Technically the route isn’t difficult, apart from lowering ten pulks off the Trident and Breakwind Ridges. (Any more of that and you’ll go straight to the Headmaster, Matt Graff).
Only a couple of short ascents couldn’t be tackled on skis with harscheisen*, and even of those none was intimidatingly steep. Easy enough with crampons and ice axes. Most of the downhill skiing was on gentle glacier slopes, the only problem being control of the recalcitrant pulks that snapped at our heels like disobedient dogs on leashes. The uphill skinning to the cols – i.e. most of the route – was long and steady rather than gruelling.
Yet when I asked round the dinner table last night for everyone’s worst moments, there were plenty of offerings. Even Skip and Tom the Supermen came up with some temporary navigational glitch that had occurred in minimal visibility on the featureless expanse of the Crean Glacier. Most of us had had a low moment on that second afternoon – exhausted from hours of hauling on ropes and pulks, and thinking we had five hours of skinning into deepening darkness ahead.
My personal worst though was on the first afternoon, crossing the Murray Snowfield.
I’d been pretty chipper all morning. Swinging along in the middle position on our rope of three, Skip setting a manageable pace and Christopher moving easily at the rear, I thought, GREAT. I’m fit enough to romp up the Shackleton Gap without even feeling breathless. My pulk feels heavyish but once under momentum it swishes over the snow obediently enough. This is a wild and wonderful place with rock and snow and sunny skies and no human presence bar our own.
It’s all going to be easy-peasy. Marvellous.
Ha ha. We stopped for lunch in rising wind. Thin grey cloud had already shawled the sky and without sunlight the scenery became bleak and hostile. I made the hideous mistake of lowering my harness and trousers to pee without bothering to unfasten the pulk traces, or my rucksack straps, or the prusik knot securing the pulk to the rope. Embarrassed as usual by the process, I pulled my stuff together too hastily afterwards and stepped the wrong way. The other ropes were already moving off into the white murk. My harness was twisted, the rope was round my leg, everything was in a nightmare tangle. Skip was nose into the wind like a gun dog. I lurched in his wake. The pulk fishtailed exhaustingly on knotted traces.
I struggled on, against a desperate crosswind. The snow was scoured to pearly ice, nasty and featureless. My skins kept slipping sideways instead of gliding forwards, but Skip pulled inexorably ahead so I was tugged in two directions. By now the wind was blasting in huge snowy gusts. My face stung with it. Suddenly a massive gust came (‘Fifty plus’, the men said later) and lifted me right off my feet. I was dumped on my side in a cats’ cradle of ropes. It’s hard to get upright with crossed skis and a cumbersome rucksack, let alone from under a red plastic sledge on an incline of sheet ice. People yelled inaudible instructions into the teeth of the gale.
The second time it happened I very nearly laid my head on the ice to weep. But luckily – and no doubt accurately – I judged that this wasn’t the moment for waterworks.
We trudged on, and at long last reached our first camp under the Trident Ridge.
I thought, how many more days like this can I actually survive?
But that was really the worst of it, and it wasn’t so bad after all.
There were far more compensatory vistas and small achievements and shared moments with my companions than I can list. The team spirit was almost the best thing about our six days out there – a word of muttered encouragement or commiseration from one, a helping hand from another, the almost constant jokes and the unfailing good humour. At one point Gavin saw I was struggling on foot down a gully, silently took my skis from me and tied them to his pulk alongside his own. He was already hauling twice my load. It was a very Polar Hero act. We might almost have gone so far as to shake hands, wordlessly of course.
When Skip and Christopher and I finally crawled into the refuge of our tent ahead of the storm down at Fortuna Bay, Skip patted me on the shoulder. ‘You’re a good trooper’, he said.
I felt as proud and happy as when I passed my cycling proficiency test aged 9.
And then there was the sheer beauty of it all. Pictures will show it better than words – Skip and John have some magnificent ones. I hope to be posting a few of these, with their permission, but a full selection may have to wait until I‘m back in UK…. I’m already quite a lot of dollars in hock to satellite upload time….
The single best moment?
On top of Breakwind Ridge, seeing the mouth of Stromness Bay in the far distance, and a cliff above with the same Z-shaped band of pale rock that Shackleton recognised at 7 am on that May morning in 1916 and knew they were almost at the end.
I was in his exact footprints. Not so very many people have stepped in that place.
Yesterday I had a great birthday. There were presents wrapped beside my place at breakfast, and Laura made a wonderful chocolate cake – with candles and Happy Birthday – for tea. Special thanks to her and Miles for everything, and also to Jonathan to making a superb curry (my favourite) for dinner. Afterwards we went out for drinks to the BAS bar at the King Edward Point Station, and talked to biologists and museum curators and the rat eradication expert.
The rest of the team has gone out ski touring today. Later – a barbecue with the New York Yacht Club on their cruise ship, shortly to arrive in the Bay. It’s a social whirl down here. Wish you could all be with us.
Tomorrow – extreme camping.
* Ski crampons for uphill skiing on ice. ‘Skins’ are for uphill skiing on snow.