We have sunshine and blue sky today and this stays with us all day. As such it is pretty easy going - although this really makes you realise the bleakness of the place. We can see clearly from horizon to horizon and there is absolutely nothing at all out there. I move around the group and take some (hopefully good) photos.
The sun remains really strong into the evening and after supper we cook in our tents - I am just lying on my sleeping bag in my boxer shorts; someone records a temperature of 32c in their tent! This is pure solar heat and as soon as the sun goes behind a cloud the temperature drops significantly in the tent - you go from being too hot to actually pretty cold in a matter of seconds! But in general the cloudless sky means the tents continue to heat up and shortly it is too hot to sleep so (and remember that this is Antarctica!) I have to open my tent zips to let some cool air in!
We are using Backpacker Pantry dehydrated food and whilst they taste pretty good they are prone to causing flatulence - I seem to have had a rather potent one today and so am exacerbating the temperature issues in the tent; luckily for the rest of the group I am in a tent by myself! Although I am later told that the comic effect of this did prevent others from sleeping for a while!
This should be our last full day on the skis and we get excellent weather for it. Despite the fact that it is XMas day we have a normal morning as we have our usual 20k to cover.
We are looking out for the first sighting of the pole but get concerned when we see a brown cloud on the horizon - joking that the pole is on fire. We turn out to be half right; the US base there generates so much exhaust that it creates a brown pollution cloud that can be seen from a long way off!!
Soon after that we get our first view of the pole which is met with whoops of excitement from some. We sill have about 20k to go at this point so we soon return to trudging across the snow and ice.
I hang back for a bit at about 3pm (6pm UK time) to call the UK to catch people before dinners start and young ones need bathing or putting to bed. It is about -25 and windy but the sun is shining and it is great to hear friendly voices from across the continents and hear of their meal plans for the evening.
In contrast, I have had a packet of rather bad instant noodles for breakfast and some nuts, cheese and salami on the trail. Supper is going to be a packet meal - hopefully less gaseous than yesterday's - possibly Ho Fun chicken with rice! I do have a couple of treats in store! Some rather good whisky and an XMas wash!
Although it is cold outside, there is a strong sun and it gets warm inside the tents. We only have about 10k to go tomorrow and so will have a lazy start - waking up at 8am! The SP base is run on New Zealand time and so no one will be up there until about 2pm or so our time - this will be the morning of the next day for them as they are 16 hours ahead! Time loses all meaning at singularities.
Today should be pretty easy as we only have the last 8k to the VLF point and from there about a further 5k to the SP itself. The VLF point is the marker that all those heading to the Pole have to come via. There is a lot of scientific work being done at the pole and large areas have been zoned off for these to avoid pollution, contamination and other interference which people and vehicles would cause. Luckily the rather more significant pollution emanating from the US base doesn't seem to interfere with such work!!
I did not manage to get to sleep last night until about 3:30 am and then woke up at 06:30 this morning. But at least that gave me time for my XMas wash and to change into new clothes for the pole. We have a lazy start to the day and set off at 10am. Despite the fact that it is sunny yet again, it is a lot colder today so I hope we don't spend a lot of time waiting / standing about.
Just as we get to the VLF we see a kite in the sky but not for long! There has not been much wind for the past few days and when it has come it had been in the wrong direction and very cold so the kite skier has not moved much at all - perhaps he will get in tomorrow. It will be interesting to see who it is and what he is doing.
From the VLF point there is a 'groomed' way leading to the pole which provides a good hard surface for us to move on (I get separated from the group here as they stop for a rest for some reason) and I get to the pole at 2pm.
Being by myself I get some good, unspoilt footage before I meet a couple of ALE chaps who are up here working on some vehicles who very kindly take some photos.
There is a ceremonial pole which is the recognisable one and then the geographic pole. Since this whole area is on a glacier, it is slowly moving and so the point which is over the actual SP is also moving. Therefore the geographic pole is marked by a sceptre that is moved on 1 Jan each year. The ceremonial pole is surrounded by the flags of all Antarctic Treaty Countries but the geographic pole only has the US flag - not very impressive!
A bit later, the others turn up and we do some group shots before I start to get really cold and head back to the mess tent to warm up.
There I meet another group who arrived a couple of days ago and are waiting for the plane back to UG. It is not clear why the plane has not been scheduled for today but hopefully it will come tomorrow.
We are getting a tour of the US base in the afternoon - or tomorrow morning their time - which is very interesting. As expected there is a lot of attention to the quality of living here with a lot of luxury - large gymnasium, several TV and games rooms etc.
The late afternoon and evening sees a series of polar explorers getting to the pole which is fantastic.
I get to welcome Jeff who is kite skiing across Antarctica raising money for breast cancer among other causes and has a novelty sled!
Me with Jeff's amazing sled at the pole
Ben Saunders and Tarka pop in before setting off again on their momentous journey back to the coast in Scott's footsteps. Then in the evening Maria arrives to become the first person to cycle to the pole. There is a route that very large trucks take from the coast to bring in supplies and fuel to the US base and this leaves a very compact clear track that provides a swift, 'easy' path to the pole. She has had a great, swift ride in but unfortunately this has taken that challenge away now.
We get up at about 06:30 to pack and prepare for a departure some time prior to 8 when the porters are meant to arrive. A couple will come with me, Zac and Gus to the mine with our bags whilst the rest will begin the journey back to Sugapa. Obviously they don't turn up until nearer 9 - the only reason that this is a slight issue is that we have given the mine an ETA which we will now not make.
Anyhow, after saying our goodbyes to everyone we head off down to the mine. Our porters try their best to come up with reasons as to why they should stop at certain points but through a mixture of good humour, feigned misunderstanding and plain old ignoring them we manage to keep them going for a while. We had been told that they did not want to be seen by security so had agreed that when we got near to the mine boundary that they could head back. At about this point, we come across some keep out signs
Shortly after this the way becomes flooded and we have to climb up and over some cliffs and then hike up a few hundred metres of a slag pile to get up to where we thought we had seen a security officer waiting for us.
However it turned out that this was not in fact security, just a couple of containers and now the person who was looking down at us has gone leaving the place deserted. Unfortunately the mobile phone signal that we had been lead to believe was here wasn't and so we could not contact anyone.
The weather is superb again here - no wind, bright sunshine and clear blue skies. However there is a bit of concern about the weather at UG so we have calls at 9am and 10am where we again confirm the quality of the conditions here. No final decision on the flight has been made as yet but the plane is being loaded and fuelled so that it is ready to go once a decision is made.
No longer able to pass the responsibility for the decision onto us we are told to call back at 11 to see whether the plane has taken off or not. If they have taken off it should be here for about 3 and then we should be back in UG for a late supper at 8. That leaves us a couple of hours for photos, lunch and taking our tents down. We meet the Icelanders behind Arctic Trucks who provide support vehicles for many of the expeditions out here including Walking with the Wounded one that had Prince Harry on and finished a few days ago. They tell a great story of how they started out by perhaps exaggerating their experience to the Top Gear team and so getting their first contract for a polar driving expedition.
11:20 - the plane is ready and take off is imminent although it has not actually happened yet. It should go ahead and hopefully now there is just the will we / won't we over the flight back to Punta. This will give us a couple of days of gluttony in UG before heading out on 29th.
12:20 - just received confirmation that the plane is on its way and will be here at about 15:45. Unfortunately the temperature has really dropped and the prospect of popping out for some final photos is no longer quite so appealing! In the half hour it takes to get to the actual pole, take a couple of pictures and get back to the mess tent my fingers and face get really cold.
In the early afternoon the cloud starts to come in and visibility reduces - there are a series of concerning calls and the pilot starts getting a bit twitchy. The old adage of 'if you can go, you go' remains true and I just hope we don't come to regret not flying yesterday or early this morning when there was such great weather here. I still find it strange how despite being in such a special place, once the goal has been achieved everyone (including me) becomes so keen to leave.
The tone of the calls then gets more positive but the plane seems to be arriving later each time. But we get a final message that the plane will come in at 4 so to be ready for then. The plane finally arrives at 4:30 and then they announce that in fact it will not be returning to UG tonight so we need to go and set up the tents again. It has been really cold for a while and we have only just warmed up from taking down the tents so we are not best pleased with the messing around in the morning and so missing the weather window and now this inability to communicate with us – but once warmed up again realise that this is all part and parcel of being in such extreme places and if you want to do these things you just have to accept and be prepared for them; both mentally and with things like books to pass the time.
Don't worry we are told, we will be flying out first thing in the morning so it's not that bad! Ah, have you seen a forecast for tomorrow? A wag asks. No, they admit, then realising the hollowness of their prior reassurance. Everyone then crowds into the mess tent and we spend the rest of the day chatting.
There is a second mess tent that has been erected for the future groups and some people are using this as a dormitory tonight as they can't be bothered to out up their tents again. I am just convinced that with all those people there is bound to be some heavy snoring so decide to put up my tent to get some sleep.
I wake up early and have a bit of a walk - it generally seems to be pretty warm first thing out here and it is great to be about when everyone else is in bed.
The weather looks pretty good here which relieves my concerns about the good weather here breaking and so us getting stuck for longer. The news coming out of UG is encouraging in that the bad weather there is lifting faster than had been predicted so we are probably going to be flying shortly after lunch.
Then news comes out that we might be going all the way back to Punta tonight as they are trying to catch up on the Ilyshin schedule; but this may mean a flight at about 3 or 4 am getting in to Punta at 7 or 8 am and so missing most of the night's sleep. But at least once back there I can have a proper shower and shave, start contacting people and changing my flights.
We take off a bit after three but need to stop off to pick up some Brazilian scientists on the way back. Unfortunately, despite the fact that they have know about this for a couple of days, they are largely unprepared for our arrival. So whilst I and a couple of others help the crew load the plane with all their equipment and rubbish, the scientists head off to pack their bags and take down their tents. It doesn't appear that any of them have done this before, let alone in polar conditions, so it is both time consuming and amusing to watch. But eventually the plane is loaded and we head on to UG.
Back there we unload the plane before having out celebratory dinner which is a very nice touch - and very good food.
After that we repack and then convene at 23:30 for a 3am flight back to Punta.
Much like Vinson, the ski to the pole is really not that challenging at all presuming that you have the right gear and techniques to deal with the cold. The weather is the big unknown which can suddenly make things very difficult - especially if the wind really picks up. In general we had reasonable weather and so the expedition was slightly flat in that whilst it is a beautiful and exhilarating place I have not really had the adventure that I was looking forward to.
However, next up is Everest and, if anywhere, that should give me something to write home about!!
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