Dispatches From the South Pole, Entry 8: A Normal Day

Posted by: Geoff Gloeckler on December 28, 2011

The Polar Vision team has been moving towards the the South Pole for a month, covering a distance of nearly 500 miles. Here’s the latest update, this time via a series of phone messages from Andrew Jensen.

Somewhere on the top of a mile of compacted ice, a few hundred miles from the South Pole, deep in the folds of a Marmot sleeping bag created to protect from -40 degree temperatures, the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius are the exact same, an iPod alarm clock begins to chime. It’s 7am. Time to start another days’ march in our mission to make Alan Lock the first visually impaired person to ski the 580 miles from the Antarctic shoreline to the South Pole.

Waking up, my tent mate Richard and I take a moment to try and gauge the weather. How hard is the wind blowing outside? Is it colder than normal? Is the 24-hour a day sunlight that’s striking the tent as blinding as usual, or is it only semi-blinding, signifying a possible white out? We grunt good morning to each other, and then I unzip the vestibule door by my head. There’s a small space there that is protected from the elements where I keep the stove. Still in my sleeping bag, I pump a bit of fuel into the stove, and then light it. Richard and I pour water that we had kept warm in thermoses into a kettle and begin to melt snow for cooking and drinking. Hannah and Alan begin an identical process in their tent about 20 yards away.

As I reach into a pile of snow in our vestibule to add to our pot, Richard conducts our daily update call. Using a satellite phone donated to us by Iridium, Richard calls his sister Suzanne in England. Suzanne has served as our liaison to the outside world on the trip. She updates us on any calls we may have that day with students, the visually impaired, or supporters, reads us a list of questions that people have submitted to our website, receives blog updates from us, and does a thousand other invaluable things that connect the expedition to the outside world. She’s phenomenal and we’d be lost without her.

The questions we get asked each morning have a wide range. Some we get constantly. Penguins? No, sorry. Bathrooms? Yes, quickly. Others are more difficult. What does Antarctica sound like? How does this compare with other things you've done? We shout the questions and encouraging messages over to Alan in the other tent and answer them as a team. In order to conserve battery power and data minutes, the daily update is kept to less than 10 minutes. In that time I've finished making breakfast. Breakfast each morning has been donated by, don't laugh, a granola company in Berkeley called MojaMix. They're an Internet retailer. You visit mojamix.com, enter the ingredients you want, and they ship it to your door. We have our own special blend of ginger snap granola and goji berries. We were initially worried about eating the same thing every morning, but with only two percent of our daily sodium intake in each serving the MojaMix is the least salty thing we eat, so we enjoy it.

After breakfast I rinse our cups with snow and melt enough snow for us each to have two liters of water, which we carry in an insulated Nalgene bottle and a thermos. When I pour it it's just short of boiling. By the end of the day it will be on the verge of freezing. We dress any blisters on our feet or frost nip on our faces. Pack up the inside of the tent, and put on all of our clothes. We shout over to see if Alan and Hannah are ready. They usually beat Richard and me each morning. We depart the tents promptly at 8:30 each morning.

We have two major tasks outside of the tent. The first is repacking the sleds. Everything we need for the trip is in two small sacks each and a larger bag for our sleeping bags and mats. Heavy mats are required so we don't melt through the snow underneath the tent during the night. The sleds have the heaviest things like food and fuel on the bottom, and the lighter things like sleeping bags and trash--we're leaving no inorganic waste behind--on top so that they are less likely to tip over in uneven snow.

Packing up the tent is difficult in rough weather, and requires teamwork. In high winds I would describe its nearest equivalent as doing origami while skydiving. First, Richard and I shovel all of the snow that we've put around the bottom of the tent to anchor it and insulate it from the wind. Then we disconnect the rainfly. Our tents are dome shaped and the rainfly sits on the top like a hat. After unclipping it we shake it as hard as we can. Our night's respiration has left our tent and frozen to its underside, leaving a thin coating of ice. We knock it off with our gloves as we roll the rainfly into a sausage shape. Glove hands now covered in ice and starting to cool, we begin to dismantle the tent.

The tent has four poles and is staked to the ground. Undoing the stakes sends the tent tumbling across the snow, so we save that for last. We first pop the four poles out of their corners. The poles are collapsible like most tent poles, but we tape the middle sections together to save time. After popping out the poles, we push the tent onto the ground where it vaguely resembles a stomped spider. We roll the tent into a four-foot long sausage and then pack it away. I take a solar panel and fasten it to my sled where it charges the battery all day. We put on our skis and take off our warm down jackets. Now we are only wearing a thin base layer, a wind proof shell, goggles made by Oakley, and a ski mask. It's probably less than you wore the last time you went skiing.

It's now 9am and time to begin the day's march. Each march is 75 minutes. We ski one after the other in a single file. We take turns leading except for Alan, who always skis second. The leader wears a contraption that mounts a compass onto their belt for easier navigation. One looks down, takes a bearing, finds a far away pile of snow on that bearing, then repeats until their time is up. We each listen to iPods on the march which makes the time pass faster. Podcasts and audio books are preferred. Turns out we didn't bring enough.

Our team is well suited to ski together. Alan keeps himself ahead with strong, short strides. Richard has a determined step, and I throw myself forward like a piece of luggage that weighs too much. Hannah skis beside us like a stately swan. The going is generally easy. Each day we gain 200 to 500 feet of elevation. The wind sculpts the snow into concrete hard diamond-shaped formations called sastrugi, which collectively resemble an avalanche of axes. While Alan can see very little, his skis let him get over the snow quite adeptly and we make good time, covering 15 to 18 miles a day.

After each 75-minute march we take a 10 to 15 minute break. We carry lunches in Ziploc bags that we sorted while we were in Chile. At each break we drink some water, eat a frozen energy bar, some sausage, cheese, and chocolate, and have a brief rest sitting on the sleds. If the weather is nice, we'll make a few attempts at conversation. If it's not, we eat shivering silently. There are six marches each day.

Upon the conclusion of the last march we look for a patch of soft snow to erect our tents. This is much easier than dismantling them because we know that rest and a warm dinner is our reward. Richard and I build the tent together, and while he's shoveling snow around the outside of the tent and digs a toilet, I pull our equipment out of the sleds, light the stove, and heat water for dinner. Our marches typically end by 6:15 and dinner is finished by 8. Each night we have a cup of Muscle Milk, a cup of noodles, and a dehydrated Norwegian Army meal. The food is very high in salt and we're thoroughly sick of it by now, but it sustains us. All four of us meet in one tent for dinner and it's the only time we spend each day as a team in relative warmth and comfort, sheltered from the elements. By the time we finish dinner it's 9 o'clock. Each team member gets a few moments alone with their thoughts in their sleeping bag and we all begin the day anew.

The trip should take about 40 days in total, with two evenly staged rest days where we do nothing but lie in our sleeping bags. Having just finished our second rest day, we think we a little less than 10 days to go. It's an even, monotonous routine, but we're so excited to be in Antarctica and so inspired by the calls we've been conducting. We're on pace to be on the South Pole the first week of January. We're so grateful to all of our supporters, our families, friends, and sponsors and we wish everyone the best this holiday season. It's been so inspiring for us to see this dream become a reality. Thank you to everyone, and we drive on.

In late September we introduced you to team Polar Vision, Alan Lock, Richard Smith, and Andrew Jensen, three recent MBA grads who are trekking to the South Pole to raise awareness for visual impairment. While on their journey, the team will be filing periodic blog posts. This is their eighth post.

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