by Eric Philips
Published in D&D4U magazine (Australia), 1999
Like yesterday, the temperature hovered around thirty below -we could feel the cold edge of the Titan Dome. Any moisture not inside our bodies or a thermos froze almost instantly. Below minus fifty a freshly boiled jug of water thrown into the air freezes into a spray of ice dust before hitting the ground. As the Alaskans say, 'It's so cold you can piss and lean on it'. The world's coldest temperature, just shy of -90?C, was recorded at Vostok, Russia's research station high on the Antarctica plateau. If caught naked outside, your eyeballs freeze instantly, your skin is hard in seconds, and minutes later the cold will have penetrated your flesh and turned your heart into a lump of red ice, if it isn't already that way inclined. Don't go outside naked.
By the first break we were adorned in icicles and hoarfrost. Ice formed between all of our headgear and stuck to our skin, where it remained until the break, two hours hence. By constantly licking and smiling I could retard or free the build-up of ice under my nose. Our goggles became completely encrusted in ice,
inside and out. Frozen breath hardens like steel and when it grates together, goggles against collar, it screeches like nails on a blackboard. A cough can be seen to freeze, suspended momentarily in mid air before falling like a stone to the ice. With a little imagination you can almost see the cough lying there on the ground.
We all struggled to see through our goggles - a translucent coating of rime had covered both sides of the lens. This made it difficult to navigate and we weaved across the ice like drunks. It was slightly better to follow behind, if you were close enough to see the diffused red hue of a sled cover.
Ten minutes into the last session my toes and fingers had numbed deeply, despite vigorous attention. We were moving slowly - Jon's goggles had fogged - and he found it difficult to hold a course. I hadn't warmed since the break and already the ice around my head was accreting into a single capsule through which I was finding it more and more difficult to breathe. A window the size of a match head was my only source of vision through frosted goggles and, located as it was in the bottom left corner, I craned my head to see through it. Glimpsing Jon's sled I raced forward, rasping breath freezing onto my mask of ice.
'Jon', I yelped.
The smear of red kept moving, and I continued, glad that my plea went unheard. Breathing became more laboured and I slowed to control it, but it was too late. The window was shuttered and my helmet of ice was complete. Blind, suffocating and numb with cold, I clutched at my goggles, broke the gasket of ice, and tore them from my face, gasping at the brittle air like a drowning man.
'Jon', I screamed.
He stopped and looked back.
'I can't see or breathe, and my fingers won't come back.'
Instinctively, Jon unclipped from his harness and ran back to me, unbuckling my waist-belt. 'We'll set up here', he shouted while unlashing the tent from his sled. Peter was right behind, and, upon hearing of my plight, scrambled to help Jon set up camp. I felt a bit awkward about all the attention, and helped them set up.
'Stop. Go and get your jacket on', Jon urged.
'I'll be okay Jon, I can help.'
'Eric, go and get your fucking jacket.' Jon was yelling. He never yelled. By the time I attended to myself the tent was up and I was thrown inside and into my sleeping bag. Jon lit the stove, Peter finished off outside, and I lay there shivering. I was colder than I thought. We had passed 88? south and lay a little over two hundred kilometres from the South Pole.
My team included the indefatigable Jon Muir, Everest climber turned Aussie bushman. He is a pillar of strength and has a tenacity that I've rarely seen amongst adventurers; the perfect polar partner. Also with us was Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund. Despite having also climbed Mt. Everest, he struggled with the mind games that polar journeying present. And if the mind says no, the body has little option but to follow.
We had begun our journey over two months earlier, from below the icy flanks of Mt. Erebus on Ross Island. Towing 200 kilogram sleds, we waved good-bye to the throng of well-wishers from Scott Base and McMurdo Station and headed south across the mammoth Ross Ice Shelf. From time to time, when the wind turned northerly, we launched our Quadrifoil kites and raced across the snow with effortless speed. But these days were seldom - the wind generates high on the plateau and sweeps coastward, to where we had come.
Forty-two days later we stood below a mountain range - the Transantarctics - that erupted skyward to the polar plateau behind. Our route through it, via the un-trodden Shackleton Glacier, gave us an insight into the exploratory world of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, who travelled the wastes of Antarctica almost a century ago.
Our frozen pathway through the unclimbed peaks of the Queen Maud Range took us to the Titan Dome, an area of ice high on the Antarctic plateau that can harbour no life. At over 3000 metres above sea level, the air is thin and dry - and volatile. Blizzards locked us in our tiny tent for a total of ten days as we plied our route across the dome to the South Pole. To be lost in such a blizzard with no tent, without a wind mask, is death by suffocation, like breathing sand.
On Australia Day 1999, after eighty-four days on the ice, we arrived at the South Pole, to a rousing welcome from the two hundred staff that live and work at the station. The frostbite has healed, emotional scars have mended, memories have faded, and the lure of the ice, big skies and bitter cold pull me north. South Pole, North Pole - collect the set!
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