In December 2016 and January 2017, Eric Philips, Rob Smith and Keith Tuffley undertook a 34-day, 605km ski expedition from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole – becoming the first people to traverse the little-known Reedy Glacier. This is their story.
30 November 2016. Preparation
In a few days Rob Smith, Keith Tuffley and I will be flying from Punta Arenas, Chile to Union Glacier Camp in Antarctica and onward to our start point at the base of the untravelled Reedy Glacier. With the Ross Ice Shelf to the north and the Transantarctic Mountains to the south the views will be spectacular, and unique. Only a handful of scientists and pilots have seen the Reedy Glacier – a good reason in itself to take this route.
But Reedy is also a logical choice. It is one of many large glaciers draining the polar plateau through the Transantarctic Mountains, falling steadily over its 200km length (around one third of the entire route) from an altitude of 2,200m at its head to 600m at the foot of the range.
6 December 2016. Delayed
Bad visibility on the Ross Ice Shelf at our start point has postponed our departure to Thursday. We are 100% ready to go, so using our time training, photographing and filming the stunning surroundings, getting fat and chatting with the locals.
Yesterday we met with ALE's Safety Travel team who looked over our route with high-resolution remote sensing tools, which can penetrate the snow surface to reveal crevassing which can't otherwise be seen. This is particularly important for the pilot who needs to land the aircraft on unfamiliar ice. The imaging confirmed what I'd surmised from maps and old aerial photos – that the Reedy Glacier makes for an attemptable ski route through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Antarctic plateau. Now for the doing.
Keith and Rob share my excitement for the route and are fully committed to both the physical hardship that lies ahead and the uncertainty that comes with pioneering ventures. They've been preparing for this expedition for over a year and come with practical experience having skied 150km to the North Pole in April.
We are far from the well-oiled team we'll be once we reach the South Pole – but there is every indication that we'll work hard and laugh harder. I can't wait to be out on the trail with these fine fellas.
7 December 2016. Landed
We have just been dropped at our start point. Our expedition has finally begun.
9 December 2016. Epic mountains
The Transantarctic Mountains form the biggest range in Antarctica and one of the biggest in the world. Our view of the Amundsen Coast takes in many glaciers – Reedy, Leverett, Scott, Amundsen even Axel Heiberg at a pinch – and if I creen my head I might just see Mt Wade which flanks the east side of the Shackleton Glacier, the route I pioneered with Jon Muir and Peter Hillary in 1998.
We are no longer on the Ross Ice Shelf, having crossed the grounding zone yesterday and now heading towards the foot of the Reedy some 40km distant. There we head S-SE and look for a safe route through the crevasse fields of which there are many marked on our maps and aerial photos.
21km today, heading E-SE on a slowly rising surface of diminishing sastrugi. Keith fast on his bike, Rob dealing stoically with a bruised heel, me, enjoying my laksa soup!
10 December 2016. Mountains Looming
20km today. Another perfect day in paradise. We climbed a few small hills today and gained around 120m elevation for our efforts. To date our efforts haven't been overly taxing, the surface has been excellent and the sleds, although 90kg, glide well over the ice.
We are cutting a corner to gain access to the glacier. There are no crevasse fields marked and none evident, just the usual cracking at the apex of ice rises. You can see our shortcut on the map.
We are starting to get some definition in the mountains, they're looming and in the next couple of days we'll be dwarfed by them. Some of them stand well above 2000m and it's likely that none have been climbed. So much of Antarctica lies unexplored.
4 December 2016. Dispatch #2
We are boarding the Ilyushin 76 bound for Antarctica. Hope to have a night there for final tweaking before flying to the Ross Ice Shelf. Excitement building!!
5 December 2016. At Union Glacier
We have arrived at Union Glacier after a 4.5-hour flight. Weather here is beautiful and we are doing our final prep outside. ALE's (Antarctic Logistics & Expedition LLC) Union Glacier Camp has grown since I was last here in 2012 – very professionally operated and in a superb location surrounded by spectacular mountains.
We flew south with Robert Swan and his team of renewable energy specialists from around the world – their aim being to learn as much as they can before setting out next year on a South Pole expedition using renewable energy to fuel their stoves and power devices. This we partly do through solar panels, but renewable energy stoves would be a great expression of potential.
Rob was the first person to walk to both poles and was one of the greatest influences and inspirations on my early adventuring career. I read both of his books in the 90s but it was a surprise and honour when Rob presented me a signed copy of his book in Punta Arenas. Forever grateful and wish he and his team the best of results.
We hope to fly to the Ross Ice Shelf tomorrow morning.
8 December 2016. First day
Our first day and we blitzed 15km in 4.5 hours of skiing. The surface is hard and fast with small sastrugi and the sky couldn't be clearer.
Keith decided to bring his fat bike and – much to my dismay – he is riding at double our pace, towing his 90kg sled. I don't think he'll fare so well up the glacier or on the plateau – but so far it's impressive.
It's so warm that we cooked dinner outside and are lounging around on our chairs. Won't be having any of that up high!
We begin lower still at the grounding zone of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica's contiguous coastline. Reedy's gentle gradient is responsible for an unusually crevasse-free surface, in the lower sections at least, and is almost snow free. The climate is so cold that there are extensive ablation (melting) areas, which are permanently snow-free. This exposed ice should make for fast travel until we reach the polar plateau above. Then it's a grind across the frozen windswept high plains to the pole.
This will be the second Transantarctic glacier that I will have the privilege of traversing for the first time. In 1998, together with Jon Muir and Peter Hillary, I made the first traverse of the Shackleton Glacier to the pole, which lies to the west of the Reedy. The classic routes of the Beardmore and Axel Heiberg glaciers also drain through these mountains. This is an area of Antarctica both rich in history and brimming with discovery.
The route from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole, via Reedy Glacier
Green Adventures April 2017
Read about the next part of Eric, Rob and Keith's epic journey next month in Green Adventures.