Unlimited Child Expedition to the South Pole: The Last Degree

25 March 2012

Speaker:   Peter Berning             

This bit of trouble that I got into began at UCT (Smuts Hall, 1968). Iain Buchan and I were new men together and both products of the Transkei, where our parents ran medical practices in Lusikisiki and Cofimvaba respectively. We remained friends and in frequent contact. Following my experiences in the Arctic, Iain (Buch) asked me in 2009 what I thought would be a “next on the bucket list” experience. I said that Antarctica beckoned and there was a mountain - one of the seven summits - Mt Vinson - that we would climb.  He began investigating; and following discussions with his sons Zack and Barney decided we would tackle 'The Last Degree' instead: a plus/minus 120km ski to the South Pole from 89 degrees south,  pulling our gear on sledges. 

I had openly told Buch that I would need to be sponsored and that if a charity or worthy cause could benefit from our expedition it would be more fulfilling. He concurred and reassured me on both counts. 

So it was that on 9 January 2012 (this year) we flew out of O. R. Tambo for Sao Paulo Brazil to connect to Santiago (Chile) and on to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile on the straits of Magellan where we arrived at 5a.m. on 10 January 2012. Our party consisted of Iain, Zack and Barney Buchan, Nzuzo Mtikati (representing our charity - The Unlimited Child) and me, as well as the seasoned adventurer and documentary photographer Sean Wisedale. We met the organizer from Adventure Peaks - Dave Pritt, and Rob (who was to ‘navigate’) at the hotel - ‘The Mundo Dreams’ - a 4-star establishment overlooking the straits. 

The next two days were spent organizing kit, buying last minute extras and experiencing the quaint bustling little town. Following an orientation lecture by staff of ANI (Adventure Network International) who control and run Union Glazier to which we were flying, we were told to await the call to board the Iluyshin-76 waiting on the Punta Airport runway for favourable weather in Antarctica. 

The call came that very evening and by 10pm we were airborne in the huge cargo jet – only 27 seats and the rest of the fuselage cordoned off for cargo - no windows - very noisy and with a very calm and friendly crew. We landed on the 3 mile blue ice runway deep in Antarctica at 2am and were transported the 9km to Union Glazier base which has replaced the previous well known Patriot Hills as the ANI base. 

This efficient base, with excellent food, a warm dining area, 24-hour communication room, a Clinic with two doctors and tented accommodation would be our orientation and training base for 2–3 days as we prepared ourselves and waited to be flown to 89 degrees south from their smaller airfield. One short trial ski and one night out from base, near a beautiful glacier, was the limit of our training; and on the 15 January 2012 at about midday we flew out in a turbocharged recon Dakota (DC3) – now called a Basler – piloted by two Canadians out of Calgary where Ken Borak Air is based. 

This fleet of aircraft work the Arctic from March to September; then ferry south to service Antarctica in its summer. We landed at 89 degrees south at 3.30pm and offloaded our gear, forming a chain and piling our sledges and skis away from the prop wash. Then watched the Basler take off, leaving us alone on the vast polar plateau, with our next sighting of humanity at the South Pole. We did a short 3 hour pull covering some 5-6km before making our first camp on the ice.  

I will now try to describe a day in the life of a Polar traveler starting with the intense light on dilated pupils as one lifts the eye cover that has been used to shut out the 24-hour sunlight.  It is about 6am Chile time and it will take up to three hours to be ready for the planned 9am start. The temperature in the tent is a warm minus 8 degrees as the wind has been mild and the yellow inner tent has trapped some sunlight heat and retained our body heat.  Removing the thermal underwear and reaching into my sleeping bag, I start to dress in layers that could reach up to four below the waist and up to five above. Ablutions are performed as I exit my sleeping bag - peeing into a bottle and spitting toothpaste and saliva into the same. This will be poured into our ‘grey hole’ at the campsite which will be covered when we leave camp. 

Peeping outside to assess the weather and wind before deciding on upper body layers for the day and whether to use the wind suit or not, I see steam issuing from the mess tent some 7 metres away as ice is melted and heated for breakfast. Then back inside to pack the sleeping bag, roll up the thermorest and foam ‘mattress’ and feeling the temperature drop 5–10 degrees as the insulation is packed away. Extra gloves, toiletries, diaries and nightwear are packed into various bags which are tossed out into the snow/ice awaiting the packing of the sledge. We go over to the mess tent to sit tightly together in the steamy but icy tent that has been pitched over a trench some 2,5m by 1m wide. We sit facing one another with our legs and feet in the trench. Breakfast is porridge and scrambled egg with small ham cubes both prepared by adding boiling water to the dehydrated food packets and waiting 5-to-8 minutes before eating. Coffee and tea and the filling of our all-important thermos flasks involves the melting of much ice and we exit the mess tent one by one, our flasks full and snacks (trail mix, chocolate or sweets) packed in the grab bags from which we will eat all day. 

The tents are struck and rolled up – with the poles coming apart with some difficulty due to freezing at the joins. The sledges are packed as neatly as possible; boots secured; harnesses on and clipped to the tow ropes; skis on; and then the all-important ‘buddy check’ as you check each other for face mask placement, hoods and goggles - covering every centimetre of cheeks and neck. 

We group together to discuss the pace, stopping times and estimate for the length of the day. The plateau is nearly 9500 feet above sea level and flat all the way to the Pole. Barney had nausea and a headache from mild altitude sickness but responded well to treatment. We set off just after 9am, navigating by compass, the sun, our shadows and with intermittent GPS checks. We decided on one-and-a-half-hour sessions of trekking with 10-to-15 minute breaks to rest, eat and drink. It is a good idea to turn the sledge, at each stop, backs into the wind and pulling up close together, sitting on the sledge for a few minutes rest, chat, drink and snack. 

It is vital to put the big fleece jacket on immediately after stopping; and to limit the time that your hands are out of the mitt, as cold fingers take up to half-an-hour to warm up (even with the warmers waiting in the mitts). After three sessions it is past 2 o’clock.  We have covered more than 10km and decide on a 5 – 5.30 stop.  Scott (our American guide) has struck the mess tent and cleaned the campsite. After kite skiing for a couple of hours he has caught up and passed us on the snowmobile and given instructions to make camp some 6 - 7 km ahead. We soldier on for two more sessions with the second being a very short stop as we can see camp up ahead. We get into camp before six, tired but not exhausted and head to the mess tent for soup or hot chocolate. This is a mistake as we must now leave the shelter and relative warmth of the mess tent and go out to pitch our own tents - this is not pleasant. It is bitterly cold (about minus 30 degrees), the wind is quite stiff and we are tired. We decide there and then to get the tent up and ready for bed before we go for soup etc. in future. 

Food is ready around 8pm and by 8.45pm we are back in our tents and in our sleeping bags.  Buch is asleep by 9.15pm  but I lie awake till 10pm enjoying the comfort and warmth of my sleeping bag before pulling my beanie over my eyes and drifting into a Polar sleep. 

I am awake at 5.30am but reluctant to move yet. Buch is bravely contemplating his first Polar toilet visit. Into a wag bag, out on the tiny loo, with minimal protection from the wind! All waste must be kept in the bags provided, 2 poos per bag (your own), and taken to the Pole for eventual disposal in Chile!!! Only urine and cooking waste may be poured into the ‘grey hole’. Buch returns cursing and we decide to dig a trench under our fly sheet up to the tent flap ‘door', creating a step outside the tent protected from the wind by the flysheet. This was a far better place for wagbag use. It was also useful for putting on and taking off our boots. The boots come inside at night to be hung upside down above us with gloves, face mask, and anything vaguely damp - amazingly, all these were dry in the morning due to the low humidity. The polar plateau is a high dry white desert with very little snow. 

On 17 January we commemorated the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s arrival at the Pole some 35 days after Roald Amundsen. In a filmed interview with Sean Wisedale, Zack mentioned the incredible tenacity and bravery of the early polar explorers - comparing the technology and quality of equipment we now had at our disposal to that of a century ago. He noted however that the conditions and climate are no less brutal now and demanded constant vigil or it would ‘bite you on the bum’. This proved to be an unfortunately true prediction as Nzuzo was found to have cold damage to his nose and two fingertips, undoubtedly due to inexperience, poor diligence and possibly inadequate training. We decided to confine him to camp and to have him travel by snowmobile with Scott, as the damaged areas were extremely vulnerable and further cold exposure would result in frost bite and loss of terminal digits etc. Nzuzo accepted the decision in good spirit, and rejoined the trekking three days later. 

We peeled off the days getting stronger and a little faster and were lucky to have no high winds to confine us to the tents for the seven days we were on the plateau. This is unusual as there is usually a ‘big blow’ every 5–6 days. By the evening of 20 January we could see the two large structures that house the telescopes and other equipment at the South Pole, looking like ships on a white sea. We were about 20km away. On 21 January at about 4pm we arrived at the beacon some 4km from the South Pole at which all ‘traffic’–skiers, racers, vehicles – must enter the area surrounding the Pole. This is essential for control of the runway, clean air zones, scientific areas etc. We then vectored down a dedicated marked route to the camping site, about one kilometre from 90 degrees south. The last 4km was an absolute killer after the understandable celebrating at the yellow beacon sign which read “Welcome to the South Pole”. 

Nevertheless at 5.30 pm we were welcomed by the ANI crew who were dismantling the structures which had been erected for the Amundsen and Scott Centenary events. We had a shot of whiskey (called HIGH COMMISSIONER – which I had never heard of) and a hot stew with bread – then pitched our tents and headed for the ‘visitors centre’ which had two big gas fires, comfortable camp chairs and a ‘relatively’ warm loo. Indescribable luxury!! 

I read some passages from Scott’s dairy of 17 January 1912 to the team and we all fell silent – aware of the fate that was to befall them, and the vast difference in our privileged state. 

The weather was still good and the Basler was due in the next morning. We returned to our tents to sleep. We then had just enough time to pack and have a short one-hour tour of the massive American base the Amundsen Scott Base – guided by a delightful lady from the Midwest – before the obligatory photographs at the commemorative Pole (the ‘barbers’ pole, with 12 national flags – South Africa's among them) in a circle around it. The smaller True South Pole is some 60 metres away at 90 degrees exactly and with only a modest sign beside it. 

We walked the kilometer back to the plane (waiting right near the campsite) into a biting wind of 30 km an hour – creating a temperature of minus 42 degrees C which was vicious on any exposed skin–yet twice I had to tell Nzuzo, who was walking beside me, to cover his nose.  It was as if he still didn’t ‘get it’. You don’t mess with extreme conditions! 

By late afternoon we were at Union Glacier – appreciably warmer than the high plateau – and with snacks and Chilean champagne laid out on a table outside. Very impressive! As was the meal laid on inside …..congria and vegetables, beautifully cooked and with beer and wine ad lib. Amazing – deep in Antartica. 

We were back on the Iluyshin 76 the next evening. I found myself next to the navigator in the windowed nose tip of this giant aircraft at 30 000 feet above the Weddel Sea. At 3 am in the morning, sipping whiskey and sparkling water, and pondering over an incredible adventure as we headed for Punta…

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