Ten things no one tells you before an Antarctic expedition
Adventurer Patrick Woodhead led the first ever east-to-west crossing of Antarctica, and this week sees the publication of his thriller Beneath The Ice, which is set on the icy continent. Here he shares what he has learnt
1. You're going to have to eat a lot of raw butter. When you are skiing across Antarctica and putting in 12-14 hour days of pulling a sled in minus 40C, you have to keep your calorie count up. A normal man burns about 2,500 calories in a day. We burn between 7,000 to 9,000. That means supplementing your dehydrated food with slabs of butter. In the first few days of the expedition, it tastes revolting, but then your body just craves the fat content and you eat the butter like blocks of cheese.
2. Washing is a painful experience. We melt snow to make drinking water, but there is not enough fuel to have water for washing. Therefore, the only way to keep clean on an 80 day expedition is by running outside naked in minus 30 and rubbing yourself down with snow. It’s traumatic - and not just for you, as frequently you scare the hell out of your teammates by crashing into the tent beside
3. Take it one step at a time.
On the traverse of Antarctica we were trying to cover 1,850km. After the first week, we had only done a few miles total and then had to climb 3,000m onto the high polar plateau. The lack of progress and subsequent sense of utter despair can easily overwhelm you, so you have to break the journey down into small increments just to keep sane. It may seem stupid celebrating travelling 100km when you have 18 times that distance to go, but never underestimate the power of denial.
4. Choose your companions carefully. You may have to eat them.
So goes the famous polar maxim. But choosing your teammates wisely is the difference between an enjoyable trip and one where you want to commit homicide on a daily basis. Tiny idiosyncrasies, such as snoring, chewing too loudly, or fidgeting in the tent, can be a source of incredible tension that builds up over the days of confinement.
5. Going mental.
Middle aged people tend to make better polar explorers. Not so much because they are physically more capable, but more to do with their mental capacity. Out on the high polar plateau there is nothing but endless white stretching off in every direction. You ski for 12 hours a day and because of the wind and cold, it’s almost impossible to talk to your team mates. So, in effect, you are alone in your head for all that time. By being a bit older and having a bit more life experience, it helps fill the blank canvas that is Antarctica.
6. The tent is a surprisingly nice place to be.
Due to 24 hours sunlight and the power of the solar radiation, the tent warms up considerably. It may be as low as minus 40C outside, but inside the tent it can reach +5C. This means the tent is a wonderful shelter from the elements. You can repair all your clothing, eat some food and generally relax even when you are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest other humans.
7. Take a notebook and pencil.
Writing down your inner turmoil, thoughts, moments of brilliance, or moments of despair and frustration is one of the
more valuable parts of an expedition. It also forms valuable research for my books because it enables me to capture
my raw thoughts when in the moment.
8. Frostbite is about sweat, genetics and experience.
Getting frostbite is a very real part of a protracted polar expedition. It’s only too easy to work a bit harder than you
should, work up a sweat and then the sweat ices up on the inside of your jacket or gloves. You have to operate just
under the sweat level (which in minus 40C is quite high). Secondly, it’s about experience. You need to know how long
you can freeze your hands for as you fix a broken ski binding, for example, before you have to stop what you are doing
and devote some attention to warming up your hands. You can only know how far to push your body before doing
damage to it if you have been in the field and have the experience. Lastly, it is genetics. Pure and simple. Some people
are just better in the cold than others.
9. Expect delays.
Planes rarely run on schedule due to changes in weather. Add a lot of spare time to the other sides of your expedition, as it is just not going to run according to the preconceived dates.
There is often a huge sense of isolation and disconnect when you come back to everyday life. For so long, you have been out in the wilderness and singularly concerned with survival and mileage, so when you get back to the real world and people talk about their jobs, or what they did at the weekend, it all feels foreign. You must remember that people have their own lives and their own interests. Just because you like Antarctica and polar expeditions, it doesn't mean anyone else should give a damn about you or what you did.
Beneath the Ice by Patrick Woodhead is published by Arrow, 1st January 2015, and is available for £7.99 in paperback