Wrong kind of snow buries crossing of the Antarctic

Polar exploration: Briton's attempt at 'last great land journey' ended by unusual conditions and unruly sledge
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The Independent Online
The polar explorer Roger Mear yesterday attributed the abandonment of his attempt at the first solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica to factors with a familiar domestic ring - a sledge with the wayward qualities of a supermarket trolley and the wrong kind of snow.

"The sledge would not follow me correctly and was pulling from side to side, which meant that I was continually expending an enormous amount of energy correcting its course," he said. British-built, it had been modified to try and get the runners to follow in Mr Mear's ski tracks. But the Antarctic proved unforgiving. Temperatures dropped to -34C and wind speeds reached 60 knots.

As for the snow, Mr Mear ruefully admitted the parallel to British Rail's fabled excuse. "I've never seen snow conditions for the first 200 miles from the coast like that - and this was my fifth visit to Antarctica." Wind-sculptured ridges known as "sastruggi" were over laid by five inches of hoar crystals.

"It was a very rough surface and very deep and the sledge was sinking in to it."

Mr Mear is a quiet individual at the best of times, according to his fellow polar explorers, and he kept fairly buttoned up At yesterday's press conference at Heathrow Mr Mear kept to the bare facts and understated emotions.

The realisation that he had no chance of completing the 1,657-mile trek via the South Pole before his food ran out was "quite a disappointment", he said. Members of the 45-year-old mountain guide's UK support team said at the time that he was "gutted".

Using skis and pulling a sledge with 450lb of supplies, Mr Mear had covered 424 miles in 42 days when he decided he was going too slowly. A day later, in a "quite dangerous" area of crevasses - deep fissures in the ice which could easily swallow man and sledge - he sent out a distress call and was airlifted to safety.

His laboured progress contrasts with that of his 33-year-old Norwegian rival, Borge Ousland, who set off a week later on a different line and is expected to reach the Pole by Christmas.

Mr Mear had hoped to complete the crossing in 95 days. and had planned his Sainsbury's-supplied rations accordingly. He could have eked out his rations for 100 days, but at the time of his tough decision was already 100 miles behind schedule.

"The night before, I spent in the tent adding up the mileages." He felt "very strong physically" and had had no problems with loneliness - one polar veteran described him as a "very self-contained" sort - but he knew it had to be a rational decision, not emotional one. Before he left in the autumn, Mr Mear put the cost of the expedition at pounds 250,000. The cost of the evacuation will be borne within the insured expedition. Mr Mear said the aircraft company would not have flown him into Antarctica unless he had emergency communications. "It's not a suicide mission."

Whether he will try again depends on Borge Ousland. Mr Mear said his immediate plans were for a quiet Christmas at home, to get back to his home on the edge of the Peak District, enjoy seeing "green things" and an unintended quiet Christmas with his wife, Ghazala. But if the Norwegian has similar bad luck Mr Mear will in all probability start planning another attempt at "the last great land journey on earth".