Cold Front: Expedition to the South Pole

Hilary Dickenson had trained, sweated and hurt for her trip of a lifetime. But is she strong enough to become the oldest British woman to trek to the South Pole?

Bracing herself against the bitingly cold wind, Hilary Dickinson gritted her teeth and signalled to the rest of the party, shouting loudly over the howling skies ‘Time to camp up!’ Her husband, Conrad, exhausted but full of admiration and pride for his wife, threw his backpack to the ground before collapsing in a heap of thermal wind-proof clothes. Hilary loosened the straps that connected her back to her sled and sat down next to him. ‘Don’t worry darling, only a thousand miles to go.’


The training for the trip of a lifetime had taken months, a combination of gruelling work-outs, trips abroard to test out the freezing temperatures they would be facing, and tricky kite-ski training. Mastering the kites had been fun but hard work. Their plan had already been established, that the way to the South Pole would be against the wind and entirely by foot, a long and bitterly cold trek. The way back however the party would use the kites with the wind to pull them and their heavy sleds to where they started from, which would take half the time than the way there!


At first Conrad and Hilary were clumsy with the kites but, with great patience, slowly learnt the right way to manoever and use the flying beasts in harmony with their skis. On their first successful run using them, Hilary looked over at her husband and expedition partner and thought to herself ‘We’re going to make it’.


Hilary positioned herself with her back to the harsh wind and set up the tent that was to house the group for the night. Only a quarter of the way into their trip and she was already feeling the strain. She was already aware that if they made it she would become the oldest British woman to trek to the South Pole and back, at her youthful 51 years. Looking about her she studied her fellow trekkers, Matty McNair, an American Polar explorer two years her senior, alongside her two vibrant children, Eric, 20, and Sarah, 18. They too were to become record breakers in this incredible trip. Although she missed her own children Laura and Joel, Hilary was secretly pleased they could not come due to their university courses, she liked the thought of them warm and safe back home.


Conrad finished setting up the tent and soon the group were warming up and as comfortable as they could be in such a barren wilderness. Snuggling up to her husband for warmth and support, he kissed her frostbitten nose and whispered to her ‘think of the kids and a steaming hot curry waiting for us when we get back’ as they drifted off to sleep.


South Pole day was unforgettable. Reaching the geographic pole on skis, Hilary whooped with delight, for a moment ignoring her aching limbs to run and hug the group ecstatically. It was two days before Christmas and traditional celebrations were brought to the Antarctic as the five-some spoilt themselves by pulling mini crackers and munching on chocolate greedily. They had all lost plenty of weight and could do with stocking up on some energy.


After a days rest at the South Pole the group finally clipped on their skis and unpacked their kites. Hilary watched Conrad getting ready, his eyebrows furrowed in deep concentration as he prepared his kit and sled. Hilary was scared for the first time. ‘What if things go wrong with the equipment and we don’t make it? We won’t have enough food…’ Her thoughts trailed off as she shook them away, determined not to think negatively. ‘I will be eating that curry in less than a month!’ she said to herself defiantly.


At first the return went smoothly, Hilary even had to wake Conrad a few times after he drifted off whilst kiting, the surprisingly light winds and gentle rhythm of the kite strings lulling him to sleep. Checking her pocket map and using her electronic aids Hilary could tell they were making swift progress. ‘Only 50 miles left!’ A wave of relief and excitement hit her at the thought of home and her creature comforts she had survived without for so long.


The storm hit without warning. The temperature plummeted to a devastating minus 45 degrees celcius, leaving the group numb with frostbite. The wind ravaged the iced landscape at ferocious speeds. The fearless five shivered together, unable to talk, hearing only the screaming wind for twenty four hours. Matty’s kids mature behaviour belied their age, their strength in such adversity astounded Hilary. Huddling together for warmth and reassurance, the group braved what were the worst weather conditions in an Antarctic summer since 1979.


After the trecherous storm gave way overnight to a warm, soft breeze the excitement of the group was hard to contain. Gathering up their things from the campsite the weary travellers were suddenly brought alive by the rush of adrenaline brought on by the tantalising closeness of home of England! Hilary was almost in a frenzy, packing at the speed of light and ready before the rest of the group. Helping the youngsters, she took a long breath of what was to be her last day on the frozen Antarctic and started off.


The sight of the Hercules Inlet, and the plane waiting to take the emaciated group home, was overwhelming for everyone. As Hilary raced to the finish, a feeling of elation mixed with relief and pride rushed over her. Rendered speechless by the incredible moment, the fierce hugs of pride Conrad lavished on her were worth a thousand words. Tears were shed and froze on the icy ground, leaving a small memory of the group’s record breaking trek.


The press was waiting for them. A sea of faces and voices, microphones thrust in front of the Dickenson’s mouths. Bulbs flashed, questions shouted over questions, the press conference was nothing more than a blur. All Hilary wanted was to see her children again, her house, her cat. Returning home was swiftly becoming more of an ordeal than the expedition itself!


And then Laura and Joel arrived. Kisses and arms were thrown about the room as the family fought back tears at the sight of each other. For Hilary, nothing, not even Christmas at the South Pole could beat a cuddle from her children. Laura was still her baby bear, and Joel her little soldier. “How do you intend celebrating your return” Over all the rabble, Hilary heard a lone voice from the crowd. Looked at her family, desperate to be alone with them, she motioned to her husband to answer. Conrad stepped up, replying “Hilary is looking forward to a glass of Chardonnay and me a pint of Ruddles in the Tap and Spile in Hexham. A curry from the Diwan-i-am restaurant in our home town would round off the dream evening." Hilary could not have agreed more as she led her family away from the crowd and back home.

by Ann Wiseman