Crossing Antarctica – Børge Ousland
“On my first attempt to cross Antarctica, I walked more than 620 miles to the South Pole. But instead of reaching my destination, on the other side of the continent, I had to hitch out by plane halfway through the expedition because my frostbite was so bad.
But I don’t like giving up. So the following year, I decided to try again. Two other solo explorers were setting out to do the same thing. One was Ranulph Fiennes, the other Marek Kaminsky from Poland. The plan for all of us was to cross Antarctica from coast to coast via the South Pole, alone and without outside support. We all saw this expedition as one of the last classic challenges and were all gripped with a burning desire to be first to complete the journey.
On 15 November, I stood on the north-eastern corner of Berkner Island. Before me lay a gently rising landscape of ice that seemed to have no end.
The beginning is almost the hardest part of any expedition – watching that plane vanish, taking those first steps on a trip that no one has succeeded in completing, is a shock to the system.
It generally takes 10 to 14 days to find the inner harmony needed to survive in such an unforgiving world. But when it all comes together, being so totally alone is also a good experience. An expedition with others is more of a physical journey from A to B but a long solo trip has an added element of meditation.
The route I had chosen, based on aerial photos, took me up through the Dufek Massif, part of the Pensacola mountains in eastern Antarctica. It turned out to be a good choice: the terrain was free of the many crevasses that can form when ice flows through mountains. Massive peaks carved the horizon into jagged, unpolished landmarks: the Washington mountains to the west, the Forrestal range with Saratoga Table to the east and, there in front of me, the plateau stretching all the way to the South Pole.
It meant a steady climb of about 50m a day, with ice-cold, hurricane-like winds whipping through bone and marrow. There are no trees or land formations for shelter. The only variations in this endless landscape are sastrugi – hard snowdrifts up to two metres high formed by the wind constantly blowing from the same direction.
An overnight camping spot close to the South PoleFrom time to time a task like this can just seem too big, and a large part of coping with an expedition lies in being able to change perspective. I could choose to look around and see how desolate, godforsaken and hopeless the landscape was, or to take in all the new and positive aspects, and contemplate the beauty of nature and the nuances of light, shape and colour.
I knew the South Pole base would be a potential trap and decided not to stop there. If I let myself go inside and feel cosy it could be difficult to get going again. The base doctor wanted to check me out, but I declined and kept going.
The plateau around the South Pole is cold and high, but there is not usually much wind. It isn’t until you get out near the edge and around the mountain ranges that the air currents begin to sweep down towards the coast. I was able to exploit this with a ski sail, being pulled along by the wind for mile after mile. The only problem is that where there is wind there are also sastrugi – sharp ridges formed on the snow. When these got too big, that was the end of the ski-sailing. It was just too dangerous: breaking a leg out there would mean certain death.
To go down between the mountain ranges, I opted for the Axel Heiberg glacier, a route about 124 miles longer, than the heavily crevassed Baerdmore glacier, but safer. This was also the route Amundsen took in 1911. As a Norwegian it was a great experience to traverse mountains and glaciers that Amundsen and his men had named.
At the base of the Axel Heiberg glacier is the huge Ross ice shelf. A scientist I spoke to said this shelf has been there for at least 100,000 years, in other words before a country such as Denmark was formed. Some skiers claim to have crossed Antarctica when they have reached the inner edge of the shelf. But how can you call freshwater ice hundreds of metres thick the shore? A proper Antarctic crossing has to be from sea to sea.
It’s about 310 miles across the Ross ice shelf to McMurdo, a US research station at the tip of Ross Island, and to get there you have to cross a treacherous area of crevasses around a promontory called Minna Bluff. The crevasses are often invisible, covered only by thin bridges of snow. It was a good thing I had titanium bars almost four metres long between me and my sled. On one occasion off Berkner Island these saved my life. I was crossing a snow bridge that suddenly collapsed, but the rods stopped me falling too far.
The Terra Nova expedition memorial on Observation Hill, erected in 1913 to honour Captain Scott’s expedition. Photograph: AlamyI reached Scott Base on 17 January, after travelling 1,864 miles. By chance, I arrived in time for the celebration of the base’s 40th anniversary. Sir Edmund Hillary was there for the event, and I flew back to the South Pole with him. It took just two-and-a-half hours to fly the distance it had taken me more than a month to walk. Once there, amazingly, I met Marek Kaminsky, who had given up after reaching the Pole. Ranulph Fiennes had abandoned his expedition a few weeks in on medical grounds.
Before leaving Antarctica, I spent a few days at McMurdo station. On Observation Hill there is a huge wooden cross in memory of those who died on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition in March 1912. Engraved on it are the following words from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The words bring to mind the first men who sailed here in their wooden ships, spending years cut off from the outside world. I believe we still have a lot to learn from their courage and strength. They are the true heroes of Antarctica.”
Posted first at the Guardian Dec 2013