Antarctica has been a dream since I was a boy. As well as learning about Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen at school, my bookshelves are lined with tales of exploration and sometimes death on this the most brutal and inaccessible of all continents. I had always felt, however, that this was a place I would read and dream about but never visit. The opportunity to join an expedition to trek to the South Pole presented itself at the right time of my life. I was ready for a new challenge and picking something I had no idea how to achieve fit right in with my motto “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. Over the past 30 years, I have climbed 5 of the 7 summits, cycled alone across Australia and cycled around Iceland and to the Arctic Ocean in Canada. But this trek would be different; it is one of the hardest expeditions on earth. Fewer than 400 people have ever skied from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole; whereas, close to 6,000 have climbed Mount Everest. This was far too enticing an opportunity to turn down and more importantly, how would I feel in 10 years if I did not sign up? Once I had committed to go and told 3 of my best mates I could never back out. I spent months of intense training, fundraising (this is an expensive venture) and acquiring all the polar gear. The training included camping in northern Minnesota in the coldest winter for many years and dragging a truck tire around my small village of Elora in Southern Ontario, where I got some strange looks and often saw people crossing the road for no apparent reason. Fifteen months elapsed from committing to join the expedition to arriving at the start. After a brief stop in Punta Arenas, Chile where I met the rest of the team, we were flown to the ice runway on Union Glacier on November 21, 2014. Another flight deposited us on the Ronne Ice Shelf, 950 KMS and 9,000 feet in ascent from the South Pole. Team demographics were interesting. Bradley Cross from Scotland at 30, the youngest and fresh from working on an oil rig off the coast of Africa was all energy and enthusiasm. Andy Styles aged 50 from England, a businessman who had recently returned from skiing to the North Magnetic Pole was calm and determined. Keith Heger from Chicago, 39 was our guide from the adventure travel company Polar Explorers - www.polarexplorers.com. Although Keith had never skied from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole before, he had a wealth of Polar experience at both ends of the world. At 58, I was the oldest of the group. We made a pact at the suggestion of Bradley that any whinging (complaining) would result in an immediate penalty of 11 push-ups. It worked and led to many laughs with the shouts of “11” cutting through the frigid Antarctic air, especially one day when I skied off and left both my sleds behind. We quickly got into a routine. Up at 7:00 a.m. to melt snow using our white spirit fuel burning stoves for drinks and breakfast of oatmeal (which I hate); skiing by 9:00 a.m. for pulls of 75 minutes followed by a 15 minute break; repeat until 6:00 p.m. and hope that we had covered the required 12 nautical miles (23 km) in order to reach the Pole before our food and fuel ran out; 2 hours to set the tents up, melt snow for our freeze-dried dinner, repair gear, call base camp on the satellite phone with our coordinates, take advantage of the 24-hour daylight to charge our electronics using a solar panel and usually get to sleep by 10:00 p.m. Wake up and repeat 44 times!
We became obsessed with numbers: miles skied today, miles left to go, number of degrees south, hours left in the day, minutes left before we could take a break to eat the chocolate bar that had been thawing in our pockets. The only way to survive and succeed is to break down this monumental task into manageable segments. To try and visualize 800 KMS still to go would be overwhelming. The 15-minute breaks were necessary, but in some ways inconvenient. Sitting on our sleds getting cold, we pulled off face masks and goggles encased in ice, chugged down water from our thermos flasks, shoved frozen salami, cheese, power bars and other unidentifiable chunks into our mouths to thaw, then got up and did it all over again. This was survival at its most elemental and gave the feeling that we had regressed to caveman status by the end. Everything was an effort.
I expected to see scenery on the journey: mountains, glaciers and snowfields. The reality was quite different and more like a 950 KM gradually sloping and frozen ploughed field all the way to the Pole. The only mountains we saw were 100 miles away and were mere bumps on the horizon. Nothing changed for 44 days, which was intimidating. By the time we reached the Polar Plateau at 9,000 feet and 100 miles from the Pole, we were thinking more slowly, speaking more slowly and slurring our words. The cumulative effects of cold (-35 Celsius with wind chill), lack of nutrition (we could only carry 4,000 calories a day and yet were burning close to 9,000), fatigue and altitude were taking their toll. But my challenges went beyond that. Both my feet were injured. From all the pre-trip training I developed a painful heel spur that progressively worsened, and a couple of weeks into the trek my right foot became swollen from overuse. Even with icing, painkillers and rest overnight, by mid-afternoon every day I was hanging on just to keep up. The zero-visibility days were the toughest with no horizon and no ground definition, when we navigated by compass or by wind direction. We could not see the sastrugi (windblown snow ridges) which were sometimes several feet high and we fell or struggled just to keep upright, adding extra pressure on my feet. Ten miles from the Pole, the clouds parted briefly and we saw the white dome of the South Pole base. A highly charged emotional moment - after 44 days, we had made it. Surprisingly, upon arrival, there was no outpouring of emotion, just numbness. We put the tents up, toured the South Pole station, where people work year round and froze our hands one more time taking the necessary publicity photos and video footage for the planned documentary film. The expedition was over. The following day we were flown to base camp and then back to Punta Arenas on January 9th .
So why would I put myself through this? Camping for close to 50 days on the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent on earth, living like a cave man, not washing, suffering frost injuries to lips, hands and face, and dragging sleds weighing 120 LBS uphill from the coast to the South Pole over 9,000 feet above sea level into the wind every day. Why not just stay at home? Adventure is like a drug to me, it is addictive. I would not be the person I am if I did not do this stuff. Indeed I feel most alive when walking and carrying everything you need to survive in a hostile environment such as Antarctica. I believe our lives are too complex and sedentary, filled as they are with every comfort and far too much technology for our own good. Despite the challenges, I often stopped to look around. I was in Antarctica. This awesome, spectacular and yet terrible place I had dreamed of for so long, and here I was walking in the footsteps of the great explorers from 100 years ago. How fortunate could I be? My memories include the deafening silence of this place and of subtle sounds like skis and poles squeaking on the ice. But the overwhelming memory is of the 3 great guys I shared this incredible adventure with. We worked well as a team in the toughest place on earth and remain firm friends. I lost 25 LBS on the expedition and had great pleasure in adding back most of that weight within the first 2 weeks of my return, helped in no small part by the all-you- can-eat buffets I encountered on my travels back to Canada.
The question always comes up, “What’s next?” Well maybe somewhere warmer next time. In the meantime, my 8th square meal of the day is just being served up...
Contributed by Ian Evans - @ExplorerEvan
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Ian Evans is an adventurer, motivational speaker, business consultant and pilot. He lives in the Elora, Ontario with his wife Elizabeth.