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South Pole speed record special: Polar Express - leaving from where, exactly?

Posted: Dec 23, 2006 07:20 pm EST

Charging towards the pole, Hannah is on schedule to beat Rosie and Fiona's speed record. In 2004, Fiona made it to the pole in 41 days 8 hours and 14 min. By the end of Friday December 22, Hannah had been out for 34 days. That leaves her only 8 days to beat the old record.

Judging from Hannah's current position, a new record seems possible. It took Fiona only 4 days to reach the pole from this point. But it's far from a done deal. All South Pole skiers including veterans have reported unusually bad conditions on the ice this year and Hannah has been losing weight fast. She is close, but struggling.

In the old days, just making it to the pole without support was tough enough. But with the new age of athletic performance mixing with adventure, a debate has erupted lately regarding exact starting points at Antarctica and the importance of making sure that time comparisons are just.

This applies to the "classic" South Pole route from Hercules Inlet. Other routes from the coast to the Pole could be either shorter or longer in distance so direct comparisons can't be made.

Where and when did they start?

So let's take a look at the different starting points of the three British women currently holding the fastest unsupported records from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole:

Rosie Stancer (2004)
Nov 30 2003 time n/a , 79.933S, 79.767W
(Position not confirmed by Argos)

Fiona Thornewille (2004)
Nov 30 2003 14.45 GMT, 79.950S,80.186W
(Position confirmed by Argos)

Hannah McKeand (2006)
Nov 19 2006 10.00 GMT, 79.986S, 80.086W
(Position confirmed by Argos)

Where to start according to DEM

The map images illustrating this story are plotted in Global Mapper based on the GTOPO30 dataset. The dataset was finished in 1996 and is a global digital elevation model (DEM) resulting from a collaborative effort led by the staff at the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This is today the best available general representation of altitudes at Antarctica.

The colors represent altitude and brown is sea level. Based on this model the start should be somewhere around 79.987S, 79.626W - where brown (perma frozen sea) meets the blue (land).

Where to start in reality

By tradition, the big debate among polar skiers regarding starting points has been the obvious difference between Hercules Inlet (by the coast) and ALE's camp at Patriot Hill (30 NM/55km inland).

With the affirmation of Hercules Inlet as valid starting point and in the new era of speed expeditions; more effort is now made to fine tune an exact starting point.

Hercules Inlet has a permanent ice cap and even though some expeditions report signs of a tidal cracks (lines where the land rises above the ice), these are often erased by whiteout, snowfall etc. Most expeditions grabbing the 15 min flight from Patriot Hill to the coast therefore make good with a general drop me at Hercules instruction to the Pilots - with the rule of thumb among the polar community being, anywhere North of the 80th degree is valid."

Comparing the Distance to the Pole

Shortly beyond Hercules Inlet follows a steep section leading up to a gentler incline. Due to heavy crevassing in some areas, almost all expeditions choose to ski up between two hills called The Nunataks. In order to do this, the skiers first must head west from Hercules before they can turn south.

The map shows that Fionas and Hannahs route are almost identical in length, while Rosies was 4-5 miles longer.

The altitude curves show that Hannah started out slightly lower than Fiona, while Rosie was closest to the sea.

Confusing formats

At ExplorersWeb, Fionas and Hannahs correct starting positions have both been verified by Argos. This is important as the various teams own position reports can be incorrect.

While most skiers are good at reading their positions in general, they are often confusing the formats. For instance, a format often used is 80.10.0000. This format is not valid and makes no sense. Correct formats are either 8010.0000 or 80.100000 or 801000. All these descriptions in fact show different positions.

Future speed records

This year Hannah started at an identical (within one mile) distance from the Pole as Fiona and there is good verification from Argos to complement Hannahs GPS log.

This spring, an exact starting point will in addition be created for Hercules Inlet to accommodate the increasing interest for polar record attempts. All members of the polar community are encouraged to contribute to this work.

Mail team@explorersweb.com (deadline February 30, 2007).

#Stats #classic

Click to expand. Starting positions for Rosie, Fiona and Hannah. Fiona's and Hannah's position as confirmed by Argos. The Hill is the Nunantaks. Skiing East of the Nunataks (upwards in image) is not done due to heavy crevassing.
Overview with Patriot Hills marked out (click to enlarge).