Words and image by Chris Collard
Beyond the windscreen, I can barely make out the edge of the hood; the rest is white upon white. I glance at the thermometer, which reads -25°C, and then at Gísli, my driving partner of the past 12 days. I rub my face and squint tightly in an attempt to encourage blood flow to my eyes. For the last three hours, we have been transfixed by a thin track line on our GPS screen, which is zoomed in as far as it can go. Outside is a world of crevasses and snow bridges. The line is our guide, our chaperone, our god, at least for the moment. Without it, we stop and wait for clear skies, which could be days.
Around my waist there is a climbing harness and a 15-metre rope. If we get stuck and need to get out, we’ll tether ourselves to the vehicle. We’ve been travelling for nearly 30 hours straight and are virtually in a state of delirium. Gísli was at the wheel when we entered this bleached hell. When the horizon disappeared, I’d leaned out of the window in an attempt to locate our previous track and give Gísli hand-signal directions. This had been a futile effort. I’ve now been driving for 90 minutes and am beat; dog-tired. My attention darts from the LCD to the windscreen and back, and I pray for this to be over. This is the White Desert, Antarctica; the coldest, driest, and windiest place on the planet. I rub my face again and force my eyes back to the screen.
Two weeks earlier, Scott Brady, Greg Miller and I stepped off an Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane onto a 3.6km runway of ice. The flight was everything we had been warned about: cramped; hot then cold, with an elixir of adrenaline flooding out of the air ducts to fill the occupants with anticipation. The plane was Russian-built, the pilots were from its motherland, and there were no windows. It was a six-hour flight from Cape Town, South Africa, to the Antarctic Logistics Centre International air base (ALCI) at Novolazarevskaya Station (Novo), where a Southern Ocean cyclone had grounded all aircraft for the past three days.