Doug Tumminello: Skiing to the South Pole
March 3, 2016
Maybe at the end it's a teapot that can best sum up the extremes Doug Tumminello endured during his quest to ski from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the South Pole.
Tumminello spent years preparing for his adventure, procuring and packing supplies, food and equipment until it overwhelmed his North Routt home in the days leading up to his November departure. Testing everything from base layers to skis and snacks, he had redundancy for nearly everything important — two methods of communication, two GPS devices, two cooking burners and two compasses. But he only had one teapot.
He's summited mountains near and far, and rowed across the Indian Ocean.
"I've never had a pot break on an expedition," he says. "It was the one thing I wasn't redundant on, the one thing I didn't have two of."
Yet there he was on Christmas Day on the bottom of the world in a tent buffeted by wind, staring at a crack in the bottom of his teapot.
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Skiing in a ping pong ball
Maybe a cracked pot wouldn't be a noteworthy problem in the average American kitchen. On an expedition like this, however, it was everything.
Tumminello has been on more dangerous expeditions. He summited Mount Everest in 2006. Compared to that, what's so scary about Antarctica?
Antarctica is a lot of things, he says. For one, it's beautiful at times. "It's this stark beauty like you're looking at the terrain on another planet," he says.
Other times it's miserable.
"Skiing in a ping pong ball as they say. Very windy too," he wrote in his blog in December. "I was only able to go 9.5 hours before I had to stop – a bit more than 10 miles. Toward the end my goggles were completely iced over, with only one small clear spot I could view the compass through. Everything else was completely white."
Weather like that caused all sorts of problems. Try, for instance, to navigate a straight line when you can't see more than a few feet in front of you.
"It's harder than you might imagine," he says. "You think you can walk in a straight line even without visual reference, but you really can't. Next thing you know, you're walking in circles."
Since the sun never set, day and night Tumminello kept going. "I had no sense of how fast I was going or the passage of miles," he says. "Without having any references, it's impossible to know. It seems like you're not going anywhere, like you're on a treadmill of snow. Add in the sun never setting and it feels otherworldly."
There were other miserable moments as well, perhaps none more so than dealing with the tent, the two worst parts of his day. He'd planned to leave it semi-pitched at all times, on top of the sled carrying his supplies, and he did, but it became more headache than helpful when a strong gust of wind broke its poles. He had backups, of course, and fashioned replacements. But it never was quite perfect.
Even more critical was a steady pain in his right foot, the product of another equipment failure. He's still not sure where the failure in his right ski was, just that there was something wrong. "It kept rolling out, so when I'd ski forward, it'd put pressure on my ankle and foot," he says. "I don't know if it was a binding, mounting issue, or snow building up under the skin."
The pain built mile after mile, ever present. He'd wrap his foot and re-tape it, but it always came back. Alone, he wasn't sure what the damage was, wondering if he had a small stress fracture or nerve damage.
"It was shooting nerve pain, throbbing and numbness all combined, every minute of every day," he says.
That combined with the weather — one of the nastiest summers workers with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), Tumminello's logistics support, have ever seen — slowed his progress to a comparative crawl. Hoping to make 10 to 12 miles per day, especially as he consumed supplies and his sled lightened, he was making only eight — which adds up week after week.
Near his end, he pushed it to see if he could sustain a higher pace. "My foot didn't handle it well," he says.
A goal unmet
The weather, his foot and the tent all seemed like the big problems, but the cracked teapot, which he tried to fix with duct tape, was the clincher.
"The stove flame burned the tape despite the water in the pot," he wrote in his blog. "I ended up with a still-leaking pot and water that tasted like duct tape. I don't recommend it – duct tape tea is not good."
The teapot was the only way he could melt snow. If it got worse, he'd be without water. That's not a problem if ALE's planes could swoop in to help him, but if they were grounded by weather, the problem becomes critical.
Tumminello did find a solution. He called ALE and they flew to his last known location, followed his tracks and airdropped a new pot. The decision switched the expedition from unsupported to supported, but Tumminello says it was the smart move.
Similar logic eventually led him to decide to stop a little more than halfway, or 300 miles, to his goal. All the factors that make such a trek so daunting eventually became too much. He would have needed a re-supply to reach the pole, and he may havepushed up against the end of the season, when ALE stops flying.
He approached the Thiel Mountains where a naturally occurring blue-ice runway makes extraction easy. He weighed his options and decided it was time to leave.
"For me, turning back is never the wrong decision," he says. "The mountain's not going anywhere. The pole's not going anywhere. So it was a good decision. I'm back and healing and in good shape, all in all."
A cracked teapot didn't end his expedition. Weather and injury ended it, but all together they illustrate just how daunting the task was in the first place.
"The summit, or the pole in this case, really is the end goal, but really, that's not what the expedition is about," Tumminello says. "Expeditions are about the experience, the challenges overcome, the beauty and the risk. Hopefully you make it to your end goal, but that's never guaranteed, and more often than not, people don't make it to where they want. I'm goal driven, as are most people who do these things, so it always does sit out there. It's a goal unmet in that I did not make it to the pole. But I'm very good with the decision to have gotten pulled out when I did."