Expedition Cameraman & Photographer – Antarctica
In 2015 I worked as expedition cameraman and photographer on the Willis Resilience Expedition to Antarctica. The expedition had a duel purpose – to try and set a speed record skiing coast to pole, and to gather research data to help understand our changing planet. Parker Liautaud, a 19-year-old American, would try and complete the 507km route on skis from the coast to the Pole.
The plan was to fly into Antarctica, from Chile, to a base at Union Glacier. There would be two parts to the expedition; in the first, we would drive to the South Pole and then across to the Leverett Glacier, taking ice cores samples at regular intervals across the way to aid in climate change research. When we finally got down the glacier where the sea ice started, Parker and experienced Antarctic guide, Doug Stoup, would begin their attempt to break the record for the fastest journey skiing from coast to pole.
As expedition cameraman, as well as sending back images and video we had shot, I was also in charge of facilitating the live broadcast with Parker from the Plateau. In the end we managed several that were possibly a first from the interior of Antarctica.
Showing its inhospitable nature right from the start we had to wait in Punta Arenas for ten days for a weather window suitable for us to fly. On the plus side, the delay gave me the opportunity to meet and chat to Doug Allen, a huge hero of mine, and one of the BBC’s top wildlife and expedition cameramen, who was on his way to film leopard seals. Finally given the green light to go we were told the flight would be that night. We went to one of the best restaurants in town for a last solid meal (we live off freeze-dried food while on an expedition), and had just ordered some huge Argentinean steaks when we got the call saying our flight had been brought forward and would leave in an hour – we had to leave before the steaks were even cooked!
The flight into Antarctica is usually the same whether you fly in via South America or South Africa. The only planes that can land on the blue ice runways are Russian Ilyushins, which are like something straight out of a Cold War film. We took off in night-time darkness and then as we flew south gradually saw the sun slowly appear over the horizon as we got closer to Antarctica. This was to be the last time we would see darkness for the next two months.
As we had already been delayed ten days, we began our drive across the antarctic continent as soon as we landed. Many people think of Antarctica as being flat ice or a layer of flat soft snow, but it varies enormously, and you get anything from deep powder to hard blown waves of ice called sastrugi. Some of these can be up to 2 metres in height so rather than driving over them, you have to wind your way through them as if in a maze, and often finding yourself at a dead end.
The vehicle we were using to navigate the sastrugi was another highlight of the expedition. Arctic Trucks take Toyotas and adapt them to polar conditions. Even so, our travelling speed across the unpredictable ice varied from 50kmph to as little as 8kmph in bad conditions.
One of the hardest things about being in Antarctica, aside from the cold, is the constant daylight, and indeed below a certain latitude, the sun does not even dip but just rotates around the sky in a continuous loop 24 hours a day. This means it is very easy to lose all sense of time, and in our haste to make up the time we were running on 30 hour days. Travelling for 20-22 hours and then resting for eight. Lack of sleep, irregular hours and 24 hour daylight can make you quite confused, almost delirious.
After about two weeks of near constant driving, we finally made it across to the other side of the continent and then dropped off our two skiers. The expedition then changed dramatically and we started to follow the skiers at the pace they set as they trekked against the clock to set the speed record to The Pole. This is where my role as expedition cameraman and photographer started in earnest.
Live Broadcast from the Polar Plateau
For the most part, conditions were excellent and the coldest temperatures we experienced were around -40, which as I found out on an expedition the following year, is relatively mild for Antarctica! High winds are always a problem and a big fear is letting go of the tent while setting it up to see it disappearing into the distance and having to sleep the rest of the expedition crammed into the truck.
It was during this period that we were able to achieve several live broadcasts with Parker and Doug. Before the expedition, we had spent hours in Iceland trying to figure out a system to be able to do this. The method we had developed used an Iridium Dome fixed to the top of the truck. These are usually found on the back of yachts and ships to enable the vessel to communicate with land while at sea. This communication is usually in the form of phone calls, emails, and weather reports, rather than live video footage.
We had tested and tested in Iceland to get a system that might work. However, even the experts at Irridim could not be sure that it would work in Antarctica. Once down near the pole, the satellites, which are concentrated over the equator and between the tropics, are low in the sky and hard to pick up. This meant we could never be certain that things would work once we were on the ice.
Thankfully with a bit of tinkering with the setup and probably a bit of luck we were able to facilitate Parker, speaking live to various global news outlets during the record-setting ski attempt.
The South Pole
After 19 days we reached The Pole on Christmas Eve, Parker and Doug had beaten the previous record of 21days, although by a shorter route than the previous record – an impressive achievement.
The trip back
After a few days rest Eyjo and I drove back to the base where we could catch the Ilyushin flight out while the others waited for a plane that would fly them back. This was my first chance to drive the six-wheeled truck that had been our base for so long, and I can’t deny that I was pretty excited to get behind the wheel!
After 56 hours of gruelling driving with only two short stops, one to cook some food, and the other to replace a wheel that had flown off, we finally arrived back to the base at Union Glacier. We were greeted with a couple of beers, which were a very welcome sight!
When I finally touched down in Chile, the first thing that hit me was the smell. I had expected to be struck by the temperature change, which I was. But your sense of smell is so heightened after two months in the frozen landscape that you can smell grass and flowers beside the runway from about 300m! It feels great to get back and enjoy everything as if for the first time; showers, fresh food… more beers!
Having spoken to others, it seems everyone has a similar reaction being back, at first you swear that’s the last time you will go to Antarctica, however within about a week of being back; the bad bits fade from memory and the the idea of going back seems quite tempting. Indeed when I got the call six months later to ask if I would like to join another expedition driving a Massey Ferguson tractor to the South Pole, I did not think twice!