Read the exclusive article for Tiso from Craig Mathieson’s 2004 South Pole expedition
“The pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, my whole body was shaking, I could feel sweat running down my back even though the temperature in the chilling wind was as almost -35c. My mind was in a torrent of negative thoughts, to fail at this stage would have be devastating, especially being only 3 days from the South Pole. There was nothing else for it, I didn't have enough strength left for my mind to control the pain any longer, I ripped my frozen face mask from my beard and took the morphine”.
That was an extract from my diary for Christmas Day 2004, the day a tendon decided to snap in my right knee causing more than a little discomfort.
The 53 days previous to that incident happening, I had been pulling my sledge day in day out, slowly getting closer to my lifetime dream of skiing all the way as part of the 1st ever dedicated Scottish expedition to reach the South Pole.
The expedition started from Hercules Inlet on the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf. The first day was excellent, high pressure, excellent visibility and a relatively comfortable -20c temperature. The crevasses we were warned about were very easy to navigate through and didn't hinder our speed.
However, conditions change very quickly in Antarctica and the next day we woke to a full blown storm. The temperature fell to -53c, pulling a sledge in these conditions is extremely tough and unfortunately my expedition partner, Fiona, succumbed to frostbite on 4 of her fingers. The storm continued for another 2 days before we reached Patriot Hills and the Base Camp of our logistics company.
Fiona's frostbitten fingers now combined with hypothermia resulted in her having to leave the expedition at this point. To go on could have been a very bad mistake.
I was obviously devastated at the loss of Fiona, however this was to change to a feeling of relief as the weather decided to get even colder. I dread to think what may have happened if she continued.
Skiing and pulling a sledge in temperatures of less than -50c is brutal, more so if you have the added discomfort of whiteout conditions. The expedition however soon became far less of a physical challenge and more of mental one. Even in the most horrendous of days however I never thought for one second that I wouldn't get to the Pole, it was just the case of constantly having 100% self belief and putting one foot in front of the other – millions of times!
For weeks I pulled my sledge over never ending sastrugi (frozen waves of ice), steadily gaining altitude. Most people think of Antarctica as a smooth and level continent of ice, in fact there is nothing smooth or level about it. Obviously, from the coast you start at sea level, however by the time you reach the Polar Plateau you have gained a height of 9300ft.This actually feels far higher due to the atmospheric conditions around the South Pole – it's not unusual for 'last degree' skiers to suffer from altitude sickness.
We had arranged for a food drop at the Theil mountains, roughly half way to the Pole. Along with this resupply, I also received some mail from home, this was a real boost especially as one of the letters from my daughter contained lots of sweets.
Over the next couple of weeks I covered an average of 15 nautical miles a day, slowly gaining altitude up to the Polar Plateau. Once on the Plateau conditions changed quite considerably, the sastrugi became less of a problem and the snow, instead of being fairly hard packed, changed to the consistency of sand, making hauling the sledge a little more difficult.
Over the entire expedition I never once had any problems with my kit and equipment. The guys at Tiso's were great, especially Scott Shaw in Group Sales, who had the huge task of not just outfitting our South Pole expedition but also our training expedition to the Arctic. Having a sponsor like Tiso is truly fantastic, not only to ensure that you receive the very best equipment available on the market, but far more valuable to me was the huge knowledge these guys have built up over years of expedition planning. Being able to receive professional advice on kit selection from people who have actually tried and tested it previously really took a lot of pressure of us, allowing us more time to concentrate on training and logistics.
On day 56 of the expedition I woke up to another whiteout and a temperature of -55c, even on the final day Antarctica wasn't going to let me have it easy. As I set off on that final morning with only 11.5 nautical miles to go I was able to reflect on the entire expedition. Of course there were some hard times along the way however I never allowed myself to dwell on anything negative, instead I always felt a sense of privilege and pride just being on the ice.
At exactly 7pm GMT on the 28th December 2004 I reached out and ran my finger around the actual South Pole itself, this was an extremely special moment for me, ever since I was 12 years old I've wanted to get to the South Pole - it was worth the wait.