Graeme Shankland is 56, married with two grown up children, lives in London and has worked in finance all his working life. He currently has his own private equity business, Caird Capital, investing in UK companies in a broad range of sectors. He has a passion for the Antarctic and is a keen supporter and admirer of Ernest Shackleton. Graeme was kind enough to share some insights from his experience as a first-time polar explorer, skiing the last degree to the South Pole with PolarExplorers.
What led you to take part in a South Pole expedition?
I have always had a fascination for the Antarctic polar continent, an extreme place and one of the coldest and most desolate locations on Earth. It is a desert of ice and much of it is still unexplored even today, luring men and women from around the globe to test themselves and to see the majesty and beauty of the polar landscape. More recently I have studied the great expeditions of Scott and Shackleton and the opportunity to bring their stories to life and experience, to a small extent, some of the challenges they faced was an opportunity I did not want to miss.
Did you feel mentally and physically prepared for the expedition?
Yes. I arrived in Punta Arenas feeling ready for the expedition. If you follow the guidance from your expedition company you will be ready to take on this adventure. It is a significant physical challenge but I was pleased that hauling the loaded pulk was easier than I had envisaged. Once your sledge is balanced and your harness is fitting properly the equipment does a lot of the work.
I would thoroughly recommend the Polar Shakedown training which we did in Svalbard, Norway. For anyone new to travelling across the ice or enduring cold weather this training is invaluable. When you arrive on the polar plateau it is good to have experienced loading and pulling the pulk, reacting to changing temperatures by adding or shedding layers, discovering which accessories work best in certain climatic conditions and learning to organize your kit to be easily accessible. I recall plenty of literature is available to prepare for the expedition and the earlier you familiarise yourself with the itinerary, training and kit, the quicker you will be able to focus on refining and fine tuning closer to the departure date.
Would you change any part of your preparation if you had it to do over?
It is essential you arrive in Punta Arenas in good time to go through your kit with the expedition leaders. My advice is to be prudent in your travel plan even if it means spending one extra night in Punta Arenas. You do not want to miss the flight to Union Glacier because your connecting flight arrangements are delayed. My bags were lost in transit and I had to borrow kit from my colleagues and buy new items on the last day before departure. Whilst I was given every assistance to make sure I was able to join the expedition, it was a stressful few days after months of careful preparation. I would thoroughly recommend building in maximum contingency to travel plans.
I was very keen to listen to music but did not give sufficient thought to the practicalities of doing so. My favourite tracks were loaded on my phone and I had packed headphones along with a power recharge pack and portable solar panel. I found all my electrical equipment lost power very quickly in the severe cold and when it was working I found it difficult to operate in conjunction with my face and headgear. I would recommend trying out your music system when fully clothed and make sure you can place your player somewhere warm with sufficient flexibility for your headphone leads.
What was the most difficult part of the whole expedition?
It is incredibly exciting flying into Antarctica on an Iluyshin (a 1967 four engine Russian freighter) and on to 89 degrees by Twin Otter. However, when you step off the plane and experience the altitude and cold for the first time it is exhilarating but intimidating. When the plane departs leaving you and your colleagues with the expedition ahead of you and the stark landscape of the polar plateau now confronting you – it is at this point that the serious task of traversing the plateau is realised and it can feel daunting. We were well rested and very excited when we initially set off but the first day is tough and we only managed 3kms before making camp.
What part of day-to-day expedition life did you find the most challenging? The most enjoyable?
In the lead up to the expedition it is natural to worry about the toiletry arrangements. Once you are on the ice, it becomes quite natural and a snow latrine can offer considerable protection from the elements – it is not as bad as you envisage. Another of the difficult parts of the expedition was having trust in the kit on the first couple of days when your extremities (hands and face) suffer from the cold. It is worthwhile in training trying different combinations of ski goggles with face masks, balaclavas and snoods. I found a mask in Svalbard which offered full facial protection whilst diverting your breath downwards away from your goggles to avoid fogging. This is a key piece of equipment and worth spending time finding the one that will work best for you.
On the last day, you wake up excited as you can see the South Pole in the distance. It is a tough day because the pole never seems to get any smaller or nearer. The last push to the pole seems never ending but is worth every step along the way.
Describe any memory that sticks out in your mind.
We would wake up each morning to the sheer beauty of the white continent which quite literally took our breath away. There is nothing like it anywhere else on the planet and not many people have the opportunity to witness the scale and uniqueness of this brutal place. We would gaze at the stunning white landscape whilst making camp and wonder at the majestic scenery all around us. You are surrounded by nature in its purest form and know that it can turn quickly into a very dangerous place. This fact kept us constantly on guard although we were lucky to experience relatively benign conditions.
What did you think about while you were skiing?
You have a lot of time to think but must always be ready for the next practical issue to confront. I was always planning for each stop and making sure I was able to maximise the short break to ensure that I took on enough water and food whilst staying warm.
I thoroughly enjoyed the company of my colleagues but there is little talk during the day and your mind wanders to your closest family and the knowledge that they will be proud of your achievements.
There are moments each day when you think of the great challenges that Amundsen , Scott and Shackleton faced in their famous expeditions in Antarctica. The walk to the pole gives you some appreciation of the heroic feats they accomplished and makes you wonder at the way they dealt with the difficulties they faced without the modern equipment and clothing available to us.
Tell us a little bit about tent life.
There is no doubt that the most welcome event of the day was Eric, our expedition leader, coming into our tent shortly after making camp with his speciality; bacon and cheese Quesadillas. It is really important that you find the right expedition leader and we were lucky to work with Polar Explorers and Eric. He made the whole experience safe, enjoyable and memorable.
Life in the tent is cramped but cosy and you quickly get into a routine centering around food, warmth and sleep. My tent mate was well prepared on the electronic front and he would charge up his tablet so that we could watch a film before putting our heads down around 9.30 each night. It is important at all times to be organised and this is especially true of tent conditions where space is limited. We were encouraged to take as little as possible into the tent at night and after a couple of days we realised what we actually required rather than desired. Everything else can safely store outside the tent and will be there when needed in the morning.
What advice would you give to someone considering joining this expedition?
My advice would be to do it ! You will not regret it. You will have an experience of a lifetime, you will enjoy the beauty of the outdoors in a dramatic environment, you will test yourself in challenging conditions and you will meet positive like minded individuals who will become friends for the remainder of your life.