Racing for the rum: Christmas in Antarctica
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Leo Houlding, Mark Sedon and Jean Burgun are a month into a groundbreaking expedition. They have climbed the Spectre, one of the world’s most remote mountains, and are now kite-skiing and walking the 1,400km back across Antarctica
We are becalmed. All kitted up and ready to kite but the wind has died and we cannot move. Once again this devious wind decides our fate. So I am sitting on my pulk [sled] wearing my ski boots, kite harness and six layers of insulated clothing, typing this while I wait to see if the wind will give us a chance.
We are travelling south, on the brink of the featureless, high polar plateau, not far from where I wrote my first dispatch in storm three weeks ago. Behind me the giant peaks of rock and snow will soon fade into the distance. Ahead, a seemingly endless stark and barren ice-scape, an alien world.
This leg of the expedition is the one I have been most anxious about, the 300km from the Spectre back to the point where we were dropped by plane, a journey that is into the katabatic winds that flow from the polar plateau down towards the coast. We have food for 25 days and are planning to man-haul our pulks on skis, aiming to cover 15-20km per day. However, we are hoping that some of the terrain will allow us to kite, tacking upwind, potentially saving significant energy and time, and drastically increasing the fun factor.
We negotiated the dangerous labyrinth of the Scott Glacier over four hard and hazardous days of man-hauling. In crampons, and on blue ice for much of the way, we crossed countless crevasses, some via alarmingly wide snow-bridges. Pulling a 110kg sledge for eight to 10 hours into a freezing headwind with a 10-minute break every hour is exhausting, with the physical effort amplified by the constant stress of danger all around. Psychologically it is draining.
So we grabbed the chance to try to kite as soon as the terrain opened up and the ground improved sufficiently. Upwind kiting, much like sailing, is far more skilful and technical than downwind, and perhaps even more exhilarating. Over six hours on the hard ice of the Robison Glacier, we covered a point-to-point distance of 36km but actually clocked 112km of tacking.
Leo Houlding: Updates from Antarctica
Rules of exploration
The climber hopes to pioneer a new era of polar adventure in the world’s most remote mountain range
Life in the freezer
Houlding finds his meticulous plans coming up against the harsh realities of the coldest continent
Nevertheless, emotionally this is a difficult time as we have already been away from home for six weeks and still have so far to go. We won’t be back until the end of January. Jean and I both have very young kids and it is heart-wrenching to be missing Christmas during this most gruelling leg of the expedition. My one-year-old son Jackson took his first few steps a few days before I left. Now he is toddling around the house.
I won’t do such a long expedition again. But this was the only viable strategy — there is only a short period in the year when Antarctica allows travel and such a limited period in life when it is possible to realise such an ambitious adventure. It takes many years to acquire all the skills required to play these very serious games out here at the end of Earth (not to mention to raise the massive sums required to fund them).
My incredibly understanding wife Jessica will be managing the Christmas circus alone this year. Meanwhile Mark, Jean and I will hopefully arrive at our first depot on the plateau around Christmas Eve.
There, on the journey out to the Spectre, we cunningly stashed poached salmon, a bottle of rum, some Christmas crackers and small gifts for each other. If we don’t make it in time, we’ll continue to enjoy our remarkably tasty dehydrated meals, prepared in a rural Dorset barn by a small company called Firepot and cooked on our trusty little stove with pure Antarctic snow. But really Christmas for us will be a month late this year, when we finally get home to loved ones.
Ah, the breeze is back! And we have miles to go!
For the full background on the expedition see ft.com/spectre. For a live map, see spectreexpedition.com
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