Four men set out to cross Antarctica, using kites to help them haul sledges across the perilous snow and ice. Alastair Vere Nicoll recounts their groundbreaking journey in Riding the Ice Wind, a deeply personal account of his team’s battle with some of the most extreme conditions on the planet.
Alastair experienced what he terms a 'quarter-life crisis', a crisis of direction shared by many twenty-to-thirty-something professionals in this increasingly competitive, shallow and materialistic age. Such crises seem to be causing more and more people to break the bounds of their existing lifestyles and seek a new, sometimes extreme, direction. For Alastair, the result of his quarter-life crisis was a remarkable journey to the South Pole and beyond.
Never having done anything extreme before, Alastair sets off from Punta Arenas, Chile, in a Russian cargo plane bound for Antarctica. Stuck in a blizzard in a tiny and inhospitable tent, he replays the events of the last years that have driven him to this point: the death of a close friend; an increasing restlessness in the face of the drudgery of professional life. The opening chapters oscillate between preparation & planning and the first tentative steps of the expedition, two years later, on the ice. A critical moment comes when he discovers that his is wife is pregnant and their baby will be born on the day he is due to finish the Antarctic crossing.
The team fly in a ski-plane across the continent from their base camp at Patriot Hills to the Ross Ice Shelf. There Alastair commences the race to return home in time for the birth of his child. He starts to haul his sled up the Axel Heiberg Glacier to the South Pole, a route last travelled by Roald Amundsen and his dog team in 1911. Negotiating a forbidding ice cliff and crevasses the size of cathedrals, the team are forced to relay their loads before finally attaining the high polar plateau. At the campsite where Amundsen slaughtered 24 of his sledge dogs, Alastair sustains altitude sickness and severe frostbite, and is threatened with evacuation.
After weeks of hauling through the barren wilderness, described as much in philosophical and psychological terms as physical, the team pass the southernmost point reached by Ernest Shackleton. As they approach the South Pole they learn that the two Landrovers they had equipped, staffed and shipped across South America into Antarctica have got stuck in unseasonal drift snow on the other side of the continent and have been airlifted out. Already months in, the team now have no re-supply.
Severely delayed, the team are finally re-equipped with only two days of rations remaining. They kite-surf the 600 nautical miles from the South Pole to the other side of the continent in just 18 days. In one epic stretch, they kite-surf for more than 46 hours and 240km. One team member survives a dramatic brush with death in a giant crevasse.
Alastair and his team finally complete the crossing a mere one hour before his baby is born. He has failed to be present for the birth as he had promised, but he is able to dial in to the operating theatre and listen to the birth of his daughter live via satellite phone. The expedition, unlike Captain Scott's, ends emphatically in life.
The book concludes with an epilogue that draws parallels between the journey, tales of classical myth and legend, and the tough acclimatisation to life as a father, husband and figure of 'responsibility' after such an extraordinary brush with hardship, freedom and death.