Explorer tells of polar ordeal

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The Independent Online

The British polar explorer, Roger Mear, yesterday described the "unforgiving" conditions which forced him to send out a distress call and abandon his attempt to become the first person to ski solo across Antarctica.

Speaking from Punta Arenas, on the southern tip of Chile, Mr Mear blamed "unforeseen serious problems" with the tracking of the sledge he had been pulling for six weeks loaded with 450lb of supplies.

Realising he could not complete the crossing before his food ran out, the 45-year-old mountain guide from Derbyshire decided to head back to Patriot Hills, his starting point, nearly 400 miles away.

But conditions became "extremely perilous". He was on the edge of the polar plateau where temperatures even in the present Antarctic summer can plunge to -50C.

"I was in a vulnerable position in an area where winds can reach up to 100 mph. I knew that if my tent was destroyed I could not survive for long. When things go wrong, Antarctica is one of the cruellest, most unforgiving places on earth and it would have been foolhardy to go on."

The way is now clear for the 33-year-old Norwegian Borge Ousland to complete what Ernest Shackleton in 1914 described as "the last great land journey on earth".

The 1,657-mile coast-to-coast crossing has never been done solo or unsupported by mechanical means or air drops.

In the winter of 1992-93, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud broke the key barriers but were airlifted off the Ross Ice Shelf suffering from severe frostbite and weight loss, still 346 miles short of their original objective, Scott Base. An experienced solo traveller, Mr Ousland set off from Patriot Hills a week after Mr Mear and, given fair weather, should reach the South Pole by Christmas.

The American base at the Pole is the psychological half-way point of the crossing. Mr Ousland is on target to reach it in record time. He will not know until then that his rival has had to pull out.

Mr Mear is physically in good shape but "very disappointed" not to have succeeded. He is was "more convinced than ever" that a solo unsupported crossing is possible.