Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Group of friends skiing to Antarctic's remotest point

THREE-MONTH MISSION A team of British and Canadian adventurers are bidding to become the first to reach on foot the point farthest from any Antarctic shoreline


They call it a "colostomy bag situation." It is the disheartening sight of your kite collapsing and drifting to the ground like a tangled polythene bag, and it ranks among the worst things that can happen when you are kite-skiing 1,800km to the most remote point of the coldest continent on Earth.

This week, a team of British and Canadian adventurers hope to become the first to reach on foot the Pole of Inaccessibility, one of the less well-known south poles, so named because it lies the farthest from any Antarctic shoreline.

The three-month mission began late last year when three friends from the UK, Rory Sweet, Rupert Longsdon and Henry Cookson, joined the veteran polar explorer Paul Landry to take on one of the few polar challenges that remain. The last time people arrived at the Pole of Inaccessibility was in 1958, when a team of Russians turned up in heavy-tracked vehicles and built a hut, complete with a bust of Vladimir Lenin on the roof.

The expedition is not the first polar experience for the team. Together, they won last year's Scott Dunn Polar Challenge, a 560km race across the Arctic circle to the magnetic north pole, seeing off competition from at least one army team who, according to Sweet, took a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

A hefty Russian cargo plane brought the gang of four from Cape Town to Novo on the Antarctic coast last November, where the attempt on the Pole of Inaccessibility began. For six days, the team dragged 120kg sledges known as pulks up 200km of crevassed glacier that rises to the Antarctic plateau, 3,500m above sea level.

"You can see these cracks everywhere, about a foot or two wide, and mostly they're filled with snow. You give them a little bash with your ski pole and sometimes the snow falls away into these huge caverns," Sweet told the Guardian via satellite phone from the team's tent, 296km from their goal. "You just have to jump over them. You all stay in a line and you don't deviate from it."

At the top of the glacier, with the worst of the heavy lugging over, the team picked up supplies of food and fuel and unfurled huge kites, 11.5m wide. Flying them at a height of 50m from bars linked to harnesses around their waists, the team reached speeds of 50kph, and at times covered more than 100km a day. The favoured music, delivered via tiny speakers in their helmets, has ranged from Pink Floyd to Dire Straits.

"One of the best moments was several days ago when the surface was absolutely flat as a pancake and it was quite soft snow. We were flying along with the kites at around 50kph, and you're leaning right back with the kite taking your full weight," Sweet said.

The physical demands of the expedition, and wind chill which has seen the temperature fall to minus 50?C, have left the team with frost burns on their faces and bruised feet. They have been snowed in by drifts which dangerously sealed the air vents on their tent, and faced the more prosaic misery of devising a safe and effective toilet-going strategy.

"We keep our spirits up by taking great pleasure in each other's injuries or misfortunes. We've had lots of falls, and if you fall with one of these kites and it powers up when you're on the ground, it can pull you 20m through the air. Then, because you're attached to the sledge, it comes along and runs you over," Sweet said.

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