On Tuesday 18th December, Welsh adventurer Richard Parks set off on an expedition to ski solo from the coast of Antarctica to the geographic South Pole. Swide caught up with him on his way home.
Pulling his pulk (sled) with all his equipment and food for 35 days, Parks was attempting to achieve what would have been the second fastest time recorded in history. As always Richard’s blogs and tweeting kept his many followers up-do-date on a daily basis keeping them enthralled with his daily news of physical exertion, battling horrific weather conditions and his attempts to keep moral high.
Initial set-backs, which involved the delayed arrival of his equipment, combined with some of the worst weather conditions ever seen out there, meant Richard was battling against time in order to be sure he could reach his objective and get picked up by the last flight out of Antarctica before the Winter closes in. Extreme sastrugi (ridges formed in the snow due to wind erosion), meant he spent a week making very slow progress, at times, he told us, he was skiing for an hour and going absolutely nowhere, and having to battle for every metre made.
In the end, after skiing over 1000 km and only 190km from the South Pole, Parks had to make the tough call to turn back and get picked up. It was just not safe to attempt the final 190km in three days, which would have involved constant skiing, without sleeping and stopping only to eat. Swide spoke on the phone to a disappointed but philosophical Parks on route to Wales, in Madrid Airport, only days after he was picked up from the most inhospitable and remote regions on the planet.
It must be quite strange going from where you’ve been the last 40 days going directly, via Chile, into an environment like Madrid Airport.
It’s been one of the biggest readjustments or culture shocks I’ve had after any of my expeditions. The nature of this particular project, being solo, I always knew that this was going to be a bit of a challenge, but the way it fell, by chance – to be picked up by the twin otter from what I can honestly describe as the middle of nowhere, a four hour flight back to Union Glacier, within an hour I was on the Iluyshin, which was flying that day off Antarctica, so within 9 or 10 hours I was back in Punta Arenas in Chile, and then 3 days later I’m in Madrid. So it really has been an incredibly fast turn-around and you know, in some ways it’s great because I’ve been a long time away from home and I’m looking forward to seeing loved ones, my dog, but in some ways, it hasn’t been ideal, the speed of the readjustment, it’s a big ask.
What are your first impressions of civilisation? Airports are strange places aren’t they? I can’t imagine you’re doing any Duty Free shopping.
My few days in Punta Arenas were quite cool because it’s a very strange place, these frontier towns are, like Svalbard, Norway are quite similar there’s not much to do other than sleep, sort my gear out and eat, there’s a decent restaurant there, so my first taste of civilisation was slightly subdued, which was good. So luckily Madrid airport doesn’t seem quite as insane as it would have two or three days ago. I’m just sitting here, I found a spot next to a café, not even in the café, so I can have a coffee. I’m just people watching in amazement.
How do you feel about not achieving your objectives?
The honest answer is I’m still decompressing, processing, all the sort of words you would associate with this kind of thing…. It was a really tough call for several reasons, firstly because so much had gone into it, a lot of money, time, effort, people had sponsored or helped out… to be so close, to have covered a thousand kilometres in one of the world’s most hostile corners and to be only one hundred and ninety kilometres from the end and to run out of time made it just a very, very difficult decision, one of the toughest I’ve had to make. We all have to make tough decisions, but it was difficult. BUT, it wasn’t made lightly, it was made with all the information and factors on the table and at that point, I’d battled for the best part of a week through horrific weather conditions, through what many experienced Antarctic travellers, some with over 20 years’ experience, told me, were the worst sastrugi they’ve ever seen and physically at that point I was, well ‘shattered’ doesn’t even do it justice. I had to make a decision, I had two and half – three days to make my twin otter flight and quite simply it wouldn’t have been safe to try and cover 190 km in 3 days. At the beginning of the expedition I might have done it but at that point, mentally and physically, I was unable.
Isn’t that what heroism is? Making the tough decisions, even when your ego may be urging you to do the opposite?
Well I appreciate you saying that and I hope in time I’ll be able to feel like that, but for the moment I just feel mixed emotions, there’s no better way to say that really. I’m obviously very proud of what I’ve done and I’m happy to be sitting here in Madrid airport waiting to go home to be with my family, but obviously I’m really disappointed too. I think Shackleton said it best when he told his wife that she would rather a ‘living donkey, than a dead lion’.
Roald Amundsen famously said that ‘adventure is just bad planning’, that’s the whole point of doing it, it’s adventure, and you don’t know the outcome. If it was predestined and you knew you were going to make it, you wouldn’t do it in the first place, isn’t that so?
That’s absolutely true. The challenge for me was being self-sufficient in the world’s most hostile environment and to attempt a really significant expedition. Very few people have ever skied solo from the coast to the geographic South Pole, maybe 24 or 25 people. The last solo expedition to the South Pole took 82 days and that is very long, so that puts it in perspective and my target was 35 days, which would have made it the second fastest time in history. Everything went into that, in order to achieve it, the gear I took was light, I had 35 days worth of food and I was working at the very top end of the spectrum. If things aren’t going to plan or indeed they go significantly against you, as they did with me, with the weather conditions in that one week, you know it has serious consequences and ultimately I ran out of time and it’s just something I’ll have to live with.
I know you were conducting this expedition with a view to attempting something much bigger, can you tell us about that?
I can’t speak about that yet but as soon as I can I’ll let you and Swide’s readers know. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses or anything, but this expedition was part of my research and development, it doesn’t change how I feel, I’m still disappointed in how it ended but I pretty much got 90% of everything I needed from it.
Then it was a success wasn’t it?
I’ve realised success isn’t black and white; there are many shades in the middle.
Coming from a professional background where in the end you win or lose, but when you’re competing against yourself or against nature you can’t lose really can you?
That has been a significant shift in mind-set, you’re right, in professional sport it is win, lose or draw and in this chapter in my life, that attitude just doesn’t serve me well in these tough environments, because the only success is coming back safely. So for me I want to continue doing this and I want to continue living.
You have a lot of time to think when you’re on these expeditions, do you ever think ‘why the hell am I doing this’?
Yes. That thought comes into my head, rarely, but only very briefly. It’s mostly related to missing loved ones, especially this time around Christmas and New Year, it’s a very important time for me and it was difficult to be on my own and away from the people that I care about, but those sentiments never last for long when they do come along. I realise how privileged I am and grateful to have this opportunity, just for things like the way the sunlight reflects off the snow crystals on the ground sometimes it looks like you’re skiing on diamonds or just every now and then you get it. You are literally in the middle of nowhere, there’s nobody for thousands of kilometres. So if negative thoughts do come up, you pretty quickly remember how lucky you are to be there.
Have you seen any evidence of climate change out there?
I’m not the person to comment on that, as it’s only my second time out there so I don’t have enough knowledge. However in the mountains and remote parts of the world, I’ve certainly seen significant evidence of climate change that isn’t so evident in built up areas. Ask me in 5 year’s time and I might be able to give you an answer.
Follow Richard Parks on his next expedition. www.richardparks.co.uk or get involved on Twitter with @richardparks