Approaching midnight. The giant Illushyian military aircraft came thundering low over the Patriot Hills with the grace of a space shuttle, her nose crabbing into the gusting 42-knot crosswinds. The brilliant Russian pilot, along with his 11-man crew, were being talked down with the aid of all the high-tech support Antarctica could offer; a man at the edge of the runway sitting on his wind-buffeted skidoo, yelling the changing wind speed and direction into his hand-held radio.
The “runway” consisted of rugged, rough blue ice, covered with snowdrifts and sastrugi (rough ridges of ice formed by the almost incessant polar winds). Its twinkling extremities were marked by women flashing the bright midnight sun off cosmetic mirrors through the swirling spindrift. High-tech, hey?!
Five hours earlier we had donned our bulky Antarctic gear clambered into the aircraft’s windowless belly amongst mountains of cargo and been launched due south from a military base near the tip of South America. We were heading for the continent of Antarctica. It is a rugged, frozen desert twice the size of Australia, indescribably beautiful in it’s utter remoteness and desolation. It is also quite simply the coldest place on earth. Winter temperatures plummet so low that boiling water thrown into the air comes down as snow and ice.
Surrounded by noise in the dimly lit cargo bay, I sat facing inwards on a lightweight aluminium seat. My knees were just 3 inches away from one of 90 200-litre drums of high-octane aviation fuel chained together, metal to metal. On top were 8 expedition sleds secured by a nylon cargo net.
Jon Cook, my close friend and sighted guide had, along with some 12 other expedition-bound individuals volunteered to join this fuel flight after 17 days delay due to bad weather.
A Russian crew member joined us, taking up a very definite white-knuckle, head down crash position for the “landing”. I remembered the account of the Chilean Air Force Hercules, attempting a landing in similar conditions, spinning around out of control more than 360 degrees down the runway like a bizarre carnival ride due to the high cross-winds.
Just before impact I distinctly remember wondering just what I was doing there, sitting amongst the ingredients for a rather magnificent Molotov Cocktail! The impact, when it came moments later, did not disappoint any of us. Like a fully laden goods train ploughing at full speed through a rock quarry with no brakes. Only more so.
Moments when you just know your life is in someone else’s hands- the Russian pilot we have never met caressing and manipulating the 4 reverse-thrust power controls with the delicacy of a lovers touch, as 200 tons of state-of-the-art technology thundered and bucked, slewing from side to side down the ice “runway” for what seemed like an interminable age.
Finally the thundering ride began to subside, replaced by us yelling and cheering, releasing all our pent-up tension.
When the Illushyian’s cargo door lowered, we were hit by a shocking wave of super-frozen air, despite being in all our Antarctic gear.
Three days later, after packing our sleds with dehydrated food, fuel, tents, emergency medical supplies and expedition equipment we were flown in a Twin Otter to the edge of this vast continent, and the 4 of us lined up for the official RNIB Antarctic expedition photograph. Expedition Leader American Doug Stoup, Assistant Guide Australian Damien Gildea, Jon and myself.
Minutes later the Otter roared past us on her skis, trailing a smoky snow plume into the blue sky. Suddenly, we were alone.
Silence descended upon us, vast and white and empty.
Behind us the frozen sea stretched to the horizon. Ahead lay a 730-mile, 65-day Polar journey, involving an altitude gain of some 9,500 feet to the South Pole.
I turned to Jon my sighted guide, lifting my goggles and face mask, and said, Remember, “all we have to do, to reach the Pole, is haul these sleds for a single day at a time!”
I had never skied before, and we could only guess how Jon would overcome difficulties guiding me in high winds, white-outs, big sastrugi or in crevassed areas, as no blind person had attempted a Polar journey before.
For me, the first 10 days were the hardest, getting used to pulling the sled on skis, and working out an efficient way of feeling my way across the rough, undulating Sastrugi. These varied in direction and height, with our sleds, trailing some 8 feet behind, continually sliding and angling out of line, sometimes holding us back as we tried to haul them up steep inclines, or suddenly transforming themselves into heavy battering rams, knocking us off our feet on slippery blue ice sections.
I found it more tiring than my sighted companions, as I was often having to use my ski poles like long canes to feel the shape and size of the sastrugi instead of powering forward with them. It was often not practical for the others to describe the terrain to me, as it was changing so much.
It took a while for me to master the concept of always keeping my feet on the ice, resisting the natural impulse to lift them in broken conditions. I learnt to use my ski tips as indicators of the size of the sastrugi we were encountering, and had to learn the art of preventing one tip crossing the other when unexpectedly coming across angled sastrugi ridges. Crossed skis during the first few days led to uncomfortable, time consuming falls onto the ice, and gawky moments trying to untangle skis, ski poles and harness ropes before figuring out how to get back on my feet using my ski poles for leverage.
Jon and I decided it was not practical to be roped together, and my most effective form of guidance was to ski near someone else, listening to the sound of their skis or sled squeaking and growling over the ice. When we encountered soft snow and everything went silent, I used to try and keep station by keeping the wind at a constant angle across my face. This was also a good trick in high winds, when I could not hear anything else.
It never got dark, with the sun even at midnight, staying some 30 degrees above the horizon.
At around 6/7pm we would make camp for the “night” once we had found some relatively level snow on which to pitch our two tents. Once the inner tent was up, Jon would pass all our gear into me to layout, whilst he attached the outer insulating layer, and cut blocks of ice to hold down the outer flaps for security against the high winds.
Once both in the tent, we would strip down and get straight into our sleeping bags. We basically wore one set of clothing for the entire journey to save weight, with the only luxury a couple of spare pairs of socks and underwear, and a ration of 1-2 wet-wipes per day for “washing”. I got a lot of mileage from a single wet wipe by making a snow-filled sandwich out of it, with the melting snow making it last much longer. A bit nippy to use, but very refreshing!
The only way to dry damp or sweaty clothing was to wear it to bed, using our body warmth to dry it for the next day. Sweaty socks that we had worn for weeks would be stuffed down our thermal tops to dry. Moisture in the boots can turn to ice and lead to frostbite, so must be guarded against “at all costs”!
Not many people think about these aspects of expedition life!
Our evening meal, cooked by melting ice with our high-octane fuel stoves, consisted of several packets of dehydrated food mixed with generous portions of powdered mashed potato. A half-pound block of butter was quartered between us, and a lump mixed into each insulated bowl. The entire mixture weighed around 4 lbs., and it took us an hour to eat! Breakfast consisted of porridge/museli mixes and a hot chocolate drink. We never really washed out our containers, as water was too precious, so the porridge always hinted of what we had eaten the night before, and similarly, the chocolate drink had bits of vegetable soup floating in it from the last meal! I often thought of my Mum telling me as a child that if I did not eat all my supper I would have to eat it for breakfast!
We got into a good daily routine, waking at 6am to start melting snow, preparing breakfast, dressing and breaking camp. We were on our skis for around 9/10 hours a day, with 4 short stops to drink and eat. We were burning around 6,000 calories a day hauling our sleds almost perpetually uphill.
Whenever a break would be called by the person navigating up front with a compass, (steering us away from known crevassed areas etc), I would usually be sweating at this point, despite having my thin wind-proof top unzipped, and temperatures of around –20/35C. I would plant my ski poles in the snow, zip up my protective clothing, then, still on skis and harnessed, turn around feel for my sled, find the zip on the cover, and feel inside it for my heavy down jacket and put it on. Not as simple as it sounds, wearing thin inner gloves, then wind-proof working gloves, then down mitts, and not able to see what I was doing! Jon has a photo of me attempting to put on my down jacket upside down in strong winds! By the way, you had to hold on to everything very carefully, as a high wind could snatch such vital items from your unfeeling hands, and blow it away faster than a man could run!
We would sit with our backs to the wind, trying to stop our core temperatures dropping too quickly. Then, in just 5/6 minutes, drink half a litre of hot energy drink from a flask, and eat two items of energy food like a slab of chocolate, and a frozen chocolate brownie saturated in butter, etc. For you chocolate lovers, try eating a quarter-pound slab of concrete-hard chocolate you have left overnight in the freezer blindfolded, wearing two pairs of gloves, and facing a pollution fine of U.S Dollars 1,000 if any part of the wrapper gets blown away in the wind! Take my word for it, forcing lumps of hard chocolate down your throat like a Gannet in such conditions is simply a necessity, not a delight!
I used to strip off all the wrappers the night before in the tent, and keep my snacks in a plastic bag, using my mouth and tongue to identify my options at each break.
At times we would start shivering before the break ended, despite the down jackets. We would then have to take them off again before setting off to prevent over-heating.
I remember once counting 400 paces after re-starting before I stopped shivering, a further 400 paces to feel warm, then 2,000 paces before my hands warmed up again! Actually, my hands proved a bit of a problem almost from day one, taking longer than the others to warm through. I used to windmill my arms at each stop to force the blood flow into my hands, giving my fingers “the hots” as the blood was forced into the fingertip capillaries.
As the expedition progressed, I had to use more and more of my precious breaks time wind milling my arms. After 25 days my hands appeared to start deteriorating more rapidly. I found myself having to use my teeth to operate my tape recorder and two-way radio, due to loss of feeling in my hands. My finger and thumb tips started remaining white, and my thumbnails were starting to turn black, despite putting them in warm water in the tent each evening to thaw them. I also tried using different glove combinations, using chemical hand-warmers and wind milling my hands for long periods of time during our daily breaks. The problem appeared to be one of circulation, rather than insulation.
Finally, I went an entire day without my thumbs warming at all, forcing me to consider the increasing possibility of experiencing permanent damage to my hands if this deterioration continued to the Pole, still some 35 days away.
We stopped hauling our sledges for several days, partly to protect and treat my hands, and also to wait for a delayed food resupply by air, due to poor weather conditions.
During those days, whilst also preparing and marking out an emergency runway, I spoke to my team-mates and our medical support staff hundreds of miles away on the Antarctic coast via radio, seeking advice about my hands.
I finally decided that I wanted to press on to the pole as fast as possible, trusting that, with limited supplies of emergency chemical hand warmers, I could get there without further significant frost damage to my hands.
Unfortunately, but probably wisely, the medical staff radioed back over-riding my decision, declaring that the risks were too high, and informing me that my medical insurance cover was no longer valid, and that I was to be airlifted out by the supply plane.
It was an agonising, devastating, heart-rending time for me, after coming so far, and overcoming all the difficulties of blind Polar travel.
I have always encouraged people to “push the limits”, and focus on their opportunities, not their limitations, and here I was, within reach of fulfilling one of my great dreams!
However, I reasoned, if I reached the Pole but lost the use of my hands, my second set of “eyes” as a blind person, returning less independent and more disabled, how would my actions be perceived?
Absolutely gutted as I was, I reluctantly recognised the wisdom of their decision, and that it would be irresponsible for me to continue under such circumstances. I encouraged myself with the fact that blindness had not proved a barrier, but a circulation condition any team member could have experienced. As a team we had overcome all the challenges of blind Polar travel. We had already successfully undertaken a journey equivalent in duration to crossing the entire Greenland Icecap at a faster pace than any previous commercial expedition supported by Adventure Network International, despite having a blind member in the team.
The 3 remaining RNIB Team members continued successfully to the South Pole, planting the RNIB Expedition flag there 31 days later, thereby raising valuable funds to help other visually-impaired people of all ages live more confident, dignified and independent lives.
And I still have my hands. And the Pole is still there…