Antarctica Week Three: The Race is On

The final expeditions have set off from Hercules Inlet and Thiels Corner. Meanwhile, those already heading to the South Pole have experienced surprisingly good weather.


Longest Polar Expedition

When Geoff Wilson heard that “weird wind conditions” were on the way, the Aussie decided to make the most of current favourable winds. He set off in the middle of the night and experienced a perfect run. The sastrugi ended and what he called “gold dust” hung in the air. “I’ve seen this phenomenon once before. It occurs in extreme cold when moisture crystallizes in the air, floats lazily and is backlit by the sun,” he posted.

The next two days were less magical. Wilson “rolled the clock,” kiting to the point of exhaustion, then snatching four hours of sleep and hitting the ice again. He managed an impressive 183km in 24 hours but also had a minor disaster. Skiing over the sastrugi had vibrated the pulk enough to loosen the lid on a fuel container. In Antarctica, fuel is essential to survival and, due to weight constraints, painstakingly metered out for expeditions. Fortunately, Wilson stemmed the leak before it was too late. He has enough fuel to continue, but he has thinned his margins and can’t afford another mistake.

Wilson wrangling a kite. Photo: Geoff Wilson

By December 2, Wilson had almost reached the Pole of Inaccessibility (POI). Cross-winds made reaching the exact point difficult and he had to cache one of his two sleds to drop weight. He planned to pick it back up on the way to the South Pole.

With less weight, he was able to reach the POI and get his moment with Lenin’s bust. This marked the end of the first leg of his journey, 23 days of kiting that he described as “the most brutal journey I’ve undertaken to date.”

After a one-night fling with Lenin, Wilson headed back to retrieve his second sled. Again, the wind proved fickle, and he could get no closer than 14km with his big kite. He took the risky decision to cache sled one and kite-ski upwind without any gear to retrieve sled two. He was hugely relieved when he managed to reunite the two sleds without incident.

Next stop for Wilson, the South Pole.

Wilson and Lenin hanging out at the POI. Photo: Geoff Wilson


Women’s Speed Record Attempts

Wendy Searle and Jenny Davis both set off on November 27 and have had a week on the ice. The slightly later start seems to have been a good decision. For the first four days, they enjoyed low winds, good visibility and a relatively smooth surface.

On day five, winds rose to 60 knots and both women hunkered down in their tents through the morning to wait out the worst of the storm.

Searle and Davis have been coy about their distances, but both seem pleased with their progress so far. The race is on.


Solos to the South Pole

Mollie Hughes has made headway into her second degree toward the South Pole. On December 1, she passed the 100 nautical mile mark, roughly one-sixth of her total distance to the Pole.

On the same day, Anja Blacha passed her own milestone: She stepped off Berkner Island and onto the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. She has made 325km and now needs to chew through another 180km toward the Dufek Massif. After two weeks of skiing, she has pushed up her daily totals, recently notching a personal best of 28km.

Blacha celebrates the end of her first phase. Photo: Anja Blacha

Neil Hunter set off from Hercules Inlet on November 27. As with the two women’s speed record hopefuls, he encountered pleasant conditions until day five. He didn’t risk moving until 2pm and immediately regretted not setting off earlier; the wind was less fierce than expected. Hunter has eased himself in with eight-hour sessions. He will push these up to 10 hours in the next week.

Jacek Libucha’s concerns about soft snow have proven unfounded. The weather improved on November 22, and he has made good progress, averaging around 25km per day.


Guided Efforts of Note

On December 3, Robert Swan and his team set off on their 500km expedition to the Pole from Thiels Corner. They will work their way slowly into the journey.

Swan sets off. Photo: Robert Swan

Lucy Reynolds was among the gaggle starting from Hercules Inlet on November 27. Her guided trip covered a short 12km on their first day but ramped up to 20km by day six.

Jing Feng, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer are already into their fourth week. Like Wilson, they are heading for the POI, but without the use of kites. The group have a long trek ahead of them but have made excellent progress, averaging a solid 25km per day.



Week Two: Wind and Whiteouts

Week One: Off They Go

Antarctica 2019-2020: Expeditions to Watch