81 Days on the Ice

Photograph by Sebastian Copeland

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.

When a storm hits in Antarctica, the tent is your only chance of survival. It is like an additional member of an expedition. In a storm like the one we experienced, you see displays of nature’s fierce power. The sky closes in, visibility drops, the wind kicks up to 60 m.p.h., and temperatures sink – in east Antarctica in early November, temperatures average around 30 degrees F. In these conditions, all you can do is build a snow wall to shield the tent from the wind, bury yourself deep in your sleeping bag, and wait for it to pass. With the elements raging, tent life can be surprisingly tranquil. A good book, a chess game, or an iPod can take your mind off the harsh realities outside. We also spent our time in the tent recalculating the daily distance scenarios required to meet our goals and assessing the likelihood of success.

Other than storms, air movement on an ice cap is dominated by katabatic winds. Katabatic, from the Greek word katabatikos, or “going downhill” refers to the movement of air down an ice slope. When cool air reaches the ice, it gains density. This heavier air will roll down a grade, if there is one, governed by the same law that hit Newton in the head with the apple. The katabatic process makes wind direction fairly predictable on an ice cap, and with a careful choice of route, it favors kite-skiing expeditions. Unlike in cross-country skiing, kites help you cover vast areas relatively fast.

Due to its size, remoteness, and the antagonistic nature of its environment, Antarctica remains the least explored landmass in the world. Other than the katabatic winds, though, the history of Antarctic expeditions begins and ends with the sastrugi. Sure, there is the cold, the wind, and the desolation. But the sastrugi – ice features of varying size and shape, sculpted by the powerful winds – define the landscape. Row upon row of closely stacked ice ridges make travel intensely challenging. On a kiting expedition anywhere, the sastrugi will fray your joints and rattle your fillings. But in Antarctica, they will destroy your equipment, your bones, and sometimes your spirit – pretty much in that order, as we would soon find out.

This year was especially bad for the sastrugi. Around the same time as our trip, two other expeditions had been forced to stop, and a third had requested an airlift to a further deployment because of the sastrugi. It wasn’t long before the tip of my ski jammed into the head of one, and in a flash, I received a lesson in physics: The force displaced while kiting is equal to the mass of the sledge plus your weight, in addition to the pull of the kite, which is measured in speed, or momentum. In this case, when you stick a ski into the ice, all that force is directed underfoot, and under such conditions, things tend to break. Breakage is part of all expeditions; how much redundancy you build into your supplies requires a delicate balance between tacking on extra weight and rolling the dice. Experience helps, but luck also determines whether you will go on or abort the mission. Screws and epoxy held my ski together for less than a day, but by chance, and against the advice of my young partner, I had brought a replacement, and we managed to resume the trek.

Skis are not the only thing that can break, of course – a lesson I learned on day six of the expedition. For the first stage, I had chosen to bring two smaller sledges to spread the weight and separate it in dual loads if needed. On paper this seemed like a good idea. In reality, having “the kids” – our nickname for the smaller sledges – in tow only complicated matters. Not only did they increase the chance of snagging a nose on a bad piece of sastrugi; while kiting, they doubled the fishtailing effect, adding drag and pull to the harness while killing speed. Both sets of sledges would occasionally nose-plant violently into ridges, bringing me to a sudden stop. I would be squeezed by the harness until my eyes bugged out, or I’d be slammed sideways onto the ice. It was on one such occasion that I heard a sound that still resonates in my head: a crack coming from my chest, followed by a sharp, agonizing pain, as if a knife had been lodged between my ribs. I attempted to wiggle the harness and breathed deeply, but there was no shaking the pain. Everything I did made it worse. I landed the kite, struggled to secure the lines, and dropped to my knees, the pain overtaking my body with each breath. I stretched my torso and could feel bony clanking. The signs were unmistakable: broken ribs.

Just before I departed on this mission, fate perhaps had me sit down to dinner in Cape Town with a fellow adventurer, who shared with me that he had once broken a rib on an expedition. I asked him what he had done about it, and he said: “I swallowed a bunch of painkillers, sucked it up, and carried on with the trip.” I’ll admit I was impressed.

I spent 48 hours resting, with two broken ribs, thinking about my friend “sucking it up” and contemplating the nature of failure. Eventually, though, I got up, sewed leg straps to the harness, swallowed a mouthful of Ibuprofen, and hit the trail. This was day eight. Eighty more to go.

Kiting over long distances is like running a marathon: You hope for a consistent pace. But changing conditions can shift the narrative. On a timeline, with limited supplies, this can be tense. As we gained elevation, the cooling temperatures and thinning oxygen took their toll. Eric developed altitude cough, and we were both sucking air just buckling our boots. But it was the light and unstable winds that increasingly wreaked havoc on our nerves. The POI is located at 12,220 feet, one of the highest plateaus in Antarctica. Katabatic winds accelerate downhill, which theoretically means the closer you get to the top – and to our destination – the weaker the wind. Over the 53 days we spent on our approach to the POI, we experienced two kinds of air movement: a few hours of weak winds, with days of single-digit miles traveled; and powerful storms that pinned us in the tent. We attempted to take advantage of the head or tail of the storms, which made for white-knuckle kite rides into virtual whiteouts. But we continued to progress, mile by mile. And while my ribs slowly and painfully healed in spite of the daily squeeze of the harness, a new, more serious challenge arose.

A frostbite starts out looking like a blister. The body secretes liquid to protect the next layer of skin. When that liquid is further exposed to frost, it sinks down, killing the next layer of skin. The dead skin hardens and goes necrotic, turning black, and careful monitoring is required to prevent it from spreading. If frost reaches the bone, or the first knuckle of a digit, amputation is generally required to prevent the spread of gangrene.

The Dynafit backcountry boots I chose for the expedition had been vetted during our 1,430-mile, 42-day kite-and-ski journey in Greenland. Their thin shell offered an excellent weight-to-strength ratio, but I paid for it with less warmth than a traditional boot. For that reason, I wore a custom overboot made of synthetic fiberfill and wind-resistant material. The boots were on the cool side but remained acceptable in the frigid Antarctic conditions. Where I rolled the dice was on the size: I received the largest one manufactured by the company, which, while fitting my size-12 foot perfectly, did not afford the extra room that, in cold conditions, allows air to circulate. With two pairs of socks, the fit was snug. I also failed to account for the furious assault on my feet by sastrugi, specifically on my big toes. After two weeks of kiting, my right toe displayed signs of trauma, and the nail began turning black. Soon, the base of the nail was swelling and got infected. Liquid secreted below the skin, under the nail, and eventually, exposed to frigid temperatures, the liquid caused a cold injury. At the end of each day, I would anxiously inspect my toe, only to discover more of the ominous black.

The history of polar exploration is replete with stubby toes and missing digits. Strange things happen to the brain on the ice: The drive to reach a goal can blur rational thinking. I had no desire to lose a toe, but there was no way I would abort my mission to save one, either. Eric had opted for an Everest mountaineering boot, which, while offering little ankle support, delivered ample warmth. The POI was 217 miles away; we were 900 miles and 40 days into our journey and close to accomplishing our first objective. I decided to press on. Eric and I traded right boots.

On the 53rd day of the expedition, we were finally within striking distance of the POI. A storm that had pinned us down for two days was dying. With good conditions, we could close the 60-mile gap in four, maybe five hours. But as we got ready that morning, the winds continued to decrease. An hour into the day, our speed was faltering, as were our hopes of reaching the POI.

By 2 p.m., with barely any wind, we were struggling to keep the kites in the air. By 6:30 p.m., we had been on the trail for 10 hours – our longest stretch of the trip – and a little more than nine miles remained. But the wind picked up, and as we raced over the ice, I scanned the empty vastness, expecting at any moment to see a marker on the horizon. With about four miles to go, we set down to check our bearings. Good thing: We were 45 degrees off and had nearly overshot our target.

We lifted off one last time, and within minutes, I saw that two markers were ahead of us: the first man-made features Eric and I had seen since leaving Novo. We sped toward them. The rough terrain no longer mattered, the burn in my legs was forgotten, and the adrenaline even warmed my toes. Soon, I could make out a derelict communications tower and the remains of a drilling platform – relics of a Soviet-built station at the POI that had been abandoned more than 50 years ago. A bust of Lenin propped atop a chimney is all that remains of the station. Sticking out of the ice, it faces Moscow: stoic, incongruous, and forlorn in this desolate space, like a Napoleon exiled on a frozen Elba. The rest of the base was somewhere below our skis. Past the tower, we made a slow downwind turn and landed our kites. Fifty-three days, 11 hours, and 12 minutes, and we were there. We had reached the POI.

In June 1910, a young British naval officer named Robert Falcon Scott set sail for the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica with the ambition of planting the Union Jack at the South Pole. At about the same time, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen began his own expedition to the Arctic, sailing from Norway with his provisions and dogs. Once out to sea, Amundsen changed course and headed for the Ross Ice Shelf. With Scott and Amundsen both heading for the South Pole at the same time, the greatest race in polar history had begun.

Amundsen’s sharp tactical thinking and experience in the Arctic made him a fiercely efficient leader. He knew the proper clothing for the environment and how to use dogs, which allowed him to successfully reach the plateau from the Axel Heiberg Glacier and set up supply caches along the way. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his team were the first to reach the South Pole.

Scott, meanwhile, was using tractors and ponies, not dogs. The tractors proved useless in the deep snow of the Ross Ice Shelf, and all the ponies died. Scott and his four-man team reached the pole on January 17, 1912, but their dream of planting the British flag was thwarted by the sight of a tent flying Norwegian colors. Inside was a note left by Amundsen, addressed to Scott:

Dear Captain Scott – As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you to kindly forward this letter to [Norwegian] King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent, please do not hesitate to do so. The sledge left outside may be of use to you. With kind regards I wish you a safe return.

Yours truly,

Roald Amundsen

Scott and his team began their return journey, but after multiple vicious storms, they died tragically of cold and starvation a mere 11 miles from their next food cache. In the expedition world, the rivalry between Norway and England lives on to this day.

With this in mind, we set out to cover the 550-mile stretch that separates the POI from the South Pole. This route had been traveled only once, over two seasons, by motorized tractors. We studied wind models, and conditions on this section promised to be very light. But we were 12 days behind, and weak winds could threaten our timeline and the remainder of the expedition. So when blowing snow hit the tent on the morning after our arrival at the POI, we were quick to break camp and shoot out of there. The idea was to drop in elevation as fast as we could and fall into a favorable wind setup. What we got on that crossing was some of the best wind of the entire trip, along with smooth terrain and warming temperatures. Not that everything was easy. There was a leaking fuel canister that contaminated some food, three days of dead calm in the tent, and the accidental loss of my sleeping bag during travel. But overall it went well, and our daily average exceeded 60 miles per day.

On January 8, after 1,680 miles of travel, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station appeared on the horizon. We had not seen a sign of (recent) human activity in 65 days, and the sight of a community raised our spirits. I landed my kite, took in the sight of the buildings rising from the ice, and smiled. We were about to complete the second phase of our mission and reach, 100 years after the fact, the spot where Amundsen and Scott had made history. I lifted my kite again and headed for the station.

We met other adventurers who had skied here from other points to commemorate the centennial. We recognized the weary look of struggles on the ice. When you reach the bottom of the Earth, the stories of those who have, too, become part of your own, and instant friendships are born. But where their trip had ended (they would all be leaving the station by plane), we had another 745 miles still to go. After two rest days waiting for wind, the familiar flapping of the tent’s wall beckoned to us. The wind was building. Our time was up.

We had monitored the conditions all day, and while the forecast had called for light winds, it was now blowing snow, reaching 18 knots and building. Eric and I had psyched ourselves to leave; the social life at the base was like a siren luring us to stay and challenging our resolve. We were ready to leave – we were dressed for the trail, the tent had been packed, the sledges rearranged, and the kites were laid out on the ice, gently bouncing in the gusts. The visibility had dropped to about a mile, which was just enough to make out the perimeter of the station, but not more. Our new friends were waiting in the cold to bid us farewell. Their faces displayed a mix of curiosity with the incredulous disconnect that comes from knowing that your mission has ended while witnessing the familiar steps of others committing to another round. It is a blend of relief and envy.

Eric and I walked to our lines, clipped in, raised our kites in the air, and glided away from the camp. We followed a flagged route that cut right through the station and then out. The gap between the markers grew, and as the visibility dropped, they quickly faded from view. At the last flag, I looked back. The station had disappeared, shrouded in a cloak of white. The kites were diving up and down, our skis were scratching the ice below us, and our speed was growing. We were back on the trail.

It took 12 days to reach the western coast of Antarctica. When the kites came down for their final landing, there were no parades, no podium or cash prizes, no cheering crowds or laurel wreaths. But we had our limbs, our wits, all of our toes (minus a few millimeters for some), and memories for a lifetime. We had also laid claim to three new polar records, and our names would forever be etched in the history of Antarctica firsts. In Antarctica, beauty is everywhere. With its endless white canvas, it asks many questions about the reality that you choose, pushing you to go where you never knew you could. The great climber Voytek Kurtyka once said: “Alpinism is the art of suffering.” This is also true of polar travel. When doubts arise, you would be well served to remember the two laws of perseverance. First: Put one foot in front of the other. Second: Keep walking. If you have trouble with the second, refer back to the first.

Vital Statistics
Total days on the ice: 81
Distance covered: 2,395 miles
Highest point reached: 12,220 feet
Total elevation gained: 11,886 feet
Longest distance traveled in a day: 145 miles
Shortest: 960 feet
Sledge weight at the start of the trip: 420 pounds
At the end: 150 pounds
Coldest temperature without wind chill: -40 degrees F
With wind chill: -76 degrees F

Sebastian Copeland is an explorer, photographer, and environmental advocate, who holds four polar records.

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