Today is the changeover to the next expedition- skiing to the South Pole. See the Vinson pages for that expedition and how I got here. The flight out from Punta is going to arrive pretty late tonight (about 2am) so the poor new people will get a very late night and I will get woken up at about 3am when someone comes into my tent. But these things never go smoothly really.
Anyway, breakfast is pretty good and I meet the new guide, Tom there. He seems pretty good - knowledgeable and relaxed and likely to give us quite a bit of freedom which is great. One of my first questions is whether, weather and the rest of the team permitting, we can speed up our itinerary to get to the SP for XMas day. Many guides take an instant dislike to such a question (ie the focus on the goal rather than the difficulties of getting there) but he says he was actually thinking along those lines when he saw the itinerary as well! Great news although we will need to see what the rest of the team thinks. There are two others in the team - another Brit and a Norwegian lady who did the Greenland Crossing earlier this year.
I am having meals with the other group from Vinson and one of them, Saeed is the UAE's leading adventurer / explorer and he is very taken by the trip to the pole. As I tell him more about it, there is a telltale gleam in his eye so we ask if he can join us. Luckily, there is space and so he has the morning to think about it whilst I pick up some gear and discuss the expedition a bit more with Tom before heading off to shower and wash my clothes. Apparently clothes dry pretty well out here - dry, sunny and a bit of wind. Clothes freeze in the cold and then sublimate - which is the moisture going from ice to 'steam' bypassing the liquid stage and so drying pretty quickly; not quite sure how it works but it does pretty effectively.
At lunch, Saeed decides that he is going to come so some speedy arrangements are made and we head off to meet Tom for some more equipment arranging before heading off for a quick 10k ski before supper. It is pretty warm so I decide to wear shorts and just one layer on top which seems to be a good combo for these conditions. It should be quite a bit colder near the pole so hopefully we won't cook with our heavier gear on - we start with a preparatory overnight trip round here and that could be a little tricky clothing wise unless it cools down a bit! Whilst we are moving along, one of the camp vans is heading to intercept us and at first I am a bit concerned that something is wrong but soon they turn a bit and come to a stop about 100m ahead and jump out and lie down to film us - word of the shorts must have spread! We endeavour to look professional as we pass and do so for half the shot, however the conditions on the route deteriorate drastically for the second half with a number of hard, ice sastrugi which are almost impossible to go over without sliding sideways and looking rather ungainly - hopefully we can get a copy of this and see how we look. The other benefit of this trip is that we build an appetite for supper which I was concerned about being too full to enjoy!
Supper is again rather good and after that we pick up our dried washing (I am impressed and a little surprised, I have to admit, by how well it has worked) and sort out our gear for the expedition. All the bad weather at the end of Vinson has meant that most of my electricals are running on empty so I am also trying to get them charged before we head off tomorrow.
The evening is chatting and bidding farewell to Saeed's team before finishing packing and bed. The 24 hour daylight is confusing as I have just realised that instead of my planned early night to catch up on sleep missed at the end of the last part and cope with the expected wake up when the plane comes in, it is now 12:30! Never mind, as I expect it will be an early night tomorrow.
From about 3am I can hear footsteps of the newcomers walking out to the tents and in, anticipation of the chap coming into mine, I can't get back to sleep until well after he comes at 03:30.
Breakfast is good as usual, after which we head down to the ski garage to go through gear again and have a bit of a chat about the expedition.
After lunch we pack up our food for the trip - we are taking a rather large amount and we have to cover some contingency days as well. I would not be surprised if I brought about half back. I just don't eat that much on expeditions and after eating so well at UG for a number of days it will be quite a while before I need to eat much in any case.
After picking up the food, we allocate the group gear (stoves, fuel, pots and pans etc) and then head back to out tents for final repacking.
We are trying a new sleeping system which is a large, tough zipped bag (shaped like a sleeping mat)that you put your sleeping mats and all your sleeping gear into (large blue items in the photo below). This can then be transferred en masse to and from the tent and sled. At first, we struggle as this makes a very large bundle to fit in the sled which is awkward but then we place them flat on top of the rest of the sled which is a very elegant solution. Not only does this provide a neat final layer but by having the zipper at the front you can easily store extra gloves, water bottles and electricals inside your sleeping bag which both keeps them warm and gives you very quick access to them! Fantastic qualities in polar conditions.
After supper we are heading out for a mini trip near the camp to test all our equipment and see if we need to change anything. Unfortunately, we hear rumours at supper that there is quite a bit of bad weather about and this leads to our planned flight tomorrow (after returning from our overnight camp) being placed in the very doubtful camp. Normally, this would not be too bad as we are not pressed for time yet but we are keen to get to the pole for XMas and this will jeopardise that significantly. Not much we can do but wait and see.
We head off out of the camp for about half an hour before pitching camp and having a hot drink before bed. We are using Hilleberg tents which are good tunnel tents; one of the two has a large vestibule and we will cook communally in there. Despite managing 3 to these tents on the way to the North Pole, there seems to be very little room for us now (the sleeping systems take up a lot of space!) and so I volunteer to carry an extra small tent for me to use which will give everyone that extra bit of space - although I have no idea what the tent is actually like at the moment; fingers crossed.
Tomorrow we will head back to camp for breakfast and see what the weather will allow us to do.
The wind is blowing pretty strongly when we wake up which makes striking camp a bit more challenging but the sleeping systems make it so much easier and faster than normal. We ski the half an hour back to UG to make breakfast and then wait for a weather update to see whether we can fly today - it will make quite a bit of a difference to our trip so we are pretty nervous! In the meantime we do a bit of reorganising from last night but it can't really keep our minds off the big issue!
Oh dear!! Not only are we not flying to day because there is too much cloud, but the forecast has that cloud remaining in situ for the next few days so unless there is change we could be here for a while longer! Luckily, the weather tends to change quite a bit out here so we remain hopeful. This is likely to kibosh our plan of being at or getting to the SP for XMas though which is a shame.
After that, I head down to the stores to get the additional tent. We find one quickly but a quick look indicates issues. The smaller tent should only have two poles and not the three in the bag and there seem to be two tent bodies there as well. It turns out that rather than being the Nalo (the smaller tent I am looking for) as the label states, we have the inner and outer for the Nalo and the inner and poles for the Kierin (the larger version that the others are using). We can't find any Nalo poles anywhere so use some Kierin poles that we can shorten to make poles for the Nalo and then tape them up so that they are ready for use.
Tent poles are made up of a number of small tubes connected by elastic so that they are easy to carry in a backpack. When you are pulling a sled you don't mind long thin items so you just fold the poles at one of the joints and it helps to mark that with bright tape. The main weakness of the poles is at these connecting points and they can come loose and semi-out while being carried and then break when pressure is applied when putting up then tent. To avoid this we tape all the connecting points to reduce the risk of the poles sliding out of the sockets and so breaking when under pressure.
After lunch we head out for a little trip to some nearby rocks where we can trek / scramble / climb up a valley as a nice change from being on snow.
There are a couple of partially modified for snow / ice bikes out here so I go for a bit of a ride. That is fine when the surface is hard but as soon as the snow is soft and deep you come to a very rapid stop!
There are currently a couple of chaps who are trying to cycle to the pole. Or to be more accurate, one pushing his bike whilst the other is skiing with a bike strapped to his sled. They are both having a very tough time and it looks at though the first won't make it whilst the second can't really claim to be cycling there. If this continues, that will mean that no one will have managed to cycle to the SP as yet. This is a record that I would be very suited to and something it am now considering for next year. The problem is that bikes are very unsuitable for travelling on the snow and I will need to spend quite a bit of time after Everest trying to come up with a bike that can work there but that is not too modified to no longer count as a bicycle. As much as you don't want to wish a fellow adventurer bad luck, that would be a fantastic opportunity and one that I would have a high level of confidence of achieving. It will be interesting to see what conditions are like up on the polar plateau to start thinking about how to plan such an attempt.
We hear at supper that a flight tomorrow is a maybe - but a reasonable enough maybe for the pilot to start planning his day around it which is very encouraging. Still, we will have to wait for confirmation from tomorrow morning's weather update before we can go. That is at 07:45, then breakfast is at 8 and they will need an hour to sort out the plane so the earliest that we could leave is 10am. This gives us a bit of time for final showers etc in the am which is a nice way to start the trip.
We wake up again to high winds but head to breakfast full of hopes that we will fly today. The morning drags on with no news so I have a shower and shave to be at my best for departure but even after that we are waiting for news.
Just as I am writing this, Tom (our guide) comes in with the great news that we are off in a bit over an hour so we head back to the tents for final packing and then out to the airfield and off at 11. The flight should be about 3 hours as we are using the Basla and not a Twin Otter. The other benefits of the Basla are that being quite a large plane there is much leg room and heating!
Whilst waiting for the plane, we chat to one of the ANI staff who will be heading up to the SP soon to set up their camp site there which is used for the big groups flying all the way there in Jan. Her plan is to head up soon, so with any luck it will be in place for when we get there. I am not sure at the moment whether it would be better (if either actually proves possible) to have XMas in our tents in a more expedition style or the fixed camp with greater luxury....
Apparently, the weather is still pretty bad near in the South - there is a lot of low cloud so we are likely to be near whiteout conditions for much of the time. As a result, we are losing control of our plan to arrive for XMas. The pilots will land via the hole in the clouds nearest to our starting point but there is no saying, or ability to influence, whether this will be nearer to or further away from the pole - we are just lucky that there are some holes so we can actually get started. The flight is about 3 hours long and we get a decent sandwich on the plane so we a ready to set off once we hit the deck.
Once off the plane we start on our journey South. We have moved up to about 2,700 mtrs so we go pretty slowly today to allow the new two time to acclimatise before we pick up the pace. I find I am getting pretty chilly at this pace so develop a routine of skiing with the group for 5 or so mins or less if I get cold soon, then stopping for a few minutes of exercises, mainly to warm my hands up again, then a quick ski to catch up with the group again. My feet get really quite cold by the time we stop which isn't good. I just hope that we will go quite a bit quicker from now on as that is a ridiculous way to travel to the pole.
We walk for three hours before stopping for the evening - the original plan was for just one hour today so it is good to have pushed that along a bit. Everyone seems pretty competent so we get tents up and stoves on quickly and are soon settling down to some hot noodles and then onto supper properly.
Oddly there seems to be quite a bit of snow about - both falling in the evening and on the ground. This is a little but surprising and grey damp clouds is not really what we were expecting out here!
We get to bed for about 21:30 which allows a bit of time for reading / diaries etc and then a decent night's sleep before the planned 7am rise tomorrow. Quite bizarrely I wake up shortly after falling asleep because whilst the rest of my body it too hot, my toes have become very painfully cold. The tent I am in slopes down towards the end and so my sleeping bag is in full contact with the body of the tent and so is transmitting the cold through to my feet.
Shortly after, the sun comes up and it gets ridiculously hot in the tent given that I am so close to the SP. I end up lying half in and half out of my sleeping bag! The heat and the bright light conspire to prevent me from getting back to sleep for a good few hours - further reason to hope for more tiring days ahead as not being able to sleep is pretty annoying on these expeditions!
The days are going to be very similar from now on so I will only be writing about the bits that stick out.
Each day is roughly wake at 7am, breakfast and strike camp. Walk for 50 mins then break for 10 mins. Repeat until the evening, set up camp, have hot drinks then supper then bed. The plan is to move at about 4 kph to gain about 20km per day but we don't usually manage that and end up nearer 3 so having to move for 7 hours per day.
Our food is a mixture of rehydrated meals for breakfast and supper (which have the amusing side effect of giving everyone bad wind) and a mixture of nuts, power bars, salami and cheese for lunch and snacks.
Unlike at altitude when I will often sleep very little and feel fine the next day, I was very tired when I woke up and a bit slow getting out of camp. As usual when this happens things go from bad to worse.
I struggle with my sled all morning, having to adjust it every 15mins and then catch up with the rest of the group and then repeat all over again. At first I blame my packing as I have not had such problems when using the sled back at UG but when the problems continue after a big repack at the first break, I have a closer look at the sled and see that it has bowed considerably - it was presumably stacked against a heater on the flight out here, slightly melting the plastic and causing it to warp and so track badly and continually spill the contents to one side. The only option now is to tie things on really tightly which will warp the sled even more but at least things won't slowly slide off. It does improve, but still feels pretty tough to pull.
The weather is pretty good for most of the day with plenty of blue sky and sunshine. Unfortunately we never really manage to get up the hoped for speed and trudge along at a similar speed to yesterday and then we stop early at 15:50 as some people are tired - not convinced that this is the sort of form required to make our goal of spending XMas (or at least part of it) at the SP. We also stop under bright blue skies and sunshine! I can't believe that this is common weather out here so it seems rather wasteful - I just hope that we don't come to regret this with days spent battling driving snow, cold and winds!
We get a decent start but again there is no indication of the hoped for increase in speed as we again average under 3k an hour; the solution is to 'redistribute' the group gear - which translates into giving it to me so I end up carrying all the fuel and quite a bit of food. We manage to ski for 7 hours so get our 20k for the day done but I am not convinced that we will make the same tomorrow.
We have tended to ski in single file so far and so end up only really looking at the tips of our skis and the polk of the person in front. This gets quite boring and so I decide to break out of the single file and ski alongside the rest of the group. I can now chat to others in the group much more easily or head off for a bit of a wander and do some skiing at a reasonable speed. We end up skiing with low cloud and snow all day.
The conditions are very volatile today. At times, there is sun as well as the low cloud which has the effect of trapping heat in so we get pretty hot and I ski with all my vent zips undone. At other times the cloud thickens and the wind picks up making it very cold indeed so we have to zip up and at times put extra layers on.
The polar plateau is pretty much flat ice from horizon to horizon so there is very little to see unfortunately - especially when there is low cloud so you can't even tell where the land finishes and the sky starts.
In comparison to the North Pole this is a lot warmer which makes things a lot easier but you don't have the pressure ridges that provide the interest and challenge up there.
Today starts out with a bit of potential as some clear blue sky catches up with us and it actually becomes pretty hot and there is a fair bit of delayering. It is also a good chance for some photos and video.
All too soon a low cloud comes in and both the visibility and temperature drop. The light becomes very flat and the rest of the day is a real trudge - still we do make our 20k for the day. After the reasonably flat terrain yesterday, today's route is littered with sastrugi. This means that you can't really get into a smooth rhythm and that is a big problem for me with my rather heavy sled as it glides very poorly over the bumps which put a brake on the momentum that I have managed to create- the flat light later on doesn't help much as then I struggle to see them then as well!
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles