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Henry Smith treks to the South Pole in Aid of The Wickers Charity

Henry Smith treks to the South Pole in Aid of The Wickers Charity

Aitch Group's founder has now completed expeditions to both the North Pole and the South Pole to raise funds for The Wickers Charity. Below he tells us a detailed account of how his trip to the South Pole went. Henry raised over £150,000, if you would like to contribute; Donate Here

 

Where to begin? In short - I went up a novice and came down a mountaineer.

Prior to this trip I was sent on a 5-day course. Stupidly I talked the guide into reducing it down to 2.5 days so I could get home early. A very very silly mistake when attempting to climb the tallest Peak in Antarctica. You need all the skills on offer.

 

I was up at 5am on Wednesday to get the plane. There was a real buzz all around the hotel as everyone gathered for the coach. 

At this point, I still hadn’t met my team members, so I stood and observed these experienced mountaineers. If I am honest, I was anxious. I felt like I had been put out to play in Manchester City’s premier team but had no clue how to play football! The time alone made me think about the challenge ahead and the benefits for the Wickers Charity.

We boarded a 45-year-old Russian x-military Ilyushin Jet which is designed to carry large pay loads like tanks and soldiers etc. We flew 4.5 hours to Union Glacier on Antarctica on a runway made of solid ice. We were told that the we wouldn’t be allowed to land if there were even the smallest signs of melting. There was a temporary station / camp here which is set up for 3 or 4 months a year. There are only 1 or 2 flights per week and it is extremely weather reliant, we were told that it isn’t uncommon to wait 7-10 days for a return flight out. The nearest hospital is 2,000 miles away in Punto Arenas.

Once we had landed, we were taken to an area and loaded onto a Twin Prop Otter which had skis fitted on and flew to Vinson base camp. The short flight took only 40 minutes.

We landed on the side of a glacier with the temperature at -25 Celsius. We were show round the camp which was made up of a kitchen/dining tent and various 2-men sleeping tents. When in my tent, my roommate informed me of the technical side of what we were doing and the risks. It was beginning to really show that I was lacking in experience.Frost bite is massive. The temperature in the camp was -30 degrees plus any wind chill factor. All metal that we had direct  contact with had to be covered; as metal will conduct through the gloves. It’s incredible to me that even with specialist gloves on, the cold from the metal could seep through. The toilets were Alfresco style, you’d sit on a cut out bloc of ice with a pan of a toilet sitting on top of it looking out over the Antarctic continent. It was truly mind blowing.

After a very bad night’s sleep, we got prepared to drag a sledge, a duffle bag and a rucksack each across the continent. We had to walk with crampons on which I hadn’t mastered, but found them not too difficult if I walked like John Wayne! Going uphill was a lot more difficult.

Below are snippets from a journal I kept whilst on the expedition:

 

Low Camp

Low Camp is 8.9 miles away uphill the whole way hauling your stuff. 8.9 miles does not sound too far but it still takes us 6.5 hours to get there. The weight I am hauling is far too much. I am sweating most of the way and knackered at the end of the day. I am seriously having a conversation with myself right now – I mean, who takes an IPAD up to the summit, only me!!

I learn a lot quickly... You can’t remove your glasses/goggle’s for very long for fear of snow blindness. You must keep hydrated and govern your body temperature. All extremities need to be covered. The frostbite gets you very quickly.

We spend the night at Low Camp. Curt & Nick and I are bonding. They recognise my lack of experience but as a team we are really working well together and offering help/advice. At Low Camp you can leave the sledge and duffel bag; I leave excess clothing, although I still have not lightened the load enough in my rucksack.

No luxury toilets here, you get to sit on a bin, line the bucket with a plastic bag you are given for the next few days. Gives a whole new meaning to “Take Away”!

Dried food with hot water added into a packet is all we now have. I can’t recommend it.

 

High Camp

It is now a serious ascend. We walk to the fixed lines, they run for approx. 1200 meters. To ascend you hook in a descender and you slide it in front of you then you lift yourself up. By doing this when you fall back it locks into place. This stops you taking out other team members if you were to fall. Lots of exertion on your upper body and quads. Every 150/200 meters you have to reattach yourself. It takes us unbelievably 4.5 hours to ascend the fix lines. And we are not slow. This is an awakening... These mountaineers have a level of fitness I have never experienced. I am soaking with sweat when coming off the fixed lines. I look up this mountain and it just goes on forever. I ask how much further, and we have a 2.5 hour walk to High Camp. You don't actually walk you put one foot in front of the other. It takes every effort in you to do this. Before this I would have bet you, it can’t take this long to walk circa 2 miles going uphill.

This whole time we are in silence, you need to be focused and not waste the energy.  It gives you a lot of time to concentrate and reflect. We finally get into camp. To me it’s like seeing The Savoy. I have never been so happy to see a tent. My shoulders and legs are throbbing. I have used up all my energy. I have no more to give today. I am thinking to myself please let’s have a rest day tomorrow but don’t say anything. I am perked up by seeing Curt totally exhausted and I am 18 years his senior;  I am not the only one knocked out. You can’t get away from the cold. Of course, I told him that I am old enough to be his dad. Sleep does not come easy. Every hour I am awake. Even to unzip the sleeping bag to have a pee is such a chore because of the cold. Why these mountaineers do this is beyond me. The cold, danger, physical exertion along with the mental drainage.

 

Rest Day

Stuart (our guide) decides we all need this day. I am delighted. The forecast looks good for tomorrow. In these high altitude climbs it’s not uncommon to wait 5-7 days for a window to ascend. I honestly thought that the final day to ascend was going to be the easier part from looking at the route map.

During rest day we discuss the climb, the danger zones. It gets reiterated the importance of not taking gloves and glasses off. Losing an item can cause the whole team to descend. The final ridgeway that we are going along has a drop of roughly 3,000 feet. You have to be sure where you tread. Underneath the ice is rock and should you slip on this and you go over the side and you will take the other three you are tied to with you! You are told at all times watch the man in front and be prepared to hit the floor!  All I have on my mind is to be foot perfect tomorrow. I don't want to let down Nick and Curt. Curt needs to summit this to complete the 7 summits.

Every day, we receive weather reports, but they are not always accurate. It can be fine in camp but a thousand feet up it can drop by a further minus 10-20 degrees plus the wind chill factor. Hanging around this day gives me a lot of time to ponder on the enormity of the summit. Nick, Curt and I have really bonded. I am getting great support from them. I try to sleep, it’s useless. Morning comes and I am pretty knackered from sleep deprivation. How hard can this ascend be?

 

Summit Day

We kit up and go over the tactics. I can’t make my mind up whether to take my hard shell outer clothes and/or insulated padded trousers. Thank god I remembered to buy these in Punto Arenas. I discuss this with Chris a doctor who says you have to take them. It can be -60 and the difference between giving you the ability to carry on climbing or having to come down. We had a “warm day” at -55!!! Decision made - everything is packed and coming. More weight in the rucksack!

We start out with our walking poles. My mind is spinning, don't let the team down, don't expose your extremities, don't drop your rucksack, don’t trip over your crampons. Any of these things occur and the team is off the mountain at a minimum for that day. How can putting one foot in front of the other be so exhausting?

It is hour after hour we do this with only one water break. After around 5 hours I am blowing, my energy levels are very very low. I keep resting my head on my pole to rest. I take my rucksack off and it slides away. Stuart has a fit! But fortunately, it stops about 100 foot away. A travelling rucksack could take out a climber below and cause serious problems. Curt is exhausted but his strong and solid. Nick is built of stronger stuff and is eating this up. It’s Nick that is coming up to me asking if I am ok and checking me over. To have Nick in this team for me has been a massive bit of luck. He is a good man.

We keep ascending, all I am doing is looking up and it goes on and on and on and on. It is becoming colder and colder!

I finally see the summit it looks close and I ask how long? 90 mins I am told, really 90 mins!! Have I got 90 mins in me and another 3.5 hours to get back. I consider throwing the towel in. In fact I justify it to myself because I can see the summit. I look around me, I can’t throw the towel in - Curt has cashed in his house policy to get the funds for this trip, so it’s not for me to end his trip. Nick needs this so he can put it down as a reference on his company website and I know I won’t be able to live with myself. On we trudge and trudge. Curt calls over Stuart and says his hands have gone, he has a cold injury- very dangerous. Stuart grabs them and says “right all of us are off the mountain!” I can’t believe we have come this far but if the man is ill we have no choice. Nick comes over and puts two hand warmers in the gloves. Stuart allows us to march on.

We come to the start of the ice and rocks. I follow Stuart and head on to the ridgeway walking up. My glasses are iced up and I can hardly see or take in any views has I am so focused on where my feet are positioned and brutally aware of the 3000 foot drop besides me. 

Nick comes over to me and spins me round from behind, he takes one look at me and says “you’re going down!” Why I say, “your nose - it’s gone!” OH MY GOD -  I think!! I am now not concerned about being on a precipice all I can think about is the end of my nose having to be cut off. Not reaching the top would be a disaster but my nose must come first. Stuart comes up and grabs me from Nick, now Nick and Stu are arguing whether we go on or not. Stu grabs a buff and tightens it so tight around my mouth and nose I cannot breathe. Now I am arguing with him. Release it I can’ t breath. He needs the buff on me to get the blood to the nose and I also need it off to breath!  All this is happening on the edge.!

Stu literally grabs me again like a child and we march to the top. I look around but cannot I take it all in. My glasses are full of ice and my thoughts / concerns are with the condition of my nose. It’s far too windy for photos or banners. We are there for less than a minute.

We start our descent and all I can hear being said to other climbers in front is Nick saying “Man with cold injury coming down make way!” The whole situation has been for no more than 10 minutes, it just seems now so unreal. I can see how quick disaster happens in these climbs. There is no space for amateurs.

We descend but don't stop for 30 minutes until it's safe. I am desperate to know how bad my nose is. I am told keep it covered to try and get the blood back. It had gone white and waxy – which is a sign of frostbite.

It’s a long hard walk back to camp. Walking down in crampons is difficult and uses muscles you don't normally exercise. We enter camp and I throw off my rucksack, I had to take the extra clothes but did not using them. I am elated to have summited and now the enormity is sinking in. In camp we have boiling water. If I lay down my whole body will lock up. Curt just lays out over his sleeping bag and is out in a few minutes.  I go to the kitchen tent. Blood is coming back to my nose and it is tingling.

For me WOW - what a personal journey this has been to get to the summit. It has been tough but well worth all the physical and mental challenges. I don't celebrate yet, as we have to get down first.

 

Day of Descent

We are now 6 days without a shower.

Next day I am expecting us to walk quickly down to Low Camp then onto Base Camp. It should be easy - wrong again!

Walking downwards on fixed lines is difficult - especially on ice. On top of that there are the blisters on the bottom of my feet that keep getting pressed backwards. The effort and concentration to do this is utterly immense! 3.5 hours later we finally reach the bottom of the fixed lines and I am soaking in sweat and need to get these clothes off!  It is clear Curt has an issue with his knee. His struggling to walk. Now we are contemplating making camp at Low Camp and possibly missing a flight back to Union Glacier, which in turn delays us by 4 days. Curt is having none of it and says he will walk on the best he can. So we decide to let him set the pace.

When we get to Low Camp I remember that I had left clothes behind – they are dry ! What a result -  I change. It takes us around 9 hours to get to Vinson Base instead of 6 hours but we do it.

It feels amazing to get here and kindly the cook Michelle has stayed up to give us dinner

We are all exhausted and happy. The Rangers come and dine with us congratulating us. In the tent is a guy from Argentina having every finger bandaged up. He’s in a mess. He had taken his gloves off at the summit which was over minus 60. He is struggling to feed himself… He will need hospital treatment.

 

Final Day / Thoughts

I have conquered Mount Vinson and found new friends for life ????  I now understand the bonds that are made with these challenges. Curt has a bed in London whenever he needs it and I am going to help Nick with his business start-up. It’s the least I can do in lieu of what the pair of them have done for me.

 

We said our goodbyes to the staff and flew back to Union Glacier. The weather upon landing is awful, but the young Pilot landed us safely which is nothing short of exceptional. He did later tell us that they were the worst conditions he had ever had to land in!

We were given a good meal and a tent, but still had to wait till 5pm till the showers were opened. The shower was amazing, it had been a whole week since I had had a proper shower and it was honestly the best I have had! We had to wait for all the teams to return before the Jet could come to collect us. Eventually all the teams arrive back and we start our journey to Punto Arenas. I can’t remember ever being so long removed from the outside world with no internet.

Now I am forgetting all the bad stuff, I can say it was a great adventure which pushed me mentally and physically.

I am so pleased that we raised over £150,000 all thanks to the lovely people who donated.

 

Have I got another in me?? I think from here on I will leave the challenges to the younger guys!!