I’m not very good at a lot of things. Maths, singing and not crying in the Lion King are probably top of the list. Falling, however, I am a bloody expert at. I can fall with the best of them. Steps and dance floors are probably my speciality but I’m versatile as well. That’s why I would really consider myself in the top 3 fallers in Britain, maybe top 5 on a bad day…..maybe. So when you then put me on a slippery surface, such as snow and ice, then attach two very long skis to my feet, I’m going to raise the bar of the falling world to an unprecedented level.
When I started planning Antarctic Gurkha I had never put a ski on in my entire life. I had experience in operating in extreme climates through the military, survived in remote areas and trained in crevasse rescue, but skiing was completely alien to me. The whole concept baffled me then as much as it does now. I remember watching Lindsey Vonn win the Downhill Gold in the 2010 Winter Olympics and refused to believe she wasn’t some kind of witch, it isn’t possible to travel that fast with essentially two floor boards tied to your shoes. The only possible explanation was that she graduated Hogwarts.
The only reason I thought it was mildly feasible I could ‘ski’ 1100km to the South Pole was due to the fact it isn’t really skiing, it’s much closer to walking than the sorcery Miss Vonn produces. Using skis is much more energy efficient than simply walking, the couple of inches glide you get on each step adds up over the one million steps required to reach the South Pole from the coast of Antarctica. If I managed to achieve just a 2 inch glide with each step, that would total over 30 miles of free travel on my journey. The skis also serve the rather crucial function of spreading my rather heavy 6ft 5 frame across the snow, a much needed feature when crossing crevasses that can be hundreds of metres deep.
I needed to learn the basics, not just of skiing but of all things polar travel. I was fortunate that a lot of my skills would be transferable but whenever delving into something new it is essential you seek out an absolute expert to lay the foundations that you can then build on with experience and time. I needed a polar guru, the only problem was I was based in Brunei (South East Asia) and spending the vast majority of my time in 40 degree secondary jungle getting consumed by leeches. I had planned for three solo trips the following year to Norway and Svalbard during leave periods but it was essential I had a base of knowledge to build on during those trips. I hit the internet and started searching far and wide but who knew that Brunei was so short on polar guides? I had to broaden my search. It just so happened that the Southern Hemisphere is home to the polar Godfather that is Eric Phillips. I wouldn’t even be able to touch the surface of Eric’s career in a single blog post or do it justice, so for the love of god check out his website for his full bio. In short, I probably couldn’thave found a better person to teach me what I needed to know, it’s the equivalent of having Lewis Hamilton teach you to drive or Kim Kardashian show you how to end humanity.
I managed to arrange a trip down to see Eric during my summer leave and spend two weeks in the Snowy Mountains getting to grips with the day to day routine of a polar expedition, clothing systems, nutrition, equipment choices and everything else that is so unique to operating in the polar regions. There are probably plenty of people who are thinking “You went to Australia to learn about polar travel?” and yes I absolutely did. It was a perfect introduction. When you want to learn to fly you don’t sit in a Boeing 757 and give it a go. The just below zero temperatures were cold enough to follow the same procedures as you would in -50 without the risk of frostbite. The 40mph winds make putting up a tent by yourself just as difficult as a 40mph in Svalbard. We followed the exact same routine as if we were in Antarctica, and I asked Eric every question under the sun on any areas I was unsure about. This is how I approach everything I do and it is important to be frank and honest about your weaknesses when setting out to accomplish any task. We skied all day dragging our sleds across the beauty of the roof of Australia. The only problem I had was that the roof of Australia just so happens to have some rather steep inclines and declines along the way, and I had two newly acquired skis, or death boards as I preferred to call them, attached to my feet.
Mount Kosciuszko stands at 2,228m above sea level and compared to the highest peak on the other 6 continents it is the absolute runt of the litter. When you consider that Everest is 4 times taller than “Kozzie” if they were brothers, Kozzie would be getting wedgied and bog washed until Mum came home. Regardless, it is the highest peak in Australasia and as a mountaineer at heart I couldn’t miss the chance. To this day I am probably the only person who has skied faster up a mountain than down it. To anyone that is remotely able on skis It would have been a dream. The ‘bump’ that is Kosciuszko would be a lovely smooth gentle ride down, perfect symmetrical turns with powder spraying up with each change of direction. The gentle 45 degree slope may as well have been the north face of the Eiger to me. I probably could have gotten down the Eiger more safely. I stood at the top of the slope, took in a deep breath, stuck my poles in the soft snow and proceeded to tuck my jacket into my trousers to try and prevent the inevitable avalanche of snow that would force its way into my crack with each pathetic collapse. Shackleton would be turning in his grave.
I planned to set off at what I thought was the most likely angle I could maintain my vertical position, yet the lack of friction on my skis and newfound independence from my ski poles combined with the movements needed to tuck a large jacket into trousers was enough to send me onto my increasingly sore arse once again. I hadn’t even begun my descent and I’d already managed to hit the deck, Sir Shackleton shifted once more. I decided to go for the age old Army approach of “speed and aggression”. It solves all problems. What proceeded over the next half an hour was probably as impressive as it was depressing for poor Eric, who had just performed the most sickeningly textbook series of telemark ski turns and was now firmly down the epic molehill that is the mighty Kosciuszko. In one particularly high speed malfunction I actually managed to defy both logic and physics and find myself further up the mountain than I had originally started my tumble. How both the skis and bindings were still in tact when I eventually collapsed/collided with Eric and his sled is a complete mystery. The return to flat ground and the reassuring resistance of gravity and a sled behind me was a relief. By the time we got to the end of our trip I even managed to get into a healthy snow plough, and I turned, I TURNED! It was at that point I looked over my shoulder to soak up the applause and adulation of anyone who had witnessed my feat of athleticism, only for my arse to swiftly be united with the earth. Brilliant. Just Brilliant.