A SCOT is about to take the first steps on an epic journey across some of the most hostile terrain on the planet in a bid to complete a heroic challenge first begun a century ago.
Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton set out to cross the entire Antarctic on foot, but never finished the 2,200-mile trek. Now a former Royal Marine commando from Aberdeen is leading a new attempt to commemorate his predecessor’s heroism.
Shackleton’s Endurance mission is considered the last major expedition of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Though it ended in failure, it is recognised as an epic feat of fortitude.
He planned to sail to the Weddell Sea, land near Vahsel Bay and march through Antarctica – crossing the South Pole – to the Ross Sea. But his ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice and sank, stranding his 28-man team for more than a year.
Shackleton then set out on an 800-mile trip in a small lifeboat to fetch help. Thanks to his efforts, all of the crew survived.
This week, 45-year-old polar explorer Charlie Paton, a veteran of several expeditions to the North Pole, Greenland and Antarctica, is setting out to follow the pioneer’s planned route.
He told Scotland on Sunday: “The expedition will celebrate one of the most remarkable tales of endurance, survival and leadership in one of the most inhospitable places in the world.”
Although the trek will take place during the Antarctic summer, when the sun never sets, the wind chill means temperatures can plummet as low as –60C. Paton and his three team-mates have put in long hours of hard training to be in the peak physical condition required to tow a sledge carrying 120kg of supplies for 11 or 12 hours every day for up to 100 days in such searing cold.
They will sleep under canvas and live on dried meals, melting ice for drinking water. There will be constant threats from bad weather, shifting sea ice, deadly crevasses up to 2km deep and biting winds – not to mention frostbite, blisters and tent fires.
But the Scot believes completing one of the world’s last great unconquered journeys will depend on strength of character as much as body.
“This journey is not going to be for the faint of heart,” he said.
“There is a reason it has never been achieved before – 100 days of freezing temperatures and gruelling physical and psychological hardship, with hidden drops buried below the ice. The danger will be constant.
“It’s about mental toughness and the ability to endure the relentless trudge of polar travel.”
Paton will have a few more hi-tech gadgets at his disposal than his predecessor, including 14m-span kites to pull them along when winds are favourable. “We will have Iridium satellite phones and GPS – long gone are the sextants Shackleton would have used. We also have trackers which emit a signal that is relayed back to the website to let people track our progress.
But Paton still hopes to rely on the celestial guide man has been using since time began. “We will take a compass and map as back-up and essentially we will be using the same navigation techniques as they did 100 years ago – the sun. It’s there all day, just circling above. We use our shadows a lot to gauge our position.”
Paton admits it will be hard to forgo the company of his family and girlfriend until he returns, in late January or February next year, – not to mention home comforts and good food.
“Our meals will be freeze-dried rations, with lots of high-calorie snacks during the day – bacon, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, beef jerky.
“We’ll miss variety. Out there it’s pretty mundane – the same stuff day in, day out for 100 days. You’re absolutely sick of chocolate by day 50 or 60, but it’s fuel for the engine – it keeps you going.
“When you return from trips like this you really appreciate all the things you’ve got. You’ve survived the hungry days, the cold, the lack of facilities and resources so it’s good to come back and enjoy everything.”
Paton says taking on the trans-Antarctic challenge is partly to achieve a personal goal but mainly to pay homage to the original explorers.
“One hundred years on, I want to finally close a chapter and honour Shackleton and his remarkable men,” he said.
“I will have a great deal of pride if I can pull it off, not just for my own achievement but because it will finally accomplish the big endurance challenge they set out on so long ago.
“It’s very important to complete the mission this year and properly mark its centenary.”