British adventurers Justin Packshaw and Jamie Facer Childs have just crossed the half-way point of their journey to travel 2,150kms across the Antarctic after 40 days. But tough challenges posed by the hostile environment have already thrown the expedition off course.
The pair have braved ferocious winds of 111kph and temperatures that dropped to minus 56 Celsius, battling over
sastrugi—wind-blown ridges of hard-packed ice and snow—powered by their foil kites flown on 50 meter lines. Ozone Chrono V3 EXP
Past generations of Antarctic explorers trudged on foot by ski, or were pulled by teams of dogs. The kite is the modern equivalent source of power. Packshaw, 57, and Facer Childs, 37, have become adept at switching between the 6m, 9m, and 18m kites, depending on the wind, to pull themselves and their 200kgs sleds loaded with food, shelter and scientific instruments.
Their Ozone kites have already pulled them across the forbidding terrain for 1,328 kilometres, including their record distance when they managed 116kms in one day. But aside from the pure adventure of attempting to conquer frozen wastes, the expeditionaries also have a scientific mission.
They have teamed up with NASA and Stanford University in the US, which will study the human data they are collecting as the Antarctic environment is regarded as comparable to the moon or Mars. The European Space Agency will also analyse their data about wind speed and ultra-violet radiation in the remotest of regions.
Despite the scientific backing and communications through their satellite phone, the pair, former members of the British armed forces, know they are very much on their own with little chance of rescue if something goes wrong.
By the twenty-fifth day, after nine days of being unable to travel because of the weather, they realised they would probably run out of food if they did not cut short their journey. Rather than continuing on a planned dog-leg route to the South Pole of Inaccessibility, they were forced to head straight for their main goal, the Geographic South Pole.
Yet even their curtailed route has dealt the duo a stream of challenges, with 775kms still to complete. More than a month into the epic adventure, Packshaw was in awe of the 9m Ozone Chrono V3 EXP that was pulling them and their laden sleds tethered behind. “They are our chariots, but bloody hell they are needy, fickle and moody,” he wrote.
It was a prophetic comment. The following day Facer Childs was lofted in winds gusting 65kph. “At one stage Jamie Facer Childs was pulled into the air and the only thing keeping him from heading off into the stratosphere was the line attached to ‘Blakester’ [his sled’s name]. He hung there for a good five seconds. Luckily he is athletic and nimble, so when he fell to earth he was OK,” wrote Packshaw.
Still more drama to befell the pair. Their heavy sleds have been thrown on their sides by the uneven terrain countless times as the Chrono V3 EXP kites pulled them along at speeds of up to 46kph, leaving their pilots bruised and shaken. Kite lines have inevitably snapped, too, in the brutal temperatures.
But through all the trials, Packshaw and Facer Childs, a doctor, maintained their sense of wonder and thirst for adventure. With their goal of the South Pole directly downwind in 22kph northerly breezes in recent days, the pair struggled with their 18m Ozone Chrono V3 kites. In a “eureka” moment they switched to their smallest 6m Ozone Explore V2 kites.
“It worked perfectly and we kited directly downwind, on course, keeping the kite doing a fast figure of eight directly in front of us,” wrote Packshaw. “What a versatile little beauty. It proved to be robust, kind to fly and and remarkably powerful—a regular little Ferrari!”
*Compiled from the daily blog of Justin Packshaw, available in full on Chasing the Light website
words: Ian MacKinnon/Ozone