Antarctica 2020

Antarctica Blog Three – Reactive Planning

Antarctica Tent

On the 26th November 2019, I crossed my first degree of latitude in Antarctica and was now travelling between S81’ and S82’. My expedition to ski from Hercules Inlet to the Geographic South Pole would cross 10 degrees of latitude. All 60 nautical miles in length. My entire route was therefore 600 nautical miles, and I had 48 days to complete this with the amount of supplies I had in my sled.

It felt great to cross that invisible line in the snow and have the first 60 nautical miles now behind me. However, I was very behind schedule. During the first degree I was battered by the full force of Antarctica’s weather, including eight days straight of whiteout and two days where the winds were too strong to even leave my tent. This first degree had taken me 14 days to get through, 7 days longer than I had planned.

While tucked up in my sleeping bag that night, I did some calculations. I had 540NM left to ski and 34 days of supplies left. That would mean I would have to ski 16NM a day (almost 30km), every single day for the next 34 days. This figure was incredibly intimidating, skiing 16NM is a big day, but doing that back to back for over a month was a very daunting prospect. The pressure was beginning to build.

After the first degree the conditions improved very quickly. Those crazy winds died off, the sun was shining down on me, the gradient and snow surface had dramatically improved. Thankfully my body was still working well, it was tired and sore from the battering it had received during the first degree, but it was working.

The part of me which wasn’t working at this point was my head. In normal life I find it very easy to be optimistic, to always see the positive outcome of a situation. On all of my other big expeditions I have found it easy to be pragmatic and happy, but on all other expeditions I have had team mates. Amazing friends to give me a hug, to make me laugh and to work through problems with. Being alone in Antarctica was a completely different ball game.

Even though the sun was now shinning down on me, my head had been engulfed in a large dark cloud that I couldn’t shift. My mind was swamped by negativity, I kept having thoughts like “What am I doing here?”, “How am I ever going to make it to the South Pole with the supplies I’ve got?”, “Was it my ego that led me down here?”,  “How have I overestimated my ability this much?”

After being overwhelmed by these thoughts for a few days in a row, I knew I had to do something about it. I was confident that my body could get me to the Pole, but if I didn’t sort my head out I wouldn’t last another week. I was wracking my brain for things I could do to improve my mindset when I remembered a TedTalk I had watched by a friend of mine, Basit Rashid. Basit’s talk was all about positive affirmations, a phrase or mantra to repeat to yourself, the idea being that the more you say these out loud, the more your subconscious mind will start to believe them and eventually they will become a reality.

Now this is something very out of my comfort zone, the ability to say something positive about myself doesn’t come easily. I had a lot of doubts that this could work for me, but I was at an all-time low, it was worth a try.

I came up with three positive affirmations about myself. At first I could only whisper them, but I knew for it to work I would have to shout them out loud to Antarctica. I checked around me to make sure no-one would hear (I hadn’t seen another person since I left Hercules Inlet over two weeks before…) I took a deep breath and shouted out to Antarctica;

“I am strong”

“I am inspiring people”

“I am a f**king badass”

I couldn’t help but smile at how stupid I felt, but this was the first positive emotion I had elicited for days. The negative cloud was breaking. I skied on, every time my head started to get overwhelmed by these dark thoughts I would shout my affirmations to Antarctica. I was so shocked at just how well this worked. After shouting my affirmations I would feel calm, confident and the thought that I might actually be able to do this floated into my head. But the biggest change was that I had finally decided what was most important to me on this expedition. My main aims were now, to look after myself, to make sensible decisions and to get the end of this still feeling strong.

I made the decision to organise a re-supply drop at my halfway point. To give up the title of an “unsupported” expedition in favour of more time and fulfilling the new aims of my expedition.

Polar expeditions can be defined by three categories, style, support and assistance.

Style – refers to the characteristics of the expedition, Guided, Unguided or Solo

Assistance – refers to the use of external power aids to increase speed or load advantage. An expedition can be Unassisted, Wind Assisted, Dog Assisted or Motor Assisted. The use of ‘roads’ or marked trails is still debated.

Support – refers to the receiving of outside help, the most common labels being, Unsupported, Supported- with resupply or Supported – emergency.

My original aim was to complete a solo, unsupported and unassisted expedition in Antarctica. Giving up the word unsupported meant a strange amount to me at the time. I think this was because this was my Plan A, it had structured the way I had planned, trained for and imagined my expedition. Dropping that word felt like I was losing something precious to me. But Plan A wasn’t going to work, I had to learn to adapt and bring in Plan B.

I had travelled to Antarctica because I wanted to fully experience this incredible continent for myself, not for labels or claims. I knew to get the most out of this expedition I had to make sensible decisions every single day and getting a resupply would be the most sensible decision I would make during the whole expedition.

On day 35 of my expedition I reached Theil ski-way, the half-way point and the place I would be picking up my resupply from. This is an unmanned ski way close to the Theil mountains, planes will stop here to refuel on their way to and from the South Pole. Made up simply of a flagged runway in the snow, a small toilet cubicle and hundreds of barrels of fuel. Skiing into Theil was the first sensation I had experienced of human presence for the last 35 days. It was comforting to know that other people had recently been here.

I found a yellow flag on a bamboo pole just to the east of the runway, written on it were the words “Welcome to Theil Mollie. Looking so strong! Keep it up!.” My resupply was buried in the snow under this flag. Grabbing my shovel from my sled I excitedly began to dig, this felt better than any Christmas I had ever had! Inside the bags I found packets of food to last me for another 14 days, lots of fuel, but most excitingly some treats: chocolate cake, bread rolls and fresh fruit! Plus a lovely letter from Lucy at Union Glacier who had put this all together for me. I can’t even express how motivating it was to receive this re-supply after 35 days alone in Antarctica.

As I sat on the end of my sled stuffing my face with half frozen chocolate cake, all the stress and anxiety about running out of supplies evaporated, I felt myself relax for the first time. I had skied for 300NM and half of the expedition was now behind me. I had plenty of supplies to get me to the pole safely, maybe it was now time to try and start enjoying myself?

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