In 2005, my team-mates Will and Henry successfully completed a 320 mile foot race in Canada called The Yukon Arctic Ultra. In the year and a half since I've known them they have never tired of telling me all about it. They promise to stop only when I compete in the race myself, which I won't be able to do before our Antarctic expedition due to other training commitments.
This means that, throughout the expedition, I'll be prey to their endlessly evoking what it is like walking 18 hours in the frozen wilderness for 8 days in a row, towing your supplies behind you, suffering from the sensory deprivation of walking in the interminable white, day after day. It'll be like a running commentary!
Seriously though, I wish I had done the race. It's hard to imagine more condensed training for the mental stresses of polar travel and Henry and Will take great confidence from their achievement. The hard part must have been to stay focused when every part of your mind and body are calling for rest. Henry recalls that, in his exhausted state, he managed to persuade himself that he was hauling his sick child to the nearest doctor. That was how he conned himself into continuing. Will, on the other hand, is a loony and stopping probably never occurred to him.
Although we have each spent time in the Arctic on a number of occasions, neither Henry, Will nor I have any Antarctic experience. As a professional soldier, Henry has been taught how to survive in various environments. As a polar nut, Will spent weeks working on glaciers and attended polar training courses when the Foundation and expedition were a dream rather than a reality.
I have the least cold weather experience of the three of us. Sometimes the training daunts me, in terms of what we need to get through physically and the skills we need to acquire. We are not professional explorers and we are not sneaking a polar guide into one of our pulks. We are three men who long desperately to retrace our ancestors' footsteps and complete a 900 mile walk to the South Pole.
We will have trained for almost 3 years as a team before we start. There's just so much to learn.
Firstly, we need to travel efficiently across the innumerable variations of snow and ice we will encounter. We will use cross country skis with skins almost throughout the expedition, although for glacier travel we may need to resort to crampons to move over the ice.
We will need to negotiate the full length of the longest glacier on Earth, the Beardmore Glacier, on our route from the Ross Ice Shelf to the Polar Plateau. Only a handful of people have ever done this - why would you, unless you had to? Beneath the surface of this flowing ice field await cathedral-sized chasms. We must have the skills and equipment to move roped together and to rescue ourselves from these crevasses (not that we intend to fall in them in the first place).
Next, we need to be able to eat, sleep and equip ourselves for survival in the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth. This is where many expeditions come a cropper. Choosing the right kit and establishing the right routine are paramount in order to avoid a snowball of problems potentially culminating in evacuation or worse.
For example, if you don't brush the frozen condensation off the inside wall of the tent before you put it away each morning, it will melt as soon as you heat the stoves in the tent that evening. The melted ice will fall like rain all over the inside of the tent, soaking everything including the sleeping bags. Once these get wet, they are extremely difficult to dry and the down feathers lose all insulating properties, turning to ice. Your sleeping bag is now heavy and cold. At the very least this will affect your sleeping. You begin to get tired and your body isn't able to recuperate properly. Your chances of success drop more and more each day due to increasing levels of exhaustion, bringing with it greater risk of injury. All from not wiping the tent.
In our training to date, we've been on mountaineering and crevasse rescue courses in Wales, Scotland and the Austrian Alps, taught by Ross Ashe-Cregan of AC Adventures. We've been taught the art of polar travel by Matty McNair, a veteran of both Poles, in Canada's Baffin Island and more recently at Finse in Norway.
Next up, we're due to attend a cold weather injuries course later this summer, at which we will learn more about hypothermia and frostbite, amongst other nasties. We will then go back to the Alps this winter for more glacier travel/crevasse rescue work. After that, in April/May next year we will undertake a three week crossing of Greenland, where the conditions are quite reminiscent of Antarctica. This will in many ways be our dress rehearsal.
In the meantime, we each have a responsibility to maintain our own fitness levels. Up til now this has by and large meant running, cycling or swimming. However, I've just taken delivery of a stunning set of used tyres which we will fix to our harnesses and tow round various parts of England.
So if you see three strange men pulling tyres around and cursing, we'd love it if you shout some encouragement. Just don't ask about The Yukon if you're in a rush.
Posted by Tim Fright on July 9, 2007 10:17 AM