ExWeb interview Sebastian Copeland and Eric McNair-Landry (part 1/2): The battle of body and gear across 2 South Poles

Posted: Mar 05, 2012 11:03 am EST

(Correne Coetzer) The team of two world record kite skiers crossed Antarctic from Novo to Hercules Inlet via the South Pole of Inaccessibility and the Geographic South Pole to Hercules Inlet this past South Pole season. Back home ExplorersWeb caught up with them. Eric, 27, noted, “I have finally been enjoying a bit of a social life back home. It’s been almost six months that I have not seen friends and family, so the experience is rather fantastic!”

He and team mate Sebastian Copeland (48) started off their expedition by sledge-hauling 400 lb (182 kg) food and gear up to the polar plateau to get to favorable kiting winds. They tell about what that do to the body, about the decisions to take one sled or two sleds, kite boots or high altitude mountaineering boots, and the consequences of too tight boots.

ExplorersWeb:This was a very long route and you started off with very sleds. Your bodies had a hard time from the start. Equipment broke. Did you then think you will make it to the end? How did you motivate yourself in those first days?

Eric: After many years I have developed a stress free style of travel; the success of any kiting expedition is inevitably dependent on the winds, a force that lies outside of your control. I depart on many expeditions, especially as my expeditions become increasingly ambitious, knowing that there is a significant probability of failure.

Sebastian: We started with 400 pounds each, hauling them up the glacier to an elevation of around 9500 feet before relying exclusively on kites. That was, without a doubt, the toughest part of the expedition. In the first few days, we were barely making five kilometers; one day we made 1.5 kilometer, and it took us three days just to lose sight of the station!

As anyone who has done this knows, pulling this kind of load uphill is like hauling a house. The main sledges were Marc Cornelisen’s (Xmarx’s) and I had him re-enforce some smaller Blue Diamond sledges as well (similar to Paris sledges) for the onset of the expedition, to split the loads. This turned out to be an error: for one, the extra sledges added more friction than they relieved weight issues.

But more importantly, in the early kiting sections, which we had to a very limited extent in the beginning, the fishtailing of a sledge doubled up with the extra two. Occasionally, when a sledge would hit a tall piece of sastrugi it could jam almost to a stop. When the stars line up, the two sets of sledges would do that at the same time, bringing forward motion to a virtual stop.

This can be pretty violent - the kite pulls forward, while the cargo objects! On one such occasion, I was slammed to the ground; my rib cage landed on a sastrugi ridge, resulting in a double fracture!

Eric was smart: he avoided the small sledges. That was the right decision. The extra weight is also what resulted in one ski delaminating, on day five. With 400 pounds behind you, it is easier to nose plant a ski into high sastrugi, which places enormous amount of stress on the equipment.

To shave a few pounds, Eric and I had debated over bringing the extra ski which I had brought for redundancy. In the end, we chose to leave it at the Novolazarevskaya airport, which was barely thirty kilometers from us. That was lucky. TAC who did our logistics were kind enough to drive it some distance our way, while Eric met them a few kilometers in. The broken ski, which happened on day five, resulted in the unfortunate loss of our un-assisted status—for the entire mission!

It should be made clear that we continued pulling the heavy cargo up the glacier for a total of 200 kilometers before reaching the plateau, and on to cover a total adjusted distance of close to 4100 kilometers by crossing the continent from east to west.

Pulling 90 days’ worth of food and fuel sets us apart for the first kiting expedition to the POI, whose supplies were dropped on the plateau for a speedy ascent. Theirs, also, was a one way ticket. I bring this up, as I was forwarded a disparaging message, upon getting off the ice, suggesting that there is little difference between a plane drop with fuel and food supplies up the glacier, and a ski driven twenty kilometers from the start as an emergency assist. Whoever suggested that has clearly never hauled 400 pounds up a glacier.

ExplorersWeb: Sebastian, you in particular had physically a hard time. What happened and how did you handle it? How are you now? You mentioned some figures on Facebook…

Sebastian: The physical challenge was the broken ribs in the beginning, which thankfully healed during the trip. They are fine now. The other challenge was two frostbites which developed on my big toes: first the right first, then the left.

These happened perusing trauma on my downwind toe from the relentless assault of the sastrugi. After much hesitation, I had opted for my Dynafit Zero boots. They worked great on our 2500 kilometers crossing of Greenland last year, and after outfitting them with a customized over boots, I had hoped that the thin shells and liners would handle the much colder temps on Antarctica. They did not.

The main challenge was that Dynafit does not make a boot larger than a 28, which happens to be my size. In a very cold environment, however, I would opt for at least one size larger. But each mold costs the company a half a million dollars, and they figure that they don’t sell enough large boots to justify that high cost!

The sastrugi we encountered in the beginning of the trip was especially brutal. On the feet, with a boot that is a little tight, this meant that my toes were jamming in the toe box, especially the downhill foot. From a bruised black nail, that area started swelling which eventually filled with fluid. The cold slowly got to that fluid setting up a cold injury, which developed into frostbite on my right toe.

After reaching the POI, when we changed tack, the left foot became the dominant downwind foot. It was then that it, too, began developing frostbite. Luckily, the distance to the South Pole was shorter and the temperatures generally warmer from dropping in elevation. Foot warmers are not a serious option for an unassisted expedition, for many reasons beginning with the considerable extra weight added by batteries.

The high elevation also takes a toll. Eric developed an altitude cough that did not relent for two months. While the lack of oxygen hindered blood from healing the frostbites. Those threatened the successful completion of the trip.

But strange things happen to rational thinking while on the ice: I was prepared to lose a digit to complete at least one mandate of the mission. In the ends, we met all three. Eric saved the day by lending me his right boot - his foot is a size smaller than mine, but the Millet boots he had from his dad fit me fine and were considerably warmer.

We finished the second half of the trip that way, a different boot and ski on each foot, in spite of both bindings associated with those boots breaking separately on us!

ExplorersWeb: Eric how did you get the idea to pack mountaineering boots? They are unusual on ski trips. And what bindings did you have so that you could fit them on Sebastian’s skis?

Eric: I chose the Millet Everest boot based on two positive recommendation, from Dad (Paul Landry, who had used the boots on his POI expedition) and from my sister (Sarah who had used the boots on our North West Passage expedition).

The boots are difficult for inexperienced kiter as they trade ankle support for warmth. However the occasional fall is inconsequential to the health of an expedition while frozen toes can have serious ramifications.

Ultimately the bindings (Fritshi Diamir Freeride) were the weakest link in the system as they had crucial components made of plastic which were unable to withstand a load in low temperatures. Both bindings broke, however the bindings were easy to fix; we lost no more than two hours due to repairs.

ExplorersWeb: Eric, how did your body do? Would you say growing up with expeditions with your parents and living above the Arctic Circle, and being younger helped you?

Eric: Generally I would say my body performed well during the expedition; having lived in the Arctic and having an extensive resume of kite expeditions obviously helped.

Also I am surrounded by people who generously endowed me with sound advice. I would assume that being younger helped; we will see how this body holds up when I get older!

Next Part 2 of 2: What they have enjoyed most, their future plans, advice from a father, and meeting Lenin, who, according to Sebastian, perhaps out of boredom has slowly rotated his gaze over the years.

Eric McNair-Landry (27) and Sebastian Copeland (48) opened a new route crossing the continent from East to West, from Novolazarevskaya Base via the South Pole of Inaccessibility and the Geographic South Pole to Hercules Inlet.

In June 2010 Canadian McNair-Landry and American/French Copeland bagged the kite-ski distance world record by kiting 595km in 24 hours on Greenland.

Copeland is an accomplished filmmaker and McNair-Landry is known for his expeditions with his sister Sarah; skiing across ice fields, kite-bugging in deserts and canoeing along rivers. During the 2011 fall and summer, time came for their biggest dream yet: to kite-ski and sledge-haul 3000 km of the historical Northwest Passage route first sailed in 1906 by 1911 South Pole discoverer Roald Amundsen. The siblings started in the far north of Canada’s Northwest Territories, pitching their tent just outside of the Tuktoyaktuk settlement. After 85 days of travel across 3300 km on June 11 they finally reached Pond Inlet.

South Pole of Inaccessibility:
S82°06.696, E055°01.951
Geographic South Pole: 90 degrees South

#Polar #topstory #interview

Sebastian: “The cold slowly got to that fluid setting up a cold injury, which developed into frostbite on my right toe […] Foot warmers are not a serious option for an unassisted expedition.”
courtesy Sebastian Copeland
2011-12 Antarctica ski routes.
courtesy ExplorersWeb.com