Nathan Hambrook-Skinner Blog: On The Road
It’s hard to believe that as I write this the Willis Resilience Expedition has been in Antarctica for almost a week.
In less than 7 days we’ve covered 1790 kilometres of our coast to coast crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole – burning roughly 1200 litres of fuel in the process.
This, of course, is just the first leg of the expedition. The main event – a world record attempt on the South Pole – is still to come.
The pace has been frantic ever since we touched down at Union Glacier – we rarely stop driving unless it’s absolutely essential. Our driver, Eyjo ,is a strict taskmaster.
Whenever we do stop moving – whether it’s to make camp, grab a hot meal and snatch a few hours of horizontal sleep, or refuel the vehicle – we try to get as much done as possible.
So if we stop to make camp then we’ll also probably do some routine maintenance on the vehicle as well as dig a deep trench for Parker so he can collect snow and ice samples as part of the expedition’s scientific programme.
Whatever we do we try and make it as streamlined and efficient as possible, partly that’s because we want to move quickly but it’s also a factor of the environment. Standing around outside doing very little is not a pleasant experience. My fingers at least go numb very quickly.
Efficiency requires teamwork and we are quickly finding a solid routine and way or working together. My role is probably the most varied – due to my relative lack of experience versus some of the other team members.
From day to day I could be helping Eyjo replace a broken part on Ice Broker, setting up a live video link-up with a mainstream media outfit, pitching a tent or lending a hand with the science. It makes every day interesting.
Meanwhile, the expedition continues to face its share of challenges – testing the personal resilience of our group.
Having risen to an altitude of more than 3000 metres above sea level we begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness. Taking deep breaths is a little bit harder and your body moves a little bit slower. I also have a nagging cough – a symptom of the cold and lack of oxygen.
On the fourth day of our journey and about 800 kilometre or so from Union Glacier we encounter our first sustrugi. These peculiar surface wave like formations are sculpted by the strong katabatic winds that blow across Antarctica. They can reach up to 6 metres in height and are a real headache for travellers whether you’e pulling a sled or driving a truck.
Despite Eyjo’s best efforts we make painfully slow progress through massive fields of menacing looking sustrugi that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. It makes for a bumpy ride too. I hit my head on the roof more than a few times as Ice Broker ploughs over a particularly savage sustrugi.
We’ve also encountered a small number of mechanical problems on the truck, including most recently a burst fuel pipe during a scheduled pit stop at the South Pole, which left Eyjo drenched in fuel.
Despite his predicament and the fact it was minus 26 Celsius he was still able to fix the problem in less than half an hour. Now that’s resilience. Incidentally you might be interested to know that Ice Broker’s two litre engine runs on special jet fuel, which is very efficient but smells horrible.
Reaching the South Pole on-board Ice Broker was a surreal experience. We had been driving for about 20 hours with only a few stops so we were all anxious to arrive. Suddenly, after staring at a featureless horizon for what felt like eternity, we spot a few black specks.
Gradually as we got closer the specks took on the shape of rectangular buildings, which as Doug explains, mark the US South Pole base station. The US funds a permanent station at the South Pole, which is staffed all year round.
Not wanting a fanfare on arrival – honestly, we just wanted to get to bed – we do our best to gracefully answer as many questions as we can from curious South Pole base station employees, who are intrigued to know about our travels and, most of all, our truck.
We made camp in the shadow of the US base less than a hundred metres from the geographic South Pole. But for now at least we decide to skip visiting the pole itself. We want to save and savour this special moment when the expedition makes its final arrival at the South Pole, hopefully in late December.