Life in the freezer: Leo Houlding’s update from Antarctica
Houlding, Mark Sedon and Jean Burgun are 10 days into a groundbreaking expedition to kite-ski across Antarctica and tackle the unclimbed south face of one of the world’s most remote mountains, the Spectre
Our final tranche of funding came from a fortuitous and peculiarly appropriate source: the newly inaugurated Wally Herbert Award. It is a generous grant established by a small group of polar enthusiasts to honour the endeavours of the great but little-known British polar explorer renowned for his maverick style and for grinning in the face of danger.
“What would Wally do?” has quickly become the firm motto of a trip that has already progressed from hard to harder and is providing all the adventure we hoped for — perhaps a little more.
I sit right now in a tent below a scrappy scree field known as the Graves Nunataks, utterly unremarkable other than that these are some of the most southerly stones on Earth and mark the edge of the high polar plateau. Below us the Robinson Glacier spills into the great Scott Glacier and leads to a mountain range as spectacular as any on the planet, one that precious few have ever reached. It now lies almost within our grasp.
Today is day 10. It is blowing above 30 knots and for the second time this week we are pinned in a blizzard. On schedule, November 15, we flew from Chile to Antarctica, arriving at Union Glacier, a big, comfortable camp from which most expeditions set out. Five days later, a ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft dropped us at 88°S, 135°W, the plane’s maximum range given the payload, and just 220km from the Pole.
Immediately we were struck by the extreme cold (-33C, reduced to -45C by 12-knot wind-chill) and the breathlessness associated with the altitude of nearly 3,000 metres. “Nothing’s easy out here!” remarked our veteran polar pilot, struggling to release the frozen latch on the plane door before taking off. His words could not have been more prophetic.
With the plane gone, we were alone — surely some of the most isolated humans on the planet. The magnitude of the journey we were about to begin was utterly overwhelming, so we all ignored it and focused on the most immediate concerns: keeping warm, pitching tent, packing the pulks. The sun was out, and I even managed to fly the drone and get some epic shots of our temporary home when seasoned mountain guide Mark commented: “That looks like a storm on the horizon.” Sure enough, within hours we were treated to “the welcome storm” — winds up to 40 knots, wind-chill temperatures of -60C, and driving snow creating a total white-out.
We sat it out in our tunnel tent, keeping in good spirits — though I cracked the screen on my Kindle, leaving me with the one book on my iPhone (it’s War and Peace, so should keep me going). Eventually, on the fourth day after our drop-off, the wind dropped enough to try kiting. Conditions were far from ideal, with the wind still gusting to 25 knots, but we were eager to test the kites to see if we could manage the heavy pulks and begin the journey, even if we only made it a few kilometres.
I was very nervous as we unfurled the kites for the first time, at about 7pm. So much stuff everywhere, so many complications: boots, overboots, 194cm racing skis, down suit, gloves, more gloves, kite harness, helmet, goggles, neck-warmer, hoods, stills camera, video rig, food, radio, compass and GPS mounted on forearm for navigation. I had never flown that particular model of kite before, never pulled such a heavy load, never kited in such brutal cold. There was a lot going on!
Thankfully, it worked. The wind direction was ideal, so although the pulks bounced around furiously at times, their weight (180kg each) was barely noticeable, and we managed 32km in just over two hours.
Our second kiting day, we hit the “South Pole traverse”, a marked route that runs 2,000km from the US’s McMurdo base to the science station at the South Pole. At first there was little to see other than bamboo poles every 300 metres, until we came across a 10-tractor convoy pulling a million gallons of fuel in giant bladders to resupply the Pole station.
After a quick hello to the crew, we were delighted to find a soft, flattened trail left in the wake of the convoy, an ideal surface for riding, enabling us to open up the kites and travel 30km in 90 minutes. Flying with my friends in tight formation at high speed across that alien landscape was something none of us will ever forget. But frankly, other than that short session of what we call type-1 fun (actually enjoyable), everything else has been type-2 (fun in retrospect) or even type-3 (not really fun at all).
We are hoping to average 70km per day when kiting but the difficulty of the terrain and conditions meant we have done half that. We have also only been able to travel on half of the days since our drop-off. Hence we are currently way off schedule.
Our main problem has been too much wind — quite the opposite of one of my main fears: being caught in the doldrums. There is some slack in our schedule to allow us to wait for kinder conditions but we are certainly having a tough time of it out here.
Our hope is that, after this storm abates, within a few days we will be camped below the Spectre in the cirque of the Gothic mountains. There we will be sheltered from the wind, further north, at much lower altitude and hopefully much warmer as it will be impossible to climb the highly technical south face in these conditions.
Despite the setbacks, there are plenty of smiles and laughs as we push ourselves hard and invoke the grit of the great Wally. Believe it or not, we are actually having a great time out here — well, type-2 great at least.