Dispatches From the South Pole, Entry 9: Skiing and Sightlessness

Posted by: Geoff Gloeckler on January 3, 2012

The Polar Vision team has been moving towards the the South Pole for a month. Today should be the day they will reach their destination. Here’s the latest update, this time via a series of phone messages from Andrew Jensen, delivered last Saturday.

Umph. Ugh.

Of all the noises the human body can make, few are more cringe inducing than the wet, knee slap of a human being horizontally striking blue ice as hard as it can. This time the noise comes from Alan. It’s our spring training for the trip eight months ago on a small island in Baffin Bay. Alan was standing in his boots, trying to pull his 150-pound sled into an ice flow. His eyesight prevented him from realizing he had no purchase under his feet. When he gave his hardest pull on his sled’s rope, he ended up pulling his legs out from under himself and he hit hard. I was standing six feet away and saw him lying on the ground, nursing his rib on which he landed. It was an especially cruel fall. I think the first time Alan had ever worn cross-country skis was only two days before. He had just started to feel confident on the skis, so this was a tough blow.

Alan lost his eyesight at 23 to a condition called macular degeneration. It affects more than two million Americans who are generally much older than Alan. It means the center of his eyesight has rotted away and what remains gives the illusion of looking through a fun house mirror or frosted glass. Alan can see the faint blur of the jacket in front of him, but not the definition of the snow he’s skiing on. On a flat surface he’s relatively unaffected by his condition. On rough terrain, however, he needs assistance.

For the rest of the 60-mile long training trip, Alan skied the way people walk when they just turned out the lights in their living room and need to cross it knowing a shin-high coffee table is lurking in the dark somewhere, waiting. You could tell that his confidence was shaken. After the training exercises were complete, Alan moved to London and didn’t have a chance to train on skis. His first skiing since Canada was around our base camp in Antarctica.

There are three general types of terrain here in Antarctica. The first is smooth, unblemished snow. Virgin and untainted. The kind you might see on your driveway as you walk out in your slippers to get the paper on Christmas morning. In 500 miles of skiing, we’ve encountered about a quarter mile of this. Next are the smaller sestrugi fields. As the wind ceaselessly torments the snow here, it shapes the terrain into curious positions. The sestrugi is razor sharp, rock hard, and generally shaped like an avalanche of axes. At medium size, they are about one to three feet high. Skis make quick work of this sestrugi. Still, when the wind picks up and the visibility decreases to less than five feet, short falls off the edges of these are quite common. It’s equivalent to walking down a flight of stairs and missing the last step. One emerges disconcerted but unscathed. This has been the consistency of 80 percent of the terrain we’ve crossed. The final type of terrain is the massive sestrugi field. These can be thirty feet wide and ten feet high. We pick our way through them like dimples on an enormous golf ball. The landscape itself resembles a birthday cake that’s been dropped. Chaos and confusion and leg breaking six foot drops. We move along with care.

Alan has improved phenomenally in his skiing since the start of the expedition 33 days ago. The skis warn him of upcoming trouble in the terrain and his skis are a little longer which makes it easier for him to balance. He has a short, direct stride and is one of the strongest pullers on the team. I did see Alan fall one more time here in Antarctica. We were skiing up a fairly steep hill and he crossed his skis, tripping into the snow. I watched him bounce right back up and he kept going. Seeing that, I thought, this is a guy who can do anything, and for a moment, I thought I could, too.

We’re very close to our goal now. Only 75 slender miles separate up from the South Pole. Once again we’re very grateful to our families, friends, supporters, and sponsors. We’re very close now.

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 ninth post.

Reader Comments

BW's Louis Lavelle

January 3, 2012 6:19 PM

Polarvision is now reporting that the team has arrived at the South Pole: http://www.polar-vision.org/index.php/2012/01/our-last-camp/

In their final blog post yesterday, Alan Lock reported that "we were finally within inches of our goal." At the time it seemed like they had about 13 miles to go, and were expecting to arrive at about 4 p.m. EST (9 p.m. GMT). so the final push must have a long one. Congratulations to the team on what is a truly awesome achievement, and to everyone who made this triumph possible.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

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