NotesBetween October 2011 and January 2012 two Sydney-born adventurers, James Castrission (Cas) aged 29, and Justin Jones (Jonesy) aged 28, made the first successful unsupported Antarctic trek from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back. Previous adventurers who had been unsuccessful trying the same expedition included the adventurers, Jon Muir, Peter Hillary (son of Sir Edmund Hillary) and Eric Phillips who attempted the return journey in 1998. They reached the South Pole after 84 days on the ice but could not complete the return trek. New Zealand adventurers, Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald, also attempted the return journey in 2007, but their expedition was unsuccessful too.
Expedition support team
An extensive support team of experts in various fields were invaluable to the adventurers in their planning, preparation, training and implementation of the expedition. They included a number of experts in polar expeditions, as well as a doctor, engineer, dietician, exercise physiologist, physiotherapist, and a sports physician, to manage their injuries before and during the expedition.
Training and Preparation
To physically prepare for the gruelling expedition the adventurers trained for up to ten hours each day, six days a week for the eight months prior to their expedition. Their personal training programme was devised by Tom Smitheringdale. Training included weights, swimming, running, cycling and pulling two truck tyres up steep roads and over ice as well as other endurance exercises.
Neither of the adventurers had a skiing background as they both learnt cross-country skiing in the Snowy Mountains of Australia only two years before the expedition. They also undertook special polar training at Lqaluit, on Baffin Island, within the Arctic Circle, with polar guides and trainers, Matty McNair, and Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry who operate a training company. There they learnt how to check and modify their equipment and developed skills including managing cold weather injuries, navigation and route finding. They also undertook a sledge-hauling expedition in -44 degree temperatures.
Testing their equipment was paramount and learning how to repair it, including sewing, was essential. Before the expedition, they made numerous alterations to their equipment. They added face masks or cowling to their snow goggles to cope with the extreme weather, added extra warm padding to the thighs of their thermal pants, sewed a clear Perspex viewing panel into their parkas so their watches could be consulted and added a Wolverine fur trim to the hoods. They refined their sledge-hauling technique in New Zealand's Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park carrying snow-filled food bags, to simulate the load, up and down the Tasman glacier.
Before the expedition Sony provided the men with Bloggie cameras to record their training and the expedition itself. This enabled them to 'shoot, connect and share' all their adventures as they occurred on their web site. For every Bloggie camera sold, Sony donated $5 to 'You Can', the Australian charity which aims to create a better future for young Australians with cancer. The expedition was officially launched on Channel 7's "Sunrise" television programme on the temporary ice rink outside St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. The adventurers were interviewed wearing their Antarctic clothing and dragging some "You Can"' ambassadors sitting on truck tyres.
The Expedition Begins
The adventurers left Sydney in October 2011 with their 2.1-metre sledges and 400 kg of luggage in 18 massive duffel bags. These were taken to the airport in a trailer behind the family car. They flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, the jumping-off point for Antarctica. The adventurers did not grow up with a background of living in a cold climate nor skiing from a young age. Consequently, when they arrived in Chile among the expert skiers, the Australians felt like the Jamaican bobsled team at the Winter Olympics. At this time they also discovered to their dismay that a professional Norwegian adventurer, Aleksander Gamme, aged 35, who had been following their progress online, was about to set off on the same expedition, from the same place, at the same time. It was to be a race between the Norwegian and the Australians, not too dissimilar to the Amundsen/Scott race to the South Pole a century before.
From Chile they had a 4-hour flight on an Ilyushin II-76 Russian cargo jet which took them to the Union Glacier Camp, in the southern Ellsworth Mountains, in Antarctica. This is a private, catered campsite which provides summer accommodation to Antarctic expeditions and maintains an ice runway. Once on the ice, they boarded a Twin Otter aircraft and flew to Hercules Inlet, on the south-west edge of the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf from where they would begin their expedition. Frustratingly, their food did not come on the same flight and they were delayed a day waiting for it, giving the Norwegian a day's head start.
The Australians finally set off for the South Pole on 16 October, 2011. Within days they were experiencing extreme Antarctic weather, with complete whiteout conditions down to 20 m (which made both navigation and charging their batteries with solar-power problematic), 50 to 70 kph head winds and having to negotiate sastrugi (windblown ridges of hard-packed snow and ice up to 3 metres in height).
The importance of learning to sew was quickly revealed when a tent flap needed repair but the intense cold made this simple task harder and take much longer. This was followed by a broken tent pole, and wearing holes in their sleeping mats. It was essential to repair the mats to prevent the cold from seeping into their aching muscles and preventing sleep. Further along the expedition a second stock was broken which they had to modify, as well as repairing their skins (the special nylon strips attached to the underside of their skis to assist forward motion)."
The gruelling conditions were the hardest either had ever experienced on any previous expedition. Hauling their sledges and sinking with every step into the newly-fallen soft snow made the going frustratingly slow. As one of the adventurers explained, it "felt like your pelvis is being crushed and your stomach is being sucked into your spine". Blisters and chaffing were other discomforts not to mention the 24-hour daylight and extreme difficulty having to pitch their tent in 70 kph winds with equipment flying everywhere.
By Day 29 James was suffering a very painful and burning skin infection in his groin. It deprived him of much needed rest and went close to calling a halt to the whole expedition. But with 2-days' rest and antibiotics he was able to resume skiing and regained a positive frame of mind. Justin also suffered his share of intense discomfort with painful blisters, bruising and boils on his feet which caused him to dread putting on his boots each day. He even had to lance an infected toenail. To add to their hardships they both suffered sleeping difficulties and only managed about 5 hours a night. By this time they had a strong appreciation why so few people attempted this journey. As their blog post put it, "The arduous conditions, repetitive daily activities, and the isolation make this journey something that will burn in their minds forever." The adventurers had been warned that the first few weeks would be the hardest. This is when most people give up either because they pushed too hard or had not pushed hard enough. Physically, their bodies were taking a great toll. "Everything burns, ankles, knees and lower back feel like they are on fire with pain".
Delays in arriving in Antarctica from poor weather, the appalling conditions once on the ice which slowed them down, and the physical toll on their bodies saw their well-planned schedule run dangerously behind. The team had a definite deadline to be back at the Union Glacier base for the last flight out of Antarctica for the season on 27 January 2012. As the weeks went by the weather improved and their daily skiing distance increased from 8 to 24 km.
All the food for the expedition was sourced in Australia. Great care was taken to ensure the correct number of calories was consumed each day and that the food was more varied than on their Tasman kayaking expedition. In Australia, they intentionally put on a lot of weight and even consumed a glass of olive oil each day to prepare their bodies for the high-fat diet they would need in Antarctica.
At their hostel in Chile they repacked all their food for the expedition into ration-sized portions. This meant a saving of 12 kg in weight. Their expedition meals were dehydrated and soaked in oil to provide as much energy and sustenance as possible. For the first few weeks they struggled to eat the required daily calories but within two weeks they were hungry. Listening to "Harry Potter" audio books during the long afternoons of skiing was a bit frustrating because of the frequent references to "amazing feasts". The young men dreamed of sausages and steaks. Like other Polar explorers and adventurers, to reduce the weight of their sledges they left caches, which contained food, fuel and extra equipment for the return journey. Their survival depended on being able to navigate back to these caches.
One of the many hardships of the expedition was the sheer monotony of the days. One thing which they both looked forward to at the end of the day was little notes left in their food rations. These were written by children from a primary school in Canberra as well as friends and family. About halfway to the Pole the boys decided to begin rationing their food due to their slow start and limited mileage during the first few weeks. The adventurers had expected, and indeed did loose, between 25 and 30 kg in weight each despite consuming about 7000 calories a day on the ice or the equivalent of 15 Big Mac hamburgers.
Clothing, tent and sleeping bags
The adventure equipment firm, The North Face, supplied their clothing, tents and sleeping bags. For daily wear in Antarctica the men wore a "layer" system of clothing which comprised thermals, a layer of fleece clothing, a yellow Gortex shell jacket and pants and topped with a red-coloured down-filled Himalayan Parka. A similar system was necessary to protect their hands with glove liners, Apex gloves with rubber-grip palms, followed by thick down-filled mitts and over mitts. Their dome-shaped tent was a VE 25 Summer Series Expedition model designed by The North Face typically used on polar and Himalayan expeditions. Its extreme strength in blizzard conditions is derived from its construction which comprises four, crossed-over poles.
After a day's skiing the tent would be erected. James would unpack the sledges and crawl inside to start cooking. Justin would stay outside to secure the sledges and cut snow blocks or shovel snow around the tent's base to anchor it against the violent wind. If the weather was good, solar panels were attached to the tent to charge the batteries for the satellite phone, computer and tracking beacon. Setting up camp would take between 40 and 50 minutes.
Once inside their refuge they took off their outer clothes and hung them up to dry from the ceiling of the tent. After melting snow for water, which took about 2 hours, they made their evening meal and cleaned their bodies. Chaffing was a problem and needed to be attended to on a daily basis so it would not worsen.
Even though they were working as a team, as their blog noted in the difficult early weeks, they spent the majority of their day on the trail alone. Days were originally 8 hours long but later grew to 9½ hours. Walking in a line, they were not able to speak to each other as the wind prevented any conversation. By the time they got into the tent at night both were too exhausted to chat. This left a great deal of time to think, about friends, family, the "You Can" patients, being clean, food (especially barbeques), expedition strategies and how many kilometres they had travelled.
Every 90 minutes on the trail they had a 10-minute break from skiing to refuel and rehydrate their bodies. This was done by adding half a litre of water to a meal replacement powder. Then after a couple of handfuls of scroggin (a fruit, chocolate and nut trail mix) they were off again.
The team had state-of-the-art communications liaising daily with their support team. They received all types of advice, from the expected wind strength to consultations with the expedition doctor. The support team also forwarded on messages from family, friends and followers. The team posted regular images, video and audio pod casts and had 50,000 followers from around the world.
The Australian boys' sense of humour and upbeat manner was initially apparent in their regular and candid video and audio blog posts. Thousands saw the snowman, they named Cameron, built at the second cache to look after their food store until they returned. On Day 35 it was "Icebreaker Thermal Changing Day" and James showed how his thermal, which he had worn day and night for the past seven weeks, had become a part of him. It was literally encrusted with a layer a dead skin and heavy with oil from his body. The excitement of changing into a clean thermal was palpable. Day 50 was "Undie Changing Day", and James demonstrated how much dirt came out of washing the removed piece of underwear while being washed in a small plastic bag. However, as the expedition progressed and the extreme weather, lack of food and injuries took their toll, the adventurers acknowledged this expedition was the hardest thing they had ever experienced. It made their 2008 kayak expedition, when they were the first to paddle from Australia to New Zealand, feel like a "walk in the park".
Reaching the South Pole
The Norwegian, Gamme, actually reached the South Pole a couple of days before the Australians and they met when he was on his way back towards Hercules Inlet. On Day 62 our adventurers finally reached the Pole but they were ten days behind schedule. The journey to the pole had been uphill (3000 metres above sea level), into the wind and grew increasingly colder. The trip back was downhill, with the wind at their backs and grew increasingly warmer. Despite the improved conditions they only had 28 days to get back in time for their flight.
Christmas Day 2011 was a highlight and ended up being their best day of skiing on the expedition so far, covering 38 km. Celebrations included Christmas pudding and food gifts and a card from Cas to Jonsey asking him to be the best man at his wedding the following February.
By Day 70 in January 2012 the race back to Hercules Inlet was really taking its toll on their physical and mental states. They were totally exhausted, sleep deprived, dehydrated, suffering hallucinations, continually hungry and in a lot of physical and emotional pain. Of all their previous expeditions and adventures this one went closest to breaking them. To add to their stress Aleksander Gamme was still a couple of days ahead of the Australians and had taken a different route. However, in a very "noble gesture" of friendship Gamme actually waited near the finish for the Australians to catch up and the three skied the last kilometre together into Hercules Inlet. Fittingly the three adventurers arrived back at the Union Glacier Camp on Australia Day, 26 January, 2012. Over 90 days they had skied 2,270 km and trudged 3,405,000 steps.
The Antarctic conditions did not treat the adventurers more easily than they had treated the pioneers including Mawson and Scott 100 years ago. However, with the assistance of modern day technology including their high-tech clothing, satellite phone, and GPS data on known crevasses, the life-threatening risks of their expedition were greatly reduced. Nevertheless, lack of preparation and care on the trail could have led to frostbite, malnutrition and ultimately prevented them from completing their journey.