by Don Kern
Antarctica Marathon Journal. When You Plan To Run at the Bottom of the World, Patience Is of the Essence.
© 2002 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Snow two miles deep. Wind chill around 50 below zero. Sleeping in tents at the South Pole. Sounds like a good time to me.
About a year ago, I got word that Brent Weigner (that’s pronounced “weener,” as in “hot dog”) was trying to put together a marathon on the interior of the Antarctic continent. I called Brent at that time just to meet him on the phone and through e-mails, and in the time since we have become good friends. It wouldn’t be until January 2, 2002, at the airport in Punta Arenas, Chile, that we would meet in person for the first time. The adventure we were about to share would be more than we bargained for.
31 December 2001. Months of continuous preparation and it’s finally time to depart. What a journey to get to this point. Acquiring the necessary gear for this trip has taken me the last six months, searching the Internet, watching sales, finding just the right combination of equipment to keep me safe and warm in the most inhospitable environment on earth. I picked up my last pieces of gear yesterday. I thought I had the perfect duffel bag-one of those huge army duffels. I spent most of the weekend organizing gear, and after repacking a couple of times, I finally got it all in. Whew! The only problem was, it weighed nearly 60 pounds. As I wrestled my load onto the scale, the nice lady looked up at me and said, “I think that’s oversized.” She took out her tape measure, and sure enough. Only $80 extra to ship it to Miami.
In Florida I spent my last night in the United States with my mom and dad. I took a trip to Wal-Mart to pick up another piece of luggage and was repacking as we rang in the New Year.
1 January 2002. I could now handle all my bags at once as I checked in for the overnight flight to Santiago, then on to Punta Arenas.
2 January 2002. We were met at the airport by one of our guides, Bean Bowers. Seven “clients,” plus Bean, the driver, and everybody’s gear but Brent’s, piled into a little van and headed into town. Brent’s luggage took a later flight. Our trip was to take us to Patriot Hills on 4 January, where we would spend two nights, fly south to 26.2 miles from the South Pole, spend two more nights, run a marathon on 8 January, and then work our way back to Punta Arenas on 11 January. Bean’s briefing in the van told us otherwise. “There’s a group that’s been waiting for a weather window since the 21st of December and they’re due to fly south on the next flight.” We would be the second flight. That’s right, they’re 12 days behind. It’s all part of the adventure, I guess. Brent and I are roommates staying at the Calafate, a little hostel. We went out this afternoon for some cerveza (that’s beer) and lunch, and while at the cafe met Klaus, a climber from Germany who was to be on the 21 December flight. He was extremely unhappy with Adventure Network International (ANI), the tour operator that does all of the tourism to the interior of Antarctica and is the organizer of our trip.
3 January 2002. We got up a little late this morning (around 6:30 or so). Nothing special to do, so we’re working real hard to condition ourselves to take life at a slow pace. We got together with a climber named Stu this morning to go for a run in the Magellan National Reserve, a 10-minute cab ride from town. The ranger pointed out the two-mile route, marked by red-topped posts, to the summit of a small mountain, by way of a pasture full of horses (and their byproducts) and a trail through woods. We started the run under sunny skies in the crisp, cool early summer air. As we approached the exposure on the summit, we were met with the same strong winds that had permanently deformed the trees near the ridgeline. As the trees bent away from the wind, we leaned into it, powering our way to a summit that rewarded us with a great view of the city of Punta Arenas and the Straits of Magellan. We continued on the trail through a copse of trees covered with Spanish moss and on to a logging road before turning around. On the way back, the sunny sky turned rapidly to clouds, and before we knew it, we were running in a rain shower. After only a couple of minutes, we were running in snow. The weather changes very quickly in Tierra del Fuego. The snow lasted only a few minutes as we continued back to the ranger station to meet our taxi driver for the trip back to town.
At 7:00 p.m. we had a briefing for the marathon runners and crew. It’s looking pretty good at the moment for the group that has been waiting since the 21st. The earliest we’ll be leaving is on 5 January. Everything is weather dependent. Before we can fly, the conditions at Patriot Hills have to provide good visual contrast between snow, clouds, and sky to land planes on the blue-ice runway, and winds can be no more than about 20 knots.
At this meeting all of the runners met for the first time. The marathon
• Brent Weigner, age 52, from Cheyenne, Wyoming.
• Ute Gruner, 55, Bonn, Germany. Ute is one of the strongest women I have ever met. Last year she skied across Greenland and the year before skied the last degree to the North Pole.
• Raphael (Rafi) Rottgen, 29, German investment banker living in London, about to transfer to New York.
• Dean Karnazes, 38, San Francisco. He works for a biotech company, but his real passion is endurance athletics. He is a member of The North Face adventure team, and the company sponsored him for this event.
• Richard Donovan, 35, an economist from Galway, Ireland. His only previous
endurance event was the Marathon des Sables. He is also a member of a running
family, a brother of former NCAA champion runner Paul Donovan.
• Don Kern, 45, from Martin, Michigan. That’s me.
The staff are
• Bean “I’m just a snowmelter” Bowers. A mountain guide from Wyoming. Bean would be a great mentor and friend on this trip.
• Doug Stoup, expedition leader for ANI. He just finished a trip where five clients skied the last degree to the South Pole.
• Kris Erickson, photographer and mountain guide from Montana.
• Duncan Gray, our Scottish expedition doctor from Glasgow.
• Later at Patriot Hills, we would meet our remaining guide, Devon McDiarmid, from Whitehorse, Yukon.
We were also presented with backpacks from The North Face, hand warmers, Clif Bars, GU, Wigwam socks, and some Aloe Up products. After the briefing, somebody suggested that, since we were just sitting around getting acquainted, perhaps the conversation should move down the street to be continued while drinking cerveza. A very, very short discussion ensued.
4 January 2002. We had a big briefing this morning with all the people waiting to go on our flight to Patriot Hills. The marathon is only one of four different adventures represented here. One group will be hunting meteorites in Pecora, a few hundred miles from the Pole. There are two separate groups climbing Mount Vinson and several who are going just to see the South Pole. We found out that the marathon will be ending about a half mile from the Pole, so there is not much chance I’ll get to run around the Pole naked following the race (darn it). Oh, and between the first flight and ours, a fuel flight is necessary, so now we’re on the third flight to Patriot Hills.
Brent, Rafael, Richard, Dean, and I took a taxi back to Magellan National Reserve to run the trail again. This time we went farther, then followed the posted trail to the other entrance of the park. I ran this time with a pack and a camera. The wind at the top of the ridge nearly blew my glasses off if I turned my head the wrong way.
As we approached the end of the run we came onto a quarter-mile stretch of thick moss. Running behind Rafi, I watched his feet as they hit the moss and were seemingly thrown back into the air, the moss bearing no trace from the force of his steps.
5 January 2002. Since it was evident that we had at least two days before flying out, Dean, Brent, and I rented a car and went north about four or five hours to Torres del Paine (Blue Towers) National Park. We chased guanacos, ran some trails, and enjoyed a tremendous buffet at the hotel there. Dean and Brent headed up the mountain Sunday morning, with Dean running all the way to the base of the towers. I stayed closer to the hotel and hiked the trails with my camera.
We arrived back at the Calafate late evening to find that our stuff had been packed up and we were booked at another hostel about a mile away. After much confusion, we ended up at our new accommodations and have been working to get our gear sorted out ever since. Brent had to go back to the Calafate the next day to retrieve parts to his computer that had been left in the dresser. All part of the adventure.
7 January 2002. Exciting news! On Saturday, the group that was scheduled for 21 December finally went out. The fuel flight went yesterday, and it looks as if we’re heading out on today’s flight to Patriot Hills.
We spent the morning packing bags, getting briefings, and talking to press people. About 5:00 we were picked up, and we headed for the airport for a flight on a Russian Ilyushin to Patriot Hills.
8 January 2002. Around midnight last night, we arrived safely at Patriot Hills, set up tents, and had a short welcome session in the dining hall. The temperature was around zero degrees Fahrenheit, but with 24 hours of daylight, the tents stayed comfortable all night. Jamie, the Patriot Hills camp manager, gave us our first morning briefing at our temporary home. It was here that we again learned that the advertised itinerary was quite different from the actual one.
The DC-3 will take us to the starting line of the marathon. First, however, it will take the “Pole baggers” to the South Pole and back. Then it will deliver a load of equipment to Pecora for the meteorite group. Then the meteorite group will go to Pecora. After that, the marathon will go on, since the DC-3 will be staying with us as we complete our mission. In other words, we’re on the fourth mission to fly out. Our two nights in Patriot Hills will be a minimum of four, and that’s if the weather cooperates. Today’s weather is not cooperating, so the plane will sit on the ground until tomorrow. This is the day we were supposed to have had the marathon.
The only permanent building at Patriot is an underground (undersnow) plywood hanger where ANI’s Cessna is stored in the winter. After breakfast, several of us went down there for a workout and did pull-ups on a couple of frog-shaped climbing holds put up by Alex Lowe.
At 7:00 p.m. we were live on a Fox Sports radio show, and several of the runners were interviewed. We also did the first of our daily dispatches for Doug’s Web site, iceaxe.tv, which we will be doing most every day for the duration of the trip.
9 January 2002. Today the weather is better. The first flight to the Pole went out earlier, and it looks as if the Vinson climbers will go out tomorrow in ANI’s Twin Otter.
This morning we went for a snowmobile ride out to an ice lake about five kilometers from here. The ice is clear, and as we looked down into it, we saw an irregular honeycomb of ice crystals, starting at the surface and extending down out of sight. A few feet away, bubbles rose from the bottom, getting bigger as they approached the surface, frozen in the blue ice. Rocks, some as big as three or four inches across, have blown off the adjoining mountain and surround the lake. We ran back to camp, where Dr. Duncan hooked us up to an EKG and checked our pulses and oxygen levels.
We’re eating well here, even getting beer and wine with dinner. We’re staying nice and warm too. Daylight 24/7 keeps the inside of the tent reason-ably “warm.” I’m sleeping in only the inner bag of my double sleeping bag, wearing a light shirt and shorts. A sleeping mask makes it dark enough to sleep.
It’s looking good for us to head south tomorrow or the next day. We’re learning, however, that patience is not only a virtue here but a necessity. We’re at the mercy of this vast, beautiful continent. We’re also at the mercy of the ANI time schedule.
10 January 2002. The group of Pole baggers came back last night about 1:00 a.m., mission accomplished. Jonathan Silverman has now become the youngest person to ever reach both poles, at 11 years, 6 months. He is feeling pretty good about it too!
Last night was very warm in the tent, so we opened several of the vent zippers. An hour later, the weather turned colder, and we needed to zip up our sleeping bags for a change. It doesn’t take long to get cold when the sun goes behind the clouds.
Several years ago, a DC-6 crashed in whiteout conditions about six miles from here. We took a trip out there this morning, where only the tail fin is still protruding out of the snow. Brent, Richard, Raphael, and Dean ran all the way back. Ute and I came about halfway back with the snowmobiles and then ran the rest of the way in. Ute’s English is passable, but she doesn’t have a real good grasp of American colloquialisms. After Dean passed us with a “Hi, guys!” Ute waited for him to get out of earshot, then asked me, “What does that mean, ‘Hi, guys!’?” She and I are becoming good friends on this trip. When I went back to the tent to change out of my running clothes, I looked down and noticed Brent’s bottle, labeled PISS in big black letters, totally empty. A couple of feet away at the far wall of the tent was his water bottle, full of something that looked like apple juice. Good thing he didn’t get thirsty early this morning. The Vinson climbers got out today on the Twin Otter, and the plane full of gear for the meteorite people left today as well. It looks as if the meteorite folks will be going out tomorrow morning, and we’ll be going out on Saturday heading for the Pole. Patience.
I’m getting a little exercise here and there by shoveling snow while waiting for the bathroom, which is always in need of shoveling out a bit. Everything needs to be shoveled out on a regular basis. Our tent is now about half covered with snow, and we have to clear out the entrance every time we go in or out. Ute’s tent, located next to ours, seems to be trying to bury itself. She has a straight-out entrance, and somebody digs her out every morning. Dean, in spite of his tremendous athletic ability and experience, has little experience in cold weather running. On the way in from the DC-6 crash, he had stripped down to just one pair of tights for a while. When he stopped to relieve himself, he found that he had no feeling at all. Everything was better in a few hours, but it gave him quite a fright. It gave the rest of us some interesting material for writing limericks in the dining hall later that evening.
This afternoon, the winds have come up, so we’re hanging out at the dining hall, doing journals, reading, talking.
3:18 p.m. We just got a briefing by Doug. Looks like it will be at least Saturday afternoon before we head south.
11 January 2002. Friday. Winds at 20-plus knots with gusts to 30. We are waiting for the meteorite folks to fly out and then we go. Weather is not good at the Pole today, so it is uncertain whether anyone will fly. The weather report indicates a system is forming off Queen Maud Land, and it is anybody’s guess which way it will go. I guess it is better to be stuck here at “summer camp” than stuck in unheated tents on the Polar Plateau. Today’s activities after breakfast were digging out the tents and packing all the marathon gear for the bivouac-tents, food, survival gear.
Last night Dean, Richard, and Rafi used some of the snow blocks left by the Vinson climbers to build snow walls around their tents. By this morning, the high winds had blown the snow in around the walls and nearly buried their tents. We spent a while dismantling the walls and digging everyone out.
9:30 a.m. Briefing. Looks like we’re going to try to get the marathoners out today as far as Thiel Mountains, where ANI has a refueling station. There’s a storm, and we’re going to try to beat it. At least we can start the acclimatization process there, and the DC-3 can pick us up from there and take us to the start after it delivers the meteorite group to Pecora.
3:30 p.m. During lunch we got the word-we’re going to try to go south to Thiel. Weather at the Pole is bad, but we can spend one or two of our acclimatization days at Thiel. We’ve spent the last two hours breaking camp. The Twin Otter has gone south to check on the weather, and if it’s OK, we’ll head out in the DC-3 in about an hour.
4:30 p.m. We went out to the DC-3 and started to board when we heard from the Otter that it wasn’t good. We will wait another half hour.
5:30 p.m. Mission scrubbed! Bad weather. We’ll spend the night here again and then try tomorrow. Winds have picked up and are blowing VERY HARD!!
Our staff has arranged for us to stay in the library and the one Weatherhaven tent instead of erecting all the little tents again.
12 January 2002. Thiel is socked in, and it looks as if it may be for a couple of days. We may be here for a bit.
It got cold last night when the clouds rolled in. Dean had a hard time keeping his feet warm while sleeping.
Richard pulled his leg a little yesterday while dismantling the snow walls, but it should be better shortly. Dr. Duncan is taking good care of him, but the interaction between a Scottish doctor and an Irish patient gave us quite a few laughs. Duncan plays the diabolical doctor who takes pleasure in the pain of his “Irish potato” patient. The good-natured banter lightens the mood, a pleasant diversion from the constant waiting.
We took a snowmobile trip to Windy Pass this morning. Standing in the pass, we looked down on the ocean-blue water, with a white-sand shoreline reaching up into the mountains. But the water is blue ice and the sand is snow. We ran back to camp from there, past the Chilean government station. It’s abandoned for the season, and we were able to look in the windows and see the various rooms. The station is built like a series of bubbles, joined to form long tunnels, with only the top third rising above the surface of the snow.
Everyone here is OK. Any problems we have here are minor. We’re being fed well, and we’re staying warm except when we choose to do otherwise by going out in the snow and playing. There are many things to do if you look around a bit. Rafi and Duncan, with the slightly injured Richard supervising, built a little igloo near the edge of camp. We’re keeping spirits up, but the impatience is growing and we’re wondering how much longer before we can get on with our adventure.
13 January 2002. We have now slept six nights here, and we’re becoming way too accustomed to it. Rafi reported this morning that his dreams are being affected by the environment. He was dreaming he was at his parents’ house and they surprised him by coming home unexpectedly from a trip to Antarctica because the weather was perfect and all the flights were early. That’s right, Rafi, you’re dreaming.
My gear is working well. My wife, Nancy, made me some neoprene gaiters that fit down over my shoes. They keep my feet toasty while running. The neoprene mitts we made for running are very light and warm.
11:20 a.m. Our weather report briefing has been delayed nearly two hours while they watch the weather. So here’s the deal: the weather at the Pole is good, and Thiel is clearing. They’re going to watch closely, but the plan is to send the meteorite folks out at about 12:30 on the DC-3. Assuming that’s going well, the plan is to send the runners next, and Doug and Duncan out on the Twin Otter a couple of hours later. Kris, Bean, and Devon will join us when the DC-3 becomes available. If this all works, we will run the marathon probably Wednesday morning early, be back here Wednesday night, and fly back on the first flight back to Punta Arenas. EVERYTHING DEPENDS ON THE WEATHER, HOWEVER!!!!!
Meanwhile, Richard’s knee is feeling much better, and Dean’s feet are warming up well. Brent and Dean just went out for some short runs. Richard, Rafi, Ute, and I are hanging out around camp, waiting to see how much the news deteriorates.
7:30 p.m. And it did. At 2:30, the meteorite folks were put on hold until at least 7:00 p.m. Now they’re back in camp, the mission scrubbed for today.
A new Weatherhaven tent has been set up, so now Dean, Ute, and I have a great space to sleep with real beds with two mattresses on each one and lots of space to spread out. Ute saw the two mattresses on her bed and exclaimed, “Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse.” (The princess and the pea.) Before she came on this trip, Ute’s husband hired a trainer for her, as this is to be her first marathon. For several months now, she has gone without alcohol and sweets and had planned to do so until after the marathon. We’ve managed to corrupt her a bit. Chocolate is readily available here, and she really enjoys it. She is also finding a bit of red wine with dinner makes it easier to get to sleep when the wind threatens to blow our tent away.
We keep finding out more information about what actually can and can’t happen. It turns out that the maximum weight the Twin Otter can hold is far less than we were told when we were making plans earlier today. The only way we can do the marathon is with the DC-3. Misinformation seems to be quite prevalent here.
9:00 p.m. We’re sitting in the igloo, hanging out, creating some interesting hieroglyphics.
14 January 2002. High winds, very cloudy. No one is flying out today. I played a couple games of Scrabble in the morning and intentionally stayed out of any of the discussions that were going on. Everybody is discussing options, contingencies, who has to go home and when. They’re trying to figure out plane payloads, pilot schedules, and what scenarios might play out. We, of course, have no control over any of this.
I went back to the “Patriot Hills Hilton” and found Dean and Kris doing some upper-body workouts, so I joined in for a while. At around 2:45 I went over toward the igloo to see if the guys were hanging out there and found Doug shoveling out the Cessna hanger. I stopped to help him and ended up shoveling for about an hour and a half. Good workout.
Evening, the sky cleared, the wind died to nearly nothing. Many of us headed outside to take pictures or just generally goof around. A calm, quiet night for sleeping.
15 January 2002. We’ve slept here eight nights now. I think last night was the best night so far. Ute and I will probably run together for the marathon. She wonders, “What if I can’t finish?” I think she will do OK. She is very strong, and we will just take it one marker at a time and finish it.
9:30 Briefing-the weather looks good here and at the Pole. The meteorite crew is heading out the door to break camp. The pilots will probably be back here around 1:00 a.m., so the earliest we can go out will be early afternoon tomorrow. At least we’re next in line. Rafi has a tough decision to make. He starts a new job in New York in early February, and all this uncertainty is difficult. We have even discussed running a marathon here so that Rafi can do one before he has to leave, if it comes to that.
We had a separate, private meeting with just the marathon runners and staff, trying to get everyone’s feelings. We’ll see how it goes. We’re pretty positive for the most part.
Richard went for a short run last night, and his knee reacted well-no weakness, just a little sore. A couple more days of recovery time will do well. 9:30 p.m. We took the snowmobiles over to Windy Pass and hiked the ridge along the mountains past the camp. The backside of the mountains is made up of layer upon layer of sedimentary rock, pushed up into short mountains that form the Patriot Hills. Climbing up one of the faces, we traversed the literally thousands of layers of rock, each deposited year by year. As I walked, I realized we were walking over ground that had taken millennia to create. Our hike lasted three hours, after which we walked back across the blue-ice runway to camp.
12:16 a.m. The DC-3 heads south. That puts us next on deck.
16 January 2002. Our ninth morning in Patriot Hills.
9:30 a.m. Briefing. The weather at Thiel is bad, and the Pole is tentative. We need both locations. We’re going to be here at least until this evening when we get the satellite picture at 6:00 p.m. People are busy playing “what if” scenarios, to figure out how we can get to Thiel, to the start line, or to who knows where, just to get this marathon under way. Emotions are running higher every day, and while I’m trying to maintain my “It’s all part of the adventure” attitude, it’s getting tough.
17 January 2002. Decision time. It’s good weather for flying, and we’re headed for the Pole. Max (the pilot) gave us a briefing and let us know that we could take up to two more weeks to get back if the weather turns against us. While we were packing, Rafi decided that he couldn’t risk it, having spent too much time away from work already. Ute came back to our Weatherhaven crying, not knowing whether she could take the time either. Bean came and talked to her, and then I talked with her, and she decided that she had to go with us.
12:45 p.m. We took off for the south. We landed at Thiel two hours later to refuel, nearly an hour’s stopover. The Thiel Mountains are a small range, and the landing strip is a flat area within view of the mountains, marked with black garbage bags filled with snow. There are a bunch of 55-gallon drums of fuel and a Canadian flag. At 5:33 p.m., we landed at the South Pole, where we dropped off Bean and Devon, so they could mark the course on the way out to us. We spent some time at the Pole and had a couple hours to just goof around and take pictures. It was minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, with a minus 58 windchill.
We then flew out to the “starting line.” We missed it by a couple of miles, so we were camping about 28 miles out and would be shuttled to the start by snowmobile. By the time we got camp set up, melted snow, and made supper, it was after midnight. The elevation was about 9,300 feet. Five runners, five guides, and a three-man flight crew would sleep the next three nights here to acclimatize before running the marathon.
Finally, about 3:00 p.m., we heard from Bean and Devon by radio. They had snowmobile problems and ended up camping at the 14-mile mark.
18 January 2002. In every direction, the same vista-white plains and blue sky. Duncan created a little “cafe” by digging out snow blocks and piling them up on the windward side of a pit, with a table in the middle and a bench all around. I sat there in the warm sunlight in my winter gear and took a short nap.
19 January 2002. Devon and Bean finally came in overnight. At 3:00 p.m. we had the “official” start, a made-for-TV event with banners, pictures, and video, followed by some individual action shots and interviews. The actual start will be tomorrow morning. Following our little media session, Bean gave us a short talk. “It’s best to treat this as an expedition instead of a race. Always leave 10 percent in the tank, in case of trouble, because it’s one of the most dangerous places on earth.” Bean has shown great leadership on this trip. Dean has a great assortment of gear, including some he designed for The North Face. He meticulously tries on one combination of clothing, running a mile or so, then another and another, working hard to get his various systems “dialed in.” Our course will take us on a straight line, approximately along 80 degrees west longitude. The miles count down from 26 to the finish line, which is about a half mile from the South Pole. Originally, the Cessna was to be down here with us, leapfrogging with the DC-3 to set up aid stations at 20, 15, 10, and 5 miles from the finish. But now, we have only the DC-3, and a runway is set up at the 14-mile mark, so we can have an aid station there. To make it safer by keeping us close together, Ute and I will start at 6:00, Brent and Richard at 7:00, and Dean at 8:00, with the hope that, by the time we’re 12 miles into the run, we’ll all be close together. That’s where the DC-3 will set up an aid station, 14 miles from the finish line.
20 January 2002. RACE DAY. It was partly sunny and looked promising, and Ute and I were taken the two miles to the starting line by snowmobile. Doug was to stay with us for the first six miles and establish an aid station at the 20-mile mark. We had to wear packs with some extra clothes and a down jacket, and carry some food and a water bottle, a total of 10 or 12 pounds. It was about 25 below zero with a little wind. Every step sank into the snow up to six inches. According to ANI, the nearly 10,000-foot altitude at this latitude feels more like 12,000. We started at the 26-mile marker, and by the time we covered the 1.2 miles to the 25-mile mark, over 35 minutes had passed. The miles were taking us about a half hour. It’s going to be a long day. Doug went ahead to a mile marker to wait for us to come by, and we would drink and eat a little. As we passed the 24-mile mark, we had a hard time seeing the marker wands in front of us. We almost got to the 23-mile mark, where Doug was waiting for us with water and food. Visibility was failing, and the whole world turned to milk-totally white from ground to sky. As Doug turned around on the snowmobile to tell us that the race was canceled, he could see no horizon through his slightly fogged goggles. Like a pilot lost in a fog bank, he lost his equilibrium and fell off. I had a good laugh at his expense, but the danger of the moment didn’t escape me either. We were 5 miles from the plane, 23 miles from the Pole, no visibility, and with temperature and windchill well into the double digits below zero. Doug picked us up and we headed back toward the start.
That lasted for a mile before the snowmobile, bogged down by three people and a sled full of gear, decided not to go any farther. Doug figured I could drive Ute and me back to camp, then send someone out to get him and the sled. “Are you comfortable with that?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. That turned out to be my best decision of the day. He messed around with the snowmobile, and it started running better. We found Brent and Richard near the 25-mile marker and told them to head back, then went on. We met Kris with the other snowmobile out around the 26-mile marker and sent him to get Brent and Richard as we headed back to camp. We rode for about 10 minutes, only to find Kris again, back at the 26-mile mark. We had been driving in circles! We followed Kris back toward the plane and fortunately found it that time, after only one more episode of the snowmobile’s stalling out.
I spent the rest of the day in a funk. Finishing a marathon in these conditions could be more dangerous than I had bargained for. Carrying a pack, at this altitude and in these temperatures, it could take me 15 hours.
Maybe we’ll try again tomorrow, but the weather doesn’t look promising.
Brent talked to his wife, Sue, and apparently he was feeling pretty low, too, not knowing whether he could finish such an event. Sue and Nancy were talking and sending e-mails, and when we did the iceaxe.tv dispatch, Nancy had left me a message, “Use your head. Don’t do anything stupid.”
21 January 2002. The wind outside tells me that we won’t run today, so I’m staying in bed for a while. Ute woke up and said, “Call the plane, I want to go home now.” Several things had become clear to most of us. First, this is a much more dangerous event than we first thought. Second, even with the quality of our guides, the ANI staff was not going to be able to adequately support all five of us to guarantee our safety. Third, the weather can change from good to bad so quickly that the slightest bad decision or mechanical problem could mean severe problems or even death. We spent the whole morning, as well as much of yesterday, running scenarios, plotting, and figuring how we could get this event to happen. We had to make it happen one way or another. Here is what we came up with.
Brent and Richard would wear the only two pairs of snowshoes we have here; Dean would wear just running shoes. The three of them would run without packs, supported by both snowmobiles, and would have to stay close together until the last few miles of the race, pretty much expedition style. Kris and Doug would be with them on snowmobiles. They packed sleds full of food, hot Thermos bottles, tents, and other supplies in case the weather closed in and they had to camp. If one of them couldn’t continue at any point, the race would be called off. Ute and I would fly to the Pole and do a half-marathon on an out-and-back course that could easily be monitored.
My desire was to do the marathon, but there was no way I could keep up with the “expedition.” To make this happen, it had to work this way.
At 4:30 p.m., after over an hour’s delay due to snowmobile problems, they finally left for the start line. Max started warming the plane (about a three-hour process), and we started packing and breaking down camp. We flew to the Pole, put up camp, and then Ute and I went to the finish line to begin a multiple out-and-back loop half-marathon.
As I was running back and forth on a mile out-and-back course, I met Richard coming in on snowshoes, with nothing on his head. I gave him a hug and cheered him on, and on my next lap met Brent and Dean, running only a few yards apart.
The final results:
• Richard 8:52:03
• Dean 9:18:55
• Brent 9:20:05
Brent and Richard went back out on the course for a couple more miles to
complete a 45K event:
• Brent 9:59:53
• Richard 10:10:09
Ute and I did the event in running shoes, and not having the packs made the
miles a lot faster than the previous day. Our half-marathon times were
• Ute 5:48:56
• Don 5:53:00
After I changed, we all went into Amundsen-Scott Station for an introductory talk by National Science Foundation staff members. The station is a dome structure containing a small “city,” which serves as home to just over 200 people in the summer and around 60 in the winter. One of the rooms inside the dome is a little store, where we bought gifts for the people back home. Some of the guides bought bottles of Glenlivet. We got back to our camp, which was located only a couple hundred yards away, around 5:00 a.m. on 22 January, and I decided to stay up helping the guides dispose of the Scotch as we waited the two hours for the morning weather report. As usual, it was not favorable, so we ended up spending the day under cloudy skies, resting, eating, taking some pictures, and recovering from our adventure.
23 January 2002. I woke this morning at the South Pole with the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” going through my head. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” This has been a great adventure, but I’ve had about as much adventure as I can stand for one trip.
The morning weather looks questionable but shows promise. By midmorning, the weather became sunny with very little wind, so Dean and I took the opportunity to take some more pictures by the Pole, this time standing naked behind it. Hey, running naked around the Pole was one of the things on my list.
By noon the weather at Thiel was clearing and we were packing up and heading back to “summer camp” at Patriot Hills. We arrived around 6:00 p.m. to a celebration in our honor, a short awards program, and champagne. We took the opportunity to celebrate until about 4:30 a.m., drinking in the dining hall and then cramming 10 people into the igloo.
24 January 2002. Needless to say, I slept through breakfast. My big goal for today is a nap, a couple of meals, and maybe another nap.
The Twin Otter went and picked up climbers on Vinson today, and the DC-3 headed out to get the meteorite people. We may have to wait for a small group that has been waiting in Patriot Hills to go to the Pole and back before we fly to Punta Arenas. There is an outside chance we could be home this weekend.
25 January 2002. We have slept in Antarctica 18 nights now.
The Ilyushin flight will be coming in to get us this evening around 7:00. Ten people here are waiting to go to the Pole, but they will have to wait for the next flight.
26 January 2002. We arrived in Punta Arenas about 1:00 a.m. to the first darkness we have seen in nearly three weeks. At the Calafate, I took my first shower since leaving Punta Arenas. As I lay in a real bed with blankets and a real pillow, the scent of soap fresh on my body, it occurred to me, “Damn, I smell good.” My flights are all arranged and I’ll be home by tomorrow afternoon.
In retrospect, my decision to do only a half-marathon was a good one. Dean and Richard can normally run marathons in 2:30, and they took around nine hours for this one. I normally run around 4:30 marathons, and I would have been on the course for a dangerously long time had I decided differently. It appeared that no one had any serious problems, but Richard had some superficial frostbite on several of his toes and was a bit hypothermic. Even after spending the amount of time I did running a half-marathon, I was still feeling pretty fresh, with no ill effects at all. Our race was nothing like we expected. But our expedition was a great success!
News 8 met me at the airport along with my wife and a small group of friends. The last question in the short interview was “Would you do it again?”
Of course I would.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of Marathon & Beyond. For information about reprinting or excerpting this article or any other M & B article, contact Jan Seeley via email or at 217-359-9345.