ALE: Behind the Scenes of a Hercules Inlet Sled Trip

Since Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) opened up Antarctica over 30 years ago, the Great White Queen has become a playground for climbers, snow kiters, marathon runners, manhaulers, skydivers and BASE jumpers. Expeditions down south are increasingly adventurous, such as Leo Houlding’s Spectre project, which included manhauling, kiting and big wall climbing. But South Pole sledding journeys continue to be the mainstay for ALE.

Beyond a last-degree trip, where clients ski the final 111km to 90 degrees south, a 1,130km journey to the Pole from Hercules Inlet remains the most popular expedition, with 195 completions (and 30 unsuccessful journeys) to date. Each year, ExWeb covers the fortunes of Hercules hopefuls, but for the first time, we’re going to take you behind the scenes of an independent Hercules Inlet sled trip.


Hercules what?

Inlet! Well, it’s not a traditional recess on a shoreline, it’s a long, narrow strip of ice on the southern edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf. In 1988, Martyn Williams (co-founder of the predecessor to ALE) led the first team to pioneer the route, but it wasn’t until the early noughts that the trek became popular. Hercules is a logical starting point, as it’s the closest ice shelf to ALE’s main base, the blue ice runway at Union Glacier (around a one-hour roundtrip flight). Moving aviation fuel around in Antarctica is an expensive business, so proximity counts.

The route starts at around 200m above sea level and climbs the sastrugi-ridden polar plateau to the Pole at 2,835m. With climbing, crevasses and a constant headwind, it’s not for the faint-hearted. “An expedition to the South Pole remains an enormously difficult physical and mental challenge, the toughest thing most people will do in their lives,” says Steve Jones, ALE’s Expeditions Manager. “ALE’s experience reduces many of the planning risks, but a nice summer’s day in Antarctica can punish the ill-prepared just as quickly as it did 100 years ago.”

Expedition start at Hercules Inlet. Photo: Steve Jones


Will ALE take anyone?

Unlike some of the less diligent 8,000m outfitters in the Himalaya, ALE does its homework on prospective clients. When a Hercules hopeful first contacts ALE regarding support for an expedition, a series of questionnaires first assesses the plan. These, and early conversations with manager Steve Jones, scrutinize the route, medical status, psychological capability, finances and most importantly, the individual’s skills and background. The level of experience required depends on whether a client goes guided, in an independent team or completely solo.

Rather than a set of hard and fast prerequisites (such as you must have sledded across the Greenland Ice Cap), ALE’s experts determine whether an individual is going to be safe, competent and able to make informed decisions in a hostile, crevassed and remote environment. They look for a good grounding in key outdoor skills such as campcraft, navigation, clothing management and experience in glaciated terrain, as much as an extensive polar CV.

Sledders need to be comfortable in all sorts of conditions, including whiteouts and flat light, where details in the snow and even a horizon line disappear. Expeditioners describe it as being inside a ping-pong ball. Photo: Carl Alvey/ALE


For example, a mountaineer with 10 alpine seasons and two weeks solo sled hauling under his belt might qualify for a solo attempt. Jones and the staff at ALE work also with less experienced clients to plan a series of objectives, which builds up to a Hercules trip.

“In climbing,” explains Steve Jones, “there used to be a well-established route from beginner to expedition mountaineer via rock-climbing in summer, winter climbing, then alpine climbing for several seasons. They slowly build experience before venturing into the greater ranges. Outside Scandinavia, no such pathway exists for polar aspirants, so we are happy to offer guidance on how to gain relevant experience.”


What’s next?

Often, it takes two or three years to build the right cold-weather experience (particularly on glaciated terrain) and raise the necessary funds. In the meantime, ALE checks over kit lists, offers guidance, builds safety protocols and even collects contact information for next of kin. A 15 percent deposit, to secure a place on flights, is paid in spring of the year of the expedition. Ninety days before takeoff, the rest of the money comes due. For many, this is the biggest hurdle.


How do you get there?

fully paid up, the clock ticks down to the first of several flights. A few weeks before departure, clients air freight food and equipment to ALE’s base in Punta Arenas, Chile, before they themselves head down at the end of October.

Once in Punta, which some describe as feeling “like the end of the world”, Hercules hopefuls have around five days to collect their equipment and food and to pick up any last-minute items in town. This may be the first time that ALE staff have met with the client, so they will go over the expedition plan in detail and review the gear and medical kit.

“This way, if there is problem, we and the expedition have all the information to respond and assist,” says Jones. “If something goes wrong, and the world’s media is suddenly phoning non-stop, it’s a bit late to work out that your Mum is probably not the best media contact.”

Sledders food rations organized into daily packets. Photo: Anja Blacha


Many sledders take the time in Punta to streamline their equipment, to minimize weight. Sawing toothbrushes in half, depackaging dehydrated meals into Ziploc bags and removing labels from garments are popular tactics. One year in the 1990s, a polar traveller in Punta decided to put his camera’s film into condoms instead of canisters to save a whopping 200g. A fellow traveller decided to copy this ingenious idea, but made the mistake of buying condoms coated in spermicide. Ensued a long night of washing and drying condoms in a hotel room!

Punta Arenas. Photo: Anja Blacha


Fun and frivolities out of the way, the penultimate leg of the journey is the four-and-a-quarter-hour flight to ALE’s Union Glacier Camp. Here, clients pick up a few last items, such as fuel, and prepare to leave in a day or two. “We have a groomed 10km loop where you can go out with radios… and you can pull a pulk and try out equipment,” says Aviaaja Schluter, ALE Guest Services Manager.

This is the last chance to meet with the ALE medical team to discuss any last-minute niggles, tinker with equipment and adjust to what might be the first time in Antarctica.

An Ilyushin 76 lands on the blue-ice runway at Union Glacier. Behind, orographic clouds skim the top of the Edson Hills. Photo: Ben Cockwell/ALE


When D-Day finally arrives, clients are flown the 65km to their starting point, and off they go. Before ALE moved to Union Glacier in 2010, sledders could stop in at the Patriot Hills Camp after three days of travel, but now they’re on their own until the Pole.


What about equipment?

Sledders bring all the standard dunnage, such as fuel, food, clothing, tent and sleeping bag, in a sled weighing 80 to 100kg. Some choose to take all manner of luxury extras. Last year, Japanese adventurer Masatatsu Abe brought a traditional Japanese mask as well as a three-kilo robotic dog for entertainment. Others tote a few bottles of their favourite tipple for a morale boost in the evenings.

ALE requires skiers to take two stoves (and pumps/repair kits), compasses and handheld GPS devices. They provide each sledder with an InReach Explorer, which can serve as the backup GPS device. Everyone must also bring two satellite phones (one can be an Iridium Go!), to enable daily communications between the sledder and ALE back at Union Glacier.

Vital communication devices. Photo: Anja Blacha


What happens out on the ice?

As soon as sledders step out of the Twin Otter at Hercules Inlet, they’re on their own for the next month or so. The current fastest time for the route is 24 days, by Norwegian Christian Eide. The slowest is 82 days by American Aaron Linsdau. The average is 53 days for teams and 49 days for soloists.

Sledders then begin inching their way across the vast white hinterland. Some days, they make good progress, covering 30km or more. Other days, whiteouts, deep snow, raging winds and snow waves called sastrugi make every kilometre a struggle.

The endless white polar plateau against blue skies, with cirrostratus clouds. Photo: Carl Alvey/ALE


Teams of skiers tend to travel one behind the other, so that the followers benefit from the flattened tracks. Skiers often trek for 60 minutes, then grab a 10-minute rest. This routine goes on for 11 to 12 hours a day, until the tired travellers settle into the tent at night — although there is no night at that latitude in the Antarctic summer. They spend evenings preparing dehydrated meals, tending to injuries, repairing gear, checking in with ALE and with home, writing in their journals and flicking through the day’s photos.

A snack break. Photo: Carl Alvey/ALE


What about injury, rescue or resupplies?

A key part of ALE’s responsibility is checking in with sledders every day. Besides gathering information on weather, distance made and location, it’s a chance to chat informally and glean hidden details on the skiers’ mood and current mental and physical state. Steve Jones also monitors clients’ social media and blog posts for any signs of injury or difficulties. It’s not that sledders lie, but they may, for example, forget to mention a lost glove, which could indicate a lack of attention due to fatigue.

In an emergency (i.e. medical attention required), a sledder calls ALE with an initial warning, then adds more information as soon as possible. The ALE operations team at Union Glacier organize a potential response, which could include diverting one of their aircraft or launching a dedicated flight with medics on board. Patients are usually taken to Union Glacier for stabilization and support, while ALE arranges onward transport to Punta Arenas.

If there is no communication from a skier for 48 hours and no movement on their GPS tracker, ALE sends an aircraft to fly over their last known location and try to find them.

A Basler BT-67 aircraft, or something similar, could be diverted in case of emergency. Photo: ALE


Thankfully for Hercules sledders, the regular flight line between Union Glacier and the Pole goes over the skier’s route, so pick-ups are a little less costly. In most cases, non-emergency support is more common than an emergency response. It costs a lot to fly in Antarctica, so ALE tries to coordinate non-emergency air support at no cost, or minimal cost, by combining a pickup flight or airdrop with other tasks, when possible.

One option for skiers who have had enough, are suffering a medical problem or simply need more gear or food is to stop at Thiels Corner, an ALE refueling site around the halfway point of the Hercules route. Last year, Eric Larsen abandoned his Hercules speed record attempt after 21 days. He was running low on food because of the soft snow and poor weather, so he prudently skied two days back to Thiels Corner for a pickup.

Passing the Patriot Hills. Photo: Steve Jones


What happens at the Pole? 

Skiers can’t just follow any old line to the bottom of the world. A protected area of roughly 26,000 square kilometres, known as the Antarctic Specially Managed Area, encircles the Pole. These restrictions aid scientific study by ensuring that the environment around the Pole remains pristine.

So when weary Hercules skiers hit this boundary with 20km to go, they have to follow specific directions to avoid navigating into restricted zones such as the Clean Air Sector or the Quiet Sector. They also have to give the Amundsun-Scott South Pole Station at least 24 hours notice of their arrival.

Arrival at the ceremonial South Pole. Photo: Eric Larsen/ALE


Technicalities out of the way, skiers make a beeline for the Geographic Pole, which is close to the Station and marked by a simple stake in the ground and a small sign. A few meters away is the “Ceremonial South Pole”, where skiers take their well-earned photos next to the famous mirrored globe.

After weeks on the ice, successful sledders rest up at ALE’s South Pole Camp, which is about one kilometre from the Pole and features tents, toilets, charging stations and even chefs to rustle up real food. Skiers can also visit the Amundsen-Scott Station and soak in the fact they have joined a very select group to ski to the Pole.

ALE South Pole Camp looking toward Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Photo: David Rootes/ALE


And after the Pole?

Skiers usually wait a day or two at the South Pole Camp, then hop on an aircraft back to Union Glacier, with other travellers. “Expeditions are charged for seats on shared flights back to Union Glacier, and this helps keep costs down,” says Jones. “The cost of a Twin Otter flight to the South Pole is more than double the total cost of a solo expedition from Hercules Inlet, so the shared flights are vital.”

Once back at Union Glacier, “a lot of people come out and greet the plane…it’s communally celebrated,” says Aviaaja Schluter, ALE Guest Services Manager. This marks the start of reintegration back into normal life after months on the ice with nothing but huge vistas and a cheesy playlist for company. “They like being in Union Glacier, because it’s not overwhelming,” says Schluter. After over a month in Antarctica, even little Punta Arenas can be as jarring as Shanghai or Tokyo.

Jones adds that Union is “the last place most expeditions will be around people who really understand their achievement and what they have been through. Although at the time, most sledders probably appreciate the hot showers and clean clothes more.”

After this quick stopover, it’s time to fly back to civilization. Some return alone, with only the warm satisfaction of successful journey for company. Others are greeted by friends and family, others with media fanfare. But all will feel the effects of completing a life-changing expedition at the bottom of the world. A journey that was once the preserve of hardcore professional adventurers can now be realized by the determined amateur.