Letters From Antarctica

I am sure I just met one of the toughest women in the world. To top it off, she was also one of the nicest. Laurence de la Ferrie're, from Chanonix, France, was the first "expeditionist" of the season to arrive here at the South Pole, now that the weather is getting balmier. (The temperature is regularly getting up into the twenties below).

Laurence arrived in a small, single engine Cessna plane, which is unusual in itself, since virtually all flights to the South Pole are made by the New York Air National Guards' 109th Airwing and their large, ski-equipped C-130 planes, or the occasional, much smaller Twin Otter from Ken Borek Air.

Laurence has been here before. She made a solo crossing from Hercule on the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, between November 24th, 1996 and January 19th, 1997, a journey of 1,331 kilometers. She was the first French woman to cross Antarctica solo.

By coincidence, she arrived on the Pole this year on November 23rd, and therefore made her first big push away from Amundsen-Scott Base exactly three years from the start of her last trans-Antarctic trek. She was originally scheduled to depart weeks before, but was delayed due to the always unpredictable Antarctic weather.

She only spent a few hours on base. She spoke English well, smiled a lot, was polite, outgoing, cooperative with all requests for photos, and answered the same questions many times over with enthusiasm. She seemed genuinely thrilled to be starting on her adventure. After the obligatory "hero" shots at the ceremonial Pole, she set out pulling her sled, alone, to try and make it to Durmont D'Urville, a French base on the coast of Antarctica, 3,000 kilometers away.

Watching her take those first few steps provoked a level of emotional unease deep inside me that I have not felt for a long time. Naturally, Laurence is incredibly fit for any age. She is forty-two years old, an average sized woman, pulling all her own food and supplies harnessed to a six foot sled that weighs over 300 pounds. She leaned forward hard, head down, using her cross-country ski edges and poles to dig into the snow crust with each step. Her progress was painfully slow. My eyes could not believe the resistance of her sled on the snow that she overcame.

Laurence made it only a few meters outside the ring of flags surrounding the Pole (flags from the twelve original countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, including France) when her sled stopped moving. She was hung up on one of the millions of tiny snowdrifts, or sastrugi, that texturize the Antarctic landscape. There were well-wishing Poleys all around her. Several had helped her push her sled out to the Pole from the "Do Not Freeze" cargo holding area. A few people involuntarily lurched, instinctively wanting to help Laurence who was obviously struggling, but just as quickly the realization washed over all of us that this is what this woman does, and that she is now on her own. If she couldn't mke it off the Pole, how would she make it for three thousand kilometers?

With an economy of movement that could have only come from repeating the same ritual too many times to comprehend, Laurence changed the vector of her pull, first a little to the right, then a little to the left. Her body was at a forty-five degree angle to the ground, and her ski tips were splayed just as wide. The sled broke loose wobbled over the snow-bump and she continued forward with an effort that appeared unsustainable. In the first five minutes, she was stopped two more times in her tracks by the cruel sastrugi. Her strength was impressive.

In an instant, I realized my feeble attempt to comprehend what this woman was trying to accomplish had been a sorrowful underestimate by many orders of magnitude. This quest was a thousand times more difficult than anything I could have imagined before watching her those first few minutes. I would have collapsed in a panting heap after twenty meters if I were working as hard as she was at this altitude.

I found it upsetting to watch her struggle, which looked so demoralizing, so exhausting and so impossible. I felt strange, like I was observing the beginning of something fatalistic and surreal. If this were television, I would have changed the channel. There was a twinge of nausea in the pit of my stomach. Laurence was only about ten minutes into a journey she optimistically hoped would take about ninety days to finish. She has one resupply stop, at Dome C, also called Concordia, a small French base 1800 kilometers from the Pole. From there, she will hopefully continue another 1200 kilometers to Durmont D'Urville.

I went inside the Dome, then through a tunnel to the Skylab building, the tallest structure on the South Pole base. I thought that watching her Sisyphean ordeal from a distance would be less painful, at least for me. To my surprise, she had set up camp only a few hundred meters outside the base. At first, this seemed odd, but then I think I understood her experienced mind. This would buy her time to acclimate to the altitude of the Pole, which is often over ten thousand feet, physiologically speaking. She would also be able to test her camping gear before she was dangerously alone, in a part of Antarctica that has never been crossed on land before.

Laurence seemed so incredibly happy and at peace with herself during her short stopover here at the Pole. I'm sure she was thrilled to just get started, if only symbolically, after her weeks of delays and settle into the solitude of a struggle that I still cannot understand. Meeting her will be one of the many profound experiences that changes the way I think and look at life back in the States..
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