In a triumph of mental and physical resilience and the spirit of adventure we reached the Geographic South Pole at 6.30pm on the 18th January extremely proud to have completed the grueling 1400 kilometer journey from the very edge of the Antarctic continent. We have achieved the realization of a childhood dream and our arrival at the South Pole celebrates three years of meticulous planning and preparation by all the Antarctica 2023 team.
Growing up in the wilds of the UK, before making our homes in Australia and New Zealand, we were inspired by the tales of the explorers from the heroic age of polar exploration. Scott, Shackleton and Mawson formed an influential part of our adventurous upbringing and from an early age we knew that one day we would follow our heroes South to the frozen continent.
After 3 years of planning and preparation the Basler aircraft dropped us on the North coast of Berkner Island on the shores of the Weddell Sea. At that moment we were probably among the most isolated people on the planet. Our first task was to turn our backs on the South Pole and ski 10 kilometers north to ensure that we started our expedition on the true coast of Antarctica amongst the Emperor Penguins and Icebergs of the Weddell Sea. The enduring memory of the start of our journey will be staring out across the sea ice and icebergs in the glorious Antarctic sunshine remembering the history of past expeditions that have also attempted a journey across Antarctica from the true coastline of the continent, most notably Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.
The intention of the Antarctica 2023 expedition was to attempt the longest unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica (PECS* Terminology), starting from the North coast of Berkner Island and finishing at the base of the Reedy Glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf.
Our motivations for attempting such an audacious journey come from our love of adventure and the polar regions and our deep desire to immerse ourselves in the wild and uncompromising Antarctic environment. The time we have spent together in the high Arctic, Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard has instilled in us a passion for the polar regions and willingness to conserve these last true wilderness areas for future generations.
In attempting this expedition we had two further objectives, to collect 66 days of critical climate and meteorological data and to inspire a generation of young people to conserve Antarctica into the future through our work with Scouts Australia, Scouts New Zealand and World Scouting.
Our expedition started on the 14th November 2022 with sleds weighing 165kgs. We had enough supplies for a 66 day, 2023 kilometer journey across Antarctica. Our arrival into Antarctica was delayed by 7 days as the blue ice runway at Union Glacier was heavily snowbound after the severe Antarctic Winter. It was an ominous sign of things to come. The delay meant that our planned 73 day expedition was now cut down to 66 days and we faced a daunting daily average of 30.65 kilometers to achieve our objective – a formidable but not impossible challenge.
We began the expedition by dragging our sleds from sea level to the high point on Berkner Island at about 800m above sea level. On day 2 we had our first taste of how severe the Antarctic weather could be. Howling, gusting winds, freezing temperatures and minimal visibility saw our progress fall to 10 kilometers a day as drifting snow made dragging our heavy sleds uphill almost impossible. After this initial storm we made excellent progress across Berkner Island averaging 22-24 kilometers a day – exactly what we needed to be achieving at this stage of the expedition. We completed the crossing of Berkner Island as planned in 18 days and embarked on our crossing of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf. This section of the expedition brought us to the base of the Wujek Ridge and the start of the mainland of Antarctica itself, our gateway through the Pensacola Mountains and through to the polar plateau.
The ascent of the Wujek Ridge went exactly as planned and we completed it in a day. A huge, steep wall of snow and ice the Wujek Ridge took two journeys to ascend. We cached one sled each at the base, donned our crampons and hauled the other sleds up before returning and repeating the journey a second time to collect the sleds left behind. Exposed crevasses with fragile snow bridges greeted us at the top but we negotiated a route through without incident.
The Sallee and Median Snowfields lay before us now and we knew that to be in with a chance of making the crossing we would need to start increasing our daily distances. We faced 200 kilometers of soft, knee-deep powder snow that slowed our progress but we maintained our daily distances at an average of 22-23 kilometers per day. We traversed the snowfields with the mountains of the Forrestal Range to our East and the craggy spires and hanging glaciers of the Neptune Range to our West.
Just before S84040 we hit our first significant sastrugi, iron-hard ridges of snow and ice forged by the fierce winds of the Antarctic winter. We knew from past expeditions that this was a sastrugi-prone route but previous reports had sastrugi starting at around S85030, almost a full degree of latitude (111km) later. From this point we experienced solid, unbroken sastrugi for more than 380 kilometers. Huge waves of ice, some 2.5 meters high and as big as small houses, stunningly beautiful structures but devastatingly difficult to traverse. The physical and mental toll of travelling hundreds of kilometers in this terrain saw our progress fall to 18-20 kilometers per day. We gave everything we had to move forward as far as possible everyday and we would stumble with exhaustion into camp each evening. Most nights we would struggle to find a flat place to pitch our tent amongst the broken uneven ground.
At S880 the sastrugi finally relented but temperatures dropped and the drag on our sleds had increased dramatically. A strange phenomenon occurs when it is very cold; the crystal surface structure of the snow becomes rougher and there is much more friction when dragging sleds. Through the last two degrees of latitude, temperatures remained at around -300C as we made our way towards the South Pole. It was at this stage that we made the difficult but necessary decision to end our expedition at the South Pole. It was clear that we did not have enough time or supplies to go more than a couple of days past the pole. The correct decision was to finish the expedition at the South Pole.
We arrived at the Geographic South Pole, friends and team-mates, at 6.30pm on the 18th January 2023 elated to have completed such an arduous expedition from the very edge of Antarctica. Whilst the Antarctic summer expedition season proved too short for us to make the crossing onto the Ross Ice Shelf, we are immensely proud to have reached the Geographic South Pole from the true coast of the Antarctic continent. To have given everything and reached the bottom of the planet in a season when great swathes of our route had been carved up by fierce winter storms leaving dense sastrugi and deep drifting snow is undoubtably one of the greatest achievements of our lives.
We have fulfilled a childhood dream and experienced Antarctica for 66 days in all her brutal, spectacular glory. We are extremely proud to have achieved our objectives and collected a transect of crucial climate and meteorological data and brought more than 60,000 Scouts on this journey with us.
We would like to say a huge thank you to our sponsors and supporters for your unwavering support and for helping make this wonderful project a reality.
Gareth and Rich