Frozen faces, warm memories from the home of the blizzard
NATIMUK adventurer Jon Muir is like an Arctic polar bear – shaggy, a bit cuddly, at home in extreme conditions – and incredibly powerful.
For three months this summer he was a polar “bear” in the Antarctic, blazing a new trail to the South Pole with fellow adventurers Eric Philips and Peter Hillary.
The icetrek trio slogged 1500 kilometres to the pole in 84 days, hauling 190 kilogram sleds, climbing 3000 metres up the previously untrodden Shackleton Glacier and facing brutal weather on the Polar Plateau.
And throughout the journey, Muir was keen to push ahead, see around the next corner, climb the beckoning peaks.
In fact the polar trek was easier than Muir’s solo expedition across Lake Eyre and the Tirari Desert in Central Australia in 1996. “That trip was physically much harder. I hauled heavier weights and the terrain was more difficult across sand-hills and washaways,” he said.
That’s not to say the icetrek was a walk in the park. Upon his return home Muir spoke exclusively to the Mail-Times about the trio’s successful trip, beginning at Scott Base on November 4 and arriving at the pole in Australia Day.
They were sped on their way with a message of support, appropriately sent to them at Scott Base, from the family of the famous polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
The first 800 kilometres across the Ross Ice Shelf was flat, white, with detours around a few islands and crevasse fields. The weather was warmest but the sleds the heaviest.
Highlight of the whole trek was the Shackleton Glacier – a 140-kilometre river of ice slicing through the Trans-Antarctic Mountains – an awesome place where no-one had been before. The icetrekkers pioneered what Muir said was probably a safer and faster route to the pole than either Amundsen or Scott’s routes.
By the time Muir, Philips and Hillary reached the Polar Plateau their sleds were lighter but the conditions were brutal.
“The cold was extreme,” Muir Said. “The Ross Ice Shelf seemed like a tropical paradise compared with the Polar Plateau. We were at 3000 metres, the air was thinner, the wind strong and temperatures down to -50 Celsius. With windchill it was well below -50.”
Any task requiring removal of their polar mitts demanded forethought, extreme care, speed and efficiency to avoid frostbite. Skin was torn when the frozen beards were snapped off to prevent faces from freezing.
The cold stung faces like bee-stings and condensation from heavy breathing froze on the men’s beards and faces.
Five hundred kilometres of such conditions on the plateau brought the med to the pole. They had slogged south for 84 days.
Next day they flew from the pole back to Scott Base in 3½ hours. The following day they were in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the arms of family and friends again, receiving congratulations from the Queen and NZ Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, bathes in mid-summer heat and surrounded by colors, noise and smells of civilisation.
“It was like arriving on a different planet,” Muir said. “After three months Antarctica was other-worldly. I called planet Earth the ice planet. It was just fantastic out there...”
Highlights included pioneering the Shackleton Glacier, amazing solar displays such as parhelions, haloes, arcs and mock suns, and a deep appreciation for the polar explorers at the beginning of the century.
“We thought a lot about them. I can’t say I came back with a higher regard for them because my regard was already as high as it could be,” Muir said.
“What they achieved was just incredible; particularly from out perspective Shackleton and Scott who hauled their own sleds. The bottom line is that we were not that far from them. We were out there hauling out sleds.”
And would Muir return?
“I would love to go back. Maybe I will go climbing. There are so many things I would like to do,” he said.
“There are many adventures in Australia. There are more than 50 lifetimes of adventures on planet Earth.”
A day on the road
A TYPICAL day on the trek began with a 5am alarm call, followed by the cook immediately pouring coffees from a thermos made the night before.
Pre-packed porridge was put on the stove. Additives included protein, butter, olive oil, sugar and pecan nuts which are very high in fat.
Each man received 6200 calories a day, compared with 2000 for an average person in Australia. Nevertheless all lost weight on the expedition.
As breakfast was cooking they dressed, prepared for the day’s trek and downed a mug of milo. Thermoses were refilled for the day. By 8.15am they were packed and on the way.
The amount of clothing they wore depended on the day’s conditions. They generated a lot of heat from their exertions but as soon as they stopped they had to pile on extra layers of clothing.
Lunch was in a bivouac sack out of the wind with a menu of cheese, salami, noodle soup including fat, oil and butter, hot drinks and snacks.
A daily snack bag fro each man contained muesli bar, 24 squares of chocolate, three high-fat energy bars and a big oat bar.
Drinks were also taken at morning and afternoon breaks.
Despite 24-hour daylight, each day’s march was to the clock – 7½ to 8 hours, broken into four two-hour stretches. Sometimes they skied together, often they travelled at their own pace in solitude with their own thoughts for company.
Highlight of the evening meal was a bowl of pre-packed stew with a 1½cm layer of yellow fat and oil floating on top, washed down by hot drinks.
Books, diaries, music on a mini-disc player and calls to family, friends and the media on Iridium satellite phones occupied a typical evening in the tent.
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