As you step out onto the ice sheet, cold air hits you in the face like a fist of needles. Nothing quite prepares you for Antarctica. It is a behemoth. One and a half times the size of the United States, 98 percent of its surface is covered in ice. It is the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth.
We had arrived at Novolazarevskaya, a Russian base station on the eastern coast of Antarctica that services scientific-research projects, some tourism, and the occasional expedition, like the one we were about to begin: a three-month traversal of Antarctica without assistance and using only land kites and skis. Transit to "Novo" which is little more than a collection of prefab barracks, a mess tent, and an outhouse, is made aboard the Russian flying-cargo workhorse the Ilyushin-76. The plane – window-paneled nose makes it a clear pick out of a lineup, but inside, the accommodations are strictly functional. Exposed pipes and ducts are held together with aging, discolored tape; passengers and cargo share the same space; and there are no portholes. No effort has been made to soundproof the cabin (the crew distributes ear plugs before takeoff), and the bathroom is a portable toilet strapped aft of the plane – literally. Our six-hour night flight from Cape Town, South Africa, to the frigid eastern coast of Antarctica hinted at the spartan life of an expedition on the ice.
My partner for this trip, Eric McNair-Landry, has a medium build and a robust aptitude to endure punishing stretches in the cold. He grew up in Canada's northern territories and, at 26, has a promising future in the expedition world. An engineer by training, Eric is happiest far away from a power grid. Eric and I had trained for this trip on Greenland. We had spent 42 days crossing its south-north axis, where we set a new record for the longest distance traveled with kites over 24 hours, at 370 miles (a journey chronicled in a 2010 article in 'Men's Journal'). Following two years of planning, our mission has three objectives. If successful, we will be the first to independently reach the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility (POI) – the farthest point from the continent's coasts – using kites and skis. The 1,120-mile stretch from Novo to the heart of Antarctica makes it arguably the most remote and difficult point of access on the planet. Only five missions have ever reached the POI – and only twice since 1964. And all but one were motorized.
Paul Landry, the famed polar guide (and Eric's father), led a team there in 2006, also using kites. Theirs was a one-way trip, however, and it also benefitted from air support. The conditions in Antarctica are fairly predictable: often windy and always very, very cold. The danger comes mostly from human error, failure of equipment, and overreaching in one's goals. Even if you know what to expect, a mistake can still lead to disaster. Losing a tent while setting it up in a windstorm is obviously lethal, but a failed solar panel can also be critical. On this type of mission, you plan for the worst and hope for the best, and when dark thoughts creep into your mind, you keep them to yourself.
With more than 400 pounds in tow each, our loads weighed more than double what Landry's team pulled, and for us, the POI would be the first stop of our mission. Our second objective was to make the first-ever unassisted and nonmotorized crossing of the 550 miles separating the POI from the South Pole, one of the least-known routes in Antarctica. Third, we would complete the first-ever east-west transcontinental crossing of Antarctica via two of its poles, a distance of more than 2,500 miles. All of this would take place between November 2011 and February 2012, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott's historic, and tragic, race to the South Pole.
We had spent two days in Cape Town meticulously packing our sledges. We would be bringing with us two eight-foot sledges and two four-footers, as well as four kites of different sizes. We also had ample stores of dehydrated food, skis, boots, communications devices, photo gear – and three pairs of underwear each. We quickly secured 35 liters of white fuel for our cooking stoves from Novo's station manager, strapped on our skis, clipped the pulling trace onto our harnesses, and took our first steps of the expedition. Or at least attempted to.
Eric and I are seasoned adventurers, prepared both physically and mentally for the challenge of pulling heavy loads in extreme conditions, where temperatures can often reach below -50 degrees F. But within minutes, our muscles were gorged with blood, and sweat was beading all over our bodies. We had started near sea level, and before we could get the kites in the air, we would have to ascend 9,500 feet up a glacier and through multiple crevasse fields to reach a favorable wind line on the plateau. It seemed incomprehensible that we would be able to achieve that. Each irregularity in the terrain was an opportunity for the sledges to snag and abruptly bring the effort to a stop. By the end of the first day, we had covered only one and a half miles. It took us three days to lose sight of the station. "Convicts don't work this hard," Eric said on one of our short food breaks. But we advanced steadily, gaining ground and elevation amid an arresting landscape of vertical mountains piercing skyward through the ice. Slowly, even the tallest peak was swallowed up by the rising ice cap, until the last of the mountains disappeared from sight.
After 15 days of sweating and cursing, we finally reached the plateau. On our first night, a brutal storm pinned us down in the tent for three days.