End of the Trail

January 10, 2016

Yesterday I made it to Thiels Corner – about 14.5 nm from my prior camp and a few miles south of 85 South. There is a maintained ice runway at Thiels – cleared and flagged. There’s also a cluster of weather instruments for the planes, lines of 50 gal. fuel drums, tool and parts containers, a snowcat to maintain the runway, and a sheltered toilet! I’m the only person here so it’s a bit of a ghost town. Of course the wind has returned, maybe 25 mph? Being here is very bittersweet, because it’s as far as I’m going on this expedition.

I’ve been consulting with ALE about what to do – whether to continue or to call it quits – and they have been really helpful. If I end the expedition here, they have a much easier time picking me up. Because of the runway they can fly a variety of ski planes in – Twin Otters, Vaslovs, etc. Once I go south of here, extraction becomes more difficult because of the terrain and the possibility of crevasses. Only Twin Otters can land, so there are fewer planes to rely on. ALE’s preference is that if I don’t think I’ll make if to the pole, or make it in a time that’s satisfactory, that I stop here.

After thinking long and hard, talking to Lisa Renee, praying about the decision, and going through multiple calculations and scenarios I’ve decided to stop. My original plan was to take 40-50 days to get to the pole, which was reasonable. However, the very difficult weather and snow conditions at the outset and my nagging foot injury (it’s still either numb or hurting, depending on the precise point!) slowed me considerably. To make the trip in 50 days, I needed to average 12 nm/day – a doable distance. Unfortunately I’ve been averaging 9.17 nm/day with the two rest days when I was sorting out my broken pot and waiting for the wind to subside. Even without including those rest days, my average has been 9.74 nm/day. I have been going faster since 12/31 – almost 12 nm/day – because of the improved snow conditions. Nonetheless, at this pace, and accounting for the possibility that I could speed up still more, I wouldn’t make it to the pole before the end of January under the best-case scenario. And so far I haven’t experienced any “best cases” on this trip! If my injury were to worsen, or if I were to be beset by equipment or weather issues, I’d be stuck with ALE trying to figure out how to come and get me. So, I don’t think the risk of continuing is acceptable.

Lisa Renee and the kids have been absolutely fantastic and supportive. They have said time and again that they’ll get behind whichever decision I make. Lisa Renee and I have spent lots of time discussing the alternatives, and she trusts my judgment. My judgment is that the numbers to this point don’t support continuing – it would simply take too long and be too subject to risk to continue. As noted American alpinist Ed Viesturs says about mountains, “the summit is just the farthest point at which you can turn around.” (He also wisely says that getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory!)

I’ve had other expeditions with setbacks like this one and pushed through. This time “pushing through” doesn’t feel right. In addition to relying on data, I’m a HUGE advocate of relying on instinct when in the outdoors. I trust my gut and I think it’s helped to keep me safe in numerous dangerous situations. I think it’s part of God’s protection. My gut says to call it quits.

So – what’s it all mean? I can call the expedition a failure since I didn’t make it to the pole, or even close to the pole. Or I can call it a success since I’m relatively unscathed physically, I’ve been safe, and have had a wonderful adventure on this remarkable continent that few people ever even see. Truth be told, it’s a bit of both. I wish I could have made it to the “end of the earth”, but the real value of the experience will be in what I make of it now, upon returning home. That’s the value of all experience isn’t it – how it informs and shapes you going forward?

I think that God will help me to use this experience in a way that helps direct not only my life but may help to guide others too. I certainly hope so.

Was it worth it? Definitely. This expedition has taken years to put together, cost enormous sums of money(!), and has consumed lots of time. But as the song says, “the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing!” I believe in living life to the absolute fullest, because life is so precious and even in the best of cases is so short. It’s a beautiful world we live in – please get outside and experience it even if it may mean some discomfort, pain, or a bit of fear. To experience the Southern Cross from the middle of a darkened sea, or the sun rise in red and golden hues from behind a remote peak, and even to feel the force of a frozen polar gale on your cheek, these are our glorious gifts from a great God.

So, back to Thiels. Weather permitting, a plane returning from the pole will swing by tomorrow to pick me up and head back to Union Glacier. Again, weather permitting, I’ll fly from UG to Punta Arenas on the 14th and journey home.

Thank you friends for the words of encouragement, the prayers, and your interest over the past month or so. I hope you’ve enjoyed watching my expedition unfold.

A special thanks to my gear sponsors – Susan Schurke and Northwoods Apparel (amazing anoraks and other outer clothing), Skhoop (for my fabulous down skirt – It has worked so well I’m going to wear it over my tights during long winter runs), and Backpacker’s Pantry for the food.

Huge thanks to David Coleman, John Hazelwood, and Tommy Dyer at Rock River for their design work on my logo and website build – I wouldn’t have been able to keep the updates coming without their help.

And big thanks to tireless Kirsten for expedition management! You’re the best.

A really big thanks to my extraordinary family for the unceasing support – Lisa Renee, Alexandra and Bowden, you are the greatest gift and I love you to the ends of the earth.

Onward to the next adventure!

Doug

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