The Captain’s Log Round Up #1 – Spectre Expedition

When possible, Leo has been in contact with updates, stories and thoughts of how the Spectre Expedition is unfolding.

This first weekly update sees the team from the plane journey over to the ‘point of no return’ the planned starting position of the Spectre Expedition.

Day One – On The Ice

Date = 15/11/2017
Day = 1
Location = Union Glacier
Temperature = -14C
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 2000 km

As I write this we’re in the belly of the big Ilyushon on the 4.5 hour flight south from Punta to ALEs Union Glacier logistics hub and camp in the Ellsworth Mountains, western Antarctica.

A Soviet era heavy cargo plane, it is an awesome machine. Capable of landing on an unprepared airstrip or blue ice runway carrying 17.5 tons of cargo and passengers and enough fuel to complete the 3500km return journey should it not be able to land. It can carry entire shipping containers, or tanks and has winches and cranes built in. Although there are no windows and the seats are cramped it oozes character. Makes you feel like your in Sci-fi movie or a Cold War epic!

#spectreexped is southbound 🇦🇶🌬🏔

A post shared by Leo Houlding (@leo_houlding) on

I am still wrestling countless fears, and concerns. How cold is it going to be when we get dropped off? Will there be any wind? Are we going to be able to fit everything in the pulks? Will we be able to move them? How are we going to film & photograph all this? Can we climb the Spectre? Can we complete this ludicrous mission? I wish my legs were stronger. I wish I was fatter. I wish I had more kiting experience. Why didn’t I plan a deep water soloing trip to Thailand?

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Day Two – Union Glacier Camp

Date = 16/11/2017
Day = 2
Location = Union Glacier
Temperature = -14C
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 2000 km

Our first 36 hours on this great white continent have been a roller coaster of conditions and emotions.

Immediately as we stepped out of the big Iluyson we were struck by fairly brutal 16 knot winds and bad visibility. I’m sure the pilot would not have considered it were it not for his 200+ blue ice landings out here.

We were collecting by an outlandish group of awesome vehicles, snow cats, snowmobile and jacked up six wheel buses that look exactly like those from Freya’s Lego polar set!

They drove us to ALE’s astounding Union Glacier camp surrounded by the stunning Ellsworth Mountains.

They run a tight ship with a great crew. Centred along side a ski way suitable for ski equipped aircraft that service remote field camps at the South Pole, Mnt Vinson and a huge Emperor penguin colony on Berkner island as well as support logistics for expeditions like ours Union glacier camp is a well ordered community of tents and portable structure of all shapes and sizes.

Yesterday evening the weather cleared miraculously to glorious sunshine and zero wind. The contrast to the early afternoon could not of been starker. From Hellish to heavenly.

Our drop off scheduled for the day after tomorrow at 88’, 110 just 200km from the South Pole, elevation around 3000m with the latitudinal effect making that feel more like 4000m so will be much colder than here. Winds like that will be brutal out there!

The wind will be both our best friend and our worst enemy for the next 10 weeks. Without it we are doomed as there is no way we can move our 200kg loads over 2000km with time to climb. But the slightest breeze is spine chillingly cold and when it blows fiercely it is not at all pleasant outside!

I think we must be very conservative with our approach to severe conditions, certainly to begin with. Patience and a steady pace may just allow us to still achieve our aims and enjoy the ride without too much punishment at the hands of the cruel and kind mistress of Antartica weather.

Though I dare say we may be in for at least a bit of a spanking!!!

The full briefing here

Day 3 – 200kg of the lightest and strongest kit ever made

Date = 17/11/2017
Day = 3
Location = Union Glacier
Temperature = -18C
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 2000 km

Another beautiful day here in this magical Union Glacier community camp. -18C in such sunny weather is much more pleasant than a typical winter’s wet and windy day at home in the lakes.

We’re looking pretty close to our 200kg each target weight and it looks like it’s all going to fit in our big sledges or pulks.

Approximately 100kgs of kit & 100kgs of food & fuel has to be packed into the Canadian canoe sized beasts that will be our greatest ally, but our most woeful foe for the next 10 weeks.

It is starting to look like we might be out tomorrow. It would be nice to have one more day to finalise prep but if we do have a weather window it would be madness not to grab it.

Excitement is starting to take hold, but anticipation is right by its side.

Full briefing here

Day 4 – Union Glacier

Date = 19/11/2017
Day = 4
Location = Union Glacier
Temperature = -21C
Distance travelled = 0
Distance remaining = 2000 km

We got up at 7am to another gorgeous day and began semi-frantically trying to deal with all the final preparations to be ready for a potential noon twin otter departure. Midway through Mark filming my master pre-expedition interview which we have been trying to find time to do for a week now Jean came in to the weather Haven tent cabin.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

Always start with the bad news;

“There is low cloud and flat light at our drop off point, we cannot fly today”

“And the good news?”

“There is low cloud and flat light at our drop off point, we cannot fly today“…..

In all honesty to me this was good news. I want to be 100% ready with every i doted and T crossed before we head to the edge of the Earth. In this context that means every clothes zip extended with a pull cord, every item designated a place, the pulks packed systematically and basically drilling everything here in this safe comfortable environment where life is 1000 times more mellow than out there.

The pulk packing and final weight check has been weighing on my mind for most of this year. I’ve spent hundreds of hours poring over a spreadsheet, analysing spec weights of every item we have decided to bring. Identifying the optimum weight, strength, cost solution and sourcing or specifying to be made bespoke, precisely what I consider to be the best of the best solution for our purpose. No doubt I will have made some errors of judgement, in a couple of months I am likely to know what they were, but as my friend and kiting mentor Bruce likes to say:

“Reasonably right is far better than perfectly wrong”

And another one of his favourites which has been a mantra for this trip:

“100% redundancy in all critical systems”

Which basically means bring spares of all the stuff you can’t survive or complete the mission without.

It’s not looking overly positive we will depart tomorrow, and if we don’t get out within a few days it’ll start to drag. But right now I feel very happy with our situation and prospects, and I am feeling extremely excited about confronting the Spectre face to face!

Full Briefing here

Expedition Day 1 – (Day 6) – The point of no return.

Date = 20/11/2017
Day = 1 (Expedition) – Day 6 (Antarctica)
Location = middle of nowhere
Temperature = -33C
Distance travelled = 1100km by plane Distance remaining = 2000 km

We’re in the Twin Otter plane heading south. My god this is big country! The scale is overwhelming. Why do I choose to repeatedly put myself through these epic trials?

We just flew past the Pirrit Hills, an impressive group of nunataks – rocky peaks protruding through the ice about 160kms from Union glacier. They were our plan B if we hadn’t managed to raise enough money for the Spectre. The plan was to ski in from Union Glacier, climb and kite back.

A similar trip but almost half the cost and about 10% of the distance.

Right now, I’m wondering if we should have just bitten off that small mouthful, it still looks pretty far. Spectre is ten times that distance and our trip will be ten times as tough. Be careful what you wish for, it may just come true!

The pulks look massive, the terrain vast, my legs skinny, I feel very small.

But in my heart I am confident we can do this. I actually feel more relaxed right now than I have done for weeks.

The plane will drop us off at its maximum payload range, known as the point of no return, but we have already past that point.

The time for fear and anxiety is behind us. There is no more preparation. It is time for confidence and cautious action. We have what we have and must overcome every obstacle we face with the contents of these pulks, our skills, cunning and experience.

We’re now in the tent, near as damn it to 88S,132W, precisely where we wanted to be.

It’s sunny with a strong breeze and really cold. Pretty much what we expected and hoped for, although I must admit this cold is quite shocking! Our goggles steamed up and froze immediately upon exiting the aircraft which is a big concern.

We really are in the middle of nowhere and the magnitude of the journey we are about to undertake is utterly overwhelming. Therefore we are all ignoring it and focusing on the most immediate concerns: Keeping warm, pitching tent, packing pulks etc.

We must be some of the most isolated humans in the planet right now but spirits are high and we are ready for events to unfold.

It time to leave the past behind and focus on the here and now. Our loved ones will always fill our hearts but must be kept to the back of our minds allowing us to concentrate of the ongoing tasks of cold management, travelling and living as comfortably and healthily as we can out here.
My god what have we let ourselves in for!!!!

Full briefing here

Expedition Day 2 – This is not what it said in the brochure

Date = 21/11/2017
Day = 2 (Expedition) Day 7 (Antarctica)
Location = middle of nowhere
Temperature = -28C
Wind speed / direction = 18knot gusts to 20knot Windchill = -45C Distance travelled today = 0km Distance remaining = 2000 km

Well, this was not the flying start I had envisaged!

Yesterday it was cold, but sunny and clear with a 12knot wind when we were dropped off. We could have travelled but unacclimatised to the cold and altitude we thought it prudent to spend the night here.

Overnight the wind picked up considerably and visibility has dropped dramatically. It’s pretty stormy outside right now and moving does not seem like an option. We need at least reasonable visibility to travel as we really must keep a visual on one another all of the time as we mustn’t get separated out here.

Ideally we’d also have our first couple of kite sessions in gentle, friendly wind to get used to the giant loads and this hard, bumpy surface. So we’re tent bound in a storm and it’s really very unpleasant outside!

Must try to keep motivation up and stay on top of the situation so that when it clears up we are psyched and ready to go. It is possible we could be here for days!

It’s snowing outside which is extremely rare here in what is officially classified as a desert. When the sun shines we have been told on good authority that it can be too warm to be inside a sleeping bag in the tent. That however is very much not the case in these conditions. It’s bloody freezing in here.

Mark is being heroic, filming outside in the storm. Jean is measuring climatic conditions, though they both keep berating me that “this is not what it said in the brochure”.

Just received a weather update. Going to get worse for a couple of days with winds up to 40knots, then looks like it’s clearing on Nov 24 and wind will swing around to a more normal southerly direction. Time for some R&R before we drop the hammer towards the Spectre in a few days.

Please keep your comments coming, it’s really inspiring to know people are following our journey and keeps up the motivation for sending these updates and battling with our 3.5kbs data connection to send out photos!

Full captains log here

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