner. You are my rock and the angel that sits on my shoulder. Your patience is the currency that kept my spirits up, and had me smiling through the tough times.  Four months of absence is a high price to ask of anyone. Yours was the greatest of sacrifices. I cannot wait to thank you for the rest of our lives.

Oh, and I almost forgot: she said yes!

*Photo Caption: Chilling in Chile, in search of a good barber!

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Punta Arenas, Chile–First Impressions

January 29, 2012 2:02pm

January 29, 2012

        

It happened really fast, as it usually does. But this time we were swept off the ice in record time. We had prepared our usual dinner upon reaching Hercules Inlet. Nothing fancy, except for the extra butter. There were no parades, podium or cash prizes. No cheering crowds or laurel wreaths. But we had laid claim to three new polar records, and in the history of Antarctica firsts, this was reward enough. And it made up for one more meal of curried rice with dehydrated chicken bits. We had our limbs, our wits, and all of our toes (minus a few millimeters for some), and memories for a lifetime. We enjoyed our celebratory dinner, and indulged in the last of Eric’s chocolate powder which added the finishing touch to our champion’s dinner! Hercules Inlet is on the western coast, at the edge of the continent. It is hugged by the mammoth Ronne ice shelf, second in size only to the Ross ice shelf to the south. The Ronne ice shelf had lost a section as large as Rhode Island two years ago, due to warming trends around the peninsula. From where we stood, however, you would never know it. Ice shelves form around coastlines as an extension of ice sheets from glaciers pouring into the ocean; they form a floating barrier of ice that seamlessly extends from the land based ice. Consequently, there is no ocean to be seen anywhere near there.

I wrote my final expedition blog, still high from the rush of finishing, in spite of what was now a very long day. Amazingly, the update connector cable, as well as the update camera, chose to rest their souls on that final day, just as the sledge had! Hard though I tried, I simply could not transmit the message and share the news of our successful finish! I had set up a sked call with the base to coordinate pick up in the morning at 12:00 hours GST. It was now 04:00 hours; the sun was bright; the air was still; I finally collapsed on top of my sleeping bag. Life was good.

Powerful winds at Union Glacier delayed our pick up by a few hours the next day. That, seemed odd—and somewhat anti-climactic—since Union Glacier is barely twenty minutes away by plane, and Hercules was dead calm. Still, around 15:00 hours, the silence of our tent was broken by the faint and distant hum of a plane’s engine. We leaped outside, and sure enough, a dot appeared in the sky from behind a nunatak up the glacier, and descended towards us. In no time, the Twin Otter was pulling up next to the tent. We were breaking down camp, one last time. We loaded our sledges onto the plane. I looked around, taking in the peaceful stillness of the ice and the sloping hills in front of us; the engines started with a roar next to me, and the props kicked a powerful air flow that we could have used on our descent the day before! I stepped inside the cabin and closed the door. The plane started moving, quickly gaining speed and gracefully lifted off the shredded ice. Minutes later, we were high above the Ellesworth range, and I looked over in the distance to our left in the direction that we had traveled to reach the Inlet. On this clear day, I could see forty, maybe fifty kilometers to the south and visualized our final approach from yesterday. Life looked far different then. Eventually, the plane banked a right turn and begun its descent into ALE’s Union Glacier camp. Our reality was about to permanently shift. The trip had officially ended.

We were greeted warmly on the runway. Because UG is on UTC-3 time, we arrived for lunch. The whole camp was in the communal meal tent and gave us a round of applause; expeditions are followed closely with a large map, and ours figured as one of the very last ones off the ice, and the longest in distance and duration. The first meal is always an experience, and this one did not disappoint! Beet salad, stews, fresh vegetables, pudding. It was all there. A smorgasbord of flavors and colors, made all the more remarkable by the location: we are still very much in Antarctica, and the freshness and abundance of food served to well over fifty people stands as a testament to ALE’s logistical organization. What these guys pull off in this context is nothing less than epic. We were served champagne and offered a toast. The assault on the senses was made all the more palatable as I don’t really drink alcohol and what I really craved was a coca-cola! They had that too. I proceeded to stuff myself until my stomach hurt! I then made a visit to the medic’s tent. They had monitored the condition of my toes over the phone and were anxious to see for themselves. In all, they were impressed with how clean and infection-free I had managed. While my left toe is out of danger and I have a chance to keep my right, the jury is out on the procedure. Of utmost importance will be to keep the wounds clean. The left is well on the way to recover, especially now in the low elevations, where oxygen is plentiful, and blood is gorged with it and can proceed with its healing job. The other toe will require extra care to prevent infection and probably a skin graft; unless  bone is revealed when the eschar (the black bit) falls off, which could mean amputation…. We’re not there yet, but merely moments after finishing the expedition, they are now throbbing more than I had realized, and I find it hard to imagine how I could get them squeezed inside a ski boot everyday for weeks of pounding abuse from the sastrugi. Amazing how resilient we can get when necessary.

Given our early finish—two days sooner than expected—we are informed that an Ilujshin will be coming in at 22:30 that evening and that we’re on it. We’re coming off the ice! We have a few hours to organize and gather our stuff. My sledge packs a large amount of stowaway snow; I want to get that out before it melts into a soaked mess on the plane. Time seems to race by, which is a shame as the setting of the ALE camp could certainly warrant some walking around. It is visually nothing short of arresting. Surrounded by rising mountain peaks pushing from below the ice, the planes, tractors and other heavy machinery that pepper the camp showcase the incredible logistical exercise on display here. This is big stuff; in fact, it doesn’t get bigger than that. They should shoot a James Bond sequence down here! The production value is unreal.

Barely ten hours after getting picked up from Hercules Inlet, the powerful jet engines of the Ilujshin shoot us down the icy runway, and we take off above the mountains, direction Punta Arenas, Chile, thereby bookending a journey that started eighty three days ago. This plane follows the same Spartan aesthetics guidelines as the one we boarded in Cape Town: worn, discolored tape holding pipes and ducks together; exposed cables and wires; passenger seating and cargo within the same cabin space. With the exception that this one does not have a porta-potty strapped to the back! You’ll just have to hold it in for the duration of the five hour flight! I lean into my seat, put my head down. The questionable earplugs that were handed before takeoff fall out of my ears and, in spite of the high decibels from the engine inside the aircraft, I pass out into a deep slumber.

Upon stepping out of the airplane, the fist thing that strikes me, aside from the utter absence of snow or ice anywhere (it is summer down here) is the darkness of night. We have not seen nighttime for three months; consequently, time has had a different meaning. The darkness of the early morning re-connects us to our internal body clock. In rapid succession, all other senses are assaulted. There are shapes, colors, smells and sounds that feel both familiar and foreign at the same time. A bus shuttles all of us from the plane to the hotel. I am the first to check in. My blinders are on: I can only think of one thing—getting into the elevator; opening my bedroom door; running a hot water bath; removing my boots; peeling off all articles of clothing; and stepping into the warm, inviting, porcelain tub! Before that, however, I take a breath, turn to the mirror and for the first time in three months, take in the shape of my emaciated body. I have an enormous beard, and I would estimate my weight loss to be around thirty pounds! I look like a frail, old man. I remind myself that this shock I have experienced on every long trip. I will get over it. I will eat. I will train. And soon I will regain my health, and re-claim my youth. I sit back into the tub. I close my eyes. Slowly, I slide down into the warm water until my head is submerged. Holding my breath, I feel warmth all over my skin. I could stay under forever. The trip is done. The dream complete. The rest is easy. I just have to climb back up. But I think I will stay down here for a little while longer. It is quiet here, under the surface, and with eyes closed, I can see the vast expanse of ice stretching forever before me, beckoning me to remember.

I will not forget.

 

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Day 81–Mission Accomplished

January 24, 2012 3:53pm

January 23, 2012

S79°58.370 W079°43.314

Elevation 712 feet

The day looked promising from the start. Yesterday’s up and down conditions were likely the head of a wind front. From the time we had set up camp, and all through the night, consistent winds had held strong. In the morning, they were still blowing snow on the side of the tent and setting up what looked to be a great travel day. With 230 kilometers left to our trip, those were just the kind of conditions we needed. We hoped to close the gap by end of day.
The thirteen meters were set out at 07:00 hours and immediately shot out of the gate. Our first hour section netted 43 kilometers. The winds grew from there and, for our last day, delivered epic conditions! We quickly switched down to the nine meter kites and stayed on them until the very end. On a broad reach and downwind tack, which has been our heading, kiting overpowered makes for fast, easy and adrenaline-fueled miles. The ice flies below the skis; the terrain races by; the pull on the lines and legs is very manageable. But whatever you do, just don’t crash! At those speeds, it would make for a hell of a yard sale! The scenery was commensurate with the conditions: blowing snow lent a chaotic and wild setting to the landscape. Backlit by the sun, the sastrugi ice was covered by a racing cloud of snow, undulating over the surface like a wave. On our breaks, that snow would hit us with gusts of over forty kilometers per hour; it was chilly and somewhat overwhelming. But once the kite shot up off the ground, generating speeds often exceeding that, the surrounding conditions suddenly felt tamer. We raced along side the blowing snow in what then felt like a graceful, orchestrated choreography. Our tack neutralized the wind, and the chill along with it.

About halfway into our day, we ran into two Australians, Cass and Jonesy, who are setting up to be the first team ever to complete a South Pole and back unsupported skiing trip from Hercules Inlet. We have been following each other’s progress on the ice, as you do with other ambitious expeditions. And again, without having met them previously, instantly felt a brotherhood kinship. We congratulated each other over our impending accomplishments. They asked me about my ribs; I asked Cass about his approaching wedding, especially seeing as I have one coming up myself! We both agreed that thinking about our weddings, and wives-to-be on the trail always brought strength, a smile and a warm feeling in the challenging times. Their progress has been remarkable–they should be three long days from the finish line. It seemed unfair to zip off in front of them, especially with the speeds we were traveling at. From their position, were were hoping to reach Hercules within five hours! In no time, the two black silhouettes that had been sticking out of the ice faded in the blowing snow. We were racing to our own finish line! They disappeared in the distance.

Two hours later, the Ellesworth mountain range appeared like a dot on the horizon, announcing the approaching coastline. We were fifty kilometers away.
The winds held for most of the day, right up to our approach of the Hercules Inlet area. Descending to the Ronne iceshelf amongst glazed ice patches, crevasses and hard, jagged sastrugi would have made strong winds a real nuisance, and a liability. As if on cue, they turned down, almost instantly, to a moderate twelve knots just to accommodate the last hour of our final approach! We could not have hoped for better. Slowly, we negotiated the treacherous terrain, quickly losing elevation: in less than thirty minutes we had dropped two thousand feet. The sun was out; the low altitude raised the temperature; we were baking! The approach route I was given by ALE was remarkably light on crevasses. I was marveling about that to myself when, all of a sudden, I was on top of a set of three small ones. The glazed ice , while moving downhill, made stopping impossible at that point. I chose what looked like a decent bridge, and sped across. One. Two. Three. No harm done! Eric was slightly behind, and looked for an open passage; unable to stop as well, he found another set of bridges and proceeded as I had! We were home free, on our way down the last slope, towards the iceshelf. But suddenly, as in a final wink, Eric’s and my kite simultaneously fell out of the sky, right next to each other. The winds had shut off completely. I looked at my GPS: we were 2.53 kilometers from our landing spot! In a final show of “who’s the boss”, Antarctica was playing its last joke on us. We sat on our sledges for a moment, hoping the winds would come back on. They did not. “I guess that means we’re walking”, I said. “Looks that way”, Eric shot back, in disbelief. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we had started walking at the other end of the continent, and walking is how we would finish! We strapped our skis to the top of the sledges, hooked in our pulling traces, and begun our descent. No sooner had we started walking that a weak gust announced some wind… We quickly set up the thirteen’s and lifted them in the air! It was light, but enough to slide down. Some. Within two minutes, they, too, fell out of the sky! That was it. We had done one kilometer! With one and a half left to the trip, we folded the kites and wrapped the lines one last time, then resumed back to our downhill walk, and our conversation.

In addition to winds that held in a remarkably, delivering the best kiting day–hands down–of the entire trip, another extraordinary thing happened today. I have mentioned that my sledge had developed a six inch crack two months ago. That crack remained stable for the following 3500 kilometers, and the worst I can say about it was the amount of stowaway snow it accumulated inside. Yesterday, the crack had started showing increased signs of weakening, and throughout today, the weakening increased to a widening fissure, while the runner under its right ski begun falling apart. I removed some of the contents, and gave them to Eric, to reduce compounded weight. I attempted briefly to strap the trace to the back of the sledge, and pull it backwards; but the unavoidable fishtailing generated while kiting, had disastrous consequences. The crack, now in the rear, was catching the ice while fishtailing and the sledge’s unraveling was precipitated; its right side was utterly falling apart. Eric followed me closely for the final four hours of traveling, so scared I was to lose items from the widening gap. It seemed utterly possible at this point that, with our speeds of travel, the sledge would simply split in half! Instead, it held, worsening incrementally, until our final landing spot. There, a massive crack along its side finally opened, which would have made further travel simply impossible. That sledge had held for the entire trip, just to die, on my lap, on the very last moment! Amazing. A little angel was evidently sitting on my shoulder…

We set down on our final campsite at 22:30 hours. We had been on the trail for close to sixteen hours. We had spent three months crossing the Antarctica continent, from East to West, coast to coast, through two of it poles, over four thousand kilometers and have been the first to do so in the long history of polar expeditions. Eric and I had succeeded in the third and final mandate of this mission. Exhausted, we hugged and laughed. I called ALE, our logistics support team, to report on our position, and was met with enthusiastic and congratulatory exclamations. We will be picked up tomorrow if conditions are favorable. Two days later, we will ship off to Punta Arenas, Chile. Our work here is done: mission accomplished! And now, I could really use a bath!

And now for the numbers:
We covered 231.5 kilometers today.
We left on November 4th, exactly 81 days ago; in that time we covered a total distance of 3854 kilometers (about 4100 adjusted kilometers, or 2500 miles) and arrived one day earlier than my scheduled assumption!
The 1120 kilometers from South Pole, we covered in 12 days for an average of 93.3 kilometers per day, which doubles our daily average for the entire trip–about 47.5 kilometers per day for 81 days.
Interestingly, it also took us 12 days to cover the 880 kilometers separating the POI from the South Pole, for an average there of 73.3 kilometers per day.
Our Novo-POI daily average was just about 34 kilometers per day!

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Day 79–Tough Working Day

January 22, 2012 11:17pm

January 22, 2012

S82°02.720 W079°57.185

Elevation 2763 feet

At the beginning of The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler talks about “those crazy winds, that make normal people do crazy things.” In the book, he refers to the Santa Ana winds, the powerful desert winds that descend on southern California during the winter months and reap havoc with their powerful gusts. But Chandler could well have been describing the Katabatic winds in this area of Antarctica, as yesterday proved to be the toughest, most frustrating day of the entire trip. And the winds, at least in the second half of our long day, had a lot to do with it.

At this stage of the expedition, the challenge is acute; bodies are worn out; nerves are frayed; and the proximity of the finish line adds an elevated tension–it feels like we’re there, but anything could happen with conditions, equipment or injury to rob the laurels and compromise our closing. Getting out in the morning is more difficult by the day. Focus, in these last days, is critical.

After yesterday’s long day, and given the weak morning conditions, we were slow out of the tent. We set off on what begun as a long shlog, moving downwind still, while the terrain proved soft and relatively friendly. As the day wore on, the wind picked up little by little, and our speed accelerated accordingly. The sun was in hiding for most of the morning, but a patch of blue on the horizon held promise for later in the day. In the distance, we could make out a grey shift in the lanscape that was so notable that it looked like the sea. Evidently, that was not it, but the distinction in shading had us wonder what this could be. By the time we reached it, the sun pierced through the clouds and exploded onto the ice. What it revealed was the most tightly woven sastrugi shredded area that we were about to enter. At the speed were now traveling, this meant another serious rodeo. The sastrugi was not high, save for some sporadic spots to be avoided at all cost, but there was literally no flat area to set a tent should we have chosen to do so. We still followed the “road”, but our straight downwind bearing made it challenge to stay on it at all times. In between, the accelerations over this terrain were intense. The shaking that goes on, both on the limbs and in the sledge, is hard to describe. Now that the sledge is half empty, things fly all over the place in there.

Early in the day, my water bottle, filled with what precious chocolate and protein mix I had left over, bursted in the sledge, soaking–then quickly freezing–all the nearby items. This is especially frustrating as that sweet chocolate solution has been a favored item of mine, especially since the petrol leak which contaminated my reserves, and forced me to ditch a couple of bags. I am now left with drinking warm water on the trail!

After flipping the sledge a couple of times–the reduced weight at this stage of the trip makes flips virtually impossible to prevent–I inspected the crack on the ski bed. In the last few days, given the harder ice we have been skiing over, the crack has been noticeably worsening. By now, it was beginning to shred, and the stoewaway snow inside was out of control. I have concerns over whether it will finish the trip. I have given the heavier items to Eric, to reduce the pounding, and starting today, I will actually pull the sledge backwards, which should reduce the impact on that front crack.

We had been making good distance, but eventually, the wind proved too strong for the big guns. This I realized when, after stopping to flip my sledge back, I could not prevent the kite, while resting on the ground, from pulling the sledge which made it virtually impossible to get my skis on! Blowing snow was now kicking hard; in a matter of minutes, conditions had gone from fifteen knots to twenty five. After wrestling with the kite to fold it, and coiling the long lines, I launched the nine meter Frenzy. It was perfect for the conditions. Except that five minutes into it, the blowing snow was gone, and the wind had dropped to under ten knots! We went back to the Yakuza’s, but twenty minutes in, after wrestling with what quickly became overpowered conditions, we were forced to put down again, and wrap the kite. We set up the nine’s once again, but by the time they were up and ready to go, the wind had dropped! We waited and decided for the thirteens. This begun a back and forth circus that lasted another three hours. We opted against rigging and re-rigging and simply sat on the sledges during the lulls which happened every few minutes. We had covered 122 kilometers in the first seven hours out on the trail; during the following three, we managed only 12 kilometers given the twitchy conditions. Our hopes to close another two hundred kilometer day were shattered; and mostly out of frustration, we chose to set up camp. Of course, the minute we were set up, the wind came back, and stayed until we fell asleep. I cursed more on that day alone than I have the entire trip!

Before shutting down, we heard the sound of an engine approaching the tent. It was the six wheel mega van from ALE’s South Pole base. The chaps driving it stopped by for a moment, and gave us a beer. Ooops! Does that actually make us re-supplied…! In the end we covered a total of 134 kilometers. We are 230 kilometers from Hercules Inlet, a distance we could cover in a day… if the winds would hold. This morning as I write this, they are kicking and blowind snow. It is promising. For the record, we have covered a total of 3622 kilometers so far. Adjusted miles are about 3900 kilometers given the many downwind tacks and the imposed detour approaching the South Pole and the Clean Air Sector. We are closing in. It may be a photo finish, but we’re going to do this!

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Day 77-78–Smooth and Rough

January 21, 2012 8:00pm

January 20-21, 2012

S83°15.111 W080°02.357

Elevation 3712 feet

We waited all night; and waited all day. By late afternoon, the ceiling of white clouds that had been over us for the past three days opened up, and patches of blue sky brought new details to the surroundings. The visibility was back, revealing the Thiel mountain range behind us. But the winds were timid. We tested the kites for flight, got dressed and ready to go, only to return to the tent as they were faltering. A slight flutter of the tent’s walls motivated another try and we made a go for it. With the mountains as vivid backdrop, we were finally on the move. The southerly winds put us on a straight downwind tack. The terrain was smooth, and soft. The wind at the surface was very weak, but fifty meters above, it was strong enough, and so long as we did not drop too low, the long lines on the Yakuza’s propelled us forward at a pretty good click. The soft snow made for smooth, long “S” turns; the temperature was pleasant. In this way, the day was shaping up to deliver some of the best, most enjoyable rides we have had perhaps the entire trip. And we were gaining efficient, easy miles. A civilized way to reward us for the closing of this expedition. It wasn’t long, however, before the terrain started roughening up. After four hours of some of the very best snow and flat terrain Antarctica had delivered, the ground begun hardening, and the sastrugi increased in size and volume. Within less than thirty minutes after the smoothest rides of the trip, we found ourselves in the densest, most shredded terrain we have experienced, with dips as great as a meter deep and large, hard sastrugi heads, all this over terrain that reminded me of over sized cheese grate! The wind had built through the day, and flying over this may well have loosened some of my fillings, and made my brain rattle! We switched to the thirteen meters, for easier maneuvering around the broken up grounds, while reducing our speed. On one occasion, my sledge wedged to a violent stop against a sastrugi head, from a twenty kilometers per hour speed. The force was such, that it ripped the leash attachment off my harness and tore the back of it completely. I was launched in the air by the newly released and powered up kite and landed squarely on my shoulder, on the hard ice. I had maneuvered around a sastrugi formation, but the sledge had slipped and collided head on with a four foot head. No break, luckily–neither for me nor the sledge. But I am not sure why. I rigged a different attachment on the harness, and we were back at it, with extra caution! Eventually, we came upon a road, or as much as what can be called a road out here, which amounts to a vehicle track over which at least three expedition recently added their own. Out here, it is the equivalent of a highway! The road leads to Hercules Inlet; from this location, any track would. We jumped on it. While still hard and cheese grate-like, it was clear of the large sastrugi dips and head, and removed navigation from the equation. But the winds soon dropped, and we had trouble keeping the thirteen’s in the air. Travel slowed to a crawl, and we packed the kites up, and set up the tent. We had been on the trail for ten hours and felt pretty worked. Once the tent was up, however, the wind seem to come up a little. Eric and I looked at each other, and without saying much, quickly agreed to break it down, set up the big kites, and keep going. This time, we were in for a white knuckled adrenaline fueled ride down that yellow brick road! The winds quickly built up again, and over that hard ice, with little friction, our speed was almost out of control–reaching fifty kilometers per hour over terrain that I would not speed over with a 4X4! We pushed for thirty minutes, but decided to switch down again: it would be a shame to get injured this close from the end, and there were definitely times when the kite would pull us off the “road” for some rough riding. We rigged the thirteen’s again, but within forty five minutes, we were down to a crawl. The winds had just shut off. The sun was bright. The temperature reasonably warm at about 15C below. We had been on the trail for twelve hours, and had put a good dent into the remainder of miles separating us from the finish line. We traveled 233.6 kilometers–three kilometers from our personal best of the trip–which puts us 363 kilometers from target. We have four days to complete mission. Things are looking hopeful.

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Day 76–Tension Build

January 19, 2012 8:00pm

January 19, 2012

S85°18.529 W083°54.900

Elevation 4551 feet

We stayed on alert through the first part of the night, listening for signs from the fickle wind. Gusts would come and go, toying with our nerves and determination. We had spent Scott’s centennial arrival at the South Pole, on the 17th, in our chilled tent, buried in the sleeping bags. At 03:00 AM, Eric stepped out and tested his kite; would we fly in such weak winds. The long lines on the Yakuza’s reached a wind line above, so long as we could get them up. We broke up camp and got ready. The sky had remained white, and the contrast was, again, marginal. I looked at my sleeve. The light flakes falling on my dark glove confirmed that it was snowing: white on white, it was otherwise impossible to tell. We got the kites up and, like nomads of the white desert, glided away one more time. We cut a ninety degree angle to the easterly wind. The ceiling opened up slightly within the first hour, revealing the uneven terrain we had been negotiating. That eased the tension of blind navigation, and for a while, delivered acceptable distance. The wind on the surface was still negligible, but so long as the kite stayed up, we were moving. As the cloud cleared, the Thiels mountains appeared in the distance, west of us. Strange though it sounds, these are the first natural features we have seen, other than ice and clouds, since the Queen Maude range, over two months and almost two thousand miles ago! The base was visible, piercing through the surface of the ice, though a few hundred feet above, a layer of clouds shrouded the peaks, keeping them from our sight. In our short travel, we had dropped further in elevation, though the temperature, at twenty below, hardly reflected that. The sun played a game of hide and seek with the cloud, finally losing, and the sky once again was closing in. With it, the winds dropped until soon, the kites floated down, robbed of the power to move forward. This would mean another campsite. The developing humidity was evidenced by the building of frost on the kites’ lines, weighting them down. We stayed optimistic that the 60 kilometers traveled that morning would be supplemented later in the day; it was 8:00 AM. But that was not to be. All day, stillness overtook the landscape, while the sunless sky kept us chilled in the tent. We are striking out with the conditions out here, notorious for their consistently strong katabatic winds. The system we are in has robbed us from the promise of mileage and an early arrival. As it now stands, we have 598 kilometers to go before Hercules, and basically five, perhaps six days to complete them. The tension builds–so close. Will we be allowed to close…?

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Day 75–White on White

January 18, 2012 7:00pm

January 18, 2012

S85°50.641 W084°39.674′

Elevation 5323 feet

We got up in the middle of the night, broke up camp and set the kites out, only to concede that the wind was too weak. This was just drill. We were back to bed, to repeat the exercise four hours later. The sky was pure white, and with the ice, this made for a featureless environment. No horizon; no detail off the ground; no sense of where the sky began and where the ice stopped. We were characters in a pure white void, a blank canvas where all that was visible were us, the kites and the sledges. There was wind, not strong, though the speed was impossible to determine: our progress was entirely abstract since we had no point of reference except for the GPS at the end of a section. The ice was gliding below our skis, but how fast? It was impossible to tell. Occasionally, upon diving the kite, it would crash so hard it was to determine a horizon. Thankfully, the terrain was smooth, and the snow relatively soft which facilitated travel–at first. But without warning, and probably because we descended further and dropped on the face of an invisible ondulation, we found ourselves in the middle of what evidently was a pronounced sastrugi field. The smooth ride was replaced with erratic jerking and obstacles that were met without warning, or foresight! The sledge would tip inexplicably, from colliding with unseen sastrugi heads. It was disconcerting. My toes felt the biting, sunless cold. The wind was faltering, and the conditions amounted to some of the more unpleasant day of the trip. We chose to wrap it up, and in no time, the wind simply shut off. We were back in the tent; it was 9:00 in the morning, and we hoped for a second shot at closing some miles later in the day. The wind never came back, though now, at 23:30 hours, it sounds as if it might manifest. Forecast calls for eight to ten knots. We need to get on the road; we are 658 kilometers from Hercules Inlet, and have six days left to close the gap… Today we merely managed 41 kilometers. The pressure is on.

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Day 74–Searching for the Promised Winds

January 17, 2012 10:00pm

January 17, 2012

S86°12.067 W085°50.800

Elevation 5878 feet

We left early in the morning; and again late in the night. Both times, the winds defaulted on their promise. After barely one and a half hour of our slow moving morning session, balanced only by warmer conditions, the kites fell out of the sky, without ceremony. That was it for the first part of the day. We build up camp again, and rested for the day, until a slight flutter held more promise for our missing miles. I stepped outside. The sun was absent, and the landscape a sheet of white. I lifted my kite to confirm the threshold of wind. It flew. I hurried back in the tent, and woke Eric up. Our sleeping pattern is as erratic as the wind. We catch some when we can. We broke up camp again, laid out the kites. Then nothing. The temperamental flutter was gone. The air was still. No amount of running back would lift the nylon into the sky. We were marooned again. This last portion of the trip is losing its luster. Packing and unpacking the camp hardly qualifies as the epic long downwind days we had come to expect from previous accounts. Besides, we have seven days to complete mission, nine before we are pulled off the ice on the last flight out to Punta Arenas, Chile. In that time, we must cover 700 kilometers–699 to be precise!–and I am beginning to question whether we will be able to close. There is wind a degree or so below us, we just need to get there! Aside from that, we see more and more ondulations in these parts, and we are dropping in altitude like a lead balloon. We are over a mile below our POI elevation. The good news is, oxygen is plentiful around here and we are no longer sucking on air. Eric’s altitude cough, which was with him for almost two months, is gone. We barely managed 16.7 kilometers today; far from the 100 kilometers average we had set for ourselves. We are no longer likely to arrive early. Now we need to make that average, lest we get pulled off before completing. We are back to praying for winds. Perhaps I will have Eric repeat his wind dance; you never know. It seems to have worked the last time!

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Day 73–Short Travel Day

January 16, 2012 10:37pm

January 16, 2012

S86°19.533 W087°08.814

Elevation 6094 feet

Waiting for the winds is like being on alert for combat: you know they’re coming. You just don’t know when, or how much. So we sit in the tent, resting, reading or writing, always an ear out for a sign of change. Invariably, sound will announce its approach. The gentle flapping of the tent’s walls, or a distant low whistle will faintly be heard. Typically, a gust will more firmly shake the tent. “They’re coming,” one of us might say, mentally readying for another sortie. The lack of regularity can reap havoc on the mind. We have taken to sleeping whenever the winds are down, which means that we turn the clock randomly following their whims. So much so that, with the twenty four hours of daylight, it can get confusing figuring whether we are on AM time or PM; the clock’s face works on twelve hour cycles. Eric is a sleep specialist: he will go down wherever, whenever. I have never seen anything quite like it! I have had more trouble with this wanton rhythm, and spend a lot of time writing, tossing and turning, and alert for change. This morning, the winds manifested, finally. Though they were weak, and short lived. Motivating to get out and work with light winds, at this stage of the trip, is measured only against our eagerness to put some miles behind us, and complete the mission.

But we did get out. Surprisingly, the temps were on the chilly side, and for the first time in at least two weeks, my toes were feeling it. I say surprisingly because we have been seriously dropping in elevation–we are more than six thousand feet below the POI! However, the terrain was remarkably smooth, and the snow quite soft. Today was a milestone for our trip as we passed the 3000 kilometers mark. We flew downwind with big guns and managed to close 71 kilometers before the wind completely shut down and forced us to set up camp, after merely three hours of travel. The forecast is not great: weak winds out of the east for tomorrow. We are now 714 kilometers from Hercules Inlet and have eight days to close it. It could be close…

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Day 72–Marooned Again

January 15, 2012 4:09pm

January 15, 2012

S86°54.158 W091°48.895

Elevation 7058 feet

So much for the predictions and expectations. The sweet downwind runs; the reliable winds; the high daily average. We are marooned one more day with dead calm conditions. It had been a while. On the positive side, the sun has been out, baking the tent, while the outside stillness has eclipsed the frigid temperatures which have dominated since the South Pole. Our prospects of reaching Hercules in seven days quickly faded, and we are back to finding ways to occupy ourselves for hours at a time while laying down. Eric has taken to listening to every podcast on my outpost, and sleeping. I have spent almost twenty hours reconstructing and finishing–almost–the article that I lost yesterday in cyber space. At least this was constructive: the Antarctica branch of Sebastian Copeland Productions is now officially open! All this while waiting for the wind to build and switch direction.

This is oddly anti-climactic, especially in light of what I wrote yesterday; with 800 kilometers still of travel, the trip is far from over. But this leasurely pace could have us fooled. The winds will turn on again, and Antarctica is sure to dish out some of its decibels, at least one more time. I suspect we’ll have one more marathon session before long.But for now, the prospects are weak, and it is back to the spell check program. And there goes the glamorous life of an expedition on the ice! We have nine days to complete the mission. And we fly off the ice in eleven days. Tic-toc, tic-toc…

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