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Cold Hands, Warm Heart
By Tess Burrows, Martha Ellen Zenfell
Eye Books LtdCopyright © 2010 Tess Burrows
All rights reserved.
23rd December, 2008
The wind came in the night. We had gone to sleep with the sun blazing, filtering its orange glow through the side of the tent, comforting and even hot. I had stirred a few times, restless and aware of a sound, pulling my headband lower over my eyes and ears, not wanting to know. It was hard to get a sense of when it was morning in this land of continuous light, but the alarm hadn't gone off. The clock we'd bought in Cape Town didn't seem to work. Can't say I blame it. It wasn't designed for extreme cold, but for big soft beds, lazy cups of tea and books to read. We were relying on my explorer watch, though sometimes I sleep through that alarm. I felt for it on my wrist to touch its solid reality. It had been a gift to me from my tiny granddaughter holding my heart strings tight, far away on the other side of the world.
There's that weird sound again. Was it a roar? No, more like an animal howling. Oh my goodness! My eyes shot open in fright. My blood raced and pounded through the veins. I sat up and instinctively moved closer to Pete. This was scary. The tent was shaking as though an unseen force had it in its teeth. The sides were flapping loudly. I shivered as fear took hold of my body, settling in as if it owned the place. There was a ferocious slooshing of snow outside and the wind was yelling. Then I saw it.
"Pete! Wake up. The tent's caving in!"
The whole side near where he was lying was squashed in. Wind and snow together were forcing it down.
"The wind's changed. It's blowing from the east," he said, now wide awake. "It was due south on the rear of the tent last night when we made camp. That's a 90-degree shift."
"What can we do about it?" My voice trembled as I tried to control it.
"Not a lot. But we'll see how the new tent stands up to a side wind. This is a test of the design in these conditions. Don't worry; it'll be okay."
Great. We were about to freeze to death and he was interested in the design. But, as always, there was something about Pete's rock-like strength that calmed me. He was my knight-in-shining-armour, always there to protect me.
Just then, there was a muffled voice from outside. "You okay in there?" It was the Norwegian guide whom we had dubbed the Warrior (not because he'd walked to the North Pole eight times, but because of his Mohican haircut).
"Yeah, 'cept the side's caving in."
"I'll tighten the guy-lines. That'll help. Tent down as usual. We're leaving at 10am."
We were going out in this weather?!
There was nothing for it but to go through the motions of breakfast and packing up. This process would take us more than two hours. Even though we had melted snow into water to fill up all the flasks and bottles last night, we still needed at least two litres of water for the porridge and drinks now. This meant that we had to melt more snow so that we could set out with six full containers. Then the stoves, so crucial to our survival, had to be packed away carefully, so that they weren't bashed on whatever adventures the day's journey might bring. And all the gear had to be ready to be stowed in the canoe-like sledges we pulled behind us – our pulks.
I fiddled about with what I was going to wear, procrastinating as long as I could. Once outside there would be little chance to change, especially in this blizzard. Taking anything off would not only give the wind an opportunity to blow it away but increase our vulnerability to cold. Anyway, doing anything with big gloves on wasn't easy. At this stage – two days before Christmas – we were on the acclimatisation trek with the other racers, being guided through the worst of the crevasses. So it was useful to try out different combinations of kit to see what worked best as we needed to be as efficient as possible up on the plateau once the race itself started.
This was the South Pole Race. My pulse quickened even more at the thought of it. A race to the South Pole hadn't been attempted for nearly a hundred years, since Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen set off in 1911. Everyone knew how that had ended; Captain Scott and his companions had not returned. Nobody knew now if this race was possible. How had I ever become involved in something so terrifying? Pete and I were one of the six teams taking part. When the race started, we would be faced with four weeks of long days pulling pulks across 500 miles of the world's largest, coldest and emptiest ice sheets – the Antarctic.
Now we were confronting our first blizzard. Things could get a whole lot worse. Already I had fear seeping through every cell of my body. And hidden away somewhere in my mind were tales of 200 miles per hour katabatic winds, of tents ripping and blowing away, explorers falling into fathomless crevasses, unspeakable frostbite and gangrene ... all bundled up into a knotted dread of the unknown. On top of that was the thought that once the race started, apart from one resupply checkpoint, Pete and I would be entirely on our own.
Trying to concentrate on the job at hand I chose my headwear – a silk balaclava and my windproof cap which had a Tibetan flag on it. I felt good in that; it always reminded me of our greater purpose. In my mind the flag was synonymous with peace. We were on a peace mission. We had collected 1,300 Peace Messages from individuals, including many children, promising to do all we could to take them to the South Pole to speak out. This is in the Tibetan spirit of flying Peace Messages on prayer flags from the highest places to send out blessings of peace and harmony to all beings. Thoughts of our mission gave me mental strength which I hoped was somehow going to see me through, along with other things, like wearing my cherry coloured neck warmer that I hadn't taken off since arriving in the Antarctic. I had bought it with part of a shop voucher that my sons and their girlfriends had given me for my 60th birthday. It represented my connection with them all, a holding of closeness.
I pulled on my salopettes over thermals and a fleece. Then went through the foot process of thin and thick socks, followed by felt liners, boots that took ages to lace and the orange and maroon gaiters that I loved. This was followed by a windproof jacket and finally, goggles with a face mask flap, so that I had no skin exposed on my face. Finally, the hood of the jacket. It was all horribly claustrophobic; I could barely breathe or see.
At this stage, going outside was inescapable. We unzipped the tent's inner and outer doors and chucked our gear into the little spot which was sheltered by its end. Today I was the last one out, so I rolled up the mats. Then it was a matter of transporting everything into the pulks. Except ... where are the pulks? We definitely left them in this spot last night. Ah, I could just see the tops of the red covers poking out of the wild scene that greeted us. It may not snow much in the Antarctic, but that's not to say there isn't a lot of snow about. The wind picks up every bit it can and uses it as a battering ram against the slightest impediment in its path. Spindrift. This gradually builds up into huge piles.
The gale whacked into us as we grabbed the shovels and dug out the pulks. There would be a lot of extra snow to pull today as we hadn't closed the pulk-covers very well last night and it was too hard to tip it all out now. Never mind. I went into a frenzy of packing the gear and then working on the tent, which had to be dug out and rolled up. Heaving a sigh of relief we fixed it to the top of Pete's pulk.
From nowhere, Tony appeared. I had forgotten that the organisers and film crews would be camping discreetly nearby with the vehicles. "Well done, guys, good job." Praise indeed from Tony, the organiser of the race. He was as tough as they come, an ex-commando logistics expert who had trained soldiers in Arctic warfare and police in Iraq. "Get inside your emergency shelter until everybody's ready," he ordered.
The emergency shelter was a round nylon sheet tied to the end of my pulk. When undone it started flapping madly trying to take off. After much wrestling we tamed it so that we could sit underneath on the end of the pulk with bits of the shelter secured by our boots. It was noisy but gave us a few minutes respite from the wind. Then I noticed how hot I was. Too many clothes on; I was steaming, but there was nothing I could do about it. The consequence was my goggles misted up so I could only see from one corner of my left eye. How annoying.
We compressed the emergency shelter back into its bag, put on our skis, attached harnesses and pulks and huddled together with everybody else to hear the instructions for the day.
"This is great weather isn't it?" shouted the Warrior gleefully.
"'Tis if you're Norwegian," Ben responded loudly to James and Ed. They were in the celebrity team, QinetiQ, which was being filmed for the BBC documentary On Thin Ice. I could see why Ben was a TV presenter. He always had a good comment for the cameras, even in these appalling conditions.
"Stay close together and keep an eye on those near you," the Warrior said. "The still air temperature is only minus nine degrees Centigrade, but the wind speed of 35 miles per hour is bringing the wind chill down to minus 25ºC. Stay covered up."
I could only just hear him above the roar of the wind, but I needed no prompting to cover up. What's it going to be like when it's seriously cold? I knew that the coldest still air temperature ever recorded had been here in the Antarctic. A mind-blowing minus 89ºC. Even if we experience only half of that it's going to be nasty, especially with the wind chill.
My face was already really cold. This didn't change throughout the day as we skied, although I found I had to work hard to hold the pace, battling the wind-driven snow coming awkwardly from the side. Soon I was sweating. I thought of the standard training advice: "You sweat, you die", and hoped that this would be an exception. I was far too busy concentrating on keeping up with everyone to contemplate death just at the moment.
Stopping skiing was a nightmare. I became chilled immediately. The first break we put up our emergency shelter, which felt good when we were inside, but it took us so long to do it that there was no time left in the 10-minute break for eating. Gaz thoughtfully helped us take it down. He, Christian and Gary, of team Danske Bank, had put theirs up too and continued to do so successfully. It looked as though it was more easily done in a team of three. The only other team of two people was Missing Link. These were the Norwegian boys, Stian and Rune. They gave the impression that they could survive even if traversing the Antarctic solo.
On the next stop we just faced away from the wind, suffered the cold and tried to get into our supplies and moving again in as short a time as possible, which became our standard method. On this occasion we had entertainment. The Warrior suddenly went flying by without his pulk, skiing as though he was running barefoot on a beach at a tremendous rate and disappeared into the oblivion of white – sky or snow it was impossible to tell. What was that all about? Had he become bored with our plodding pace? After a while he returned.
"Sorry Ed, I couldn't catch your glove. I had to give up or I'd've lost you all." It had been a vital over glove. Luckily, QinetiQ had brought a couple of spares. It was a lesson to us all. In the blink of an eye the wind can eat a crucial piece of equipment that could lead to frostbite ... or worse.
I struggled on wearily through the day, battling the blizzard and not being able to see much because of misted up goggles. Even when I could there was nothing except the fuzzled outline of a pulk in front and a skier to my side. The whiteout made everything strange. Without discernable form or shadow we were in a multi-dimensional cloud, and I felt quite disorientated. It was difficult to tell what was up or down, near or far away.
Sometimes when everything seems crazy bad and it feels like the world is caving in there's one lovely thing that shines through and changes the day around, making that thing seem almost magical.
We sat huddled for another break after a hard two hour session across very heavy snow. I pulled down my goggles to wipe them. At that precise moment right out of the swirling mists came the most beautiful bird I've ever seen. It was pure white from wing tip to wing tip. Soaring gracefully to within a metre of my face as though dropping a message, it connected a coal black eye with mine for a lingering second and was gone. It all happened so fast, I wondered if it was real.
"Did you see that, Pete?" I declared excitedly. "It was so wonderful." "See what ..."
"Did anyone see that bird?" I shouted.
All I received back was "What bird?"
It had to be a welcoming angel, surely.
After two more hours, we'd done a total of eight hours on the move, and it was time to make camp. The Warrior gathered us around. "We've had slow conditions. We really need to keep going for another couple of hours. Is everyone happy with that?"
I wondered if I dare say anything. I knew I'd had enough and had been mentally preparing to stop as planned, though everyone else seemed so strong and energetic (not to mention youthful) I thought they would probably want to keep going. But my body needed to build up day strength slowly rather than in a macho way. "It would be nice to camp here," I ventured.
"Okay, let's compromise and do one more hour. By the way, did anyone see the snow petrel? They come inland to nest in the rocks in the mountains here."
"So that's what it was, a snow petrel. How lovely. A good sign, I think."
"Nah," he said sceptically. "Signs are inventions of the mind."
They may be inventions of the mind, but it was a sign to me, a welcome from the land.
That evening it took hours to dry out our soaked gear. We melted the water for the meals in the end porch and then brought two stoves into the inner tent and positioned them under the hanging net piled high with wet stuff. Snow seemed to have got everywhere. Even the inside of my jacket was lined with ice from the sweat. It wasn't going to be much fun if we had to sort this out every night. By the time we wriggled into our sleeping bags with the wind still grunting and whining and the snow hissing, fatigue had become stronger than anxiety. I just hoped that the blizzard lizard would have scurried away by the morning.
"It's marginal, going out in these conditions," said the Warrior as we gathered for the day's instructions, kitted out and ready to go. From what I could see of his face he was enjoying this. "By the way, does anyone not feel safe?"
I thought I'd keep quiet this time.
Today was Christmas Eve. I wished for a less white Christmas.
* * *
By mid afternoon the storm had abated and the sun was shining. There was a collective sigh of relief. Everyone relaxed, took off their hoods and chatted. Now we could enjoy the freedom of visibility and gaze at a stunning white sea and distant mountains. Everyone, that is, except for Mark, who with Simon represented Ireland in team South Pole Flag. Mark is blind. After the whiteout conditions I appreciated a little more of what he was going through, even though he always seemed to be cheery and unfazed, which only increased my admiration. I thought of the time he'd told me that it had taken the full 10 years since he went blind to accept who he now was, to stop looking backwards and to get on with living life. He's only 32, but is now a top motivational speaker who helps others find their own positive paths in life. Mark has found the freedom of inner visibility. His story inspired me to look for more strength within myself.
The return of the light pleased the film crews as well. They would lie in wait for the cavalcade to pass by with cameras and sound dogs at the ready, then rush ahead to position themselves to do the same all over again. At first it felt strange, but now I accepted it as normal to be in this great wilderness of thousands of square miles devoid of any hint of humanity and have a film crew suddenly pop up in your face.
We had now reached an altitude of around 1,500 metres and barely noticed the climb. In fact, the snow today had been flat and easy going, but it doesn't do to become complacent in the Antarctic. We'd been skiing for nine hours. High cloud had blocked out the sun and everything had taken on a grey hue. The temperature had dropped considerably. My body was ready to stop, particularly as I was feeling a painful blister on my right big toe. The Warrior gathered us together and I thought for the first time he almost looked concerned.
"Watch out here. Crevasse field. Come back into single file. Ski exactly where I ski. And take care on the ice."
It was ice alright. Well ribbed blue ice, full of little crevasses, lines crossing and cracking all over the place. Skis skidded in all directions making it tricky to stay upright and taking lots of concentration. We were nearly through when I noticed that someone had taken their skis off and was managing much better without them. I wished I'd thought of that. It was Rachel, who was with Phil and Hylton in team Due South. She had a reputation of being tough, but I knew her to be sensitive and compassionate. It was comforting to know there was another female on the race.
Excerpted from Cold Hands, Warm Heart by Tess Burrows, Martha Ellen Zenfell. Copyright © 2010 Tess Burrows. Excerpted by permission of Eye Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Letter of Introduction,
No Way Norway,
Quickening of the Heart,
Out on the Pull,
In the Lap of the Gods,
Wings of the Messenger,
Holding the Nerve,
Cape of Good Hope,
Of Penguins and Pensioners,
March of the People,
Gathering of Fear,
New Year Messages,
Cracking of the Shell,
Egbert the Ego,
The Struggle Holds the Pearl,
Pulling for Peace,