Explorer Mark Wood reaches South Pole, completes first half of journey

Back in November, we told you about British adventurer Mark Wood, who was preparing to set out on an epic adventure. Mark was hoping to become the first person to make back-to-back journeys to the North and South Pole on foot, and at the time he was getting ready to travel to Antarctica to start his expedition. Fast forward a few months, and Wood has now reached the South Pole, successfully completing the first phase of his journey.

Last Monday, after 50 days on the ice, Wood officially reached the bottom of the world – 90º South. That was pretty much exactly on schedule for what he had predicted, which is remarkable considering he had to deal with challenging surface conditions, unpredictable weather, equipment failures, and whiteout conditions for much of the way. All told, Wood covered about 680 miles on skis, all the while towing a sled laden with his gear and supplies.

Despite the fact that it has now been more than a week since he completed his journey, Mark remains stranded at a research station located near the Pole. Bad weather has prevented a plane from coming to pick him up, although conditions are expected to improve this week. When they do, he’ll get airlifted back to Chile, where he’ll take some time to reorganize his gear, and recuperate, before immediately flying off to Canada to start the next phase of the expedition.

While skiing to the South Pole is an impressive accomplishment, traveling to the North Pole is considerably more challenging. The journey will be similar in that Wood will go on skis, once again pulling his sled behind him, but while the Antarctic is ice formed over solid ground, the Arctic consists of giant slabs of ice floating on top of an ocean. As a result, Wood will face much more unstable ground and will have to navigate around or across large areas of open water. That open water has become much more prevalent in open years thanks to global climate change.
Because the ice floats on top of the Arctic Ocean, he’ll also have to deal with the frustrating natural phenomenon known as negative drift as well. This is a condition that actually causes polar explorers to loose ground – even as they travel north – due to the shifting of the ice. It is not uncommon for someone traveling through the arctic to spend all day skiing northward, only to stop for the night, and wake the next day to find that they’re actually further away from the Pole than they were when they went to sleep. It can be very disheartening for the explorers, who sometimes describe the feeling as much like being on treadmill.

The presence of polar bears is another hazard that Arctic explorers must be aware of as well. While those traveling to the South Pole seldom, if ever, encounter any other forms of life, those going to the North must be ever vigilant for bears. Because of this, most skiers add a shotgun to their gear list before setting out, hoping that they won’t have to use it along the way. Polar bears are the largest land carnivores on the planet, and they have been known to stalk humans traveling through the Arctic, bringing yet another element of danger to an already challenging journey.

Mark’s accomplishment of reaching the South Pole on on skis is indeed an impressive one, and while he has now technically completed the first half of his expedition, it’ll only get tougher from here. The North Pole trek is expected to take roughly 65 days to complete, and will be another test of endurance and determination.

Photo of the day – On the rocks

Not many of us will have the chance to visit Antarctica, especially with the new heavy-fuels ban introduced this year to protect the environment around the Southern Ocean. Next season only about 25,000 tourists are expected, about the same who visit Walt Disney World every DAY. Unless you are joining an adventure travel group like Quark Expeditions or happen to be an explorer like our own Jon Bowermaster, you may have to be content with gorgeous photos like this one from Flickr user Terra_Tripper. This gargantuan iceberg is just one of many you can marvel at near the South Pole.

Have you been to Antarctica? Add your best shots to the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

Ghosts of Scott and Amundsen still haunt the South Pole

Exactly 100 years ago today, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole, effectively ending a race that he had been engaged in for years with his British rival, Robert Falcon Scott. Both men had been eager to become the first to plant his country’s flag at 90ºS, and in doing so, they created one of the most indelible and tragic stories in the history of exploration.

As the first decade of the 20th century came to an end, both Amundsen and Scott had become seasoned polar explorers. The two men had spent years in the remote, cold regions of our planet, and while Scott had remained largely focused on the Antarctic, and reaching the South Pole, his Norwegian counterpart had split his time between both the North and South Polar regions. Along the way, he had also managed to become the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage, where he learned the secrets of arctic survival from the indigenous Inuit tribes. Those lessons would come to serve him well in the Antarctic too and play a large role in his eventual triumph at the South Pole.

In the spring of 1910, with an air of optimism and determination, Scott set off from London for New Zealand aboard his ship the Terra Nova. He held no sense of urgency however, as he believed that he would have the Antarctic to himself, while Amundsen would be content to head north once again aboard his ship the Fram. When he arrived in Melbourne in October of that year, Scott was surprised to find a telegram from the Norwegian awaiting him that simply read: “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC–AMUNDSEN.”

The race was officially on, as Amundsen and his crew had set sail in June and were in hot pursuit of Scott and the Terra Nova. Scott didn’t panic however, as he knew that he had a considerable lead on his rival and a good strategy for proceeding south. Those plans were disrupted by a series of mishaps however, which included his ship being trapped in the Antarctic pack ice for 20 days and the onset of particularly bad weather. Those mishaps caused Scott to miss his window of opportunity during the austral summer of 1910, although he was able to establish a series of supply depots which would give him a potentially large advantage the following year, when he and Amundsen would duel head-to-head for the Pole.Scott’s plan for reaching the South Pole was grounded in tradition and years of British exploration on the continent. He would take a small team of men, and a mixture of both dogs and ponies to help pull the sledges and the carry gear. They would proceed along a route that had been pioneered by his countryman, Ernest Shackleton, who had turned back just shy of the Pole only two years earlier. The team had been outfitted with the best cold weather gear of that era and they had their supply caches in place from the previous year, so there was a general sense of optimism about their chances.

In contrast, Amundsen elected to employ sled dog teams to help carry his squad to their destination. He had become an experienced musher while living with the Inuit tribes, and he knew the value of using that method of transportation in the harsh arctic conditions. He also preferred the use of animal skins over the heavy wool clothing that Scott’s team was equipped with – something he had also adopted from the Inuit. The use of sled dogs and warm furs would prove to be a great advantage for the Norwegian and would ultimately contribute greatly to the success of his expedition.

On October 19, 1911, Amundsen took another calculated risk by launching his expedition along a route that had never been explored before. The team started at a point that was closer to the Pole, but would wander over the uncharted Axel Heiberg Glacier, which could present unknown challenges and barriers to their passage. On November 1, Scott set out from his base camp along his longer, but much more well known, route.

In the weeks that followed, both teams endured brutally cold temperatures, unexpected storms, and days of whiteout conditions. Their support teams dwindled the closer the got to the Pole and numerous dogs and ponies died from exposure. Ultimately though, Amundsen’s strategy proved to be the wiser, as his sled dogs traveled quickly and efficiently over the frozen wastes and his crude looking, but highly effective, furs provided more warmth and protection from the elements.

On December 14, Amundsen, and four companions, arrived at the South Pole at last. Planting the Norwegian flag at 90ºS and establishing a temporary camp at that location, they took little time to celebrate their accomplishment. Amundsen and his men spent three days at the Pole before they started the trek back to their teammates, who were awaiting them at the coast. In the event that the did not make back however, Amundsen left a lone tent and a letter denoting their arrival.

33 days later, on January 17, 1912, Scott and his party reached the Pole as well. They were greeted by the disheartening sight of Amundsen’s flag, tent, and letter. As you can imagine, this was tremendously deflating for the explorer and his companions, who expected glory, but found that they had been beaten by their rivals. That night, a defeated Scott wrote in his journal that all of his “day dreams must go.” His love affair with the Antarctic was clearly over and he lamented his situation, saying “Great God. This is an awful place.”

Amundsen and his men returned to the Fram on January 25 and soon set sail for warmer climes. They arrived back in Melbourne on March 7, and word of his accomplishment soon spread across the globe. Stories of his adventures held readers enthralled, as every major newspaper led with the tale of the conquering of the South Pole at last. Back in the U.K. however, Scott’s countrymen watched and waited for word of his fate.

After discovering that they had come in second in the race to the Pole, the British explorer and his men turned back for their ship and companions as well. They faced a very long and cold 800-mile trek to the coast, and early on they were able to set good pace. But after several weeks, things began to take a turn for the worse. Weather conditions began to deteriorate and their pace slowed to a crawl. Along the way, one of Scott’s five remaining companions took a nasty fall that left him “dull and incapable.” Several days later, that same men would tumble again, this time resulting in his death.

With exhaustion setting in and a dark mood falling over the party, Scott and his remaining men pressed on, even as temperatures plummeted further and whiteout conditions returned. Frostbite and snow blindness became a part of their daily existence, as they stumbled on mile after mile. With their food supplies and fuel dwindling there only hope was in reaching one of their precious supply depots.

On March 16, two months after their arrival at the Pole, another of Scott’s men died. While lying in the tent that evening, the man suddenly stood up, mumbled that he was “going outside and may be awhile.” He disappeaed into the blisteringly cold night and was never seen again. It was another moment of anguish and dispair for the doomed expedition.

After that, Scott and his two remaining companions managed to cover another 20 miles before they were caught in a blizzard that raged outside their tent for ten days straight. Trapped and unable to move forward, the last of their meager supplies ran out, and the three men died in their tent. Scott’s last entry into his journal was recorded on the 29th of March and simply said “For God’s sake look after our people.” They were just 11 miles from what would have been a life-saving supply depot.

Eight long months passed before the final resting place of Scott and his companions was discovered by search parties from the Terra Nova. It would be another three before the world learned of their fate. Back home in the United Kingdom, the public both mourned and celebrated their hero. Scott and his men may have lost the race to the Pole, but in true British fashion, they showed an indomitable spirit, and a never-quit attitude, that stuck with them to the end. Nearly a century after his death, Scott remains an inspirational figure to his countrymen to this day.

Amundsen, who mourned his respected rival as well, would continue a life of adventure and exploration. His travels would take him to other remote places, although the polar regions seemed to always call to him. Eventually he became the first person to visit both the North and South Pole and he pioneered a route through the Northeast Passage as well. The Norwegian explorer died in 1928 when the plane he was flying in went down over the Arctic Ocean. He was leading a rescue mission to save two other downed pilots at the time.

Today, there are many travelers to the Antarctic each year, and some of them still follow in the footsteps of these two great explorers. The Amundsen-Scott Research Station, located at the South Pole, is named in honor of both men, and in their respective home countries, there are numerous statues, monuments, and museum displays dedicated to their legacy. Both men inspired generations of explorers that followed, and the story of their great race is as compelling now as it was a century ago.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s accomplishment, a special ceremony will be held at the South Pole today. A number of visiting dignitaries will be on hand, including Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who will be joined by a host of explorers and adventure travelers.

I have a feeling the ghosts of Amundsen and Scott just might be there as well.

British woman attempting solo crossing of Antarctica

33-year old British adventurer Felicity Aston is preparing to set out on an epic journey that is guaranteed to push her to both her physical and mental limits. In just a few days, she’ll set out to do what no other woman has ever done – complete a solo and unsupported crossing of Antarctica on foot.

Felicity’s adventure will begin on the Ross Ice Shelf, where she’ll start a 248 mile trek on skis to the South Pole. For most Antarctic explorers, that would be the stopping point of their expedition, but for Felicity, it won’t even be the halfway mark. Once she reaches 90º South, she’ll start the second phase of her journey – a 683 mile trudge back to the coast, ending at Hercules Inlet. The entire expedition is expected to take roughly 70 days to complete, covering more than 930 miles in the process. During that time, Aston will be completely alone, with little contact from the outside world.

Traveling across Antarctica is no easy task. Felicity will be forced to contend with harsh weather conditions, including extreme cold, high winds, blizzards, and whiteout conditions. Since she’ll also be alone, and not receiving any kind of outside support, she’ll also be dragging a heavy sled behind her at all times. That sled will contain all of her gear, food, and other supplies that will be necessary for her survival while out on the ice for more than two months.

At the moment, Felicity is actually in Antarctica at a base camp located at Union Glacier. She’s waiting for a flight to take her, along with her gear, to her starting point out on the Ross Ice Shelf. She had hoped to be well underway by now, but bad weather and mechanical problems with the aircraft have caused numerous delays to the start of the expedition, but if all goes well, she hopes to get finally hit the trail tomorrow.

Spending 70 days alone, in one of the harshest environments on the planet, takes an incredible amount of strength, both physically and mentally. The next two months will not be easy ones for Aston, but she is about to embark on amazing adventure unlike any other.

Best of luck Felicity!

[Photo credit: Felicity Aston]

Explorer to make back-to-back journey to North and South Pole

British adventurer Mark Wood is currently in Punta Arenas, Chile where he is preparing to start an epic journey. If all goes as planned, later this week, Mark will fly to the Antarctic, where he’ll begin a four-month odyssey that will take him to both the North and South Poles back-toback. While he certainly won’t be the first person to visit those two remote places, he does hope to become the first to make consecutive journeys to the opposite ends of the Earth.

Weather permitting, the first stage of the expedition will begin on Wednesday, when Wood will start his solo and unassisted trek to the South Pole. That leg of the journey is expected to take roughly 50 days to complete and will cover approximately 680 miles of ice and snow. Upon arriving at his destination, Wood will be picked up by plane and shuttled back to Chile, where he’ll immediately set off for Canada to start the second stage of the expedition. That will entail crossing another 700 miles of ice, over an estimated 65 day period, culminating with his arrival at the North Pole. If he is successful, he’ll then be plucked from the ice once again, and flown directly to an environmental conference that will focus on the effects of climate change.

In order to reach the two Poles, Wood will travel on skis, dragging a sled behind him. That sled will be weighted down with his gear, food, and other supplies, enabling him to survive for weeks on end, by himself, without any outside assistance. While on the trail, he’ll burn in excess of 8000 calories per day, enduring bitterly cold temperatures, whiteout conditions, and treacherous terrain.
Wood is making this journey to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on our planet and he is asking for support from others to help him achieve his goal. But rather than looking for monetary donations, Mark is instead asking for others to pledge to do some simple environmental actions that will cumulatively amount to a savings 100,000 kilograms of CO2. You can find out more about this program, and pledge your support, on the expedition’s DoNation page.

It will be a tremendous display of strength and endurance if Wood is able to pull this off. Spending 115 nearly-consecutive days in polar environments, alone no less, will take its toll on anyone. Additionally, the changes to our planet have made it increasingly more difficult to travel by foot to the North Pole, so he’ll have to have a bit of luck on his side for that to happen as well. Still, you have to applaud his ambitions and wish him the best along the way.

[Photo courtesy of Mark Wood]