Coachlines - July 2022

28.07.22 Freeman Justin Packshaw

Chasing the light – kite-skiing across Antarctica

The power of ‘human endeavour’, what a wonderfully intoxicating and evocative spell this creates! It has driven curious, brave and open-minded people to search the undiscovered world from conquering the four corners to ultimately, stepping on the moon. Needless to say, many of my heroes growing-up were some of the greats – Shackleton, Amundsen, Chichester, Mallory and Armstrong. I was fascinated by their journeys of discovery and have been lucky enough to have dipped my toe into some of them during the past 30 years and have seen first-hand what the benefits of stepping into the unknown can be.

What does it really mean though? My read on it is that it is about being your best, wanting to discover, to improve, to explore, to walk tall. All are true sentiments and powerful war cries, but they are not always easy to harness. I think that it is fair to say that we all know that these are important aspects of us developing and yet sometimes they are almost too tough to start. In my experience having been a soldier, a professional sailor, a keen adventurer and running my own business is that everything is possible and all you must do is ‘believe’ and get involved. Just start. We must never forget that humans are meant to excel and when one understands how capable we are and how brilliantly adaptive our spirit is, one realizes that anything is achievable. Throw in a bit of determination and persistence and all our goals suddenly become accessible.

My last expedition really epitomised this as it was an old school adventure in that, it was long in duration and quite audacious in objective. And what an adventure it turned out to be, too! Our aim was to do a 2,500km crossing of Antarctica through the interior to the Geographic South Pole. Unlike my previous trips, where we raised money and awareness for important causes, on this one we wanted to tie it into science and research and we were lucky to collaborate with some of the world’s best in NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Snyder Lab at Stanford University and the Laboratory for Autonomy-brain Exchange at the University of Central Florida. The overall objective was two-pronged on undertaking stellar research around the environment and human physiology and psychology as well as flying the sustainability flag.

Antarctica is unique for many reasons but one of them is that once you are on the plateau, which is at around 10,000ft, it is completely pristine, meaning, not a single living entity exists, no viruses, no bacteria and needless to say, it makes for a fantastic petri-dish for all sorts of research around us humans. From an environmental perspective too, the land mass of Antarctica which is 1.5 times the size of North America, with an ice cube sitting on the top of it which represents 90% of the world’s fresh water, is a vitally important part of the stability and balance of the world’s ecosystem. Amazing really. From a climate change perspective this is terribly relevant today and the information we could gather on our crossing will be extremely useful to the scientific community.

This was my fourth trip down to the Continent and on this one I decided, small is beautiful, as I wanted to do it as a team of two. Quick, tight and super-efficient being the order of play. My partner in crime is a super talented individual, Dr Jamie Facer-Childs, who has already spent a lot of time in Antarctica, rowed the Indian Ocean, so he was well accustomed to what we had ahead of us. A doctor with the NHS and a reservist in the army, charming to boot and as fit as a fiddle. Our mode of travel was kite-skiing and man-hauling, so we really were properly sustainable. Our pulks weighed in at over 220kg at the start as we were going to be totally unsupported. This included 70 days of food, fuel, sleeping bags, cooking & personal equipment, communication and navigational kit, charging panels and batteries, eight Ozone kites, research apparatus, spares, a drone and medical supplies.

We set off at the beginning of November 2021 from the Russian research station Novolazarevskaya in Queen Maud Land with a spring in our step and a glint in our eye as to the challenge ahead. It was the beginning of the summer season down there and the weather tends to be kinder with slightly elevated temperatures as the sun is up for 24 hours a day, so brings with it a ‘bit’ of heat. More importantly though, it allows one to charge all electrics via solar panels. We had one hell of a battle getting up onto the plateau as Mother Nature was particularly grizzly and we often had days with winds over 100mph and temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius, remember, your freezer at home runs at -16. It was a proper baptism of fire and we ended up having to spend 10 days hunkered down in our tent as it was too dangerous to get amongst it!

We soon resorted to a very formulaic way of living, whereby everything becomes very methodical – up early, eat and hydrate, break camp, kite for six to eight hours, set-up camp again, eat and hydrate, carry out our research, charge & repair kit, recover and sleep and repeat it all again the next day. Groundhog day! This existence is extremely one dimensional and certainly sharpens your mind as to what is important, you have to become very adaptable at operating efficiently yet still be totally flexible/respectful to the power and fluctuating moods of the brutal conditions around you. It’s a simple language where our priority was looking after yourself, your team-mate and our equipment. It’s a cathartic code of living and certainly makes one appreciate all the things we take for granted in our normal day-to-day life.

After 57 days and one hell of a magnificent yet gritty journey, we kited into the South Pole on a very windy day with little visibility. What an insane adventure it had been! We were battered, had each lost 8kg of weight, but were totally elated. Not only had we achieved our aim in crossing the interior, but we had also done some phenomenal work along the way collaborating with our amazing research partners and I am sure that research is going to be of significant help to the scientific community once it has all been analysed.

On reflection, the beauty of human endeavour is that it takes one out of our comfort zone and breaks the monotony of what the norm is. You confront risk and challenge yourself. In the process, you learn more about yourself and what you’re capable of and about the world around you. I live by the adage that you only have one life, and it is imperative that you really pack it in. Live it hard, give it your best shot, be accountable, have great fun and try and do things that make you happy and fuel your soul.

Expeditions and travel are incredible at showing the individual and teams what their true potential is, more often than not, igniting something in them which will have a dramatic effect on their outlook in life, whether personally or professionally. Trips/expeditions demand that you be your best and allow one an incredible platform to re-calibrate and strive for excellence. Their overall success really comes down to a handful of obvious building blocks including teamwork, diligent preparation, overall motivation and clear communication, which when put together with care, insight and balance, will make the difference between success and failure. These far-flung regions are so beautiful in their remoteness and austerity and to be able to see them is unique. One always returns having learnt superb lessons about oneself and life in general. At Joro Experiences, the travel company I’m a partner in, it is these objectives that fuel us and we have sustainability at the heart of everything we do.

It has been a difficult few years, but I feel positive about the future post-pandemic as there is so much to go and get stuck into, so shake off any doubt you may have, ignite your deepest dreams/aspirations and go and see the wonder of this magnificent world first-hand.

Carpe diem.