Antarctica 2017: Ben Saunders Aborts, Spectre and the Maidens Soldier On

High speed crashes, aborted expeditions and sun dogs. December in Antarctica has not been lacking in action.

This story was edited 1/11 to reflect the fact that Ben Saunders has not in fact soloed to both poles. The only person to have done so remains Borge Ouslan.

A happy new year to everyone and welcome to 2018. After a festive break we’re back with a recap of all things Antarctic. In this week’s recap, the Spectre Expedition survive a high speed crash and enter the home straight, Ben Saunders is forced to end his expedition early, and the Ice Maiden team break the half way mark of their journey.

You can catch up on the previous action here.

The Spectre Expedition

We left the Spectre team on route back to depot A, the third phase of their expedition. The team had been forced to man-haul for sections of the route back from the Trans Antarctic Mountains but were hoping to kite as much of the remaining distance as the wind would allow.

By December 22nd they had reached the depot and their original landing spot, where their expedition had started 33 days previously. Their arrival marked the end of phase 3 and the beginning of the 4th and final stage of their ambitious expedition, a final 1,100km journey across Antarctica to Union Glacier camp.

The journey time for this next stage would depended massively on both wind strength and direction. Therefore the team considered a few different route options, eventually electing to stick to their original plan and cross a 350km stretch of terrain “that has hardly ever been travelled and never traversed by kite”. All going to plan the team would then emerge close to the Thiel Mountains.

Christmas came and went, with Leo, Jean and Mark celebrating with “Antarctic Breeze” cocktails, a creative mix of vodka and electrolyte mixture. They even took time to build a fetching Christmas sastrugi!

Following their celebrations it was back to the grind, breaking the 1,000km remaining mark and experiencing some incredible solar shows as they floated between “sublime wonder and an endurance test”.

Still at the mercy of the wind, the team had slowed to a crawl by new year’s day, waiting for the required South or South-Easterly winds to pick back up. Eventually they got their wish and were treated to a few days of glorious kiting, flying out of the 350km of no-man’s land and right past the Thiel Mountains at speeds of up to 40kmph, all the while still dragging some 120kg of weight in their pulks.

The winds remained steady and on day 42 the team racked up a mammoth 201km, taking their running total over the previous 3 days to almost 500km. Leo did however have his worst high speed crash of the expedition, a small mistake causing him to be catapulted approximately 6m into the air before crashing down. He was fortunate to avoid being hit by his pulk, suffering only a suit full of snow during his misadventure.

The team is on the home straight now and trying to enjoy their remaining days in Antarctica “away from the other 7.6 billion humans”!

Ben Saunders’ Solo Crossing

Ben had been battling sastrugi and brutal weather for most of his journey, and with just over 500 miles remaining he had some way to go when we left him on day 43 of his solo crossing attempt.

Ben’s travails have continued since then, with Antarctica seemingly keen to show him “who’s boss”. With white-outs and sastrugi dogging his progress he made slow gains toward the Pole. Clearly the weather has been exceptionally difficult, with Ben unable to recall, in 17 years of polar expeditions, a journey that featured such consistently poor conditions. He estimates that roughly 1 in every 4 days during this expedition have been white-outs.

But despite the largely terrible weather, Ben, like the Spectre team, was treated to some incredible solar displays in the lead up to Christmas, observing “sun dogs” created by ice particles in the atmosphere refracting the sun’s rays.

Christmas day featured a chat via satellite phone with the BBC and some sunny weather, the best present he could hope for in the circumstances. However the good weather was not to last and by day 50 of the expedition Ben was starting to worry about his supplies. 622km remained to the Ross Ice Shelf and he was now down to only 16 days of food rations. He would have to make some big decisions once he reached the Pole.

Two days later he was relieved to reach the South Pole, almost 4 years after his last arrival here alongside Tarka L’Herpiniere. Mindful that during that expedition they had been forced to call for help from a resupply flight on their return trek to the coast, and with a similar situation in front of him, he elected to call a halt to his expedition at the Pole rather than risk continuing.

Ben’s decision to halt is logical but he reports being “both more cautious and more fearful this year” than on previous journeys. Alongside the surprisingly severe weather this has been enough to end the expedition early.

He signs off on this expedition with head held high, from a place that has both made him and pushed him to his limits.

We wish him a safe journey home and hope he gets some well earned rest.

The Ice Maidens

The Ice Maiden team have continued to soldier on, cutting in to the final 1,100km and even spotting some other life after leaving the South Pole. First there was, a very lost, bird, and then a sighting of another human! The group speculate that it could well have been a member of the Ghurkas named Scott, on his way to the Pole solo.

The group have settled in to this next leg of their journey well, and though leaner, they report that everyone remains physically and mentally fit. The team don’t seem to have been afflicted by the terrible weather that has ended Ben’s journey and continue to clock up the kilometers, recently passing the half way point for the expedition.

Christmas was celebrated with the odd combination of crisps and rum before it was back to “chasing the horizon”. Soon after celebrating new year they reached their second, and final, depot stop near the Thiel Mountains. Here they were able to grab a day of rest before heading on in snow conditions that seem to be gradually becoming more favourable.

If the weather holds the expedition has just a couple of weeks remaining to go.

Previous / Links:

Antarctica 2017: Summer Holidays and South Pole Milestones

Leo Houlding’s Spectre

Solo Trans-Antarctic Kicks Off

All-Female Ice Maiden Team to Cross Antarctica