A last push for ‘Emerald City’: an update from Antarctica
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Leo Houlding, Mark Sedon and Jean Burgun are seven weeks into a groundbreaking expedition. They have climbed the Spectre, one of the world’s most remote mountains, and are now attempting to kite-ski the 1,400km back across Antarctica to Union Glacier camp and their plane home
It was New Year’s Day, but we found ourselves with little to celebrate — marooned in the doldrums of an area we have dubbed No Man’s Land. This is a region way off the usual routes from coast to Pole, where it is likely that very few — if any — people have passed before.
Perhaps we jinxed ourselves with the name because we were having a hard time making the 360km across it. The surface was smooth and our feet sunk 10cm into the softest snow we had encountered. It gripped our heavy pulks [sleds] like an anchor. Again the wind was not playing ball — too light and from the wrong direction. This expedition was planned based on trade-wind patterns that dominate 70 per cent of the time. What we were experiencing, as for much of the trip, was the other 30 per cent. In four days we had managed only 53km and we still had 800km to go, with 20 days of food remaining.
This was day 42 in the deep field, and though we were in good shape and spirits, we were ready to see that checkered flag appear over the horizon. With so much down-time, confined to sleeping bag and tent, one can’t help pondering some of the delights the near future holds.
Our target, the remote outpost of Union Glacier, is an Emerald City in my imagination. The thought of the hot cooked breakfast there makes my mouth water. And beer and wine — so close but so far — and seats and tables and heated spaces. Then there are the hot showers fed by giant snow melters. And a set of clean clothes. And a real toilet with a seat, that’s not exposed to the wind or temperatures of minus 30C.
Then, on Wednesday, everything changed. Finally, the wind we have been waiting for the whole trip arrived and took us not just out of No Man’s Land, but well past the Thiel Mountains. The sun was out, the surface perfect. We covered 180km in just under seven hours, with a top speed of 40kmh [by way of context, polar teams walking on skis in the traditional way rarely exceed 30km per day]. A few more days like that and we’re out of here.
At one point, the wind was blowing snow crystals across the textured ground. With the sun reflecting off these crystals, it seemed we were riding over a river of dancing jewels, travelling at speed with a carpet of sequins flowing under foot. It was beautiful — just what the doctor ordered after our extended spell in the doldrums.
We are now north of the Thiel Mountains, on the classic South Pole route. That means the next 420km are exposed to a much more favourable wind direction and, dare I say it, it is likely we can expect more quality kiting to ride home in style. It is hard to believe that just yesterday we were hopelessly becalmed, despairing, with almost 800km to go. Now we are smiling with just over 500km left! We have been tried and tested and teased at every turn on this trip. After much effort, we are reaping some memorable returns.
For the full background on the expedition, see ft.com/spectre. For a live map, see spectreexpedition.com
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