Monday, December 23, 2013

Scott Expedition: South Pole By Boxing Day

The intrepid "explorers" Ben and Tarka are nearing the South Pole which marks the half-way point of their expedition. Let me tell you, from reading their almost daily blogs, it's been no small ordeal.   [Offroading Home has developed an extensive Google Earth Resource File which brings all the meaningful resources together in one place and it's available free: Google Earth Trail FileScott Expedition: Antarctica]

The two decided to follow in the footsteps of the ill-fated Scott Expedition and try for an unsupported, self-propelled trip from McMurdo Bay to the South Pole and return. Unsupported, in this case, means that nobody runs out and gives them hot chocolate as they lumber by pulling their sledges full of camping gear and satellite electronics.

That doesn't mean that they don't have a support team, because they do, they just aren't on the same continent.

And it doesn't mean that they don't have "rescuers" waiting in the wings because there are hundreds of 'em all over the continent - scientists, researchers and supply and maintenance people manning telescopes, research stations and all kinds of transport systems. This is the SUMMER after all!

Hundreds of followers dog Ben Saunders' daily journal entries – you can tell by all the comments left by readers each day. Many, if not most, from the same people each day ranging from "patrons" to commercial vendors to explorer "been-there-done-that" and "wannabes" to concerned citizens and the odd parent, relative and girlfriend.

After nearly nine hours of tugging against their harnesses over heavy snow each day they pitch camp, melt snow, cook meals, attend to their "twa-lett", publish web posts and make the odd satellite telephone call to "civilization" – to whom, we only get a glimpse. Their posts have indicated a couple of staff members, a couple of patrons, a parent and my guess is a couple of girlfriends. All I know is: they haven't called me – and, alas, they probably won't.

The Ultimate Reality-show

I have to say, after following quite a few of these types of "adventures" in the blog-o-sphere, this group is keeping their communications pretty much in the realm of a "reality show," which has disappointed several followers who were expecting a much more transparent scientific bent to their posts.

Ben's posts have been highly descriptive of their daily plight and surroundings, full of literary references and philosophy and lately wrenchingly self-examining. All the things a good "reality show" or "docu-drama" should have.

Unfortunately, what I've also noticed is that any commenter who raises a question about something specific that they think might not be going quite right gets "shouted down" and maligned by all the defenders and apologists who frequent the blog's comment section taking things very personal. And they are sometimes told basically "we know what we are doing" from an occasional staff comment.

As you can imagine, that has shut off much of the science-related or intellectual comments. However, there are still plenty of the standard "doing a great job," "we're with you all the way," and "hang in there buddy" types of comments as heavily-bonded readers anxiously await each morning's posting.

Christmas At The Pole

There has been much encouragement from commenters over the past couple of weeks about wanting them to spend Christmas at the South Pole. I'm not sure where that goal came from, it certainly was clear out in left field based upon their daily averages for months, but that was the trouble – nobody official has said anything about it (or much of anything specific) in print.

The past couple of days, Ben posted that they had a "change of heart" and dropped one of their sledges, their 8-pound satellite transmitter dish, their last cache of food and were now going to add an additional hour of sledge pulling each day. That skyrocketed their daily distances upwards to about 21 miles per day! Still, however, NOT enough for a Christmas at the pole "fireside chat" with followers (not that we ever knew such a thing was planned.)

Today, Ben did write that they were planning to reach the pole on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas in Great Britain). Finally, a statement not in the realms of magic or wishful-thinking! Their daily totals do support a Boxing Day evening campsite at the pole, if they count pulling through the 25th. And, Offroading Home has enhanced our tracking map with a "surprise" Christmas gift for the weary travelers: Christmas trees (on the map) placed conveniently within view of their tent flap for each night's campsite. [The view on Boxing Day is extra special - click on the tree icon to see the view.]

Heading Error?

One thing I did write to their Expedition Manager, Andy, about a few weeks ago was a question concerning the track they were following – especially after I was able to find the government MODIS satellite overlay and add it to the resource map that we made.

If you followed along each day's trail they were sending back (a new ping every hour), and had the MODIS image turned on, you could actually follow them navigating around "dark" and "lighter" areas, which are presumably related to the topography.

What I noticed was that the two always seemed to choose the path to their right (west) and didn't ever seem to "re-correct" back to the left and their original track line. I had seen people ask in the comments about how they were choosing to navigate, i.e. the coordinates they were following, and waited for them to possibly answer. When they hadn't answered by the time the two were approaching the Beardmore Glacier, and their track was quite a bit off their original "straight-line" approach, I wrote Andy privately.

I wasn't given an answer about coordinates but was assured that Ben and Tarka had spoken to previous explorers and were also taking courses to avoid crevasses etcetera. Even though the crevasse assertion wasn't corroborated by the MODIS image, I figured it must be something I wasn't understanding and let it go.

Their track took a turn back to the left the very morning that I received my reply from Andy and, for the most part, it stayed a direct line to The Gateway.

The unfortunate thing about it (from my perspective based on satellite images) was that their deviation from a straight course took them a full day's journey sideways - based on the daily pull back when they were on the Ross Ice Sheet. AND the impact of that deviation must be quadrupled because they needed to travel not only back to the base-line BUT it was committing them to do the same deviation on the way back in order to pick up the food cache's they were leaving.

I wouldn't bring it up again now except the track over the past two and a half days is doing it again! From leaving the Beardmore Glacier on day 47 through day 57 they followed a bee-line course toward the pole and passed 88 degrees.

Mid-day on the 58th day of travel they began veering to the right again and ended up a mile to the west of base-line. Their post the next morning did describe running through a "white out" in the afternoon part of the day and the MODIS image showed them camping in a "darker" (depression) area instead of traveling along a lighter ridge.

The next day, their track didn't correct back to baseline but went straight parallel to it for the first half of the day. Then they again diverted substantially to the "right" of a "lighter area," across some more variable terrain, which took them to a maximum 1.7 miles deviation. A slight re-correction to the left of a "dark spot" still left them a mile-and-a-half out of their way at their campsite.

Their 60th campsite gained them the 89th degree of longitude, and it was plain to see they had spent several back-and-forth's across more changeable terrain (on satellite image) than the baseline would have been, but now (tonight, the 23rd) they are camped a full 2.2 miles east of what they needed to be!

I'll still believe Andy, after all even though we both are stuck watching from thousands of miles away he's got the real-time data and is on the "inside." However, the obsessive-compulsive side of me sure wishes I had the information to understand why it continues to happen – especially since "keeping schedule" and "making good time" seem to be weighing so heavy on everyone's mind and my legs ache just thinking about FOUR-and-a-half MILES extra of pulling a sledge!

[If you're following on the resource map, or the map image above, the yellow line was drawn by me as an anticipated track based on the least variability in terrain (on the satellite). The purple line was drawn based on a coordinate given in a comment purportedly of Scott's trail. The dark red line is, of course, Ben and Tarka's published waypoints.]

Personally, if it were up to me, I'd settle for a snow-cat picking them up in the middle of the Ice Shelf if meant that they would do something "scientific" on their own part (and report about it to us) along the way. I have the distinct feeling that I'm in the minority on that however. It just seems a bit of a waste to me to go to all that effort for a mere duplication of trails that have already been taken. It doesn't do Scott or his memory, even metaphysically, any good; and it, so far, doesn't seem to be adding to the world's fund of knowledge – albeit, it is terrific entertainment and Ben is literarily quite superb.

What I will do for them, however, is promise to move the Christmas tree (icon on the map) so that they could see it from their tent flap wherever they are finally encamped the next few nights.


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