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In Blind Pursuit of the Midnight Sun

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…

How to become a Dangerous Dreamer

Have you ever wondered how come some people make so little with so much in their lives, and others make so much with so little?

Whilst participating in an 11-day ultra-marathon in China, running through part of the Gobi Desert, world-renowned German athlete Stephan Schlect panted a profound thing to me; “For some people, a crisis in their life stops them living- and for others, it starts them living..!

As I was growing up, I thought there were two kinds of people in life; happy people (with no problems), and unhappy people (with problems). Then I realised that we all experience problems in life, and that our happiness and quality of life is not so much dependent on our circumstances, but on our response to them!
I am blind, having lost my sight some 40 years ago to a genetic, hereditary eye disease. As my sight decreased, so did my quality of life, and I resigned myself to the fact that I could never again be really fulfilled, really happy, due to my sight loss.
Then an amazing thing happened! My brother Geoff, also blind through the same problem, set sail in his yacht from Durban, South Africa for Fremantle, Western Australia…totally blind and totally alone. Fifty-one days and 4,300 miles later, via the Southern Ocean, Roaring Forties and 5 days in a Force 10 gale (which almost took his life) he became the first and only blind person in world history to have sailed across an ocean solo…
Everybody, including his friends, told him it was impossible. But it wasn’t impossible- it just hadn’t been done before…
I realised then that I had made a number of wrong assumptions about life.
For one thing, 20/20 vision was not the secret of happiness, or everybody with good sight would be driving around grinning like Cheshire cats! And they don’t!
I also realised that, although I had no control over my blindness, I did have control over my RESPONSE to it- and this revelation made a world of difference!
Louis Braille was blinded at the age of 3, playing with a spiked instrument. Many years later he invented the Braille alphabet, giving back to millions of blind people the ability to read once again. Do you know what he used to make the raised dots on the paper?! The very same spike instrument that blinded him was used to give sight to millions of others..!
I first perceived my blindness as a terrible handicap- a barrier preventing me from achieving things in life. Now, by changing my attitude towards my blindness, it has become a passport, enabling me to achieve many things I probably would never have done with perfect sight.

Now, I am not in any way suggesting my blindness equates to the very harrowing, life-threatening circumstances of others, but I am convinced that, for you as well as them, your life is still full of choices, and your quality of life will be determined, not so much by your circumstances, but by your response to them!
Well, let me share with you a few life lessons I have started to learn in recent years.

1. Expect the unexpected: –
Things don’t always go your way in life- things get a bit “pear shaped”- the wheels fall off, so to speak.
Read the biographies of people who have achieved great things in their lives, and you will find that they all experienced adverse circumstances, but they learnt to deal with them, and keep going!
A wonderful, encouraging Danish Proverb goes like this;
“Life does not consist so much in holding a good hand (of cards), but in playing a poor hand well”.
We can bellyache and complain about the unfairness of life, or we can make the most of our circumstances. Remember- your quality of life and happiness has a lot more to do with attitude than circumstances…-“

2. Never give up: –
It is simply amazing how much you can achieve by just keeping going, as long as you are pointing in the right direction! I have had so many times recently when my body has wanted me to stop;
climbing the frozen scree slopes of Kilimanjaro at 19,000 feet in the icy moonlight, crossing Antarctica, exhausted by pulling a loaded sledge over big sastrugi (ice ridges) when I couldn’t see them coming, crossing the Sahara, Gobi or Qatar Deserts; running in the Siberian Ice Marathon, running through Death Valley with temperatures 137 Fahrenheit in the shade… it has seemed so easy to stop, and so hard to keep going, but Jon Cook, my sighted guide, and myself have learnt over and over and over again, that you can keep going long after you think you just can’t go another step, either physically or mentally.
Another fantastic quote I love comes from T.E. Elliott “Only he who is willing to risk going too far will discover how far it is possible to go”
I learnt this quote from Major Jay Turner of the Royal Engineers when, accompanied by3 others, we set off to attempt setting a world record by crossing the 200 kilometres of the Qatar Desert non-stop and unsupported. This meant that we would not stop to sleep until we reached the other side, and we would be self-sufficient, dragging more than a third of a ton of water and supplies behind us through deep sand with temperatures up to 40 Centigrade, and humidity sometimes rising over 50%. We started on a Tuesday morning at 10.00 hours, and reached the other side of the desert on Friday evening at 16.30 hours- some 78.5 hours later. How did we do it? One step at a time, pointing in the right direction, and just not giving up.

3. Dream, decide, plan, persevere: –
This is a basic life plan I often refer to. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, you can apply these to your life.
In brief summary;
(a) Dream big to achieve big I’ve never met a person who has dreamed small and achieved big things!
(b) Decide- your dreams remain just that, until you make a decision to make them happen. Just start telling your friends your decision, and start acting on it!
© Plan- “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”; “plan your work, and work your plan”. Simple stuff, hey?!
(d) Persevere- expect the unexpected; don’t give up- when circumstances change, adapt your plan, but keep your goal!

4. The Circle of Life: –
Draw an imaginary circle around yourself. This represents everything you have done with your life to date. Many people tell me their life is monotonous, that they are unfulfilled, stuck in a rut, so to speak.
Whilst participating in the Marathon Des Sables, requiring competitors to run five-and-a-half marathons in 6 days across the Sahara Desert carrying all their food, equipment and supplies on their back, Jon my sighted guide read me a legend embroidered on the rucksack of a French runner; “He who is not willing to RISK going BEYOND his limits should not complain about the mediocrity of his existence”! Wow! That hit me!
Listen to this! “If you keep doing what you have always done, you will get what you have always got”!
Basically, you need to get into the ROUTINE of stepping outside your circle, attempting things you have never done before. Sure it is stressful- change usually is, but, in order to achieve new things in your life, this is the only logical route open to you! Let me tell you something I find simply amazing! Whenever you step outside the circle, and do something new, the circle grows bigger and reforms around you- you never need to step back into it. Listen! As soon as you do something new, it is no longer new, as now you have done it, experienced it, and it is part of your enlarged life! That is logical, isn’t it?!
When we went to Antarctica, it was the first time a blind person had attempted to manhaul a sledge to the South Pole, and we did not know what to expect, or how I could be guided in crevassed areas, or in a blizzard or whiteout. We were stepping out of the circle, so to speak, attempting something that we knew could be done- it just hadn’t been done yet!
I distinctly remember waking up in our tent one somewhat nippy morning, brushing whore frost off my outer sleeping bag and thinking “Miles, you are still alive, and all of this is very normal and ordinary now!”
What had happened?! I had stepped out of the circle, but the circle had then re-formed around me as soon as that new experience became part of my life…
Listen! Stepping out of your circle, attempting new things, is the way to broaden and enrich your life, to achieve your dreams! And it’s not nearly as difficult as you think it is- just dream, decide, plan and persevere, and you will surprise yourself in a huge way with the results!
Did you know that everybody in this world who has achieved anything significant or unusual started out as an ordinary person like you or I, and they simply decided to do something that had not been done before, or that they had not done before. It’s not half as difficult as you think it is!

5. Have a lot of fun in life!:

Life is serious enough, without you and I adding to it, isn’t it?!
I’m a great believer that it’s a waste of time bellyaching about things we can’t change in our lives!
As they say, if you don’t like something, change it, and if you can’t change it, change your attitude to it!
I think I am happier and more fulfilled in my life right now than I have ever been before, despite my blindness.
Fulfilment, after all, is the product of achievement, not inactivity, and I now focus on all the things I can do, rather than regret the things I can no longer do. You should do the same!
I think that having a sense of humour, and being able to laugh at yourself and your situation at times is an essential attribute if we are going to fulfil our potential in life!
Hey! Lighten up a bit! For example, even when my sighted guide and I are stuck in a snow storm half way up a mountain, roped together, we can still see the funny side of it, like me leading the pitch, since we are both “blind” as a result, giving him a break from leading me!

6. The importance of friendship/teamwork:

I can only live the big dreams in my life through help from others with different attributes and abilities to myself- like being able to see, for example!
On all my expeditions there has been mutual respect, trust and friendship amongst the team, apart from a common goal.
If you want to have a good friend in life, be willing to be a good friend to someone else…

7. Your attitude to “failure”: –
Do you know that so many people around us are afraid of trying something new, in case they do not succeed the first time? Silly attitude! We all know about Michael Schumacher, World Formula One champion.
Do you know how he got there? Through the process of losing more races than he won over the years, but learning from every race he lost. Take the risk of winning! At the end of my life, I will be more concerned about the things I have not attempted, rather than those I have! My definition of a winner is simply someone who gets up one more time than they fall down.
Don’t let your past determine your future- you may have failed in the past, but there is no reason you cannot succeed in the future! Get up, and do it again!

You, whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, are an amazing person, with untapped potential. Look at your opportunities, not your limitations. Remember, in most cases, the only limits in your life are those you choose to accept yourself! Your quality of life, as I keep on telling you, is determined, not so much by your circumstances, but by your response to them..!
Remember…
Dream, decide, plan, persevere…

Let me leave you with a few of my favourite quotes…

“He who says it is impossible should not interrupt he who is doing it” (Chinese Proverb)

“Only he who is willing to risk going too far will discover how far it is possible to go” (T.E. Elliott)

“Life does not consist in holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well”
(Danish Proverb)

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous dreamers, for they may act their dream with open eyes, that they may fulfil their dreams!
(Lawrence of Arabia)

We can all be dangerous dreamers…

To contact Miles please click here.