As I walk my shoes stick to the icy ground. It’s refreshing at first – almost comforting to be so cosy inside my huge thermal jacket, and feel the contrast of the crisp air biting at my cheeks. I am standing in the minus-25-degree conditions of the South Pole, and I feel like I’m ready for a long and gruelling trek. Except I’m not in the South Pole, and I’m certainly not getting ready for any kind of polar expedition.
I’m in the centre of London, kitted out in some of the top thermal gear you can buy, standing in a cargo container that has been designed to simulate the harsh temperatures of the Antarctic. A few more minutes and that refreshment wears off, the cold runs through my blood and reaches my bones. My limbs begin to ache – I knew I should’ve come dressed in a little more than these ridiculously thin dolly shoes.
“This is effectively warm weather,” our guide Yolanda tells us, “it can get as low as minus 60 degrees in Antarctica, and then there’s the wind too.” Luckily, our time is up and we head back out into what now feels like a wet, humid summer’s afternoon – even though it’s 9am on a chilly English September morning.
This isn’t some bizarre social experiment to see what happens when you try to freeze a small group of journalists, but instead, it’s the Willis Resilience training facility that 19-year-old adventurer Parker Liautaud has been using to prepare for his next incredibly ambitious expedition: an attempt to become the youngest and fastest person to ski the 640km from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole.
Later this year, Parker and his teammate Doug Stoup will be spending both Christmas and New Year on the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth.
I stand, my shoes soaking in the real – albeit melting – snow under London’s Tower Bridge, asking Parker why he is prepared to undertake such an arduous and relentless journey. The answer adds a serious message to these lighthearted affairs, as this week an IPCC climate report says scientists are 95% certain that humans have been the dominant cause of global warming since the 1950s.
Parker is a known global climate campaigner and, as quoted on the Willis Resilience website, says this: “I don’t believe the solution is to encourage people to live with less or turn off their lights. The reality is that the world has never accepted a step back and never will.”
This is why Parker’s trek is more than a world record attempt, as he will contribute data to three important scientific research programs along the way. Collecting snow samples from coast-to-pole, Parker hopes to provide a valuable contribution to current studies on climate change, in order to help further our understanding of the implications it has on the future of our planet. He will also be testing a lightweight weather station for the first time in Antarctica.
The pair plan to arrive at the Pole by December 25th, which Parker says “would be the best Christmas present in the history of the world for me.”
They take no luxuries in their backpacks as they’re attempting a speed record, and wouldn’t want to be slowed down by that pesky bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut. There is certainly nothing luxurious about the Antarctic freeze-dried breakfast I’m served later that morning, which tastes like something resembling sawdust with a slight hint of sugar.
The cold, the wind and the 45 days of solitude sound like a recipe for misery to me, so when I ask what plans they have for Christmas, I’m pleasantly surprised: “If we make it [to the Pole] on Christmas day, we’ll celebrate with a powdered chocolate mousse.” These boys know how to party.
“And even though it’s very cold it’s an absolutely spectacular environment – we’re going to be passing through the Transantarctic mountains, it’s going to be amazing.”
He’s not all confident and self-assured though, as he tells me how this new experience comes with some worry. “I’ve never done a very long expedition like this before and it’s important to respect that it’s a completely new place, and to make sure I’m hyper-vigilant, and I’m always very aware of the risks and the potential to face challenged that aren’t expected.
“As for the cold, it’s about having the right equipment really, and avoiding frostbite and hypothermia: making sure that no skin is exposed at any time while we’re outside, ensuring we’re not sweating, and having the right number of layers on etc.”
He has been well trained, with three expeditions to the North Pole already under his belt, and has the valuable support of some major sponsors – including (perhaps a little disconcertingly) that of the company who insured the Titanic before its first and final voyage.
The expedition begins on December 3rd 2013 and will be documented and broadcast live on the Willis Resilience website, so the public can watch Parker’s progress as he attempts to set two new world records and takes his own literal steps toward saving the planet.
Need to know: how you can ski to the South Pole
Polar exploration and guiding company Polar Explorers run treks to both the North and South Poles. Ranging from the hardcore full 60-day expeditions – for which you will need excellent health and a CV of expeditions behind you – to the all-ages "last hurdle" treks, there are a variety of options for all levels of explorer.
Most full expeditions to the South Pole begin at the Union Glacier Base Camp for preparation, then a flight to the Hercules Inlet, from which the South Pole sits over 1000km away. Throughout the trek you pass over wind blasted snow, blue ice, and softer snow terrain and will navigate around numerous nunataks (exposed mountaintops poking from beneath the snow). From the Hercules Inlet, you ascend over 4000m to the South Pole over 50-odd days – skiing, camping and walking across the Antarctic.