Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 23: No party for me on Amundsen 'day': An important mental victory though...

File pic of Howard training on Muizenberg beach, Cape Town
87:11.702S 82:12.429W

Elevation: 2251 metres. A new high for the day's elevation gain. Only 500 metres to go before I'm at 'Pole level', and the much-talked-about 'plateau'... I hope it's like a pancake!

Hey, cool, it's snowing lightly outside, whiteout, and I can just hear the snowflakes landing on my tent! I made it in just in time, saw the cloud slowly catching me from behind... Yeah first tail wind so far! Let's see what it brings!

Well a memorious day: 100 years ago today Amundsen reached the South Pole, as the first person to ever 'be there'. I must say my thoughts went to his expedition quite a bit today.... How different it must have been not knowing what to expect all the way and then having to use a sextant to tell him he was at 90 degrees South. It's all too easy to take this achievement for granted, but it was a HUGE one, and so professionally executed! I did also think about the anniversary party, just 'over the hill'. It seems quite strange from the white wilderness perspective I have now... Anyway, salute the man and his team!

What a day! An important one from the mind challenge!

As I always do, I'll share my REAL inner journey, warts and all, not all the superman Hollywood stuff. This expedition was always going to be a SERIOUS mental struggle for me... That's what I signed up for!

After yesterday's horrendous one, I wasn't sure how ready I was for today... In some ways I'd been partially broken, and my confidence dented, and on the other hand I wasn't sure whether it was mental fatigue and I need a break. The latter is a difficult call, as it's far too easy to just take the easy option: rest!

There were a few warning bells today:
- I didn't hear the alarm, overslept (10 mins only!)
- when pulling down the tent, I forgot two tent pegs, still in the ice, but fortunately they wouldn't let me pull the tent up to pack away, so I didn't lose them! I'm normally pedantic about ensuring this doesn't happen.
- then 'crime of the day', maybe the century, I somehow left my thermos flask (very conspicuous brown!) on the ice at one of the rest stops! It's gone - my only one, and the one I use for water on the day's march!
- Lastly, the day's low patch I went through, which I describe below, is also related.

Individually 'accidents', but I'm convinced that these simple 'mistakes' are all mental tiredness issues... I need to be aware that I'm in another mind space, and compensate for it.

We'll the day started with my thermometer showing -23 C, with no wind, so I sensed I was in for a 'cold one', particularly if the 'usual' headwind popped up. I took out the heavy duty layers just in case, but actually it warmed up during the day, and now it's just -16C. But this cold start contributed a bit of an edge to the whole mind picture.

I set out with yesterday's conditions still controlling my body movements, even though the terrain was better. Before I could relax and 'unlearn' the constant sled tugging and me anticipating a fall, I was faced with a long steep (relative) climb. And blow me down, with the hill came the return of the sastrugi army! As I weaved my way up the hill, the pace dropped and at the first 2hr break I was down below 3km/h and quite demoralised. I wasn't sure whether the terrain was as bad as I was making it to be, or I was just on a mental fatigue downward spiral... That's the tough thing being solo: no other reference points. All this negative info, and the constant attention to the terrain made it impossible to get near 'the zone', and so my mind went off into negative territory, making it all worse! Try as I might to convert things into a positive mindset, my mind JUST didn't want to go there. I thought about taking a rest day tomorrow, but that made it worse, as I started mentally experiencing 'heaven' of a day off, right then. The terrain deteriorated till it was as bad as yesterday, albeit different in the sastrugi specifics. And so the downward spiral continued, the next rest showed bad km/h average, and it was here that my tormented mind must have overlooked packing the thermos!

I'd sort of stabilised the situation by agreeing with myself that I need to JUST focus on the now of the next 1.5 hour march, and do it well... I can't do anything about the terrain but I can ski the best I can within it. So off I went, and I was dealing with a new, second level of capitulation. The going GENUINELY was difficult, and the motion quite violent and disjointed, and so in trying to make it more peaceful and soulful, I thought: "Maybe I should rather take the skis off and walk." The ice seemed hard enough, and I thought I'd try it at the next break stop. Well, backpack off, skis off, time to get food and flask..! "I can't believe it, the flask isn't here, I must have left it at the last stop, 4.5 km back! In denial, I searched the whole sled, desperately thinking it may have moved when the sled overturned! Nope, it's gone! No panic, sit down and think through the options! Fast 'gearless' ski back was tops, and I was just about to implement this when I thought, "No, it's probably two rest stops back, because I didn't drink at the last one! Hmmm, ok what substitutes can I use? Pee bottle (cleaned out, of course!!) or whisky bottle, wrapped in my down jacket, yeah one will be ok, no stress! You see the whole Robert Scott approach: I was actually quite excited about the problem I had to solve! It was solved, so now, how does the ice surface feel for walking? "Great, it's really firm, let's' go for it!"

This was an energising, motivating turnaround point for the day, and 5 hours into a miserable one! Energy was flowing again, just a trickle but it was positive and definitely flowing!

Well, the rest is history: as I walked much more relaxed and peacefully I found my soul again, and actually started enjoying it all again... I now marvelled at the previously evil sastrugi, stopped to take photos, and suddenly appreciated the TRULY magnificient landscape I was in... Today was all about hills and valleys, and with the sun angle wonderful shadows were created on the hills and valleys, accentuating the features. I TRULY mean it was beautiful. The first GPS check had me walking at 3.3 km/h, perfect, and good for my foot too... The change of muscles and motion was as good as lying in my tent resting, but I was again moving rapidly towards the Pole, but now soulfully too! I honestly believe that given the terrain I had, walking was the fastest option, as I could just walk in a straight line and power over ALL sastrugi in my way!

It all felt so good, I was back to being balanced and in sync with my environment. It was just like my training off Muizenberg beach, and at one point the shadows created a sea-like feature reminding me of the Indian Ocean next to the beach as I walked in training down there. Aah, but no breakfast and 'flat white' afterwards at Empire!

It was quite eerie as I walked on the ice, ski boots only: occasionally my heel would break through thin ice, and I'd stop and explore around the hole with my ski pole... Hmm, once the whole pole went down into this deep blue cavity underneath... Strange place this, there is lots happening underneath me! No fears, I'm not being reckless, I can sense the general integrity of the ice here. A while back I asked the question: "Why do people walk on skis to the Poles?" The main reason is that the ski provides so much more surface area that holds one up from sinking in soft snow or falling through thin ice / snow.

As my mental strength returned, I decided "Today WILL be a 30km day, and I'll walk till I achieve that... Well, 31.1 km done, in 10 hours. More importantly, I had an important mental victory, in a game that's just starting to get 'interesting'! There will be more battles ahead!

Lastly: I have to dump my whisky tonight. I never thought it, but the bottle now has a more valuable role!

I haven't forgotten the philosophical stuff, just full capacity at the moment!

Last few whiskies then, oh no, turf out the rest, fill the bottle with the morning's water, and then I'm off to bed!

I sense, it'll be a good day tomorrow...!



  1. We are cheering your every step fom Brooks, Alberta, and saluting your courage and tenacity.

  2. Dear Howard, I can see you are into divergent thinking. Glad you consider water more important than whiskey. How much water do you need to drink each day? I thought drinking very cold water used a lot of energy! Problem solving plays an important role in achieving a mental victory. Being so positive and saying, "I sense, it'll be a good day tomorrow...!" really solidifies the "mental victory." I like to close my eyes and paint mental images of the "waves" in the ice. You are so inspiring and definitely a philosopher. I look forward to your next entry and the one after till you reach the Pole. Look after yourself, love and best wishes, Anthea xxx

  3. You are truely amazing, Howard Nothing can get you down for long, you are an inspiration to everyone. Love and Hugs Lindy

  4. Yo Malletjie!

    Throwing whisky away? Don't suppose it's smart to leave a little in to mix with the water? Must have been tempting though.

    Muizenberg and Empire Cafe will be here when you get back, breakfast on me :).

    I'm going to do a little blog on my site now about you and your journey (it won't be very good :D)

    Stay resourceful and strong. I will be looking to see those photographs when you return.

    Warmest (haha) regards


  5. Good on you Howard! Turning water in to wine was one guy's answer so why not whisky in to water!! Keep smiling through and continue that determined stride. I need you to influence my students when you return with your passion and spirit of adventure too! With you every step, mate.

  6. Hi Howard,
    We are following your journey in awe here from Calgary, Alberta. My dad, Willie sends his best regards from Pennington. All the best on the rest of your journey.
    Greg Brooks

  7. Howard - amazing victory yesterday! I am proud of you!! I've been following Ruth and crew and read of the guys having an ice bath. Have you tried this yet?
    They have also been complaining of how hot the tent is, so perhaps that's why they have felt a need to "cool off". Hopefully they will find your water bottle!
    Hope today is an easier day for you.
    Love Ros

  8. Hi Howard. I just started following your adventure yesterday after Paul Pellarini told me about you over lunch. Fantastic! Great effort yesterday. Keep going with same attitude. I look forward to meeting you one day. Cheers, Andy

  9. Hi Howard.. Just wondering did ya have to get a bunch of permits to actually step foot on the continent.. I watch on Discovery Channel etc these Antarctic expeditions’ on icebreaker ships where the people have to dress n very special gear not to 'infect' the Antarctic with any human virus etc etc etc if they leave the ship to step on land or Ice Sheets .. just curious ... Each step is a step closer to your goal Howard .. I’ve done a Lot of walken around the globe & even though I got real tired at times – around that next bend or over that hill or around that next turn was always something of astonishing wonder for me that rejuvenated my spirit... Keep Cool ... Jon Cook (Science Teacher, Palm Beach County, Florida)

  10. Fairbanks, you are going to put McGiver out of a job at this rate. Hope there is no more improvisations required as we are are sitting here with bated breath as it is. Keep up the good work and stay "in the groove".

  11. Hi Howard
    I am a friend of Ros. I met you and Ruth at Wimbledon a couple of years back. I am really enjoying your blog and am amazed at your resilience.I heard a great piece on the radio about groups that are doing this epic journey at the same time as you and listened to a woman travelling with 3 other guystalk about her experiences.One of them is hearing impaired and I was struck by the sounds he is missing. Is it very silent, just the whoosh of your skis and the wind or do you hear sounds very loudly as there is nothing to drown them out?
    Thinking of you and praying for your safety.

  12. Howard, you have extraordinary tenacity and you are asking your mind and body to keep up; they are doing an amazing job! I wish for you on all your stops-solid rest-for recharging!
    Sandy T.

  13. Hi Howard,
    Interesting to see you crit & analyse the pervious day.Interesting story of solving the flask issue.Had an adventure of my own over the last week.Went to the Brass Bell yesterday & looked for your spot.Went up & down a few roads with the family.Will have to find it today before xmas lunch in Sommerset West.
    Nice mileage ,well done on the mental game.