Issues Magazine

Unfinished Business: A Tribute Across the Antarctic

Dragging tyres along one of the south coast beaches, UK.

Dragging tyres along one of the south coast beaches, UK.

By Jo Davies

When Ernest Shackleton is your role model, what better way to honour him than to follow in his footsteps – and beyond – across the South Pole? Jo Davies will do just that in the centenary year of the Endurance Expedition.

Since Antarctica’s first true exploration began – by the likes of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – many explorers have ventured south onto the world’s driest and coldest continent. The centenary of the Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–14, led by Douglas Mawson, John King Davis and Frank Wild, is among a cluster of 100-year Antarctic exploration celebrations.

Shackleton is my hero – I believe he was one of the greatest leaders of all time. A year ago I embarked on the biggest challenge of my life – to lead an expedition across Antarctica in celebration of the great man in the centenary year of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, aka the Endurance expedition of 1914. The idea was dreamed up in the cockpit of an ocean rowing boat one starry night in the middle of the Atlantic, and since then it has been my vision to complete Shackleton’s unfinished business (see box, p.48) by crossing the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.

The plan is for a team of six men and women to ski from Berkner Island in the Weddell Sea, cross the ice and ascend onto the Antarctic Plateau, then head towards the South Pole. After the pole we will go north and head over the plateau towards the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, descending onto the Ross Ice Shelf, where we will then continue to the US base of McMurdo, completing our journey.

I began by seeking the support of the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, grand-daughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton. I had known her for a few years, having been involved in another project of which she is patron. After some gentle persuasion, she agreed to become the expedition patron and has given us her backing and full support. With this support comes links with other members of the polar community, which has opened many doors for the expedition.

It’s all very well coming up with an idea and wanting to do it, but until you make an announcement it’s just someone’s pipe dream. Announcing my intentions made it real. I put together a website describing my plans and the aims of the expedition, and I advertised for a team to accompany me across the ice.

A press release prompted an amazing response in the British press, and requests for interviews came flooding in. A couple of national newspapers covered it and news spread across the Internet. Soon there were applications from all over Britain and the world. Interest was high and I received more than 100 applications in 6 months.

In February 2012 I interviewed a short list of 25 people. Like Shackleton, I was looking for people with the mental and physical capacity to haul a sledge weighing up to 150 kg across 1700 miles of ice. We need people who can cope with the demands of such a tough journey.

My shortlist was soon whittled down to 12 people, who then attended a selection weekend on Dartmoor, an area of hilly wilderness in the south-west of the UK. They had to march a long distance carrying heavy weight in the howling wind and driving rain. Their teamwork was tested in a raft-building competition that culminated in many of them swimming across a freezing cold lake. Finally, their fitness was assessed in a tyre-dragging exercise along one of the south coast beaches.

Assisted by an army Sergeant Major and two very trusted friends, I had the difficult task of choosing just five people to join me. The standard was exceptionally high, including talents and experience in mountaineering, expedition leadership and ultra-marathon running. The competition was tough and the calibre of candidate exceptional, but I firmly believe I have now made the right choices for the team.

I’d like to think I make the grade for a tough Antarctic adventurer. Having already rowed across the Atlantic in two ocean rowing races and skied across Greenland I believe I am capable of the feat I’m preparing to attempt. When you survive some of the toughest ocean conditions in half a century you know you can do almost anything. It’s also about self-belief and being mentally strong. My experiences on the Atlantic have taught me that.

The first stage has been completed but now the real hard work begins: finding the funding. A project like this is not cheap, and funding will have to be found through corporate partnerships – not easy in the current economic climate.

We have to embark on a tough physical training regime to get prepared for the 1700-mile journey. This will involve trips to places like Norway, Canada and Greenland to learn polar survival skills, skiing for some and kite skiing for all of us.

The first training stop is the Yukon Territory in Canada’s frozen north. The team will be taking part in the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon in February 2013. This 430-mile race will take place over 13 days, from Whitehorse to Dawson City. In April 2014, the team will carry out a dress rehearsal in Greenland, practising all our newly learnt skills before we head south in November 2014.

Our remit also includes an educational outreach program for schools – it is our aim to re-introduce the topic of polar exploration and Antarctica to schools, which is not presently covered by the UK National Curriculum. Youngsters should at least be introduced to the concept of polar exploration and the wonders of the almighty southern continent so that they can learn more for themselves. We plan to go into schools and present to students about the history of Antarctica, the polar explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries and the geography, geology and biology of the place. We hope to spread the word about the amazing leadership of people such as Shackleton and show students how they can be anything they want by grasping life by the horns and going for it. Students will be able to follow the team throughout the planning and training, right through until our journey, during which we will communicate from the ice, sending updates and videos and podcasts back to the classroom.

Once the funding and training are done, we can focus on the crossing: strap on our skis, hook up the harness and put one foot in front of the other for 85 days until we get to the other side. It will be an amazing experience and a huge challenge – one that I am relishing the thought of.

To learn more about ITACE 2014, visit www.south2014.com. Potential partners should go to www.proceedsouth.com.