Going South--Way South--for the Winter
by Don Kern
got wind that Brent Weigner from Cheyenne, Wyo., was trying to organize a
South Pole marathon, I knew I had to be there. What the heck, snow two
miles deep combined with 40-below temperatures and nearly two miles of
elevation made it more temptation than I could bear. Adventure Network
International, the only company that takes tourists to the interior of
Antarctica, organized this adventure. It was to be an eight- day
expedition leaving from Punta Arenas, Chile, Jan. 4 and returning Jan. 11.
We got more than our money's worth. Six athletes - three Americans, an
Irishman, and two Germans - met in Punta Arenas. We took advantage of a
three-day weather delay by taking a weekend trip to Torres del Paine
National Park for some hiking, trail running and guanaco chasing.
Guanacos, which are closely related to llamas, feared nothing and seemed
to be everywhere. This was only the start of our delays. When we arrived
at ANI's Patriot Hills camp, the staff had news for us. Before we could
fly to the starting line, three other trips had been scheduled using our
airplane. In other words, our two nights in Patriot Hills would now be
four, if the weather cooperated. We would also have to sleep three nights
in tents on the Polar Plateau to acclimatize, instead of the two that were
advertised. Of course, the weather didn't cooperate. When the decision was
finally made to take us south, after 10 nights in Patriot, one of our
party decided he couldn't risk being away from work two more weeks. So
Brent, Richard Donovan, Dean Karnazes, Ute Gruener and I flew south with
four guides, a doctor and three-man flight crew. We arrived at our
campsite, nearly 28 miles from the South Pole, late that night. After
setting up tents we started the camp stoves, which would melt snow almost
continually for the entire length of our stay. We dug a hole for our "ice
toilet," stacking snow blocks on the windward side to protect us from
Mother Nature when we were answering her call. The view was flat and
white, in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Duncan, our doctor,
monitored our pulse oxygen levels two or three times a day to make sure we
adapted to our environment. All OK.
the third morning for the race. We had planned a staggered start so by
mid-race we would be fairly close together, making us safer and easier to
support. Ute and I started in the sunshine at 6 a.m., with Richard and
Brent taking off an hour later, then Dean at 8. We would run with packs
containing spare clothes, food, water and a down jacket. Carrying these
through snow at 10,000 feet, with temperatures 25 below zero, wasn't easy.
Miles took Ute and me a half-hour to complete.
By 7:30, all had turned white with an icy fog. It would be impossible
to move the plane to the 14-mile mark. Doug, our expedition leader, tried
to turn on his snowmobile to tell us that the race was cancelled. But,
with his goggles fogged and no horizon visible, he fell to the ground
instead. The snowmobile stalled often as we tried to get back to camp. We
spent about 10 minutes driving in circles before we found our way back to
It was apparent to everyone that we wouldn't be able to run the race as
planned. A bad decision by a runner or staff, a snowmobile breakdown or
instant weather change could mean injury, even death. We spent the next 36
hours trying to figure out how to make this excursion a success. In the
end, a compromise was reached. Brent and Richard would wear the two pairs
of snowshoes we had in camp, and would run the original marathon course
with Dean. Both snowmobiles would support them so they would not have to
carry packs. Ute and I flew to the Pole and ran a half-marathon, doing
out-and-back loops on the last mile of the course, so we'd have support
every other mile.
All of us successfully covered our distances - in times at least triple
what a normal race would take us. Dean and Richard, both 2:30 marathoners,
were averaging around 20 minutes per mile.
We spent the next two nights sleeping in tents about 100 yards fro m
the geographic South Pole before returning to Patriot Hills, and another
two nights there.
By the time we left the White Continent, our eight-day stay had turned
into 19 days. We arrived in Punta Arenas around 1 a.m. and saw darkness
for the first time in nearly three weeks.
I didn't do the marathon as planned, but by sacrificing that part of
the trip, I helped make the whole expedition a success. I also walked
across a mountain ridge in Antarctica, camped out in -40 weather, and ran
naked around the South Pole.
Was the adventure what I expected? Nope. It was better.
and the adventure continues ...