The Escape.

High Camp, Antartic Peninsula.

The wind continued to increase in intensity outside as early evening approached. The slowly sun traversed lower in the sky as the air temperature plummeted below -25 C freezing everything inside the tent. I refreshed the forecast via the Pivotel Iridium GO and the email from Marc De Keyser predicted a ferocious storm hitting our position within a matter of hours. The ongoing unstable snow pack was a stress we had been managing for days now, but this storm or in Marc’s words “polar hurricane” was approaching what I would deem as “unsurvivable” in a tent. There was always a chance that it would not be as bad as forecast ?  I had never seen Marc wrong before, so with a chill down my spine I  relayed the new forecast to Kit. Our hand was being forced. 

The words of Sir Ernest Shackleton rattled around my mind;

 “Better a live donkey than a dead lion any day my dear…” 

These words were written to his wife as he turned away from the South Pole a mere few days' travel from his prize. It reminded me that whilst we had a lot at stake here, it was better to retreat and return when conditions were less dangerous. It also struck me that the entirety of Project Zero was about encouraging the world to listen to our earth’s voice more, and here we were with the very Ice around us screaming “No”. It made good sense for us to humble ourselves and listen.

We ate a quick meal, melted some ice for water and then packed up camp. Outside the tent, the evening air bit at any exposed skin, we began preparing our equipment for what was for all intents and purposes a forced march. A march to get to sea level and reunite with The Nanook before she was blasted by the storm in an exposed position amongst the icebergs jostling each other in Cierva cove. Avalanches still boomed around the valley as we set off. Looking back at the plateau a dark blanket of clouds had begun pushing in from the East.

The crevassing was extreme for the first few hours of our descent forcing us to manhaul despite favourable wind blasting towards the coast. Spindrift and gusts tore down on us from the Polar Plateau above. My large toe P3/P2 joint suffered considerable cold damage during my 2020 Antarctic crossing and now serves as a reliable indicator of rapid barometric change. Despite the mad pace we had set ourselves, I could feel the joint complaining bitterly within my Salomon Ski boot. As the barometer dropped, the sky developed dark hues and near midnight we entered the Antarctic twilight with incredible turquoise and gold tinges adding to the end of the world feeling all around us.

Soon the huge open slots or crevasses diminished enough for us to consider kite power, but both admitted that we risked kiting straight into a crevasse with no rescue if we kited independently. So we devised a system I have never seen used before, and one which I will definitely use in crevasse country again. One kite, with a larger square metre area than I would use solo, connected to me up front then a 30 metre rope tied from Kit to me, with both sleds attached in parallel mid way down the rope between us.

This allowed me to fly the kite into the mad wind and spindrift, rocketing along downslope, with Kit braking ferociously each time we jinked to avoid slots that appeared out of the now near dark and spindrifts. It was tremendously exciting, but we were both aware we were pushing our luck. Careering into the semi dark with scant warning as obstacles appeared ahead, we watched the moon rise over the glacial wall to our right. A mystical almost magical feeling enveloped us both, father and son using every skill we had to flee the oncoming tempest. The pressure through my body was immense as the kite powered up, dragging a combined weight of close to 300 kg at times at speeds approaching 60 km/hr.

We made good distance but our course soon pushed us close to the left hand side wall of the glacier and as such we entered a wind hole, the wind roaring well overhead, making further kite travel impossible. Frustrating as I could hear wind rushing over the crevasses to our right hand side.

Warming meal and drink in the Antartic Night.

Kit and I agreed to a short break inside the tent to escape the savage chill and to wait for the sun to return before we continued our journey. The rest of the descent was made under man power as the wind had now become too strong to kite safely. Our world became a kaleidoscope of skiis, snow, spindrift, crevasses, booming avalanches alongside, navigation and one boot in front of the other, hour after interminable hour. Despite our exhaustion, we took occasional moments to appreciate the majesty of the place, and the incredible privilege of being here despite the tough cards we’d been dealt. 

36 hours after leaving our high camp we approached the glacial foot, the final steep slope back to the jet black Sea of Cierva Cove. As if to encourage our last ski downwards, managing out of control sleds, the Gentoo penguins called out in a very human voice. Soon we were both safely down the final pitch and embraced in a mixed state emotionally. Both elated to have beaten the oncoming storm to the coastline, but aware that this mad last push had sped up our farewell to our Antarctic world. A real sadness cloaked us as we looked to the sea, the ice at our backs. Despite crashing waves of disappointment, deep down I knew we had made the right decision. 

Gale Force Winds rolling off the plateau.

We could smell the fishy krill smell of the Gentoo colonies all around us and with difficulty located ice sufficiently clean to melt on our stove to create drinking water and cook a well earned meal. Whilst we decompressed from what is one of the more intense forced marches of my career, I began to realise that despite all our challenges we had done what we set out to do. 

We had repurposed a 25 year old sailing vessel, sailed her through 7 ocean tempests in the wild southern ocean all the way from Australia, crossed the infamous Drakes passage and entered rough pack ice to access the Antarctic peninsula as a father son team. Our humble crew had kept our vessel intact and on station whilst we got to within two kilometres of the plateau proper through dangerous ice and unstable snowpack. The sadness slowly faded as I looked at my strong, driven partner, my son and realised this story was not over. I appreciated that his Antarctic journey did not end here. Just as I began to feel optimistic again, I heard a yell from outside and stumbling out of the tent saw Jordy pushing the zodiac through slurry ice trying to get to us. Kit and I stood slightly dumbfounded, not totally understanding where he had just materialised from.

Jordy made the zodiac safe to our icy shore and in moments we embraced, both parties desperate for news. Jordy explained that Crusty was stuck slowly nudging The Nanook through desperately thick ice about a kilometre offshore, but he would join us presently. We would then work as a crew of 4 to move The Nanook into a safe position to meet the worst of the storm due to hit us in the coming hours.

Crusty managed to get through the final hurdle and stood by whilst Jordy ferried my gear and I to The Nanook. As we left the shoreline and approached the vessel, I looked back and saw Kit on the ice soaking in his own sadness that this Antarctic adventure was coming to an end. We had been connected in the wilderness so long now, that almost like an electrical tether I could feel the waves of emotion rolling off him. I felt his pain, but knew he’d come to realise in time that we’d listened to nature’s voice, kept the faith, practiced good Explorer craft and that we owed it to our loved ones to make the right calls and to live to explore another day.

In the early morning hours we cleared the last ice blocking our entry to our “bolt hole” anchorage and secured The Nanook under huge ice cliffs with an anchor and 3 mooring lines, watching the storm build and blow over the top of us. The Nanook felt like a fortress compared to our exposed little tent and despite some rising tension, I collapsed into a deep sleep onboard, confident that she’d weather the storm well in this place, deep within the embrace of the vast ice walls above.