Surviving the Antarctic Chill

I awoke to discover that blowing snow had drifted violently against the tent’s vestibule during the night, nearly smashing our pot and stove. I had to repeatedly punch the hard-packed drift loose just to open the flap. I was groggy from a fitful night’s sleep, during which I had been haunted by strange dreams. The loud train I imagined must have been a subconscious interpretation of the wind pounding against the thin nylon. It’s the first morning of my 2009 South Pole expedition in Antarctica, the beginning of my Save the Poles Expedition—a first-ever journey to the South Pole, North Pole, and summit of Mt. Everest in a continuous 365-day period—and the butterflies are already wrenching my stomach into knots: So much for easing into all of this.

A small gap in the blowing snow and low-hanging clouds reveals my mistake. We are too far east. Raising my ski poles perpendicularly to my body, I glance over at my two expedition clients, Canadian Bill Hanlon and Dongsheng Liu from China. They mirror my gesture, letting me know they are both OK. Disheartened, I adjust our bearing and start skiing in what I hope is the right direction.

Two days earlier, a guide on another of Adventure Network International’s Antarctic expeditions had drawn a crude map from our drop-off point at Hercules Inlet—the edge of the Antarctic continent—to the South Pole. Consisting of a dot for my starting position, a few triangles representing mountains and an “X” for the South Pole, it was more pirate scribble than navigation tool. It was hard not to look at the penciled line and wonder if skiing and camping for 750 miles across this frozen wasteland was a good idea.

“You have to aim for the middle of these two nunataks (mountain peaks surrounded by ice),” Hannah had blurted, handing the map to me. “Otherwise you’ll hit some major crevasses.”

In Antarctica, there are many ways to fail: Frostbite, tumbling into a crevasse, broken gear, not making enough miles, snow blindness, and altitude sickness, just to name a few. But it’s the remoteness and sheer vastness of Antarctic space that discourages most. Staring at a seemingly infinite white horizon as time draws with painstaking sluggishness can cause even the most robust will to crack and crumple. Each day is unnervingly like the next. You see sky. You see snow. Often, sky and snow meld into milky whiteouts where even the horizon is impossible to distinguish, let alone the contours of the snow underneath your skis.

My hands are cold. Normally, they would be warm from the movement of skiing, but today’s gusts are spiraling wind chills past 50 degrees below zero. I try the usual tricks: Lowering my hands below my waist, pulling my fingers into the palms of my gloves, repeatedly clinching my hands into tight fists, but nothing is working. I feel pain in my fingers, which is a good thing, but I can also feel a numbness creeping in from the tips.

Antarctica is a land of extremes—it’s the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth, and our survival exists within a surprisingly narrow margin of safety. Yet despite the intense cold and wind chill, we wear surprisingly little. I wear only two base layers. Bill and Dong wear fleece. Then, it’s our customized anoraks. We all wear face masks for protection from the polar winds. At breaks, we don our big down parkas.

In Antarctica you must pull everything you need to survive in a lightweight Kevlar sled. Extra base layers, energy bars, fuel, repair and first aid kits, tent, satellite phone and more mercilessly counter every inch of forward momentum. Pulling a heavy sled up and down the contours of Antarctica produces inordinate amounts of body heat—so much, in fact, that sweating and becoming too hot is often a bigger problem than the cold.

“You sweat you die,” forewarns one polar platitude…

This article was originally published by Wend Magazine (Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring 2010)

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