By Rob Lambert
No matter how much planning, preparation, and experience you bring to your endeavours, there’s no substitute for on-the-job learning. They say every day’s a school day, and during this depot run we’re all learning plenty – about each other, about our surroundings, and about the equipment which we’re depending on to cross Antarctica this winter. The Boys (as we’re all now calling Richmond and Spence) have been discovering more about the strengths and limitations of their vehicles: how they respond to different loads, gradients, and snow surfaces, how to eke out those last remaining drops of fuel, and – most importantly – how to talk nicely to their machines and keep them sweet. I’m sure I heard Richmond calling his vehicle ‘darling’ the other evening as he lovingly removed ice from her chassis before putting her to bed. There’s a definite art to coaxing 25 tonnes of bulldozer over this terrain, but I’ll let the boys tell you more about some of their tricks of the trade in a later blog. Meanwhile, the rest of us have been using the time to play with – sorry, test – our ski gear, skinning along beside the ice train as we weave towards the mountains ahead. I thought a few words about the planks on our feet might be appropriate here, and apologies in advance – firstly to the non-skiers amongst you, for whom the following might seem a little technical, and also to the hardcore ski bums out there, who might prefer a little more detail on their mohair, sidecuts, and twin-tips.
We’re using two main ski set-ups here. The first is a pair of all-mountain skis, which look very similar to what you might imagine ‘normal’ skis look like. We can attach ‘skins’ along the base of these, using clips at the front and back of the ski, and a special glue to stick the skin along the length of the bottom of the ski. Skins are so called because they used to be made from seal fur, though they’re now made of either mohair or a synthetic fabric, or a mixture of the two. The idea is that the fibres are angled such that the ski can move forward easily, but when you push back on the ski the fibres grip the snow, enabling the skier to walk up slopes or pull loads without slipping backwards. Our feet are clad in Scarpa ski mountaineering boots, which look similar to a normal ski boot but are much lighter, less stiff, and can flex forward at the ankle to enable a more natural walking motion. Finally, to link the boot with the ski we have Dynafit ski touring bindings, which clip into the toe end of the ski boot using little prongs. The toe can thus pivot on the ski, and the boot heel can either be left free to enable walking, or locked down to the ski to enable downhill skiing or – when possible – kiteskiing.
Our second type of set-up uses ‘Nordic’ skis. These are much thinner and lighter than the skis above, and don’t need skins to be attached to the bottom. Instead they have a pattern of ‘fish-scales’ in the plastic on the base of the ski. Like skins, these slide easily over the snow when moving forward, but provide friction when pushing backwards, enabling the skier to push off one foot and then glide forward. With these we use Ice Trek bindings: a metal and plastic cradle which is hinged to the ski at the toe end, into which your boots are simply strapped down. We can therefore use pretty much any type of boot with these: when it’s too cold to wear our plastic ski boots we can use our mega-comfy, mega-insulated ‘Baffin’ boots (like enormous insulated wellies), which apparently are good to minus 100 degrees C. Toasty. The downside of this system is that you don’t have as much control over the skis, so going downhill can be a bit tricky.. With either system it’s horses for courses, and we’re extremely lucky to have such excellent, lightweight kit; it’s a far cry from the finnesko (reindeer skin) boots and heavy wooden skis of yesteryear.
As well as these two main systems there are another couple of set-ups: Ran has a special ski / boot combo developed and given to him by Alain Hubert (polar and mountaineering legend, and the leader of the nearby Belgian base); and Brian has brought along his own telemarking set-up. They’re a strange breed, telemarkers, and their technique is a study in elegance which I haven’t a hope of understanding or mastering (here I’d like to thank Alex and Paul, two of my long-time snowboarding buddies, whose experience of learning telemarking a few years ago will live long in my memory of Things Not To Do), so again I’ll leave it to Brian to explain to you the finer points of his craft.
Anyway, I digress. Over the last few days we’ve all been trying different combinations of this mountain of ski toys – sorry, equipment – tweaking here, adjusting there, and dealing with the inevitable blisters of our breaking-in period. Ian (hitherto a filthy snowboarder) has been learning how to deal with two planks, Ran has been teaching me new and exciting ways of applying duct tape to blistered feet, and we’ve also had the kites out for a bit of a play – sorry, test. The ability to harness the infamous Antarctic winds may well prove crucial in getting some miles under our belt later on. And, continuing the theme, we’ve also been experimenting with different clothing combinations. We each have our own favoured ways – borne of years of bitter experience – of keeping our cockles warm, and some creativity has been needed in adapting clothing to fit our unique and varying extremities. It turns out that Ran is a bit of an expert with a needle and some dental floss – evidence of either a particularly well-rounded upbringing, or a lifetime of bodging and fiddling in the field. Possibly both. If ever I’m unlucky enough to need suturing in a place I can’t get to myself, I’ll know who to call.
Over the next few days, as we progress up towards the plateau, our experimenting – and our schooling – will continue. ‘They’ are right: every day is a school day, and with a month or so to go until winter, our days are still long here. As I type I can see the mountains ahead of us: snow fields and rock faces bathed in reds, golds, and purples as the late evening sun inches towards the horizon. It’s not a bad classroom all told. Now, if only we can teach Brian how to make a decent cup of tea..