Taking on the South Pole

2011-02-12 00:00

WITHOUT any skiing experience, the Pietermaritzburg managing director of Dunranch, Duncan­ Paul, took on the South Pole and lived to tell the tale.

From November 22 until December 14, Paul (55) took on the challenge of a Last Degree South Pole expedition. He was part of a private expedition consisting of five people — three friends from Saudi Arabia, an English doctor and a cameraman, South African Sean Wisedale. The expedition began at Punta Arenas, Chile, from where they flew to the Antarctic interior, landing in the Elsworth Mountains.

After four days of orientation, acclimatising and training at their base camp, Union Glacier, they flew to the Polar Plateau landing at 89° south. Their goal: the South Pole at 90°.

This involved 111 kilometres of cross-country skiing at an altitude of 3 250 metres. However, due to the dynamics of the rotation of the Earth and density of the cold air, the altitude was equivalent to 4 000 metres.

“The interior of the Antarctic is the most beautiful, pristine place that you can ever imagine,” says Paul. “There is no wildlife, no moss ... nothing. Everything is in different shades of white, and silent.”

It took 10 days to reach the South Pole with the warmest day being a mere -32°C, and the coldest days reaching -50°C.

“In the morning you first ski for 10 minutes and then stop for one minute to re-adjust clothing and equipment. Then every hour you stop for five minutes. It’s so cold you can’t stand for long and in those five minutes you have to eat, drink, adjust your equipment, go to the toilet, and because of the cold you may be wearing three pairs of gloves and have to remove these before you start this process. It was pretty hectic.

“Everything had to be insulated or it froze. I had some energy bars in my pocket which froze solid, like a steel bar. Midway through the expedition we were hit by really bad weather, with winds gusting up to 80 km/h — white-out conditions — and we were tent-bound for two days.

“I wanted to read, but even my book froze, I could still turn the pages, but it was like holding a block of ice.

“We also had to ski at a slow and steady pace to avoid sweating, because the sweat would freeze and your core temperature would drop, and to compensate the blood then drains from your extremities, that is your hands and feet.”

However, the relentless cold was not all the extreme adventurers were up against. With 24 hours of daylight, getting sunburnt was also a hazard, and the team had to wear special goggles during their ski to prevent them from going snowblind.

Frostbite was also continually lurking, ready to infect any part of their bodies that was uncovered for a prolonged time. Despite taking precautions, every member of the expedition suffered various degrees of frost-nip and early stages of frostbite.

“It felt like a surreal out-of-body experience … [It was] definitely one of the highlights of my life,” said Paul.

“It is difficult to comprehend the bravery and determination of the early explorers in what must be the loneliest and most extreme wilderness in the world.”


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