Many of the great Antarctic adventurers relied on manhauling as their sole means of transport. Scott and his men dragged their sledges halfway across the continent, and modern-day explorers such as Fiennes and Stroud carried on the tradition in their epic 1994 expedition. For wannabe Antarctic heroes, the current craze is to haul for the ‘last degree’, starting at 89 degrees south and pulling for the 70 odd miles to the Pole – apparently this year, being the Scott centenary, you could barely move at the Pole without getting run over by a slow-moving manhauler.
The equipment may have changed since Scott’s day, but the determination and brute-force required to pull a heavy sledge through deep snow has not. Part of the Rothera tradition is for all of the winter team to take a ‘winter trip’ – a week of travel around Adelaide Island to take in the sights and get away from the base for a bit. Most people choose to use skidoos as their method of travel, maybe trudging up a few peaks on foot with a light rucksack on their back. When I first suggested that I quite fancied manhauling as my mode of travel, most people on base, from the old-hands through to the latest crop of field-assistants, sucked through their teeth and said ‘are you sure, do you know how hard it is?’ I was sure – this was something I’d always wanted to do, partly for the physical challenge, and partly to get a glimpse into the lifestyle and the challenges faced by my polar heroes. With the words of warning ringing in my ears, I decided to get into training and put a good few miles under my belt before the trip started. It was an interesting learning experience.
Manhauling is really quite simple. We use flat-bottomed plastic sledges called ‘pulks’, which have rigid aluminium traces that clip onto a harness worn by the hauler. The traces give the whole setup a bit more stability and help to avoid the pulk trying to overtake you down hills. For the majority of the time you pull with cross-country skis on your feet – these have flexible bindings that allow you to walk more easily than with downhill skis. You usually have ‘seal skins’ clipped onto the bottom of the skis – these were originally made of genuine seal and used the grain of the fur to give more traction when pulling whilst still allowing the ski to glide forward. Nowadays they are mostly synthetic, but are still absolutely essential – without them, the sledge is too heavy to move, the skis just slide around and the poor manhauler risks looking embarrassingly weak.
Once hooked up to the pulk, and with your skis and skins on your feet, the first challenge is to get the thing moving. This often takes a few good, hard jerks with your whole bodyweight. Most of the pull of the harness comes through the belly-band, so there is the brief but invigorating sensation of crushing your kidneys into your spine before the pulk mercifully starts shifting. Once on the move, you can take a bit more of the load on your shoulders by leaning forward with your head down. After that it is pretty much just the mindless monotony of plodding one foot after the other, whilst sweating generously and with your breath rasping in the freezing air.
Happily, the standard head-down position does give you the opportunity to intimately examine the snow in front of your feet. This is of surprising interest given that the snow surface is what can make or break the manhauler. The worst case scenario is having the pulk buried in a light snowdrift, while your skis have made it out to the other side onto slippery ice which gives zero traction. This requires a concentrated few minutes of swearing and desperate jerking in a manoeuvre known as ‘the dying eel’. If even this doesn’t free the pulk then the only option is to remove the skis and tug it out of the drift on foot. If there are many such drifts, then this process rapidly loses what little novelty it once had, though it does help to maintain the interest of any onlookers.
In fact, the whole process makes for quite an entertaining spectator sport, so I suspect that it was more than just friendly curiosity that brought two of my colleagues out on my last training trip. Mairi had generously offered to provide additional weight on the sledge ‘to aid my training’, whilst Tim played paparazzi and took some snaps. However, he did win my endless gratitude for beating me back to the cabin and making us a much-needed cup of tea.
The real test of whether it was all worthwhile comes on Sunday, when I will be heading out for Sighing Peak, a lone mountain on the Northern tip of the Wright Peninsula. My Field Assistant and guide for the week is Ash, who as the leader of the travelling pair, gets to have a much lighter sledge than me. The latest weather forecast reads ‘heavy snow’…