Antarctica Week Six: The Weather Turns

The weather seemed too good to be true, and so it proved. In the last week, fickle Antarctica has left unwanted Christmas gifts of fresh snowfall and whiteouts.


Longest Polar Journey

Geoff Wilson has really racked up the kilometres since reaching the continent’s most remote point last week. After the slog up Dome Argus, he had a glorious descent, dropping 300m in altitude in just one day.

For once, conditions conspired to boost him along. Wind speed and direction were ideal, and the soft snow changed to hardened ice, doubling his speed over the frictionless surface. The only downside? The return of sastrugi and new ice features that Wilson calls “megadunes”. These huge waves of frozen ice feature massive troughs and downslopes that Wilson estimates to be up to two kilometres long. He has learnt to zigzag into the dune troughs and then use the kite to pull himself out the other side.

Over the next couple of days, strong winds helped him along but also led to a few nasty falls. On the most brutal of these, his two sleds ran him over. He has been using smaller kites for a more manageable speed and he has slept in short bursts to make the most of the wind when available. By rolling the clock this way, he covered 760km in just seven days.

Wilson waits for the wind to pick up. Photo: Geoff Wilson

Although he skipped the South Pole and headed directly from the Point of Inaccessibility to Dome Argus, Wilson’s route should still run long enough to earn his Longest Polar Journey moniker. As of Christmas Day, he had already covered 3,646km and has a daunting 1,547km left to his endpoint at Thorshammer on the coast.

His primary concern now is the sleds. The sastrugi have taken a toll, and cracks are spreading. Without the means to repair them, he’ll have to avoid too many serious impacts and hope that they can hang together for a couple more weeks.


Women’s Speed Record Attempts

After a long stretch of almost perfect weather, the two speed record hopefuls were due some adversity. The fresh snowfall and whiteouts of the last week have definitely clipped their stride.

Both women continue to be secretive about their distances and positions, seemingly unwilling to give the other any motivation to speed up. Jenny Davis seems to be in the thick of the sastrugi, while Wendy Searle describes the snow waves as building “but not quite there yet,” so perhaps Davis holds a narrow lead.

Searle’s pic of the growing sastrugi. Photo: Wendy Searle


Solos to the South Pole

On Christmas day, Mollie Hughes crossed another milestone when she broke the 400 nautical mile (740km) barrier. This marks roughly two-thirds of the distance from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. Hughes has endured the same whiteouts and soft snow as Davis and Searle as she climbs toward the Pole.

Neil Hunter had a mental break on December 22, when he arrived at the Thiels Corner runway. He was particularly taken with the toilet, which came with its own guestbook. In case we were wondering, Hunter explained that it’s the longest he has ever hung around a toilet block. Since then, his daily distance has dropped from around 25km per day to under 16km. The soft snow, combined with the incline towards the Pole, have become a real hindrance.

There has been a lot of staring at compass trays for haulers this week. Photo: Wendy Searle

The poor weather has come at a bad time for Jacek Libucha: He is still concerned about his food supplies. “Calories are now critical, and it turns out I brought too little food,” he admitted in a recent dispatch. On Christmas Day, at least, the sun finally reemerged.

Anja Blacha has covered 875km on her longer journey to the Pole. She seems in good spirits and has not reported any problems. She left the mountains behind this week and is climbing towards the polar plateau.


Guided Efforts of Note

Robert Swan’s guided expedition from Thiels Corner is battling through sastrugi, as well as five consecutive days of “white darkness.” They took a day off to celebrate Christmas and to give their legs a break.

Lucy Reynolds passed the halfway point on December 23. Her guide is feeling better, and the team celebrated Christmas at Thiels Corner.


Drake Passage Row

Colin O’Brady, Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, John Petersen, Andrew Towne, Cameron Bellamy and Fiann Paul have completed their row across the Drake Passage. The journey from Cape Horn in Chile to the Antarctic Peninsula took them just under 13 days.

The successful rowers. Photo: Colin O’Brady

The confused media reports have already begun, with NBC news describing them rowing from “Cape Horn in South Africa” in a breathless report of a world-first that fails to mention Ned Gillette’s 1988 crossing.