The Captain’s Log Round-Up #6 – Spectre Expedition

The Fourth and Final Phase

Date = 22/12/2017
Day 33 (Expedition) Day 38 (Antarctica)
Location = Twin Otter drop off, Depot. A Coordinates – S87 58.846’, W131 39.578’
Altitude = 3021m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 10 – 20 knot ENE sunny / low cloud Windchill = -40C Distance travelled = 30km Distance remaining = 1166km

We have arrived at the place where we were dropped by the plane a little over a month ago. Up on the featureless, deep freeze of the high plateau.

We blasted 30km down the ‘road’ in less than 1.5 hours, although it was very cold this morning. Then everything changed for the last 2km, as we left the smooth groomed surface, and headed into wind. The pulk suddenly felt like an anchor and the snow like cement. It took more effort and frustration to do the last 2km than the 30kms before. Surface, snow, wind, heading and visibility; these are the ingredients that must be aligned to travel by kite. They have been aligned perfectly for the last 120km and it delivered about 6 hours of extremely fun kiting.

But in an instant, a small change in any of the ingredients drastically alters results. A tiny change in direction and the kite loses power, making life much more difficult or requiring a kite change. If the visibility goes, you can go from 30km per hour to zero. And when the wind is blowing over 25knots, life is very stressful.

But we are here at our drop off and can hardly believe we made it so quickly and easily after being becalmed just a few days ago!

And so we have completed phase 3 of our expedition. Immediately it is time to turn our attention to the 4th and final phase. An 1100km kite journey across Antarctica. No small expedition in itself.

We have some goodies stashed here and are enjoying Pringles and about to eat a frozen meal of real food. Outside it is -25C, -35C with wind-chill, but with the tent zipped up it is like a greenhouse and actually a quite cosy
+15C.

We are thrilled to have reduced a potential 20 day man-haul to 4 days of walking and 4 days of kiting plus 2 days of becalmed resting. That means we are a full 10 days ahead of schedule! However…

The Easterly wind that has powered our race ahead is now stopping us in our tracks. From here we must head 350km to a point near the Theil Mountains. We developed this strategy based on trade wind patterns that dominate 70% of the time. What we are currently experiencing, and seem to have for much of the trip, are not classic trade winds. It is the other 30%.

Our next target is directly into the current wind from here and with the supplies we have collected at the 2 depots we now once again have massive loads. For the kind of distances we’re facing, upwind tacking is not an option.

Therefore we are considering heading further south, cross wind on the groomed ‘road’. We could even go 220km all the way to pole if we chose, to then come out along the classic South Pole kite route.

Or we could head another 60km south and try to pick up slightly different wind currents before we cross an area that almost nobody has ever set foot in.

Once again the wind absolutely dominates our futures! It is fun to analyse all the different route options and wind forecasts to try to formulate the best strategy.

We are not complacent about the journey ahead. Although we have had a massive boost we could still get shut down by a number of factors.

For now we are relaxed, comfortable and savouring the scene (although not the smell!) [Leo]

Welcome Back Storm

Date = 23/12/2017
Day 34 (Expedition) Day 39 (Antarctica)
Location = Twin Otter drop off, Depot. A Coordinates – S87 58.846’, W131 39.578’
Altitude = 3021m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 10 – 20 knot ENE sunny / low cloud Windchill = -40C Distance travelled = 0km Distance remaining = 1166km

[Mark]

Third Expedition Complete.

Wow, how a kite and some skis can change an expedition. After ‘man hauling’ up the broken, icy and cravassed Scott Glacier covering anywhere from 8 to 18km a day over 4 days, we launched our kites and the game changed. 2.5 days of kiting got us to our first cache saving us 6-8 days of walking uphill with heavy loads.

Following that an unusual wind direction and the freshly groomed American South Pole road allowed us to travel amazingly fast over 120km to our second cache in less than 24hrs. Epic!

We are resting up, sorting food (we actually have too much!), planning our route home and waiting for the wind to swing to the south. Which the Christmas forecast shows us promise. So we’ll celebrate Christmas a day early, then on the 25th, if the weather gods deliver, we’ll set off on our fourth expedition; to kite ski 1100 km back to Union Glacier camp and our flight home. It could take us 14 days, it could take 24. Either way we have time, food, and enough good humour bantering around, to get us through.

Antarctica isn’t finished with us yet and we‘re experiencing a ‘welcome back’ storm here at 88 degrees south.

[Mark]

White (out) Christmas

Date = 24/12/2017
Day = 39
Location = Twin Otter drop off, Depot. A Coordinates – S87.58.846’, W131•39.578’
Altitude = 3021m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 4-6 knot E. Sunny Windchill = – 28C Distance travelled = 0km Distance remaining = 1070km

Yesterday was our ‘welcome back storm’ in exactly the same spot as our ‘welcome storm’ a month ago. It was far less severe yesterday but it was total white out with visibility less than 5m.

No way to travel by kite in that so we were tent bound and it was surprisingly cold in the tent due to the lack of sun.

That also made our route choice easy. We are sticking with original plan and shall not be flying by the South Pole.

Today as per the forecast the sun is back and the wind has dropped. The wind is due to change to the SSE 6-10 knot that we so desperately need tomorrow. We could do with minimum 10 knot to send us on our way across 350km of terrain that has hardly ever been travelled and never traversed by kite to reach the Theill Mountains.

Then we join the classic South Pole – Hercules Inlet kite route for 450km to the 3 sail peaks before venturing through the Sentinel mountains back to Union Glacier. the final leg of the final leg of the expedition.

So we’re viewing phase four of the Spectre exped as 3 separate destinations. Each subdivided into 3 more.

This first 350km leg to Theil Mountains is the one we are most concerned about. We need SE to S winds or we are scuppered. Our entire expedition strategy was built on the foundation of this trade wind pattern but it is not what we have been experiencing.

We have been hearing that this has been an exceptional weather year. Union glacier has experienced unusually high temperatures and Ben Saunders, currently solo, unsupported crossing the continent commented on his blog that in 17 years of Antartic travel this was the worst weather season he had experienced.

So we must just hang in there with our strategy based on what we felt we the most likely wind patterns. The good news is that with every km we travel on this route we are it only one km closer to home we should become more and more exposed to favourable wind flows that means, hopefully the going should get easier.

With kind wind we could be in Union in a week. We have a month. My guess is it’ll be somewhere in between.

We celebrated Christmas in style today. The sun once again warming the tent life inside is comfortable. We enjoyed smoked salmon and egg brunch with Antarctic breeze cocktails (vodka / electrolyte mix) and rum-hot chocolate.

With few select adornments we decorated the tent and a Christmas sasstrugi, exchanged small gifts (the best being set of zebra boxers from Jean to Mark!?) pulled crackers and listened to some cheesy Christmas classics.

Mark gave me a card forwarded from Freya who had drawn me a beautiful picture of mummy, daddy, Jackson and Freya under a rainbow. I’m not the teary type but I cried. You can see it here.

We miss our loved dearly after 6 weeks away already. We have spoken on the sat phone and it is a warm feeling to know our families are together, happy and celebrating. We know we are missed as we miss them but are happy to send love from this forever winter place.

I believe in Father Christmas and he is going to bring us a wind to ride all the way home!

First I shall continue pigging out on chocolate and the queens own Fudge from Penrith toffee shop!

Happy Christmas everybody and to anybody reading thanks for joking us for this most extraordinary Antarctic Ride!

Kiting Christmas

Date = 25/12/2017
Day 36 (Expedition) Day 41 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S87.45.000’, W110.004.785 Altitude = 2761m Temperature = -23C Wind speed / direction = 10 – 15 knot SE, Sunny Windchill = – 28C Distance travelled = 94km Distance remaining = 976km (adjusted for current course)

4am on Christmas morning we were awake and excited to open our kites into the 10knot SE wind.

A call to home and the voices of my hyper excited children enjoying Christmas morning was a tear jerker, but nice to hear.

Unfortunately, our heading was a bit more East than we anticipated and therefore into wind.
This meant instead of arriving here at our destination waypoint in 4 hours whooping, we got here after 10 hours with just one 30 min stop… hurting.

Although it was cold and windy, it was sunny and we could manage the chill.
For hours there was an amazing rainbow around the sun, a sun dog, and for a while another phenomenon called a sun pillar.

For times we were lost in this vast and sublime desolation. Then it was back to full concentration, holding the same ski edge for hours on end – left leg today.

We floated between sublime wonder and an endurance test all day. As usual fully kitted up with down suits, helmets, goggles, gloves, mitts, ski boots, over boots, skis, harness, GPS, camera, GoPro, spare batteries, food… oh and now a replenished 160kg pulk!

We are like astronauts on a frozen planets! And Jean looks like an Alien!

94km is good progress and the big news is we have broken the 1000km remaining mark! Looks like the wind may be swinging further East tomorrow, which is not what we want, but we can and will tack as best we can. We have put in a sterling effort to begin the fourth and final phase of the spectre expedition; we will continue to ride the wind all the way home.

[Leo]

Adventure Cake

Date = 26/12/2017
Day 37 (Expedition) Day 42 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S87 38.123’, W108 56.583’
Altitude = 2704m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 3-8 knit E, Sunny Windchill = – 28C Distance travelled = 10km Distance remaining = 966km

“You guys have bitten off a pretty big chunk, but if you make good decisions and conditions hold, you’re in a good position”

Said Tim the ALE operations manager when we asked him what he thought of our plan.

Well, it seems he was right. A huge chunk, but with kites as our secret weapon. It is wild to travel this great distance, with this massive load across this vast, hostile emptiness. Reflecting on it too long is scary.
Keep the focus near, expectations low and hopes high.

The wind has decided we will be spending a little longer crossing no man’s land than we would’ve liked. It is currently blowing very lightly from exactly the direction we want to go. Which means- no go.

Jean and I have spent many hours studying wind maps of the air currents in this region and remain confident that what we are experiencing is an anomaly and the S or SE winds that prevail, will return sooner or later.

When they do, hopefully with just enough strength, this soft but sticky surface will be a dream to sail across at high speed. The 10kms we fought for 4 hours to gain this morning didn’t quite go like that. We are keen to push hard and have been doing so relentlessly, but there is a time to accept that you are fighting the tide and to wait for the winds to come to you.

Although it’s a really long finishing straight; we are pretty much on the final bend and after a frustrating morning we are soaking up the Antarctic plateau vibes. Sun helps.

It’s funny how the remaining 966kms seems like the final straight, even though it is more than half the total distance? Life is all perspective. We bit a huge chuck off the adventure cake this time, and have been steadily working through it, not without the odd hick up. Phase four in itself would be a daunting expedition, but after coming so far and completing so much, now it feels like we a just about to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Psychologically it feels much easier pushing on in the direction of home even though it is so far. Those first days and weeks heading further from the edge of the earth, towards a vertical abyss, in such brutal conditions was a severe test of resolve.

But we have tried our best to make good decisions; to stay on top of the situation and face each challenge with full force one after another. And we’re still smiling. The weather and the wind dictate everything out here. The best we can do is be equipped for their tantrums and ready for their charms.

Jean and Mark are both the most solid partners. Optimistic, skilled, relaxed – we’ve been having a great time amongst the scrapping. I so glad to be here with them.

I’ve been successfully using some psychological tricks on myself during this expedition. Like breaking the trip into four separate expeditions and dividing each of those into smaller targets. Then having planned and prepared as much as possible for all of them, totally blanking the future from one’s mind and focusing intently on the next achievable goal and realistic target. The whole scene is far too overwhelming, although the game plan must always remain the back of our minds, we proceed one decision at a time, one move at a time, being as diligent as possible not make any mistakes.

I’ve also been really trying not to worry. We prepared thoroughly for this experience. There are so many unknowns and have been so many obstacles in our way and no doubt there will be more. But worrying about them doesn’t help or change anything. Positive actions towards immediate problems are much more efficient than worrying. Seems to be working?

There’s lots of Christmas stuff on going at home which we are sore to miss but everybody is very supportive of our great adventure and we are deeply grateful to our families for helping us to do this.

Looking forward to lots of micro-adventures when I get home. Can’t wait to take the kids camping and show them some of our systems. Might need to give some of the stuff a serious clean first as after 36 days of dehydrated food everything is really starting to smell!

Phenomenal Phenomenon

Date = 28/12/2017
Day 38 (Expedition) Day 44 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S86 51.931’, W93 19.887’
Altitude = 2249m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 3-12 knot SE, Sunny Windchill = – 25C Distance travelled = 117km Distance remaining = 848km

Today’s question folks – what is this phenomenal phenomenon?

We’ve seen few halos around the sun and a couple of sun-dogs but yesterday either somebody slipped something into our porridge or we were blessed to witness an utterly psychedelic, three dimensional display of polar sun refraction and reflection.

For about half an hour, we were over awed by what we were seeing. Photos don’t do it justice. It was amazing.

Yesterday we were fully geared up on standby to leave all day. The wind direction and strength wouldn’t allow us to go in the way we wanted. Twice we were fully packed and ready to go but within 100m it became clear it wasn’t happening, so twice we re-pitched the tent in exactly the same place.

Then the sky put on its mind blowing rainbow show and we let go of the frustration and wondered at this place we are visiting.

We had dinner, I got into bed and right away Jean excitedly mentioned “the wind has changed direction”. Sure enough it had swung around later than predicated and we had a solid 10-12 knot SE wind. We geared up and broke camp for the third time.

Setting off at 11pm it all lined up and we were flying! Fully powered, cross wind on a soft surface with clear, sunny weather. Our midnight run was as good as it gets, 101km in 6 hours. We called it at 5am. Then 7 hours later, we were off again, and managed 16km in 3 hours on the tail end of the SE.
The good news is we are now officially half way in terms of kilometres.
Although Mark seems quite perturbed by this. Hopefully the next 840km will be less taxing than the last?

Now I am exhausted. Good chance we’ll be here for few days waiting for SE unless Jean gets his way and then we’ll be aggressively up winding in deep snow with our massive loads. He has got kilometre killing in his mind and there is a mile massacre about to occur!
[Leo]

Standing By

Date = 29/12/2017
Day 39 (Expedition) Day 45 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S86 51.931’, W93 19.887’
Altitude = 2249m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 3-8 knot E, White out Windchill = – 25C Distance travelled = 0km Distance remaining = 848km

We are once again shut down by wind and cloud. Glad of the rest today. Looks similar for tomorrow and then, dare I say it, our blessed SE wind and sun may return and stay around for a while. Perhaps our ride all the way home?

When its whiteout the solar power set up works at about 10% efficiency, so power is much more limited. However Mark has developed a good system for charging and backing up all our camera data and we were able to review a little bit of footage today.

As usual we have been unable to film most of the highest drama moments, and there is so much more I wish we could’ve captured BUT… amongst all the challenges, we have shot some absolute gold. With some well-crafted film making skills applied, I’m confident we have so far captured just enough to be able to share some of this madness on the big screen. I dare say you’ll never have seen anything like it?

This is good, because filming out here has been so darn difficult. The cold hammering batteries, operating everything in gloves, viewing through dark lenses, constantly on the move at a high pace, shooting anything at all has been desperate.

We’ll make sure we pick up some more nuggets on this long final leg and when we get home, I’ll have it sculpted into something beautiful. These two characters I’m out here with are also both solid gold. So far we have certainly been hitting our goals of being safe, having a laugh and having an adventure!

[Leo]

Stagnant

Date = 30/12/2017
Day 40 (Expedition) Day 46 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S86 51.931’, W93 19.887’
Altitude = 2249m
Temperature = -24C
Wind speed / direction = 3-8 knot E, White out Windchill = – 25C Distance travelled = 0km Distance remaining = 848km

Starting to get a bit bored here still tent bound in miserable conditions.
Forecast for tomorrow has slipped a bit giving us the fear that we could get marooned out here in no man’s land.

Our 120+kg loads and the 15+cm of soft snow mean we really need SE wind at least 10 knots to hold our heading out of here for 127km further. If we get pushed down wind we will end up in crevassed terrain and even more unfavourable wind streams.

We also need to be able to see at least 1km. ideally some sun.

After the next 127km we join the classic South Pole – Hercules Inlet route and make a 40 degree turn north, which means we will be able to harness weaker winds from much more Easterly directions. So sooner or later we need a good session or two to kill these 127 kilometres and then we should start to make more consistent progress. Hopefully the S winds will return eventually!

We are still a week ahead of schedule but we have only covered 220km in 8 days which is half our estimation.

It’s really been all or nothing so far for phase 4. We still have 22 days of supplies so no major stress. Just be nice to have another couple of big sessions to remind us why we came and that we are going to get home eventually!

Please keep your comments coming in, great to know people are reading this stuff. Feeling a little uninspired so throw us any questions?
[Leo]

2018!

Date = 31/12/2017
Day 41 (Expedition) Day 47 (Antarctica)
Location = No man’s land
Coordinates – S86 37.792’, W90 10.171’
Altitude = 2055m
Temperature = -20C
Wind speed / direction = 6-10 knot ESE
Windchill = – 24C
Distance travelled = 33km
Distance remaining = 815km

Happy new year from the doldrums of no man’s land, Antarctica!

We dubbed this region No Man’s land on the map as it is likely very few, if any have passed, here and certainly not traversed by kite.

We perhaps jinxed ourselves with that name, as we have indeed had a hard time crossing this 360km of land less travelled.

The surface is smooth and soft. Foot prints sink 10cm deep into the softest snow we have encountered. There is no sastrugi at all. The terrain is not perfectly flat, but very gentle rolling slopes that seem to be endlessly up but when you look behind appear down?

The snow is extremely heavy. It grips the heavy pulks like an anchor and drastically reduces the available power. It would be man-hauling hell. Today the sun is shining and it his warm out, due to the complete lack of wind. It’s much nicer than the last two days but we have been frustrated by winds; a bit too light from slightly the wrong direction.

With 15knot SE wind we could easily do 200km+ in a big session. Today with 8 knot ESE we worked hard for 5 hours before we lost the wind completely. 33km and we were pushed 5km downwind from our track. It’s going to be a long haul at this rate!

But we are getting closer and a slight route tweak means we are pretty much on track and 103km from the classic route. However we cannot loose anymore ground to wind until we get there, so if we don’t a have the wind to hold that heading, we must not travel, as there are some major open crevasses to the north of our track.

We’ll get across there sooner or later and then we are confident that the next 720km will have better wind patterns and kinder travelling conditions.
At least we really hope so!

Of one thing we are very certain, we will complete our mission sometime early in the New Year!!!

We celebrated with a snow carved HAPPY 2018, that Jean then destroyed under kite. Very funny. A couple of Antarctic breeze and hot choco-vod cocktails and we are ready to begin 2018.

Looking forward to starting out from here with our long overdue Big session to whisk us homewards…

May your year be full of love and adventure.

Spectre crew