In it for the long haul and the Legion
Soldiers are tracing the steps of Scott and Amundsen in aid of the service charity.
The 1911 race between Captain Scott and Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole, and its tragic end, is as much a defining moment in exploration history as it is part of British folklore. A century later, two teams are attempting the first full re-enactment of the 920-mile race by the two pioneers and their parties.
The Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race, which began this month, sees two teams of three soldiers set out to reach the South Pole on foot, unassisted. One will follow Scott's path, a longer route, but with a more gradual ascent, the other Amundsen's shorter journey, but with a tough climbing section – both, however, will have to endure some of the toughest terrain on the planet.
The race, which is expected to last until January, is being staged to raise money for the servicemen and women helped by the Royal British Legion.
Lt Col Henry Worsley MBE, an adventurer and author who has reached the South Pole unassisted before, is leading team Amundsen. As well as collecting sponsorship, he hopes that the trip will help "put the spotlight on a fascinating period of Edwardian exploration".
Speaking via satellite phone from the Antarctic, eight days into the trek, an upbeat Worsley describes the conditions as "perfect". Though it is important to note, that "perfect" for him means temperatures of around -18C or -20C and little wind – not your average comfortable holiday temperature.
"It's going well," he says. "We're getting into the rhythms, you go slower at first because you're pulling 150kg [the weight of their sledge], which is all your food and fuel for 65 days. You eat your way through your burden."
The routine isn't for the faint-hearted. Every day they get up by 8am, with a breakfast of porridge. That takes a couple of hours to make as the water comes from snow, which is apparently particular in the Antarctic. By 10am, they are on their way again, skiing until 7 or 8pm, then they set up their tent and bed down between 10 and 11pm.
Dinner is what Worsley calls a "polar pot noodle" – dehydrated food such as pasta with hot water poured on top. On the move, they sound like they're constantly grazing, eating chocolate, flapjacks, energy gels and nuts in an attempt to consume 6,000 calories a day (the recommended male consumption is 2,500 calories). This will become crucial when they face temperatures as low as -50C. With a heavier load, they will average eight nautical miles per day. As their packs get lighter, they will be hoping to reach 13 or 14 miles a day.
Worsley is upbeat despite one of his team dropping out after struggling two days into the trip. Even after a century of vast technological advances, the Antarctic still poses as great a threat to humans as it did when it claimed the lives of Scott's party. "It is disappointing as it's so early on," he admits. "[But] it's a dangerous place – sometimes help can often be a week away."
While keen to point out the six soldiers "want to give something back" by attempting to raise £500,000 for the British Legion's Battle Back centre for wounded service people, Worsley admits that because of the two-team nature of the trip, as well as a certain amount of derring-do, that "there is a competitive nature to it".
"For Scott in the early days it was very much a scientific expedition," he says. "Many of Scott's biological specimens are in the Natural History Museum. It wasn't until Amundsen came on the scene quite late on that it became a race, something Scott wasn't particularly happy about. But Amundsen saw it as a race very early on."
Both teams are travelling unassisted, although some trappings of modern life have been accepted for the trip and the teams are not taking dogs (non-indigenous animals are no longer allowed in the Antarctic). The two groups are, however, determined to keep things authentic when it comes to knowing the progress of their competitors.
"We've arranged to speak on the phone on Christmas Day," he says. "So we will have to see if either gives their position away. We just hope that when we speak to our families they won't give it away." Not that Worsley's particularly keen on using technology anyway. "We're only a satellite phone away from the rest of the world, which is slightly annoying as part of the lure of this place is its isolation," he says.
Keeping them company (and sane), however, are their trusted iPods. "I've been listening to Adele, Johnny Cash and Rachmaninov today," he says, adding that once the batteries die, "You're very much at the mercy of your imagination."
"A day can be hell without an agile mind," he says. "[But] it's a good place to remind yourself how infinitesimally small you really are."
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