Linda reflects on her Antarctic expedition.( November to December 2004)
It’s hard to believe I’m back – because for quite some time it was hard to believe I would ever make it to the South Pole. We skied for day after day across a flat, white landscape, with no sense of progress because there were no visual clues that we were actually moving anywhere. The only sign was a new reading on the GPS at night and each camp marked off another centimeter on the map.
I did make it though – with my four companions, Denise (guide from Canada), Stuart (from the USA), Hannah (from England) and Craig (from Scotland). It took us 56 days to cross from Hercules Inlet on the edge of the Antarctic to the South Pole – 600 nautical miles (approx 1200 km). It was a wonderful experience, testing both my physical and metal stamina. I felt privileged to be there – there’s nothing like a huge, white, icy, windy land to remind you of the insignificance of human beings in the grand scheme of things. Antarctica has a way of sending reminders not to take anything for granted – a blistering wind, temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius, a whiteout fog,, a challenging day of soft snow or large sastrugi or a beautiful day of clouds and sun haloes.
There had been three more people in the two groups we originally set out in – after an accident, frost bite and injury resulted in some evacuations the remaining people formed one group and completed over half of the journey together. We had one planned food drop about half way and were able to organise another, needed as a result of initial slow progress (bad weather and very challenging sastrugi). We waited for 3 days at one stage for Devon to be evacuated after badly cutting his hand. Devon was a guide in one of the original groups and had to leave the Antarctic altogether in order to allow his hand to heal.
Diary Extract: Thursday November 18th, (Day 16)
No longer under the radar
“I started the trip with Devon and Stuart ?under the radar’. Our planned contact with the world was the daily radio schedule and a phone call to our respective partners once a week.
The other group was quite different. Each of them has a website. Hannah sends daily colorful dispatches which many people read. Owen and Craig send fewer but never the less regular stories and position updates. Emails come in and go out via the PDA’s and Sat phones. Photos are sent and adorn websites. There is a vastly different sense of being attached to the outside world.
Stuart and I have started to use the emails particularly as our friends have started to realise that we can be reached that way. Contact with home is occurring now around every 2nd day for me now. It’s given me a sense that what I’m doing is being appreciated and that I’m cared about. It’s heartening.
There is a loss though, in the sense of location in this place. The vastness of the Antarctic and its remoteness is reduced. The personal strength (mental not physical) required is lessened. We, in this little red tent on the ice, are part of the glob al world.”
Each day we walked towards the horizon and each day the horizon continued to stretch out before us. We were gradually climbing – the South Pole is 9,300 feet above sea level – up and over undulating waves of slowly moving ice. Because the horizon was so low and so featureless the skies were huge…
Diary Extract Monday Nov 29th – we’ve been in Antarctica for a month (Day 27)
Clouds and snow
“The clouds today were fantastic. Layers of different sorts, crosshatched, daubed and paint stroked in an impressionist kind of way across the sky. Multi-dimensional, ethereal, mystical and, eerie. The sun shone on us for most of the time from below them and we were quite warm. The wind was not strong.
Towards the end of the day somehow the light seems the strongest and most yellow. We were traveling on a long wide gentle incline, so gentle that you don’t realise you are climbing but it has the effect of foreshortening the horizon. There was a fuzzy, foggy, grey cloud beyond our incline, reaching down to the ground. It felt like we were walking off the end of the world, that we were going to reach an edge sometime and enter a different world.
A little bit of snow fell as we skied our last 15 minutes, the featherlight ice crystals caught the sunlight, glinting like faint fairy lights as they blew around us.”
We made up for the slow start by building up to very good distances of 14 to 17 nautical miles a day (25 to 32 kms). Better conditions and lighter sleds made this possible, not to mention growing strength and skills on the skis. Mot every day was easy however as we had to make our way through whiteout a number of times.
Diary Extract: Tuesday 30th November (Day 28)
“Today was one of those days when there was absolutely no indication of progress. We could have been on a sastrugi laden conveyor belt for all we knew. Most of the day was in whiteout, occasionally it snowed, and sometimes we had a bit of a view of a fuzzy white horizon underneath the heavy, grey, woolly, blanket like cloud. We could not see the ground to the side or in front of us at all. With no contrast the only way of getting any view of where the next step would land was when you were directly behind a pulk which would throw out a reflection on the snow, somehow creating a little contrast.
Today we resembled a team of first time iceskaters as we slid, tottered and struggled for balance on a sastrugi filled ground that we could not see. Craig, at one point ended up on top of one of the huge ones, his pulk deep in the trough behind it. More often we would find ourselves stranded with one ski on each side of a sastrugi – a widening stance, a lurch or slip off the end onto low ground again and then a heave to pull the pulk over.
Not much inner reflection or thinking occurs on low contrast days. I have to concentrate so hard to stay upright and negotiate the invisible bumps beneath my feet that its exhausting. Most of us took turns to lead today. When I was leading I found I could see nothing of the ground in front of me. All I could do was move forward and hope both that I stayed upright and that I could lead the group onto flat ground rather than into the big lumps or patches of sastrugi. Luck played a big part in the result. Whiteout days are exhausting – mentally and physically.”
Life on the expedition was reduced to the essentials of living – surviving the cold, getting food into our bellies, sleeping and moving ever on. It was monotonous and I loved it. There was time to think and time to reflect. I loved the simplicity of it. Each day was largely the same but subtly different. It was a chance to appreciate small changes and large consistent efforts.
Thursday Dec 9th, (Day 35)
The daily routine
“I love the first few hours in the tent after the days skiing has finished. Removing iced up and bulky clothing, putting dry socks and camp booties on, eating, eating, & eating and drinking chocolate and then soup, checking our progress. It’s a great time.
Bed time means that the time to get up and go again is getting closer. I wake often during the sunny night and really love it when its only 12.00 or 1.00 or 2.00 am because then the time to go is quite a while off yet.
Morning is leisurely in our tent because we wake early. Also because it takes a while to boil the day’s water. Breakfast is enjoyable but there is the underlying knowledge that soon we have to go??.. and spend 9 or more hours outside, mostly pulling the pulk.
I cope with the shift from the tent to the outside by going into automatic mode. The routine of how we move out of the tent, pack our pulks, clean the ice off the tent, get the snow off the tent valances and pull the tent down is absolutely the same every day so we can do it without thinking. We each have our own roles and preferences, which we’ve worked into the routine. Just occasionally I catch myself thinking about the workload of the day ahead but mostly I choose not to. I allow the routine to take care of the transition between relaxation and warmth to the cold, working day. “
A frequent question from people who attend presentations is ?did you ever feel like giving up?? and the answer is an unequivocal NO. I was always able to get in touch with an understanding that being on the Antarctic ice cap is one of the most wonderful privileges and remarkable experiences I could ever possibly have. I would have preferred to be out there longer.
For most of the trip however I couldn’t imagine getting to the pole – I felt like the routine of being in the tent and skiing was all there was and that we would be doing it for ever. I could not conjure up an image of what it would be like to finish the journey. Given the chance I would have liked to have a good long sleep – a sleep for a week sounded reasonable. I was feeling quite tired – a breathless, calorie deprived kind of bone tired. – which is why it did indeed feel like a miracle to slowly come upon the South Pole station. For a couple of days before arriving we started crossing tracks. We picked up the remains of a weather balloon. On the last day we finally spotted some small black dots on the horizon and over the hours it took to ski there they grew in size and definition untill we were among the buildings and piles of equipment that make up the South Pole Station.
Another extract describes the moment of reaching the South Pole
Diary Extract: Tuesday 28th December (Day 56):
Reaching the South Pole
It was really exciting skiing up to the poles. Firstly we passed a series of ice sculptures – car sized blocks of ice, shaped with varying degrees of skill into shapes -a car, a turtle, Easter Island faces. The outstanding two were a stiletto shoe and a ceremonial cup. It looked bizarre and added a sense of theatre and fun to the place. An Australian flag flew from one of the sculptures.
Beyond that we could see the ceremonial pole. It?s a white and red barber shop pole with a silver ball on top, In a semi circle around the pole stood a number of flag poles, the flags of many countries were flapping furiously in the wind.
It took us a little while longer to notice the real pole – a brass marker on a staff in the ground, about 4 feet away from a sign in the memory of Amundsen and Scott. A small square of poles, marker flags and yellow tape secured a small area in between the two poles. This is the site where the new ?real pole’ would be placed on Jan 1st. Until we learnt what it was we thought the tape marked some hazard or piece of construction work.
We skied up to the ceremonial pole and flags area. We were skiing in a line, fairly slowly and savouring the remaining few metres of our journey. A station staff member, dressed in overalls came out and asked if he could take a photo. ?Sure’ we said. He snapped a quick couple of shots and moved off again. I was expecting that we would cluster around the pole, have a hug and share some ?hoorays’. Instead the station manager came out and started talking to Denise just as we reached the circle of flags. He was working out with her where we should camp and when we would visit the station for an introductory talk. Our group started to wander. I unclipped from my pulk and wandered over to the ?real pole’. Others stood and listened to the conversation.
Our moment was lost.
None of it really mattered. We were at the South Pole, the only place in the world where there is no more south. The place where people walk upside down, the axis of the earths rotation. It was the end of our 56 day, 1200 km journey through one of the world’s least well known and harshest environments, It is really special to be here – and a huge relief.”
Being the first…
…Australian woman to ski from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole is accidental – its something I’m quite proud of, but aware that it was a bit of luck with timing rather than an act of heroism. I am proud that the first Aussie woman came from rural Victoria. There’s still the opportunity for women to do the trip unsupported and unguided – any takers?
The St Luke’s Gondwana Fund
Being the first creates opportunities however, which I am happy to exploit. I have used the interest generated in my trip to raise funds for innovative social change projects, through the St Luke’s Gondwana Fund. Gondwana is the name of a ?pulk pet’ I made out of bits of clothing that had fallen apart on the trip – gloves, socks, a boot liners.
A pulk pet is a soft toy that rides on the pulk (sled) and keeps the person traveling behind that pulk a bit happier. Gondwana represents team values of cooperation, generosity and sharing, the personal qualities of resilience, perseverance and courage and broader values of respect for the environment and diversity of culture. These qualities were essential in my journey to the South Pole and are embodied in community building and social change actions. Donations or fees from speaking engagements have generated money for the Gondwana Fund. I’m learning how to combine a description of the Antarctic journey with stories and ideas from my work – about community development and capacity building. What is the role of ?hope’ in reaching the South Pole or building a greater sense of community?
What it’s all about in the end
We return to our homes with an appreciation of our selves, the depths of strength and courage we possess. The challenge now is to take that courage and tenacity and use it within our communities – that is my goal anyhow.
We carry the warmth of the group effort, without which none of us individually would have finished the journey. It is easier to appreciate the enormous value of a gesture of generosity and a simple friendly smile when we have experienced how that can turn survival into enjoyment.
We see our world with different eyes. We have a new appreciation for life and perhaps a heightened awareness of the fragility of our ecosystems. We have been to a place with no life and have experienced the yearning for a glimpse of a bird, an insect, a green leaf, running water. The significance of global warming is a lot greater and the need to tread lightly on this earth seems all the more urgent.
For me there is a recognition that of all the qualities I possess, that maybe patience, humility and the ability to hang in on a long slow plod with my team are the most valuable.
Cartoons -drawn by Bendigo illustrator, Matt Jones