Private sorrows and private joys: the solo efforts of team training

The task was simple: drag a 20kg tyre along the length of the Brecon - Monmouth canal in mid-winter. The last big training session before a trip to Norway.
 
Even I, with my rudimentary navigation skills and frankly hopeless sense of direction couldn’t get lost. I’d prepared warm, waterproof gear and definitely over-catered with snacks; bananas, quavers and peanut M and Ms (so, all major food groups).
 
Four of us met at the basin of the canal in Brecon. The sky was dull and the wind was gathering itself to blow hard. I’m pretty used to clipping myself into my specialist harness (soon to be used to pull a real pulk, not a Land Rover tyre) and I was quickly ready to go. I tucked in second but I was overtaken within a few minutes and fell into third place. Our fourth team mate was handicapped by a new tyre and rope set up, and had to stop a few times to get it sorted. 
 
The first half hour was a much faster pace than I’m used to. Dragging the tyre to start with, months ago, I was working at 1.5miles per hour. I’m now up to roughly 2.5mph, but we were off at a swift pace even without a tyre, and I was sure I couldn’t keep it up. 
 
Mentally it does strange things to you, what your team mates are doing. As soon as they were round the first bend in the canal I settled down to my own pace. It was difficult terrain for the first few hours. The canal had flooded and the path was strewn with muddy, stick-filled debris ideal for building up in front of and inside the tyre. Stopping every few minutes to clear the tyre delayed me further and I began to doubt wether I could make it through the first hour, never mind the whole day. The first leg was to Gilwern, which we’d figured as 15 miles away. I was working in blocks of time, to most closely replicate the skiing routine I can expect in Greenland and eventually Antarctica. I hauled for 70 minutes, and stopped for a five-minute break to take on food. By the end of the first leg I couldn’t see anyone and I was already feeling the pace. Stopping felt wonderful - I sheltered from the blustery weather under one of the many bridges and readjusted - took layers off, ate and then the five minutes were already up. 
 
I settled into a routine after that which went something like this: clip into harness. Reset watch to zero. Switch on music and begin. I began to make deals with myself - that boat up ahead? You can check the time after that boat. You’ve hauled for 20 minutes? Great! Only another two lots of 20 minutes and 10 more to go till the next break. Think about using your walking poles more. Try placing the poles wider. Try placing the poles closer. You can have a sip of drink now. Planning what I was going to eat on the next break. You can check the time again now. Remember to enjoy the view! This place is beautiful! And so on. And on and on. 
 
I began to get an insight into what it was like for the guys crossing Antarctica. Although we were a team, it’s actually very much a solo effort for a lot of the day. You’re on your own. My private sorrows; the pain in my ankle, the fatigue, the horizontal rain, were balanced by private joys; a beautiful, full rainbow, a robin who hopped onto consecutive fence posts as I moved along, the fragile, architectural lichen on the branches. And sometimes the surroundings worked as a distraction; remembering to notice the smell of the woodsmoke from cosy house boats, the scent of wet bark in the woodland alongside the canal and the picturesque mix of wooden locks and brick-built bridges. This used up a lot of time. And some legs I didn’t even notice maybe ten, maybe twenty minutes going by. A few times it felt like all I’d ever done was drag a tyre. 
 
Then, around half way, I could see two of my team mates stopped up ahead. My heart leaped with happiness - just seeing the others buoyed me and I was determined to arrive looking cheery. Then one of them clipped back into his harness and was off. My heart sank. They were off again. I thought they’d wait for me. But one was walking back towards me. He’d been feeling unwell and had opted to ditch his tyre behind a wall and come back to pick it up later. ‘You could ditch your tyre here too,’ he offered. 
 
What went through my mind was, first of all, ‘great. I’m so done with this. He’s taken his tyre off. Now I can too.’ But team mate number one was off again, already five minutes ahead. I was 34 minutes into a leg. ‘I’ll just finish this leg. Then I’ll stop.’ I thought to myself. Actually I hoped Pete, the guy in front, would give up, and then I’d give myself permission to do the same. 
 
The time to take a break between legs arrived. There was no sign of Pete, so I thought ‘I’ll just do another leg.’ And so it went on. Just like the route. We’d started at bridge 161 (or something. At the time it wasn’t too important). But I began to live for the next bridge. I knew we finished the day at bridge 106. I started noticing bridge numbers at around the 140s. I remembered to appreciate them. After that I wasn’t appreciating then, I was counting them down. I met a few folks who asked what I was doing. ‘I’m walking to Gilwern.’ ‘Oh. That’s quite a long way.’ ‘Oh really?’ I replied. By this point I’d past the 10-mile point and was sure I was nearly done. ‘Oh yes, it’s a long way from here.’
 
And so it was. It wasn’t the fifteen miles we’d thought - the canal weaved around and the route was in fact almost twenty miles. I began to check out places where the canal was near the road, thinking I could dump the tyre and call ahead to say I’d had enough. 
 
Then I caught sight of Pete up ahead. It looked like he’d stopped, but I couldn’t see that far ahead to see what had happened. He was moving again but I was catching him up. Soon he’d stopped again and when I caught up with him he looked in pain. His knees were shot and he’d found some improvised walking poles from the woodland. I gave him some painkillers washed down with Lucozade. We discussed our options. We were the last two out with our tyres. We estimated Gilwern to be about 3 miles away. Pete said he’d crawl on his hands and knees if he had to. I believed him. Which meant I had to press on. 
 
Being in front spurred me on, and for a while I surprised myself with my brisk pace. I kept to 70 minutes hauling, 5 minutes break, like clockwork. I began to check my watch every five minutes. The breaks seemed to get shorter. Gilwern was a long way beyond 3 miles away. Dusk was gathering and it became increasingly difficult to tell canal from path, bridge from branches. (There were a lot of branches which I’d hoped were bridges). I came across one ruined bridge which - gloriously - still counted as a numbered bridge. I reached bridge 107. One to go! I called ahead as the others had walked to the finish sans tyres and were at the end point. ‘No, it’s not bridge 106. It’s bridge 103.’ Had I misheard (deliberately to fool myself?). It was at least another 70-minute leg. If this was what the days were like in Greenland, I doubted my sanity in signing up. I trudged on into the darkness - the lights of Gilwern far ahead in the distance. I chanted my new-found mantra. Some people favour Shackleton’s ‘by endurance we conquer,’ or some other well-known maxim. But the word ‘endurance’ seemed too negative. I went for Captain Oates’ (rather less famous quote) ‘We came here to fight, not to surrender.’ (From his days in the Boer War, rather than his Polar journey). Weirdly, it helped. Whatever keeps you going. 
 
I took a break - ostensibly to switch on my head torch and add a few layers but I was struggling and a breather was what I really needed. I called ahead again. I was two sodding bridges away still. The rest of the team offered to come down and meet me, and walk in with me. That kept me going for another bridge, and then I saw bobbing head torched coming towards me. It was a wonderful sight and suddenly I knew I was home and dry. My speed increased to a remarkable rate. One I was unclipped from the tyre I felt like I was literally and physically waking on air. I’d made it back. I was the first home. The confidence it gave me - that I can make it though, by counting minutes, or bridges, or sips of water, by talking to myself or repeating mantras. Whatever it was, I’d made it.
 
The plan was to do the rest of the route - at least another 13 miles - the next day. But none of us had done anything like the distance before and we’d under-estimated the effort involved in the first 19.6 miles.
 
I spent a restless night worried that we would go ahead with the second leg the following day, wondering how I’d ever begin to clip in and set off again in the morning - so it was with some relief that the consensus was to come back and do the second leg separately. When we got together that night (in the bar, where else) that’s when we shared our stories of rainbows and robins and aches and pains. 
 
And that’s where the team had my back - it wasn’t a solo effort anymore. It was ok to call it done for now. And like everyone knows, the decision of the collective team is almost always better than that of the individual. 
 
 
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New Sponsor Announced

Brunsfield, a specialist in the letting and management of residential property in London, has come on board as the latest sponsor of the expedition. Thank you to Henry Powell-Jones and all the team - looking forward to working with you!

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Writing a new chapter in Antarctic history

This really is the most incredible experience. The tv crews have disappeared, the photographers have packed up and I’m sitting alone in Shackleton’s original cabin aboard the RRS Discovery.

It is a decent size, with a desk (at which I am now sat), a bench and cupboard in burnished wood, and a cabin bunk. Although it is very quiet now, after I have given a series of interviews about my expedition, and posed for photographs outside the cabin bearing Shackleton’s name, I can imagine the ship alive with activity; men in the ward room, making plans or recording observations, Dr Wilson sketching.

There is, even after all this time, still an air of expectation, of promise, to the ship. It was beautifully designed and was fitted with the best technology of the day; portable stoves, matching crockery with the British Antarctic Expedition insignia, a smart, brass-lined ship’s wheel.

I’ve been fortunate to have been allowed special access aboard the Discovery in Dundee, after earlier this year I was granted permission to wear Scott’s original sledging harness, recovered from the tent which became his final resting place after reaching the Pole.

Here then, in this cabin, is where Shackleton’s Antarctic story began, here at this desk. And it is here that I begin mine. As I write these words, little bolts of excitement shoot through my body – here is a ship which has been to the mythical continent of Antarctica, which at the time was not on any map, was untouched by human presence.

I’m wearing clothes based on Shackleton’s and Crean’s originals, and I couldn’t be closer to Ernest himself. I wonder what he would have thought about a woman on an Antarctic expedition. If I’d made it aboard the Discovery in 1901; perhaps Lady Markham [wife of Sir Clements Markham, then president of the RGS, and the woman who launched the ship],  had an unmarried younger sister, a scientist maybe. Could that have persuaded Scott to take a risk and take a woman? Perhaps they might have allowed me to cook or clean, certainly I would not have been invited to join the parties who struck out into the unknown from the huts after the sun returned to the continent. How might it have been, to overwinter? Without sight or sound of home, without light or life outside of the hut where they spent the dark months of the Antarctic winter?

And how is a major expedition viewed now, now we have satellite mapping, tracking beacons and emergency get-outs? I’m pioneering a new route to the geographic South Pole – is it still about the way into the unknown?

There must have been times when Shackleton, when planning future journeys, despaired of ever raising the funds to set sail, but Antarctica was in his heart, and so he found a way.

And once there, once I step onto the blue ice of Union Glacier, will it consume my soul, as it did for Shackleton, Scott and latterly Henry Worsley, as Everest did for Mallory. This week, Henry’s ashes will be scattered in South Georgia, and a simple stone erected in his memory. It will be place on a hill above the grave of Shackleton himself. A more fitting tribute to a man who loved Shackleton cannot be imagined.

When it comes to imagining – Antarctica exists, can only exist at the moment, only in my imagination, only in my head. What kind of place is it? My head tells me it’s desolate beyond imagining, harder than I can conjure up, more testing than I can replicate on training sessions at home.

Yet my heart tells me it is a place beyond wonder, of beauty which no Wilson painting or Hurley photograph can ever really convey. And in this, Antarctica takes on that mythical quality; a place of extremes which must be witnessed; dreams realised, fears confronted.

As I sit here, and turn-of-the-century music drifts from the men’s quarters, stepping into Antarctica will, for me, bit almost like stepping back in time, to Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Mawson’s stories, but adding a few lines to the next chapter in Antarctica’s story.

The hardships these early Polar pioneers endured cannot be imagined, certainly we would not want to replicate them, but that hardship is something which is undeniably attractive, which draws me in.

So why go somewhere so desolate, so difficult and, in all honesty, so dangerous? That is a question for British Polar explorer Wally Herbert:

“And of what value is this journey?”

“It is as well for those who ask that there are other who feel the reason, and never need to ask.”

·  With thanks to https://www.dundeeheritagetrust.co.uk/ The Shackleton Company, InLine Risk Solutions, Brunsfield Property Management, and Euphoria Freefly

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British woman launches world first polar expedition

A unique expedition which will pioneer a new route to the South Pole launched officially on Sunday, August 6.

In the spirit of the great British Polar explorers, a team will be taking on a world first with a 400-mile route up a never-before-climbed glacier to reach the heart of the Antarctic continent.

Set to take up to 55 days, and with pulks (or sledges) weighing up to 120kg, the team will face temperatures down to -50, crevasses, white-outs and blizzards, in one of the most isolated places on Earth.

Travelling from the Ross Ice Shelf, across the Transantarctic Mountains and then to the Pole, the epic journey harks back to the golden age of Polar exploration.

Wendy Searle, a mother of four from Salisbury, Wiltshire, is organising the expedition. A veteran polar adventurer will act as team guide to ensure the expedition reaches its finish point – the geographic South Pole.

As well as treading a path which has never been walked before in history, the team will be working with scientists to bring back environmental data on climate change in this fragile and remote environment. In partnership with Exeter University, and using cutting-edge voice and facial recognition technology, the team will also be taking part in research on mental resilience at the limits of human endurance.

Modern-day explorer and star of the Walking the Nile, Levison Wood, is lending his patronage to the expedition.

“It’s so important to support each other. Ultimately we are all trying to keep the great traditions of British exploration alive and we are all on the same side.

“The major challenge of polar travel is dealing with the relentless landscape, which doesn’t change for days, or even weeks on end. This is pretty unique – even the desert has some variety! You’re out there in the icy cold with very little support and completely at the mercy of the weather.”

Women are in a minority when it comes to Polar journeys; one of the aims of the expedition is to inspire young women and girls to take more risks, and to accept more opportunities.

“I’ve never thought that being a woman could ever be something which could hold me back in any way – that’s never occurred to me. When I started researching Antarctica I fell in love with its mythical beauty. It has become something of a mission to reach the South Pole and bring back some useful work, just as the original Polar explorers like Scott, Shackleton and Mawson did,” Wendy added.

The launch was held at Gilbert White House in Alton, Hampshire, which holds the Captain Oates collection, the Polar explorer on Scott’s fateful journey to Pole in 1912 who famously sacrificed his own life to try and save his team mates.

Expedition patron Patrick Cordingley OBE, who was at the launch, said:

“Wendy has the spirit of a true adventurer – courage, passion and optimism. Mounting an ambitious expedition like this is no small undertaking. Partnership work with companies who have a similarly ambitious outlook will ensure the expedition achieves its aims.”

For more information, or to support the expedition, visit www.southpole2020.com

Exclusive interview with expedition patron and adventurer Levison Wood

As part of the launch of the expedition, patron and adventurer Levison Wood gave an exclusive interview on inspiration, women in adventure and why he's never done a Polar journey...

On surprises in adventuring..

 

Incredibly, I am still surprised. There are so many places that defy expectation and defy the stereotypes that have built up around them. Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan get all sorts of attention in the media, often for all the wrong reasons – but the people in both countries are some of the most friendly and hospitable that I’ve met. There are surprises around every corner when you travel – I recently saw some incredible views in Russia that I hadn’t expected and in Mexico I chanced across unknown pyramids.

 

On inspiration..

 

Most of the people I meet are pretty inspirational – and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some real heroes on the road, such as being invited to a audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Most recently though, my friend Alberto has taught me a lot about life and been a great inspiration. At the drop of a hat, he left his life as a studio photographer behind and came on the road with me – walking from his home in Mexico, the length of the Americas, to reach Colombia. He’d hardly walked before and certainly wasn’t versed in expeditions or the challenges of that. But he embraced it all with such a sense of adventure and fun, and most importantly an incredible sense of humour.

 

 

On female role models in adventure travel..

 

Sadly there aren’t enough women getting the opportunities in adventure travel and of course I’ll always encourage them to get involved. But there are some great role models – from the historic greats like Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell, to modern day heroines like Nepali mountaineer Pasang Sherpa, who has achieved incredible charitable work in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as her impressive summit feats or Hanli Prinsloo, a free diver who founded a marine conservation charity alongside her underwater record-holding adventures.

 

 

On Polar travel..

 

I suppose in truth I am more of a warm weather kind of person – but polar travel is definitely on my bucket list.

I suppose I’d see the major challenge of polar travel is dealing with the relentless landscape, which doesn’t change for days, or even weeks on end. This is pretty unique – even the desert has some variety. You’re out there in the icy cold with very little support and completely at the mercy of the weather.

 

On the importance of adventurers and expeditioners supporting each other..

 

It’s so important to support each other. Ultimately we are all trying to keep the great traditions of British exploration alive and we are all on the same side.

 

Image: Levison Wood

Image: Levison Wood