Narrow tracks across the plateau
Riding our vehicles must be as comfortable a way of crossing the Antarctic plateau as anyone has experienced, with comfy seats, soft suspension, too good heaters and comparatively quiet cabins. Yet the traverse team’s favourite means of transportation seems to be a different and very old-fashioned one.
Location: 76º 37’ S, 1º 3’ E
Weather: Beautiful, -33 C, wind 8 kts
We have five pairs of cross-country skis along on the traverse, and they have been heavily used. Whenever there’s a spare half hour after dinner or early in the morning, someone will be out there in the distance, a little speck on the horizon speeding away from the relative bustle of the camp.
It may be for a little timeout, some moments to oneself, which can be a matter of necessity when spending more than 2 months at a two-foot distance from 11 others. More often it could be for a good workout, to get the blood circulation going and the muscles working again after 11 hours in a vehicle seat. It could be for the pure enjoyment of breezing along on smooth crust and slick dune crests, or it could be to get away from the drone of the generator to marvel at the poetry, the subtle beauty, and the perfect silence of this serene landscape. It may be elusive; on clear days – most of them – the camp will seem very close even after half an hour’s skiing straight out. But at times the icy mists hovering over the snows will conceal everything. We can find ourselves completely, utterly alone just ten minutes out of camp, and we’d be closer to the land of the elves than to other humans, to science, refuelling, climate change, mortgage instalments, the financial crisis, bin Laden, the Middle East, and all that.
The skiing conditions are surprisingly good. From home we are used to thinking of any skiing in temperatures below -10 C as slow going due to the poor glide. But the same physical laws don’t seem to apply here. We can have -30 C and still zip away with a gentle push on the poles. It is a bit of a trap; it is very tempting to skate away at full speed like we were doing an afternoon workout in the tracks at home – but within a minute a sharp bite to the lungs will remind us where we are. The risk of frostbite is ever present, and a gentle start with a long warm-up is indispensable
To us, the skis are simply for pleasure and exercise. But before the age of tracked vehicles, skiing was often the most efficient means of travel in snow covered, roadless areas – usually complemented with dogsleds for cargo hauling. Naturally, skis have been an indispensable part of Antarctic exploration. All the successful pioneering expeditions in Antarctica used skis to some extent, if not all the way – and skiing invariably proved more efficient than any other way of self-propelled travel. Even during the last polar year – The International Geophysical Year five decades ago – skis played an important role, providing an uncomplicated and flexible way of travel for lightweight field parties.
In more recent years skis have become less of a tool and more of a toy. Still, to anyone travelling on the plateau by his or her own means, skis are part and parcel of the undertaking. In our modern tracked vehicles, pulling our homes behind us on heavy sledges, we can make between 100 and 120 km on a good driving day. With a kite and a light breeze an experienced skier pulling his belongings in a pulk could readily double that. Even without a kite we can easily make 10 km an hour on our lightweight skis. On foot it would be a slog, and we’d be hard pressed to get beyond 3 km per hour on this surface.
So why plod on foot then, when we can dance away with a light push on the poles, let the glide do the work and the breeze lift the spirit?
Einar poling back after a rejuvenating half-hour out there. Photo: Stein Tronstad/NPI